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A Small Paris Story

When I lived in Paris, I became friendly with an elderly neighbour. Her name was Madame Colombo and she was lonely. Every few days she would knock on my door with an excuse and I would invite her in for a cup of tea. Colombo was a bitter woman, the curtain-twitching critic of the building. Most of my neighbours distrusted or actively disliked her because she was nosy and gossipy. I developed a deep affection for her.

Colombo’s life had been difficult. As a child, she and her sister had lost their mother. Her father had shellshock and a plate in his skull from WW1, and was given to violent outbursts. She’d lived through the dark, lean years of German occupation and often recalled being stopped in an alley by a German soldier with a machine gun. He’d made her stand against a wall and pointed the gun at her. It had been a terrifying experience.

As a young woman, she’d become engaged to a man who was then conscripted to fight in Algeria. It was a filthy, vicious war and he came back with mental health problems. She married him despite this and he lived into his late seventies, dying of lung cancer while I was their neighbour. Three wars had poisoned her life and then there was her son, an alcoholic ne'er-do-well who was bleeding her dry of her pension.

Colombo was a frugal woman who was always preparing for the worst, for another war or economic strife. She ate cheaply and never threw away anything that might be useful. She hated waste and liked to monitor the communal bins, taking it personally when she discovered a baguette. ‘They threw away a baguette,’ she would say, eyes wide with horror.

Colombo was a clever, resourceful woman who could make or fix anything. She’d worked on factory floors and inside the smaller ateliers of tailors and metal workers and had quick, remarkable hands. I felt honoured when she gave me her Singer sewing machine and collection of buttons and thread, explaining that she no longer had a use for them.

Colombo became a friend during my many years there. Not an easy friend, mind you. She was bossy and critical but I knew she liked me and wanted the best for me. She often said she’d wanted a daughter but it had been impossible with her husband. Not long before I left Paris, her son forced her to sell the apartment and moved her to a soulless place in a satellite town where she knew no one and saw no one. For a Parisian like Colombo it was a death sentence.

The second time I visited she was recovering from a stroke. I’d been sitting in her freezing kitchen for about half an hour when she made it clear I should leave. She was tearful and murmured something about it being too sad. The next time I called the phone didn’t pick up.

Madame Colombo thought the world was against her and in many ways it was.

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