Cows have been on my mind, put there by Lorianne, whose blog, whose writing, I admire enormously. She visited some cows and wryly depicted herself photographing them, lining them up as a blog subject: Nothing says "city slicker" like the act of taking a camera into a dairy barn. Instantly you are branded as a sightseer, someone enchanted with the novelty of large animals… Only upper-class poets consider milking to be a pastoral pursuit…
Indeed, how can the city-dweller have any relationship with cows that isn’t contrived and self-conscious?
Well, I remember… I remember resting my head on the warm flank of a cow I was milking, and feeling (oh dear, how do I put this without being ultra-twee?) calm and contented in the midst of all the fears that assailed my twenty-one-year-old life - growing estrangement from my family, dread of academic failure, an impossible love, what was I going to do/be? I remember this and smile at myself and set myself up for ridicule, but it’s such a lovely memory.
It was the Easter holiday before my university finals. I visited friends in France, where I’d spent my language-student’s ‘year abroad’ the previous year, went with them to Jean-Marie’s parents’ village in the Ardèche. A golden place of old stones and sunbaked mud and buzzards wheeling in wide skies. A tiny place, a few tumbledown houses around a square. A lost place, poor and crumbling, almost all the paysans gone to work in factories, only the feckless and the none-too-bright not rushing off to better themselves.
Just the one house still inhabited in the traditional way by family upstairs and cows below. A beaming, sleazy family, still working their land, tending their few vines, milking their two cows, scratching a poor living and I fear too often passing out under the apple trees drunk on their homemade wine and spirits. Not a romantic decay. Growing poverty. Premature ageing. Fear of the authorities – all too aware that the two little grubby sparrow daughters were seen as deprived and potentially at risk. Alcoholism is alcoholism, even if passing out in the orchard is a lot less dangerous and dreadful than passing out on a city street. But still, a defiant love of the land and of a dying way of life.
I never opened my books. Walked in the countryside until I was shattered, sat on the war memorial in the little square watching my friends’ kids rush about and when they were tired sat them there beside me and told them stories in the quiet dusk. And I hung around in the cowshed until Pierre offered to show me how to milk the cows. My friends tittered, but I said yes, felt like I’d stepped out of my life and floated into somewhere different, a reprieve from being me. For once I brought no tension, no learner’s anxiety, sat down and did it, found the rhythm easily.
Every day I got up early, drank strong, viscous black coffee and a shot of rough spirits (good grief) and milked one of the cows, while Pierre milked the other. A gap-toothed grin: good lord, she likes it, that’s a rare thing these days. You should marry a paysan. No irony, but genuine surprise and gratification. No irony on my side either.
It was a good holiday, much needed, never forgotten.
¶ 10:35 pm
Ahh, see? You know more about cows than I ever could! :-)
Yes, a wonderful memory, beautifully recreated for your readers. Amazing how the retelling of something once lived gives it an extra dimension that the event itself may, or may not, have had. Like the difference between drawing/painting something and taking a picture of it. Not that I'm belittling photography, but you know what I mean.