As part of the gradual process of lockdown easing, shops were allowed to reopen in France on Monday. As luck would have it, this was the start of a three-day spell of very nasty weather. We went for a walk on Monday afternoon, just to see how life had changed, but were forced home again by cold, sleety rain. Our neighbour Catherine told us that this is an annual occurrence – les saints de glace (the Ice Saints), a period of three days of cold weather from the 11th to the 13th of May, named after the three saints whose days it covers, St Mamertus, St Pancras, and St Servatius. Apparently this is a widely held belief across Europe (it’s known as ‘the blackthorn winter’ in some countries), and there is some meteorological evidence to suggest that this period is often a time of inclement weather.
It actually got noticeably warmer on Thursday and Friday, but the streets were still relatively quiet. Yesterday however, on a bright sunny day, the main market in Place Charles de Gaulle opened for the first time in two months, and it brought home to me the fact that the thing I’d missed most during the confinement was other people – not individually, but en masse – crowds, the general buzz of city life. It’s true that the market can’t match the pleasure of sitting in a bar or café, gossiping, arguing, telling jokes, or sometimes just observing (including the underrated pleasure of watching a couple of strangers having a ‘domestic’ – une dispute conjugale in French). Nevertheless, it was still a treat to be able to wander around, checking out the stalls and people-watching.
There were some signs that things weren’t quite normal. There were slightly fewer stalls than usual. Either the council is keeping the numbers down or some stallholders are waiting a while before reappearing. All the stallholders that were there, and many of the customers, were wearing masks. Customers were separated from the stalls by red and white tape, so that buying something entailed reaching across, a little awkwardly, to hand over your money and receive your purchases. Entry and exit from the covered market area was by separate doors controlled by security men in masks encouraging us to use the hand gel dispenser. Despite all of these things, it was a welcome return to something resembling normality.
Centre-ville in Poitiers is quite a compact little quartier, and one soon begins to recognise people who live locally. I saw several faces yesterday that I hadn’t seen for weeks – people I wouldn’t claim to know but am on nodding terms with. Seeing some of them, I thought, ‘Oh, I’d forgotten about you’,and they no doubt thought the same. There are a few such individuals, however, not seen since the start of the confinement, whose absence has actually registered with me. I will hopefully bump into them soon, if only to reassure myself that they have survived. In particular I’m thinking of Johnny Hallyday, the One-Armed Man, and the Lady with the Hat.
Johnny Hallyday, who must be in his seventies, is a smaller, slightly dilapidated and even more leathery-looking version of the original. He’s obviously spent some time getting the look just right. He has a shock of bleached blonde hair and is deeply tanned – in the interests of accuracy I once googled a colour chart, and he’s somewhere between cherrywood and light walnut. His outfit never varies: denim jacket and jeans, t-shirt, and elaborately painted cowboy boots. The only concession to the seasons is that in summer the denim jacket is sleeveless, or abandoned completely, and the jeans are replaced by rather skimpy denim shorts. The boots remain, and I am beginning to think he never takes them off. I’ve never seen him actually do anything. He usually sits having a beer or coffee on one of the bar terraces in Place Leclerc, or else he strolls around town appearing not to have a care in the world. He seems a happy man.
The One-Armed Man is a very different character. He is a slightly demented speed-walker with a semi-permanent frown. In his mid-fifties with thinning grey hair and a stubbly beard, he usually wears a baseball cap and either a tracksuit or a singlet and shorts. His daytime activities – going to the shops, the bank, or the post office – are incorporated into what seems to be a permanent high-speed training session, racing around the town centre, with other pedestrians merely a set of slalom poles to be avoided. He actually has a full set of limbs but has acquired his nickname from his practice of continually working one or other arm up and down like a piston when he is walking, as if he’s stamping passports on an invisible conveyor belt. When he has to stop, in a queue for instance, the frown temporarily disappears and he seems quite happy to talk to anyone he knows. I’ve noticed, however, that after a minute or two, one of his arms will twitch and slowly start to move upward, as if to remind him that the passports are piling up and he needs to be off again.
The Lady with the Hat, who lives just around the corner from us, is a mystery. Every day she walks very determinedly backwards and forwards across town. She is of average height and build, rather severe-looking with black horn-rimmed glasses. Invariably dressed in black, usually a shift-like dress and, if the weather dictates it, a black coat, she always carries a briefcase, or a shopping bag that could pass as one. On her head is a small toque hat festooned with brightly coloured flowers. This is so out of kilter with the rest of her outfit that, on first seeing it, you might think that someone has placed it there without her noticing, like a traffic cone on a statue. But, no, it is always there. I haven’t yet worked out where exactly she is going or why. I have seen her a few times near the post office at the other end of town, so perhaps she is collecting or delivering something. But what? Depending on my mood, I see her sometimes as a character like Connie, the ageing codebreaker in John le Carré’s Smiley novels, regularly sending and receiving highly secret documents. At other times, I have her despatching poison-pen letters on an industrial scale. Then again, perhaps she could be bringing a packed lunch for one of the elderly post office clerks, who accepts it every day with a formal merci but after all these years still shows no indication of wishing to take the relationship any further. I fear that in the latter case, if or when she finally accepts the situation, we will have seen the last of the floral hat.