I’m playing La Belote with Monsieur Legrand, Madame Suffisante and a man whose name I don’t yet know.
I’ve just taken over an already dealt hand from Monsieur Charme who is here with his wife to visit her mother. He usually nips out of the room for a round or two of cards in the salon.
I am the partner of the man. Madame Suffisantee is chewing gum. She has a smug, look about her, especially when she sets down a winning card.
Two women, one young and dark haired, one older and red haired with grey roots – I’ve noticed her before and have never seen her smile – appear at the card table.
“What did you say to my mother-in-law?” the younger woman demands of Madame Suffisante.
A war erupts between Madame Suffisante and the mother-in-law, who fires words in an almost impenetrable Portuguese accent. I can make out
“authoritarian,” “selfish’, “wicked,” “television,” “curtain”.
Madame Suffisante swells in her chair. She returns the insults like a gladiator. She is louder and quicker than the other two.
Monsieur Legrand remarks that it is a fine day. I agree. The sky is a glorious blue. There is’t a cloud in sight.
The war continues. Words rattle back and forth. I am expecting blows to be exchanged.
“You asked my mother-in-law if she was Portuguese and then you said the Portuguese were……” I miss the word, but it is obviously a slur.
Monsieur Legrand and I begin counting the points in the tricks already won. We recount and reach the same figure.
I glance at my partner. He is silently watching the contretemps. At one point he mutters, “Assez” (enough). The women ignore him.
Monsieur Legrand aske me about the weather in England. I ask him about the weather in France.
The row rumbles to a halt. The two women leave as suddenly as they appeared.
Madame Suffisante relaxes back into her chair. She looks triumphant. We finish the game. Madame Suffisante and my partner leave the table.
“Who was that?” I ask Monsieur Legrand, nodding at my partner’s retreating back.
“Her husband,” says Monsieur Legrand.
He tells me the warring women are “voisines de chambre” (room-mates).
I’m glad I’m not sharing a room with either of them.
I’ve been lucky with my “voisines”.
First, I share the room with Madame Loir (new hip) who is quiet and friendly and sleeps a lot. She is always the first to leave the dining room after lunch, scuttling out before some of us finish eating. I return to the room and find her lying on the bed, eyes closed, taking a siesta. Madame Loir leaves.
Madame Coquette arrives, eighty years old, full of laughter and joie de vivre. Her personality fills the room. Within hours she tells me about being married, being widowed and finding love again. We laugh a lot. We play cards. She instructs me in La Belote. She shows me how to apply lipstick, and tie a scarf just-so. And after she leaves, she comes back to visit me.
Madame Nerveuse (new hip) is my third “voisine”. No sooner have we introduced ourselves than she tells me she can’t sleep in hospitals. “C’est impossible”. She will be awake all night. She knows it.
“This isn’t a hospital,” I say.
“But it’s like a hospital,” says Madame Nerveuse. “It’s almost the same.”
She has been given a sleeping tablet but she knows it won’t work because it’s a “generique”. It ‘s a copy of the brand she usually takes. It doesn’t agree with her.
The light over her bed is lit nearly all that night. She reads a book. She goes to the bathroom. She switches off the light. She switches it on again. She reads her book again.
I am awake all night.
In the morning, I ask her if she can sleep when she stays overnight with her children.
Yes, she can.
“And when you stay with friends?”
What about in hotels?
Yes, she can sleep in hotels.
“Think of this as a hotel,” I say.
She shakes her head. “Impossible.”
She is red-eyed and exhausted.
After lunch, I find lying on her bed, reading.
I sleep for half an hour.
“I’m off to play La Belote,” I say. “But we need to find a fourth player.”
She brightens. She sits up. “I can play.”
We go down to the salon. I introduce her to Monsieur Lechasseur and Monsieur Lejeune who are ready to play.
Madame Nerveuse plays like a professional. She and Monsieur Lejeun win easily.
From now onwards, Madame Nerveuse plays La Belote every afternoon. She is Queen of La Belote. She sleeps soundly. Perhaps it is the non-generique sleeping tablet the doctor duly prescribes. Perhaps she lulls herself to sleep mentally replaying rounds of La Belote. Whatever. She is the perfect “voisine”. Polite, friendly, sociable.
“Voisine” number four is Madame Chinoise (new knee). I don’t always understand what she’s saying – French is not the first language for either of us – but smiles go a long way. Every evening, she watches a Chinese film on her computer. She sleeps like a log.
Bien sur, I’ve been lucky with my “voisines”.