Need I say more? All this growth. It’s too distracting….
It’s early evening and I’m heading for my shed for a writing session, I swear.
There are three donkeys blocking my path. They’ve bloody well escaped again. I rush to the house, grab a rope and head back to catch them.
That’s when I see – a fourth donkey. We own three donkeys. How can there be a fourth?
A horrible thought occurs to me. He’s a male. Could Paulette be in season?
And, sure enough, every time I try to get close to our donkeys, the male rushes in like the skunk in the cartoon and tries to leap on Paulette’s back.
Our donkeys are dismayed. They prance round and round the field like Lipizzaner stallions. I follow hopelessly with my rope. The male stands, puzzled, then makes straight-line charges at them.
He leaps on Paulette’s back and she lands him one of her famous backlegged kicks. Alphonse, usually so meek, defends his lady’s honour by launching a few impressive sallies of his own.
After half an hour or so of this diversion, Paulette leads her little family overland across the fields. I watch them disappear with the male in hot pursuit in the general direction of the neighbouring farm.
What to do? I do what comes naturally. I rush home, pick up the phone and blame Scott, who’s away on a business trip.
‘Perhaps he belongs to Kiki and Jean-Francois,’ he says.
‘I don’t think so. They have very pretty little donkeys and this is a particularly ugly donkey.’
Scott advises me to try and channel them down the track into our field. It’s getting dark by now and I have little chance of finding them before morning.
I go down to our fields. As I get closer, through the gloom, I see the muzzles of donkeys. Demure, kind, good donkeys, munching grass.
I don’t know what’s happened to the male, but presumably Paulette has given him the slip and come back to her own comfy field.
But, when I do a head count, there are only two donkeys. One is the baby. It must be Paulette and Josephine. I wonder if Alphonse is even now doing battle with the rampant male.
But Paulette has a halter on and this one does not. Slowly it dawns on me: this is a mother and baby – but not ours. Two entirely new donkeys that don’t belong to us.
The rapacious male must have brought his devoted wife and child along on his sexual orgy.
Back at the house, I call Myriam, our neighbour and asked whose donkeys they could be. She says she thinks they belong to the garde champêtre. Our mortal enemy. The village policeman who is constantly criticising us for Muttley’s break outs. He’s even laid dog traps to try to catch him and take him to the pound.
‘You foreigners,’ he’s apt to storm. ‘You don’t know how to look after your animals. You need to chain a dog up to stop him getting out.’
Nobody can find his number. I ask if Myriam can swing by and mind Ailsa for half an hour.
Ten minutes later, Myriam arrives at mine, saying: ‘Saira, I have such a guilty conscience. I didn’t tell you that this morning we found three donkeys we thought were yours. They were causing a nuisance so we herded them into your field. And then we saw that your three donkeys were already there. Michel said to me: “these must be the donkeys belonging to that con the garde champêtre.” So we took them out of your field, put them on the road to Prémian and left them there.’
Suddenly a lot of things are clearer. ‘The male must have smelled Paulette,’ I say. ‘He keeps trying to mate her, even though she’s not interested. I suppose she is in season.’
‘I don’t think so, if she is refusing him,’ said Myriam. ‘And besides, he was also trying to mate our mare and Pierre’s stallion.’
I go off to try and find the garde champêtre. His house is like Colditz. He’s built a six foot wall around it and has filled his front yard with concrete. Even his hen house is covered in locks and security gates.
His wife answers the door. I utter the words that every donkey-owner dreads: ‘do you have donkeys? I think they are at the neighbouring farm and I’m afraid they may be in the vegetable garden…’
The poor woman’s face falls. She calls her husband.
‘Your male donkey broke into our field and knocked down the electric fence,’ I say. ‘He is chasing our donkeys round the countryside. Two more of your donkeys are in our field but the fence is broken so they may get out again.’
Jerome is made of sterner stuff than his wife. ‘What colour are these donkeys?’ he demands.
I take a deep breath. ‘Grey.’
We agree that Jerome will check his field and if his donkeys are missing he’ll swing by my house. It’s merely a stalling tactic. His wife’s face has told me all I need to know.
When I get home, the first thing I see is a herd of donkeys behind my house. I can’t count them. Three or four.
Jerome turns up a few minutes later, gruffly admitting that his donkeys are indeed missing. He disappears behind the house with a flashlight. Myriam and I giggle as the donkeys run in circles round the house with Jerome chasing behind them.
‘I can’t do anything in the dark, I’ll come back in the daylight and round them up,’ he says.
I can’t sleep. The rain falls and the wind howls and I think about Alphonse, Paulette and Josephine out there making mischief. Shame, because for once Ailsa lies quiet as a mouse beside me all night.
At seven, I’m woken by the baker’s van. I go and make tea. The phone rings. Jerome says he’s found all six donkeys together in the neighbouring farm’s field but that he’s having difficulty catching them.
I drive towards Prémian and meet Jerome herding six donkeys in front of him. Every time he speeds up, so do they. He can never quite catch up with them.
I block their path with the car and leap out with my rope. Paulette is in the lead. When she sees me, she does a half turn and heads back towards Prémian.
Jerome grabs his male.
‘Get Paulette, my female!’ I shout.
‘It is all right. I have the leader.’
‘Paulette is the leader…’
‘Non, non, you will see. They will all follow my male.’
At that moment, all the donkeys turn and follow Paulette.
Jerome manages to get behind her and herd her towards me. I hold out an apple. Paulette wants the apple but she’s too clever to be caught by that old trick. Jerome’s female pushes her muzzle towards the apple. And Paulette can’t resist leaping into action to grab it first. I get hold of her and have her on a lead at last. All the donkeys obediently follow her.
I get my three donkeys into the back field, behind the wooden gate. Jerome’s male follows but I keep him out of the field. He stands on the other side of the fence, braying forlornly for Paulette.
Jerome gets hold of his halter. The male refuses to budge. I ask Jerome: ‘shall I tap him on his flank with my rope?’
‘Yes, yes!’ he says. The male shoots off like a Derby runner. Jerome is dragged along behind him for a few seconds before he loses hold of the rope. I try not to laugh.
‘This has never happened to me in all my life,’ he blusters. ‘I have kept these donkeys for three years and they have never got out, never. The maçon must have left a fence open when he went to do some work.’
‘Ce n’est pas grave,’ I say. ‘Really Jerome, we understand what donkeys are like. They’re like dogs – they run away all the time. It could happen to anyone. You don’t need to explain.’
And the look on his face makes all the hell seem worth it.