There we were, working at our desks as usual, when our peaceful concentration was shattered by the harsh ringing of the telephone. If there is such a thing as smalltalkaphobia then Jack has a bad case of it. This means that he normally avoids answering an incoming call in the same way one might an infectious disease carrier. However, on this occasion, my luck was in. After taking one look at my face that was still rigid with concentration, he evidently decided that I was involved in yet another software battle, and reached for the receiver himself. That was his first mistake.
Although it was not immediately evident, it transpired that the caller was Martine Dussan, one of our farmer friends. She and her husband, Claude, are amongst the kindest and most generous people we have ever met. Martine is a typical farmer’s wife. Always dressed in dark clothes, with pockets stuffed full of interesting bits of binder twine, bolt-shaped bulges and the occasional chicken egg. She also wears steel-capped boots, presumably to guard against the hazard of a rogue tractor tyre rolling over her foot.
But she has one particular mannerism that sets her apart from the others. It’s always the same, and quite persistent. Every now and again, for no apparent reason, she will issue a noise that is similar to the sound made when taking a mouthful of red-hot coffee, or being stood on by a beefy heifer cow. A kind of uooooff sound. The first time we heard it we thought something awful had happened to her, but since she looked perfectly normal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d made a strange noise, we let it go. We’re quite used to it now.
As usual, the conversation that followed was in French, so I’ll give you a translation of events:
Jack picked up the telephone.
Martine: “Yes, Jack?”
Jack: “Erm, yes, and…”
Martine: “I have them uooooff!”
Jack: “Right, got it. Good morning Martine, what do you have?”
Martine: “It’s MARTINE DUSSAN, Jack, your neighbour uooooff and now I have them!”
Jack: “Yes. I recognised your voice Martine. But what is it that you have?”
Martine: “I have your chickens of course!”
This caught my attention. I looked over at Jack who was staring at me accusingly. I rapidly shook my head fearing that I was about to be implicated in a clandestine chicken order that I knew nothing about. The haphazard conversation continued.
Martine: “Yes the chickens! Claude told me you needed them. I am at your gate this minute uooooff. Can I come in with them please?”
Jack: (wondering why she hadn’t come to the door): “Oh I’m terribly sorry Martine I had no idea that you are actually here. Yes, of course. I’ll come out and open the gate for you.”
Martine: “Good, thank you.”
Jack, now looking at me even more suspiciously, said he’d go and fetch Martine and invite her in for a coffee. I readily agreed, thinking that a conversation over a cappuccino and a biscuit might help us get to the bottom of this strange chicken mystery.
Within a couple of minutes Jack was back with our blustering neighbour, dressed as normal, with the exception of an additional tell-tale feather or two embedded in her jumper, and a couple more sticking out of her hair. But no chickens.
Me: “Hello Martine, what a lovely surprise. Gosh, we had no idea that you might be bringing some chickens. Sit down and have a coffee.”
Martine: “Ah, yes please uooooff, a very quick one would be nice. Claude told me that you would like these birds, they are very big and lay enormous eggs.”
I had a moment to mull over this last remark while I was brewing our drinks. It struck a tiny chord. I had the faintest of recollections that I might have heard about it before, but I couldn’t for the life of me think when it might have been.
Me: “Well that sounds excellent. Here’s your coffee. Careful, it’s a bit hot.”
Martine took the mug and began blowing energetically. This caused small waves to appear on the surface of the drink, and sounded extraordinary when combined with her other sound effects.
Martine: “Ah yes, thank you uooooff, UOOOOFF – it is hot isn’t it?”
Jack: “As you may have deduced from the feathers darling, the chickens are in Martine’s van. So, Martine, how many birds have you brought?”
Martine: “About nine, I think. You can have as many as you want uooooff and I’ll give the rest to my mother. She probably needs some new ones.”
Me: “Honestly this is so kind of you, we must give you some money for them.”
Martine looked absolutely horrified at my vulgar suggestion. Then, whilst checking her watch, replied:
Martine: “Ah no no – absolutely not! They are a present. And look I am late. Now I must go. Can we take the chickens to your pen?”
We decided it would be easier if Jack walked through the field and opened the gates, whilst Martine and I followed in the van. Hers was a typical French farmer’s van. White (or it used to be), probably dirtier inside than out, rather smelly, and covered in dents. This one was made additionally colourful by the presence of several very indignant-looking chickens.
We parked outside the pen and Martine threw open the rear doors, grabbed one of the large plastic crates and lobbed it in amongst our flock. She opened the lid and unceremoniously started grabbing birds, turning them upside down, and chucking them in the general direction of the existing flock. Jack leant in to help and made his second mistake. As he gently drew one of the ladies out of the crate head-side-up, his careful handling was rewarded by an extremely loud squawk from the bird followed by a drizzle of fetid fluid that carelessly made its way down his jumper. That could only have come from one place. I now saw the sense of Martine’s upside-down technique. Not only did the bird immediately become calm, but she also avoided being squirted with an unwanted avian deposit.
During the unpacking process a fifth chicken popped up and made a rapid escape to the far corner of the cage. Thinking that this was probably a chicken too many, I commented:
Me: “Oh dear, we’ve got five out now. Is that too many Martine? We can always catch one up again (whilst really thinking: no, we probably wouldn’t stand an earthly chance of catching any of them.) if you need more for your mother.”
Martine: “No, that’s no problem uooooff; they are a present for her too. She only needs a few.” She then stopped, peered into the crate and exclaimed. “Aha!”
Jack: “What’s wrong?”
Martine: “Very good! Look! One of them laid an egg on the way here. It is very big, just like I said.”
With that she thrust the warm egg in Jack’s hand, packed up the crate and flung it back into her car. But I was still intrigued, and determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Me: “Just tell me again Martine, when it was that Claude told us he was going to give us some chickens? I know this sounds terribly rude, but I honestly can’t remember.”
Martine: “Uooooff well I think it was four or five years ago, perhaps more. But the ones we had before were too old. We had to wait for them to breed first because we wanted you to have young birds.”
So that was it. I do vaguely remember Claude declaring something about us needing bigger chickens to join our hybrids, and that he would sort it all out. But, to be honest, that was indeed a very long time ago. It was also said during a period when our lives were rife with day-to-day builder disasters, so a short chat about chicken sizes could easily have got lost in the general chaos, and translation.
Our strange conversation with Martine also reminded me how our life in this rural area ebbs and flows with the seasons. This means that a simple matter of dates and times has reduced significance. That said, promises made here are rarely broken, but the actual execution of the pledge may not occur exactly when one might imagine. This causes unexpected moments of great pleasure, and surprise, when a gift (that one might reasonably assume had been long forgotten) turns up unannounced. Today’s event was another perfect example.
Martine took a moment to check the now happily foraging birds, and prepared to resume her morning of chicken deliveries. After the customary frenzy of hugs and kisses, she strode off purposefully, tinkling across some loose gravel, and looking like a sparkler on legs as her hobnails struck the stones. She got in her van, gave a final hearty wave, and a noisier than usual uooooff as she connected with the accelerator. The remaining chickens bounced around in the back as she sped off to her mother’s house.
Waving goodbye, Jack said, with a broad smile on his face, “Well, that solves the chicken riddle. Typical of our farmer friends, they’re every bit as good as their word – eventually. And there’s another bonus, I’ve now got an extra-big egg for my tea.”