The November mists have descended upon the Small Country, just as they did this time last year, cloaking the countryside in ethereal ghostliness. The car headlights snake their way through the gloom on our morning drive up the hill through the trees to the main road for Joe Brown to face the white-knuckle ride to work on the bendy bus so I can have the ridiculously fast car for the day. Sometimes the strength of the sun is sufficient to burn the mist off by mid-morning and a couple of weeks ago, on a perfectly clear day and a perfectly clear, straight German autobahn with its lack of speed limit, I tried testing just how ridiculously fast it is. I think the car laughed in my face when I got sweaty hands and lost my nerve but I certainly drove faster than I ever have before.
It’s over a year since I arrived here and much has happened and much has not. Progress with learning French is, I feel, timorous due to my seeming lack of ability for concentrated study outside my one-to-one lessons and I’m being a rather timorous beastie about joining in with the two social groups I’m a fully paid-up member of. I know not why. As is apparent, I have blogged little.
I would have thought I’d have had much to say about our trip to New York at the end of June to which we travelled first class but I did not. I said nothing of the wonders of turning left as you step on a plane rather than turning right and there was no mention of the amount of walking we did in a city that seriously doesn’t sleep, any more than we slept in the hideous summer heat in a sweltering hotel room. The only shoes I found comfortable were a pair of pink flip flops. We sweated our way round the usual tourist spots, putting our hands on the names of people who were felled, on the spot where they were felled. We ran our hands along bannisters in a building which was the first building thousands of people came to from far, far away decades ago to start a new life in a new country. We sheltered from lashing rain which cooled the city for an hour or so, by which time my feet had turned cheap flip flop pink. I took a multitude of mostly crap pictures, Joe Brown’s were better.
The three cows were taken away from the field out the back of the house some time after we returned but, it must be said, the farmer was astonishingly gentle about it, leaving the open trailer in the field for a week and daily trying to coax them in with food rather than forcing the issue. We missed their puffs and wheezes as we sat in the late summer evening sun on the terrace after they’d gone.
Having, in the past, dug out pernicious weeds in an area the size of the whole garden here at the Tangerine House, as well as doing the same at the allotment I had in Blighty, even I couldn’t believe how much hand-wringing and bitching I did when digging relatively small flowerbeds here but, in my defence, I’ve never come across such shite, heavy-clay soil. I fear for the survival of some of the plants given that they’re facing a Small Country hard winter in waterlogged soil that will undoubtedly freeze solid. I started walking past the enormous pile of manure at the end of the village and staring at it wontonly.
Joe Brown has blatantly said in the past that he would have difficulty being in the house with my sisters and I for any length of time – the phrase used was “a cauldron of women” – so, during his fortnight stint of business trips at the end of September, Sister Two came to stay for a long weekend, bringing her impossibly neatly-packed bag, flips flops that don’t dye her feet, shorts and perpetually lightly-tanned legs. A fellow gardener, she poked a fork in the rock solid, as then un-dug and sunbaked lawn, and laughed at my misfortune. This tells you something about Sister Two. Her casual enquiry as to what temperature I wash the bedlinen tells you something else about her and the fevered manner in which I cleaned the house before she arrived probably says something about me too. We drank cremant in the unseasonally hot garden – she in her shorts and me with lily-white legs covered – and watched the birds of prey hanging in the air high above the tree line beyond. We mused on manure and my reticence at speaking with the gentle farmer, fearing inability to make myself understood. We drove in to the city, something that took me ages to conquer the fear of doing – this from a woman who, years ago, would drive in to London in a car whose ability to make it to the end of the road was highly questionable. We walked down to the old part, which is a World Heritage site, ambling along winding valley paths lined with narrow houses and, surprisingly, vegetable gardens. Tiny lizards scuttled near our feet on the ancient walls. We had lunch at Le Fromagerie, a shop that Joe Brown and I came across a while ago, the smell of which hits you as the doors slide open. As we slid in to our seats, I leaned forward and told Sister Two she was in for a treat and indeed, she was. We lunched on glasses of red wine and platters of breads and different cheeses, slicing slivers from each others plates and comparing favourites. I think we were at our table for well over an hour before winding our way past the Royal Palace and across the busy city square which, a month or so later, heralded its own royal wedding, stopping at a cafe which serves coffee at its best. Sister Two simply nodded at the first sip of her double espresso. No more words were needed. As we drove home, we cruised round the village and spotted the gentle farmer.
He had no manure at that time but explained in a mixture of French and, surprisingly, English, that his neighbouring farmer did have and the pile I’d been coveting was, in fact, horse manure.
“C’est mieux, non?” he said as I explained why I needed it. Indeed, yes, horse manure would be better than cow for heavy clay soil.
“Ah, oui” he continued, adding that he’d seen me in the village and that I was “a strong soul”, a phrase I think is the local equivalent of “a sturdy girl”, a phrase bandied around our family for some years, the reason for which is Sister One’s daughter, as a robust toddler in her pushchair, was deemed by a Bahamian to be “a sturdy girl”.
Sister Two and I drank more cremant chez moi that evening whilst we made an enormous fish pie and planned a river trip the following day but regrettably the scheduled sail was cancelled and Sister Two was flying home later that day. On the way to the airport, she pointed to our right and observed “stick-on cows” in the field across the way. She’s quite right – a herd of cows in the distance look like they’ve been stuck-on the landscape, cows close up do not. Have a look next time you see a field of cows in the distance and you too will now point and say “stick-on cows” I’ll be bound. I shocked myself by getting a bit weepy at the airport as I waved goodbye and came home to an empty house, with an impeccably made spare bed and leftover fish pie I picked at later.
A week or so later, after many wanders round the village which takes all of five minutes, I finally found someone in the farmyard at the end of the village and stated my desire for “le fumier”, apologising for my poor French. The wizen-faced man I spoke to pointed me in the direction of another man who I approached, picking my way across the muddy yard.
I pretty much skipped up the road towards the Tangerine House some while later, partly because I was on a promise of a pile of manure being delivered over the fence the following day but also because, as the wizen-faced man wandered across the yard towards our conversation, he gestured towards another man who apparently spoke some English and the farmer I was speaking to replied:
“Ce n’est pas nécessaire, c’est bien”. My French was seemingly sufficient.
Joe Brown returned home as the sun lost its heat and, with it, our joie de vivre seemed to dissipate. We both became lethargic and a tad dull, not helped by the shocking news that a work colleague of his is possibly facing not being around to witness his eight and ten year-old sons’ voices breaking. This outrage of life happens, I know, but it seems particularly cruel to happen to an infinitely kind, gentle giant of a man who looks capable of ripping out fully-grown trees with his bare hands.
A week later, Joe Browns’ father called to let us know that Mrs Brown would imminently be going in to hospital.
“Private health care” she announced to me on the phone at the weekend. “I refused to let him cancel my health care when he retired” she added. Wise lady, Mrs Brown.
She had surgery on Monday and during an update phone call yesterday, Mr Brown recounted how a nurse explained that his wife had given her a seriously hard time earlier that day on the grounds of rudeness. Apparently, the nurse had, in an endeavour to reassure Mrs Brown how pleased they were with her progress, she’d told her she was doing really well “for a woman your age” and got severely reprimanded for her impertinence. She’s had major surgery. She’s in intensive care. She’s eighty-three. She’s a sturdy girl.
Also? There’s someone else living with us as of a month or so ago.
He’s Belgian and, obviously, a redhead. Le Belge Roux.