My husband, Roger - who also went to school in Totnes, at King Edward V1 - has known Marie-Claire as long as I have. I knew he wouldn’t want to drive in Rouen (if you’ve ever done it you’ll know what a total scary nightmare it is!) and he’d never flown on a commercial flight because he’s always had a fear of flying.
I said I’d like to see Marie-Claire while she might still remember us. I didn’t voice what I was thinking – while she’s still alive. Fifty-five years is a very long time to keep a friend and I wanted to keep Marie-Claire a while longer. I discovered that in the summer there are flights from Exeter to Deauville on Thursdays and Sundays. Marie-Claire’s sister said she would meet us at Deauville and we could stay with her. I priced up the flights, found some dates that fitted in with what Agnes was doing. If Roger felt he couldn’t come then I’d go alone.
But he came – much to my relief because I subsequently found it was something I really wouldn’t have wanted to do alone.
Isa was also at Agnes’s when we arrived, having come up from Marseilles especially to meet us. She wanted to prepare me for what I was about to see. She went ahead of us to Marie-Claire’s flat and cleaned it, and her, up.
And so, on Monday, in we went. My sharp intake of shocked breath was like gunfire to my own ears. Marie-Claire, dressed entirely in black, was – is - skeletal. The tops of her thighs are no bigger around than the tops of my arms, and I’m not fat. Marie-Claire knew us instantly. After the typical French kiss-kiss hello she rushed to a shelf on the wall and grabbed a photo. Back when we’d both been nineteen years old, she’d visited with her husband (she married very young) and Roger (who I had just started going out with) took our photo on his Norton motorbike.
He still has that motorbike and on her last visit here Marie-Claire said why didn’t we take another photo of us on the bike? So we did
Photographed on the Norton motorbike we still own
I was choked to think she kept those photos close to her through all the confusion she must be living in, in her mind. But she moves about like a very old woman, as though she has trouble balancing. Her shoulders are hunched, and her hair is a tangly mess of growing-out coloured perm, but she has a fear now of going to a hairdresser.
Again she had lost her handbag and shuffled from place to place looking for it, but seconds later forgetting what she was looking for
I couldn’t help wondering why the French medical professionals weren’t doing something about this but even though I am capable of saying it in two languages now wasn’t the time to say it in either of them.
We took her out into the city. She wanted to know if I would remember the Rouen of my schooldays. I did. Even though it is much changed and I hadn’t been there since a holiday with my baby son and my parents in 1973, I remembered the bridges over the Seine and we stopped to have our photo taken together once again.
Marie-Claire, Agnes and me on a bridge overlooking the Seine
The Rue du gros Horloge was as busy as it ever was. Totnes, where I went to Grammar School, has an arch with a clock in it, not quite on the same scale as Rouen, and is why Totnes High was twinned with the lycée. We all stopped to have a photo taken once again.
Group photo in Rue Du Gros Horloge
Then we came to the park, somewhere I spent a lot of time as a thirteen-year-old, but Marie-Claire was tired now and had sunk into herself emotionally and got quite angsty about not having her photo taken again.
Me in the park in 1960
She became quite tearful when we got back to her flat, not wanting us to go. She clung to us both, sobbing her heart out, which made us think she did still have a range of emotions.
So we said we’d call again on Wednesday, in two days’ time
We left her with something to eat for her supper, and some brioche for breakfast the following morning, but I wasn’t placing any bets that she’d remember to eat any of it. In the meantime, Isa and Agnes came to an agreement that Marie-Claire really did need to see a doctor again, and soon. So Isa arranged for a CT scan on the Thursday, the day we were flying home again.
On Wednesday she informed us brightly that she hadn’t eaten because she knew we would take her out for cake!
All she seems to eat is cake and chocolate, when she gets her hands on it. So, we took her out for tea and cake and in a massive shopping mall which certainly wasn’t there back in 1960. I bought her an horrendously expensive box of handmade chocolates on the premise that it might be the last thing I could ever buy her.
Back in England I was shocked to hear from Isa that the hospital sent Marie-Claire home again with an appointment for a review appointment in three months’ time. Since then, she has been found wandering and lost in the city again. There are trams in Rouen with no barriers where they cross roads and I fear that Marie-Claire is going to have - and also possibly cause - a terrible accident.
I know it is all too easy to walk into a situation and see it with clearer, fresher, eyes
I also know, because Roger and I cared for his widowed, childless, aunt when she was struck down with Alzheimer’s, how frustrating and tiring and immeasurably sad it can be being there 24/7 and on tenterhooks as to what the afflicted person will do next.
From over here in Devon there is little I can do. But Roger and I are planning to go again before flights finish for the year.
Going through all our old photos has made us realise what a wonderful time we had all together, often not realising it at the time. It’s been a privilege to know this family so intimately and it feels as though we are family – all of us
Our friendship, Marie-Claire’s and mine, began with hand-written letters. Times change and I am now so grateful for the internet and being able to Facebook message Isa and Agnes and get regular updates on my friend, often immediately, which makes me breathe a little easier to know she is safe. For now. Who knows what the future will bring for her but I will always be glad she has been such a big part of my life and that I made the effort a few weeks ago to visit her.