French Village Doctor Part One

Jacques Lepoutre had planned carefully. As he drove on the quiet road three kilometres out of the village into rough garrigue country, he mused dreamily. The midnight-blue Renault “Onze” hummed along the narrow road flanked by plane trees and fields of crinkly vines in the direction of Verhan, a mediaeval village of 300 people in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France. It was November – the colours of the vines were rape yellow, wine red and flaming orange. It was mild but the sky was heavy and grey. Jacques always liked autumn after the work of the “vendanges”, when the huge light-blue-grey Braud machines shook the grapes off the vines. He had often sweated over vines out this way where he had two parcels of land. He was heading to one of them now. 

Jacques’s wife and two daughters were asleep in the back. He smiled at their peacefulness. Usually, they would be all excited noise and bickering. 

The track off the road was dusty and potholed, but the solid suspension of the old car cushioned the bumps. He came to the chosen spot in dark shade under a fig tree. It was a little surprising to him how relaxed he felt. The drugs he had taken were strong prescription tranquillisers and he had timed the arrival to coincide with their taking effect. His wife and daughters slept on in their own drug-induced comas, having taken the sleeping potions before setting off.

He quickly doused the car with petrol all over and inside, watching languidly for a moment the liquid soak into his youngest daughter’s pink tracksuit. He clambered back inside the car and sat vaguely appreciating some pale light through the gauze of grey over the craggy rocks on the hilltop. He locked the doors and swallowed the rest of the drugs acquired for his chronic depression. 

Before his next irrevocable move there was an instant of clarity as if he experienced normality for the first time in many years – all was calm, there were no crazy voices in his head, no agony; there was even some sunlight in a future, but he had decided on a course of action and there was no going back. Blackness buried him again. One last look at the vines, one glance back at his family, one click of his “briquet” and there was a crackling conflagration that caused the full gas tank to explode in seconds. 

Vintners in the fields and people in several villages around said later they heard the “whoomp” like a jet breaking the sound barrier. It broke in on the usual rustic cacophony of crickets, cicadas and barking hunting dogs, but everyone took it for the frequent thunder that rolled around the hills at this time of year.

Louis Lottisse, a doctor in the tiny town of Roseanne, was out for his routine pre-breakfast jog. He noted a burst of light in the distance not unlike a flash of autumn colour among the vines, but thought nothing of it as he concentrated on his run.  

It had been a bad morning. His wife had rushed off without making his  breakfast as usual – a slice of fresh melon, Grand`mere Dégustation Pur Arabica and a tartine – so he had to spend 15 minutes doing it himself. The melon bit was more usually eaten before dinner, soaked with the sweet Muscat that is typical in the south of France, but Lottisse had developed a taste for it with petit déjeuner after one of his Brit patients had told him of his own morning melon habit. Lottisse persuaded himself if it was good enough for the “Breeteesh” it was surely good enough for him. It turned out to be a bonne idée.

Then he couldn’t find his favourite jeans. In the Midi, unsophisticated in the heat, it was all right for doctors to dress down, and it was so much more comfortable. Anyway, Lottisse had been Down Under, to Nouvelle Zélande actually, and had been impressed by the casual ways, the business people in shorts and dress socks. 

Louis wondered what else would happen this morning to interfere with his routines before his day’s patients.

About the same time as Louis was musing over his melon, an old vintner was cycling from his nearby home to his “terrain”. He had nearly fallen off his bike when he saw the black shell of the Renault and peeped in on its charred occupants. He had no cellphone, never having the need to call home while concentrating on tending his vines, so he cycled all the way in to Roseanne to tell the gendarmes. They did not leap into action even though the old “type du coin”, or village character had muttered something about bodies. They were used to over-dramatisations by locals and knew that “doucement, doucement” – softly, softly – was the best modus operandi. Anyway, car burnings were commonplace in France, some 30,000 cars a year being set alight. They said they’d take a look, probably after lunch. The old winemaker bade them farewell, not bothering to give a further description of the car and its contents, knowing wisely it was useless to try to persuade the immovable. He had done his duty. He cycled slowly back to his vines.

Louis had a visceral dislike for la vie ordinaire, although he knew he would always return to his village, to a vie très ordinaire. The trick for Louis was making it interesting within the quotidien constraints of humdrum Roseanne, the town of his birth and childhood. Perhaps this deep need for something more socially pizzazzy than the village could offer was the reason he had developed a uniquely perverse style of relating to patients and a carefree adoption of the general and cavalier French way of over-prescribing – it all amounted to a bit of fun really, and he was helping the local pharmacy.

He had a premonition it was going to be one of those days, one of those surgeries, as he hastened across the courtyard of his inherited mansion – his father had been a big vineyard owner – to his waiting patients and he could sense there would be a foreigner or two, their little French stretching his broken English. He usually just joked his way around it all, unworried about the possibilities of terrible misunderstandings leading to bizarre diagnoses and possible unfortunate mistreatments – not really a problem for Lottisse because he had perfected the way of many French doctors by dishing out gargantuan prescriptions – at least the case in the early 1990s. This neatly covered the triple hazards of having to relate too much, having to find out more about their foreign maladies and in many cases conducting it all in English. Why they came and lived here with such abysmal language problems was beyond him. Vraiment, in truth, he occasionally felt sorry for them having to learn to live in a new place and get by on their school French. It hadn’t occurred to him that they were as happy as vintners in vats because it was so much better than home, as  they were living la vie douce with the sunshine, the fresh market food and the high-quality local wine. One thing Louis liked about les étrangers was that they were a change from the usual villagers and their ailments such as the ends of fingers lopped off by electric secateurs or sickness caused by the chemical spraying of the vines.

The rest of the morning no-one else passed the Renault, so no-one else bothered to look inside. No-one reported anything to the police. It was nearly lunchtime, nothing much happening, so the sergeant and his sidekick locked up early and headed for their respective homes, shouting farewells and see you back about two o’clock, and remember we’ve got to go and investigate a burned-out car. Yes, probably young fellows from the town 12 kilometres away, or the city 25 kilometres distant. 

“’Y a toujours quelquechose, ouais?” said the sidekick.

“Oh, oui, c’est comme ça. Tout à l’heure! Bon appetit!” replied the sergeant.

Lottisse was a hands-off doctor. Some old doctors would say power to him so long as he could tell just by looking as some of the old practitioners could. In his favour though, he was all right with blood, at least insofaras he could easily look at it in all its shapes and forms, gushing forth or setting solid. Some doctors can’t stand the sight of blood, not auspicious in their line of work. Lottisse’s thing was he didn’t like touching people, something of a drawback for a person whose job is connected with the laying on of hands, so to speak. A patient would come in with an itchy bum (Lottisse knew it as “pruritus ani”), and he would write out a prescription for several items without so much as a look at the condition. Another patient would complain of lumps in his neck, not the hurting kind, just hard things on the outside like cysts; Lottisse would look at the offending bumps aloofly from a metre away and brusquely declare nothing at all to worry about, saying,

“Here’s a line for some ointment and some pills. Oh, and by the way, I suspect they’re mosquito bites you’ve scratched and made septic.”


Lottisse definitely did not like touching. Mayhap he was a product of the modern school of medical training which relied on looking rather than getting the hands “dirty”. The old physicians did a lot of touching and feeling, comparing signals from the fingertips with a template in their mind of what was normal. They could recognise maladies by touch through long feeling-touching experience and generating telling wisdom. Feeling and touching, not “feely-touchy”.

There were patients who swore by Lottisse … a few swore at him, too! His supporters mentioned in glowing terms how he would rush to their bedsides in their homes and treat them with great kindness. There would seem to be a change of behaviour if travel was involved; maybe there was something delusional in Lottisse’s mind to do with those who came to him being undeserving, probably hypochondriachal; those who called him for help at a distance were regarded as being in total need of his speedy and undivided attention. Those able to make the trip were deemed to be not so needy. Then there were his patients who loved him for his cherished advice on drinking plenty of wine. Not everyone liked it, of course. He had a British wowser who tried to tell him his advice was commercial self-interest because he was recommending serious quantities of wine, such as a litre a day is fine. 

“A bottle a day keeps me away!” Lottisse would say. 

“Yeh, well away!” the wowser would say rather unkindly. 

But Lottisse waved him aside saying the Brit was probably from one of these places that had no fun in life, that was fearful of immoderation and told people that a mere couple of glasses a day was the wise amount. Lottisse himself thought nothing of a couple of bottles. Two or three glasses at lunchtime, then any amount over a long dinner. That’s more like it, that’s living, “C’est la vie! Bonne santé! A la votre!” Lottisse would say to all and sundry. Doctors, probably not so different to all serious professionals, tended to nurture and cherish a sense of importance originating from their being clever lads at school, then getting a specialised knowledge over many years, then acquiring or receiving a status accorded by others, especially in a small community. In truth, they deserved every bit of the reverence, anything to compensate for the tedium of treating coughs, colds, chicken pox and the clap. Lottisse was no exception in enjoying the respect accorded to his profession, carrying his vocation’s status label to eccentric if not ridiculous lengths. 

Gavin, a Kiwi, had lived over 20 years in the area. He had been Gav back home, but rather liked being called “Gaveng” in the strong Languedoc accent. He had visited Dr Lottisse many times – and had been visited by him, of course! – for various health problems ranging from the trivial to the serious. In fact, he owed his life to Lottisse, not just once but twice! The trivial complaints had involved ear-ache and a skin condition. Lottisse had looked inside his ear but simply prescribed soothing cream for the latter malady. Gavin had more serious problems to do with his work and his lifestyle. He travelled a lot, socialised a lot, imbibed litres of the local reds and certainly smoked too much. So when his heart starting to race and one night he began sweating, Lottisse raced to his bedside Later, he was very grateful that the doctor had kindly done the driving to the city hospital over 30 minutes away. He didn’t have a bad word to say about him, the best doctor he’d ever met he declared often to all who cared to listen. 

This was confirmed for Gavin when Lottisse made sure he received the best treatment available for his prostate cancer. He was also aware of the fact that the French medical health system, in general, is very attentive to the early identification and treatment of this form of cancer. He flagged away all comments and stories about Lottisse’s bizarre behaviour when he recounted to people the following little tale.

Gavin had gone to the surgery one day with an ingrown toenail, something that was causing him such severe pain he could hardly walk. He limped into Lottisse’s room and Lottisse told him the foot would have to be amputated. When he saw the look on Gavin’s face, he had burst out laughing. He prescribed pain killers and bandages and cream – there was no need to look at the offending toe, of course. Mick Jagger singing “Sympathy for the Devil” was clearly audible from  the waiting room. Gavin said he loved the Stones and had seen them in concert several times. Louis said he was crazy about all British rock music and asked his patient if he’d like to see his collection of LPs, lovingly gathered over 25 years. Gavin said that would be very nice, thinking sometime in the future. No, the doctor meant right there and then – it didn’t matter that people were waiting for his services. It was not to be missed, a Rock’n’Roll moment! Anyway, the other patients would be enjoying the great music, too, because he could pipe it to the waiting room. Louis said a good dose of music from the Stones was therapeutic for sick people waiting, quite calming he had noticed, taking their minds off their ailments. Louis and Gavin crossed the courtyard and went into his huge ivy-mantled house. Gavin was admitted to his special room full of Rock’n’Roll memorabilia. Within minutes they were both rocking and rolling to the thunderous beat of “Street Fightin’ Man”, Gavin’s limping condition miraculously forgotten by both doctor and patient. Later, Gavin wondered if the next patient would have noticed that Lottisse was sweating profusely on his return.