Monsieur So British #14: A Little Wood Husbandry

Sunday, October 27th, 2019

#14 A Bit of Wood Husbandry

In a world dominated by Fake News, it has become ever more important not to take bold statements at face value. Scrutiny is paramount, fighting accepted norms and platitudes vital. For example if, in response to my almost constant self pity and whining, I am met with ‘well, there’s always someone worse off than you’, my back, arthritic and hernia’d as it is, is very quickly going to get up and I won’t accept the lazy platitude with ease. ‘There’s always someone worse off than you’ is venal, guilt-provoking nonsense. A very British stoicism, a sneering stiff upper lipped response to actually taking a bit of time off for yourself for a change, a Victorian epithet whose sole purpose is to stop you’re pathetic bleating. Well, I won’t have it.

‘Oh no! My car’s failed its MOT, what am I going to do?’

‘You know there are kids in Africa who haven’t eaten for a week, don’t you?’

What in the sweet, merry Hell has that got to do with my car issues?!

‘I have chronic inflammatory rheumatoid arthritis…’

‘You know some people are paralysed from the eyebrows and can only communicate by frowning or surprise, don’t you?’

‘What? Alright then, we’ll call it a draw.’

What is a constant niggle as we limp through this veil of tears is not the self-reproach for the fact that others are having a hard time, but the bitter knowledge of the exact opposite; that while I crumble physically like a lump of Wednesleydale cheese, there are others out there springing out of bed in a morning with more energy than Tigger and the physical suppleness of an Olympic gymnast. That one of them, specifically in fact, is about 90 years old and still delivering six tonnes of chopped firewood to my house every autumn acts like a taser to whatever limited good humour I have. Monsieur Maille puts me to shame.

He’s probably less than five feet tall, solidly built if bow legged, with wispy grey hair, a permanently cheeky glint in his eye and a smile so infectious even I respond to it. He’s probably almost double my age and most definitely not my future, his physical prowess and good humour isn’t even my present and if it was ever my past, it was a horribly long time ago. He leapt like a sprite on to the top of his tractor trailer, stood on top of the neatly stacked wood and from his vantage point took a good look at me. It’d been a year since I saw him last and in that time he’d definitely got younger while I’ve hurtled towards dotage. ‘You look well,’ he said, a smile playing on his lips as he lied badly.

I didn’t look at all well. There I stood wearing a white bandaged elbow tubigrip, a knee support, a black wrist support, a heavy-duty grey girdle and an embarrassed look on my face. I looked like a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis who’s lately decided to take up skateboarding but who doesn’t have all the equipment. He chuckled to himself.

It’s axiomatic that in my current physical condition the last thing I should be doing is emptying a tractor of six tonnes of dense firewood and then stacking said pile in the woodstore. Natalie said I shouldn’t do it, her parents and the children said I shouldn’t do it, my physio laughed when I said I was going to do it and then looked scared that the result would be that she’d never get rid of me. But when the guy delivering the wood is 90 years old and smaller than Kylie Minogue that, my friends, represents a challenge. I had to keep my end up as it were. Besides which I didn’t stack the wood last year, I paid someone else to do it, who then complained when the wood pile he stacked fell on him. So if you want something doing around here…

The first year he’d delivered the wood, Monsieur Maille had managed to wreck the gate as he manoeuvred his laden tractor through the narrow entrance, he’d also struggled to three point turn the thing in such a way as to make it easier to offload. That was then though, and three years down the line, not only was his body miraculously younger but his eyesight and faculties were back to peak, mid-season form and he sped through the open gate before handbrake turning the thing into optimum position. Between us it took about twenty minutes to unload the tractor, and at the end I gripped a bottle of water like I’d just crawled across the Sahara while he looked at me out of the corner of his eye, then he looked at the discarded wood.

‘It won’t be easy stacking this lot, have you got help?’ He was genuinely concerned.

‘No,’ I croaked, ‘no help.’

He stroked his chin, ‘Maybe I’ll leave it a few days before the next delivery then…’

I leaned against the tractor and practically belched ‘that’s a good idea, thanks,’ at him. Sweat was pouring from every orifice, all my padding was soaked and my sunhat, shortly to be replaced by hardhat, looked like it had been dropped in a puddle and was holding back a deluge of flopsweat. He chuckled, jumped into his tractor and roared off again. I sank to my knees, and wondered if it was too late to install gas heating.

I’m not saying I’m competitive in any way, but I felt a challenge had been thrown down here. Here was the old man, getting younger by the day, a real-life Benjamin Button and he was giving me a break by saying he wouldn’t rush round with the second half of the delivery. There’s a pride at stake here, and I set about piling the wood like a man possessed. Unfortunately I was possessed with an unswerving illness and a body not up to the job. Two days later he was back and didn’t bother hiding his surprise that everything had been stacked. He tried to engage me in conversation but I was, following nearly two whole days in bed screaming for sweet death in no mood for pleasantries and besides, I was whacked off my tiny, tiny mind on the kind of painkillers that would floor a rhinocerous.

I’m not entirely sure what got me through the next few hours. The old man left, either seriously impressed by my industrious nature or suspicious of my monosyllabic concentration, think Alec Guinness in Bridge On the River Kwai, as I immediately attacked the new delivery with a mouth-frothing verve that wiped the smirk of his face. When I finished I stood back, admired my work and sank to my knees. A decision I immediately regretted as I couldn’t get back up again. Behind me I heard the bell ring, and I spluttered eventually back to an almost erect position and zig-zagged, like a marathon runner who’s ‘hit the wall’, towards the gate. It’s probably Monsieur Maille, I thought, maybe he’s forgotten something…

It wasn’t Monsieur Maille at all. It was new arrivals for the BnB, and they looked at me very strangely indeed, as if they’d got the wrong place.

‘Are you Ian?’ The man asked nervously, obviously English.

‘Yes,’ I replied in a sort of death croak and held out a red raw hand, roughly bandaged.

The man looked at my attire, my girdle and supports, the sweaty hat. He noticed the odd angle at which I stood, trying as I was to compensate for quite staggering pain. I was not the picture of health, nor stylishness that I usually like to think I am. Not that that really matters in rural France, I mean I keep up standards as much as possible, but the BnB offers a certain amount of anonymity so I can get away with the odd lapse.

‘I’ve read both your books,’ the man said laughing, ‘I didn’t expect you to be dressed like that!’

Busted.

I stood there, swaying slightly and feeling like I might keel over at any minute, ‘You know there are some people who can’t even afford clothes!’ I said tartly. That’ll show him.

The ‘Monsieur So British…’ blog carries on from my two best-selling books, ‘À la Mod…’ and ‘C’est Modnifique!’ both published by Summersdale and available here. This blog will also appear as a podcast every fortnight. It’s here on itunes and it’s on spotify  and acast, if you’d like a listen. They’re only 15 minutes long…

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