MY DAUGHTER LIVES IN GENEVA.
I was beginning to think May was a little demented though her bridge was spot on. She was also well groomed and tastefully dressed, with a wave in her coiffured iron grey hair. Seemingly smart without effort, a slender woman with a lined face but kind eyes. We were Bridge partners every Wednesday afternoon since I had moved into this residential home near the West Shore six weeks ago.
Not only could she be counted on to bid and make her contracts, but she seemed to be able to remember every card played – something I confess I struggle with now. If May had the temerity to raise me to seven spades, you could be certain the Grand Slam was possible if you kept your head, which I usually didn’t. Still, unlike many competent players May never criticised my mistakes or allowed herself to get riled.
“It’s only a game after all, dear,” she would say. That would have been anathema at my previous competitive club. “Could happen to anyone.”
So, it was pleasant to play with May and we often won the duplicate despite my ineptitude. I couldn’t see why she was always short of a partner.
I like to know about the lives of others and, the first time that May told me her daughter lived in Geneva, I found it interesting. Apparently, the said daughter had married a banker who had an extremely top- notch job out there. May put extra emphasis on the second syllable of ‘extremely’ as she said it. So of course her daughter didn’t need to bother herself with a tedious job and had been able to dedicate herself to bearing and looking after four children? Two boys close together and then two girls – so clever, don’t you think? Of course, the Swiss health service was second to none, being private, but she had sailed through all her pregnancies which May found remarkable as her own had been very difficult and she had only managed one live birth.
They lived on the outskirts of the Left Bank in a very exclusive area. Such a beautiful house and grounds! ‘En face du lac’. (May was fond of throwing in the occasional French phrase to show she was ‘au fait’ with the vernacular.)
“Of course,” she admitted, twisting her wedding ring nervously, “it wasn’t like having them down the road.”
“But it must be a lovely place to visit,” I said brightly.
“Oh yes, and the views are magnificent!” The house looks north-west across the lake, up to the old distinctive hills of the Jura with their bare cliffs and escarpments, and the south-west side faces Mont Blanc in the distance. Many was the time May had stood on the balcony watching the sun set in a rosy pink flush on the snow -covered slopes, listening to the nearby tolling of a bell from the church in Collonge through the clean crisp air. It was still the best air in the world. No wonder they used to send consumptives there.
Of course, her daughter wouldn’t live anywhere else now. It was such a good life. Quiet but comfortable. They had charming gardens with a swimming pool for summer use. A nanny and a cleaner. Christmas at a chalet in the Alps where there was guaranteed snow, sleigh bells and ski runs. Winter was winter there and summer was summer, unlike Britain where both could meld into a chilly wetness.
The city itself was so compact and accessible too. Had I been? No, I had not. Well, there were wonderful parks in plenty. Of course, all the trains, clanging trams and buses ran on time and dovetailed with each other like clockwork. All on the same day ticket. Even for the little ‘mouettes’ …the yellow water taxis plying their way across the lake. Everyone used them You could swim in the lake in the summer if you had a mind to, off the ‘plages’ and families would take picnics to the parks on a Sunday. No heathen Sunday opening hours of shops was allowed. So cosmopolitan and sophisticated though! The Jet d’Eau so inspiring, though did I know it was really the twin towers of St Peter’s cathedral which the Genevoise really felt symbolised their city? Naturally I did not. Delicious pastries, croissants and fresh bread from the boulangeries – like France but much cleaner with well- run restaurants. And the toilets! – well, it made you ashamed to be British!
May was well into her stride now as if she had been engaged to write a travel brochure. Chocolate, watches and clocks. Carousels and swans on the lake. The UN and the Red Cross headquarters. Classy shops. A bit pricy of course but that was only to be expected with the Swiss franc being so robust. (Bankers presumably responsible for that one.) May had picked up a few good bargains in the sales though. Quality stuff. Did I like her olive suede jacket for instance? I did. Swiss, of course. Even the local Chasselas wine was perfectly acceptable, though not many people knew that. Anyway, you could buy anything there and most people could speak English, though May let it be known she took pride in being able to cope passably well in French.
The children were very generous. They were always asking her to go out and offering to pay her fare, though she confessed she found it more tiring than she used to so did not go often now. They had set her up in this home and were always asking if it was as comfortable and pleasant enough as it should be.
Money was no object to them. Her son in law kept a yacht on the lake – nothing too ostentatious, just a twenty- two- footer, and they had their own ski chalet at Verbier. Oh, it was so beautiful to sail up the lake past Montreux to Chateau Chillon where the mountains clustered round the castle on its island, so tall and majestic. It did sound entrancing and I was duly entranced.
As I said, this was the first time May told me about these things and I was genuinely interested. By the twenty-first time she told me, my interest was wearing thin. It was then I wondered about dementia. Short term memory loss could be selective, after all. Perhaps she had forgotten she had told me before. Yet she did The Times crossword every day, finishing most of it, and this was the cryptic version whilst I was still plodding through the concise one. Then there was the Bridge. No, I regretfully concluded she was merely bragging, and it no longer seemed so strange she was always in need of a bridge partner
We continued to put up with each other for Wednesday Bridge, but I am afraid I did my best to avoid May on other occasions. The downside to her family living in Geneva was that she didn’t get visitors. Whilst most of the others had been out at weekends and had plenty to talk about over Sunday supper, May did not.
It was on one such occasion that I was very sharp with her, to my shame. It was a blustery day with a high tide of white horses and sand blowing uncomfortably inshore from the dunes. Although I normally like the sea a little wild, I didn’t make it back before a sudden squall swept in from the foothills of Snowdonia over Puffin Island and I ended up sodden through, out of breath from hurrying, and dispirited. Out of sorts too. Added to which, I had learnt my son lost his job last week and was worried he might struggle to find another one.
“You’ve never been out in this!” May accosted me verbally. Looking back, it was only out of concern but then she resumed the full flow I had interrupted about the delights of Geneva.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, May! Why don’t you go and live in Geneva if everything’s so perfect there?” I snapped. She was immediately flustered, and two pink spots appeared glowing on either cheek.
“Well,” she faltered. “Of course, they don’t have a National Health Service and my legs aren’t as good as they used to be”. She was very quiet the rest of the evening and retired to bed early.
May didn’t appear for Bridge the following Wednesday, sending her apologies on account of a bad cold. As I knew she had previously played with a hacking cough, I doubted this somehow. I had to play with Rose instead who was interminably slow, so I had even more trouble remembering what had gone before and we came last. Neither did I see May all week, so I began to think she really was ill and keeping to her room. She re-appeared for next Sunday’s teatime and seemed sprightly enough, if a little subdued.
Later that evening there was a knock at my door and in came Eunice, canvassing the residents for a theatre trip. Eunice was a great organiser of events and the place would have been much more boring and apathetic without her, though I suspect she was taken for granted and rarely thanked enough for her efforts.
“Do come,” she urged me, “it’s had such good reviews and is on tour straight from London.”
In truth it was a play that appealed to me and I liked going to our local theatre which we were lucky to have, but I hesitated.
“Is ‘My Daughter Lives in Geneva’ going?” I asked cattily.
Eunice looked at me in an offhand manner which let me know she didn’t approve. “Yes.”
“Then I think not. I’ll pass this time.” Eunice put her pen and clipboard down on the table.
“There’s something you need to know about May,” she said firmly. “It’s not common knowledge but, well … you seemed to be getting on so well when you first came.”
“What is it?”
“May hasn’t spoken to her daughter in over thirty years”.
I was genuinely shocked.
“They fell out. Oh, I don’t know why, and I don’t think May does either. She didn’t seem to have done anything terribly wrong as far as I could see. No, I believe it came from the daughter. She hasn’t seen any of the four grandchildren since. There’ve been no visits, no letters, not even a birthday or Christmas card.
“But that’s dreadful! Why has she never told anyone?”
“Would you? What would they think of her?”
I swallowed hard.
“She told me when she first came here. She wasn’t in a good state then. Used to sit around crying most of the day. But then she got a bit better and hasn’t told anyone since. It must be hard for her.”
“And she has no-one else?”
“No, more’s the pity.”
“Did she really go to Geneva?”
“Oh yes, a few times. Her reminiscences are all true … well, bar a few embellishments over the years, like the yacht maybe. It seems to be her way of coping. “
“Don’t they pay for this home though?”
“Definitely not. May had to sell her home to come here and lives in fear of her money running out.”
I hope my silence spoke volumes. Eunice took up her clipboard briskly.
“I don’t have to sit you next to her”, she said. “But I can see you’d like to come and we need to make the numbers up for a mini-bus.”
“I’ll sit next to her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, we are bridge partners, after all.”
The play was good, and I was glad I had gone.
“Did I tell you my daughter lives in Geneva?” May asked on our way home in the bus.
“Yes, I think you did, May – many times,” I said gently.
“Oh,” deflated now.
“But I’ve never been there, and I’d like to hear more about the places you’ve been to
“Well, there were so many of them!”
May looked out of the rain streaked window, her eyes suddenly misted over with
“But do you know what, dear?”
“It’s such a long time ago now. I can hardly remember their faces.”
“You told me about the Festival called L’Escalade when the Genevoise celebrate repelling the Duke of Savoie and his troops from the battlements. That was very interesting!” I said quickly.
“Oh yes!” brightening up, “Well that is a spectacle indeed.”
And she was off, rattling on happily about the historical costumes and the horses and the fireworks until we got home. And how there were huge cauldrons called ‘marmites’ made out of chocolate in the shop windows, along with the usual pyramids of prettily coloured macaroons. I was fully reconciled to switching off and staring out of the window. Only it was rather interesting after all.