Every one needs good neighbours
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour.
Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936, English writer, poet, journalist).
Our neighbour is a retired farmer, which, in these parts, is a bit of a tautology. Obviously, in this rural area, most of our neighbours are farmers, and many are retired. Creuse has one of the oldest populations of any département in France. When we are there we must lower the mean age of the hamlet by a good twenty years.
Bernard has spent his life on the family farm, rearing cattle, growing cereals and hay and keeping a few rabbits and chickens for the family table. Farming methods have changed a lot in that time. As a young man he worked alongside horses on the farm and even after the tractor made them redundant, he continued to keep a couple of gentle Percheron to work and show. A thickset man with a generous waistband, he is always seen in an old blue jacket, a flat hat and a jumper, even in the hottest of weathers. As he goes about his chores, he moves with the slow deliberation of someone who has spent a lifetime learning how to ration his energies over a long working day. He is a man used to getting things done in a certain way.
He never married and, since retiring from working on his brother’s farm, he spends his days maintaining the small plots of land he has dotted around the commune: a pond here with a few carefully grafted fruit trees, a field there where he raises a few sheep, a corner of woodland over there where he coppices his firewood, a large vegetable plot up the lane and a strip over there to grow a few bales of hay. Next to his house he also has a small strip of land leading to an ancient orchard where the trees’ natural lives have been extended by supporting them up with forked wooden props. Life is good: he has a tractor, a dog that loves him and a ‘copine’ in the next village.
Things changed last year. After a bout of ill health and on the advice of his doctors, Bernard decided to cut back on some of his commitments. He rented out some of his fields and moved his centre of operations closer to home. Right next door to us, in fact. Now we saw him every day as he ploughed up the patch of land at the back of the orchard to create his new vegetable patch and tended to his rabbits, newly ensconced in their cement hutches behind an old wall. His chickens have made themselves at home in our garden and every now and then a broody one takes up residence in the shed. When we notice her we always move around on tiptoe while she is on the nest. I always feel a surge of pride when she finally brings her new family out for the first time, as if I’m the one who’s done something clever.
We were over for the Easter break and had been in the house for a couple of days. We had already done the wave and nod with Bernard and had even discussed the weather so I did not expect to have any further contact when I heard my name being called from the orchard. It was so unexpected that he had to call me again before I turned and realized that it was Bernard, gesturing for me to come over to the fence. I was astonished. In the six years we have owned our house, this was the first time he had ever instigated a conversation, the first time I had ever heard him use my name. I moved towards him with some trepidation. What did he want? What had we done?
‘Pour vous’, he said gruffly, handing a small battered cardboard box over the wire.
I took possession of the gift and opened it to find twelve little eggs. Well, I could not have been more touched, usually Bernard sold his surplus to supplement his pension, and so this was not an insignificant gesture. Before we left a crisis arose. The man we employ to cut the grass and so save us from the ire of our tidy neighbours had fallen ill and would not be able to mow the garden for a couple of months. The grass was already showing signs of spring growth and if we had to leave it untouched until our next visit we would be greeted by a jungle.
Enter our saviour, Bernard, upon his trusty ride-on mower. Up and down the uneven ground he went, with me darting to and fro to remove obstacles and debris that might foul the blades. Fearlessly he mowed up a steep bank and teetered dangerously close to the edge of a ditch to cut every last corner before he declared himself satisfied and, having saved the day, rumbled off down the lane on his trusty steed much like just the hero in ‘Shane’, riding into the sunset. A milestone has been passed, our conversations since have seemed a lot less strained and we have even shared a refreshing beer across the wire divide. Bernard seems to have been able to find a place for us in his mental landscape, no doubt labelled as ‘mostly harmless’.