‘If you want to go,’ my mother said when I came home from school with literature about a class exchange with a lycée in Rouen, ‘you’ll have to get a Saturday job and pay for it.’
The cost of the travel and my meals at the lycée was £48. I’d been corresponding with the pen-friend, Marie-Claire Guillot - chosen for me by my French teacher - for about six months and I would stay with her family free of charge. I wrote in French and she, in English. We each corrected one another’s grammar and spelling. And I badly wanted to go so I got myself a Saturday job selling ice cream from a kiosk on Paignton beach. My Aunt Frances topped up the few pounds I was short of the full amount and at Easter in 1960 I went.
The Guillot family – Marie-Claire, her sister Agnes, and her parents – lived in a village called Grand Couronne in a tall, thin, house which was also the village open-all-hours shop. Madame Guillot ran the shop and Monsieur Guillot drove the school bus. I loved it from the start. I embraced the French way of eating
My French came on by leaps and bounds as I answered the shop bell when we were eating and I went to serve a customer. Marie-Claire was a bit of a naughty girl, though. She was very argumentative and there were lots of heated exchanges between her and her parents. In the afternoons Marie-Claire was given time off from lessons to show me around Rouen but she went to the cinema with other French friends. I was left to my own devices, not that it bothered me much and six weeks later I didn’t want to come home.
At the end of the following summer term at Totnes High, Marie-Claire came over to stop with me for six weeks. And so a life-long friendship was formed
I also got on very well with her sister, Agnes, and we all spent many holidays in one another’s homes. The long weekend we – Marie-Claire, my boyfriend Roger (now my husband) and I - spent in Paris in 1968 is memorable.
On top of the Eiffel Tower
My Wedding Day
A six months pregnant Marie-Claire, her husband, sister, and mother came to my wedding. I called her parents Papa Guillot and Maman Guillot and loved them dearly
But, as often happens, when we are bringing up children there were years when our correspondence was condensed into a Christmas card – but still those cards came, along with the occasional letter because this was all pre-internet time. Marie-Claire and her husband, Pierre, moved from Normandy. They ran a sports shop in Nantes. They took on a fois gras enterprise in the Creuse where properties and land were cheap.
When her daughter, Dorothée, was twelve-years-old Marie-Claire sent her to stop with me for the summer to learn English
And then she and Pierre divorced and we were back to Christmas cards only but still the threads of the friendship weren’t broken. In the 1990’s she sent me a short note to tell me she’d adopted a six-year-old Romanian girl, Isa, whose background was so sad and traumatic I don’t want to write about it. I thought it was – and is – a wonderful thing to do and said I hoped to meet Isa one day.
Four years ago – when I hadn’t seen Marie-Claire for some years - I received a letter to say she was coming to stop with me with her grandson, Martin, aged ten. I gave a Gallic shrug and thought, okay, and we picked up where we had left off which is the way of true and long-time friendship.
The following year she came alone
The year after that she arrived with her, then, beau. There were lots of laughs and shared meals and trips to the beach, Dartmouth, Exeter, and Totnes, where many years ago she’d had her photo taken with my father and her son, Alexandre, in the stocks at the Tuesday market.
Marie-Claire, her son and my father at Totnes Market
There was certainly nothing to prepare me for the massive shock I got when, last year, her sister wrote to me to tell me that Marie-Claire had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease
She was deteriorating rapidly, both mentally and physically. She had sold her large and beautiful house (or someone had helped her sell it) and moved into a small flat she’d owned and rented out on the outskirts of Rouen and was now living there alone.
Her adopted daughter, Isa, friended me on Facebook and through messages kept me up to date with how the disease was progressing in her mother. Marie-Claire’s natural children seemed to be at loggerheads with Isa, and also with Agnes, as to who should be taking responsibility for medical care – each thought the other should be doing it.
The messages from Isa, who lives and works in television in Marseilles, became more and more alarming
Marie-Claire often forgets to eat – sometimes for three days at a time. She puts out things for the rubbish collection but not the rubbish – her coffee machine, her clothes, bags, jewellery, had all disappeared this way.
One weekend when Isa flew to Paris, then caught the train to Rouen, she found her mother with no handbag, no money, and getting in a muddle as to where she was supposed to do her toilet. She’d become lost while out in Rouen and someone had called the police and she was taken to hospital. Dorothée came to take her home but then had to return to her own new baby.
Marie-Claire was on her own again
I felt so far away and yet the closeness of our friendship and the duration of it, tugged at my heart.
Read Part 2 here.