The Sloth in France: Stranger than Fiction by Rusty Gladdish

December 2008

                           

The Sloth Diaries:

 Here in Les Hesdin it is bitterly cold with blustery winds that send the remainder of the leaves flying into the air; only to flutter down to earth and form bronze, papery piles in the lost corners of the garden. We even had a sprinkling of wintry snow.  It’s very rural here with sodden green fields dotted with curious Friesian cows that come rushing expectantly to the fence. I think they’re quite jealous of Piccolo, the pony we visit every day. Piccolo is the dun coloured pony that lives in the field opposite the house and belongs to a very indifferent notary’s wife. The expats in this little hamlet don’t take kindly to animal neglect and seem to have arranged a feeding rota between them.  Every afternoon at 4pm, when the sun drops down into a bowl of red liquid fire, I go down to the fence and call him. Even if he’s on the other side of the hill he still comes running down to me snickering and rolling his eyes. He gets through quite a lot of carrots and apples and has been thoroughly spoilt by the kindness of the village folk.
 

I don’t know when I last felt so cold. The bitter wind lifted the hem of my sweater and spread its icy fingers across my back, making me shudder as I walked along the narrow strip of frost hardened grass that passed for a footpath. The mud was iron hard and glazed with frozen puddles. The sunny morning had long faded into a grey, bleak afternoon. The scruffy little pony that everyone took treats to had been taken away by his owners so I had been on a false errand.

Piccolo had led a solitary and rather boring life, grazing poor pasture in a sodden field surrounded by barbed wire, like a forgotten prisoner of war. Well meaning expats made regular visits bearing gifts of apples and carrots to take the edge off his hunger and loneliness. Our French neighbours were bemused by these errands of mercy. (Well they eat horses don’t they?) They were sympathetic but pragmatic. 

 

By the time I had reached the house my hands were numb and I struggled to drag open the tall, wrought iron gates.  The garage door was open and I could see the Sloth doing his bit to save the planet by emptying a sack of wine bottles into the green wheelie bin.  He glanced guiltily over his shoulder as he hastily shovelled the remnants of the latest revels into the bin. 

‘Your back early’, he murmured.

‘Yes, just as well by the looks of it.  Did you and the boys really drink all that wine the other night?’

‘Well I suppose we must have.’ He said innocently. ‘ Michel, Didier and Dominique all drink like fishes!’

‘Like whales more like!’

‘So does Dickie Crabbe. He always brings the cheapest and naffest of the wines round here and drinks all our good stuff. A nifty little tactic if you ask me.  Don’t you remember when we went round to their house I took a bottle and ended up drinking my own wine?  He didn’t serve any of his. He’s got it off to a fine art’.

‘What do you mean?’

‘In Louis’ bar when it’s his round he’s suddenly nowhere to be seen. He goes to the gents then slips through the back kitchen door and he’s off!’

‘What a cheek!!’

Sloth stretched and yawned hugely. ‘God! I’m so tired. I just couldn’t get to sleep last night. Did you hear that tapping and scratching in the loft? ’

‘Yes, I definitely heard something. It’s probably mice. Everybody’s got them round here. It must be all the chickens and livestock. It could be rats of course.’

Sloth rubbed his chin thoughtfully; ’Well perhaps I’d better get up in the loft and lay some traps.’

‘Oh! The poor things! We can’t do that it’s so cruel. They’re just little field mice!!’

He held up his hands in a protective gesture. ‘Okay, okay! You can’t have it both ways though. Anyway, if they breed things will really get out of hand. There’ll be dozens of the little beggars swarming all over the place before you can say Jacque Chirac!’

‘Jacque who ?’

‘Oh never mind! We’re going to have to do something though!! He muttered.

 Then without warning, a rogue gust of wind whipped round our ears and sent us scuttling indoors.

 

 *                        *                                    *                                      *                                         *

In mid winter darkness falls early here in the Nord Pas de Calais region. Street lighting is sparse and is turned off at 10pm. After that you’re on your own. Woe betide you if when taking your leave of your hosts after a soiree, you find you’ve forgotten your torch. Village pavements have a nasty habit of suddenly petering out and leaving you to the tender mercies of passing motorists who roar up and down these country roads like maniacs. Most of them are souped up on Claret and cognac.  Last night we had a little dinner party for the immediate neighbours. The stars hung down so low you could have plucked Orion out of the sky with you bare hands. The first to arrive was Mathilde our hardy little next door neighbour.  She is the size of a ten year old child and with the sharp, intelligent features of an enquiring bird. She doesn’t speak any English so we communicated in my awful beginner’s French until Sloth rescued her and they began to gossip fluently in her language. The others were English settlers and came in with faces scarlet from the cold, rubbing their hands and trying to kiss us on both cheeks at the same time. All arrived laden with delicious puddings and bottles of the thick, ruby wine from around these parts. Thankfully I passed the test when Mathilde, who sat in pride of place, gave the thumbs up to my version of Coq au Vin in half a bottle of red wine. But I failed the next part miserably when I served the cheese after the pudding instead of at the end of the main course. However, a good time was had by all and some people stayed on till late, anxious to relay their experiences until the wine got the better of them and they staggered out into the Obsidian dark.  

 

After the last guest had gone we put on some jolly French music and started on the washing up. The Sloth, teacloth over his shoulder, took me in his arms and we waltzed unsteadily around the room until we fell in an untidy heap on the sofa. ‘Look out! You’ll knock the Christmas tree. It’s shedding its needles already.’ I said.

‘Well it is dead mon petite choux’ he mumbled into my ear. We both collapsed into ridiculous laughter. Through the French windows, I could see large snowflakes drifting down and settling on the terrace.  Just then, we heard a loud thump and a dragging sound overhead. We stopped and stared at each other, ‘What on earth was that?’ I said.

‘It must have been the central heating. It’s probably just the beams expanding.’ We both stared up at the ceiling waiting for the next bump, but it never came.

 

 

*                                     *                                                   *                                               *                                             *

 

This morning we were woken by someone pounding frantically on the door. The Sloth slumbered on under the duvet oblivious to the commotion.  A skilfully practised strategy perfected over many years. I jumped out of bed, struggling into my dressing gown as I ran to answer the door. A man stood on the doorstep and began babbling in French as soon as he saw me.  He seemed very agitated and was pointing to a neighbour’s house some distance down the road. ‘Regarde Madame, regarde!  La incendie!  Le Cheminee!!’ he shouted. My eye followed his trembling finger and I saw that the chimney was on fire. Flames leapt high into the air and black smoke belched out poisoning the atmosphere. Black ash stained the fresh now.

 I could see two small figures in the distance running backwards and forwards helplessly in their soot covered garden, stopping every now and then to look up at the fire, throwing up their hands in despair. Harriet and her husband Ernie, two English settlers recently relocated from Kent in search of a better life!  For a few vital seconds we were both rooted to the spot, unable to break the black spell of tragedy that was being played out in front of us. Then the Frenchman spoke.  

‘ Le Pompiers Madame! You ‘ave the phone? We phone Le Pompiers’. I stared stupidly at him for a few seconds then ushered him inside. I indicated the phone on the hall table and left him to work out the complicated telephone pad while I got dressed and roused the Sloth.  By the time we got to the house the flames were spectacular but still confined to the chimney. It was all too much for Ernie. He was a small but compact man in his early seventies, recovering from a heart attack.  Harriet, who was ten years younger had inherited from her father and had used the money to buy a beautiful house with land here in the village. A natural linguist, she was already well integrated into the close little community. Ernie had never been able to grasp even the most rudimentary concept of the language and wouldn’t even answer the phone for fear it was a French person needing to speak to Harriet. He was the one that had hung back from move to France believing it to be a bad idea. Now, all his worst fears were confirmed in this terrible tide of events that swept over them, and he simply couldn’t bear it. He sat on the bench under the front window with his head in his hands sobbing like a lost boy. ‘I told you we never should ‘ave come ‘ere’, he sobbed. Harriet looked at him . ‘Oh for heaven’s sake Ernie! Get a grip! This gentleman has rung the firemen, they’ll be here in a minute.’ She turned to the rescuer standing by. ‘Merci Monsieur er….. He nodded courteously, ‘Monsieur Mistral. ‘Enchante Madame! ’ Ernie took down his hands and shot his saviour a look.  ‘Where’s them bloody firemen? We called ‘em 15 minutes ago’, he snarled. Monsieur Mistral pressed his mobile to his ear and began murmuring into it urgently. His voice became angry. He looked at the Sloth and said in French, ‘They went to the wrong house in another street, but they know the correct address now. All will be well.’  ‘What’s e’ sayin?’ asked Ernie. ‘They went to the wrong house but they’re on their way now’ said Sloth imprudently. Ernie leapt up from his bench and began hopping around in the snow.  ‘The bloody fools! The idiots!  The friggin’ house’ll burn down if they don’t get here soon!!’ he howled.

 

‘Ernie! Ernie!  Is Dougie with you?’ asked Harriet.

‘I thought he was with you’ said Ernie momentarily distracted from his wrath.

‘Who’s Dougie?’, I asked, expecting some small boy to suddenly emerge from the bushes.

‘It’s our Daschund. E’s fourteen. E’ should have been put down years ago but Harriet gets sentimental about ‘im.’

The Sloth looked pointedly at the bench where Ernie sat. ‘Perhaps he’s under there’ and ducked under the bench but came up empty handed. ‘Dougie!! Dougie! Come to mummy this minute’, called Harriet frantically. At that moment, high pitched barking sounded from somewhere inside the house.  ‘Oh my God!!!  Dougie’s in there. He’s too scared to come out!’ Harriet started to run towards the house. Suddenly, there was an explosion in the house. The force of it sent Harriet sprawling in the sooty snow. As we watched in horrified fascination rockets shot up from the chimney, and the sound of bangs and whistles of fireworks came from inside the house. 

‘What on earth is that? Have you been making bombs in there?’ asked Sloth from his recovery position on the bench.

‘Must ‘ave been them fireworks I got for New Year’s Eve. I put em’ in the cupboard’. Dougie’s frenzied barking finally broke through the Sloth’s fear barrier and he ran headlong into the house. Harriet, a rather portly lady remained inert in the snow and had set up a low moaning. Ernie and Monsieur Mistral went over to her. She was very distraught and they helped her to her feet just as the Sloth appeared in the doorway. His ginger hair was streaked with soot and he was   clutching a struggling and very overweight Dachshund.  Harriet rushed towards her pet almost knocking the two men down. ‘Come to mummy my darling’, she crooned. ‘Everything is going to be alright’. She gathered the dog up in her arms and an artful  Dougie laid his head on her ample bosom and rolled up his eyes in attitude of suffering. She turned to the Sloth who was convulsed with coughing and trying to clear his lungs of smoke. Poor old Sloth! ‘Thank you so much for saving my darling.’

‘Oh! Well….it was nothing really’ wheezed Sloth. His next words were drowned out by the sound of the fire engine’s emergency horn as it batted down the road. Once in the drive, the men leapt out

and set about putting out the fire. Ernie however, was not grateful. ‘About bloody time ‘an all! You lot took yer time’ he growled at them. They gave him friendly, uncomprehending nods and shy, hesitant smiles. I turned to speak to Monsieur Mistral but he was already a small figure in the distance walking round a bend in the rutted snow.  Harriet and Ernie suddenly became pre-occupied with restoring order to their home so a soot covered Sloth and I crunched back up the road to the house leaning heavily on each other for support.  Suddenly he stopped and looked down at me. ‘Hey, you know what it is tonight don’t you?’ he asked. ‘Yes’ I grinned. ‘It’s Christmas Eve!’  Poor old Sloth!   

 

This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons alive or dead is purely coincidental.

 

Rusty Gladdish wishes to assert her rights to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Patents, Desin and Copyright Act 1988.

 

                                                                                                                     

 

 

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