My husband, Jack caught me off guard recently when he loftily announced that he was going ‘native’ and do what our French neighbours do. Slightly alarmed, I asked what he meant. Much to my relief he declared that, after several consecutive nights of disturbed sleep, mainly due to the antics of various animals, he was attracted by the notion of a southern-European siesta after lunch. I thought this was a great idea, and thoroughly well deserved. Unfortunately though, neither the dogs, the telephone-marketers or our post lady seem to have appreciated the importance of these much anticipated forty winks.
Between the hours of 1.00pm – 2.00pm (peak siesta time), we regularly receive calls from enthusiastic sales people. Similar to their British counterparts, the business success of these tenacious callers relies on their ability to persuade a complete stranger to buy their goods. To them it is a matter of supreme irrelevance whether or not the recipient actually wants or needs the product. They have a sales target to fulfil, so the ‘talking the customer to death’ technique is used until success is achieved, or the phone slammed down. Either way, it can definitely spoil a decent nap.
Jack steadfastly refuses to answer the telephone, and treats it with utter disdain when it rings. He blames his phobic refusal to pick up the receiver on the sales people, but I suspect it’s just his method of avoiding having to speak to anyone other than the me. His defence against the intrusion of unwanted callers has been the installation of an answer machine. This deters the marketers because they never leave a message, but we still have to endure the irritating six rings before it connects, in order to establish whether it is friend or foe. Jack can just about manage to tolerate this, but it still does nothing for his nap-aspiration. The next problem comes in the form of our dogs and the post lady.
Our post lady knows that we’re normally in the house at lunchtime, and uses this period to visit us when a parcel either needs to be signed for, or is too big to be squashed up, re-moulded and stuffed into our tiny letter box. Unfortunately her visits turn out to be rather a noisy affair. It takes just one crunch on the gravel drive to alert the dogs. They suddenly erupt in a cacophony of barks and fall over themselves, and also anything else that lies on their routes to the front door. Even the most dedicated napper can’t avoid being roused by this. So poor Jack is jolted awake, bleary-eyed and with a menacing facial tic developing, he begins roaring from a standing start. We’re all used to it now, even our lovely post lady, who no doubt can hear him from halfway down the drive. In the absence of any other English clients, I fear she thinks this is normal behaviour for English people about to receive a parcel. But she takes it all in very good humour.
A further occasional fly in the ointment can come in the form of Max, one of our Australian Shepherd dogs. Jack likes to drink a glass of milk with his meal, and will often take the half-drunk tumbler into the salon. He’ll place it on the coffee table next to his seat and settle down for ‘the’ snooze. Max will kick around nonchalantly in the kitchen until he hears the first sotto voce snore. This is his signal. Every now and again, with the skill of a ninja, he’ll slink in on tip toes, head for the glass and start demolishing the remaining contents. But unfortunately for him he is a noisy lapper, and soon gets caught out. Jack, lightly showered with droplets of milk, is alerted by the slurping sounds. Quick as a flash he’ll jump up and lunge at Max, shouting unspeakable oaths in the process. But he’s always too slow. Max, looking mortally wounded, darts off back to the kitchen to find a toy, no doubt to offer in exchange for the last dregs of liquid nectar. In the face of these combined challenges, I fear that Jack’s siesta ambitions are never going to get off first base.
Having cleared up after our meal, and dealt with the aftermath of any impromptu visitors, it’s time for the dog walk. The dogs are extremely focused about this, and take a very dim view of anything that conspires to get in the way. The first job is to decide on our route. We are extraordinarily lucky to live amongst hundreds of hectares of fruit orchards so our choices are rich. The farmers readily give their permission to walk on their land, although they do find the idea of dog-walking as a pleasurable pastime, a little quaint to say the least.
I’ll try to spend a couple of hours rambling in the woods, by the river or around one of the lakes that pepper the orchards and vineyards. The dogs gallop around with gay abandon, and go out of their way to take advantage of any water they come across. It matters not whether it is smelly or clean, they love a good wallow or better still, a game of retrieve-the-floaty-thing from the murky depths.
Our walks are never uneventful and this in part is due to Max, who is accident prone. This is to such an extent that, rather embarrassingly, his antics have caused our dog-owner friends to declare him to be maladroit (clumsy). Jack, on the other hand, uses plainer language, "That dog’s got sawdust for brains." Max will invariably end up stuck in a bush, wedged down a hole or hurl himself with gay abandon towards an impenetrable hazard. Being a master of the ‘leap before you look’ school of jumping, this usually ends in mortified failure and much yelping. Aby’s progress is much more refined, except on those occasions when a wild animal is spotted. The two of them then come together like a couple of velociraptors and, given half the chance, they’d hunt their prey into a corner. However, if they were allowed succeed, I’m certain that Aby would invite the poor creature back home for tea, while Max would try to find a toy for them to play with. But, so far, we’ve managed to avoid dealing with a confrontation of that nature. All too soon our walk has come to an end and it’s time to see to the birds.
We’ve raised hundreds of game birds to release into the enclosed section of our woods. Sadly, several have fallen prey to natural predators, but we've managed to maintain a group who will hopefully breed freely in the future. Each day after lunch, Jack will saddle-up his quad bike and drive off into the forest to do his rounds. This involves filling food mangers, water dispensers and perfecting his skills at unarmed combat with our free-ranging geese. Hector, the gander, is quite a fearsome chap, and lightning quick with his beak which he uses to great effect on any passing human. On many occasions I have seen Jack wandering around with Hector (who is very large) stuck under his arm, giving him a lecture on courteous behaviour towards the lunch provider. Jack has yet to learn that stroking an animal’s tummy is never going to prove a deterrent in the pecking order process and, whilst I’m sure Hector understands every single word of the stern lecture, it’s never going to moderate his testosterone-fuelled attack instincts.
My job is to look after the parent birds. These are strong, healthy animals whose job it is to breed and produce future generations to go and populate our woods. We have eight aviaries with a mix of quail, chickens, tourterelles, and various types of pheasants. The quail come first and are an uncommonly perky lot. Very small, quite rotund, and well camouflaged, I have to tread carefully in order to avoid flattening one by accident. As soon as I walk in they immediately clamber all over my boots in their endeavours to get into the food bucket. This is impossible because they are appallingly bad at flying – and climbing. Quite how they ever managed to evolve as birds is a mystery. They eat a vast amount of food for such small animals, but in return they offer plentiful gifts. The ladies are prolific egg producers. They seem to ping out one a day, each with a different pattern, every one beautiful in its own way. I will gather them up carefully, and end up looking like the Pied Piper of Hamelin with a procession of ‘shorties’ following me around, inspecting each egg with great interest. Reluctantly I leave my little mates and start on the pheasant pens.
Reeves cock pheasants are particularly beautiful animals, but have the reputation of being extremely territorial. Mostly they’re fine, but we have one male who has axe-murdering tendencies, and a scurrilous approach to fair play. We call him ‘The Vulture’. His routine is to stalk me as I fill the containers, chirruping dangerously like an outboard motor. Then, the moment I turn my back, he’ll strike! These birds can jump to my head height and have very long spurs on the back of their legs which they use to attack their combatant – in this case me. I tried several soothing tactics to stop this unwanted behaviour, but if anything, the nicer I was, the worse he became. I tolerated him for ages but, after the third near miss, and a rip in my jacket, I’d had enough and decided to call in the heavies.
I put a collar and lead on Max and we entered the pen together. It was instantly clear that my brilliant guard dog plan wasn’t going to work. Max, petrified of the hissing whistling bird, tried to run away. In his endeavours he wound his lead around my legs and ended up in a knot behind my knees. The Vulture now had me at a severe disadvantage. Using a panic-based distraction technique, I started to bellow at the bird whilst simultaneously untangling myself from the lead. This caused him momentary confusion so Max and I took our chance and made a run for it.
The scene in that pen was one of utter chaos as Max and I galloped the full length with The Vulture thundering along in hot pursuit, looking like a manic Roadrunner, preparing to strike. I flung open the door but, in our enthusiasm to make a quick exit, we got wedged in the gateway – and froze. The Vulture was right on our heels. As he flapped into the air we just managed to squeeze out in time and I slammed the gate shut. The Vulture, now at point blank range, impacted at full throttle against the wire netting. Momentarily stunned, he slid gently down the door and ended up in a feathery heap on the ground. For a dreadful moment I wondered whether the collision had killed him, but he was far too tough for that. Max and I peered cautiously from the safety of the exterior and watched as he got up, apparently completely unperturbed. He stared viciously at us with his black beautiful eyes. He ruffled his feathers, whistled and chirruped and stood ready for our next encounter.
Here was another occasion when I ruefully reflected that, were it not for the fact that this bird fathers wonderful, very gentle offspring, he would have probably ended up in a pot by now. However, determined not to be outdone, or shredded by this magnificent creature, I racked my brain for a solution. It came from an unexpected source.
We wanted to introduce some new stock into our existing flock to avoid interbreeding. I duly collected some pretty new Reeves hen pheasants and released them to The Vulture. I could see what was on his mind, ‘Attack human opportunity. Always good entertainment to see it running around like a dim chicken.’ But then he spotted the new girls. The threatening outboard motor burblings transformed into a gentle chirrup. The bird was immediately smitten. My encounters with The Vulture after this happy event have not been entirely incident-free, and I continue to arm myself with a stick to fend him off, but he spends such a lot of time rounding up his new ladies that he has little time left to plan his full-on assaults.
The chickens are much easier to deal with. We have two pens and the pattern is the same for both. Fortunately the cockerels are absolute gentlemen and bob their heads up and down as I arrive laden with food. The girls are somewhat different. Born ravenous, they busybody around me, clucking and squawking raucously, re-arranging themselves constantly according to their pecking order. Rather like the quail, one would have thought that they hadn’t been fed for weeks, but nothing could be farther from the truth.
The first job is to have a chat because they do like a good gossip. I will usually sit on a log and discuss the worm-count, egg situation and how we’re collectively going to deal with the pesky mice that regularly eat their food. Our discussion is punctuated by the odd shriek that comes from the no.11 chicken who dares to venture into no.10’s spot, and is swiftly returned to her proper place in the ranks. That done, and chickens being extremely inquisitive creatures, they now have to inspect the food and drink offerings. This causes our semi-orderly gathering to transform into a boisterous bun-fight as the girls clamber over themselves to begin their refreshments. The poor cockerel does try his best to retain control, but he doesn’t stand a chance with this mob, so ends up strutting around ineffectually in the background. Our girls are great producers though, and so long as I don’t have to risk life and limb by removing an egg from underneath a broody hen, we are provided with a plentiful supply of delicious free-range eggs.
My final task is to see to the tourterelle doves. These are gentle, friendly little chaps who accompany me around the pen cooing, and occasionally alighting gracefully on my shoulder or hand. They will peck lightly at their grain and generally behave in a courteous manner.
With the animal husbandry finished for the moment I will dash off to the garden or vegetable patch to attack whichever project I might have on at the time. Aby likes to help out here and is a terrific digger. Unfortunately we share different views on where the holes should be dug. This means that I generally end up re-filling deep excavations in the border that has suddenly taken on the appearance of a minefield. Max collects garden tools and Hunter usually falls asleep on an otherwise healthy plant. There is definitely still some canine training to be done in this department if I’m ever going to realise my dreams of a perfectly maintained garden, and bounteous crops of vegetables.
As usual the afternoon has flown by, and all too soon the dogs tell me that it’s supper time. Hunter is the team speaking-clock here and starts the teeth-chattering routine, which everyone except him seems to be able to hear. We set off for the utility room in a flurry of fury excitement and are in variously full voice by the time I begin the mix. But this takes a moment of concentration. Although not as complicated as breakfast, and therefore not requiring the enormous brain of my husband, I still need to take care to dispense the correct medication to the correct dog. As they watch on in rapt concentration Max is so excited by the operation that he starts dribbling – an extremely unpleasant habit in my opinion. Aby tidies up her toys, and Hunter is now drumming away with his few remaining teeth, creating a sound like a flamenco dancer. Once dispensed, the food is inhaled in a flash and it’s back off to the field for another thunder around. Then I’ll leave them outside to play and make haste to the study.
I try to work until around 7.30pm. This is a period when all the major jobs have been done, and which ought to be nice and peaceful. My plan is to pick up any outstanding business correspondence, connect with my Facebook pals and try not to make a huge blunder on Twitter. I’ll also try to write. However the first self-inflicted barrier to this is social networking. As many of us know, with any networking group, and particularly one as active as WLM (We Love Memoirs) it’s easy to get carried away with the conviviality of the posts and comments that dash between members. I’m trying my best to maintain a disciplined approach with my involvement, but with so much fun to be had, and things to be learnt, it’s easy to get distracted. But I really do want to get on with my book. I will look at my pile of notes on Fat Dogs Part III which stare accusingly at me, and am just about to reach for them when I hear a thud. Brutus has woken up and jumped off the bed.
Brutus, like most cats, is extraordinarily single minded. He has his own agenda, and we all know this. He will stroll nonchalantly into the study, jump up and arrange himself on my lap. His tactics are brilliantly effective and I fall for them every time. He begins by being full of ‘lurve’, purring noisily and offering his exquisite head to be stroked. I love our cat – but I have work to do. I manage these initial demands of attention by typing with one hand, or even both if I can squash a jumper under his head to cushion its magnificence.
The subsequent change is at first subtle, then it becomes more insistent. After a short snooze Brutus will stretch extravagantly, placing his paw, with claws slightly extended now, over my hand on the keyboard. Nothing excruciatingly painful, or bloodletting, but nevertheless the message is clear. It’s his way of saying ‘feed me!’ At first I’ll ignore this, fold his paw back and continue with my work. However, I know that I am now officially doomed. Brutus repeats this behaviour until bored with the situation and commences a loud cleaning session. He will then jump on my desk. I try to deflect this tactic by replacing him onto my lap, putting him on the floor, or sliding him to one side. But he will not give up. The final straw is when he lies across my keyboard or sends random computer commands by playing with my mouse. As someone who accidentally cyber self-harms on average once a day, I really don’t need any extra help from him. But in the end I know that my only damage limitation solution is to give in, and go and feed him. Work for the day abandoned, I go down and do the deed.
Our typical evening thereafter consists of a TV meal, some extra chores that didn’t get done earlier and several trips around the garden with Hunter to make sure that he remains watertight during the night. Then it’s finally time to go to bed and open our Kindles with the dinky lamps. A lovely snoozy feeling quickly overcomes me but I’m determined to read for at least a few minutes. Very soon, try as I might, my eyelids start to feel like lead weights, and I have to give in. Jack’s the same so we snuggle down to grab those precious moments of sleep before the nocturnal cycle (usually led by Brutus) commences.
So there you have it. Not exciting, not overly eventful, but our day is always full. Add to the typical day a trip to the market or shopping, impromptu visits from friends, neighbours, or strangers seeking permission to pick mushrooms, and then the occasional animal emergency, you might well understand how the hours always fly by. Would we trade it with our previous lives? Not a chance!
Fat Dogs and French Estates Part III is really needing to be written now, so I have decided to develop an extra disciplined approach to things. I, reluctantly, will change the frequency of my weekly ramblings by blog to one per month. So, on the first Saturday of each month I will update you with a current report of the happenings in our corner of France. How long my best intentions will last I have no idea, but it’s worth a go.