by Chris Dolley
The Move: Hell and Horseboxes
“Investment? What investment? You cancelled it in April.”
It was now September. September 22nd 1995.
I froze. I’d only called Simon, our financial adviser, to ask a few routine questions. I hadn’t expected this. He was talking about our investment bond – the bulk of the proceeds from our house sale, our life savings, the money that was going to fund our new life in France.
“No, I didn’t,” I replied, hoping that there’d been some kind of mistake.
I could hear a riffling of papers, pages being turned, a note of panic in Simon’s voice.
“I … er … have the correspondence here. Yes … April. You wanted the bond encashed and the money sent to your business account in Spain.”
What business account in Spain? I didn’t have any accounts in Spain. I didn’t have any business accounts anywhere!
I couldn’t believe it. This could not be happening. Not to me. Things like this happened to other people!
And then I thought about the chaos that marked our first seven months in France – the move from Hell, the neurotic car, the police roadblock, the fire, the ten foot long caterpillar, the day I accidentally signed for the local football team … and realised … I’m just the kind of person this does happen to.
It was a shock. That sudden shift in my internal picture. I was no longer the person who sat safe and warm watching events unfold upon the television screen. I was the person in front of the camera. The man standing in the doorway as the getaway car mounts the pavement. The man eating his sandwiches in the park when the sniper opens the attic window.
They’re all me.
Seven months earlier…
It was the day before our move and doubt was sitting on my shoulder, whispering. Was moving to France a terrible mistake or just the result of unpardonable crimes in a previous life? Even the weather was against us. The latest forecast for Wednesday – the day of our ferry crossing – had the English Channel buried in isobars and lashed by gale force winds. What if the ferry was cancelled? The Channel Tunnel wasn’t finished yet. We couldn’t take a plane – unless British Airways considered two horses, one dog and three cats acceptable cabin luggage. And we’d have nowhere to stay either – the new owner would be moving into our farm tomorrow morning.
All we’d have were a single change of clothes and a collection of dog and cat bowls – our clothes and furniture having gone ahead of us. They were being loaded into the removal van today.
But moving to France had to be the right thing to do. We’d spent three years with more money going out than was coming in. Which gave rise to The Plan – sell our farm, free up the capital and move to rural France where we could buy a similar property for a third of the price and use the balance to live off of. Simple and brilliant. All problems solved and a better climate thrown in for good measure.
Even though it was a nightmare to organise.
We lived in Devon; the new house was in the foothills of the Pyrenees – an 800-mile drive and a six-hour ferry trip distant. We had a jeep and a thirty year-old tractor. Neither excelled at long journeys.
And then there were the animals. Two horses, three cats and an enormous puppy.
Even if we could fit the dog and cats into the Suzuki – which I doubted – could we all survive an eighteen-hour journey cooped up together and remain sane?
This thought fuelled a recurring nightmare – me behind the wheel of our jeep with my face being licked by the dog on my lap and a cat fight filling the rear-view mirror.
We had to find another way. Which led us to the horsebox. It was one of those rare moments in our move when everything suddenly came together. We knew we had to hire someone to transport the horses, could they take the dog and cats as well? They could? Excellent! Could they take us? Even better. And to prove there really was a deity they even reduced the price on the proviso that we doubled as grooms for the journey.
I didn’t dream that night. A force field of contentment kept the demons at bay. I didn’t have to drive; I didn’t have to knock on hotel doors in the middle of the night covered in scratches and dog slobber. Bliss.
A word that could not be used to describe the weather. The storm hadn’t arrived yet but the wind was picking up; playful gusts were turning meaner, clouds were looking busier. The one silver lining was that it hadn’t started to rain yet. At least our possessions were being loaded into the back of the removal lorry in the dry.
We had thought our last day on the farm was going to be a quiet one – a day to say goodbye to our home of six years and walk the fields for the last time. But no, it’s a day of constant interruption and visits – electric and water meters being read, removal men walking in and out, boxes being packed, furniture loaded, inventories filled in, telephone calls, vet inspections. The latter taking two whole hours as every whorl and marking of the horses had to be scrutinised and faithfully recorded on their travel documents.
Did I mention the cleaning?
We’d thought our house reasonably clean – for a farm – for a farm in a muddy winter overrun by cats and a dog with big feet. But, as soon as the rooms were cleared, bright islands appeared on our carpets where the furniture had been. Were the carpets really that colour when we bought them?
Which brings us to the dog, Gypsy, a four-month-old lurcher. For anyone unfamiliar with the breed, the lurcher is the one that fills the gap between the Irish Wolf Hound and the crocodile. She was immense. And her favourite game was dragging her favourite toy across the floor. Sad to say, her favourite toy was my leg. What can I say? I have highly desirable ankles.
Which can be a problem when you’re rushing to clean a carpet … and your dog decides it’s playtime. Note to all husbands: being dragged across the floor by one’s ankle is not a credible defence when your wife is under stress and expecting help with the carpet cleaning.
“Stop playing with the dog!” shouted Shelagh, trying to make herself heard over the sound of the vacuum cleaner. “You’re supposed to be helping.”
People who’ve never had their ankle between a canine’s canines cannot appreciate the pain. It’s a cross between having your funny bone tapped with a hammer and a tooth drilled. And it activates a nerve that has fast track access to the part of your brain (the Little-Girlie Thalamus) responsible for making your eyes water and raising your voice two whole octaves.
As I said, no defence.
Shelagh gave up Hoovering and resorted to bartering, trying to swap me for a biscuit – not the first time in our marriage she’d attempted this. Gypsy held out for two custard creams before unclamping her jaws. Which gave us time to lay a trail of biscuits leading to the lounge door, open the door, throw a biscuit through and … goodbye hellhound. One point to the limping Homo sapiens team.
It took a lot of scrubbing but eventually the bright islands receded and out came a passable example of the carpet we’d bought.
On to the next room.
This time we tricked Gypsy without having to resort to biscuits or displaying a provocative ankle. We opened the door, let her bound through, then slipped past her in the excitement, slamming the door shut behind us. An hour later, we’d shampooed, scrubbed and vacuumed the living room carpet back to acceptability.
Then I returned to the lounge to fetch Gypsy.
And stepped into an alternative universe – something that rarely happens in Devon. I was in the lounge. But the carpet wasn’t the same freshly cleaned carpet I’d left an hour earlier. It was a different carpet. A much darker, dirtier carpet.
Teeth smiled at me from the centre of the room. Teeth pleased with themselves. Teeth wrapped around a small circle of carpet. My first thought was one of complete panic. Our dog had somehow managed to rip out a one-foot diameter circle of carpet which she was now devouring. My God, was anything safe!
But I couldn’t see a hole in the carpet – one foot or any other diameter. I looked. I peered. Where the hell had it come from? And then came the realisation. Our log basket! We’d left it in the inglenook fireplace. Our wicker log basket with the one-foot diameter circle of carpet at the bottom to catch all the mess and bark and dirt and wet leaves and all manner of hideous things that clung to damp logs in the winter. Except now they were all clinging to our freshly cleaned carpet. Spread and ground-in from wall to wall. Gypsy was nothing if not thorough.
Twelve hours to go and I screamed.
Sample 2 – French: A Language Spoken in Tongues
It had all started when we dropped in at Claudine’s for hay and straw … and came home with four pints of milk. Nothing to do with our inability to speak French this time but the unfailing generosity of our neighbours.
We arrived at dusk to a deserted farmyard. Deserted, that is, except for four lounging dogs lying by the gate. Eventually, the smallest and most alert of the four guard dogs noticed our intrusion and raised the alarm. The largest dog, the redoubtable gardien de vache, opened a solitary eye, cast an appraising look in our direction, sniffed and went back to sleep. Not worth the bother.
Claudine appeared in the doorway of an old stone building at the side of the yard and beckoned us in. We’d arrived in the middle of milking.
As we stepped through into the light we wondered what we’d find. French farmers were generally vilified, depending on which section of the English press you read, as either inefficient and subsidy-ridden or barbaric animal torturers who loved nothing better than to import cuddly English calves and lock them up in veal crates. As usual, the truth was somewhat different.
There were twenty cows of assorted breeds, colours and ages. Including three very young calves, who, far from being housed in veal crates, were still suckling from their mothers.
This was not modern industrial farming. No gleaming stainless steel vat or state-of-the-art milking parlour. No vast homogenous herd, economies of scale or labour-saving devices. This was a small family farm as small family farms used to be. When all animals had names and labour was long, hard and mostly manual. The only hint of technology I could see was a small portable milking cluster which Roger was carrying from cow to cow.
Steam rose from the backs of the cattle as we took out our script and launched into our prepared speech. Did they have any hay or straw that we could buy?
Claudine shook her head and then burst into a stream of tightly packed and indecipherable French.
It was the longest ‘no’ I’d ever heard.
Or was it a ‘yes’?
Gradually the odd word untangled itself from amongst the ‘r’s. They couldn’t sell us any hay or straw because we were voisins – neighbours. They’d give us a couple of bales instead.
We tried to press money on them. More head shaking, more ‘r’s, lots of voisins. This was the campagne, a land where neighbours helped each other out.
And did we want any milk?
Before we could answer, Roger came out from behind a cow with the milking cluster and Claudine was off looking for something to put the milk in.
Did we want any cows?
I looked at Shelagh, had I heard that correctly? Had Roger offered us a cow? Were we about to walk back up the hill carrying a bucket of milk and leading a cow? Would it be bad manners to decline a voisin’s gift? Or were we supposed to offer something in exchange? Gypsy, for instance.
I was just warming to the idea of an animal exchange, when Claudine launched into a glowing account of Samatan market. You could buy anything there. If we wanted to have cattle, that would be the place to go.
Aha, now, I understood.
By this time our French conversational skills were pretty much exhausted. We managed a few more sentences about cows and weather but that was about it. To me, conversing in French is very much like holding your breath – after a minute, I’m spent and speechless. Words and phrases were flying over my head as Roger and Claudine chattered on about this and that. I looked at Shelagh, she looked at me. What were they saying? Claudine and Roger tempted us with a few more sentences but even after three repeats I was still lost.
A silence descended.
An awkward silence that I felt compelled to fill.
Always a big mistake.
I thought I’d try and work horses into the conversation – find a common subject we could talk about. I wondered if they’d ever used horses on their farm.
“No, never,” they said.
I should have quit at that point. I’d asked a question and received an answer I understood. My daily quota had been filled. But my interest had been piqued. What had they used on the farm before the advent of the tractor? Oxen? I’d seen a picture showing a working oxen team pulling a plough in the Central Massif as late as 1970. Had they used oxen here?
The conversation went downhill from that point. What was the French for ox? Guidebooks won’t tell you. They don’t cover rural small talk. Plenty of phrases for ‘Where is the station?’ and ‘Can you tell me where the toilets are?’ but ‘Where are the oxen?’ – don’t even bother to look.
I tried grande vache, rationalising that a big cow was worth a shot.
Shelagh’s eyes had rolled into the top of her head and she was slowly, sidling away from the conversation. Claudine and Roger were transfixed. Big cow? What was that about the big cow?
I pressed on, if I couldn’t find the words, I’d mime them. I fastened my wrists to the top of my head. But before I could stop myself my fingers splayed and my hands started waggling. My horns had evolved into antlers.
And immediately frightened off the few French nouns that I had left.
And in between the waggling, came the babbling.
I tried to say, ‘In England, before tractors, we used to have oxen.’ It came out more like, ‘In England, all tractors are preceded by giant elk.’
If not a man with a red flag.
It was time to go.
Shelagh grabbed hold of my left antler and tugged me towards the door.
Sample 3 – Animals: Home Invasions — Feline Style
It had started on our second night. I think the local feline population had called an emergency meeting as soon as they sniffed out our arrival – cats having that uncanny ability – and a ginger tom had won the ballot for first shot at the newcomers.
He tried the ‘Homeless Cat’s Plaintive Serenade Under The Bedroom Window In The Middle Of The Night’ ploy – an old favourite and usually a sure-fire winner. Certainly, we’d fallen for it before. But this time we had two cats in residence and felt that our quota had been well and truly filled.
The next night he tried the ‘Homeless Cat’s Plaintive Serenade From Under The Bed’ ploy. A much bolder stratagem and a considerable surprise at two o’clock in the morning. One minute I was asleep, enjoying a cat-free dream, the next I was awoken by a discordant caterwauling emanating from less than one foot below my left ear.
And he was caterwauling in French. I could tell by the accordion accompaniment.
Having a cat flap certainly has its disadvantages. Singing cats unexpectedly gaining access to your bedroom in the middle of the night being one of them. Sharing a bed with a very large puppy has only one advantage. The singing cat didn’t stay long enough to appreciate it.
But he did appreciate the cat flap again – at great speed – closely followed by the aforementioned very large puppy.
With the failure of the singing ginger cat, the starving black cat was sent in. Its job was to beg for food. Well, perhaps not so much beg as ask very quietly when no one was around then come back at night and strip the property of everything edible – including Gally’s favourite fishy-shaped croquettes.
And the best part of a loaf of bread – the middle part – carefully excavated through its paper wrapper.
Its stomach bulging from the night’s endeavours, the black cat then climbed to the top of our fridge freezer and was promptly sick from a great height. Lending a textured wavy stripe to our fridge door.
We could forgive a starving cat the croquettes, perhaps the bread as well. But I think the wavy stripe was going a bit too far.
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