Madame Perrot was reputed to have been one of the most beautiful women in Paris, France in the 1920’s and 30’s. She had socialised with the highest ranking politicians and the wealthy of her era and travelled all over the world. Although it was said that she had been engaged to be married whilst in her early twenties she had never committed herself to a lasting relationship. She was having too good a time……
I first spoke with her when I was only ten years old in 1950. I was having one of my ‘rambles’ not far from home and stopped as usual close to her beautiful thatched collage not far outside town. The other children of the neighbourhood called her a ‘witch’ but even at such a tender age I did not believe them. I was, and probably still am at the age of 70 able to accept people as I find them and not as described by others.
You see, it was said that whilst undergoing surgery – people called it a ‘facelift’ – she was left badly scarred and as a result had left France and taken up residence in the cottage. She did not have what one would call friends and never had visitors.
One of the local women worked a couple of days each week as a domestic servant and collected groceries for her. Apart from that she spent all of her evenings alone and most of the day tending her beautiful garden. It was the garden that always gained my attention –especially in late spring – when the flowers and shrubs began to bloom and the fruit began to appear on the raspberry, gooseberry and other fruit trees and bushes.
At those times I would stand with my head resting on the low wall and watch for hours with longing in my eyes for just a taste of the fruit that was there in abundance.
I had only seen Madame Perrot from a distance and as she always wore a large bonnet and veil hanging down over part of her face I never saw the disfigurement that the older people spoke of when her name was mentioned.
The late spring of 1950 was a glorious one with the promise of a beautiful summer to follow. In those days, and things have not changed much since, I was a loner and preferred my own company whilst searching out bird’s nests close to home. However, I always had time to stand and examine Madame’s garden and drool over the fruit as it ripened.
It was one Saturday whilst I took up my usual spot overlooking the garden that I first came face to face with Madame. She had been tending the garden close to the wall and I had not noticed that she was in fact kneeling whilst she removed some weeds. As she stood up we came face to face and our eyes met even though hers were hard to see behind her veil.
She seemed surprised that I did not run away. Instead I nodded to her and politely said “Good afternoon Madame – your garden looks quite beautiful”. She stood there and for the first time in my life I heard her speak in a most wonderful accent.
She asked “Thank you but who are you my little friend?” I replied with no trace of fear in my voice “I am Michael Madame and I am pleased to meet you”. She seemed surprised at my answer and smiled beautifully –clearly visible below the veil.
“I see you often Michael as you tend my little garden with your eyes. Do you like it?” she asked. “Oh yes indeed Madame” I replied with a note of genuineness in my voice, “I always like it but especially at this time of the year”. “You have an eye for beauty Michael. Perhaps we should have met many years ago” she quietly spoke having given a deep sigh.
Although I was only ten years old I immediately understood what she meant. “But beauty is all around us Madame” I almost whispered “I can see beauty in everything”. “Including a frog or toad Michael?” she asked. “Oh yes Madame” I laughed, “even one of those”.
“Is it not time that you should be home?” she asked. As I guessed that it was now about five in the afternoon I agreed. As I made to leave she called after me “Perhaps you could come and visit me tomorrow afternoon?” she asked. “If you please Madame: that would be very nice”. As I moved away I shyly waved back to her.
I had made up my mind that I would not tell anyone other than my mother what had happened or about my visit the next day. When I did tell Mum, she was delighted and we promised to keep the secret to ourselves.
That night I had the most wonderful dream. In it, I dreamt that I was lying in the sunshine in Madame’s garden eating all sorts of exotic fruits. In it, Madame did not wear a bonnet or veil and her face was beautiful – more beautiful than any face I had ever seen before. She had long flowing shiny black hair down to her shoulders and she wore a beautiful summer dress. That dream is still as fresh in my mind’s eye today as it was when it happened all those years ago………………….
After Mass on the Sunday I stayed close to home in an attempt to keep my Sunday clothes and shoes as clean as possible. Time dragged and I could not wait until dinner was eaten and I could make my way to visit my new ‘friend’.
Eventually, at about two o’clock, Mum winked at me and I quietly made my way out the back door and walked briskly out the road to keep my appointment. When I reached Madame Perrot’s I looked over the low wall and saw her sitting some distance away. I panicked when I thought that she might have forgotten my visit. I did not call but stood in my usual place with my eyes fixed on her.
It seemed like only seconds when she stood up and gave a beautiful wave towards me. I honestly felt that she had been looking forward to my visit. She waved towards the side gate and I entered. As I approached her she called out “Bonjour Michael – you are welcome to my home and garden”.
I felt totally at ease and wished her a good afternoon. She invited me to sit on the grass where she had laid a rug and I noticed that there was a bowl of freshly picked fruit including strawberries. She must have seen the look in my eyes as she immediately said “You may have some if you wish”. As I ate a strawberry – one of the very few strawberries I have enjoyed in my life – I said to her “The only strawberries I have ever tasted before were the small wild ones that grow in the forest”. She looked shocked then quietly said “From now on Michael, whenever you are passing you may come into the garden and pick any fruit you like, I will give you a note to that effect”.
I was quite shocked at her generosity and said “If I may Madame, I would like to take a few strawberries for my mother”. “I knew it from the first moment I spoke to you Michael that you think more of others than you do of yourself. You shall have a bowl of strawberries, gooseberries and raspberries for her and later in the year, you may have all the apples and pears you can carry – all with my compliments” she appeared to be delighted at the idea.
At that moment for some unknown reason she moved the veil from off her face and onto her straw bonnet. I saw the scars on her face around her eyes, nose and forehead. They were quite horrible but did not shock me. She looked at me as she did so then asked “Are you not shocked Michael?” she asked. “No Madame, I honestly thought that they would be far worse”. She did not replace the veil but laughed out loud. “Where were you when I was going through all the agony when first it happened Michael? All my so-called friends avoided me like the plague and those I met could not look me in the face. Oh for the innocence of childhood. Thank you Michael, you have made my day”.
We laughed for a long time then she asked me all about my family and school. She promised that she would teach me French in the years to come and I told her I would teach her Gaelic. Again we laughed………..
That Sunday in June 1950 is one I shall always remember. I had made someone who thought little of herself a very happy person and as she said herself, made her laugh for the first time in almost thirty years…………….
When it was nearly time to go, she walked me through her cottage where I saw some of the most beautiful furniture and fittings I have ever seen in all my life. It was like a palace. Although I did not know the possible value at the time, I now reckon that the contents at today’s prices would be in the region of three quarters of a million pounds.
I said my goodbye and made my way home with a basket containing as much fruit as I could carry together with a large bunch of flowers for my mother. I knew that Mum would be delighted not only for the flowers and fruit but more so for the fact that I had spoken with a lonely old woman who up to that day had spent almost all of her time on her own. I knew that Mum would be proud of me for doing so. I also carried the handwritten note from Madame that gave me authority to pick fruit from her garden in the future. I was not to know then how important that note would prove to be in the not too distant future……………
I had arranged to visit Madame again on the following Saturday and spent the week at school with my secret totally intact. Mum had told the family that a friend from out the country had called at home and given her the fruit and flowers.
It was on the Wednesday that for the first time in my young life my mother called at my school and when I saw her talking to my teacher I knew instantly that something was seriously wrong. The teacher called me to the front and I left the classroom with my mother.
As we came out into the playground Mum spoke with a quiver in her voice. “Something terrible has happened Michael. Madame Perrot’s cottage is on fire and she was trapped inside. I am sorry but she died in the fire”. I began to cry inconsolably and as we ran down the road I knew I had to make my way to the Madame’s house.
As we arrived the Fire Engines were still at the scene. The thatch was almost completely gone with most of it having collapsed inwards. It was still smouldering. I saw that the entire house was gutted but it appeared that Madame’s body had already been removed.
A true friendship, possibly the first adult friendship of my young life, had been shattered forever. I was to cry many a tear for that very reason over the years to come……………
I did not visit the garden until the following year at my Mum’s suggestion. As we entered the garden area we were challenged by a man who appeared to have some connection with the property. I showed him the note and after examination he merely said “Ok, carry on but the land has been sold so you will not be able to visit next year”. With that Mum and I picked as much fruit, flowers and shrubs as we could carry. The shrubs were planted in our small garden back home and flowered for years afterwards.
Each spring they were a constant reminder of a truly dear friend whom although I had only known her for a short while, she has remained as such for the past sixty years…….