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The offer of a priest was made should my friend want to make a 'last' confession

A friend of mine who once had a tendency towards reclusiveness has found himself living a life he couldn't have imagined just three short years ago.

From a relatively solitary existence in Scotland, he has become a known, respected and loved inhabitant of his tiny village, which doesn't extend much beyond a main terraced street.

Initially, by being charming to everyone in his then hesitant French, he skilfully avoided taking sides in an acrimonious two-family feud and quietly slipped in and out of the village. Then he faithfully attended every soiree and fete in the salle but never pushed himself upon the tight-knit family groupings.

At first the French, being naturally suspicious of all outsiders, semi-glared at him, then progressed to nods and finally to handshakes and kisses. The village matriarch took a shine to him and he was frequently summoned for teeth-stripping coffee and wreathed in her cigarette smoke.

Returning from the odd visit home, he brought back tins of shortbread, kitsch tea-towels and royal family souvenirs which were placed in prime positions in her cluttered rooms. Observing her fondness for excessive displays of multicoloured plastic flowers he added to her collection every so often.

As his French improved he became the repository of confidences and village lore extending back centuries, even becoming a friend of the local witch, whom everybody avoided. Tittle-tattle energised this man, who once went days content in his own company, reading or writing to a background of classical music.

When he found himself on the street bench watching the sun go down on a summer's night with his deserted and heartbroken neighbour he knew he had moved up yet another tier in his acceptance into the community.

Over the weeks that followed he listened and sympathised as the man described his search for his children day after day. And when the wife was found and returned, he simply wished them well to get on with life, never reminding the husband of the vicious words and actions of the previous weeks.

Soon he began to be invited to the children's birthday teas – always champagne and cake for the adults – and delighted in learning the slang of the younger man and his friends.

Much to his own astonishment, this often cynical man admitted to being deeply touched by his assimilation into the family and indeed the wider community.

"It is clear," he told me, "that they genuinely care for me as I do them. We're so very different in every possible way and yet I find myself involved in their troubles and joys.

"When they're distressed I find myself distressed on their behalf. Their happiness is my happiness. For me it is quite extraordinary to be part of all this and actually rather wonderful."

A few weeks ago he was diagnosed with an extremely serious, though operable, condition. His neighbour swung into action, checking out his surgeon, his hospital and in giving him the lowdown on all the after-care to which he'd be entitled.

As he waited for the op, his friend kept a watchful eye on him morning and night, dropping in for early and late coffees. He put his mobile number on speed dial, stating the phone would be with him day and night if my friend felt worried or indeed worsened.

The offer of a priest was made should he want to make a "last" confession just in case. An atheist from a long line of Presbyterian ministers, my friend declined that particular kindness.

On the morning of the operation he even somehow managed to speak by phone to the patient to wish him well and to let him know the village all joined in the sentiment.

He also said that if he survived he would of course be spending the Reveillon – Hogmanay – with the family next door.

My friend is recovering well and receives a nightly call from his neighbour, even if it only lasts a minute or two.

As an expert on Scottish history, churning out articles and books, my friend remains proud of his roots and fiercely articulate against any attack on the country. He still watches the Scottish news on satellite television, reads the morning papers online and follows the independence argument.

He has, not unnaturally, gravitated to fellow Scots in the area, two of whom come from his own hometown, and loves nothing more than reminiscing about hill walks or local worthies.

Yet from the day of his arrival here, done like me on a whim rather than the expected dream, he has never looked back. Never had one single day of doubt over his decision.

He loves his house with all its foibles; his far-reaching views over tumbling-down chateaux far into the Gers; and spends hours on his terrace, dispensing wine and oozing contentment.

Barring totally unforeseen circumstances, he says he will never return to Scotland and will see out his life here and be buried here.

Scotland, in the shape of old, good friends, can come to him instead, he says, and sit and share his good fortune as well as his wine.

How marvellous to have found and recognised one's place. He is truly "bien dans sa peau".

cookfidelma@hotmail.com

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Families

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