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The Bachelor Farmer

At about the time of Arnaud’s and Juliette’s unfortunately brief honeymoon, Madame Menez was made aware of another person experiencing the harshness of life, but emerging from his worst trials through the unexpected arrival of romantic love and accompanying sexual pleasure.

There are three farms and a dozen houses in the hamlet of Saint Hubert. For many years and several generations, the family Caradec had owned one of the farms. Didier Caradec and his wife Jacqueline were now in their fifties. Theirs was a mixed farm, as most are in Brittany: some barley, wheat and especially maize, and about fifty dairy cows. For thirty years, since Didier’s father had died, the couple had risen from their beds at five in the morning, winter and summer, for the early milking, which finished at about eight o’clock. After breakfast their long working day followed, ending at seven or eight in the evening, after the late milking. It is true that there were sometimes slack periods in the middle of the day, and that, in recent years, the introduction of a system of remplacements meant that they were able to take a week’s holiday at some point in the autumn. But it was still relentlessly hard work, and Jacqueline began to have back problems, probably caused by the repeated action of leaning forward under the cows to attach and detach the milking machines and to apply disinfectant. None of the couple’s children, all now adults, had wished to inherit the farm; they were settled in other careers. Didier and Jacqueline decided to sell up, and to do something less all-consuming for the remainder of their working lives. So they put the farmhouse, the farm buildings and all the stock on the market (though they kept the ownership of their fields, which they would rent to any new occupant of the farmhouse), and after a couple of expressions of interest which came to nothing, a bachelor farmer from the Pas de Calais, in his late thirties, who said that he wanted to live in Brittany because, two or three generations previously, one side of his family had originated from there, bought the place and moved in. For reasons of discretion we shall call him Frédéric.

With the sale price in their hands, and with no debts and no mortgage, Didier and Jacqueline bought a handsome detached house on a nearly new estate on the edge of Plouzalver. Didier, who had witnessed the artificial insemination of thousands of cows over many years, took up that profession. He joined a large firm of inseminators, received a month’s training, was provided with a vehicle and all the necessary equipment, and spent his days travelling around the dairy farms of Brittany as the need arose. The job offered proper holidays and a regular salary. Jacqueline found a part-time job as a receptionist at Plouzalver’s new medical centre, and spent more time on her favourite hobby, which was landscape painting.

Mme Menez had followed these developments with interest. Jacqueline had bought fish from the shop occasionally during the week, and at Saint Hubert had been a faithful customer on the Friday round. Odette reported that she was now equally faithful at the shop on Fridays, while Mme Menez was out in the country.

Frédéric brought with him his elderly father, a widower. The two of them had managed together a smaller, leased farm in the Pas de Calais. Full of enthusiasm for his new venture, Frédéric bought an extra twenty cows, taking the size of his herd to seventy. He and his father worked frantically, every day, for fourteen and more hours a day, to establish themselves in their new property. And then things began to go wrong.

The price of milk tumbled. The general opinion was that the big dairy companies which bought the milk from the farmers were to blame; they were using their power to force on small producers terms of trade ever more advantageous to the buyer, disadvantageous to the seller. Beyond the big diary companies were the supermarkets, where savage price competition on essentials like milk and cheese in its turn maintained downward pressure on the wholesale prices which the dairy companies could negotiate with them. Bottled milk now cost less than bottled water. The trend had started during Didier’s and Jacqueline’s last years at the farm, and was one of their reasons for selling. Perhaps, in these circumstances, Frédéric’s decision to enlarge the herd had been unwise. Then, the spring and early summer of his first full year of ownership were wet and cold. The yields of his cereals, and of those of farmers throughout France, were as much as thirty per cent down on recent previous years. Nor was there any comfort from a rising price because of the smaller supply; both the USA and Russia enjoyed record production years, and the arrival of their grain on the international market kept the price per tonne at no better than average.

These are the ordinary trials and tribulations of agribusiness. Worse was to follow. One of the new cows, expensively bought and then inseminated, died in the field furthest from the farm in trying and failing to deliver a calf. Frédéric was beside himself with rage as he stood over the poor swollen beast, its vulva distended and its legs stuck gracelessly up in the air. He knew what the cow had cost him already; he knew what it would cost to have the animal removed and hygienically destroyed. He blamed himself. He should have paid more attention, brought the cow closer to the farm. But there was so much else to do.

Then, the worst of all. His father rose one morning at five, as usual, and said he didn’t feel well. Frédéric did the milking by himself. Returning to the house, he found his dear father unconscious in an armchair. Distraught, he telephoned for an ambulance, which took half an hour to arrive, making its way up from Lorient in the morning traffic and through the country lanes. His father died on the way to hospital. It had been a heart attack.

The other two farmers in the hamlet, plus Jacqueline, plus Didier when his other work permitted, rallied round and did the milking and other essential jobs for a couple of weeks while Frédéric grieved and made funeral arrangements. The funeral was held in the village in the Pas de Calais from which father and son had come, and the old man was buried there. Frédéric returned to Saint Hubert, to a place which had become a burden, alone. He took on a young assistant. She was reliable, and willing to learn, but it was another expense, the mortgage was remorseless, there was more money going out than coming in, and he wasn’t sure how long he could go on like this.

Soon after Frédéric and his father had arrived, Mme Menez had knocked on the door on a Friday to ask if they were interested in buying fish. The answer was yes, of course, but their custom was irregular. More often than not, they were nowhere to be seen when Mme Menez called, and were out of earshot of the van’s horn. So most of this news she had gathered from neighbours.

A few weeks after Frédéric’s return, and as if he had not suffered enough, he was afflicted with a medical condition which neighbours initially referred to euphemistically as ‘a man’s problem’, but which one better informed person knew to be a twisted testicle. There is nothing funny about this, however much it is natural to smile in casual discussions of the male genitals. Frédéric was in acute pain. He was in hospital for a few days, where a small operation resolved the problem. During this time, others once again helped with the milking. Back at the farm, he resumed work, initially moving more slowly and gingerly than usual.

The hospital had advised that a nurse should attend Frédéric for several weeks after the operation, to see that it had been fully successful and that normal functions in that area had been resumed. The closest available appropriately qualified nurse lived only three kilometres away. She was the obvious choice to make the weekly visits. But she was female. Had Frédéric any objections to being examined by a woman? After everything he had been through, Frédéric had no objections at all.

The ‘better informed person’, Mme Menez’s source for this rather detailed information, was the nurse’s sister, a regular Friday customer. As the weeks passed, Frédéric recovered. The district nurse’s camionnette, with medical equipment neatly stored in the back, was a familiar sight in the hamlets around Plouzalver. Amélie, in her early thirties and single, was a popular figure in the community, as a person who brings relief from pain and distress, or at least provides comfort and consolation, is entitled to be. She was prompt in her regular, half-hour-long visits to Frédéric. It was noticed that, even after the period of his recuperation had finished, the camionnette was often parked outside the farmhouse. She was showing friendship to a solitary man who had had a run of bad luck. Such was her character.

The reader will have guessed how this story ends. After six months or so, the camionnette was nearly always parked outside the farmhouse, rarely outside Amélie’s former dwelling. She had moved in with him. Everyone discreetly smiled and approved, for them both. Frédéric continued to struggle with the ups and downs of the farmer’s life, and to work almost all the time, but the assistant was growing in confidence, which helped, and there were evenings when he and Amélie were seen in the local pizzeria or crêperie, having dinner together and laughing. Mme Menez blushed a little, but allowed herself to smile openly, when one of the neighbouring farmers, buying sardines and red mullet for a family barbecue, offered her the optimistic view that the relationship was bound to prosper because, as he put it, ‘She had had the opportunity, as a professional, to inspect the equipment before making use of it as an amateur.’