"Come round immediately for aperitifs. Christian's brothers are here."
"But I've just cooked a spaghetti Bolognese."
"Eat it tomorrow. Come on round toot sweet."
Buggerie bolleaux. By this time I'd already had my daily medicinal dose of two large scotch and drys which was quite enough for one evening. And now I faced the prospect of a quite a few more. Plus liberal doses of wine with a meal that I'd no doubt be invited to stay for. Dammit. Didn't want to go but that's not the way it works round here. If you're summoned, you go. And that's it.
Took spag Bol off the hot plate, put a fresh log in each of the stoves, swapped slippers for stout shoes, donned fleece and top coat, stuck bobble hat on head and set off into the cold, snowy night. Arrived at neighbour's. Warmly welcomed. Joined the gang in front of the telly. Large scotch and dry immediately shoved in my hand. On screen, one of Christian's DVD Christmas presents was being viewed. Small herds of wild boar and deer darted every which way, chased by gun-toting hunters and killer hounds. Close-up of a woman aiming a rifle. Bang. One dead deer. Nods of approval from Christian and the lads. Leafy twig placed in deer's mouth. Another swabbed over its teeth and then placed in rifle-woman's pocket. Presumably some kind of hunting tradition. Maybe her first kill. Scene cut to wild boar chase. I cut to the kitchen to have a smoke and a quick watch of the news and weather - there's a little telly on top of the fridge.
Hunting's big in France. Especially round here. There's a 'chasse' on most week-ends during the hunting season. Step outside the front door on a Saturday or Sunday and you can normally hear a distant horn, or pack of barking dogs, or the crack of a rifle. For week-end dogwalks, I tend not to venture far. And always away from the action. Sprocket could easily be mistaken for a sanglier (wild boar) from a distance. Especially by a short-sighted hunter who's had a few too many Ricards at lunchtime. Or a pack of eagle-eyed hunting dogs lusting after blood. Jock recently almost got ripped apart by a couple of hunting dogs that were off their leads by a parked car up by the old granite cross. Wasn't even a hunt on. Just an inattentive owner. An off-duty cop. Those dogs are killers. According to Christian, a good young 'un with a top bloodline costs about three grand. That's how highly they're prized. And how highly they rate hunting.
As a typical animal-loving Brit, I dislike hunting. It's how I was brought up. The sight of a toffee-nosed bunch of upper class prats in red jackets sipping glasses of mulled wine aboard horses then charging off shouting "tally ho!" as they chase defenceless foxes to be inhumanely ripped apart by dozens of terriers, frankly, sickens me. However, I don't have a problem with farmers shooting foxes that endanger sheep or chickens. There is a difference. One's a bit of a lark, the other isn't.
Out here, hunting's necessary. Wild boar and deer can ruin crops. So they're shot. Yes, there's a certain amount of tradition involved in the hunt but it's not the same 'upper class' activity that exists back in Blighty. Anyone can join in. In a way, hunting is the 'glue' that holds local communities together. Although I've been invited a few times to go on a hunt, I've always politely declined. However, I have visited a few of the local hunt 'shows'. Basically, they're excuses for mega piss-ups and nosh-ups, usually ending with a disco and a punch-up. And if there is a punch-up, Christian's often at the centre of it. Ooh, he's a lad. A big lad too. Get a few Ricards in him at one of these do's and stand well clear. At my first introduction to the local hunt 'do' at nearby Gioux (I'm a poet, don'cha know it) he took a swing at the local farmer/mayor. Isabelle had a bit of a problem separating them so I rugby tackled Christian and floored him. Wouldn't have done it had I been sober. Farmer ran off. Discovered afterwards that there was a bit of a tribal feud over land. Christian's from the next village so he's a 'foreigner'. Rubbish, but that's the way things are round here in redneck country.
Visit any local house and you'll find mounted boar and deer heads hanging on walls. And framed photos of hunting teams and 'kills' on mantlepeices. And, quite often, hunting dogs in kennels out back. Christian has three. Did have four but 'Wendy' recently died. Actually, she wasn't a hunting dog but a big, black, soppy thing that, unlike the hunters, was allowed to live indoors. She liked her home comforts and was the matriarch of the hamlet. She ruled. Used to invite herself in and help herself to whatever leftovers were left in Jock and Sprockets' bowls. Quite worried me 'cos I thought Jock'n'Sprock would rip her to bits. Instead they attempted to mount her (waste of time - she being so tall) but were swiftly put in their place with a matronly growl. Neighbour Alain has hunters too. Or did have. He now just has one, the others died of old age. The elderly hunter that remains lives in a rickety old kennel to the left of our front garden in the shadow of the church wall. Poor thing's blind. Tough as old boots though. Has to be to survive these winters. I nip out and give him odd bits of grub when it's really bad. He recognises me now. Eats anything - chicken bones included. Wolfs 'em down. Although he's blind, he has incredible hearing. He can even hear the front door opening. And he always cocks an ear to Jock and Sprocket barking. The weird thing is that at seven bells every evening, he starts howling. Regular as clockwork. Not six bells or eight, just seven.
Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, round at Isabelle's. So, had a couple of large scotches then sat down to supper with the gang. Saturday night so gallons of wine with meal. Eventually staggered off back home in a blizzard just before midnight. Walked dogs up the granite cross in a vain attempt to sober up. Woke up Sunday morning with hangover. Let out dogs, stoked stoves (had to re-light kitchen one), wheelbarrowed more logs indoors from woodpile (snow in slippers), got dogs back in and went back to bed. Got up well after mid-day. Georgie rang and asked about my hangover. Asked how she knew. Said I'd rung last night (news to me). Told her about Christian and brothers watching hunting DVDs. She imagined them sitting round the telly, a'whoopin' and hollerin', and thought it was funny. Said I should write a blog about it. Which is what I've just done.