Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Monday morning, and La Patronne and I had a power meeting.

A week back home from the World Tour of America, fighting off the ravages of cold germs determined to take advantage of our exhaustion, shedding pounds gained by water retention and eating too much fast food, it was time to get down to serious work again.

We discussed updating our accounts, the design of the new French website, thank-you cards for everyone in the States who had been so generous with their help. We talked about the French book launch in Brive - less than three weeks away now - my promotional schedule in France, a possible strategy for the French press.

It was barely possible for me to imagine that in three hours' time I would be on a hilltop miles from anywhere pulling off the boot of a man who had nearly cut off his foot with a chainsaw.

The sequence of events which led me there began with the crunch-crunch of footsteps on the gravel in the front garden, and then the chime of the doorbell.

Standing there in a multi-coloured work jacket, and jeans and big boots, was Roger, grinning like an idiot. We shook hands. I told him to come in, but he shook his head and began speaking Quebecois French faster than a TGV. He forgets sometimes that my French splutters along about the speed of Stevenson's Rocket.

Roger comes from the Madeleine Islands off the east coast of Canada. He used to be a singer with a Quebecois band, but is now an osteopath. He and his wife, Laurène, a pshychotherapist from Paris, have bought a house in Puymule, and Roger has opened up a surgery in St. Céré.

As I fought to catch every fifth word, I gleaned that Roger had hired a lorry and was heading up to a farm in the hills near Teyssieu, where I go to get winter fuel for my wood-burning stove. Usually I go in the company of an elderly neighbour, Robert (I call him "Bob"), who has a trailer which will take two cubic metres. Bob has a heart condition, so I load and unload his wood for him, in return for which he lets me use his trailer for my wood.

So we set off in convoy. Roger and computer wizard, "Lucky", who lives in what used to be a building for drying walnuts adjacent to Roger's house, and me and Bob and his wife, Jacqui. It was too good an opportunity to miss. My stock of wood was running low from last year, and here was a chance - I thought, after hesitating briefly - to bring down a big load in a single outing. It's pretty hard work, and so my (other) work plans for the day were put on hold.

We stopped in St. Céré to pick up cash, only for Roger to discover he had left the key to his surgery at the house, and all his money and plastic were locked inside. I offered to lend him what he needed and he could repay me later, and we set off again.

Up into the hills, a winding road that climbed through autumn trees gently shedding yellow and red, until we emerged into rolling high country dotted with clusters of stone farm buildings and huddled stands of oak and chesnut.

I love it up here. The air is pure and fresh, and the land so rich and green, dipping and diving into gorgeous hollows between hills that rise out of crystal clear tumbling streams.

The farm is reached by a road that climbs steeply up one of the highest hills around. The farmhouse nestles in a cleft near the summit, and the wood is piled high to dry along a narrow track that rises almost sheer to the very top where an old stone farmhouse lies derelict.

To my eternal shame, I have to confess that I don't know the farmer's name. I have been often to fetch wood over the last three or four years, and have never once been able to decipher a word he says. Bob always phones to order the wood. He takes his meter lengths cut in half, and I take mine in thirds. Roger, who has a large, open cheminée, was happy to take uncut meter lengths. We began loading the lorry and the farmer got out his tronçonneuse (chainsaw) to begin cutting the wood for Bob and me.

He is a small man, round and jolly. He always greets us with a smile. His wife, petite and muscular, with short dark hair and a friendly grin, sometimes helps us load the rémorque. Recently she has been more pre-occupied with their young son, who has a problem with his eyes. She wasn't there today, and the old grandpa was out on the stoop with the kid. We could hear their voices rising to us on the wind, before the roar of the chainsaw drowned them out.

I didn't see what happened exactly. It was the first log. The farmer was attempting to cut it on the ground. How many times must he have done this in his life? But somehow this time the blade jumped, or slipped, and it sliced through his wellington boot and into his foot. It only takes a second. I heard him scream, and turned to see him writhing on the ground, holding his leg in the air. 'Putain! Putain!" he was yelling. The first time I've ever understood him. "Get it off!" he screamed, pulling at his boot.

Bob and I got there first and knelt down to pull off the boot. His sock was split apart. And so was his foot. A long, jagged wound had cut deep into the fleshy instep behind his big toe. Oddly there was no blood. Not at that moment. The wound, and the flesh it revealed, were strangely white. He took one look at it and rolled away screaming in pain. No doubt it was also going through his mind that his whole livelihood depended on his physical ability to get around.

We all gathered, uncertain of what to do. La Patronne should have been there. She is a trained first aider. But pure common sense dictated that we should raise his leg to stop the blood which was now starting to flow freely.

Lucky got on his mobile phone to call the emergency services. But none of us even knew the name of the farm. The farmer called it out through his pain, and Lucky relayed it across the ether. And then, in an odd moment of lucidity, the farmer gritted his teeth and stretched over to switch off the motor on his chainsaw. Suddenly all that we heard was the wind moaning up through the valleys, and then the sound of a vehicle approaching. It was the farmer's wife driving into the farmyard below, returning from the delivery of beasts to a nearby pasture. There was another young farmer with her. She came running up the hill, screaming, hysterical. "I told you to be careful! I told you!" she yelled at her husband. And then she took one look at his wound and went screaming off back down to the house. It was distressing to see such hysteria. Jacqui went down the hill after her to try to calm her, and I noticed the dogs standing at the foot of the slope staring up at their master, perplexed, knowing something was wrong, but strangely rooted to the spot.

When Jacqui and the poor man's wife returned, it was with a towel to wrap around his foot, and a pillow to place beneath his head. He was still cursing. "Putain! Putain!" His wife was still hysterical.

I felt sick, and impotent to do anything about it, and wandered back down the hill to the car, on the basis that standing around gawping would be less than helpful. I sat sideways on the front seat, with the door open, and heard the wail of a siren carried distantly on the wind. I couldn't believe how quickly the ambulance had got here. We were, after all, in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. It had taken us half-an-hour to drive up from St. Céré.

Then the ambulance turned into the farm road and I saw that it was from Latronquière, which must be the nearest town. I jumped out and waved them up the hill to where the injured man still lay.

I walked slowly back up to where the medics had established that the damage was not as bad as we all feared. The tendon had not been severed. Perhaps bone had stopped the blade in time. They gave him a pain killer and cleaned and dressed the wound, and carried him, half upright on a stretcher, into the ambulance.

His cheery grin had returned as he looked back out at the shocked white faces gathered all around. "You could cut the wood yourselves," he said. "I'll not be cutting any for a while." We were all appalled by the thought, and his wife put our thoughts into words. "Merde le bois!" she said. Which I took to mean the equivalent of "Fuck the wood!"

As the ambulance disappeared into the valley, we continued to load our logs in silence. All of them uncut. Bob speculated that maybe Georges, back at Puymule, would cut his wood into halves. I filled his trailer, and Roger and Lucky stacked six metres in the back of the truck. None of it would do for my stove.

I loaned Roger enough to pay for his wood, and we began the long, and winding journey back down to the town.

It was well past lunchtime when I got home, and I realised just how hungry I was. La Patronne heated my soup while I told her my story. With so much work to do, I had spent the morning heaving wood, none of which would be burned by us, and fretting over a horribly injured man. Whatever waste of my time it might have been was nothing compared to the awful events which had overtaken that poor farmer. Every time I shut my eyes I could see the jagged white of the wound and hear his cries of pain.

And I remembered Roger, on the hilltop, shaking his head and saying to me, "And you hesitated about coming at all." And it's true, I did. And I wonder, if I hadn't, would things have panned out differently? Fate is such a strange thing. It takes everything to happen in a specific order, and at a specific time, to bring about a single moment, for a single event to occur in a split second.

Maybe I should have stayed at home and done my accounts, and maybe none of it would have happened.


Bob and Jacqui

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