Madame Dreyfus had told me to stay away until I felt completely better. She suggested that when I returned to Paris I should not go back to our flat. She said that she could give me a room where I could stay. She evidently thought that I would be better apart from my mother.
I was eventually to stay for three months in the home, or ‘maison de repos’ as it was called. * At first I was given fairly strong drugs which kept me well sedated. I got to know some of the people in the home, who were all women. Some were recovering from physical injuries, whilst others, like myself, were suffering from mental problems.
There was a French girl there whom I liked very much. She was an English teacher and so spoke English. She was slim, with a boyish figure and light brown, curly hair, with an attractive mobile face. She seemed vulnerable, with a deep inner sadness, though she never talked about it. Her name was Nathalie. She was sensitive and articulate and I admired her. She was very kind to me and I would have liked to be her friend, but I felt that in intellect and in sensibility I was not at her level. I was still quite inarticulate and gauche, confused and mixed up, and unable to express my feelings clearly. I could always write better than I could talk. Nonetheless, we were drawn together through some emotional need and affinity.
Another girl who intrigued me, though quite different, was a girl from Paris. She was tough and streetwise, with carrot red hair and freckles and a snub nose. She had a strong Parisian accent and spoke mostly in ‘argot’ (slang) so I could hardly understand her. I felt she was making fun of everything, myself included. I envied her vitality and her directness, as well as her toughness. I could only imagine the kind of life she had led.
Villard de Lans was a ski resort and it was winter time. The mountains were covered with snow, and there was a layer of packed snow on the roads. There were many people, mostly French, who had come for the skiing. As I began to get better I was allowed more freedom and I started going for walks and into the town. There was a skating rink where I used to go and watch the people skating.
I decided that I would like to learn to skate. I had all the time in the world. I bought myself a beautiful pair of white kid skates and some corduroy trousers, and every day I would go down to the rink. There were two skating instructors, one was
thin and pale, always in black, the other was plump, red cheeked and jolly. I chose the jolly one, and I stumbled around on the ice, frequently falling, but I persisted though I was not a courageous skater. Gradually I began to get the hang of it and was able to skate round the rink with a certain amount of confidence, and to enjoy it.
As dusk fell, the ice would turn blue, the music began to play and people started to dance. I wanted to learn how to dance and this was when the thin man started to teach me. Slowly I gained more confidence and I learnt how to waltz round the rink to the strains of the music, usually Strauss waltzes. My favourite times were in the early evenings when the sky was darkening and the stars were coming out. There were few people left on the rink. I would skate round and round, free, happy, like a bird.
Afterwards, I would have a drink at the bar, a glass of tea. “How old is she?” somebody asked. “Cette femme n’a pas de classe” the thin man replied. I did not know what he meant then. “Without age, ageless”, I learnt later on. It was something I stored up in my mind.
I sometimes went to the Catholic church on a Sunday. With plenty of time for thinking, I was again starting to have questions about religion. The priest was a dark, handsome man. I asked if I could speak to him. I went to visit him and he started to explain to me the meaning of the Trinity. He was learned and intellectual. It made no sense to me. Once again I went away disappointed and turned my mind to other things.
My mother came me to visit me and stayed at a small hotel in the village. She brought with her a beautiful fur hat which she had made for me. Someone from the Canadian Club in Paris had been to see her, she told me. I was glad that she had not been entirely on her own. She also brought with her some old photographs. She had been corresponding with some of her old friends in Canada; she had resumed contact with them after many years. One of the photos was of herself as a young girl of seventeen, wearing a graceful, lace blouse. She looked beautiful and serene, like an angel. I had never seen my mother like this. For most of my life I had known her as old and careworn. My eyes filled with tears. This was a mother I had never known.
One day I received a phone call. It was Jean Pierre, he was very worried. “How was I?” he asked. I assured him that I was on the mend. I was surprised, yet pleased to hear from him. We had not seen each other for some time.
The months went by. I was beginning to feel much calmer and better in myself. All the fresh air and exercise I was getting had improved my physical health. I had been away three months and it was time to return, even though I did not want to.
I came back to Paris (with my new skates) and went to Madame Dreyfus’s address. She showed me to my room. It was an attic room at the top of her house, it was dark, with wooden beams, and a small window looking out onto the street. It was winter time, and it was gloomy and cold. She left me and I was on my own. I had caught a cold and I felt fluey and miserable. “What was I doing here?” After a day or two I decided to return to the flat.
It was early evening. As I opened the door I heard my mother, she was having a bath and talking to herself:
“What I have done wrong?” she was saying, “I’ve always done everything I could for her.”
I felt my heart turn over. I knew I could never leave my mother. Some time back a fortune teller had read my palm and had told me: “Never leave your mother, or it will kill her.”
“Hello Mummy, I’m back.” It was a moment of peace between us.
The next day I went to see Madame Dreyfus to thank her and tell her that I had decided to return home. “Oh, ce romantisme!” ** she exclaimed.
I did not think so, that was how it was.
* rest home
** such romanticism