Vita was barking.
We were scraping off the old flaking layers of paint and plaster from the stone wall in the dining room and could hear her outside. She barks at anything that invades "her" space - birds, distant tractors, Monsieur F or his father, pieces of paper blowing across the fields. As she eventually calms down, we've learnt to take no notice. But we'd nearly finished for the evening and I was on my way back down to the cottage when I realised she was barking at a small elderly man in an electric wheelchair who was driving slowly back up our drive from the cottage.
Our local town is a centre for people with major brain and physical injury who nevertheless drive themselves around in their wheelchairs. But that's in the town centre. He was some eight kilometres from home, down our track.
I grabbed Vita who was dancing round him and asked if I could help him in my best French but could not understand his guttural, garbled response. So after a rapid conference with Tod, I set off to see our neighbours at the top of the drive to ask for their help, Tod and the man in the wheelchair slowly following. Madame informed me that he had first visited them and asked for directions back to town. They had told him, but he misunderstood and headed down our track (which goes nowhere). As I wondered what to do, she offered to phone the pompiers (firemen) to see if they would help. The answer was "no, get a taxi". Difficult if you come with an electric wheelchair.
By this time Tod and the wheelchair man had arrived. Madame roundly ticked him off for going so far that he needed help to get back. She rather brusquely pointed him in the direction of town. So off he set. She did however relent enough to make a call to the gendarmes, who informed her that it was "normal" for local wheelchair occupants to travel around and no, they would not come out and help. Travel to Leclercs for shopping, that's "normal", but eight kilometres into the country?
I feared for the battery on his wheelchair and imagined all sorts of dire situations with oncoming cars round blind bends, so decided to set off after him in the merc. He'd got surprisingly far by the time I caught up with him. He was, again, heading in the wrong direction, down a dead end so I offered to follow him slowly (hazard lights flashing) to make sure he stayed on track.
Driving at four kilometres an hour behind a wheelchair, heart in mouth in case we met a car on our narrow roads, gave me a very different view of our local countryside. He waved at the occasional passerby, we were overtaken by an elderly lady on a bicycle and (thankfully) very few cars. At a cross roads when we discussed where to go next, we both feared we'd taken the longer route, but for the sake of his battery it was too late to turn back. The small additional distance that meant nothing in a car suddenly seemed endless I was gradually getting better at understanding what he was saying , including "Thank you" in English. He might not be able to speak clearly, but that did not mean he couldn't understand.
After an hour, we reached the safety of town and he knew where he was. So I left him, cap on his head against the afternoon sun, trundling off down the centre of the road towards his home.
Talking about it later with Tod, we wondered at the attitude of our neighbour, the pompiers and the gendarmes but then gradually realised that perhaps they were right. The disabled in our town have their independence. But that independence comes with responsibilities and an expectation that they will cope. The robust view is by all means go out for an adventure, but also make sure you can find your own way home.