Summer has gone from the hillside in Provence. Vineyards gold and russet, the terrace wet from last night’s rain, the sky West of Scotland grey and the air chill.
Peggy died this morning. Dear Peggy. A couple of years ago I looked after her in nearby Montfort sur Argens after she fell fracturing her arm and cutting her legs badly. An ex-colonial born in Africa where she lived until her husband’s retirement, we bonded over Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark and Karen Blixen. She was 92. Despite some mental deterioration; loss of memory and vocabulary, she sparkled. Intelligent, warm and funny, blessed with a kind spirit, her beautiful, lined face a testament to a comfortable, contented life. A bit more than half Peggy’s age, mine betrayed quite the opposite.
I helped her bathe, brought her breakfast, dressed her wounds, gently administered and encouraged physio, cleaned her room, massaged her feet, gave her manicures and pedicures and read her poetry I thought she might know. On good days I’d take her downstairs to the garden terrace below where Knights Templar once practised horsemanship and jousting. There we would collapse heavily into Lafuma chairs under the shade of the ancient plane tree and chat over a cold drink. One morning we sat skinning some almonds her daughter had gathered. They were to be roasted to have with aperitifs later. During our chat I found out that Penny had taught local children in Kenya but sadly for me she couldn’t remember much about those days.
As she recovered we began taking slow daily walks from her daughter’s house to the castle, a distance of 70m or so. Once arm in arm, we were overtaken by a youngish plump woman wearing a very short white broderie anglaise skirt and high wedged sandals. Peggy, a small, slight, stylish woman, watched the fat, exposed thighs thundering unsteadily ahead on the cobbles for a moment, then turned to me eyes twinkling, and said loudly in her cut-glass accent, ‘Why don’t you wear a skirt like that?’
She knew something of my story; lower middle class rags to riches, a flight from the heather to the safety of Provence. Now I was poor again. Peggy was delighted when I told her a friend had kindly donated a sofa for the living room of the concrete shack I was renting. ‘Splendid!’ she said, ‘Now you can have a lovely romp!’
We would sit on the bench across from the castle, politely greeting passers-by, having the same conversation as we’d had the previous day and the day before that. Peggy would ask what the shrub was beside the door of the castle. ‘Oleander.’ ‘Oh yes, of course,’ she’d reply. Some days I’d try and translate the board of information. The Templar castle dates from around the 12th century. ‘Peggy, this castle is only ten times older than you...how weird is that!’ The castle’s unhappy history continues. The previous owner died leaving it jointly to his wife and his mistress; for the moment like these women - the castle, broods on.