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Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Runaway Porker

“Interesting, or bad, news depending on how you look at it,” announced Jack, my husband, striding across my clean floor in his forest-dirty boots.

“What’s happened?” I said, automatically reaching for the dustpan and brush.

“Nathan has just informed me we have a freak running around the enclosed section of the forest.”

Nathan, our forester, is very French, a complete treasure, and best left alone to tend to his trees.

“Oh, right, that sounds intriguing. Any clues on what it might be?”

“He reckons it’s some kind of mutant boar.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course I’m sure, I might be ancient but I haven’t gone deaf yet.”

Nooo, I mean what’s wrong with it?”

“He says it’s got a white blaze on its nose and white socks.”

“Crikey, if that’s the case it’s definitely different. Odd though, we’re out there so often you’d have thought we’d have seen it.”

The forest is equipped with several wildlife observation hides. We decided to alter our regular nature watching vigils by using those situated in the reported sighting area. I threw together picnics for each session, and on one evening we got lucky, but for different reasons.

Fledgling roe deer with glossy coats broke cover in the early evening sun. We watched as they played tag in the meadow, gamboling on ungainly legs, as yet unused to proper control. When the game was won the game changed.

Meanwhile, a handful of fathers resplendent with magnificent antlers, strolled at a leisurely pace amongst the herd. Their time for battling would come later. The young bucks watched their dads, dead jealous, and decided to start practising with their wannabe antlers. Head-butting clumsily, it came to nothing but the shoving to and fro seemed great fun.

While this was going on others headed for mobile milk-bars, hoping for a refreshing snack. But they were out of luck – it was mealtime for mums too. Leaping and springing came next, followed by the occasional exploratory trek to another part of the field. Judging by the way the young adventurers came bounding back, it had been a pretty scary adventure.

Fatigued, wibbly-wobbly legs won the day, and the young families lay down in cool, lush grass, babies watching parents, learning how to graze. It had become a serene tableau, punctuated only by a lolloping hare going peaceably about its business.

As dusk fell the scene changed.

Feral squeals and banshee cries caught our attention, auguring the arrival of our target species. I glanced back at the deer, but they had all melted into the safety of the forest.

Out came they came, crashing through the undergrowth like a band of unruly Orcs. Eight shaggy wild boar, only two car-lengths from our hide. As usual, we were enthralled.

We watched them barge and charge, then rootle for bugs – making mincemeat of the meadow grass. Finally, darkness got the better of us and we were driven back in. No freaks here, just a mob of fine healthy animals.

A few days later all that changed.

Jack came in chuckling his head off. “Come and have a look at this, I’ve spotted Nathan’s mutant!”

“Great,” I yelled, dashing downstairs. “Have you taken a photo?”

“One better,” he said, grinning from ear to ear, “I have a video.”

He proudly showed me the footage of our forest freak. This was no wild boar it looked very much like a young Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.

 “How funny,” I giggled, “No wonder Nathan thought a terrible accident of nature had occurred.”

“I know, on the whole I’d say he’s better with tree IDs.”

“Make sure you break the news gently, you know how good you are at mortally wounding people,” I warned, picturing Jack’s lamentable interpersonal skills in action. “Anyway, I wonder how it got in?”

“I reckon someone strong chucked it over the fence.”

Jack duly broke the news to Nathan, which generated a new anxiety. Despite Jack’s assurances about it being a very young animal, Nathan remained sceptical. He was convinced it would be interbreeding within moments. It would be the originator of bizarre hybrids, he counselled, and should be exterminated immediately.

A few days later Jean-Luc Bustamente, a local hunter, and his farmer pal were searching for mushrooms in our forest. (Incidentally, this is a strange and passionate pastime for many of the locals, the novelty of which we have yet to fully appreciate.) After showing me their decidedly moth-eaten looking ceps, I asked if they knew of anyone who had lost a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.

The men took some time to establish that I hadn’t gone stark raving mad before exclaiming, “Non!” They assured me they’d ask around, and issued me with another series of dire warnings about the dangers of ‘genetic engineering’. They left shaking their heads in dismay.

We live in a tiny community so it came as no surprise to us when the village jungle drums started beating.

A couple of hours later the phone rang. It was Jerome Dupont, president of the hunt adjacent to our land. He asked to visit. The following morning he turned up, taking half the door frame with him as he entered the house.  Jerome is not small. He slip-slapped in, wearing flip-flops, which looked like pink pancakes, and seated himself on one-and-a-half chairs in the kitchen.

Jack showed him the video, which caused a great furrowing of brows.

Expressing himself in French he said, “No, this is not a boar.”

I ignored Jack’s sotto voce congratulation on his brilliant deduction.

“I know the owner,” Jerome said. “Apparently he was walking it on a lead at the fete. It slipped its collar and escaped.”

This time Jack couldn’t help himself. “Pull the other one!” he guffawed, in English.

Jerome looked completely baffled, and continued to do so despite our phraseology explanations. It seems there wasn’t a sensible translation.

“Anyway, it must be shot immediately,” Jerome concluded.
“You’re the third person to tell us that,” Jack remonstrated, “it’s becoming repetitive. We understand the potential issues, but I assure you there is currently no risk of reproduction. It’s far too immature.”

“Ah, but they grow very quickly you know. “

“Look, it would need a step ladder to mount one of our boar, it’s tiny.”

Jerome shrugged his shoulders in that frightfully French way.

“If you do not shoot it, I am obliged to tell the Federation de Chasse, and they are likely to come onto your land and destroy it.”

Jerome was beginning to sound like the Grim Reaper.

Jack doesn’t like being told what to do, and especially regarding matters that involve – well...anything, really. I cut in before he said something I would later regret.

“We understand completely, Jerome, but we’re going to try to trap it first.”

“Trap it? The pig?”

I nodded encouragingly but Jerome wasn’t remotely convinced. He left with further dismal warnings of failing to act and other generally unsupportive portents of doom.

“Bloody hell, what’s wrong with everyone?” fumed Jack. “What do I have to do to convince them the little bugger’s only knee-high to a grasshopper and utterly harmless.”

Whilst I wasn’t convinced it would be that small, I did want to try everything we could to trap him. If we didn’t do something, at this rate we’d have the Federation charging in with all guns blazing, and there wouldn’t be a thing we could do to prevent it. 

We borrowed a humane, fox-sized box trap and set it in the spot where Jack had last seen it. One week later and still no success, on the other hand, Jack was making progress in his bonding endeavours.

“Speedy little chap, I can get to within about 20 paces then he sprints off like a greyhound.”

Finally we got lucky. Jack called me from the forest. “No need for mass murder, we’ve trapped the perp!”

I called Jerome to tell him our good news. He sounded reluctantly impressed and told me he’d call the owner to come and collect it.

Jack pulled up outside the tractor shed with a sack partially covering the trap. He gently drew it back and inside was a teeny tiny, cute piglet. Black and white with huge eyes and extra-long black lashes, he was terrified.

“Oh, Jack, what a sweetheart! No wonder you said there wouldn’t be a problem with hybrid breeding, this pint-sized guy’s smaller than Brutus.”

“Not difficult. Our cat is the size and weight of a Labrador, Beth.”

Argh, don’t exaggerate, you know what I mean,” I chided, cooing at our miniature visitor.

Jerome phoned to say the owner would be with us in an hour. He added that he didn’t think the man was “sérieux” so would I please take photos of the trap as evidence of what we had done. I wasn’t sure what being ‘serious’ had to do with anything, but went along with his request anyway.

In the meantime Nathan had arrived.

“It has changed colour,” he grunted.

“It’s a couple of weeks since you last saw it, perhaps the colour has developed,” I replied, impressed by his astute powers of wildlife observation.

“Its nose and legs, they are brown now,” he said, pointing at our grubby runaway.

“It’s, mud, Nathan,” chortled Jack, “he’s just been rolling in a puddle.”

Nathan and animals just aren’t on the same wavelength at all.

Nathan looked perplexed, mumbled something unintelligible and returned to his dependable timber. Meanwhile, Jack, confirmed wannabe animal hater, was fast becoming best pals with the piglet.

He decided we must put it somewhere more comfortable while we waited for his un-serious owner to arrive, and went off in search of a dog crate. We set it up, equipped it with food and water, then slid the little lad in to await his master.

Just as we were beginning to think Jerome was right, a car rolled up and out came two men. Cutting a rather alarming figure in a bright orange boiler suit, monsieur said he had come straight from work. Aside from human traffic cone, I couldn’t possibly imagine what he did for a living. Monsieur explained that his friend had come along to help. Jack gave him a despairing look but fortunately chose not to comment.

“Right, so, is this yours, monsieur?” said Jack, back to business.


 This was odd.

“So why are you here?”

“It is was wedding present.”

“A wedding present?” said Jack, totally thrown. “Oh, well – congratulations. But – about the pig…”

“Ah, no, you do not understand, it was not my wedding. It was my niece’s.”

“Oh, I see. Well, congratulations to her. Is it normal practice to give pigs as presents here?”

“No, it is not at all normal.”

I was beginning to lose the plot, Jack was clearly becoming frustrated.

“My niece lost it at the fete – the pig,” he added unhelpfully.

Since this story was getting taller by the minute, we decided to get on with practical matters. Jack asked the man if he had a carrier for the animal. One was duly produced and we stood back to allow monsieur to collect his belonging. 

Monsieur obviously wasn’t a pro at this sort of thing. He knelt down and started gingerly stretching towards the animal. Terrified, it shrank back from his orangeness, just out of reach. Halfway in the cage, monsieur paused then, for some reason unbeknownst to anyone other than himself, lunged aggressively at the piglet. This was a very bad idea. The cage jolted violently and monsieur began howling in dismay.

“Is the animal injured?” I asked anxiously.

No! It has bitten me!”

“Well done,” hissed Jack.

Monsieur steadfastly refused to have another go at catching the captive. Instead, he pouted and sucked his poorly digit while his mate did the job for him. It was stowed away in the car and the two men made a half-hearted attempt at thanking us before speeding away.

“Poor little bugger,” sighed Jack as we watched them disappear. “What a couple of twits. If I’d had an orange blimp coming at me, I’d have bitten it too.”

“I agree. Mind you, I won’t be surprised if the piglet appears in our forest again before too long. That man didn’t seem at all happy to have him back.”

We walked back to the house filled with mixed feelings. Of course we understood the need to keep the indigenous species pure, but there was no immediate risk of any problems. Trapping turned out to be easier than we had anticipated, and in a funny sort of way, the little chap had begun to grow on us.

To-date, there hasn’t been a new sighting. But if our runaway porker does reappear, we’ll trap him somehow and this time he’ll stay. We have a lovely boar-free enclosure that would suit a miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pig down to the ground. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Guest Post - Lucinda E Clarke

Hello, in place of my usual blog I am lucky enough to have the company of a writer many of you already know. This multi-talented, award-winning author has published works in several genres. Her work is gripping, often very funny and always fascinating. 

I am delighted to welcome Lucinda E Clarke, who will tell us more about her books and latest publication - it's sure to be another winner.

Firstly a huge thank you to Beth for suggesting I invade her blog space, I feel very privileged indeed.

I’m always at a bit of a loss when people suggest I talk about my life. Do I mention I was stuck alone in the African bush with a 9 week old baby, or broadcast live with a bayonet at my throat in Libya, or how I stumbled across a public hanging in the streets? Or the time I met Nelson Mandela, chatted with Prince Charles or fell into a rubbish dump? No, I won’t mention any of that because, despite being true, none of it sounds believable. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut at social gatherings as other guests edge away from me, giving me sideways looks before searching for the number of the local asylum in their cell phones.

I’d better stick to telling you about my heroine Amie. I was going to entitle this ‘Who is Amie?’ when my mind wandered – as it so often does totally out of control – to those singing lessons at school. Our music teacher was particularly fond of that awful song ‘Who is Sylvia?’ My thoughts were, ‘well why doesn’t someone ask her instead of warbling on about it?’ Then, I remembered the summer dresses we wore that had two pieces of material at the waist you tied into a bow at the back. I guess it was to help make them ‘one size fits all’. Well of course the boys couldn’t resist pulling the ties apart and fixing them round the back of the chairs. As all the girls stood up to screech about Sylvia, most of us fell flat on our noses.

Anyway back to Amie who gets into many difficult and dangerous situations. After four books she’s become very real and I have to stop myself from laying her a place at the dinner table. I send her out to Africa, reluctantly accompanying her husband whose company has a project in a country she’s never heard of. In fact all she knows about Africa is: there are lots of flies and countless civil wars. So of course she has to get caught up in such a conflict with tribal factions fighting for power, with her in the middle of it.

I got her out of that predicament (whoops a spoiler, but then you will guess that when you realize there are 4 books in the series and I don’t write about ghosts!)
In book 2 she sets out to rescue the child she had fostered in book one but runs up against an ISIS type organization and in book three she loses everything, her home, her identity and her freedom. She is forced to work for an organization that would kill her rather than admit she is still alive. Book four, has just been released and this time we meet her as a fully fledged, but very reluctant spy, caught up in an international child sex trade with a twist.

All my books, my memoirs and the Amie series are set in Africa, not surprising as it was my home for almost 40 years. My work, as a video producer and writer took me to far flung places where I was privileged to meet many people in all walks of life, invited into their homes and shared many hours talking to them. In the west we will never totally understand a different mindset and outlook on life, but I developed a deep love for what is essentially still the Dark Continent, despite the high rise blocks and the paved streets.

Originally I qualified as a teacher, and I’ve taught from pre-school to lecturing college students on scriptwriting and it must be some lurking gene in my make up, but in all my books I try to show people what Africa is really like and attempt to give some insight into a land we are usually shown through ‘fake news’ and carefully selected camera angles. Heavens I did enough of that myself, out on location, filming what the client wanted to show in the finished product.

Occasionally I would mutter about the ‘client from hell’ who was really difficult to work for, but then I had not experienced being my own client – the very worst of all!

We retired to Spain in 2008, I hated leaving filming and Africa but circumstances dictated it, and after a couple of days I got horribly bored and started writing books. 

Eight to date with a free novella as an introduction to my scribbling – you can download it here -  

These are all the usual links to places where I lurk (do you remember the time when we only had one address and that was for the postman? – sigh)
Do please connect with me, as I love to hear from people and another thank you to Beth.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Return of Fat Dogs

It all started so confidently. Our decision to buy a property abroad seemed entirely straightforward. Lots of people do it, so what could possibly go wrong?

Jack, my husband, and I battled through a shortlist of European countries in our price and travel range. Then we remembered another facet – Jack’s temperament. Uh oh! None of us are perfect, and certainly not me. However, I am, on the whole, a deal more patient and far more tolerant than my husband. In fact, just about everyone is. He also has an extremely tedious sense of humour, particularly when it comes to dealing with other nationalities and their unique traits. This, combined with other, more balanced, reasons, ruled out three of the main contenders and we settled on France.

I produced a shortlist of properties to visit, which ended up being quite tricky because of the type we wanted to buy. But, by plugging away for ages, I got there in the end and planned our journey.

This presented another small challenge because I’m hopelessly devoted to our dogs. At the time we had Sam and Biff. Jack tries to create the impression of not sharing my devotion, grumping that he simply tolerates them. But I know differently. He’s the same about all animals, soft as butter and regularly caught with a sheepish expression in mid-cuddle with one of them. That said, when I shared my blindingly obvious logic that Sam and Biff should travel with us, he failed to see my point – initially. Nevertheless, after a slightly longer than usual filibuster, he came to his senses and all was agreed.

The eve of our departure finally came. Gosh, it still seems like yesterday. We had spent much of the day packing the car, unpacking the car, repacking and arguing about it. Bungee elastic cords became Jack’s friends as bags and slippery items were strapped securely, leaving a perfectly safe makeshift kennel for the dogs.

Many of you already know all this but, by way of a tiny outtake, I can tell you that during the night I barely slept a wink. And why? Because I was so excited. The other point I didn’t mention was Jack’s pre-departure-check discovery that one of our tyres was flat. Oh, and then there was Sam. Normally a dog with champion bowels, he chose that very morning to produce a gusty sample of visceral fluid. I suppose this could have been an omen of iffy things to come but, as I used my essential baby wipes to clear up the offending area, I didn’t give it a second thought. Jack thought differently, but Jack always does. After a delayed departure we set off in mizzling weather, which matched his mood to a tee.

It’s no secret that our early adventures didn’t go to plan. At all.  Who would have believed that a three week house-hunting trip could place us in such crazy situations, including at least one that was life threatening? Such a thing had never entered our minds. Nor did the prospect of meeting the many bizarre characters involved in our quest. Then there were the properties themselves – ranging from unacceptable, to appalling, and in one case, very scary indeed. Every day brought a new misadventure, one of which caused Jack to remark, “You could write a book about this.” So I did. There was such a lot to say.

I realise brevity is entirely alien to my writing and, let’s face it, descriptions are my friends. My aim is for you, as closely as possible, to live our experiences as we did, and to create accurate visions of each key scene and main character. 

Unsurprisingly, Fat Dogs and French Estates Part I quickly spilled over into Part II.

More disasters, ever-stranger people, mechanical mishaps and greater sinful canine shenanigans gave me oodles of material to share. Some of it was toe-curlingly awful to recount, but there was a very clear theme cementing itself on our hearts. Despite everything, we were falling ever more in love with France.

Book II came to an unexpected conclusion and Fat Dogs Part III brought with it a project we didn’t anticipate. Was it hard? At times it was dreadfully hard. It formed the third natural piece of our documentary jigsaw, one that many of you kindly asked for. And thank you so much for making this such a success.

But that was by no means the end of the story. Meanwhile, and entirely separate from the various challenges we were battling with, the animal-loving side of me created a further chapter in my life. As an addition to our two dogs, we’d acquired a cat – but more of that later. I began indulging in chats about our cuddly feline with my pal, Zoe Marr. Rather than gossiping idly about our respective moggies’ personalities and mishaps, we decided to channel our energies into helping cats in need. Of course, that didn’t stop the daily cat exchange, but that’s animal lovers for you.

Completely Cats was soon created. With it came the formation of a wonderful relationship with International Cat Care, a worthy charity whose missions on feline care and education are a perfect match for our aspirations.

We decided to publish a book of short stories about cats. This way we could raise direct funds for the charity and spread the word about its work. We appealed to cat-lovers to come forward with their tales, and they did so in droves. Our project very quickly became a perfect example of teamwork.

Our book, Completely Cats – Stories with Cattitude, could not have been created without their contributions, or the support from our Facebook and Twitter friends. Many, many of you have been part of this. You went the extra mile to help get our project going. You shouted about it on your own social media, encouraged us with your comments and alerted your friends.

And they weren’t hollow words.

The book was published on the 21st August and with your help it got off to a racing start with sales results speaking for themselves. It was immediately listed as cat category #1 Hot New Release, and in the same category shot to best seller #3 on behind James Bowen’s, A Street Cat Named Bob. (We can live with that!) Our first 5* review came in three days later. Howzat for an example of teamwork in action?

We are genuinely astonished and humbled by the kindness and support we’ve had, and will never be able to thank people enough. International Cat Care loves the book and is as thrilled by the response as we are. So, whatever else I might find myself involved with, I shall always continue to support and promote this cause. 
But, in the back of my mind, there’s always that feeling. It’s never far away. I’m dying to share that fourth Fat Dogs piece of the jigsaw with you.

Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV.

Of course Jack hates to admit that he’s become personally absorbed in the process but, every now and again, he’ll say something like, “Have you told them about xxx yet?” or, “Bloody hell, you’d better stick that incident in the next book. They’ll never believe it!” or, “And what about Bussiton? Have you written about him?” Well, actually, I haven’t. But I’m planning to.

You might naturally assume our project concluded with an idyllic retirement vision of beaches, deckchairs and fine French wines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those things continue to be the stuff of my poor, long-suffering husband’s dreams, but they’re unlikely to arrive anytime soon.

Now our Completely Cats project is padding around the Amazonian vapours, I’m going to quietly sneak off to begin my next episode of our adventures. Things happened that we never ever imagined. I mean, for goodness’ sake, who would have guessed that I would become a wannabe expert chainsaw operator, or a wild rabbit wrangler? Not me! Equally, I had never dreamed of taking national French exams – in French. (Mind you, that did turn out to be rather a nightmare.) And then the super Polish chaps we ended up working with. Smashers, every one, but – really?

In order to start gambolling quickly I won’t be able to bring you my usual yarn next month. Instead, I’m hoping to persuade one of my author pals to share one of their blogs. If they agree I guarantee it’ll be a great read.

Despite having to divert my efforts for a few weeks, I'll still be around, but I do need to focus for a bit. I sincerely hope Fat Dogs IV will justify the support you've already given me. Thank you so much for being part of our French adventures so far. They just wouldn’t be the same without you, and now you’re very much part of them. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Bee Trainee

Some years ago my husband, Jack, and I bought a domaine in France. It came with an assortment of unusual buildings, most of which we didn’t need, but we weren’t about to hire a ball and chain to demolish the ‘unnecessaries’. They included the shell of what must once have been a splendid 16th century courtyard.

Although much of the domaine history has sadly been lost in time, we know the courtyard is part of an old fortification, the remains of which lie under our lawn. I’m convinced it’s riddled with old coins, arrow heads and other thrilling treasures and, one day, I’ll get my trowel out and start exploring. But, right now, there’s more than enough to occupy our time.

We’re very rural here so I didn’t bat an eyelid when Jack recently announced, “The bees are back in the courtyard again.” This was nothing new, a band of stripy regulars pop in each year. Ages ago they’d established squatting rights in a miniscule space between the roof overhang and the apartment window below. I know, it sounds strange to have an apartment there, but there’s a history to it.

The previous owners built the apartment on one side of the old shell as a means of accommodating extra visitors. Being a person who prefers his own company where possible, this was one of the things that immediately attracted Jack during our first viewing. The potential to have house guests without them actually being in the house was manna from heaven for him.

As for our bees, by and large they mind their own business, as do the human visitors who occasionally stay in the apartment. The only problem arises when a team flyby occurs at the same time our pals open the window. Nobody likes a cloud of bees in their face. We have since taken the precaution of suggesting to our summer-visiting chums that they might want to check for signs of loud humming before embarking on a fresh air campaign.

A couple of days after Jack’s first observation, I sauntered into the courtyard to clean out the dovecote. Two steps in and I came to a jarring halt. Of course I expected to see our bees, but this was very different.

The sound was like walking into a motor-bike workshop with several two-stroke engines running. The original scouts had relocated, and there now seemed to be thousands in the air. Some were zooming around in circles whilst others were flying in above my head. Then I saw the main cluster. 

Masses of bees had set up a construction site in a corner of the courtyard, right next to the dovecote. This wasn’t just our usual mob, they’d brought family, friends, and enough energy to develop a colony. I decided to investigate further.

Previously our bees had never shown signs of aggressive behaviour. But I was heavily outnumbered so caution was required. I tentatively crept over to have a closer look.

To my amazement I realised how wrong Jack and I had been with our original bee ID. These were not masonry bees, as we’d previously thought. They were honey bees and I was looking at what seemed to be an extraordinary series of honeycombs absolutely covered in stripeys, diligently and rapidly extending the structure. Clearly, action was required.

I rushed back to the house to find Jack and Nathan, (our French forester colleague and all-round top bloke), sitting outside chatting.

“We’ve got a huge bees’ nest in the courtyard,” I squeaked.

They both looked rigidly unimpressed with my exclamation.

“Yes, there are one or two,” replied Nathan – master of understatements – courteously humouring me.

“No, really,” I persisted, “there are absolutely loads of them.”

Jack was looking decidedly sceptical, so I insisted they come and have a look. That did it.

“Bloody hell, where did that lot come from,” he said, with a sharp intake of breath. “We’ll have to remove them somehow.”

Nathan regarded the seething, buzzing mass, and reluctantly conceded there were a few more than normal. Being a lifelong local he assured us he knew just the man to sort it out.

Within seconds Monsieur Decaunes was on the other end of Nathan’s mobile phone. Nathan said he’d be happy to do the removal, but he couldn’t arrive until the following week. He added that monsieur had issued an instruction that, in the interim, the bees must not be upset in any way.

“OK,” responded Jack, dryly. “I’ll speak to them very nicely and take them coffee and croissants each morning. What on earth does ‘not upset them’ mean?”

“Well, for one thing, darling, it means not trying to asphyxiate them with that dreadful powder you sprayed underneath the eaves last year.”

Harrumph! It was just to get them to move away. Obviously it didn’t work. Anyway, what about the poor doves? While we’re becoming best mates with the insects, they’re having to cope with the noise of a motocross event and the arrival of yet more flying invaders.”

“Jack, that’s nature! The doves’ instincts will cope with things for a few days.”

Nevertheless, just to be sure, we dutifully observed their behaviour from a discreet distance.

A constant stream of incomers and out-goers worked tirelessly. More and more arrived each day. We were fascinated by their activity, and their gradually developing honeycombs. The poor doves, less so. The flightpath to their home had become an air traffic controller’s nightmare. It now required highly skilled aeronautics to weave their way through the stream of workers, which they fortunately managed without ‘upsetting’ any of the newbies.

It was a boiling hot day when our bee man finally arrived. A very tall, slim man, Monsieur Decaunes, gradually unfolded himself from his car. He shook our hands and took gangling, heron-like strides towards the new squatters.

Oui, vous avez les abeilles,” he gravely announced, stating the blindingly obvious in that especially French understated way.

“It’s always best to get a professional in,” remarked Jack. “There I was thinking it might be a flock of small starlings.”

I ignored Jack’s unwelcome quip and beamed supportively at monsieur. He assured us that we mustn’t be concerned as he’d have everything under control very quickly. These were reassuring words from one worryingly covered in so many lumps, which I’d naturally assumed hadn’t been caused by a ghastly skin disease.

The game plan involved removing the bee-covered honeycombs, and placing them in a temporary hive. The whole lot would be transported back to his farm where they would be homed in permanent equivalents and live to pollinate the surrounding fields.

With the battle tactics agreed, monsieur disappeared into the back of his car to kit-up. First out was a wooden beehive. Then a white apiarist’s outfit made of extremely thick material and, finally, a strange metal can with a spout at one end and bellows at the other.
Fully clad, and looking as though all he needed was a skinny sword to complete the look, he paced over and scrutinised the colony. We all did.

Avez-vous une échelle s'il vous plaît?Despite his great height, even he wasn’t tall enough to access this lot.

A set of ladders were quickly produced while monsieur started a fire in his metal can. This seemed odd. I asked him what he was doing. He explained that it would create special smoke which would cause the bees to become sleepy and docile. Since it smelled suspiciously like marijuana I felt sure it would do the trick in seconds. However, closer inspection revealed the mixture to be a collection of substances more akin to wood chips.

Amid billowing smoke, monsieur ascended the steps and started puffing his bellows at the bees. To my untrained eye it seemed that his technique was having the opposite effect to the one desired. Bees started zooming around, bashing into his veil and sticking to his gloves. Meanwhile, Jack and Nathan were gamely hanging onto to the bottom of the ladder to stop it swaying.  Totally unprotected, they grimly swatted away the angry guards that zig-zagged around the courtyard and their heads. Things weren’t going awfully well at this point.

But, for monsieur, it was merely a temporary setback. Various sounds could be heard from inside his helmet, none of which were remotely intelligible. It turned out he was unhappy about the effectiveness of his smoke generator. He clambered down and disappeared back into his van for more chips.

Meanwhile, the bees were working themselves into a proper tizzy, and seemed to be preparing for a full-scale counter-attack. I felt certain that he should be doing something quickly before they opened fire.

However, monsieur was not to be panicked into unnecessary haste, at least not until his equipment was fully re-stoked. He finally nodded at his device and re-ascended the ladder. Rung by rung he poofed, billowed and puffed at flying buzzers, this time causing many of them to calm down – a bit. Back in position at the top of the ladder his head emerged through a cloud of smoke,

Maintenant j’ai besoin d’un couteau s'il vous plaît?”, he coughed.

This caught us all off-guard. We had no idea why he needed a knife – it wasn’t lunchtime. Fortunately, Nathan, a man who always has an interesting selection of weapons about his person, produced an extra-long sheath knife. This was handed to monsieur, who made its use obvious by carefully cutting off a slab of honeycomb. Gentle removal revealed several distinct slices, each seething with the little critters. I was absolutely fascinated.

Monsieur was now completely covered in bees. Despite being inside and outside his helmet, up his arms, and across much of his back, he stoically continued with only an occasional expression of disquiet. The first segment of honeycomb, together with its occupants, was finally placed in the temporary hive. One down, several more to go.

Slice by slice the extraordinary structures were removed. Each was a sumptuous colour of rich yellow. Perfect hexagons, some filled, others not, dripping sweet natural honey that glistened in the hot sun. I watched in wonder at this stunning work of nature.

The bees, relatively orderly now, clung to their segments. Like master gymnasts they hung on to one another in their efforts to retain contact, I couldn’t help but admire their tenacity. Monsieur explained that part of their drive was to protect their queen who was within. There is one queen to each hive, he said, which has been developed from larvae selected by worker bees and specially fed royal jelly in order to become sexually mature. No wonder she’s such a popular gal.

I watched as monsieur continued his painstaking labour in the boiling-hot, sun-trapped, corner of the courtyard. Despite his lanky awkwardness he handled each honeycomb with extreme dexterity. As each piece was delicately removed it revealed hordes more of these amazing creatures. I had no idea a hive was constructed in this way.

I tried estimating their numbers but very quickly ran out of zeros. I didn’t have a clue how many there might be. Monsieur explained that a healthy hive has between 20,000 and 60,000 bees, of which the female worker bees outnumber the male drones around 100 to 1. Whilst I was still trying to compute this enormous number of animals he chipped in that ours was a very healthy hive.

The last puff of smoke dispersed as the final segment was sawn off. A few tenacious workers remained in situ, but the vast majority of the colony was now buzzing sleepily in its temporary accommodation. Monsieur looked extremely sorrowful about the stragglers and expressed regret at leaving them behind. No apologies needed as far as we were concerned. Short of scooping them up and stuffing them in his pockets I couldn’t see how he could possibly transfer them from the top of the ladder to the hive below.

It had taken over two hours for monsieur to complete the job. The poor chap looked thrilled to bits with his new bees, but totally spent. He removed his protective gear. First the helmet, which revealed a beetroot-red face, pouring with sweat, plus a suspicious-looking new weal on his cheek. His fat gauntlets and heavy top gear came next and had to be peeled off, leaving his dripping T-shirt beneath. Finally, it was the not-at-all technical-looking wellies. As he pulled those off out came a few more bees which, shame though it was, presumably counted as collateral damage.

As he started stowing his kit, Jack, full of thanks, asked how much we owed him. Monsieur almost bashed his head on the door of his car in surprise and reappeared looking confused.

Mais non, monsieur, c'est moi qui vous remercie!

He didn’t want payment. Instead, he produced a very nice bottle of wine for Jack and, for me, a huge container of honey from his own apiary. I was thrilled.

Jack, on the other hand, was completely taken aback. The last time we’d had a swarm of bees removed – from our garden in England – it cost us something like £15.

But monsieur was insistent. Thanks to us he now had another colony of bees to add to his apiary and he hoped we would call him the next time this happened.

 “Oh, monsieur, thank you so much,” I cried, adding, “but I’m so sorry you had to work in such difficult conditions today. Does it always take so long to remove a hive?”

Monsieur looked at me, slightly crestfallen and, speaking partly in English, replied, “Normalement it is une heure. But that is when my father does it. In this case I hold the ladder. This is why the many bites I have. My father he has the hip prothèse three weeks before. So, you see, I am the bee trainee.”

Jack, mightily impressed with the man’s honesty, pressed a 20 euro note into monsieur’s palm urging him to have a few glasses of nice red wine that evening to help his father’s healing process.

Monsieur, totally abashed, was unable to defeat Jack’s offer and eventually re-folded himself into his loudly-humming car. As he waved goodbye we could see one or two escapees buzzing out of his window. His journey home was going to be sporty, to say the least.

“What a wonderful young man.” Jack said as we waved him off. “Perhaps next time we’ll see him with his father and, even possibly, with his own knife!”