A Farewell to Farms
The Limousin landscape was as lush as I'd imagined. Even on a late-autumn evening, it felt like a midsummer day. Birdsong and the buzzing of dying bees filled the air. I was tired and sore, but even the sweat trapped under my backpack failed to dampen my spirits. I was on my way to a farm, and on that farm I was to learn homesteading skills worthy of Thoreau, worthy of the world as I knew it, which, according to the Mayans, was on its way out. But not even the imminent apocalypse—about which I'd been reading on the train—could demoralize me. In any case, the skills that I was on my way to learn would surely stand me in good stead after the cataclysm.
An hour or so into my hike, I spotted a woman weeding in her garden and stopped to ask for directions. When I told her where I was going and the name of the English woman with whom I would be staying, there was an almost indiscernible flicker in her face. She put down her tools, looked up and down the street as if making sure the coast was clear, and then half-invited, half-ushered me in for a jus d'orange.
For some reason, I often provoke tears of nostalgia in women of a certain age. And Madame Véry, as my new acquaintance was called, was no different. All I did was ask about her family who, it seemed, had all abandoned her. It was hard to tell whom she missed most: her dog and husband in the hereafter, or her son and daughter in Paris.
As moving as her tale was, it was not the information I'd been expecting to hear. It had seemed that she had wanted to tell me something, but no intelligence was forthcoming. Aware that the light was fading, and that I still had a few miles to walk, I made to leave. She reached for a pen, wrote down her number, and pressed it into my hand with an earnest "au cas où."
Just in case.
I pocketed the paper and went on my way, wondering if there was, indeed, something she had wanted to tell me. I was still wondering when I reached the hamlet, which was to be my new home. Of the dozen or so stone houses clustered on the side of the hill, no more than half looked habitable. Startled by the sound of a latch, I looked round to see a hunched figure emerging from a house several feet away. Either the stone-cobbled doorway was exceedingly small or else she was extremely large. As she regained her full height, I decided it was the latter. Large in a Matilda-facing-Trunchbull sort of way and with an uncertain smile to match. I imagine she supposed it to be welcoming, but I found it far from reassuring.
As I stepped into the warm house, all my concerns melted away. It was the fulfilment of all my rustic reveries: solid stone walls supported by rough-hewn beams, from which hung cast-iron pots in which we would make mouth-watering ragoûts, which we would eat at the solid wood table…My daydream was interrupted by an invitation to take a walk outside, to see where I would be spending most of my time. She told me that there was much to be done: beds to tend, compost to turn, animals to feed, milk, and finally slaughter.
We came back inside, and she brusquely closed and locked the door. Looking directly into my eyes, she asked me not to talk to the neighbors about the work I was doing.
Strange, I thought. But maybe she just likes to keep herself to herself.
"Actually, I don't want you to talk to them at all," she added, and reached for a chopping board and knife.
I slept fitfully that night, kept awake by the alarm bells in my head and the cowbells in the shed. The following morning, however, I was ready to get my hands dirty. I introduced myself to the animals, gathered walnuts from the meadow, and looked on as my hostess made goats' milk. This was exactly the post-apocalyptic preparation I'd been hoping for and, yet, I remained uneasy. Something wasn't right, but I still couldn't discern what it was.
My disquiet was only heightened by the non-appearance of the Belgians.
She had made mention of them on my first evening, a "lovely Belgian couple" who were due to arrive the following day to work through the winter. But they never showed up. When I asked about them, I was told in a mind-your-own-business tone:
"They'll be here tomorrow."
Tomorrow came and the compost was turned, the animals fed, the eggs collected—but no Belgians. Again, I asked and, again, the response was the same:
"Tomorrow…they should be here tomorrow."
The following afternoon, returning from the wood with baskets full of walnuts, I found myself alone. I set down my load and sat out front to enjoy the last of the day's sunshine. Within moments, a door opened across the street and out came a wrinkled, wispy-haired man.
"Bonjour," he offered.
"Bonjour, monsieur," I replied, standing to greet him.
We chatted for a moment, and he asked if I would like to come in. He told me he was watching the rugby and would be glad for the company. I wavered on my side of the street, hesitant to flout the rules of the house.
He threw me a questioning look. "Tu peux, tu sais."
That was the strange thing: I knew that I could—and yet I felt like I couldn't. It was as if there was some invisible force-field preventing me from leaving the front porch. Otherwise, why did crossing the road to talk to a frail old man suddenly seem like the most daring thing I had ever done?
It was then that I knew that something was definitely wrong. I glanced up and down the street and darted across the road.
Once safely inside, he poured me a strong drink, which I sipped gratefully. But as with Mme Véry, there seemed to be a reluctance to talk about what mattered. He talked instead about the Rugby World Cup, about his sister next door with whom he no longer spoke, and again about the Rugby World Cup. Mid-sentence, he paused, listening to something audible only to him.
"She's looking for you," he informed me.
I cocked my head, but still nothing. Then, without warning, an almighty pounding at the front door shook the entire house.
"Kevin!" she bellowed. "I know you're there; get back over here right now!"
My companion glanced at the silhouetted figure outside and then listlessly back at the TV. Something about his insouciance gave me confidence. I hollered back, as jauntily as possible:
"I'll be over shortly!"
One more drink and I made my way reluctantly across the street, wishing that my octogenarian friend were by my side.
I was greeted by a censorious tirade:
for working too slowly!
for stopping work when there was still more to be done!!
and, worst of all, for associating with the locals!!!
Before I had a chance to reply, she had stormed out of the house and down the road.
Now was my chance. I scrambled up the narrow wooden stairs to the sitting room and cautiously lifted the phone. Taking the now crumpled piece of paper from my pocket, I dialed the number.
Quivering with the fear of being found out, I whispered into the receiver.
"Allô, Mme Véry ? C'est Kevin, le…"
I was about to explain who Kevin was but there was no need. She told me she'd been expecting my call and that she would come first thing in the morning to take me to the station.
Relieved, I put down the phone, peered out through the dust-covered window to confirm that the street was still empty, and turned on the computer. I needed to make contact with some friends in Paris to see if I could stay the following night. I was just finishing up when I heard the familiar rattle from the front door echo through the old house.
I clicked send then close and then, to my horror, the computer froze.
"Please…please," I whispered, clicking frantically. I heard her mumbling to herself as she crossed the kitchen, filled the kettle, and mounted the stairs. By the time she reached the top, I was already on the sofa, leafing nonchalantly through a book.
I followed her back downstairs and we dined together in silence. I didn't bother asking about the Belgians because I knew that they weren't coming and probably never were. I though it better not to tell her of my intended departure, genuinely fearful of what might transpire during the night if I did.
When I awoke, she was already downstairs preparing breakfast. If she knew anything of my plans, she gave no indication and, instead, began talking about the day ahead. I heard a car approaching and, rising to my feet, informed her that I was leaving. I looked out the window and there she was, my knightess in her less than shining Renault 5.
With rescue imminent, I shook off the last of my timidity and dashed upstairs to fetch my already-packed bag. I came back down to find the Trunchbull standing, hands on hips, by Mme Véry's car. The latter sat stiffly in her seat, hands clutching the wheel, staring straight ahead.
I went round and jumped in beside her. As we trundled off into the misty morning, I glanced back at the house opposite, where I thought I saw the slightest twitch of the curtain. I hadn't been able to say goodbye, but I knew that he was rejoicing with, and for, me.
Mme Véry and I had plenty of time before my train for a cup of tea and pain au chocolat at the local café. Intrigued by what she heard, the propriétaire came round from behind the counter to listen to my tale in full. And every new villager who arrived was beckoned over and I was requested to start again. Everyone had an opinion about her, but they were thirsty for facts. All of us agreed that something wasn't quite right, but none of us could quite put a finger on what, exactly, it was.
The mist was beginning to lift as my train pulled away from the station, Mme Véry waving all the while. I reached into my pocket and found the now crumpled piece of paper inscribed with her number. I pressed it flat, folded it, and tucked it into my wallet.
Au cas où. Just in case.
About the Author
Originally from Ireland, Kevin Quigley has spent the past ten years traveling, working when he needs to, writing when he can. He is currently living in Iceland, where he hopes to do less of the former and more of the latter.