I am about to start running Tadpole’s bath when the doorbell trills.
I don’t care for this agressive French doorbell sound. Give me a gentle English ‘Ding Dong’ any day.
I put my eye cautiously to the peephole. I have not ordered any takeaway curry (after my last disappointing experience involving half-raw naan bread daubed with pink food colouring), and I am not expecting visitors. If it is one of those earnest but tedious young men trying to sell me a Trotskyist newspaper, I reserve the right not to answer the door.
It’s old Mrs Gibolain, the widow who lives upstairs.
“BONSOIR MADAME! OH LÀ LÀ QU’IL EST BEAU!” she yells, spying Tadpole, who is pushing her train up my trouser leg. I have told Mrs G that Tadpole is a she, but I suspect she may be a little deaf. Tadpole grips my leg anxiously, probably wondering why the lady with two big sticks and a hairy chin is shouting at mummy.
After a long conversation, which I imagine most of the building overheard, I establish that Mrs G needs some help with her television set. The home help must have switched it off while Mrs G was out at her hospital appointment (I have seen ambulance men come to fetch her, on occasion, and I imagine these are the only time she ventures out of her flat), and she hasn’t been able to switch it on again. Her late husband bought the TV, but passed away without showing her how to use the remote control. She has left it permenantly on the same channel (France 3) ever since, turning it on and off only at the main switch.
She was very sorry to trouble me, and had been hoping to waylay her neighbour on the sixth floor, a young man who doesn’t keep very sociable hours, but despite calling out for help every time the lift stopped at her floor, no-one answered.
I offer to come upstairs with Tadpole and take a look. Mrs G makes her way back to the lift, with some difficulty, while I hold the heavy metal door open. She needs two crutches to get around, after undergoing a hip replacement last year. It occurs to me, with a sharp stab of pity, that it has probably taken her at least fifteen minutes to manoeuvre herself to my front door. I make a mental note to leave her our phone number so that she can call next time she needs some help, saving herself another arduous journey.
Tadpole and I press on ahead up the stairs and into her dimly lit flat. It smells musty, like second-hand clothes in a charity shop. The faded wallpaper which covers every available surface, including the doors, must have been very fashionable in 1948. The poky living room is crammed with rustic furniture better suited to a farmhouse: a hefty wooden dresser and a solid table and chairs vy for space.
I spy the offending television in a corner of the room. While Tadpole plays with her train under the table, I jab impatiently at the remote, which doesn’t seem to be working. I try the main on/off switch, which catches on the second attempt. Tadpole leaps halfway out of her skin as a talkshow springs into life at full volume, knocking her head on the underside of the table. I brace myself for her wails, but she just looks rather puzzled – I can almost see cartoon birds twittering as they fly in circles around her head.
The television is so loud that at first I don’t hear Mrs G calling from the corridor, where she is struggling with the lift door. She shuffles painfully slowly back into her apartment, thanking me for my kindness. We take our leave, but she insists on fetching a dusty bag of boiled sweets from the dresser, and after keeping a few for herself, hands me the bag for Tadpole. They are clearly not Tadpole-friendly, but I thank her for them anyway. Mr Frog’s reaction when he got home was “where have the old-person’s sweets come from?”
I can’t get this little episode out of my head all weekend. First I worry that I didn’t put the television on the right channel, so Mrs G’s routine has been turned upside down. Then I wonder how often the aide menagère pays her a visit. The thought that if she falls and hurts herself one day, no-one will hear her, haunts me. I marvel at how she survived that summer where our apartment warmed up to 40°C and stayed that way for two whole weeks. I wonder whether she has any family close by, and whether they come to visit.
Memories of my great grandmother come flooding back. I remember my mother visiting her every day, to check that she hadn’t left the gas on by accident, or the front door wide open. Sadly she was transformed from a sweet and reasonable soul who didn’t want to be any trouble, to a paranoid, distrustful shadow of her former self almost overnight. Like her, Mrs G is probably past realising that she can’t really manage on her own. Maybe, despite her family’s insistence, she clings stubbornly to her apartment, infused as it is with all her memories of her late husband.
There must be so many Mr and Mrs G’s hidden away in shabby old flats in this city, invisible to the rest of us, barely coping behind their closed doors. Existing, but not really living.
I make a mental note to get out of the city long before I get old.