The old woman cycled in zigzags along the ribbon of road that gave an edge to the wood. She was dressed completely in black. It was a hot summer’s day but even her stockings were black. The hair was a coil at the back of her head. Attached by a bungee cord to the back of her bicycle was a baton of bread. It doubled the width of the woman and her bike.
“Don’t stare Bindy!” the girl’s mother said, “This is France. There is nothing unusual in that.”
But Bindy thought this was a special scenario. She believed there was a tale to be told here. She imagined the old woman dismounting at the iron gates of an old country villa and walking her bicycle up a crunchy gravel driveway, her purchase bouncing with every furrow in the stones. She saw the woman push her bike into an old stables, remove the baton of bread, and enter the house by a side door.
“Stop the car Dad! I need to wee!” demanded Bindy’s younger brother. Their father pulled into a green lane amongst the trees.
During the time they were parked, Bindy was dozing, but at the same time she could hear the birds singing from the branches. She imagined the old woman of the bread, this time in her provincial kitchen, with rows of glasses on shelves lined with linoleum; with herbs attached to a wooden structure hanging from the ceiling; with a scrubbed wooden table and a black-leaded iron range. Bindy saw the old lady break a piece of bread from the large stick and put it under a cloth which was spread on a dresser. Fast-forward to a shared meal with everyone mopping up a casserole from their individual soup plates. And now the bread had gone. The diners had gone. The woman was gone. Bindy knew that the diners were playing bowls in the yard – but the old lady was nowhere near. She wasn’t in the yard. She wasn’t in her kitchen – nor was she elsewhere in the quiet cool house. Bindy saw her shuffling along the edge of the garden, then into the trees where she kept glancing behind her and all around.
She reached a pile of logs and carefully moved some branches which were wedged between a couple of them. The old woman took a piece of bread from the top of her stocking and rammed it into the logs, covering it with the small branches. Bindy could see the woman turn and start to walk back towards the house. Then, nothing.
“Bindy, can you wait until we reach a village ?”
“Do you need to go? There’s nobody about.”
“No . . . no . . . thanks.”
So the family drove on until they reached a collection of houses. To all intents and purposes this was the nearest village – certainly the nearest settlement.
“It looks like the place in that comedy Dad’s always going on about – something about a loo,” suggested Bindy’s brother.
“Clochemerle – he means Clochemerle,” offered her mother.
But Bindy wasn’t listening. She had recognised an old country villa in the distance.
“May we drive up and look at that old house?” asked Bindy, pointing.
They really didn’t have anywhere special to be so her dad drove along towards the house. Bindy looked to the left and noticed something moving in the trees. She couldn’t make out what it was. When she asked, the others hadn’t seen anything.
They reached the house and saw iron gates opening onto a gravel driveway. It was so typically French. Bindy knew this house. She had been told – no – ACCUSED – of having a vivid imagination – but if only they knew HOW vivid it was and how it connected her with people from the past.
The family left the car in order to stretch their legs. Bindy wandered back towards the trees. By the entrance to a field, she saw a small statue of a woman in a long flowing robe. The stone figure was offering Bindy a baton of stone bread.
“Come and look at this,” she called to the rest of the family.
“What a funny place to have a statue,” was her mum’s response, “look – there is a plaque at the bottom. What does it say Bindy? I left my glasses in the car.”
Bindy read the words with a shiver,
YVETTE PRAYT 1880 – 1942
ELLE S’EST TOUJOURS CONDUITE TRES SAINTEMENT
There was no need for Bindy to say anything. She knew more about the woman of the statue – the woman of the bread – than they would believe. It puzzled Bindy that she should have been given this insight but she had come to accept it – and be thankful. In this case, she knew that bread, in its different forms, was the basic food of all nations. She knew that everyone was entitled to it – and she knew that, forever, people had put their own lives on the line to ensure their fellow men and women had this basic human right. Bindy knew Yvette Prayt.