There are two paulownia trees in the corner of the village square where the men play petanque, opposite the bar.
They provide shade to sit under in the nearly-intolerable summer heat and save the eyes from being blinded. They also have beautiful purple flowers in Spring but nobody in the village has ever known their real name. Since anyone can remember they have been “Les Arbres d'Elise” Elise's Trees.
I loitered around them, as I often do, people-watching and eavesdropping. It is my hobby these days
Even now, my French is better than my original mother-tongue and it makes me nostalgic. I saw the new people being shown around and knew immediately they were British. They just had that look about them, sandals with socks on, all the tell-tale signs, slight sunburn with white eyes where the sunglasses have been.
Playing petanque in the village square
I hovered around the man guiding them. It was Remy, a very old friend of mine and he started on the anecdote. “You must hear this.” He announced, sitting on the bench and patting it so they would join him. The Englishman offered to fetch them beers from the bar and I knew that Remy would never refuse a free drink.
He'd dropped into my kitchen enough times any morning, tapping his watch to say it was “wine time”. Just half a glass. Always just half a glass but with the number of half glasses he stowed away during a day he was never sober enough to drive but never gave the impression of being drunk
The Angelus began to ring out from the church tower as mid-day struck and Remy automatically crossed himself although I doubted he was saying the three Ave required of good Catholics when they hear it. My own hand strayed to my forehead, making me smile sardonically. The woman looked embarrassed and pretended to be absorbed in admiring the flowers on the tree.
When her husband returned with the drinks she remarked how beautiful they were. “Ah, Madame, but not as beautiful as the lady after whom they are named.” I stifled a snort. “These are the Trees of Elise and they are named after a countrywoman of yours” Remy paused for effect and waited for reaction, which, of course, he got.
“Really? Do tell us. An English lady you say?” “Scottish, Madame. But yes, from your islands. The lovely Elise.” By now I would have been biting my own knuckles if I could but contented myself with turning somersaults around the branch with most flowers. “There must be quite a story behind this for her to have trees named after her.” The man obliged, giving Remy the prompt he had been waiting for. “Ah yes, Monsieur. Elise was beautiful, wild and daring.”
I shook the branches in my attempts do stop laughing.
“But she fell in love with the wrong man. She came to live in the village nearly a century ago and....” if it could have done, my chin would have hit the bark. A century???? Excuse me?? “She fell in love with a man who adored her back but his family were good Catholics and she was a divorcee. Her first husband had beaten her severely and the only way to save her life was to leave him but that made her an unsuitable wife for a “bonne famille” ( a good famly, you understand?).”
Remy was warming to his creative job and I was utterly charmed. I could guess what was coming next. I had heard the ending before. “So she hanged herself from the tree here and we found her body amongst the beautiful flowers in the dawn.” “Oh how awful!” The woman exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hand. “What happened to the man?” Her husband asked. I was very interested to hear how they would explain that away. “He just disappeared, Monsieur. Some say he joined the military, others that he too killed himself so they might be together but his body was never found.”
No wonder! It had never existed!
They stood up to go and take their empty glasses back to the bar and I stayed on the bench, grinning to myself.
Oh dear, how lovely to have become a legend. I was on the parish council and when the renovations were being approved I suggested the Paulownias because they were beautiful. Nobody had ever heard of them and found the name difficult; That's why they have been MY trees since they were planted and now they are how I died; not in a nursing home in Paris ten years ago.