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European Times Normandy: Time casts dark shadow on fields of old France

THERE ARE two farms in our village. Within a couple of years, more is the pity, there may be none.

Our nearest neighbour, Jean-Michel, the world's most muddled dairy farmer, continues to stagger from crisis to crisis. His latest plan is to pack up his cows and his dogs and broken tractors and move to the South of France to escape the Norman rain and his debtors. Since he finds it awkward to organise two milkings a day, this may not happen soon.

The second farm resembles a scene from a children's wooden puzzle. It is the kind of farm you seldom see these days, even in France. There is a neat yard with bad-tempered chickens and wandering ducks and rabbits in hutches and countless cats and dogs. There are orderly apple trees in the fields and vegetables in the cottage garden.

Our two-year-old daughter, Grace, likes to visit this farm-yard at least twice a day. She has seen several generations of fluffy ducklings grow - in four months - to awkward, teenage duckdom and then, abruptly, disappear.

This farm belongs to Andre and Solange. Andre is a short, taciturn, humorous man, with a shapeless hat, the colour of dried cow manure. He drives his cows to milking with the words "au boulot ("get to work"). Solange is a cheerful woman in her 50s. Both were born in the commune; neither has travelled much beyond it.

Andre and Solange despair of Jean-Michel, as much as the other residents, and occasional residents, of the village (all 17 of us). In truth, they have more reason to complain than most. When Jean-Michel's cows escape, it is Andre's grass they eat; when Jean-Michel's dogs get bored, it is Andre's cows they chase and nip.

None the less, Andre remains heroically indulgent of his eccentric neighbour. He refers to him as "him there, down below, the acrobat". If Jean-Michel is an acrobat, Andre is the safety net. For months now, Jean-Michel has stayed in business only because Andre has lent him an ancient, but working, tractor.

Since the summer, Andre and Solange have employed an honorary, occasional, farm hand, our nine-year-old son, Charles. Charlie is a typically urban, late 20th-century child, fascinated by video games and television. He went along one evening to witness the milking and became as hooked on the complexities of supplementary feeding, cow management and milk temperature as he is on Batman or Super Mario.

He now claims to be able to recognise the 20 Friesian milking cows individually, without looking at the large orange number identification tags on their ears. ("Why are all these cows for sale, Daddy?" asked his five-year-old sister, Clare, as we watched the cows queuing for their turn at the milking machines one evening.)

It was on this visit that Solange told us the latest crop of ducklings was so plentiful that she had one bird left over. We snapped it up. The reputation of Solange's ducklings extends for miles around. They are promised, from hatching, to specific customers, rather like children with their names down for public school.

Another neighbour, Madeleine, a living cookbook of ancient Norman recipes, informed us how to roast the duck in the traditional, simple Norman way. Stuffing made from the gizzards and liver, with plenty of parsley, onions and breadcrumbs; served with duchesse potatoes and a "generous" wine, preferably a Bordeaux. The duck was indeed delicious, its meat as red, almost, as beef.

Leaning over a tubular fence, watching Charlie milk the cows the next day, I thanked Solange for her duck. She said, wearily: "Only two more years." Two more years of what?

"Two more years until we retire." What will they do when they retire? "We are going to travel. Andre and I have never been anywhere much. We have the cows to milk twice a day. It is expensive to get anyone to replace us. When we retire, we have always said we will travel."

Where to? I imagined that she might say to America, or Asia or Africa or even to Britain. "To France," she said. "We're going to visit the whole of France. They say that it's very beautiful." She giggled.

I knew that they were coming up to retirement but did not know it was so soon. I mentioned what Solange had said - and Jean-Michel's vague plans to emigrate to the South - to Madeleine's husband, Michel. As an authentic, farming village, our village is a local rarity. Most of the other villages near by have become retirement homes or dormitories for people working in Caen, 20 miles to the north.

If Jean-Michel goes and Andre and Solange retire, their land - both of them are tenants - will almost certainly be absorbed into one of the bigger farms. The village will become more like the picturesque, mud-free, flower-box-infested village on the next hillside, inhabited entirely by widows, save for one widower.

Michel, who works in the Citroen factory in Caen, and has lived in the village all his life, except for 10 years in the French navy, agreed that it would "change everything" if the farms disappeared. Gazing at the stream of liquid manure and mud flowing down the road from Jean-Michel's farm, he said: "It would be a shame. However, one has to admit that there would be conveniences as well as inconveniences."