One of the local characters is Marie la Sale – Dirty Mary. She lived alone, near us, in one of two small houses she owned. She may or may not have had running water and electricity in operation, although they were connected. She tended to wear several skirts, one on top of the other, numerous sweaters, all of them pretty filthy. And of course, she smelled. Hard to say exactly how old she was, but anything from late fifties upwards seems likely.
She was not, in any real sense, mad, but she was a bit odd. In a city, she would have been a bag lady, in the country she was just a bit stranger than most. People knew her, she was polite, friendly within her own terms, but largely in a world of her own. We were introduced to her by Mme Laforet, our neighbour, on one of many occasions when Marie called in on her. She would sometimes offer to help with the chickens and ducks, or some gardening activity, but she was never much use. Mme Laforet tended to get a little exasperated with her from time to time, but to be a good neighbour felt she had to put up with her ocasional visits.
If we saw her in the village or the lanes, we would always stop for a short chat, and she remembered who we were, how we usually got to France from England, and other details, so she was never entirely confused.
Over the years she became progressively smellier, stranger, and harder to talk to. For a while she would appear wearing bright red boots she had bought from somewhere, another time she had a small dog for a year or so. She would talk more to herself, and retreated progressively further into some other world. Once, I encountered her in the lane from the village, and for over 100 yards we walked towards each other. When we were a few yards apart I said 'Bonjour, madame'. She squeaked, and jumped back a couple of feet. She clearly had not noticed me and was utterly surprised by my voice. She regathered herself, and we had the usual brief conversation, but it was all a bit odd.
Now she is in a retirement home, having been taken very ill. I hear that she is doing quite well. She probably never asked for, or would accept, help from the social services, but really would have benefited from some support. Now that she is getting it I hope she is more content. He history is quite sad. Clearly never the brightest of people, she married a local man. A few weeks later he was killed in a traffic accident, and she never really recovered her equilibrium.
Now her houses are beginning to decay; they were never in a particularly good state, but being empty for a year or so the wind has had an effect. Even the old animal feed container tied to the gate as a letter box is now broken.
In our street in London, there is another little old lady who lives alone and has some bizarre behaviour from time to time. The street is three story, late Victorian terraces, many, like ours, converted into flats. Her house is occupied just by her. A couple of windows on the upper floors are blocked off with plywood, and there are other signs of decay and lack of maintenance. The house next to hers has just been renovated completely, and then sold for over £1.5 million.
She used to be a teacher, someone told me, and when she retired her house needed work. She gave all her money to a builder to do it up, and of course he promptly disappeared, leaving her with nothing but a small pension. She is still fit, and rides a bicycle around the neighbourhood, although she looks seriously weather beaten and in need of a bit of maintenance herself.
A few years ago, mysteriously, many of us discovered the steps and porches of our houses were wet in the mornings, even though there had been no rain. Strange, but not a problem until the weather turned cold, and the water froze. A couple of people slipped, and it was clearly dangerous. Turned out that this woman was going out in the middle of the night and washing everybody's porches. No idea why. Some people had a word with her, and she stopped it.
At one time, these old ladies might have been seen as witches. Now they are just lonely, confused, and often in need of small forms of support that bureaucracies find difficult to deliver.