WHEN do you become old? Not when your body changes overnight from a greyhound to a Labrador. Nor when you become forgetful, constantly looking for words and keys. Or when your green Volkswagen turns into a white elephant because you are a danger on the road. Growing old comes with loneliness. When no one visits you on a Sunday any more. So says the main character in Forgotten on Sunday, the latest novel by the French writer Valérie Perrin.
Justine Neige works as a caregiver at The Hydrangeas, a home for frail elderly people in Milly, a small village in Burgundy. She discovers that residents, who often aren't aware of where they are or whether it's morning or evening, know when it's Sunday. They feel it. Like sunflowers turning their heads towards the sun, they keep an eye on The Hydrangeas' entrance. Then they wait. For someone to knock on their door, to peek in. Mostly in vain. That's why Sundays are “steeped in sadness".
When you read this book, you can't help thinking of your elderly parents or grandparents. Sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes with regret. My grandma Griet waited like this for us every Sunday, for 25 years. In her tiny room at Huis Hermon in Pretoria North. Dressed in her best clothes, complete with court shoes and a brooch, as if she expected distinguished guests. This country girl from Swartruggens was now confined between bed, wardrobe and washbasin. I went along, protesting because the place smelled of Deep Heat, sadness and urine. But when she told stories about her childhood, I perked up my ears, hiding behind the curtains like a cat, trying to avoid my own transience.
That's also what Forgotten on Sunday is about: telling stories and the healing value of narratives; stories as a mantra against oblivion and pain. That's why the young Justine spends her time with old people. For their stories. Because they never have to find them on the internet, or in books or movies. They have lived them.
Justine writes down their stories in her blue notebook, especially those of Hélène Hel. An ordinary elderly woman with an extraordinary story that she weaves like fine French lace until it fills the pages of this delightful novel with touching, subtle beauty.
In her head, Hélène places herself on a sunny beach every day, because that's where she was happiest. To the amazement of the nursing staff, she stays warm even during Milly's coldest winters. But Hélène's words become fewer and fewer, “as if the song of her life were playing at the end of a record and the volume reducing".
Hélène, the daughter of tailors, was dyslexic as a child. Because she couldn't read, her school life was unbearable, so she decided to end her life by licking all the words off the classroom chalkboard — maybe the chalk would suffocate her. When that didn't work, she started drinking the ink in the pot at every desk. Then a seagull flew against the classroom window and she took him home and fed him bread soaked in milk. She set him free but he followed her all her life, even to the middle of France. He was there when she made wedding dresses for the village brides, also when she met her beloved Lucien in a cathedral and he taught her how to read Braille.
The moment Hélène can read, she is reborn: “Hélène Hel was born twice. On April 20, 1917 in Clermain, Burgundy, and on the day she met Lucien Perrin in 1933…" Hélène and Lucien opened a tavern in Milly and stayed there until World War 2 broke out and Lucien hid a Jewish friend in the cellar of the bar. Then their lives shattered like porcelain, and the seagull disappeared.
At the same time, Justine's story unfolds. She cares for old people during the week and goes dancing at Club Paradise on weekends. Justine and her cousin, Jules, live with their grandparents because their parents died simultaneously in a car accident on a Sunday when they were on their way to a christening. This is why they, too, were “forgotten" on a Sunday.
Justine sees Jules as her little brother, not simply as a cousin, because their dads were twins. Jules is an eccentric brother: “It’s like he fell from the sky and Gramps picked him up in the garden." Jules has no memories of his beautiful blonde mother, only photos. Pictures where she looks like ABBA's Agnetha Fältskog.
Justine and Jules' grandparents refuse to talk about their sons' deaths. “We all have two lives," Justine observes, “one in which we say what we think, and another in which we shut up. A life in which words are passed over by silence." Her grandpa flips through newspapers without ever taking in a word and her grandma has suicidal tendencies. The village shopkeepers know they're not allowed to sell her razors, rat poison or pain pills. Gradually, Justine discovers that each of her grandparents has an alternative life that no one else knows about. Her grandma is a gifted plumber who, when no one is looking, dons overalls and lies under sinks to fix leaking pipes; and her grandpa has a secret lover, another woman with whom he conceived a child.
One day, mysterious calls are made from the room of a weakened “inmate" at The Hydrangeas. Residents' families are falsely informed of their parents' or grandparents' deaths. Then, when they arrive — sometimes sad, sometimes relieved — they find the elderly relative is still alive.
This book is one of my favourites of the year because it contains all the elements I love: eccentric characters; a captivating plot that provides an escape from load-shedding and crime; delicate narratives that unfold like decorated paper fans and fill you with melancholy; and poetic language that makes you wish you were fluent in French.
Forgotten on Sunday makes you look at ageing and transience with new eyes, also at how essential family stories and their documentation are because we all have a story to tell, trauma to process, however insignificant it may seem. Speaking is therapy. And writing is immortalising what threatens to fade into oblivion.
One day, we will all sit like this on a Sunday and wait. For someone to visit. Perhaps for death.
Who, what, where and how much?
Forgotten on Sunday by Valérie Perrin was published by Europa Editions UK and costs R316 at Loot.
♦ VWB ♦
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