43 – Provence

It was this weekend eighteen years ago during my time on the farm in Provence that the fateful pepper plant incident took place. I had been charged with the important task of turning on the sprinklers to water the pepper plants in the polytunnel over the weekend. A simple case of turning on a tap, waiting for half an hour, and then turning it off again. But I got distracted and four hours later discovered a lake where once there had been a crop of peppers.

It’s times like those when you wish destruction upon yourself: heart attack, sniper bullet in the back, a forced march through wet bracken and brambles. I’m not sure how long I spent standing there looking at this terrible turn of events. Everything I had ever done in my life had suddenly been made meaningless by an unattended hose pipe on a farm 20km south of Avignon.

I’d only been there three weeks and so was overjoyed when they asked me to do this job. It was normally done by René, the farm caretaker, but when they realised I was always here they gave the task to me and let René enjoy his weekend Pastis in peace.

I woke up that Saturday morning and strode proudly to the kitchen across the yard believing everything was mine. The orchards, the greenhouses, the leek fields. Even the rusty tractor I mentioned in a previous post belonged to me. Illusions of grandeur certainly, but not difficult to imagine when you’re alone on a 300 hectare farm for three days straight.

So I was standing on ‘my’ farm glaring at the nightmare unfolding before me. All I could see was a slurry of mud and pepper plants pouring out of the entrance to the polytunnel. My brain said turn off the tap, my heart said run for your life.

I eventually made the dash to the tap, stopped the flow and waded into the tunnel to assess the damage. It was a moment of pure blind optimism: ‘It looks worse than it is,’ I said to myself. This was utter bullshit. It was the worse thing I had ever seen.

If the plants were three or four weeks old, then their roots would have held their ground. But as they’d only been planted on the Wednesday, the sudden deluge had uprooted most of them, leaving them floating on the surface of the farm’s new swimming pool like seaweed. I couldn’t help thinking of  the four bottles of wine I had in the kitchen. Or the shot-gun Rene kept in his office.

But this was a time for action. Not standing around watching my life flash before me. The situation, once I had opened the other end of the tunnel to let the remaining water drain out, was rectifiable. Certainly enough to look like nothing had happened.

The worst damaged plants I put into refuse sacks to burn later. The intact ones I placed in a wheelbarrow. The next step was to replenish the soil that had been washed away, so I lumped ten heavy bags of compost from the supply shed. Now perspiring heavily in the baking Provençal sun, I dug in the soil and replanted the crop. The shortfall I made up by using the seedlings I had potted a few weeks ago in the nursery. If anybody asked where they were, I would say the foxes took them!

By the time I’d finished, I’d lost a gallon of liquid and had a thirst so acute I could have stabbed somebody with it. I wandered to the kitchen and drank an entire two litre bottle of Orangina. The best drink I’ve ever had, and an experience I’ll never forget. After a few cigarettes I wandered back down the dusty track to assess whether it was worth penning my resignation letter or not.

I was surprised, it didn’t look that bad. A bit sparser than before, a few stunted specimens, but by Tuesday when everybody came back to work after the bank holiday, I doubt anybody would notice. And they didn’t. When I harvested them two months later, I had a wry smile fixed on my face. When Rene asked me, ‘Why the inane grin’. I replied that it was simply the satisfaction of harvesting the fruits of my labour.

It all seems like a long time ago now, yet it’s strange how I can remember that period in such minute detail. The events of that whole summer are recorded in my mind like a detailed six-month documentary. I remember the names, faces, even the ages of the people I worked with. I remember the name of the bar in the village, the price of cigarettes, the length of time it took me to cycle to the town. It’s all so vivid, yet the years immediately afterwards seem so vague and disjointed. What did I do after that? I went back to university and finished my degree, but I don’t really remember anything about it. In reality, it was all a bit dull. Nottingham in winter. Studying fungal spores under a microscope. Getting drunk in the student’s union on a Friday night. Staggering back home in the cold drizzle with a soggy kebab in one hand and a can of Lynx lager in the other. A long way from wandering the dusty tracks of Provence wearing only a pair of ragged shorts and a walnut teak tan.

In the middle of writing this I looked at the map and realised that I’m only a couple of hours away from where I spent that memorable summer. It’s Pentecost again this weekend, I have Monday off and I have a car: would it be an exercise too far in pointless nostalgia to go back. See if it’s still there. Walk up and down the dusty track. Ride the old rusty tractor. Maybe see if René’s still alive. Have a drink at Chez Pierre’s. Relive my youth.


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