The Sloth in France: Scorched Earth
From April to September the rainfall over the Limousin is very sporadic. Day after day of cloudless skies and bright, relentless sunshine bring mixed blessings. It’s wonderful for the sun-worshippers but disastrous for the farmers, the gardeners and the wild life. The carefully tended gardens of the residents of Rochechouart, packed with colourful flowers and blossom laden fruit trees, testament to their love of gardening, were wilting in the unseasonal heat.
In June temperatures soared and the green fields became yellow and parched. Even the birds seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion and sat, silent and unmoving on the shady branches of the ancient oak trees.
The Limousin cattle stood in groups under the chestnut trees, flies swarming over their eyes. They switched their tails and shook their heads irritably, trying to dislodge their tormentors. Waves of heat shimmered over the hills. Leaflets from the Mairie were pushed through the letterbox stating that there was now an official water shortage and outlining the conditions of a hose-pipe ban. Ours arrived one morning during breakfast. The Sloth read it carefully, moving his buttery finger under the sentences and mouthing the words soundlessly.
‘Oh well! That’s my giant marrows and tomatoes gone for a Burton’ he growled. ’It says here anyone disobeying the ban will be fined a thousand euros. The Swines!!’.
‘That’s a real shame!’ I ventured.
‘You do realise what this means, don’t you?’ Sloth spread his hands palms up, theatrically.
‘Er…in what sense exactly?’
‘Well, in the sense that if I can’t go on watering our vegetables they’ll just wither and die and what about the competition?’
‘Mmm! Yes. What indeed?’
‘There’s no need to be flippant!’
‘I’m not, honestly! I know what your veggies mean to you. I’ve seen the work you’ve put in.’
‘Yes! I should think so! It’s been a labour of love up until now but if we can’t water and feed our plants there’ll be no vegetables to show. This is an absolute disaster! All that work for nothing!’ he fumed.
I had to admit that it was hard. Poor old Sloth! He had recently discovered the joys of husbandry (and I don’t mean the marital kind), and had lovingly tended his tomatoes and marrows, watering them diligently night and morning. The tomatoes were now enormous and beginning to ripen. Glistening like jewels in the morning sun they peeked out of the glossy foliage. Green and yellow striped marrows lay swelling quietly on their beds of rotting manure. So he was quite justifiably proud. Of course, as all you gardeners know, marrows and tomatoes need plenty of water to encourage growth. So news of a hose-pipe ban was about as welcome as a wet dog in the living room.
Some of the expats in the surrounding villages had got together and organised a little agricultural show complete with horses for show jumping, fine Limousin cattle, a best flower garden and a best fruit and vegetables competition. The local French farmers, who had named the show, ‘La fete de la Courgette’, were already showing a keen interest. Entries for the best marrows and tomatoes were up too. Sloth crumpled the notice into a ball and threw it into the bin and pushed his fingers through his hair in frustration.
‘Well that’s it!! War has been declared! My marrows are at a very critical stage now and I have no intention of kowtowing to some faceless bureaucrat in the Mairie’s office.’
‘Yes, I can see that but we don’t want to antagonise anyone – we don’t want be fined do we?’
‘You don’t have to worry on that score. ‘I’ve got a plan.’
‘Oh right! So…..’
‘ So pass me the cafetiere, lovekin?’ He poured half a cup of black coffee into a large blue bowl, and filled it up with hot milk.
‘Well! What’s this amazing plan then?’
‘It’s simple! I just water the plants in the early hours!’
‘The early hours?’, I repeated stupidly.
‘Exactement! Pendant la nuit! That way the nosy voisins will be in bed snoring off their cognac and oblivious to my clandestine activities.’ To emphasise this point he took a loud slurp of his coffee and licked at the milk moustache on his upper lip.
‘I suppose that could work.’
‘Have faith, mon petit choux. It will work a treat. I’ll start tonight. Anyway, is that this morning’s journal?’
* * * *
July arrived with a fiery flourish of hot, sunny days and warm breezes. There had already been several small but fierce fires in the surrounding countryside. Blackened patches of burnt grass and charred, disfigured trees scarred the hillsides and the sound of the pompier’s alarm was becoming a regular feature in our otherwise hum-drum lives.
The marrows and tomatoes had tripled in size. Their luxuriant, dark green foliage was in stark contrast with the wilting flowers and bushes and the yellowing lawns in the rest of the garden. Tiny lizards darted across the meteorite stone wall safe in the knowledge that there would be no rain. The Limousin remained in the grip of a terrible drought. This morning, when I came into the living room it was filled with blinding light. Dust motes danced crazily in the beams of the sun’s rays and an itinerant blue bottle buzzed furiously against the windows. I flicked the light switch and the ceiling fan began whirling round. Then I went to the French windows and pressed the button to activate the green and white striped awning. It began its slow descent until it covered a large part of the terrace and gave it some much needed shade. I opened the French windows and stepped onto the terrace. I was immediately enveloped in what felt like an electric blanket on its highest setting! Ignoring the prickling of perspiration gathering at the base of my neck I bent down among the dry, crackling plants. Some had given up the ghost and just died, while others were hanging on hoping for a miracle. What with the tyranny of the water meter and the hose pipe ban most of the garden had been left to its own devices for its very survival. As I reached out to pull up a dead plant I suddenly felt as though someone was watching me. I turned and straightened up just in time to see the bedroom shutters next door being quietly closed. For a moment I squinted against the sun and stared up at the shuttered windows but there was no more movement. The house stood blind and silent in the heat. Then a tousled head appeared in our window. ‘What’s for breakfast, lovekin?’, called the Sloth, yawning hugely.
‘How do scrambled eggs on toast sound?’
‘It sounds very British ma Cherie, but it’s welcome just the same. I’ll be right down.’
The head popped out again. ‘Have I got any clean boxers?’
‘Have you tried your undies drawer?’
Pondering on the unfathomable mystery of men’s inability to look for anything successfully, I headed back to the kitchen.
The Sloth was seated at the kitchen table wearing a pair of beige shorts (not Bermuda, Grace a Dieu) and engrossed in reading a philosophy tome. For some reason his long shapely legs and finely turned ankles, clearly inherited from his mother, never seemed to get tanned. No matter how much exposure they got, they remained pale milk white. His face, however, was tanned an interesting pinky brown and his sun bleached hair flopped untidily down over his forehead. (He is very proud of his comb-over.) He began tucking into his scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with great gusto whilst continuing to read the book propped up against the salt and pepper cellars.
The doorbell rang. I opened the door and was greeted by the French Parcel Force man wearing a wide grin and a pair of very short shorts. He was clutching a large parcel containing my art materials. With a cheery ‘Bonjour Madame’ he proffered the clipboard for my signature, standing so close to me we were almost touching and I could smell his aftershave. I scribbled my name and then with a wave and an ‘Au revoir, Madame’ he leapt into his van and drove off.
Sloth looked up briefly from his book, ‘Hmm! I can see someone’s going to be busy’
‘Yes! I’m arranging an exhibition in the Hotel de Venezia. They’ve agreed to let me hang 20 paintings in the foyer.’
‘Well felicitations, mon petit choux. I suppose you want me to hang them for you.’
‘You usually do!’
‘ Exactement! So when is it then?’
‘ I thought sometime towards the end of August. I should be ready by then.’
‘Was that the door bell again?’
‘I didn’t hear anything; anyway, it’s your turn to answer it!’
The Sloth lumbered off down the hall and came back with Clothilde and Francois, our good friends who lived down the hill. They greeted us warmly with four kisses, a tradition of this area of the Limousin particularly appreciated by the Sloth when it came to the jolies Mademoiselles.
As usual they came bearing gifts. Francois bought some glass cloches for the Sloth’s tender veggies to protect them from famished field mice and hungry slugs. Clothilde pressed a little parcel of something wrapped in tissue paper into my hand. Two small pieces of beautifully painted Limoges ceramics nestled there. This merited another round of kissing much to the Sloth’s delight. They made themselves comfortable round the kitchen table. Francois was dressed for the heat in navy blue Bermuda shorts and a white string vest. He wore a small grubby white hat crushed down on his grizzled curls. His bare feet were encased in sweaty trainers. After some ice cold, homemade lemonade and a slice of my carrot cake we went into the garden to admire Sloth’s labours. When Clothilde saw the marrows she was duly impressed.
‘Mais ils sont enormes!’ gasped, Clothilde clapping her hands. Her newly high lighted hair set off her tan and her round blue eyes blinked rapidly behind her large spectacles.
‘Merci, Clothilde’, murmured the Sloth shyly. ‘Tu es tres gentille.’
‘Oui! Absolument mon ami. Felicitations!’ said Francois, clearly impressed with the array of healthy vegetables.
‘I think you will ‘ave much success with theez legumes, you can win with this, no?’
Sloth blushed prettily. ‘Do you really think so? You’re not just saying that?’
‘Mais oui, mon ami, I am saying that. I too ‘ave grow the Courge, er… ‘ow you say, the marrow, no?’ His coal black eyes twinkled and he smiled, showing his yellow, crooked teeth.
‘It ees very beeg’, enthused Clothilde and extended her hands to demonstrate the length.
‘Would you like to hold it Clothilde?’ the Sloth said helpfully.
‘Bah oui, bien sur,’
He lifted it very carefully it into her hands. She hefted it gently, ‘eets very ‘eavy’, she whispered.
‘If only you were going to be the judge at the competition, Clothilde’ said the Sloth longingly.
‘Bah oui! I would give you ze first prize. Voila!’
‘You are very kind. I think I’d better put it back in its bed’. He took it from her and placed it gently on the ground. He looked round for Francois and he saw him standing on the raised terrace. He was peering curiously over the wall at Antoine’s poly-tunnel. The flap was closed but tomato plants could be seen pressing their leaves against the plastic. At the side of the poly tunnel laid out in neat rows were some huge marrows basking in the heat of the morning sun. Francois craned his neck further.
‘ Mon Dieu! Regardez! You ‘ave seen thees?’
‘Seen what, Francois?’
‘Thees erm, ‘ow you say, monstres!!’
‘ Monsters! Where?’
Francois took Sloth’s hand and pointed his finger in the direction of the marrows.
‘Good Lord!! They’re as big as mine.’
‘They are for ze competition’ said Francois simply.
‘How do you know that?’
‘Antoine ‘e ‘as told me.’
This seemed rather a lot for the Sloth to take in.
‘Let me get this right Francois. You’re saying that Antoine is entering the competition for the biggest marrow?’
‘Bah oui, mon ami! Bien sur!!”
‘I’ve never seen him watering them. I wonder how he does it’.
‘At night peut-etre?’
‘Well I’ve started watering my marrows at night. Usually around 2am and I’ve never seen Antoine out there!’
‘He’s right!’ I said. ‘Our bedroom window looks out onto his garden, and yes, we have heard some strange noises but not the sound of water showering out of a hosepipe.’
‘Oui mon ami! I’m agree, it is one big mystere,’ nodded Francois sagely.
‘Or is it?’ said the Sloth, his face lighting up. ‘Maybe he’s got irrigation.’ Francois frowned for a moment. ‘Comment?’
‘You know, a pipe system running across the ground that waters the plants continuously’.
Francois looked puzzled, his agile brain grappling with the translation. Then his puckered forehead cleared and he grinned.
‘Bien sur! That ees it!’ He flashed a smile at me and nodded knowingly tapping his finger against the side of his nose.
‘It ees the little secret of Antoine, no?’
The Sloth shook his head slowly.
‘Well, well, well! The old Devil. You’ve got to hand it to him. Who’d have thought it?’
‘Comment?’ asked Francois
Sloth smiled down at his friend and clapped him on the shoulder.
‘Never take anything for granted’ muttered Sloth almost to himself.
Francois looked at the Sloth blankly.
Clothilde tugged shyly at her husband’s arm. ‘ We must go now Cherie or Maman will be cross if we are late.’
‘You have reason, ma petite!’ said Francois. The Sloth saw them out and after much kissing and waving they drove off in their little silver car.
* * * * *
The days passed in a shimmering haze of suffocating heat and with no sign of rain. The sky remained a relentlessly, brassy blue. The nights were the worst. As everyone knows, heat rises so the bedrooms became as hot as a baker’s oven. We opted for sleeping on the sofas downstairs with the ceiling fan revolving slowly, the blades cleaving through the thick, stuffy atmosphere.
The Sloth continued to perform his midnight manoeuvres and went out into the garden to water his marrows and tomatoes in the moonlight. One night however, unable to sleep for the heat, I looked up from my book to see him stamping up the little path scattering gravel everywhere. Clearly all was not well.
‘What on earth’s the matter?’
‘You may well ask!’
‘I am asking. You look as though you’ve lost a pound and found a penny!’
‘Oh nothing! What’s the matter?’
’The rose has gone missing from the hose pipe. I’ve looked everywhere for it’.
‘It’s probably fallen under the sink in the shed.’
‘I’m telling you I’ve looked everywhere. It’s gone! It was there this morning because I coiled it up and put it back on its nail and it isn’t there now.’
‘It could have dropped off though couldn’t it? Anyway, you might as well come in now and I’ll make us a drink. We’ll have a good look in the morning.’
Next morning, we searched everywhere but to no avail. It seemed that the hose spray had disappeared into one of life’s black holes never to be seen again. It remains to this day one of life’s little mysteries. Nothing daunted, the Sloth went off to the garden centre in Biennac and came back with a brand new, mega-expensive, rose spray. The nocturnal watering resumed and everyone was happy. Everyone that is, except our enigmatic neighbour, Antoine.
The marrows gloried in the hot sunshine and showed their appreciation by putting on even more weight. The Sloth was ecstatic.
‘Will you just look at those little beauties?’ he said fondly. Sounding, for all the world like a proud parent.
‘Yes, they’re doing really well.’
‘All thanks to my nightly administrations’
‘Was that the bell?’ I asked
Mmm! It’ll probably be Francois. He’s bringing me some fertiliser’
Francois bustled in carrying a bulging Hessian sack over his shoulder. He sat down heavily on one of the kitchen chairs and wiped his brow with the back of his hand.
‘Il fait chaud!!!! C’est trop! C’est impossible!’
I poured cold lemonade over some cracked ice and handed it to him. He drained the glass in three grateful gulps then disappeared into the garden with Sloth to inspect the marrows. I followed them and busied myself dead-heading the roses clinging to the garden wall. I heard a click behind me and glanced instinctively up at Antoine’s bedroom window. His stern little wife stood on the balcony gazing down at us. I smiled up at her but her expression remained blank and inscrutable. Then she turned and was instantly swallowed up by the black shadows behind her.
That night was the hottest night we had yet to endure. We left the fans on and lay on the bed only covered by a sheet. A series of sleepless nights weighed heavily on our eyelids and pressed us into a deep dreamless sleep from which nothing could wake us.
We had closed the shutters so we both overslept next morning. The bedroom was dimly lit but the sun was trying to poke its fiery fingers through the cracks. I looked at the clock balanced on a pile of books on my bed side table. It was 8am. Leaving the Sloth to slumber on I showered, dressed and went downstairs. The air felt a little cooler in spite of the sun shining outside. I opened the French doors and stepped on to the terrace and startled two large doves taking their morning shower in the bird bath. A few tiny lizards scuttled about on the wall. I looked round the garden taking in the tomatoes fruiting heavily on their trusses. Then my eyes rested on the marrows. There was something different about them but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I moved in closer and bent down for a better look. Then I saw that some of them had huge holes in their sides. At first I thought some animal had been making free with the Sloth’s prize marrows but then I noticed some tiny metal fragments next to them. It looked like gunshot pellets. Surely not! I couldn’t believe that someone could take pot shots at some harmless vegetable (and no, I don’t mean the Sloth!!) Who on earth would do such a thing? More to the point, why?
Suddenly I sensed rather than heard something behind me. I looked up at the closed shutters next door. The house and garden were deserted. In that moment, crouching down among the wrecked vegetables, with the sun beating down on my bare shoulders, I realised that someone was desperate to win the veggie competition. It didn’t take Inspector Clouseau to work it out. Antoine!!! The Sloth would have to be told!
Poor old Sloth!! How was I going to break the bad news?
As I had feared, the Sloth was devastated when he saw his prize marrows lying wounded on their bed of straw. He let out a low whistle between his teeth. We agreed that this must have been the work of Antoine. He had used a pellet gun to cause the maximum amount of damage.
‘The rotten so and so’ said Sloth. ‘ He must have done this in the early hours. I never heard a thing!’
‘They say that 4am is the time when we’re in our deepest sleep. ‘
‘Well he’s a cunning old fox and that’s for sure’ Sloth stood up slowly, shaking his head. ‘Well there’s only one thing for it!’
‘What’s that?’ I asked
‘You’ll have to help me harvest the undamaged ones and we’ll store them indoors.’
So we painstakingly picked the best of the marrows and wrapped them up carefully and placed them in the warmth of the airing cupboard.
That night the temperature dropped to a more bearable level. The sky cleared and the stars came out to play once more. Exhausted by the heat and trauma of the day the Sloth fell into a deep sleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, but I felt more restless and lay there turning the events of the day over in my mind. Eventually, I began to drift off but then just before I fell off the precipice of consciousness into a welcome sleep I heard a stone being scraped in the garden. I looked at the Sloth who was lying on his back, mouth open and snoring loud enough to wake the dead. I picked up the flashlight from beside the bed and crept to the window. By the light of the moon I saw Antoine creeping up to Sloth’s prize tomato plants with a large kitchen knife in his hand. I turned the flash light full on his face. He froze like a rabbit caught in the headlights. His upraised hand which held the knife was still in the air poised to strike the hapless tomatoes. I yelled at him angrily. Seeing the game was up he dropped the knife and scrambled over the garden wall leaving behind a gift of one of his dirty trainers. An unlikely Cinderella!!
September surprised us all with its warm golden days but chilly, starlit nights. The day of the show dawned bright and clear and mercifully, without the suffocating heat that had bedevilled the town recently. The Sloth had risen early. He packed his remaining treasured marrows and tomatoes carefully and stowed them neatly away in the boot of the car. Le festival de la Courgette was being held in a field loaned by a friendly farmer. All the stalls were laden with glistening fruit and vegetables. The scent of flowers wafted in the air. There were two large yellow striped marquees. One was to dispense wine and beer to those with a burgeoning thirst and the other was for the judging of the various categories. The Sloth’s marrows and tomatoes had been laid out on the trestle tables inside the judging tents alongside the entries of the other competitors. We walked around admiring the various produce. The prize marrows took centre stage and lay together, basking in the public admiration. The Sloth was perspiring nervously. The French ladies, led by Clothilde, fluttered round the gleaming entrants in their brightly coloured dresses and shawls, chattering like magpies and pointing excitedly at the giant marrows. They pouted seductively at the Sloth. Their attention put a smile on his face.
Francois arrived cradling a huge orange pumpkin. It was perfectly round and perfectly smooth. It had an unearthly, almost extraterrestrial glow about it. I instinctively reached out and stroked its polished surface.
‘Goodness Francois, what a beauty’.
Francois purred, ‘Bien sur, you think I can win with theese?’
‘ Most definitely ‘ I nodded vigorously.
Clasping it firmly to his chest like a newborn baby he turned and strode purposefully in the direction of the judge’s tent.
Later on , excitement and the warmth of the sun had given the Sloth and Francois a thirst, so off we all went to the ‘refreshment ‘ tent for a much needed beer or Poire liqueur. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea and the bar was quite busy with crowds of people pressing against the makeshift bar. Family groups had commandeered the flimsy tables and chairs. The women sat sipping pear liqueur listlessly whilst their men leaned forward, legs apart and hands on knees, talking loudly at each other. Taking advantage of their hot and harassed parents, the children raced around shrieking at the tops of their voices. The elderly sat nodding and smiling benignly.
The Sloth and Francois waded through the sea of heaving bodies at the bar and came back with the drinks and some interesting news. Sloth was grinning in his usual lopsided fashion.
‘What are you grinning at?’
He pulled hard on his beer bottle. ‘Wait till you hear this!’ spluttered Sloth.
‘Oui’ smiled Francois, ‘C’est tres drole.’
‘Haven’t you noticed that there’s no sign of our friendly neighbour or his prize vegetables?’
I looked round again at the milling crowds and sure enough, there didn’t appear to be any sign of Antoine or his wife.
‘So…’ I began.
‘So, Antoine gave his veggies their usual feed, but after three days they turned yellow and died.’
‘Yep! He lost all of his prize marrows!’
‘But how? When?’ I stuttered.
‘It was ze poison’ murmured Francois, a smile curling his lip.
‘What poison?’ I echoed.
‘Well, someone had slipped some weed killer into the water barrel that he kept filled in the barn. He used it to feed his vegetables apparently.’
‘Well, I never!’
‘You see, the beauty of it was the old codger thought he was stealing a march on us by sabotaging our marrows and feeding his own to triple in size and carry away the first prize.’
‘But someone else had other ideas.’
‘Precisement, ma Cherie’
‘Oui’, said Francois sagely, ‘e ad the coming uppance.’
‘Did they ever find out who it was?
‘Nobody as ze smallest idea. E as much enemies.’
Suddenly the loudspeaker crackled and spat out a distorted voice.
‘They ‘ave judge the legumes’ explained Francois.
‘Right oh’ said Sloth, ‘We’d better get over there.’
Inside the judging tent a group of small, rotund men, perspiring in their ill fitting clothes, were gathered around a gleaming marrow. One of them placed a rosette next to it.
‘Ah! It eez the premiere’ breathed Francois and peered at the name on the entry. ‘and it is you, mon ami! Regardez-vous! You ‘ave won the premiere prize for Le Courge!!’
I stepped up to the table and looked at the card next to the marrow. Sure enough, there was the Sloth’s name with a large frilly rosette next to it.
‘He’s right! Look! You’ve won first prize.’
Sloth gazed lovingly at his marrow but said nothing. A slow beatific smile spread slowly over his handsome face.
The right of Rusty Gladdish to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
If you like reading The Sloth Diaries look out for his next adventures in Paris!!
Copyright Rusty Gladdish 2010