The Great Wall
It has been a while since writing a story on Prose, my eyes are not what they used to be and to be honest, just never found inspiration from any of the prompts that suited my writing style.
I suppose this is quite a strange prompt really from Prose, but hey, who am I to criticise?
The best outcome of it is that it has prompted me put finger to qwerty keyboard and write a short story of one of my many escapades in France which from how I see it, should fall into the guidelines of this prompt.
The house we owned in France was edged, land wise by our nearest neighbour, Christian, whose farmhouse was some 3 km’s away. Christian would wave at me and my wife as he passed along the public lane in his trusty old Ford tractor leaving a cloud of black diesel smoke behind him.
One Sunday, we were having lunch alfresco with a couple of French friends Patrick and his wife Blandine. We were about to sample our third bottle of wine each, when Patrick asked if we had heard of the French pass time of cloud spotting, which for those uninitiated in the art form is staring at the clouds and finding shapes that look like objects, people, babies, dogs etc. We told him that we had and that obviously the English had stolen the idea from the French at some point in history. Still staring at the sky, Patrick indicated with his left arm that he had spotted a puppy which we assumed was his contribution and commencement of the game. My wife pointed at another cloud and said look, there’s a tree. I was looking around the sky and frankly couldn’t make a shape of anything. Worm shouted Blandine pointing at the remnants of an aeroplanes exhaust that had passed by earlier that morning. After taking another large gulp of wine I heard Christian’s tractor coming along the lane in our direction. Still scouring the sky, I waved at Christian as he passed without taking my eyes off the sky. The aroma of diesel fumes filled the air before rising into the sky dispersing slightly with the light breeze. Come on Julian shouted Patrick impatiently, the wine’s effect making him slur slightly. With all my might, I scrunched my eyes together and there it was, as clear as day and right above us. Bob Marley I shouted pointing at the shape of the diesel fumes above our head and there are the Wailers to the left of Bob. I couldn’t help but start singing Buffalo Soldier...... It appears I won the game as Blandine quickly changed the subject leaving Patrick nodding his head in agreement at the vision in the sky.
Christian’s tractor had turned at the end of the lane and from the plumes of smoke was heading in our direction, down our driveway. Suddenly, from out of the smokescreen, Christian came bounding over the lawn and kissed all the ladies four times on each cheek in that French custom of greeting and then proceeded to shake mine and Patrick’s hand. Julian said Christian putting his hand on my shoulder and gently coercing me away from the table and the others so he could speak in some privacy.
His Breton dialect was always difficult to interpret and on this occasion was not helped by the garlic snails he had eaten for lunch causing his breath to almost singe the hairs on my ears as he spoke. When he had finished speaking and I had managed to gulp in a garlic free inhalation of his body odour which for a split second was a welcome relief, I noticed that he was staring at me intently, waiting for an answer. I thought for a few seconds and once I had deciphered what I thought he had said, I weighed up the pros and cons of what I had mentally translated from what he had asked.
Cava he asked impatiently? After several moments of thought and in my best guttural French replied Oui! Demain he pressed? Oui, demain matin, tomorrow morning. With a satisfied grin on his face, he shook my hand firmly and left as quickly as he had arrived; his hand waiving his au revoir’s to Patrick, Blandine and my wife.
With another Bob Marley and The Wailers taking shape above our heads, Christian disappeared down the lane.
As I took my place back at the table, an air of anticipation was apparent and the baying crowd before me wanted to know what all the secrecy was about with Christian. As I had been asked to “ferme le bouche” regarding the agreement, I could not reveal what it was I was speaking about with Christian. However, not wishing to ruin the atmosphere of what up until now was a very convivial lunch, I quickly thought of an excuse that fitted in with the body language that everyone had witnessed and said, well Christian is going to cut the field next to our garden the next day and had said that it would not be too much of a chore for him to run our lawn over with his machine while he was there. His only proviso being that I arrange for my wife’s underwear to be on the washing line at the time of cutting as it made rather a boring job that little more interesting. Thankfully, Blandine, Patrick and my wife found the request more than amusing and their laughter passed over the need for further interrogation.
As with all lunches in France, lunch turned into an afternoon session of drinking and well more drinking really and before you know where you are, the evening aperitif hour has arrived, and out comes the kir royale’s and salty nibbles.
The offer of a traditional 5 course French evening meal was declined by Blandine and Patrick as it would “interfere with the natural flow of drinking”. However, this did not stop them requesting the wine list!
Following the conclusion of two bottles of Saint - Emilion Grande Cru, and a bottle of Premier Cru Champagne to liven up the liver, Patrick wandered off to check the functioning of our fosse septic by way of using our loo whilst my wife and I hastily carried out a stock check on our fast depreciating stock of wine. After ten minutes and several “raising of glasses”, I noticed through the one remaining open eye that Patrick had not returned. Fearing he had collapsed or fallen asleep on the loo, I unsteadily traced his steps to find that he was not in the loo! I noticed our bedroom door was open and fully expected to find him spread eagled on the bed, but no. I saw the sliding glass doors which led to the patio and the garden were open and I could hear faint singing in the distance. When I reached the end of the patio, I could see Patrick hanging washing on the washing line in the garden.
I shouted to him and asked what he was doing. He replied but I could not understand what he was slurring. As I approached him, I could see he was hanging underwear on the washing line. Pour demain Julian, pour demain he slurred. With both of us unable to stand, more because of us laughing than through the effects of the drink, we both sat on the grass to recover. After confirming that we were not “pompette”, we both managed to stand on all seven legs, we decided to leave the other non conforming legs where they were and made our way back to the house.
With the effects of the day’s drinking waning, yes, it is possible to drink yourself sober ish, Blandine and Patrick decided they should make their way home which was a relief because we were down to our last bottle of alcohol which as it turned out was cooking sherry, but I doubt anyone would have noticed anyway!
The following morning I was up and dressed with the lark. Bolstered by several strong cups of coffee and my pacemaker beating at double time due to the caffeine intake, I loaded up my van and made my way to Christian’s house.
On arrival I was met by Christian who was holding two glasses of red wine which is another French custom in the morning. After handing me a glass, we chinked the glasses together and downed the rather rough cloudy looking liquid with one body dithering gulp. Chateau du Boite Julian juste le Chateau du Boite! I must admit that cheap wine from a box is not my first choice of morning drink but the warmth I felt as it settled inside my stomach eased my slightly fuzzy head and changed my opinion of wine in a box somewhat!
Alors said Christian leading me over to the rear of the barn. He stopped suddenly and stood open armed as if presenting someone. Along the edge of a dilapidated old fence was a mound of old stonework and an attempt at a concrete footing obviously thrown down during the aperitif hour with not a spirit level in sight. Ici une mure, he continued, il commence ici et fini ici. He said pointing down the line, une metre cinq haute ok? Thank the lord he spoke in French and not Breton! So he wants a wall, to border his land at this point and to end at the bottom of his yard some 40 meters away and one point five meters high I thought to myself. Cava Julian, vous et comprenez said Christian unsure if I understood what he wanted. Oui Christain oui je comprende. I asked if he was still having trouble with his neighbour and he spat on the floor, stamping the guttural sticky mess into the mud, voisans, merde! Surely not I said in reply, but the hatred in his eyes said it all. He was absolute in his feelings, his neighbour was shit!
Over the next week I merrily plodded along, building the wall to the strict instructions as laid down by Christian. The neighbour of Christian with whom Christian was in dispute, came to look at the work whilst Christian was away from the farm on his tractor. He could spot the plume of smoke in the distance indicting Christian’s position at any point ensuring his safety. Michel, the neighbour who was friendly with me was laughing and rubbing his chin as he looked at the wall. Tres bien Julian, vous etes une macon du premiere classe. I thanked him for his comments and asked why he was smiling. He just shrugged his shoulders and smiled again, Vite, vite he said before disappearing to the safety of his land border. Blimey, I’m going as fast as I can I thought.
I must admit, in those days my eyes were a natural spirit level so the need to use one was only to confirm what I already knew and that was the wall was as straight and upright as it could be. These day’s unfortunately, the eyes are not that sharp!
On completion of the wall, Christian insisted I celebrate with a bottle of homemade cider or Domestos as I called it. It was as cloudy as a pea souper in London in the 1960’s. Michel, the neighbour had kindly waited for me to complete the works before opening the pig shed doors, something I was grateful to him for. However, the stench hit us like a barn door slamming in your face and the aroma coupled with the homemade cider, strangely made the whole bouquet more pleasant, even palatable! We drank to the weather, and each meter of stonework that had been laid. He even christened the wall by spitting a fizzy cider laden mouthful of spit which caused the spittle to froth up as it hit the stonework. An empty cider bottle followed it and smashed against the top course of stones. Time to go I said to Christian and packed up my tools and made my way home.
The next day I was woken by four cords of oak logs sliding from Christian’s trailer onto our car parking area. I heard a thud; something had hit the glass sliding doors of the bedroom. I pretended to be asleep for fear of finding Christian standing outside the doors with 2 glasses of Chateau du Boite or worse still wearing my wife’s underwear on his head. I waited until I had heard the familiar sound of a tractor engine start then its “put putting ”diminish as he drove into the distance.
I got out of bed and pulled the curtain to one side to see what had hit the glass doors, and there on the ground was a bottle of homemade cider and a dead rabbit its eyes still open as if gazing across the garden. Payday had surely arrived. I looked at the mound of oak sitting in our car park but could not face the toil it would take to stack it all in the woodshed.
Three days later, two blisters and several splinters later, I had almost finished stacking the wood when a Renault 4 skidded to a halt in our driveway. The door flew open and Christian jumped out waving a letter and swearing in both Breton and French and sometimes in Brench when he mixed up his dialects! Julian, Julian what have you done he shouted angrily! I took the letter from him; it was a letter from a Notaire including a map of the land registry stating a wall had been erected in such a way that the boundary had been breached between Christian’s land and his troublesome neighbours land. We climbed into the Renault 4 and Christian drove us at some speed and it has to be said with very little regard to other road users. We screeched to a halt near the offending wall which was a relief as I thought we were going to hit it! I checked everything regarding the wall’s construction and it was to the exact specification that Christian had demanded. Christian said that the wall breached the boundary at approximately 30 meters leaving 10 meters on his shit neighbours land. I looked at the concrete footings which Christian had laid himself and the wall fell well within the footings. I pointed out this minor detail to him and alarm spread across his face. What I witnessed next was both bizarre to say the least and most alarming. Christian’s face blushed to a bright shade of purple as his blood pressure mounted within the confines of his skull. The purple darkened to damson, I was fully expecting him to turn into “The Hulk” at any second. He then proceeded to punch himself in the face repeatedly whilst jigging about like a boxer in the ring. Jab followed uppercut followed by a haymaker, the sheer force of which, spread his own nose across his face and he went to the floor like une sac du pommes de terre. He was scrambling to get up as if in his mind he was trying to beat the count of ten by some imaginary referee. Not wishing to interfere, I was leaning against my masterpiece of a wall watching in sheer amazement and have to admit, amusement at Christian’s actions. Christian lay flat on his back, his attempts to stand up diminished as exhaustion set in. His eyes were closed and blood ran from the side of his nose down his cheek and into the orifice of his ear. He was motionless now, so I called out his name, but there was no response. I went over and shook him, but he remained motionless. By the edge of one of his barns I could see a bucket of rainwater and like in all good films emptied its contents over his head. The black mud in the bottom of the bucket followed the clear rainwater leaving Christian’s head covered in rotting leaves. A not too rotted oak tree leaf was expelled from Christian’s mouth as he coughed and spluttered back to life, wiping his eyes clear of the stinking black sludge. Merde he shouted as he scrambled to his feet and ran in double quick time to the outside tap.
Fully cleansed, with one swollen eye and lips to match, we walked back to the offending wall. We inspected the length of it and came across a pile of yellow plastic pegs approximately 10 meters from the end of the wall. I asked Christian what the pegs were and he shrugged and said that they were old land markings someone had put in the wrong place. I checked the map from the Notaire and it was exactly where the boundary had been breached and clearly where the wall entered the shit neighbours land. Did you remove these when you laid the footings Christian I asked? Yes he said, they were in the way of where I wanted the wall.
After a brief discussion and pointing out the fact that he was liable to reinstate his neighbours land by removing the offending 10 meters of wall within 3 days or face a court order, Christian negotiated another two cords of wood, this time stacked neatly in the woodshed if I could assist him with his plight.
Luckily, Christian’s wide footings were enough to contain the modification of the wall and the offending section was demolished and rebuilt with a gradual curve to the left which was not out of keeping. Michel made an appearance to check the wall when Christian was not on site. He eyed up the wall as I put the final top stone in and said “exact Julian, exact” before leaving.
When I returned home, I explained the situation to my wife over an aperitif and said that Christian would be putting two more cords of oak into the woodshed in the morning. Will he want my mother’s old knickers on the washing line when he does it she asked only I had forgotten I had them and brought them to France by mistake, they were meant to go to the recycling centre in her old suitcase and must have found their way into the removal van. They were under the bed in our bedroom, I’m glad we found a use for them, mother would be pleased!
As an aside I just found my spectacles, they were down the side of the chair. Well I hope this story fits the prose prompt of the longest alter....... SHIT, the prompt says alliteration not alteration, sod it I’m entering it anyway!