A cold wet Sunday morning in a Dordogne village. We’d found the Parking and were walking up a footpath towards what we hoped would be some shops. We wanted to buy picnic provisions. Ahead was a woman in black pants and a pale blue parka. She walked steadily up hill, legs a bit apart for balance and shoulders bent. She stopped and searched in her shopping bag and faced the wall.
We caught up with her and stepped out onto the road to pass her. She turned to face us, looked me in the eye and spoke. She was holding a bank card in her right hand and moved it between me and the ATM whilst talking and pleading. Her eyes were a clear blue, her hair, whitey grey and tied back into a sort of bun, and she had a very pleasant smile. She was actually asking us to help her withdraw money. I was shocked at her trust in us.
‘Avez vous quatre nombres?’ I asked, counting out four fingers. ‘PIN number?’ forgetting that the French call it an identity number, or something like that.
She kept on talking, holding her card towards us, smiling, putting the card towards the slot.
We kept on talking, going on about quatre nombres.
It was getting nowhere.
We had to say, ‘Pardon, Madame,’ and open our hands in a helpless way, and set off up the hill. She smiled a beautiful wide, curved smile, we smiled back and we all sort of bowed to each other.
We turned our backs and continued up the hill. My eyes stung and I burst into tears at her vulnerability and trust. I thought of Mum and wondered if this old woman also had macular degeneration and couldn’t read screens. I thought that she probably usually went into the bank and withdrew money over the counter. Maybe, this Sunday she had run out of cash. Maybe she was genuinely confused about life. I thought about how hard it was to be old and how much harder if you were alone.
We walked about another block up the road and reached the square and some shops. There on the road was an old man in black, his back and legs curved into an S. His feet were in huge black suede, orthopedic shoes which he lifted barely off the ground, very carefully, one slow step after another. It took a long time for him to cross the road on a diagonal towards the bakery. Another old person finding an ordinary errand huge.
We bought some bread, found a green grocer and had just finished up when the door rang open and in came the lady from the bank. ‘Bonjour m’sieur et m’dame’ all round, for and from everyone and a very big smile for us as we left the shop. That felt a bit better.