We have a very small community here at Auge and even smaller our side of the road, as the motorway cut the village in two. Our side kept the cows and the other side kept the church.
Winding down a small lane between the pastures you come across a huge couple of barns belonging to our local farmer, housing hay bales, machinery, numerous tractors with all manner of dangerous looking implements for cutting, ploughing and hay turning and another very smart baling machine than makes the popular round hay bales, not like the huge golden Weetabix square ones like we used to have. In the heat of June after a few weeks of little rain, the grass is cut, turned, laid in strips and then swept up and rolled in this tiny one man machine. A few metres along and a neat rolled hay bale is ejected held together by three layers of baling mesh.
The cows sense the impending sweet hay like kids ascending on McDonalds and they congregate at the hedge of field sniffing and mooing “get a move –on”, we are bored with chewing the cud. In a couple of weeks Christian will deposit a huge 400 kilo round in the cows metal feeding rack and they will slurp on it like spaghetti and some will even climb on it to get to the sweeter inner section. There will be pushing and shoving, hierarchy statuses to be upheld, and queues formed. Little ones will sleep in the toppled piles and there will be a contented buzz of happiness in the fields.
The guard dogs – a group of cream and brown hounds, bay in unison, a every increasingly loud crescendo that only make me believe that is why cats think dogs are stupid. They aren’t chasing anything, no-one has appeared and it’s not dinner-time, but they bark away in their monotonous drone until somewhere their dog brain realises that was pointless. The big tabby cat slinks past looking superior and plonks herself in the middle of the road to show what freedom is like.
Her hunting ground is huge and has no competition. She has barns full of mice and trees full of sparrows to chastise. But she doesn’t tackle the rats by the chicken coop. The rats have a home in the trunk of an old apple tree. Their mission to steal chicken eggs and take them up into my neighbour’s loft. I am not sure he knows but when we moved in we found a very dried up rat in our loft, likely poisoned and layers and layers of eggs neatly stacked into the loft insulation, a larder for later. The eggs had rotted, exploded and stank to high heaven, a nasty job that made Tony paranoid about hidden roof spaces and getting access. To his horror, all the wood, stained and rat smelling I wanted to keep. It was good wood and with my promise to sterilize and clean it all, we lugged it all out into the sunshine to air. A month later with copious gallons of bleach and a scrubbing brush I cleaned it all. With sanding and a thick layer of creamy bees wax, they were reinstalled to make our bathroom wall, and all traces of rat are gone.
But the baby rats play in the tree roots and swing about the twigs that keep the chickens from escaping, acrobatics and summersaults to show off. The chickens seem oblivious and peck away at their seed, fending off the marauding sparrows with a kick. One chicken has discovered she can escape. Clipped wings haven’t instilled in her the risks and she persists in squeezing through gaps or hurling herself over the wire fence to ferret amongst the wild weeds for grubs and flies, whilst my neighbour, unsteady on his feet as he gets older, and his wife and the two of us poke about the undergrowth to find her. But can you spot a big red chicken in the green grass? No of course you can’t, she has vanished like every escaping chicken would do. From clumsy plump chicken ball to stealthy ninja, she sneaks away. But she comes back. The big pile of morning corn and a place to roost at night is too much temptation and she manifests back, a little wiser from her adventure and keener than ever to make her next escape.
My neighbours [M et M R] house is hidden by trees and we only know he is there by the sound of the motor mower cutting grass in summer and his wife calling the cat in her shrill cat calling voice very evening. The well mouse-fed cat heads home to sleep on his owner’s sofa and be spoiled. Madam R hates the sun and will only stay outdoors and chat in short bursts. Monsieur R has a very strong accent. I do not understand anything he says except “Ca-va?” He has problems with his ankles and it must be tiring not being able to walk very well. He wants a new wheel barrow with two wheels like ours as the traditional one wheel one must be a nightmare to balance. The chicken seed bags are delivered weekly and are very heavy. I think we will have to get him a barrow.
Our homes are all on one road, with our property laid out in three parts. A garden as you enter the village, then Madame Routons home, the R opposite our barn next, then Christians field and then our Petite Maison and workshop and our garden and forest area. Beyond that running out of the village are the framing sprawl of Christian’s barns, silo and home. He invested last year in a modern stretched fabric hay tunnel. Cost him a fortune, but gives him a dry place to store hay, which is an investment and in winter the tractors. His day is routine and his year seasonal.
In the mornings, the same ritual occurs. We have our cup of tea and Tony a strong wake-up black coffee at eight. At eight thirty sharp Christian goes past on his tractor, lugging the water tanks to fill up at the river for the cows. Munching grass is dry thirsty work. He always waves and we wave back. Half and hour later he drives back and then it’s a day in the tractor maintaining the land, cutting hay, baling, cutting hedges, mowing grass, moving cows, feeding and watering cows.
At nine we have likely had breakfast, scrambled eggs on toast, and busying ourselves donning old clothes to get on with building works. A motley collection of cut down jeans, shrunken t-shirts, a hat that makes me look like a North Korean worker (except I am happy), and boots – metal toe-capped ones for the heavy work, leather flats for all the other jobs.
Then at 9.30am on the dot, after the small van has delivered a couple of French stick loaves and the newspaper to the old lady next door to us, she appears. In her eighties and a little bent over, with one loaf and the paper, she trundles across the road towards my chicken owning neighbours. The little rusted gate is always stuck, but Madame Routon knows just how to get that latch open. The amazing strength in old ladies fingers gains her entry and the morning gossip commences. Sometimes they talk across the gate unless it is very sunny. I do not understand French yet, but they are animated with puffs and hand waving and tones of sarcasm and behind hand lowered voices comments. In fifteen minutes Madam Routon trundles back. When it’s hot she wears a hat, when it’s cold a double layer of cardigans.
On Fridays the charcouterie van arrives, a jolly guy who chats with madam Routon and gives us weather reports. We buy eggs and a very dry pork sausage – sec. Sometimes Christian stops his tractor to chat. I wish I knew what they were saying, but we nod and throw in the odd comment as if we get the drift.
Christian’s mobile rings, and he is shouting. The tractor is noisy and he always shouts on the phone to be heard, but he also shouts when he isn’t in the tractor. A phone habit that I find amusing as he often talks to his accountant [my profession] and it’s probably to make him sound busy to avoid a long and likely expensive phone call.
Madam Routon has a vegetable garden like we have started to build. Hers is traditional earth with a grass strip down the middle for the washing line. Ours is a modern raised bed ornamental garden, gravel paths and tidy. But our tomatoes are doing extremely well. We have flowers, Madam Routon doesn’t. I feel under huge pressure to impress. Us English townies in the country do know about growing vegetables, but the pressure is on. Daily I tied mine to my home made sticks cut from the brooms we chopped down. They are too short, so now I am sticking in bamboo canes, but the toms are still growing. Madam Routons are not growing so well, but here sticks are tough and holding well. I think it will be neck and neck in July for the first fruit. I sneak little looks through her hedge to see all her garden, bursting with herbs, potatoes [mine are growing too fast and have fallen over], carrots, lettuce, haricot beans and cabbages.
When we set up the garden Christian was keen to extract our planting list and haricot beans were greeted with huge enthusiasm. The lack of salad was disappointing, but early days. He plonked a huge pile of year old manure in our garden with strict instructions on how much to dig in and how every other year we add lime. The garden had been used for vegetables by Madam Routons family many years ago, the soil was good and the 360 degree sunshine perfect. In other words there was no way we would not be able to turn out fabulous crops. Mmm just watch me. I have only grown potatoes in buckets once and some rocket that grew out of control, but I am going to make sure these tomatoes win first prize.
We have hacked all the brambles down and pruned out some old trees. The oaks now they have more air are thriving, and Madame Routon now has a view across the fields. Two white picket fences later and all the grassy bank mowed and the wild flowers thriving, she is very pleased. Old ladies can move quickly. Sometimes I am wrapped up in thoughts, mowing away with my trusty hand mower, when she appears and makes me jump. She talks about the weather, why we must wear hats and that we work hard and “Bon courage”. Then she is gone again.
We have no idea how she waters the garden, as she only has a tiny watering can, but we think secretly she has a huge sophisticated underground watering system and the little can is just for show. The little can goes into the garden, and a flick of a switch and an hour later the watering is done, and she appears again with the little can. I am sweating back and forth with our cans as our hose will not work.
But today it’s wet, and the veg is happy. Two weeks with no rain and I was dredging every bucket we had in the garden – left to collect rain. We now have two huge 1000 litre containers fed from the garage rooves and a 500 litre fed from the workshop roof. In winter we will install two more 1000 litre ones as the rain if free and we would be mad not to collect it.
We put wire over the top of the water butts as the birds fall in whilst learning to fly. Two little lightly feathered babies still with their little yellow wide mouths toppled in last week. This week we added wire mesh and a lid. With a 50% mortality rate when they leave the nest I was not going to be a contributor.
Mole is doing his best to dig up our new gravel. The rain has made him very busy and Tony is trying to catch him. We stand like zombies watching for the heave in the soil, a glimpse of a little pink nose. But nothing, he has dug all the tunnels long before we even got out of bed and now he is snoozing after a feast of worms. A neighbour I do not want and we have plans.