We found out why there are always three or four cars parked in the driveway three houses down from us on our road. We wondered how many people lived there. The people who rented that house before this current crowd were a couple in their nineties, and both of them passed away not too long ago.
It turns out the house with all the cars out front is occupied by some young people who work at the zoo in Saint-Aignan. They have fixed-length contracts with the zoo, so we don't know how long they'll be living here. Our other neighbor told us there is a housing crisis here in the Saint-Aignan area, and when an employer like the zoo brings in workers for short-term assignments, they often are young people who have to double or triple up if they want to find a place to live and meet expenses.
People in the hamlet had started wondering whether there might be drug-dealing going on there, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Everyone has noticed all the cars and the constant comings and goings, that's for sure. There's only been one party since the young people moved in — last summer. It was not a problem.
One of the people in the house is the late-20s or early 30s woman who rang our front bell aweek ago and asked us if we had seen a black kitten wandering around the hamlet. No, we said, we hadn't. But we'd keep an eye out. And by the way, we told her, we have a black cat but he's not a kitten. She said she had seen Bert. She also said there are three other cats living in her house, and we already knew that she and the others also keep chickens in a pen and house in the back yard. We hear the rooster crow most mornings.
The woman said her black kitten escaped one day when there was a cat fight in her front yard. She opened the door to try to stop it, and the black kitten took off and disappeared. I asked her if our black cat, Bertie, was one of the ones fighting. She said no, there was no black cat involved. That was a relief.
A real relief, I mean, because Bertie came home injured again about 10 days ago. One of his eyes was swollen shut, and when I pulled it open to examine it I could see what looked like a hole in the inner eyelid that could have been made by another animal's claw. Bertie had crusty blood behind one ear, and a wound on his cheek too. He recovered from all that very quickly, though.
What he has not recovered from is terrorizing the other neighbor's cats. She has three of them, and she says two of them refuse to go outdoors now, because they are afraid of being attacked. The woman who keeps the cats is the one who says Bertie attacked her a few months ago when she turned her back on him. She says the scratches on her leg were very painful and she still has scars.
This woman lives with her 88-year-old mother, and her 25-year-old daughter visits frequently, driving down from Paris. Both of the older and younger woman seemed yesterday to be downplaying the whole situation when we talked about it, but the one who got scratched is still pretty upset about it. Luckily, she likes cats, and when I mention that the only solution I can think of is to take Bertie to the local humane society to see if a new home can be found for him, always says « non, non, non, ce serait dommage » — it would be a shame to take such a beautiful cat over there.
Meanwhile, we learned from the neighbors that there is an older woman down the hill from us — the cat-keeping neighbor calls her la sorcière, the witch, because of her long stringy hair — who really is not able to take care of herself any more but who refuses to move out of the big house that she rents. We only see the older woman once in a while, when we're driving by at bread-delivery time. She comes out to get bread. She's a tiny thing but with long stringy hair and dingy clothes.
The neighbor says the woman is 90 years old now. Her husband died a few years ago, and the woman lives in squalid conditions in a big two-strory house. She still has « bon pied, bon œil » — "good feet and good eyes," meaning she is still in good physical and mental health — but she spends nearly all of her monthly pension on rent and has little or no money left over with which to buy clothes or even food.
She does get bread four times a week, however, according to the bread lady. The woman never opens her shutters, however, and lives mostly in her kitchen, which is the only room in the house that is liveable, the neighbor said. Our neighbor said nobody wants to go inside the woman's house because of the bad odor and general mess, but the woman herself adamantly refuses to move into a smaller place.
A few weeks ago Walt and I were driving up the hill after a trip to the supermarket and we saw a couple of gendarme vehicles and a sapeurs-pompiers van (the fire department does rescue squad work) parked in the old woman's driveway, lights flashing. The neighbor said the woman had fallen down the stairs in the house. She had been able to crawl to the telephone and call the French equivalent of 911.
The rescue squad took her to the hospital in Blois, where she was kept for a few days. But then somebody in charge decided that the woman was in good enough condition to come home, so they brought her back here. The neighbor said they left her in the cold, dark house, where she had no food in the fridge or cabinets and no way to get any. She was dressed only in a thin hospital nightgown and some slippers that were too small for her.
It was scandaleux, the neighbor said. The village authorities came to the house and managed to get the heat going, get the woman dressed in some warm clothing, and bring in some food for her. Still, she refuses to see reason and move into a smaller place down in the village center, where she wouldn't be alone — stranded, with no car — and where the rent wouldn't take nearly all of her monthly income.
That's where the situation stands for now. The woman is in good health for her age, so the local social services won't provide for her or insist that she must move out of the big house. She has no family at all since her husband died, so there is nobody to help her make decisions or make them for her.
After we had exhausted that subject, somebody started in on a story about something that happened 25 or 30 years ago in the same little neighborhood down the hill. A couple living in a big house down there had a grown son living in with them. He was depressed and mentally unstable, and was becoming reclusive, apparently. The parents called in a doctor for advice. The son was taken in for psychiatric examination and treatment, but after a few days he was released.
What did he do? He went to the doctor's house, hid in the hedges, and when the doctor came home he jumped out and attacked him. He actually murdered the doctor.
I could tell a couple of other stories we heard yesterday at our little neighborhood gathering, but I'll stop here. Tales of drinking, child neglect, indigence, and drug-dealing.... And we thought we had retired to enjoy peaceful, serene country living. Ha! It makes you realize that ignorance of what is going on all around you, what your neighbors are up to and how they live, really is bliss. Good fences and all that...
And it makes you realize that territorial disputes involving neighborhood cats are not such a big deal.