Surface Shoots & Sucker Roots, for Claire Chatelet

From the life of Claire Chatelet

By Naida Redgrave

‘I’m warning you, I jump from subject to subject. I’ve got a form of dyslexia. I’ll take you somewhere, then I’ll loop back and forth. The problem is, I find it very difficult to find salient points. I view everything as equally interesting and important.’

Claire sits, her long hair draping a frame across to her poised shoulders. She leans in with a laugh, gentle but hearty. The sunlight on the other side of the window bounces from the demountables along Cody Dock, to the water, to the table inside the River Princess boat, catching her hands with a glisten as they occasionally move with her words.

I’d say most of the time my life feels like I’ve been reincarnated in treacle.’

She mimics wading with her arms. Claire’s humour is dry and electric; her stories a meandering tapestry of pain and joy, weaving into meaning. The image of her persevering through thick viscous surroundings, pushing through a sweetness that is at times sickly, fits her perfectly.

She is spiritual but not religious. A former partner introduced her to some teachings from India.  ‘I worked a lot with death, so my story is heavy.’

Claire worked as a nurse during the height of the epidemic, when there was no medication and no hope to offer patients.

‘At the time I was so strongly rooted in these impermanent things… like you just die. The belief in reincarnation was very new to me. If I hadn’t have had that spiritual opening, I would have been in a mental hospital.’

Her delivery is ambiguous enough that she could be joking, but just as easily not. Her mind appears to organise a balance amongst an unbalanced world. She does not over or understate. She makes deep eye contact, solemnly stating that she does not lie because she can’t — it goes against her beliefs.

Her French accent clings to the rhythm of her lilting voice and her hands speak with it. ‘I came to England in ’74, to Cambridge University.’ She pauses, a smile spreads upwards from her mouth to her eyes.  She leans in — ‘as a cleaner’ — and laughs.

Information is sprinkled like seeds in soil — her mind a garden, as she wanders from plot to plot, watering the memories alive.

‘People saw I was French and they thought I would be the Parisian glam girl. I was anything but.’

She grew up on a small farm, one of five siblings. As a young child, the land was self-sufficient. They kept a few cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits and chickens, and grew most of what they ate. In the early years, before mechanisation, the family kept a horse for farm labour. Later, her father would be the first in the village to procure a small tractor.

‘I’m the middle child. I’m so in the middle that there’s a girl that end and a girl that end, six or seven years difference, then they each have a brother a year in-between, and then there’s two years difference between me and the brothers.’ She smiles mischievously. ‘I’m so much in the middle, it’s what gives me independence.’

As a youth she would get forgotten by her her parents, who would lump her with either the youngest or eldest two siblings. When the children would get split into age groups for activities, she’d always find herself left with the younger ones when the activity was deemed too old, or the older ones when the activity was too young.

‘What saved me was being a rebel. I remember standing and saying to my parents, you’ve got to decide if I’m small or big, because I never get to go anywhere.’ At seven years old, the workings of a justice seeker were already brewing.  

The village of Béreyziat, where she’s from, is small and largely agricultural. ‘The mayor of my village is married to an African woman, and yet the village votes far right.’ She says this with a half-laugh of exasperation. Claire speaks with a fondness of it, as if teasing an old friend. It’s a ridiculous mentality, she explains.

‘I was not born quite in the village but it’s where I grew up until I was eighteen. Even though I went to secondary school elsewhere I was really, really attached to that place.’

Later, reflecting on belonging and home, she sits back, drawing in a deep sigh. ‘I always felt at odds, wherever I was.’ The village is one of the only two places she’s ever felt attached.

‘The name itself is weird for France because of the spelling.’ She tells of a Basque word, spelled exactly the same, that means special.

Her relationship with the other place she has felt attached, Bethnal Green, has shifted in recent times. ‘It was where I did belong but I feel I’m ousted. I call it inner gentrification.’

After developing her estate’s community garden for some years, she is no longer able to garden there. She put in 40 hour weeks during a summer draught, to make sure the plants all survived.

‘Do you know how a cherry tree grows? Well some trees, the way they try to survive in the forest, they’ll have sucker shoots and other trees will pop up along the root. So you’ll have deep roots and you’ll have surface roots. And eventually those trees will die but some of the surface roots will survive.’

She has spent the majority of her life in Tower Hamlets, around the Bethnal Green area.

‘First in Lucas Hall, at the Royal London, which was an old fashioned nursing home when nursing was still very rigid, with uniforms and so on. From then I moved into shared accommodation with other people I knew, some musicians.’

When that building was demolished to make way for a park, Claire was able to access a council flat.

‘I lived there from ’81 to ’97. 16 years. During the first years, I never felt totally connected to it. It was a place I was renting. It’s only when my daughter was born in ’89 that I felt I had a sense of belonging.’

That building was also demolished, and she moved to her fourth and current accommodation in the Borough, the garden of which is out of bounds.

‘I finally felt at home, and now I feel pushed out. With the garden, I felt like I was putting the green back in Bethnal Green. I really felt I was bringing my childhood environment, and I would be able to feed all those seeds and plant, and now that’s not happening.’

The affect of this loss is apparent, not only in her words but through the pain in her eyes. Coincidentally, her parents farm is in the process of being sold.

When she speaks of her parents, her demeanour shifts. She takes longer pauses, breaths more drawn, as if calmly savouring a feeling that cannot be spoken.

‘When I was ten years old, life changed because mechanisation entered our lives in a big way. All the farmers’ livelihoods started to die, and the common market brought in more rules for production. It was a very confusing time for those who had been totally self-sufficient.’

Compulsory education was introduced and the self-sufficiency that she’d always known became slowly replaced with the pressures of material goods and keeping up with the Jones’.

‘We were looked down on as peasants. We grew up with no toilets at all, we had to go in the horse shed.’ She allows this last sentence time to linger, her posture unflinching, her arms leaning out onto the table, like sucker shoots reaching out an offering into her past.

Her younger brother was tasked with taking over the farm, so the remaining siblings had to fend for themselves. It was the 70s, and her classmates were immersing themselves in American literature and playing The Beatles — markers of the generation that felt lost on her. She preferred French music, where she could fully understand the lyrics being sang.

I didn’t want to go. I’d written essays at school that my ambition was to marry a farmer and be a social worker. But I felt I had to do something, everyone else was talking about going on the road.’ She left France for Germany, then England.  

‘I was the only one who did it. Two years later everybody was settled back at home and married, and I was the one stuck in England.’ The light catches the humour in her eyes.

After leaving the village and spending a short time in Germany, she and some others made their way to the UK to become Au Pairs. Instead, she found herself working at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, eventually waitressing its prestigious High Table. One day, serving one of the Masters of the College, she was invited to clean some ancient texts in the Medieval Library. ‘I didn’t realise at the time that he had a reputation as a womaniser. It’s only later I realised he was trying to bed me. But there were a lot of things I was oblivious to.’

She wears a gratefulness that reads as relief. She doesn’t elaborate, but there’s a sense that there were many close calls and near misses that she appreciates more greatly now than she would have realised in her twenties.

Walking the grounds of the University, suddenly immersed in an almost Dickensian world of fog laden buildings and gentleman in their gowns, just like the books she read as a child, it was a world away from the rural France of her childhood.

‘Being French, they thought I came with my culture. Not agriculture.’ Her laughter is inviting, her train of thought weaves freely and joyously through memories igniting behind her eyes.

She stayed in Cambridge after meeting an undergraduate Law student, and when he got a teaching job at the University of Kent, they moved together. ‘I know the academic life from the inside. There’s something very stuffy in the academic world.’

She laughs, telling of swearing to never go out with someone from another culture, after the experience of dating an Englishman.

‘On one of the misunderstandings with my English boyfriend, I had cooked Brussel sprouts the way my mother cooked them in France – you boil them a lot and you make them Gratin with cheese and white sauce and it’s really gooey and yummy. For him, I hadn’t put the cross behind them. And he just focused on that.”

After Kent, Claire decided to study nursing, choosing London as a halfway point between Kent and Cambridge, where she’d made a network of friends. The move, intended to be for three years, became three decades.

‘I always wanted to be a nurse, interestingly enough. When I was a child, people asked, what do you want to do when you’re older? And it was a nun, a nurse or a ballet dancer.’  Her sharp laughter breaks into earnestness. She describes a French dancer, at the pinnacle of her career, who gave everything up to become a nun. ‘As a child I couldn’t say why they connected, I just knew they did.’

During nursing school, she was considered a mature student amongst a mixture of eighteen and nineteen year olds. ‘You had some Eastenders, you had a big part who were middle class, who were doing nursing whilst they were waiting to be married.’ She scoffs playfully. ‘They came into it to find a doctor to marry.’

Amongst the cohort were immigrant recruits from the West Indies and Philippines, who assumed that being French, she was middle class.

‘My experience was, I had much more in common with first generation immigrants. I had this instant’ — she clicks her fingers, eyes widened and eyebrows raised — ‘and they recognised it as well. We had this unseen understanding… I don’t know what it is. It would be interesting to know why…how we recognised each other.’

During nursing training she experienced many layers of prejudice, both personally and through observation. ‘We had three tutors, one was a West Indian lady. Before she would arrive, the other tutor would say, oh you’re about to get the sunburnt lady.’

During a placement she was given a bad report that could’ve risked her career, but was overturned by the Matron on the following placement who recognised her abilities. The person who had given her the bad report was struck off after six months for sexual coercion with the younger students.  ‘Perhaps he sensed it wouldn’t work with me. I was a danger to his dominance of the group. Maybe it’s a pattern in my life, I seem to attract it. It’s weird because if people have integrity, people seem to be against them.’

When her training was complete, she asked to be placed in the Sexual Health department, reasoning that it was at least a place where nobody died. Then the AIDS epidemic hit.

‘The coin flipped  overnight. The department where nobody died, it was suddenly the department where everyone was dying. If I start talking about the AIDs epidemic, I enter thousands and thousands of life stories. I made the calculation once if you take an average of ten people per day over four days, and ten months a year over ten years, that’s how many people I’ve interviewed about their sexual history and about HIV at a time when there was no medication and no hope. In order to survive I had to reconcile.’

Counselling didn’t exist in nursing at that point, and there was nothing in place to support the nurses during the epidemic.

‘When you’re in the caring role, and people look to the carers, where do the carers get their support?’

At a later stage of the epidemic, when a Zimbabwean friend worked alongside her at a Hackney HIV clinic, they were instructed to destroy unused medication, instead of returning it to the pharmacy as had previously been procedure.

‘I was sat next to her, and we had to destroy drugs that we knew back home for her would be lifesaving.’

She reaches her hands out, palms down on the table, her fingers curved like surface roots, inside carrying the memories of the seven year old rebel, and the twenty-year-old unswayed by the intimidation of Cambridge, and the nurse who’d conducted around sixteen thousand interviews with desperate patients in a time before there was a cure, and she shoots out with a smile and a shrug:

‘I took some and gave it to her in a bag. I’d say most of the time my life felt like I’ve been reincarnated in treacle. And then there’s these moments of complete miracles.’

She says this, waving her hand and surrendering these miracles to the unexplained, perhaps not fully realising her part in planting seeds in various stages of her life, nurturing the survival from which miracles have been born.

The root system of a cherry tree serves two critical functions; it collects water and nutrients from the soil, directing them upwards to feed the leaves and fruit of the tree; then it holds firmly into the ground to support the trunk.

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