European Times Normandy: Suddenly, life improves on Chaos Farm

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The Independent Online
GERONIMO IS free. But maybe not for long.

Geronimo is a horse. He belongs to our neighbour, Jean-Michel, the world's most disorganised dairy farmer.

All autumn and winter, he kept the horse - actually his father's horse - chained in a draughty, manure-choked stable. The poor horse became more and more depressed and distressed. Horses always look depressed. Have you ever seen a horse smile? But Geronimo was very depressed.

Many people complained. We complained. The mayor of the commune complained. Hikers, seeing Geronimo's distress, complained to the local branch of the French equivalent of the RSPCA. Nothing happened, although Jean-Michel - a waif-like, pale, unwashed, bearded late-20 something - invariably promised that something was just about to happen.

Imprisonment was, partly, Geronimo's own fault. He is a huge chestnut stallion with a hatred of other male horses and a tendency - like all Jean-Michel's animals - to wander.

To try to supplement his income by breeding foals, Jean-Michel had, last September, brought in another stallion and two mares to join Geronimo, and his concubine, Elisa. The big horse could not cope with this influx and started to assault all the newcomers. He was placed in solitary confinement.

In the next hamlet, there lives another dairy farmer, who is the complete antithesis to Jean-Michel. Bernard has built up and modernised his holdings so successfully that he can afford to indulge his hobby - flying a tiny, canary-yellow light aircraft. He has built a landing strip in one of his fields and keeps the plane in a barn.

One of the many atrocities attributed to Geronimo is to have wandered the mile or so down to Bernard's farm and grazed in the middle of the runway when the plane was in the air. Bernard had to divert to an airfield 10 miles away.

Our tiny village - eight dwellings and a mobile home on the hills south of Caen in Normandy (permanent population 10; weekend population up to 30) - is getting busier as spring turns to summer. Having owned a house in the village for almost a year now, our sense of the history, sociology and feudology of the place, and the wider commune to which it belongs, is becoming richer and more confusing.

Apart from ourselves, all the weekend visitors have a family connection with the village.

Patricia, for instance, visits her late grandmother's house, where she spent her childhood summers. She is now a thirtysomething mother and a personnel officer with a big firm in the Paris area. She remembers a time - only 20 years ago - when there was no running water in her granny's house and meme did all her washing, with most other villagers, at a communal wash-stone beside the stream in the valley bottom.

Other spring migrants, who, mercifully, come but rarely, are the children and grandchildren of the largest local landowner, who have a bizarre would- be imposing house that looks like a suburban "villa" dropped into the middle of a field. They talk to no one. Even their small children look away as you pass. In other words they have become typical Parisians visiting the countryside. Michel, our next door neighbour and friend, calls them "les sauvages".

The village roads are getting busier for another reason. It is birthing time for Jean-Michel's herd of 20 dairy cattle. Since his idea of fencing is an old piece of blue string, all his animals come and go as they please.

Jean-Michel still forgets sometimes to milk his animals, until they come down off the hill to complain. Once, we arrived in pitch darkness just after 10pm. A figure staggered up with a torch strapped to his hat. It was Jean-Michel going to fetch the cows for milking.

How was he, I asked. "ca vache," he replied, in his usual cheerful-depressed way. This is a cerebral, French dairy farmer's joke. The normal response would be "ca va" (it goes); Jean-Michel has taken to replying "ca vache" (it cows).

These events apart, there have been mystifying signs recently that Jean- Michel is trying to clean up his act. He has repaired fences and ploughed fields. His tractor no longer works only in reverse gear.

Most of all, Geronimo is no longer chained in the stable. Jean-Michel has created a stout, electrified enclosure, just for him. What is going on?

Our neighbour, Michel, as ever, provided the explanation. The village has been expecting, week by week, the annual state visit of the eightysomething matriarch of the chief landowning family: the mother and grandmother of the "sauvages". She is Jean-Michel's landlady. There have been many complaints about his activities. His lease is due for renewal. One of her sons, an architect, is rumoured to have plans to turn Jean- Michel's farm buildings into holiday homes. Hence, the sudden burst of good husbandry.

Unfortunately, no one has told Geronimo that he has to be on his best behaviour. He spends part of each day staring menacingly over an unkempt hedge at another field where the rest of the horse herd grazes. He spends the rest of his time galloping up and down his enclosure, restoring his muscles after his winter in jail.

Clearly his plan is to escape and put the new stallion to flight. To do so he has to leap over two hedges, a muddy track and a caravan. No problem for a horse that has already defeated an aircraft.