We often reminisce about the strange happens in the ‘Expatiate of Aquitaine’. This is a brief cameo of some events which occurred when I, and my wife Mo, house-sat for some dear friends, at La Casselle in the south-west of France.
Mo and I had come over on Wednesday the 2nd January 2002 to baby-sit Chris and Pam's farm and animals at Soumensac near Eymet, while he went of to judge some field dog trials near Paris. He is one of the most illustrious international field dog trial judges in France.
In the evening Chris had shown us how to deal with his three sets of dogs, three sets of pigeons and a cat. There was to have been some chickens in this care package as well, but some of the dogs in a bout of canine exuberance had killed them that same day, and therein lays another part of the story. One of the 'house' dogs Lucy, a Jack Russell, was obviously sick at the outset and looked to be on her last legs. She was after all about 18 years old so that was to be expected. Chris showed Mo a plot where we should bury the little biddy should it expire during their absence.
The next day about 7am Chris and Pam were due to set out on their journey to the dog trials near Paris. Chris was in his normal convivial but semi-disorganised state, rushing around trying to get things ready, forgetting most of them and being roundly castigated by Pam for his troubles in English, Scottish and a little Doric. He irrationally insisted on doing the morning animal chores before he left even though we were there to do them. Consequently they were late leaving and staggered off in a disorderly retreat a little before 9 o’clock.
We were in the midst of a move from one house to another; half in one and half out of the other. So the interlude of farm sitting was a little problematic. However Chris and Pam were (and still are) exceptionally good friends so we thought that the least that we could do was to put ourselves out a bit for them and it turned out to be quite fun, I think that is the right terminology! We also at the same time were asked to be the key holders for a number of other absent neighbours (there are a lot of them in Aquitaine). This was because there had recently been a tempest in the area which damaged many properties and access was required by the various repairers, it meant that at one point we had access to five houses in the area. Therefore added to our removal and house sitting duties we were frequently called upon to be gatekeepers and project managers, who said that Aquitaine was peaceful?
After Chris and Pam departed for Paris, we settled into what had now become a daily routine of decanting our furniture from the house that we were selling into the one that we were renting about 11kms away. We were moving ourselves in our elderly Renault Master Van. It was exhausting work, as we have not really been keeping ourselves that fit, not only that our possessions had been quietly multiplying themselves with malice aforethought, behind our backs. Still we consoled ourselves that it was 'really' doing us good, although that sobriquet wore rather thin in the face of the evidence of our increasing physical and mental decrepitude, verification of which mounted with each passing day.
At about 1600 hrs on that Wednesday at the end of a heavy day moving furniture, we staggered back to our temporary accommodation at the farm to start the evening chores of feeding and bedding down the animals for the night.
Lucy, the sick indoor dog, did not look any worse; we had looked in on her during the day as we passed by on our furniture removing duties. Being blind she was staggering about like a glacial version of a fair bumper car, lurching between items of furniture and walls, interleaved with bouts of heavy panting. Otherwise she did not seem to be unduly distressed.
It was then that we made our first tactical error. The normal course of events for the ambulatory processing of the dogs was to give the outdoor bitches a run and then feed them, followed by the outdoor (male) dogs and then the indoor dogs (of mixed sex), or dog on this occasion as poor Lucy did not look up to a romp in the fields. We would then bed down the pigeons and feed the cat, if she was in evidence.
We had forgotten that the bitches had killed a flock of chickens the day before and the recollection that this was fine sport was still fresh in their psyche.
No sooner had we opened the pound gate for the bitches evening walk than they issued forth like a pack of dervishes with no thought of a sedate perambulation of the fields, only the search for more feathered fun. The chicken shed was sadly empty from their ministrations of the previous day or at least it was empty of chickens. The outdoor pigeons however used its upper reaches as their night time perches and they had just settled down for a peaceful evening to be confronted by a baying pack of lunatic female field dogs.
The field dogs are spaniels and retrievers and although they are very fit and fast, so far aerial flight has been beyond them. The pigeons however were not cognisant of this gymnastic incapacity and took the prudent course of leaving the domestic roost in a rush, flying out into the gathering dusk. This was a slight setback as one of the duties with which we had been entrusted was to see them safely gathered in for the night and we seemed to have achieved the exact opposite.
We decided to leave that situation to settle itself and to get on with the next chore of taking the bitches for a walk.
Now that was not as easy as one might have expected. Firstly they were quite hungry and wanted to get at the grub that we had prepared and left high up on a wine vat in the barn out of their somewhat frenzied reach. The fields were in the other direction from this attraction, so as the walk progressed, a degree of gastronomic schizophrenia was induced in the animals, as their instincts pulled variously towards a possible hunt and the certainty of more quiescent food in a bowl back at the farm. The result of this clash of canine emotional pressures was that every so often one of the pack would peel off and go racing back to the farm to check whether by some miracle a bowl of food had become uncovered and thereby available to an early dog. Upon the inevitable disappointment, the animal would seemingly wonder if the ‘hunting’ dogs were having more success and would then dash back across the fields to the ‘walkers’. The upshot of this oscillatory behaviour was that the dogs had quite a fair amount of exercise for the expenditure of very little effort on the part of their human guardians.
There was one other problem with taking the dogs for a walk; one of the bitches was a reputed escape artist.
This dog, ‘Mouse’ was a freedom-loving animal, who spent her days peering through the grill of a side barn in a passable imitation of the prisoner of Zendor. This incarceration was imposed after she learnt to climb the five foot wire netting fence surrounding the bitches run and then indulged in her favourite pastime of dashing about the hills at ninety kilometres an hour to the consternation of local game, domestic animals and farmers alike. However at night she was kennelled with the other bitches in their shelter from which she could not escape.
We had been warned about this free spirit and had been told to put her on a lead, certainly for the morning run, but also for the evening run on the first few occasions. The evening excursion was believed to be less problematical as all the dogs were presumed to want to return for their food, so any extracurricular excursions by Mouse was expected to be short-lived and within acceptable bounds.
The problem was that as this was our first close encounter with the outside dogs, we were not at all certain of their identities. We had been given a description of Mouse, which had, in the light of the later available evidence, the slight failing of verbal imprecision.
She was described as a cocker spaniel that was white and red, which could be distinguished from another white and red dog of similar breed and size because she was ‘redder’. On opening the bitch’s night time accommodation we found the two small cockers as described. They seemed to us to be identical except that the red patches of one were darker, almost ochre.
Which was ‘redder’? The darker red or the almost flaming brown red. We deliberated upon this for some time, debating the lexical and photo-spectroscopic prospects at length. Finally applying the commonsense logic normally attributed to the man on the top of the London Clapham bus, we decided that most persons in the population would see the bright red dog as being ‘redder’.
We then duly put a lead on that animal and opened the enclosure gates. The last we saw of the dark red dog for some time was a cloud of dust as it tore through the gate and disappeared into the next farmer’s fields, leaving us with the other unfortunate and very docile animal firmly, if somewhat bemusedly, captive on the lead.
We commenced our walk with the remaining bitches and were occasionally gifted with the sight of a red and brown streak flashing about the far hills. The exercise proceeded as planned with the moderate perturbation of food reconnoitring forays as previously described.
As we returned to the farm the absent owners predictions concerning Mouse’s behaviour were confirmed. She came running across the fields from quite the opposite direction that we had taken with an advanced navigational precision that ensured that she arrived at the food bowls just slightly earlier than our ETA. I debated punching the errant animal on the nose, but came to the uncharacteristic impression (for me) that affection might be the better part of discipline in such circumstances. I therefore gave the recalcitrant a cuddle and a full measure of food, a gesture not totally lost upon the gods of field trial dogs, as subsequent events will show.
Walking the male dogs was slightly less adventurous although they too caught the whiff of dead birds near the erstwhile chicken run; now solely a pigeon loft, and had to be coaxed away for their exercise.
One of the male dogs suffered from dietary agoraphobia in that it refused to eat out in the open, or at least not in the company of its other male colleagues. This affliction may have been due to a congenital defect or more likely a sensible prescience concerning its companion’s proclivities towards unguarded food.
At any rate it had to be served its repast in a travel hutch securely locked away from the other canine diners. However once incarcerated it barked to be released and there upon rushed to the male dog enclosure to see how its compatriots were getting on with their feed. Seeing that they were gaining on it, the dog raced back to the hutch to scoff its own food at an Olympian rate, only to pause and race back across the yard to check on its contemporary’s progress once again.
This procedure was repeated four times with the result that the agoraphobic still managed to finish its quota only just after the other dogs. Having in addition to food gulping, covered some eight, thirty yard dashes to their simple consuming action, it was a truly remarkable if somewhat indigestible feat.
With a last look for the pigeons, which were now presumably wheeling around in the darkness above our heads seeking a safe landing spot, we made our weary way into the house to commence our indoor chores.
The indoor dogs were a sorry pair. Poor Lucy as previously described was fading fast. The other dog ‘Dill’ was a small terrier of an indeterminate age, somewhere between 16 and 100. The ravages of time had left their mark on the poor animal as she looked somewhat moth eaten and had a number of other off putting qualities. One of these we had been told was a propensity to fall over in a spasm and kick her legs in the air due to some past injury or nervous complaint.
We were advised to ignore such manifestations and soon she would return to normal. Unfortunately in the past one of these seizures had caused her to damage her neck, so now her head was permanently tilted to one side as though she was trying to look up your trouser leg. She also had a rather unsteady gate and her forward perambulation came in the form of waves of stuttering steps, followed by pauses to collect her equilibrium and to reorient herself in the required direction of travel.
Our next task was to coax food into these two canine derelicts. We made up milk and rusks for Lucy, but a bowl of more sterling food was prepared for Dill, which we set up in the kitchen. We roused the Jack Russell from her bed and herded Dill into the vicinity of the food.
But here the size of a French farmhouse kitchen defeated us. Lucy being unable to see the bowl veered off at a tangent under the table and Dill whilst making good progress towards the food had problems maintaining a course. We spend the next 15 minutes trying to aim these two improbable missiles at the target bowls. It was like driving two bumper cars with the steering wheels removed.
That task being eventually accomplished we decided to settle down for the night in front of the fire and watch the tele in the lounge.
Now when I say the ‘fire’, do not think of one of those puny orifices which go by the name in the average English semi. The French Farm house fire covers half the wall of the lounge and has a voracious appetite for wood. The beast in this farm was set up on a wide plinth about 12cms off of the floor to ensure its complete dominance of the room. Chris our absent host had obviously in a past life been a thwarted stoker on the SS Great Britain or one of Brunel’s other creations. Being deprived of that career he now seemed to be paying penance by spending half his days chopping wood and the other half feeding the insatiable plutonic device in the sitting room.
It was before this alter that we settled ourselves for the unaccustomed delights of the box and a glass or two of the results of the local vendange. Normally television does not have much of an attraction for us, but in our circumstances in France at this time, the situation was somewhat different. The normal fare of the British ogling public is the BBC and ITV television channels with a growing number of subscribers to Rupert Murdock’s Sky satellite channels. Understandably the British terrestrial domestic channels do not reach south west France, so most Expat expectations of English language visual entertainment turn towards those birds in the sky, run by Antipodean American but beamed by our old friends in Luxembourg, you never thought that RTL 208 would come so far did you.
My British Aquitainians reason that as all the satellites are over the equator and therefore nearer to south West France than their intended audience, there should be no problem with reception. Wrong!
We have never got to the bottom of the reason for the anomalous situation, whether it be legislation or commercial policy, but no-one outside of the UK is allowed to receive Sky transmissions. You may well ask, what are all those dishes doing, that sprout from every renovated house in the Dordogne? Well, all vacuums tend to get filled and the desires of Anglophone residents has been met by a number of devious entrepreneurs who ship in decoders and fit dishes, all over Europe, but especially in France and Spain.
That capability deals with the hardware, but the catch is that you also need a card to activate the device and that will only be sent to someone who is resident in the UK. So you now have the situation of all these honest and upright European Expat residents fraudulently filling up contracts stating that they permanently live at such and such an address in the UK, when in fact they have been resident in France for the last two decades. Unfortunately many of them are at the same time filling up other forms for the UK Revenue, saying exactly the opposite, in order to escape taxation.
If ever these two databases get together there could be a lot of Brits in Aquitaine who would suddenly become poorer and at the same time lose the solace of their tele, bit of a double whammy really.
The problem does not end there. Once your Aunt, nephew, ex-spouse etc, has received the viewing card in the UK and you have been lucky enough that they have remembered to send it on to you in France, another obstacle looms.
You have to ring a special number in the UK to activate the card. However the cunning swine behind their computers can tell that you are ringing from France and they immediately deactivate your card and confiscate your cash, to your irritation and great gnashing of teeth from the family.
The alternative is to get Aunty to ring them from England and impersonate you. The success of this scenario very much relies on the thespian qualities of your aunt. Not only that, you run the risk that they might ask over the telephone, what you (or rather, Auntie impersonating you) are seeing on your television. This object, you will recall they believe to be in front of Auntie in the UK, whereas in fact it is with you in darkest France.
Aunties have lots of qualities, but apart from those of them emanating from Salem, few have the ability to view a television on the other side of the English Channel. At least unless aided by technical means. You might consider having another telephone line installed in Auntie’s house so that she can simultaneously ring the Sky Centre and you in your French TV lounge and then surreptitiously relay any requests that she receives from authority to where you are viewing the television, or you could buy her a mobile phone with the same effect.
However, I do not know about your Aunties, but most of the Aunts of my acquaintance have the technical perspicacity of a gnat. The highlight of their technical competence was to get the igniters to work on the cooker hob. The concept of them ringing technical help centres whilst juggling with two telephones and clandestinely relaying instructions and deceitful responses is hard to imagine.
Not only that, whilst lying through your teeth to some commercial bureaucrat does not seem too serious to us modern incipient law breakers, to grand dames brought up in an altogether more moral regime, such conduct looms large in annals of criminal turpitude.
The combination of mental confusion brought about by technical complexity and anxiety induced by the moral dilemma of their clandestine activity is likely to have an adverse effect on the mental balance of the frailer aunties in the population. I am firmly convinced that the Sky subscription system is a major cause of a dearth of maiden aunts in the UK.
Anyway we had decided not to attempt this administrative minefield until we were firmly settled in a new French home, not the least because we were singularly devoid of any Aunties. For that reason we had not seen more than a fleeting impression of the genre for the last six months, and had been in a sort of news black hole. We were therefore looking forward to the short interlude at La Casselle to rejoin the world of current events.
That being the case we settled ourselves in front of the window to Hades, which our erstwhile host diffidently referred to as a fire. The indoor dogs then entered the lounge in attempt to settle into comfortable locales in the warmth. Dill made her zig zag way to a settee and by a surprising and supreme effort of will manage to jump into it, tottering slightly on the brink before sinking into the safety of the cushions. Lucy had for most of her adult life at the farm engaged in a particularly hazardous occupation of fire bating. When fit she would jump up onto the fire plinth and lay as close to the voracious beast as canine sense and singed fur would allow.
On this occasion she located the plinth, presumable by an innate heat seeking ability which had thus far not atrophied with her other mental disabilities. She made a couple of heroic attempts to leap the 12cms, but failed on each occasion, only to slide disconsolately down the wall to the floor. After the third attempt she navigated to her basket by the clever tactic of leaning against the wall and following it. There she climbed slowly in and fell asleep.
Our attentions were somewhat distracted from our canine guardianship by the novel delights of the flickering screen but after a few hours, I did wonder why Lucy’s legs were sticking up in the air. However not wishing to intrude on the sleeping habits of another sentient being, we continued our relaxed evening and as is my wont, even managed a few more bevies. (Suggestions that I pour G&Ts over my morning cornflakes are grossly exaggerated)
After another hour or so Lucy’s continuing rigid posture managed to induce, into even my currently turbid brain, the inkling that her attitude indicated a degree of quiescence that was not totally in keeping with exuberant health. Braving the gates of hell, I crossed the room to give her a gentle prod. She failed to respond voluntarily, but merely rolled over mechanically with her legs still sticking out, but now in altogether another direction. It seemed that despite the heat in the room, rigor mortis had set in, a degree of torpor which suggested that Lucy had departed for doggy heaven or perhaps an even warmer locale than the lounge in La Casselle. I guess dogs can go to hell as well!, otherwise heaven is going to be pretty crowded with domestic animals. Anyway she was obviously dead as a doornail. What to do?
I did briefly (a nanosecond or so) consider mouth to mouth resuscitation, but my past experience indicated that once rigor mortis had set in, that that activity was rather like flogging a dead horse and infinitely less attractive. So we compromised by covering her with a cloth and conveying her out into the freezing night to lie in state in the Lemon House (a sort of veranda) awaiting our funereal ministrations in the morning.
I have failed to mention in this narrative that our own dog, Gus, also accompanied us. He is a rather large shaggy mongrel with his own web site. Up to now he had been a relatively silent witness to the adventures a La Cassells.
Lucy’s departure had a differential effect on the other indoor animals. Dill failed to notice the event at all, but I suppose as she already had a skewed view of the world one more rearrangement of her mental furniture did not seem significant.
Gus however seemed much more worried; he was already unsettled by moving house. Therefore for the rest of the stay he stuck as close to us as the proverbial noxious substance to a blanket. This had the effect that when we went to bed he insisted in sleeping at its foot for the whole night. Not at all a good thing as he snores prodigiously, making sounds that the run away train would have been proud of when she ‘blew’. So after a somewhat disturbed night we awoke to recommence our thankfully temporary administration of the good ark ‘La Casselle’.
On rising we thought that it was more judicious to administer to the living before the dead. We therefore set about preparing the meals for the various grades of pigeons.
There were three main groups. The up market racing pigeons were housed in a coup at the rear of the dog run segregated between the sexes, though how you tell I do not know. Then there were some intermediate birds in a barn and finally the lowly outside pigeons which had until recently inhabited the upper reaches of the chicken hut.
Each of these had to have a different mix of cereal and pellets. Chris had explained it all to me, but unfortunately my mind had been on other things at the time, probably a G&T night cap or something similar. Not only that, but the locations of the various ingredients were haphazardly scattered about the interiors of a number of poorly lit barns. The combined effect of these inefficiencies both mental and physical, was that they did indeed all get something different, although whether it bore any relationship to the dietary regimes suggested by the pigeon club is open to considerable doubt.
Upon preparing this mix we went out into the emerging dawn to reconnoitre the location of the outside pigeons. They had not returned to their hut, but I eventually spied a group of them in earnest convocation on the apex of a barn roof. No doubt in a huddle to vote of the efficacy of remaining in what was fast becoming a dangerous locale. They could not be coaxed down with food and the other half of their number was nowhere to be seen.
We therefore left their alimentation high up in the chicken hut with the hope that bravery and hunger would grow with the coming day and entice them back.
The middling pigeons were no trouble being firmly caged in crates in a barn and not able to escape. The aristocratic racers were another matter however.
A factor about French farms is the dedicated manner in which things are never fully repaired. The European Commission could save a vast amount of the money spent on agricultural tools in France, as the average farmer really only understands two materials, wire and binder twine. These are used to fix everything.
Chris, the current proprietor, coming from a rural background in England had assiduously and enthusiastically followed this French tradition. All over the farm were gates, shutters and doors held together with twine and ‘locked’ with a tangle of wire knots.
The racing pigeon pen was no exception. It was made up of wire netting with a night time hutch at one end. As it occupied a small space between two buildings it was very narrow and it took contortions that Spiderman would be proud of for me to squeeze my not inconsiderable bulk past what was rather inaccurately described as a gate.
Having been given the injunction to be careful with these birds as they were the ‘valuable’ ones, I attempted to exercise maximum caution so as not to repeat our maladministration of the previous night. The problem was that the pen was not very high and to describe the gate as rickety would imbue it was an air of permanence and robustness that it did not possess. The birds could obviously fly, I guess that is why Chris had them, and I was concerned that an approaching stranger might cause them to exercise this ability whilst the gate was partially open to admit my person.
This is indeed what happened. Upon my approach the birds started to flutter about the pen. Deciding that a bold approach would be best, I quickly opened the gate to what I thought to be the minimum aperture necessary to accept my less than sylph like figure, then attempted to duck through it. Only to be arrested halfway by the dreaded French wire gate locks snagging in my clothing, not only that but some malicious ends of the wire netting pen walls, joined the fray to hold me fast in the opening.
The pigeons seizing their chance headed for freedom, an escape bid that I only just managed to frustrate by pulling the gate close to my somewhat bent form. I was now immobilised as the meat in a gate and fence sandwich, not daring to extricate myself for fear of losing my captives.
Calling upon my command training I quickly formulated a strategy of delayed strategic withdrawal. I waited for the birds to settle down at the other end of the pen then slowly slid my hand up my back to disengage the wire snags. Repeating this with the netting, I bided my time until it was all quiet at the other end of the pen, and then suddenly leaped back pulling the gate shut behind me, leaving the flustered and still unfed pigeons inside. Obviously feeding the racing pigeons was going to be a two handed job so I went of in search of ‘she who must be obeyed’.
Mo left her other chores and came to assist me with this important and difficult assignment. We formulated the strategic plan that she would stand behind me and block the gate opening, whilst I leapt (or rather lumbered) through the opening to undertake the hazardous commando action of approaching the inner environs. She would shut the gate behind me to prevent any exodus on the part of the feathered aristocrats.
This scheme worked perfectly, I missed the snags and gained the inside of the pen without mishap. The gate slammed shut behind my back imprisoning me with the feathered inmates. I stopped and waited for the anticipated reactive mayhem. Instead of which the pigeons looked at me rather disinterestedly and made not one move other than to disconsolately peck at their still empty feed bowls.
I thereupon replenished the feeding troughs and the water dispensers without any reaction or mishap. My slightly bemused wife then released me, I believe wondering what I had been making all the fuss about. My moment of brave and daring endeavour was left rather flat.
The next chore was the morning walk for the bitches. Now that we had firmly identified ‘Mouse’ this went off without too much trouble. We had some problems coaxing then away from the putative chicken hut, a fact that was not lost on the assembly up at the barn apex, but otherwise the walk went off with few untoward events.
The next hurdle was the walking of the male dogs. They were corralled up in an old cattle pen and releasing them for their morning promenade was not a simple procedure. The pen was enclosed by means of a large slightly bent five-barred metal gate. The passage of time and the effect of gravity had caused this to sag so the tongue of the lock was about 5cms below the lock hole on the post and therefore totally inoperative.
Chris had cleverly elaborated the basic French repair methodology. The hinges were still composed of multiple stands of wire, but in a cunning twist on the reparative approach the lock was comprised of a chain at the bottom of the gate held together with a bent hook and a broken padlock hasp.
Unfortunately the effect of the gate’s normal drunken posture together with its new and induced curved aspect meant that it had a tendency to open of its own volition when unsecured. Also the chained bottom leading edge was never nearer than 10cms from the securing post, just enough for an enterprising spaniel to squeeze through. To prevent this Chris had tacked on pieces of wood and netting to obstruct this potential escape route.
Opening the gate therefore involved lifting those pieces of wood with one hand, leaning your weight on the gate to give that chain some slack and simultaneously attempting to pull away the hasp with your other hand. As you might expect that this ambidextrous performance was watched attentively by the incarcerated dogs. They gathered around the anticipated opening with all the alacrity of a fakir leaving his bed after a five-month convalescence.
My first attempt was reasonable successful but I was unable to control the opening of the gate to let the animals out in a sedate fashion. Partly this was due to the weight of the gate and partly because three spaniels and a couple of Labradors had hurled themselves at the other side, causing me to stagger back into the yard whilst five furry blurs streaked towards the feeding shed.
This exuberance was a little optimistic on their part as they only got fed once a day, and then in the evening. But hope obviously springs eternal in the canine breast. After a frenzied, if disappointed search of the feeding shed the pack momentarily came back to check us out, before dashing off again through the buildings surrounding the farmyard. Having thus established that we had little control over this pack of genies once they escaped their internment, we decided that the best course was to head for the fields alone, whilst exhibiting an air that we were firmly in charge of the situation. We hoped that our bluff would not be called and that they would follow; well it worked for the Pied Piper!
Surprisingly this stratagem worked admirably; at least it did on the outward leg of the walk. The dogs thinking that they were missing something came thundering down the path after us, swept past and headed for the far woods, leaping and bounding over grass, fences, and other obstacles, obviously revelling in their new, albeit temporary, freedom. When we reached the azimuth of our perambulations we changed direction to head for home. The pack eventually noticed this new course and came racing by us heading for the farm at a break neck pace, presumably to check whether the temporal aspects of the feeding regime had in the mean time been changed in their favour.
We were about halfway across the last field leading to the farm when we were assailed by the noise of excited dogs barking and a banshee like screaming.
We broke into a run, not at all an easy matter when wearing gumboots and traversing a muddy field. We arrived in the Farmyard to see that it was covered in feathers and the pack of dogs were running around in circles chasing a black Labrador which had a large and very noisy chicken in its mouth.
The cacophony was compounded by the fact that all the incarcerated bitches joined in the hullabaloo and the free pigeons on the barn apex had obviously come to an adverse conclusion about the safety of the farm as they had broken up their convocation and were ducking and weaving overhead.
Now we had been told that there were no longer any chickens in the farm, they having all perished in a massacre the previous day at the hands (well the paws) of the female dogs. We can only assume that a few had escaped that carnage and had bided their time out in the bushes until it seemed all quiet down on the farm. An unfortunate decision.
Our immediate problem was how to regroup the dogs and put those genies back into their respective bottles. Obviously the first job was to tackle the ringleader, him with the fluttering Gallus domesticusin his mouth. So far today we had successfully demonstrated our total lack of control over these animals under normal circumstances. In a situation of high noise, rushing bodies and the smell of blood, our prospects of improving on our past performance did not look at all good. Thoughts such as batting the recalcitrant on the head with a pole did cross my mind, but one of the other dogs would have just collected the bird and I balked at attempting to concuss all seven animals. However there was a glimmer of hope.
These were after all, well trained field dogs; wasn’t Chris, their owner an international gun dog judge. Surely his animals would respond to commands from those in charge.
Well the theory was OK, but I have never trained gun dogs. I have done quite well with domestic pets, but there my authoritarian vocabulary only ran to ‘Sit’,’ Down’, ‘Heel’ and ‘Stay’. I tried all those but the animals merely evinved the canine equivalent of laughing at me, whilst continuing to race around the yard with the now perceptibly fading chicken.
I quickly brain stormed another vocabulary of potential canine control words and not a few gestures. ‘Stop’, ‘Back’, ‘Drop’, ‘Here’, ‘Present’, ‘Bugger’ were all words that I thought that I had heard professional trainers use. I tried them all in rapid succession without result. I began to wish that I had paid more attention when watching the police dog trainers perform. In the meantime the whirly noisy circus continued and I began to believe they would hear us in Eymet.
Just then I remembered that I had been in Chris’s toilet earlier. No, this is not a precursor to some dubious sexual anecdote. In the toilet he has hung some prize certificates from when he was in Africa and trained dogs over there. I remembered that he often shouted at his dogs in Swahili.
Now to say that my knowledge of the Swahili language was microscopic would be to exaggerate the breadth of my understanding. I did know that ‘Aisei’ was hello, but that was about it and I did not think that shouting ‘hello’ to the dogs would be particularly helpful in our current situation. So I had to improvise. I shouted various words, which to my untutored ear sounded like they might be confused for one of a number of African Languages.
I kept this up for about five minutes gaining full marks for effort, but Null point for achievement. Then just as the black Labrador was racing past me on another circuit, I must have hit on something he thought he understood in whatever language. He smartly wheeled around, sat down in front of me and presented the now bloody, limply struggling bird to me at about crotch level, not that good for your sartorial elegance, people wonder what you have been up to! Wagging his tail like he had just won a first at Crufts.
I was later told that the right word should have been ‘Hup’, what sort of word is that!
Once the bird was removed from their clutches the dogs subsided and we were able to herd them quickly back into their accommodation after the statutory struggle with the noncompliant gate. Of the other chickens that must have been around, given the wealth of feathers in the yard, there was no sign. We were just left with the badly damaged bird that had been the object of all the canine fun. It looked rather poorly and there seemed little chance of its surviving, so a decision was made to dispatch it quickly.
Now being largely a townie, at least in my earlier years, I do not have a lot of experience of dispatching anything, unless of course I have a firearm in my hand, then it is usually a piece of cake. I once had to kill a hamster with a semi automatic Voere rifle replete with silencer and telescopic sights, but that is another story.
The locals seem to have a knack of quickly twisting a chicken’s neck and it is killed quickly and painlessly. I was not about to start out on that learning curve at this juncture, so I decided to use the implements that Chris had left over from his fuel preparing activities. A quick stroke with the wood axe and all was finished, except that we now had two bodies to bury that early morning.
We repaired with our two corpses to the piece of land that Chris had pointed out to Mo the previous day. I struck the ground to remove the first sod and the shovel bounced back with a ringing sound from the rock hard soil. You will remember that we were in the depths of winter and even in Aquitaine it dips below freezing, on this occasion it had plunged well past that barrier and was heading into double figures. Our local soil tends to be heavy clay, which is iron hard in summer, mushy in spring and autumn and rock hard again during the cold snaps of winter.
I tried the shovel again, longing for a friend with a mini digger. It just about chipped a centimetre off of the surface. I retired hurt to the barn to search for a pickaxe. Returning with this implement and a couple of wrecking bars, I eventually managed to carve out a terrier sized hole after about half an hour.
The problem was that it was not big enough, the effects of rigor mortise, compounded by a night out in the cold had made poor Lucy as stiff as a board with her legs sticking out at most unnatural and rather inconvenient angles. I was obliged to extend the excavation and that took another quarter of an hour.
We laid her to rest with due solemnity and turned our attentions to the poorly departed chicken. It did pass my mind to put it in the same hole with Lucy, but we thought that the pet’s owners might consider that to be somewhat indelicate, if not out rightly sacrilegious. Anyway a local fox might come over one night and dig them both up, exposing our contumely. So we located some softer earth away from the canine sanctified turf and interred the sorely abused fowl in a grave of its own.
Cassell chores over for the moment we turned our weary thoughts to our own days work of decanting our furniture from one house to another, but we felt little like it. So far we had lost the pigeons and buried two inhabitants and it was not even 8 o’clock in the morning. Not only that after our own work we had another day at La Cassells to look forward to. But that is yet another story.