The voices raised outside the house drew me to the window, and looking along the road I watched as the party approached.
"Oui ! Il est mort! Il est mort!" he shouted in frustration at the two women who walked some distance behind him. It seemed in answer to something earlier said.
With this the tall elderly man with the shock of grey hair and suntanned face strode in a manner belying his 82 years. His lean figure passed as he continued his determined stride towards a house around the corner but out of sight.
Behind side by side walked his wife and his sister, quietly talking. His wife walked falteringly with the aid of a stick slower than he did, as usual she wore a brown felt hat and her woven wool jacket. She needed to stop frequently ostensibly to look at something nearby that had caught her eye but her sister-in-law, silent, continued almost shambling alone in a world of her own, a world that had, not long before been turned upside down.
The sister wore her white hair cut in a manly fashion often seen on a spinster her age; her trousers dark blue, her open cardigan a lighter shade of blue over a white blouse and her white socks leaving a tiny gap for flesh to show between the trouser bottoms and her black shoes. She had lived nearby in the empty house to which her brother now strode.
Several weeks before her other brother, the one with whom she had lived, had been taken away to hospital having been ill for some months and who I had often seen walking very timidly, being slowly led by the visiting physiotherapist to exercise his wasting muscles. And a couple of weeks just past he had died. His funeral over and his remains buried everyone that had attended had eventually turned away and left the surviving brother and sister to return to normal life.
But what was normal life now?
Surviving brother and wife went home and sister went to empty house. Before his death she had thought he would return and fill the house with his voiced demands as they lived like man and wife. He drove the car. He went to work in his French blue workman overalls. She did the shopping. She did the washing and she did the cooking and he did the eating. Now he was not there. Now there was no one to make the morning café for. Now there was no one to demand a bowl in which to dip his bread.
Decades before when they were young, their parents made demands. One brother had travelled and married and started the next generation, but the parents worried that their daughter would not marry quite so easily. What was their fear? They made the brother promise that he would not leave her. He must wait until she was married off before he could do the same. She never married as they knew she would not.
They shared the house and at least they shared some of the chores. But out he went to drink at the café on the corner. And when he had drunk that is how he would return home. Sometimes when the café closed and Madame la Patronne had fallen asleep with her old dog upon her sofa in the cellar, he would back his car out of it's little garage and not so softly on the clutch he would shoot off, down the road to another bar that would give him a little Bière 33 or a small glass of anis, and eventually without mishap he would return. Presumably to eat the dinner that his sister had cooked for him.
Decades passed. They lived together much like a married couple. And gradually he became ill.
He rarely walked to his brother's house. He rarely got the lawn mower out and cut the grass. That would be done by the lean brother down the road, who would walk energetically past in his brown rubber boots, his blue work jacket pushing a Rotavator, or carrying a basket of salad, a bucket of potatoes fresh from the garden, a bunch of haricot verts. And while he was there lean brother would cut the grass. Felt hatted wife would walk to visit, and look at me and smile and say, “Bonjour.”
When the house needed painting lean brother would walk purposefully past with a ladder on his shoulder ready to shin up and do the necessary work.
And the years passed.
Now the grieving sister is on her own. She lives like a widow. She feels like a widow. She walks slowly past, on her own, nothing to return for. No one to go home to. And everyone says her brother has died. No one sees the loss inside. The ones she now needs most have no concept of her loss, because they too have lost a brother.
He's heard it all before. He does not understand how his sister feels. He does not understand her sense of emptiness.
Oui! Il est mort! Il est MORT!
But she has lost so much more, and no one understands she is grieving as a widow would.
Now several months have passed; it is spring but winter is clinging on and she walks slowly lost in her thoughts past my house between the house of lean brother and felt hatted sister-in-law, and her own, empty. She is in no hurry and now seems, as I watch her pass, a shadow of the woman she must have been.