Duncan Diary Installment 2 – Piano Lessons
April 5, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
It’s a cold day and raining. I’d seen him before at the bus stop, so I stopped. An old guy in a hat and muffler. Ten o’clock on Saturday, his hands in a muff, one of those old fashioned fur things that you see in garage sales with the other junk out of granny’s attic. About eighty; face with a lot of hard days on a fish boat carved into it. I’d never noticed the muff before.
Its seven minutes into town. There’s always somebody hitching, just enough time for a comfortable exchange – where you going, the weather, did you get your garlic planted, nice meeting you, thanks for the ride and see you again.” Usually country conversations are easy but this was a craggy faced old guy in a muff.
“Going to the market?” Most people are on Saturdays, buy some Brussel sprouts, or an apple pie from Michelle. He said he was going to his piano lesson but no hurry, not until eleven. So we stopped at Black Coffee which is gossip central for the Cowichan Valley – there’s good coffee, pretty girls and something about it that makes people talk. He used to fish salmon, “…just a gill-netter. Come home at night. Sleep in your own bed.”
He was eighty six. “Not many people taking piano lessons at eight six?” And no, there weren’t. But he was doing it to please his wife. They’d had the piano for nearly forty years….”it just sat there and neither of us could play it, it came from her aunt’s house and nobody else wanted it. But it looked nice in the living room. She liked piano music and she always wanted me to play. So I started lessons. About four years ago. Every Saturday. Then I practice all week. Wish I’d started earlier.”
“What kind of music do you play?” “She likes the old stuff. Sing alongs. A bit romantic. Nothing fancy. She’s old fashioned. Like this muff, it came with the piano and it really works. She showed me .Keeps your hands warm. The house is a bit cold. Used six cords of wood last winter to keep the stove going all night. She likes it warm.”
We had another coffee. Black Coffee’s that sort of place. “You have kids?”
“Never did. Just the two of us. Not even a dog. Sixty years next year. It’s a long time to be married. I built the house and we never moved. Get used to a place, and the people…we’re not big for change.”
“But the piano must make a big difference. If you play a lot.”
“I do. Every evening. I think she likes it.”
“You’re not sure?”
“Well, she died six years ago. I just want to keep her happy.”
He’s coming to supper next week. I wonder…do I cook for two? Or three?
Tel: 123-456-7890 |
Duncan Diary Installment One – Farming
April 6, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
I spent the summer learning that learning to be a farmer takes a lot more than one summer. It all looked so easy “twelve acres” they said, “just the right size to start with, get yourself a little tractor, and away you go.”
It was all so easy. In my mind. Plough the back five acres, put in some fence posts. An electric fence they said. Then get a couple pigs. They’ll dig it up. And manure it. “Then you’ll be ready for cows.” It was the cows I really wanted. Ever since last years Calgary Stampede I’d had pictures of them in my wallet. Waist high cows, Irish cows, called Dexters. I fell in love with them and I couldn’t wait to lean on the gate, with a straw in my mouth, looking at the cows. My cows. Everybody else in the valley had cows, big black and white ones and big brown Jerseys, walking about in the fields, mooing. And I’d be the guy with the little cows. Walking about in my field, mooing. Pretty cows, with pretty names, like Christina, and Shelley, and Buffy, and when I called they’d come over, all big eyed, and moo. Little cows, little moos.
I moved in just before Christmas. Very cold. Walked down to the creek the first morning, stood on the bridge (just a little bridge) and watched the water. There seemed to be a lot more of it than last summer, when I first started dreaming of my farm. It was higher and faster and noisier, and then the bridge broke away from the bank. I fell in. It was cold water, and the house was even colder the heaters didn’t seem to work, the taps ran cold, and there were no lights. It seems to be a feature of country living that the electricity fails. If you fall in the water it fails immediately, otherwise once a week. And on Christmas Day, I spent the day in bed.
Next morning was no warmer, still no electricity, so I walked over to the neighbor. Hello, come in, you look cold, want coffee? Splash of rum in it? We’re just having breakfast, like bacon? More rum? By lunchtime I’d discovered that it was too cold and the ground too hard to plough, that pigs were stubborn and difficult, that sheep were stupid, cows didn’t respect electric fences, that there wasn’t any money in farming, nobody could expect to make a go of 12 acres unless they had a rich wife and a day job . By evening, I knew that hawks ate the chickens, rabbits ate all the vegetables, deer ate all the flowers, that the bridge (my bridge) broke away every winter, that the only way to keep warm in my house was to wear ski clothes over woolen underwear. Getting the lights back on was complicated in my house because the previous owner had strange ideas about electricians secretly complicating the nature of electricity so that ordinary people wouldn’t understand it and would therefore have to hire an electrician even to change a light bulb. So he did all his own wiring, using old telephone wire, and the main switch for the house was out in the barn and after a power failure it needed someone to be out there and shout to someone in the house about exactly when to switch on the circuit breakers or none of this worked. “And if I were you I’d get the whole place rewired, before it burns down.” We drank quite a lot more rum (it was Sunday all that day) and decided that my tractor wasn’t big enough (apparently one of the main problems with farming is the size of tractor, always too small or too large), and the solution is a newspaper called Buy and Sell which comes out every Tuesday and is filled with advertisement for tractors, (big tractor owners seeking smaller ones, smaller ones looking for bigger).
Then we got on to fence posts, which are wood or metal or fiberglass (wood rots, metal rusts, fiberglass is useless), taxes (much too high), barn roofs (“yours looks like it needs replacing pretty soon”). We also touched on fishermen collecting Unemployment Insurance, Ministers of Agriculture (“don’t know an apple from an onion”) Revenue Canada (” think I’m making a fortune”), and, as the bottle was now empty, the high cost of rum.
It’s now a year later. I’ve got some fence posts in (not electric), a new bridge, the same tractor, new wiring (the roof can wait) and I know quite a lot of the neighbours. We all agree that the price of rum is too high, that everything else is too big or too small, that farming is a ridiculous occupation, and finally that there’s nothing else we’d rather do. And I still have the pictures of the Dexters in my wallet.
Duncan Diary Installment 3 – Mice
April 4, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
If you live in the country you have mice. Unless you get a cat. “That’ll scare them off.” say the neighbours “They move on.” We moved here a just over a year ago. Me and the cat. House full of mice, cat full of energy. Cat heaven. Theoretically. I have a large collection of things in paper bags, stuff I buy in markets – pasta, beans, 10 different kinds of flour, lavender, nuts, spices and dried fruits. The mice ate them all, they nibbled the corners of everything. They can’t get the lids off jars, or open cans, but everything else they sampled. It was a mouse buffet, and I think they invited all their friends. They even ate the cat food.
The cat didn’t do anything. Just looked at them. “City cat,”, said the neighbours, “mother never taught it.” We got more mice, more leaking bags. One enterprising mother built a nest in my go to town boots. Shredded paper, rice, and some wool nibbled out of my fancy arctic socks. Another did the same thing in the fax machine. Nice little nests. For mice. “Get some traps”, said the neighbours, “Cheese is good bait.”
They sell mousetraps by the dozen in the local store. Mousetraps are not funny, except in the comic strips. You need Band-Aids. One night, I loaded the whole dozen, under the sink, in the closets, behind the sofa and in the pantry. Cheese isn’t easy to put on spikes, and the traps are trigger-happy – they even go off while you’re placing them. More band-Aids.
Before bed, we all watched the news together – me, the cat, and the mice. The cat is very fond of the bed. She snugs up to my feet and purrs, gets up in the night for a snack (with the mice), then back to bed. I’d forgotten that she (being a City cat) likes cheese. I’d used Gorgonzola, nice and smelly, easy to find. She set off three traps, and got her paw stuck in the last one. Cats with paws in mousetraps are neither reasonable nor cooperative. More Band-Aids.
Neighbours recommended peanut butter, and putting cat out at night. So she can learn about life. She howls at the window. Very sad, very plaintive. The country Vet suggests cat door, “She can come and go as she pleases.” City cat liked it but so did the neighbours’ big ginger cat who came in and ate my cat’s food. 3 a.m. cat fights are worse than mousetraps. Vet suggests a special cat door, with electronics – a little transmitter on the collar opens the flap like her own front door key. Very nice. $150. It needs a carpenter to install it. $75.
Life settles down. Mice don’t seem to like peanut butter. Dried fruit is better. Cat comes and goes, on bed, off bed, on and off. All night. Discovering life. “She finds some wild things, she’ll start catching mice.” say the neighbours. Well, she found some wild things. Baby rabbits. Very proud, “See what I’ve caught, see them run about, see me chase them!” She brings them through the cat door, holds them by the scruff of the neck like a mother cat and her kittens, and then goes out to find some more. She catches them, and she licks them. I put them out. “Bad cat!” She brings more in, and now hides them so I can’t put them out. Most people in the country have mice. We used to have mice, now we have rabbits.
Duncan Diary Installment 4 – New Kitten
April 3, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard James’ tales of farming and gardening. He’s been very busy but has recently given us an update on life in Duncan on Vancouver Island.
Living in the country means looking at life from a different point of view. When I lived in the city I read three newspapers every day, four on weekends, and I couldn’t go to bed before the late late news on the television. Nowadays I pick up a paper on my weekly visit to the coffee shop… Most times it’s two or three days old. Sometimes more. Doesn’t matter. The politicians will continue to do what they always do, the economy will go up or down, the weather forecasts, seen in retrospect, will be as wrong as usual, Donald Trump will marry Paris and then leave her to move in with Michael Jackson, green vegetables will be found to be very bad for you and the tobacco firms will discover that two year olds who smoke could live to be a hundred… Same old same old.
But there’s one newspaper no self-respecting farmer could do without. Tuesday mornings at 7 a.m. 300 copies of Buy and Sell arrive at the gas station. An hour later they’re all sold. You may not immediately need a 1931 Massey Harris tractor or a pair of Sicilian donkeys, a hydraulic winch, a manual posthole digger, a pregnant pig or 20 bales of weathered hay, but you might want a floral patterned English bone china chamber pot, “very little used”, or (this weeks favourite) “a pair of young gerbils, trained, healthy and friendly, complete with pink harnesses and leashes, $25 OBO. “. The local topsoil supplier suggests a yard of chicken manure as a desirable present for Mother’s Day, and a wedding dress (” never used, still in box, pink, size 20″) is offered at the same phone number as an exercise machine, (” used twice, as seen on TV”).
I seem to buy my share of these things. The wooden rowboat (“needs paint and some repairs, only $50″), still sits in front of the house still needing paint and repairs, and still, two years later, without the load of topsoil in it that would grow the petunias that would flower so beautifully all summer. The potter’s wheel (” needs TLC)” hasn’t moved from where it was unloaded last year in the barn, along with the paint sprayer (“needs cleaning, good for fences, was working, husband died “)
But country life is a lot more than buying and selling stuff. The rabbits are eating my lettuce, the deer are eating my grape vines, the mink are eating the chickens and the bears are waiting to eat the corn. The barn swallows are waiting for the exact moment to push their babies out of the nesting box – too early and they can’t fly, too late and for some reason they won’t, meaning, in both cases that they fall to the ground and make quick snacks for cats. The hawks, in their turn, circle in the sky, waiting for rabbits, or cats, or small Shi Tzu dogs, and I wander the kitchen garden, looking to pull up the right lettuce. Country life is all about eating.
And sleeping. The sun rises just before 6 a.m. So do the roosters and the donkeys and the cats and the dogs. And me. Two hours on the tractor before breakfast, three hours before lunch, four hours weeding before supper, feed the animals, talk to the pigs, and suddenly it’s late. 8.30. Bedtime. Because tomorrow morning the sun rises just before six. And so it goes. Life is different in the country.
I have a new kitten. Mostly Himalayan, 2 ½ pounds, white with violet ears, sharp teeth, a climber — legs, curtains, bedposts and trees. My other cat, once a 2 lb kitten too, is now a 15 lb black rabbit hunter of rabbits. She thinks the kitten is a rabbit in disguise. So the kitten hides all day. It wakes up at night, as soon as I go to bed, comes into the bedroom and climbs the walls for half an hour, then crawls into bed and hunts my toes, then goes to sleep for a few minutes (just long enough to let me go to sleep again) sits on my head and purrs in my ear until I wake up. To watch her climb the walls.
The sun still gets up at 6 a.m. Life is different in the country.
Duncan Diary Installment 5 – September is Here!
April 2, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
September came early last year. The first week in August, to be exact. September is a donkey, dark brown, almost black, eleven months old, with a smile of enormous teeth, big brown eyes rimmed white and a very loud voice. According to his birth certificate he is half Irish, half Sicilian, a genetic mix I’ve never before encountered, and whose primary characteristics appear to be extreme beauty and even more extreme stubbornness. He weighs 100 pounds, but it took four energetic people almost three hours to admit failure, and agree that there was no way he’d be persuaded into the horse trailer that was to bring him the 70 miles to his new home. We offered him carrots, and corn on the cob, handfuls of grain, apples, horse pellets, and fresh cut hay, we kissed him and cuddled him, we massaged his back and blew in his ears, we promised him every possible reward that we imagined a donkey could imagine — ice-cream every day, a field with a trout stream and shady trees, 25 virgins ( not in the after life but right now), anything and everything,, but none of it worked.
We pulled him and we pushed him , we even tried, one on each corner , to pick him up, one on each corner but he went rigid . Like a block of wood. Nothing worked, it was lunchtime, and he wasn’t as tired as we were, so we walked away, to share despair, a beer and a sandwich. He walked round to the shady side of the trailer, looking smug, He didn’t need lunch, being already full of grain and carrots, so we decided to try again tomorrow, pack up the trailer and drive home, Bloody donkeys.
Half an hour later , me wondering if I might get my cheque back and maybe find a donkey a bit closer ( so we could walk home) we went back to the truck, “You start up , I’ll close the doors……” And there he was, in the trailer, eating hay; I think that’s when I really noticed his smile…
Duncan Diary Installment 6 – A Donkey's Life
April 1, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
“There are things you ought to know about donkeys” said my friends. And they all told me different things. Most of them contradictory. The only common strand in all of their stories ( and the only indisputably true one ) is that they live for a very long time. 30 or 40 years seems quite normal, but there are lots of 60 year olds, most of which seem to live in France, where there are a number of very unhappy people who claim to have been victimized by them.
How does a 60 year old donkey victimize you? French property laws are weird and designed to give ( even encourage ) aged grandparents to make their children’s lives difficult and complicated. The law says that all real estate must be left to the family, to be shared out.
Families, French or not, find it hard to agree about the disposition of anything left in a will, so all over rural France there are thousands of empty and decaying houses jointly owned by the descendants of spiteful grandfathers, who slipped nasty little clauses into their wills requiring complete agreement ( by every member of the family (their children, their children’s children and all future generations ) before the house can be sold. And it seems that a popular clause has to do with donkeys. and their maintenance , present and future . In other words, whoever does take over the house also has to take over and offer lifetime security to the resident donkey ( or donkeys). Until they die. Which can be 50 or 60 years down the road. BUT ( there is always a ‘but’ in real estate) donkeys are very enthusiastic reproducers.
The females come into heat about every fourteen days, seem to have no difficulty at all in conceiving , and after a year long pregnancy deliver baby donkeys. Which, a year later, are ready to have more baby donkeys . And on and on and on . .French lawyers are no less contentious or opportunist than any others, and there seem to be an increasing number of cases relating to the descendants of the original donkey (or donkeys) named in the will, holding that they are entitled to the same support as the originals, until the will is finally settled. Cousin Marie-Jeanne, aged 90, won’t agree to anything because she never did like the woman her sister’s son married, her sister’s son doesn’t like the woman he married either and so it goes on…
Admittedly donkeys aren’t very high maintenance, they just need feeding twice a day, a rudimentary shelter from the rain, a lot of patting and stroking so long as you don’t touch their ears, and they love carrots and apples, but since they have a habit of eating everything green in the garden ( and the neighbour’s gardens -things like roses , grape vines, daisies, spring onions and expensive shrubs ) they also need fencing and babysitters if you have any intention of traveling further from home than the corner store.
I’ve yet to see a real estate agent in North America advertising “House for sale, needs extensive repairs, lovely property, must be prepared to care for 7 lovely donkeys”. But my donkey is only 11 months old and I am not taking him to France.
Duncan Diary Installment 7 – A Country Wedding
March 19, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
It was a small wedding, just a little different to most. A picture book country affair, nice sunny day, ten people in a field full of flowers, a bubbling stream, lots of food (wieners and champagne ), the groom bright and young, black haired, brown-eyed, big eared, immaculately groomed and somewhat impatient, and the guests giving him advice, while we waited for the brides to arrive. Yes, the brides. Two of them, brown hair, big smiles, one a little plumper than the other, but almost identical . Mother and daughter. Not Mormons. Donkeys. Almost identical. “They’ve shared everything up till now” said the vet, “and since it’s his first time it’s a good idea if at least one of them knows what to do” . Sunshine (once called September) is now 18 months old. For the last couple of months he’s been noisy . A voice like a sad and rusty bugle, as loud as a truck horn, sun up to sun down, audible a mile away. “Lonely” said the neighbours, so we found him a friend, a gelding ( which is a fixed male donkey, a donkey with his libido snipped) because two jacks ( a jack is an unfixed donkey ) will fight, said the neighbours.
So we shopped around, put notices up in the store and advertisements in the local paper . “Attractive young donkey, good blood lines, likes carrots, candlelight dinners and walks on the beach, good sense of humour…” And so came the brides. And the advice.
It appears that donkeys come into heat every two weeks. “Great” said all the neighbouring guys. “Bloody hell ” said their wives. The vet, a nice no-nonsense woman with three kids, four dogs, five horses , a Vietnamese pig and, as she shrugged, “no husband”, said that didn’t mean they want ” attention” every time. “Understandable ” said the wives, “typical” said the guys. “They have to get to know one another first”, said the vet ( same reactions as before from the guys and wives ). She told us that they’d probably walk around together for a bit, eating grass, destroying young trees, rolling together in the dust, bugling, and when she was ready, which may take a couple of months . “Friends first ….” she‘ll tell him when.
This all sounds very romantic . “Does she whisper in his ear?” said the wives. “No”, said the vet, “she kicks him in the head”. “Good idea ” said the wives and again ( predictably ) “bloody hell” from the husbands. “And he bites her in the neck” said the vet, “you may have to put a muzzle on him”.
So they arrived. In a horse trailer. We popped the champagne, drank to their health, backed the trailer up to the gate, let down the tailgate and out they came, prettied up in daisy chains and straw hats. Sunshine cocked his head on one side, snapped the end off a carrot, looked at them both, ignored the daughter and without ceremony piggybacked ( that’s a nice polite word for it ) her mother, who’s called Wren. But sideways, which is not exactly the right way to piggyback. Wren, obviously a stickler for protocol, bucked him off, bared her teeth, backed him into a corner, kicked him in the head and waited for him to figure things out. “Sometimes you have to hand breed them the first time” said the vet. But we didn’t . In two minutes it was all over. Wren went back to eating grass. “Typical” said both the husbands and wives. Together.
But fifteen minutes later, with the champagne all gone, we had a repeat performance. And fifteen minutes after that. Next morning too . My donkey field fronts on to the road, and by late afternoon groups of high school kids were arriving on bikes . Every fifteen minutes . It went on for three days . That was a month ago. The daughter is still looking undecided. We’re thinking of selling tickets when she makes her mind up. “Typical” say the wives. “Right on” say the guys.
Duncan Diary Instalment 8 – Piano Man Part 2!
March 19, 2009 by admin
Filed under Duncan Diaries
Mr. Bolton came to supper. (The old guy with the muff who was taking piano lessons to please his wife. Who was dead.) Wasn’t fussy, he said, liked meat and potatoes. Spaghetti? Don’t like foreign food. Lamb chops? Lamb’s not really meat. So I bought a beef brisket from the butcher, put it in a pot with water and simmered it for a couple of hours, then an hour before supper (I had to go get him, he hitchhiked, no car) I put in two whole onions, two carrots, two turnips, two quartered potatoes and half a cabbage cut in two pieces, a bay leaf, and a lot of pepper for flavour, and let it all simmer. When we got back the house smelt wonderful (I’d also put in a couple of cloves). We put the pot on the table, he said no to wine (” no thank you” ) but he said what we usually like for supper is a nice cup of tea. “We” he said, “we really like tea.” and he’d told me a year ago the first time we met, that his wife had died six years ago. “We” he said – there were just two plates at the table but three of us at supper. He never told me her name, but there was no doubt that she was there. “We met at a tea party.” he said, “I told her it was too weak and we both liked it strong so we had something to start with. We still do. We like it strong.”
“We” he said, “we used to get up early but we sleep in now.” “We” had enough to do to keep “us” busy – the garden and the laundry (“we don’t iron much but we like things clean”). And we’re thinking about painting the kitchen. We used to grow tomatoes and cabbage and beans and we used to can a lot but we don’t now but we’ve still got enough to do, keeping things tidy and reading the paper. We don’t watch a lot of television and we usually walk up to the park. There’s the cat to feed and of course there’s the piano. We’ve got enough to do most days. .
“We like corned beef.” he said, “W always liked it better the day after, with dumplings.” We had a neighbour who used to come to supper and we always gave them corned beef but his wife died and ‘they’ stopped going out .We haven’t seen much of him lately. I think he misses her.” He had seconds of the brisket, then I gave him a baked apple, stuffed with raisins and brown sugar. “We used to eat a lot of apples” he said , and he told me about the apple tree and how it died one winter, just seemed to give up and not grow any more. “We” had two trees, one was a cherry tree but “we” never got to eat many cherries because the birds knew exactly when they were ripe and just came early in the morning and ate them all. “We” didn’t really mind. “We liked the birds too.”
I said I’d make more tea but he said they ought to be getting home. “We don’t like too late” he said. “And I’ve got to do my piano.” So I drove them home. He said “Thank you, we had a nice time.”