A friend of mine died some years ago and so much still reminds me of her.
The DH and I were in a local town, Domfront, the other day.
Although a beautiful medieval city, Domfront is in a state of some disrepair these days, and we walked along a row of boarded-up shopfronts up the main drag to the chateau. In one shop, whose window bore a picture of a golden cat, was a notice for French lessons.
I really wish they would take this thing out, because it is in my friend Rianna’s handwriting. And Rianna is dead. She died several years ago in a diabetic coma. Le Chat d’Ore was her shop, where she sold cat paraphernalia – cat lamps, cat statues, metal cats for the garden, marble cats for the house.
It was a very strange sort of a shock when Rianna died. In fact initially I laughed and said: "What?" It seemed like some sort of joke. She was far too much of a force of nature to suddenly be gone.
But the more I thought about it, the less it was a surprise. Her husband of 20-odd years, Richard, had died only shortly before, after a long battle with cancer, and she’d been hitting the bottle pretty heavily ever since. Her diabetes wasn’t controlled by diet, but by insulin – it was so bad, in fact, that she didn’t even drive.
It was one of her pupils who became worried when there was no sign of her at French lesson time and forced the grizzling Gendarmes to jemmy open the door. Rianna was found dead in bed. We all hoped she’d died in her sleep, though there’s no way we can ever know. She was only 56 and as fit as a fiddle.
There’s a crossroads near to our house that the DH and I call Richard and Rianna’s crossroads, because one time we saw her cycling slowly up the hill (she was a local fixture on her bike and would bike 70km to an antique fair at the drop of a hat) and we pulled up to talk to her. It was then that she told us Richard had cancer. He’d had a fit and been rushed to hospital, and they’d found his lungs riddled with it. He was already terminal – the fit was probably from secondaries in his brain.
They expected him to die within weeks but he hung on for another four years, always denying that he had anything more than a cough. At times he was as mad as a hatter from the chemo – thought the dog was on television etc and that Rianna had given him crocodile sandwiches. He could only eat certain things, and at certain times, so we did them some Sunday lunches that were planned like a military operation. Chicken and chips served EXACTLY at one o-clock. The DH had to lift him in and out of the car, he was so weak, and afterwards dance around the house blasting out ‘Lust for Life’ until I stopped crying.
Both Richard and Rianna were always difficult people – argumentative, touchy and rude. But you never doubted their intelligence. When he was still well, Richard was an aircraft engineer who spent most of his week in Paris, while Rianna – a former cartoonist for Punch – ran their three gites singlehanded and managed to piss off most of their customers, not to mention builders, gardeners or anyone else who worked on the property.
There was no-one in the district she didn’t fight with over the years, and most of us were her friends, whom she relied on for all manner of heavy lifting, both physical and metaphorical. Once Richard became sick we were always over there moving him from gite to house and back again.
Rianna was also in sway to a menagerie of animals, all of which she anthropomorphised like mad and looked after badly – all of them had lice or mites or something else dreadful wrong with them and she was always taking in yet more doomed blue-tits and crows, feeding them up and watching them keel over in front of her. When she sold the house, she begged me to take her wuvverly wabbits and only when they were on their way informed me that they all had contagious earmites. The DH put his back out lifting the concrete hutches and my name was mud for days.
Rianna, being Dutch, also spoke four languages fluently and could swear like a trooper in all of them. Occasionally she used it on me, such as the time that out of the blue, she asked us to move the lot of them to Domfront to their new house THAT DAY. This was herself, Richard, four cats, three dogs and all their luggage.
"Sure," I said, signing away our Saturday. "Tinkerbell can go in our cat carrier and the other dogs can go in the back."
Tinkerbell was their vicious little ratter of a terrier who would not only go for you as soon as look at you, but had taken to defending Richard with her life if anyone even approached him. I had visions of him going for the DH whenever he changed gear. Rianna promptly accused me of cruelty, said Tinky-Wink was never to be put in a cage LIKE AN ANIMAL and hung up the phone. Oh la, I thought, but couldn’t help smiling later when her cats escaped all over of the car of the sucker she’d landed, and damn near caused an accident.
Rianna could make me laugh my head off too, though. More than almost anyone else I’ve known. She always had some anecdote to tell and often it was against herself. Or if not herself, it was against Richard. Multiple courses of chemo and radio did nothing for his sunny temper and once they moved to Domfront, he was continually getting into scrapes with the local yoofs.
Once, only weeks before he died and he was as frail as a reed, Rianna phoned to tell me that she’d been called to the local gendarmerie, where Richard was in custody, in his pyjamas, accused of criminal damage. Incensed by the bikers revving below their tiny house on the Vue Panoramique, he’d gone down and pushed over all the bikes till they fell down like ninepins.
For people that I considered friends but didn’t really know all that well, I am always surprised by how much I think of them. I still have many of Rianna’s cartoons, and I keep my salt in a soapstone pot she gave me. I have another that is home to my date stones, while we bought her buffet for our living room and although the colour is wrong, Rianna mixed it herself and I can’t bring myself to change it.
While Richard could still walk, he used to amble down to the bench at the foot of the old city and sit there with Tinky, watching the world go by. We’d often see him as we drove through, and whenever we pass the bench I see him still, though he’s no longer there.
Rianna, meanwhile, I think of whenever we pass the vet’s in Mayenne, where we rushed her one dead of winter night, clutching her dog Tess. We got there in time and the vet treated her, but Tess died the next day, succumbing to liver failure in the small hours.
And so it went with all of them in the space of just a couple of years – Tess was the first to go, then big Jem the Doberman, then Tinky-Wink the terrier. And then Richard. And then Rianna.