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Wilfred De'Ath

Regulars | By Wilfred De'Ath

A day in my life

A day in my life

Madame Berth, the charming directrice of the Foyer des Quatre Saisons in Saumur, called us all together one evening, saying that she had ‘an important announcement’ to make. Cindy, one of the prettiest girls on her staff, would not be returning from holiday because she was going to have a baby.

The opportunity was too good to miss. I stood up on my chair and shouted at the top of my voice: ‘Ce n’était pas moi!’ (‘It wasn’t me’). The French don’t normally have much of a sense of humour, but they cracked up at that one. My stock in the foyer rose considerably.

This was the single light moment in two months of unremitting gloom. (Saumur is at its worst in winter: damp and cold.) My day began at 5.30am when I got up and stepped over the body of the sleeping, snoring negro beside me who is dying of an unmentionable disease. Then I had to step over a sleeping young Frenchman who has just broken up with his wife and is having nightmares.

At 6am the foyer night staff serve me a relatively fulsome petit déjeuner: café, bread and butter, jam, cheese, apple compote, etc. At seven, I make the long walk through the silent streets to the Restaurant du Coeur, a system of food banks operated throughout France, where I enjoy a second p.d. of orange juice, pain au chocolat, café, etc, in peace and quiet. On food distribution days it is full of the poorest people I have ever seen. When I ask them what they do all day, they admit to living from one food distribution to the next. Oh yes, and they watch French daytime TV. All I can say about that is that it makes British daytime TV look good.

Another long walk through the still silent, freezing streets to the great convent of St Hilaire St Florent – 190 nuns, mostly aged over 95 (they have a funeral about once a week). The ancient grizzled priest, who says Mass at 11am, hates my guts because the Mère Supérieure allows me to pray in her private oratoire. Until I arrived, he was the only one allowed to use it: it is pure jealousy on his part. But since my time at Solesmes, I need a Daily Mass and a place to pray.

At 12 noon I eat at Crescendo, an amazingly cheap restaurant: eggs mayo, Camembert, fruit, one glass of red wine, all for about €10 or less. Enough to keep me going. If the library is open I spend the afternoon there in order to keep warm. Otherwise, I am obliged to walk the perishing cold streets since I have no money for a café.

At 5.30pm, the foyer opens again and they give us café (and cake) in order to unfreeze us. Sometimes, I have to do a task, such as lay the tables for 24 inmates, twelve black, twelve white, for supper at 7pm. I prefer the blacks because they are quiet and polite, whereas the whites are young French thugs with radios which they play at full volume.

At eight, to bed again amid the snoring. I am amazed to be still on my feet after two months of this. 

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now