The two Irish Moira’s sent me off over the bridge and up the hill with a good lunch of baguette, cheese ,ham and tomatoes and an even better bottle of wine to sustain me on my journey.
They also tried to don a red hat on my head but wouldn’t tell me what it was for.
They just shrugged their shoulders when I refused to wear it and laughed and accompanied me to the edge of the village in their sensible brogues.
‘Take care now, keep in touch’ ! They called ‘Oh and keep your head down’ at least that’s what I think their last sentence was, but at that instant a gust of wind blew and the lid of a bin clattered off down the hill , drowning their voices. so I just nodded and waved and scooted off.
Half way up the hill I had to get off and walk…It was steep and the wind was against me.
It never bothers me to have to walk, I like to stop and look around.
Far off the village seemed like a sleepy miniature. To my right the valley fell away steeply.
All was quiet except for the birds, the sighing of wind through the tree’s and the distant rumble of a far off tractor…I could just see it, ploughing a field below.
Suddenly a gunshot rang out and another, followed by a whole volley of shots which echoed and were answered from across the valley.
A man wearing a red hat stepped out onto the road in front of me with a dog at his heels. He nodded at me brusquely and before I had time to stammer a frightened ‘ bonjour,’ he melted back into the tree’s again.
Another shot, This time it was two men, both with red hat’s but they ignored me and went striding off down the road, rifles on their broad shoulders and proverbial dog at their heels
I was scared AND out in the middle of nowhere at the obvious start of the hunting season….with no red hat on, my head might be easily taken for a rabbit as it bobbed along.
I jumped back on my bike and pedaled as fast as my wheels would carry me, up the hill which began to wend its way through a forest.
I tried to ignore the continued rifle shots .
Red faced and out of breath I reached the summit.
I was out through the tree’s now and on a sort of plateau and feeling safer found a nice rock to sit on and eat my lunch…
In the distance I could see the Pyrenees covered in snow. I ate speedily for though the sun was out it was freezing and the warmth I’d worked up was dwindling fast.
The rest of the way was down hill and I would have loved to throw caution to the wind and see how fast I could go, but somehow the knowledge that I had recently escaped death twice, firstly by surviving cancer and secondly escaping those huntsmen’s bullets made it seem a bit of a waste to throw all away for the sake of speed . So I took it easy, braking every now and again when the yellow bike began to lose the run of herself.
After what seemed to be forever but in reality was probably only a half an hour, I was pulling the big rusty bell outside the gates of the old abbey.
As the large wrought iron gates closed after me, I felt as probably pilgrims did in those long ago days when travelling through dangerous countryside …..Safe and very relieved
The dining/sitting room of the old Abbey was based in what once was the refectory and, except for a dainty little white haired woman sitting at an enormous crackling fire, I seemed to be the only guest .
She stood up when she heard me and grasping my hand in both of hers smiled and welcomed me . She was not a guest it seemed but the owner..
Looking sweetly into my eyes she said in perfect English. ‘You are welcome’ and then in another breath ..’But who are you’ ?
My reply that I was a guest appeared to puzzle her at first as though trying to place me in her long list of acquaintances. But courtesy prevailed and she sat down again and patted the couch indicating for me to join her. I would have rather relaxed and just gazed into the fire with maybe a glass of wine but not wanting to appear rude I did as she bid
She asked my name and where I was from and then explained how she and her husband(now dead ) had bought the abbey.
Then, As though remembering her manners, She jumped up mid sentence and hurried into the kitchen,returning with a tray with tea things.
At one point a man stuck his head around the door and nodded vaguely before disappearing again. ‘My Son’ she smiled proudly before returning to the pouring of the tea.
It was all rather odd.
But I began to relax in her company. She was a good story teller and could see she was lonely and loved having someone to talk to. She was also very forgetful and every now and again I would catch her looking at me curiously as though trying to place me.
The evening wore on and once again she got up this time to prepare some food…I was aware that none of these chambre d’hotes provided evening meals for guests so as usual I had brought my own food and stored it in the large fridge in the kitchen.
I followed her in. She was in a huge larder rummaging through tins, muttering to herself. At one stage she pulled out a tin of lentil soup and read the label in the light before shoving it back in. ‘For children’ her nose wrinkled in disgust.
After much searching she threw her hands up in despair.
It suddenly dawned on me that she was trying to find something to make me a dinner from.
‘But YOU don’t have to feed ME’ I said gently. ‘I have my own food with me’
I led her back to the fire ‘ Sit here and relax, I will make us a picnic by the fire’
‘A picnic’ she clasped her hands in glee ,her face lighting up like a child’s,
‘A picnic ‘ she repeated settling happily down on the couch again
Heading back into the kitchen I put cheese and olives and a fritata and a selection of cold meats on a wooden board as I couldn’t find a big enough plate and put it on a large tray along with a bottle of wine and two glasses, two chipped plates and two knives and forks.
When she saw the food she took both my hands in hers.
‘Merci, merci’ she said kissing me on both cheeks.
Then she hurried over to an old walnut Armoire and wrenching open the doors she started rummaging.
There was a lot of noise of delf clattering and after a few moments she came back looking distraught.
‘Ou est L’assiette Blanc?’ She looked at me accusingly.
‘The white plate ‘ she repeated crossly now ‘Where have you put it?’
‘The white plate’ I repeated stupidly, not knowing what she was talking about.
‘Qui ! qui!… She was getting crosser ….
‘The large white plate for laying out the picnic’….
‘Its alright’ I replied soothingly , ‘The board will do fine’.
‘Non!Non’! Did she stamp her foot? She was definitely becoming more agitated,
‘We cannot eat your beautiful picnic off an old wooden board’ She was nearly in tears at this point and for a moment I thought she was about to sweep the wooden board and all in contained off the table and into the fire
She sat sadly back on the couch.
Cursing myself for suggesting a picnic I knelt down and stuck my head into the Armoire and after much rooting I pulled out a large white dusty serving dish.
Her face broke into a smile as I held it towards her…
‘Here you are, L’assiette blanc’ I said.
She pushed it back it back at me …’Non it is your’s’
‘But you were looking for it’ I could feel cobwebs stuck to my hair and I was becoming confused
She laughed gaily ‘ Mais Non….YOU were looking for it’
I let the subject drop and instead transferred the food onto the plate.
We sat and chewed and sipped our wine and she twittered on happily about this and that.
At one point my daughter rang (to check on me) and I excused my self to talk to her for a few minutes, But Madam kept trying to shout down the phone..’ your Mother! she is wonderful…she has made us a picnic..next time I will cook her dinner instead’
Then tapping my arm insisted ‘Tell her….Tell your daughter I will cook for you next time’
‘WHO is that ? my daughter laughed, but we were cut off before I could explain.
After a while I noticed her cheeks were getting redder. She had mentioned her age (94) I was suddenly worried about her getting drunk.
I began to have visions of her getting up in the night to go to the toilet and falling down the stairs and whose fault would that be?
I pulled across the half empty bottle and, stating firmly that it was time to go to bed, attempted to put the cork back in.
But she was having none of it. She took the bottle from me and poured us both another large glass.
I gave up and we sat on with our rosy cheeks and chatted well into the night and next morning the smell of coffee awoke me and I was happy to see her as bright as a button and busy in her kitchen ..rooting in the larder and pulling out pots of Her sons pumpkin Jam and laying the table for breakfast.
I was also happy to see the white plate in the center of the table.
But even more happy when I eventual made it back to the familiar canal. Just me and the yellow bike happily tootling along minding our own business….