Certainty lives in Grolejac

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Tour de France visited my village this year. This is not an English village but one in the Dordogne, which I feel entitled to call 'mine' because I have had a house there for 23 years. Some of its 550 inhabitants are my friends; about half know me or my children by sight. It has taught them (the children: now adults) French, and improved mine. They know me in the post office as a sender of foreign letters and someone who brings in mushrooms to be told whether they're edible. I think I can reasonably call Grolejac 'my' village: they probably call me 'their' Englishwoman.

On the leg from Bergerac to Cahors, a gruelling ride of 110 miles under a broiling sun, the cyclists rode east from Les Eyzies (centre of prehistoric research), through Sarlat (a 15th-century market town that now attracts a million tourists a year) and then turned sharply south at Carsac, after which they passed through Grolejac. At this point the video recording of the race showed an aerial view, as 128 competitors streamed over the ugly new concrete bridge across the Dordogne, to enter the village beside the Hotel du Pont.

I persuaded the obliging people in Channel 4's press office to lend me their film coverage for the whole of that leg - not, I had to admit, because I wanted to see the Tour de France, but because I wanted to wallow nostalgically in that familiar stretch of road, especially the one that runs from Grolejac to Gourdon.

On Sunday, after a family lunch, we all sat and watched it. 'Look] There's the field with the geese]' 'Coming up soon . . . the general store . . . yes]' 'And in a minute the turning down to Peyrignac, and the house you always wanted to buy . . . there it is] Want-It House]' It was brilliant, except for the madly pedalling figures that kept obscuring our view.

Afterwards I rang my friend and neighbour, Mme Cassan, at home in France. We exchanged pleasantries, agreed that the weather was epouvantable, and then I asked, 'Did you watch the Tour de France go through the village?'

'No,' she said. 'Robert was there, but I couldn't be bothered. I watched it on television.'

I PASSED a man lying in the sun at the side of the road on Monday: this is the Cromwell Road in west London, with six busy lanes of traffic and many pedestrians. He was white, sportily dressed, in his thirties. His head was pillowed on a black rucksack, or it might have been a briefcase. His legs were drawn up stiffly but apart from that he looked fairly comfortable. He was motionless, as though fast asleep. No one seemed to be concerning themselves with his plight.

Had this been Rwanda, he would have been dead, one among tens, hundreds of thousands. No issue of conscience for me there.

Had this been France, specifically Grolejac, I would have stopped to see if anything was wrong, and so would half a dozen others.

Had it been turning-out time in a big city he might have been drunk, or drugged, at any rate a potential threat, and whatever had happened to him might reasonably be assumed to have been self-induced. In an ideal world you stop to help every ailing stranger, but one could be forgiven for passing on and not sparing him another thought.

As it happened, I was hurrying to an embassy reception at the time, dressed rather grandly, as one does on such occasions, in a silk dress and high-heeled shoes. The man didn't look dirty or smelly. He looked hot and he was getting hotter, lying there in the sun in this unaccustomed London heatwave.

People skirted him oblivious, or glanced at him, barely checking their stride. Two young men - north Africans, at a guess - paused beside him and I thought in my cowardly way, oh good] They're going to deal with the problem. But they had simply paused to emphasise their conversation. They chatted and gesticulated above his head, and then moved on, jabbing the air.

A young mother passed with her daughter, aged about eight or nine. The child peered curiously at the man lying on the pavement, then trailed after her mother. Ten yards on she stopped and turned round and stared at him again. Then she hurried away.

At this moment the lights changed and I, in my taxi, sped on, so all this must have happened in less than two minutes.

What should I have done, in the circumstances? Oh, it's frightfully easy to say, you ought to have found out what was the matter, of course, and called an ambulance, and waited until it arrived, and rung the hospital to check up afterwards on how he was, and supposing he'd had a heart attack you should have visited him, or reassured his relatives that he couldn't have been there for long . . . frightfully easy. But in my, or let us suppose, your best silk dress, late for a posh reception, are you sure that's what you would have done?

And since I did nothing, and you might have done nothing, and all the other passers-by did nothing, does that make us all Bad Samaritans? Or is it the risk and pace of city life? I ask in all humility, being unsure of the answers myself. If I were in Grolejac I would know.