In which we battle maggots, seek to save donkeys who do not wish to be saved, dodge mercenaries, work on another novel, talk to the ducks, get bitten in bed, delve into German mythology, and talk to the ducks a bit more.
Click here for an excuse
Diarist – muggins
Jeannette – muggins’ helpmeet
Ampa – a very greedy Labrador with a penchant for escaping and a tendency to attack when first encountering other dogs
Alud – a very soppy Pyrenean Mountain Dog with a chronic leg problem
Merlin – a very mongrelly mongrel, formerly a punk with dyed pink hair
Paul and Marusja – owners of the farm
Bin Laden – a billy goat
Anaïs, Ocean, Alice - donkeys
Other assorted livestock
In the run up to our departure, Paul is most insistent, repeating in every e-mail phrases like . . .
24th September: "Il y a en ce moment très peu de travail avec les animeaux".
30th September: "Il y a vraiment peu de travail avec les animaux en ce moment... et tu pouras t'adonner vraiment à l'écriture, pas comme en mai dernier".
Arrived last night. Paul and Marusja are in good form. The doves, slightly less so. They've been eaten by the rats. Rats aside, the menagerie currently consists of eight goats, five sheep, fifteen geese, nineteen ducks, several budgies (I seem to remember some ringing statements about budgies and their habit of bolting along the lines of "That's finished, never again. . . ."), the dog, the cat, a pen full of chickens and guinea fowl, and of course three donkeys.
As it happens, the donkeys were nearly only two. The flies have been particularly aggressive this year, laying their eggs in any tiny wound, after which the maggots proliferate at an astonishing rate, spreading all over the afflicted animal and killing it in short measure. An infection of maggots can kill a cow in twenty-four hours and a donkey in forty-eight. Paul and Marusja lost a nanny goat and two kids to the maggots, their neighbours lost a cow, and several people in the area lost dogs. In each case, the victim looks fine in the morning, but come evening is a mass of pulsating maggots. Anaïs (one of the donkeys) was infected, but they caught it just in time and were able to drain the maggots from her flesh. The general crisis has apparently passed with the onset of autumn and the fresher mornings. Mind you, within five seconds of arriving yesterday, we had about ninety flies all over our car.
The menagerie has also been reduced to the tune of four pigeons - we ate them last night. This is turning into a tradition.
I had been planning on settling into the recently renovated bergerie for writing, but sadly that is not to be. The bergerie was renovated without a permit, so is illegal and, if legalized, taxable. The local authorities are due to come round inspecting rights-of-way, which means walking through the courtyard, so the bergerie must remain shuttered and locked up, just in case they catch sight of the additional ratable space.
Giving the donkeys their evening bread last night, I noticed a slight wound on one of Ocean's legs. Alerted Marusja and sure enough it was dodgy and needed treating - to wit, I hung onto Ocean's neck while Marusja sprayed the wound with blue disinfectant (the can of which Ocean absolutely mustn't see or she flees). Donkeys have big necks. I have small muscles. Managed all right, though.
Nonetheless, it's a bit alarming. After yesterday's cold snap, the sun is back and with it about ten thousand flies, most of them congregating in our house (not in Paul and Marusja’s - too dirty perhaps?). Jeannette keeps beating the walls down with her shoe trying to kill them all (killed about fifty this morning, but there are still just as many) and has installed a sugar water trap to which they are perfectly indifferent. She has also locked about two hundred flies in the toilet and doesn't want them to escape, so we are currently toiletless. This afternoon, we are going to buy fly paper, fly spray, fly poison . . . . anything that claims to be detrimental to the general well-being of flies.
This morning, took the dogs for a walk on my own. Ampa's got some sort of parasite and has had the shits for the last two days. Feeling a bit sorry for himself, but resolutely refuses to eat the charcoal we're trying to feed him, no matter how cunningly disguised it is. Alud, meanwhile, is quite partial to it and is on good form, not limping excessively, despite having chased a hare down the road for five hundred yards last night. Loads of hunters out. I had to stop every 200 yards on the way back because yet another 4X4 was barreling along the road. And at the crossroads, there was a military lorry directing manoeuvres. Doesn't seem like the brightest idea, crawling about in the undergrowth in camouflaged clothing at the height of the hunting season. According to Paul they are government employed mercenaries who do their training here before going abroad ‘on mission’.
In sum then, we're menaced by maggots and the men from the ministry, we've got mercenaries in the woods, hunters on the highways, and a sick dog. Ah, yes, and the white geese were looking a bit peaky this morning. Apparently they are a lot older than the greys.
Ninety minutes later: fifty more flies killed, two hundred more in situ.
Three hours later and we've come back with enough pesticides to make Monsanto look like a bunch of amateurs. The massacre is dreadful. Flies are falling by the bucket load. Just as well. Ocean appears to have another small wound that we are going to treat tonight. For some reason, the spray is bright blue, presumably so you know where you've treated the animal previously. As a result, we have a Spotty Donkey dotted with bright blue patches like a psychedelic logo.
Ocean got blotched last night, though it was slightly fraught, me hanging onto the neck of a bouncing donkey desperately feeding her bread in an effort to keep her still, Jeannette endeavouring to get in close enough to spray the thing . . . along the lines of:
- "Go on, then, spray her!"
- "She's moving".
- "I know she's bloody moving, I'm hanging onto the other end of her, just do it".
Ocean doesn't seem to bear grudges though. This AM she was out there waiting, braying for her morning bread.
Watched the England/France rugby match last night and consequently a little late to bed. Jeannette slept in this morning while I did the animals. It's true, there is relatively little to be done at this time of year, so long as we don't have to go pursuing too many maggots down a donkey's leg. Jeannette a bit dispirited yesterday, thinking here we go again, more problems, flies and maggots this time; but her spirits improved after we walked to the nearby dolmen.
Overheard a radio report, something about the French authorities declaring the risk of bird flu so low now that restrictions on public display and so forth can be lifted. So that's all right. Paul and Marusja were right to ignore it all in the first place and just carry on as usual!
Having scrubbed the table with bleach and boiling water to get rid of the faintly greasy scurf coating the surface, I have installed my writing apparatus in Paul and Marusja’s kitchen. Keeping my back to the squalor and the door wide open, it's actually not too bad as a writing place. Merlin lies at my feet, the budgies are off to my right, scrabbling about the cage, and the ducks are patrolling up and down in front of the door having the occasional crap, like a flock of literary critics.
Back in the small house, we have installed so many flypapers and poisons and small nuclear devices, we are virtually fly free. This maybe a solution for the donkeys, too. String dozen flypapers about their flanks and there'd be no more maggots. If anybody questioned the festoons, we could just say it's carnival.
The donkeys sure know their solar clock. A little late back from the walk last night, the sun almost setting, and the donkeys were braying like buggery demanding their evening bread. At the same time, down in the village, the bell for vespers was ringing.
Ocean needs more bluing, but otherwise there are no very apparent problems brewing. The only irritation apart from the hunters, who are very irritating, essentially rendering most of the more remote tracks out of bounds, is that there's a renegade duck and several chickens that refuse to be shut up for the night, preferring to roost in the first instance on the roof of his peers' hut, in the second in the shrubs in the chicken pen. Individualist ducks and chickens. Not a commonplace phenomenon, but Paul and Marusja have them.
Working on my novel and I find that, as with WOBB, I am again breaking all the rules. I've got an idea, want to express something, I don't trouble myself staging it, dramatizing the idea, which is what you're meant to do: I just say it. Will it work again?
The donkeys have sussed what a laggardly duo we are. Last night, we got back from our walk at sunset and they weren't even waiting for their bread, let alone braying. Ocean has decided she doesn't want anymore blue blotches. Gets very tetchy when we try to spray her. Stamped on my foot last night and seems inclined to give me a kick in the teeth if I get too near her hind quarters - so she'll just have to deal with the flies as best she can.
The ducks meanwhile are not only individualist but very determined, refusing point blank to be kept out of the garden. I keep devising new duck-grates to keep them out which they duly inspect, looking appropriately perplexed, then when I get back, they're all over the fence again and standing defiantly at the far end of the garden. Don't think they can fly, but can't work out how they're doing it. They also want to sleep in the foodstore. Wonder why?
Each afternoon I have a siesta from which I am woken by a wonderful odour, the burning lavender Jeannette uses to light the evening fire.
Glad to note I am at least more determined than a duck. When I entered the foodstore last night for the donkeys' bread, the ducks decamped of their own accord. T-Rex, the Duck General, as old as Methelusah and as big as a turkey, has a slight wound on his neck. At least, if required, he will be easier to catch and treat, since his waddle is slow even for a waddle and he cannot kick.
Ocean remains affectionate when I’m round her front end, but definitely doesn’t like me round her back end. Hah! Women, I ask you. She doesn’t actually kick, but sort of shows her hooves at me to remind me that she can.
Rained last night, quite heavily, but by mid-morning blue skies are back. Just as well, don't want another mud bath, and my trousers are already dalmationed with the imprint of muddy goat hooves. Everybody gets bread at present and all treat it differently: among the geese, it is an angry feeding frenzy; the hens peck around the bread then head back to the grain; the ducks don't seem to have a clue what's going on and regard it as less than manna from heaven, rather more a dodgy and somewhat untrustworthy projectile dropping from the skies that is best avoided until contact with the ground has reduced it to something more reassuringly bread-like; the donkeys pucker up their lips and sort of inhale it out of your fingers, quite delicately; but the goats, who are also hand fed, seem to want to stand on your knee and nibble delicately and slowly at choice morsels, and not all of the morsels qualify as choice - hence the dalmationing where they stood against my leg, all eight of them, inspecting the offering and deciding which slice suited them.
Master of the universe! I got all the ducks inside last night, including the individualist. Mind you, Ocean still wants to kick me in the teeth. Started jumping up and down, see-saw like, when I persisted with my Master of the Universe act (subdivision Donkeys).
Still waiting for disaster (or a donkey) to strike, but life is remarkably uneventful so far. Longish walk today, 14 kilometres along the cliff tops overlooking the river, then back via the woods. Bit hair raising with the dogs along the cliffs. Merlin seemed strongly inclined to plunge over the edge to fetch the tractors two hundred metres below.
Something is in our bed - and it bites! We think it maybe a spider, though Jeannette fears it's fleas. Anyway, all bedding out in the sun today and the bed frame drenched with disinfectant. Hopefully, the sun will be as hot as it was yesterday when we were toiling up the cliff face, though it must be said, Autumn's turning nippy now, colder than we had anticipated. We even had a light frost last night.
Master of the Universe act over - the duck was being individual again last night. Still, if that's the sum total of our problems. This diary is looking decidedly flat, which is doubtless a good sign. Perhaps a less good sign is the very vivid dream I had last night about an author writing a novel with his own excrement (not quite clear concerning the logic and practicalities of this, but it was all perfectly coherent in the dream), carefully honing it into a very finely crafted novel, but nonetheless a novel made of crap. Not sure that augurs well for my own work in progress.
Possibly spoke too soon about 'nothing happening'. To the market this afternoon, met Mme. Good Neighbour who reports finding a viper curled in the footwell of the driver's seat in her car, the work, she insists, of Bad Neighbours, the Delaroches (they of the deer's leg in the letter box and so forth). Hey-ho.
Jeannette is firmly persuaded (is she ever persuaded otherwise?!) that whatever has been biting her in bed is fleas, in which case placing the mattresses for a couple of hours in a very moderately warm sun isn't going to do a lot of good. Why, though, apart from one or two occasions, have I not been bitten? Perhaps Jeannette isn't drinking enough. They take one whiff of me and think "Phooeey! Roll over! Do 'er instead".
Viper watch - we lock the van door tonight.
Ice on the water in the donkey's basin this morning, so breaking the stale bread that has been soaking overnight for the poultry was a decidedly unpleasant experience. OK for a couple of weeks, but a couple of months of it and you'd have arthritis pronto.
No vipers (so far as I'm aware) and, more significantly, nothing biting in the bed last night (except for too much beer and wine after watching the final of the rugby world cup), so perhaps it was just a spider.
The donkeys are inordinately fond of absinthe - the plant that is, not the liquor. We are due at Ben’s this afternoon to watch Fritz Lang's silent and, I fear, probably very long version of the Siegfried saga. The two events are not connected, but munching on a few clumps of absinthe might be more desirable. It would at least be over quicker.
Jeez. Siegfried. If ever a man was born to be hanged. Riding through the woods, he spots a dragon -in the distance mind- peaceably drinking from a pool of water. What does he do? Leaps off his horse, dashes through the woods, miles out of his way, for the sole purpose of killing this perfectly blameless creature. No damsels, no maidens, no nothing. And when the maidens do roll up, they resemble blokes in drag, with a couple of long tresses hanging from the ears, as if that's enough to suggest the feminine principle, whereas in fact it expressed nothing so much as an Hassidic Jew who had been out in the sun too much. As for Brunhild, the wild virgin of the north, Iceland is welcome to her. The film had its moments in terms of design and mythic power, but was all a bit wearisome. We stuck it out till Siegfried got done in, appropriately enough innocently drinking from a woodland pool, but that took two hours and we couldn't cope with waiting about for his Hasidic Drag Bride to wreak her revenge. And to think, Wagner spent his entire life playing about with this stuff. Little wonder he looks so costive in the photos.
Siegfried aside, the local Master of the Universe got all the ducks inside again last night. Didn't chance my arm with Ocean, though. According to Marusja, now that we've had a frost, the flies and ticks are no longer a problem. Flies don't seem to have been informed of this yet. A milder night last night and they're back in droves.
Another fine fourteen kilometre walk, coombs rather than cliffs this time, very varied, and a lovely riverside stretch. Surprised during the picnic that Alud was chewing a piece of wood quite so enthusiastically until I realized the 'piece of wood' was actually the hind leg of a dead goat, still connected to the desiccated carcass we'd chosen to picnic beside. Little wonder Ampa, attached to another tree, had been watching with rapt attention, more than might be explained by jealousy over a simple bit of wood. Thereafter, ordered to leave the leg and other associated relics alone, Alud kept taking extraordinarily roundabout routes, nonchalantly strolling off in the other direction, in an attempt to work her way back to the leg on the sly: "I'll just wander over here, casual like. He'll never notice . . ."
The duck is become decidedly meek. Sad, isn't it, to be defining yourself by one's capacity for controlling a duck. But the longer you spend with animals, the larger they loom in your life. That said, I've often thought here that I could understand how people become brutalized through raising animals. The damn things are always after you for food. As soon as I let them out in the morning, the ducks are trailing me until they get their grain, the geese race at me in half-flight like a squadron of bombers every time I pass, the donkeys bray at the merest sight of me; add the mud and the cold mornings and the freezing fingers as you prepare the beasts' breakfasts, and they can end up seeming like an ungrateful burden and nothing more, worthy of a good kicking. Mind you, I guess children can get like that, too. At least you don't get any of the backchat and accusations with animals.
Jeannette visits the Good Neighbours and is regaled with yet more anecdotes of the Bad Neighbours and their nefarious ways, nicking ducks, making off with errant lambs and so forth. The litany goes on so long, she only escapes thanks to the opportune arrival of someone wanting to buy a chicken. Theft, intimidation, attempted murder . . . That's what I like about the countryside - it's all so innocent.
More about birds and so forth. The most disturbing part of the daily round is that you start having little ritual monologues with the farm animals . . .
- Right, ducks out. No, I said out, that's in.
- Come on, off home with you, you lot.
Boing! Time for bed.
And when I get back, Jeannette asks in all seriousness, "Everybody in bed?".
"Not yet," I reply. "They didn't seem ready. A bit busy still".
Then there's the guinea fowl, which, it must be said, no matter how engaging they maybe, are not, even by the standards of birds bound for the dinner plate, the brightest of God’s creatures. In fact, they're downright dim. And I'm talking to them! It never seems to occur to them that sunset is bedtime (Boing!). Instead, they cluster in the far corner of the pen behind the 'pond' (three parts shit to one part water, allow to settle). "Now, come on, you lot. Stop messing about. Off to bed. Boing!" They don't always understand, though. Sometimes they do, sometimes they cluck their way down the rubble and round to the cabin, but most often I have to venture onto the slick wall of the pond so as not to trap them (all hell breaks loose then as they try to climb the wall) and herd them out of the corner, a precarious progress at the best of times (I was nearly in the pond two days ago - that would have shifted them). And woe betide the herding if a bird gets stuck on the wrong side of an open door. They're really flummoxed then. The panic is total.
Despite daily showers and a handwashing habit that would make Lady Macbeth look mucky, we are so accustomed to dirt being everywhere that when I sat down last night, Jeannette said, "You've got a black spot in your ear". I tried to clear it, but it wouldn't go. "Oh, no, it’s all right," she said, "it's just the hole".
Ampa remembers something of his French. When I'm out with all three dogs, he responds to the "Ici!" and "Assis" commands I give Merlin. Mind you, sometimes he gets a bit confused. I'll be telling Merlin ici and suddenly find Ampa has sat down.
Phew! Paul and Marusja are back and, the menace of maggots (maggot-struck is the technical term according to John Fowles' journal) and men from the ministry notwithstanding, we seem to have got through our stay without killing anything, or having to kill anything, or having anything killed, or having to have anything killed, or having had anything killed. True, Anaïs the donkey has a weepy eye, we've half a suspicion there's a fox lurking about the neighbourhood, and one of the pigeons got locked up with the chickens last night and emerged a little the worse for wear, staggering about, unable to use one leg and looking a tad ruffled about the wings, but otherwise the visit has been trauma free.
Boing! Time for bed.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace