The Sloth Diaries: La Tempete by Rusty Gladdish

The Sloth in France: La Tempete!

Carrefour was unusually crowded for a Monday morning. I had to drive round the car park three times before a sleek Peugeot slid out of its place to allow our battered little Nissan Sunny to take its place. The wind had got up since we had left home and discarded plastic bags were blown into the air where they fluttered like ragged flags. Sodden leaflets advertising the opening of the new Lidl next door, blown by the wind, stuck to the car tyres. Thiour. It was now battling its way up the coast to Calais. Comparisons were already being made with the terrible winter storms that had ravaged France in previous years.

As we trundled our trolley into the crowded aisles, the check-out girl nearest the entrance was uncharacteristically quiet. We were usually greeted with a cheery ‘Bonjour!’ but not this morning. Everyone was strangely preoccupied and focussed on piling their trolleys high with supplies.
‘What’s the matter with everybody this morning?’ I asked the Sloth. A portly, fur coated French femme au foyer with heavily rouged lips, crashed into our trolley and stormed past with a glare. The Sloth smiled weakly and murmured a conciliatory, ‘Bonjour, Madame’ to her furry back. Then, turning to things of a more important nature, he manhandled a box of 6 bottles of medium quality Bordeaux in to the trolley. ‘Yes, I know what you mean. Must be the high winds. Continual high winds have a strange effect on people, you know. When the Mistral blows in Provence, people go quite barmy for a while. They get migraines and undergo personality changes.’

‘Really? Do you think that’s why everyone is acting so oddly this morning? ‘
‘Yes, I do as a matter of fact. When I was teaching at a primary school in Gloucester once, I noticed that if there was a continual wind blowing, the kids would become quite aggressive and crazy in the playground.’
He hefted a second box of red wine
into the trolley then stood back, rubbing his hands with satisfaction.
‘Right! I’m offski! Come and find me in the CD aisle when you’re ready for the check out,’ and he disappeared into the thick of the frantic groups clustering round the supermarket shelves.

With the Sloth safely out of the way, I glided round in a dream indulging my French fancies. I began filling my trolley with Pate de Canard, brioche and crusty baguettes still warm from the ovens and soft, creamy Brie from the local dairies to be washed down with a dark, dense fruity wine. Our trolley was almost full so I ambled slowly towards the CDs and Books aisle. I was just in time to see the Sloth on his knees in front of a slim, languid young woman dressed in dusky pink, suede hot pants with matching thigh boots topped with a long silver grey top coat. He seemed to be scrabbling on the floor in an undignified manner for something, whilst she tilted her honey coloured head, her hair falling seductively over one eye, regarding his antics with a certain curious amusement. She appeared completely bemused. They were completely unaware of my arrival. It seemed she had dropped her lipstick and it had rolled under the shelves. And Sloth being a gentleman, was gallantly trying his best to retrieve it. From where I was standing he didn’t seem to be having much luck though he might have been having a lot of fun! By now he was very red in the face and as I approached he grinned foolishly. He looked like a fox that had been caught with a hen in his jaws. A look I had come to know so well down the years. Poor old Sloth!

He stumbled to his feet holding the lipstick triumphantly aloft.
Oh merci! Merci, monsieur! Vous etes très, très, gentille’, she cooed.
He was so pleased with himself that he almost took a bow, then as he murmured something in French she whipped her shiny blonde hair out of her eyes and wandered off, leaving a cloud of Givenchy to remind us of our ordinariness.
With the Sloth now firmly under my supervision he manoeuvred our burgeoning trolley to the check-out. The queues were long and the customers were disgruntled. An air of tacit mutiny hung over the shoppers. Tempers, like the weather, were volatile so we weren’t surprised when a row flared up between two women. One of them had shoulders that Sebastien Chabal would envy while the other was as thin as a whippet and with an incredibly penetrating, high pitched voice which reached down to the back of the line. I noticed that they both had crew cuts and both sported a couple of red streaks running down the sides of their heads. It must be the latest style around these parts. There were a lot of ‘Ohs’ flying around before I realised with my abysmal ignorance of French, that they were actually saying ‘Eau’. One of them had taken the last of the 5 litre bottles of water and harsh words were being exchanged. The check-out girl ignored the fray and continued to put through the items at great speed. The people in the queue however, sensed a drama about to unfold and looked on interestedly in the hope that the row would escalate into something a little more piquant.
Things took a nasty turn when the rugby scrum-half gripped the arm of the skinny woman and began shaking her like a pit bull terrier with a hapless rabbit. The onlookers gasped in unison and the entire queue swayed in anticipation of the next stage of events. It was at this point that the Sloth, being a peaceful sort and an ardent admirer of the fairer sex, politely intervened. He offered one of our bottles of water to the Sebastien Chabal look-a-like murmuring sweet nothings in her direction. For some reason this seemed to placate her. She gave him a coy smile and grabbed the water with one hand and loosened her grip on the little woman who immediately fell to the floor in a faint. A small circle gathered round looking down at her sympathetically but no one actually did anything to revive her. The audience, deprived of their live ‘theatre’, scowled at us as we sneaked through the check-out leaving dissatisfaction and disappointment behind us. C’est la vie!

As we came out of the automatic doors we were almost driven back by the force of a howling wind that pressed us against the plate glass windows of the supermarket. Clinging on to the trolley for dear life we dashed to the car and quickly emptied our supplies into the boot. All around us detritus flew up into the air like larks on a summer’s day but the icy blast felt anything but summery. The towering poplar trees that bordered the car park trembled and shook. The sky had darkened and somewhere in the distance a dull roar could be heard. We dived into the car and I drove like someone possessed to get home before the storm broke over our heads and swept us away. The long, ribbon of road winding through the flat, furrowed fields was devoid of any trace of humanity as we batted along. ‘Good God! I’ve never seen the road so deserted before. Even on a Sunday, and we always get stuck behind a tractor on the way home from Carrefour. Bizarre!’ marvelled Sloth. Our little car swayed and rocked and once or twice came perilously close to occupying the roadside ditch
I gripped the wheel firmly and put my foot down. The gale practically blew us along and we were soon pulling into the home stretch. All the houses in the hamlet had their shutters firmly closed as their occupants cowered indoors. As we drew up to Mathilde’s cottage Sloth took off his safety belt. ‘Look! You go on to the house and get inside; I’m going to check on Mathilde’

‘Yes, OK. She’ll probably be getting a bit nervous.’ I left him at Mathilde’s garden gate and pulled into our drive. The wind had got even stronger now and was much noisier. I got all the supplies out and lugged them into the kitchen and shut the door. I switched on the light, it had become very dark outside and started to put away the food into the cupboards.

I’d just put the last of the duck pate away in the fridge and clicked on the coffee maker when the back door was flung open. The Sloth and Mathilde almost fell into the kitchen. ‘My God! There’s a blasted tornado going on out there!’ he gasped. Mathilde took herself over to the rocking chair and sat by the stove. Her hair was usually in a neat coiffure, but the wind had fanned it in to a wispy halo round her head. She smoothed and patted it back into shape then she leant forward to warm her tiny hands near the flames. ‘Oh Monsieur! Pas bon! Pas bon! Le vent, c’est incroyable!’ It was indeed incredible. I made bowls of milky coffee for us and a tiny cup of tar black liquid with a thimble full of Calvados for Mathilde. She thanked me and sat sipping it delicately.
She told us that this storm reminded her of the one that charged like a bull through a village some 50 miles away, years ago. Three people were killed and houses were torn from their foundations and tossed aside like empty match boxes. ‘Ah oui! Pas bon!’ she murmured. As if on cue a sudden squall of wind snatched at the windows and the whole house trembled and creaked in protest. Sloth and I exchanged glances. I indulged in a little displacement activity and threw a couple more logs into the stove. Then we heard a loud, sickening crash that came from outside. Sloth and I ventured outside holding onto each other tightly, and saw from the gate that Bernadette’s satellite dish had fallen from the roof and was sailing awkwardly down the street. A little further on we could see Monsieur Roche’s shiny new Magane on its side in a ditch pinned down by a telegraph pole. We looked at each other as the enormity of the effects of the storm dawned on us and then we turned and hurried back into the house. We all sat round the fire drinking our coffee with generous splashes of Calvados to gives us some Dutch courage. We spoke in slightly raised voices as we tried to drown out the racket that was going on outside. From time to time objects flew past the windows or were hurled up into the sky. We tried not to react when we heard the rasping sound of metal on concrete. Mathilde tried to distract us by regaling us with tales of the antics of her alcoholic neighbour, Alphonse.

‘Ah oui!’ she murmured and sipped greedily at her sweetened coffee heavily laced with Calvados. To keep out the cold ‘Bien sur’!
She placed her tiny feet daintily on the hearth and with her head on one side and her snapping black eyes twinkling , then, looking for all the world like a cheeky robin, she began to tell her story. She sighed. ‘You know, monsieur, what’s really hard to bear is the house he lives in used to belong to my brother Antoine. Oui! C’est vrai! My brother was a good businessman and owned three butcher’s shops. Round these parts people said that they were the best boucheries for miles. They sold only the finest cuts of meat. Ah Oui! Toujours la meilleure viande. Then one day, le desastre!! The big supermarche Carrefour came along and that was the end of his business. One by one his shops closed.’
‘It must have been terrible for Antoine’ I said.
I served her a Madeleine on a porcelain plate which she sucked at gently, brushing the crumbs from her skirt.
Sloth made sympathetic noises and ignoring a particularly loud crash outside, Mathilde took another deep breath and continued ‘
‘Ah oui! Pas bon! Pas bon! That Aplhonse had always envied Antoine and coveted his house. That’s not the only thing he coveted either’. She narrowed her eyes and nodded knowingly. ‘He was always sniffing around Therese. That’s Antoine’s wife. She’s a pretty little thing. Slim and dark like I used to be.’ I noticed the corners of Sloth’s mouth twitching and jabbed my elbow into his ribs.
‘When the boucheries closed down Antoine was finished. It was a terrible blow to him, vous savez. He put his heart and soul into those shops. ‘There was another long pause as she gazed into the fire.
‘So where did Antoine go after he sold the house to Alphonse?’ prompted Sloth.
Mathilde dragged her eyes from the flames.
‘They went to the Alpes. Therese has family near Chamonix. They bought a chalet and now they both work at the ski resort.’
‘Do you visit them, Mathilde?’
There was another long, wounded silence.
Then, ‘I am an old woman. What do I want with the snow and the ice? I visited twice in the summer months. It was a long journey by plane and train. Pas bon!’ She shook her head sadly.
Sloth nodded. ‘It must have been exhausting for you’
I leaned forward and patted her hand. ‘I expect you miss him’
‘Ah oui! Ah oui! But he’s a bad one that Alphonse. He lives alone and just gets drunk every night. His wife and son left him. They live in Lyon now. Last summer it was very hot and I was sitting in the garden. His son came to visit him and was helping him do some digging. Alphonse came out of the house swigging a bottle of wine. Anyone with half a brain could see he was drunk. In his other hand he had a shotgun. No one was more surprised than me though, when he raised the gun and fired a shot at the satellite dish. The poor lad fell down as though he were dead. He thought he’d been shot you see, poor lamb. ‘C’est fou!!’ Ah oui! I’ll never forget the look on that boy’s face.’

The fire in the wood burner had died down and the room had become darker. The Sloth got up and went to the door. The wind had been replaced by a torrential downpour. He sprinted over the yard to the woodshed and dashed back with an armful of logs. While he stoked the fire, I flicked on the lamps and went to make some hot chocolate. When I came back from the kitchen, rattling cups of chocolate on the tray, Mathilde was dozing, her head nodding gently on her chest, and her hands lying loosely in her lap. Sloth raised his finger to his lips. I took my place next to him on the sofa and we sipped our chocolate and watched the flames darting between the logs in the stove. Shadows flickered and danced in the dark corners of the room and the fire sizzled and spat. We watched Mathilde sleeping with all the innocence of a child, and listened to the rain beating against the windows.

* * * *

The right of Rusty Gladdish to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

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