26 January 2007

Of Mice and Old Men

Mice in the roof! I thought I heard them a couple of nights ago and then last night there was no doubt. They were making a hell of a racket. They started off with a cocktail party, which led to a raucous banquet, dining on my roof insulation, no doubt. After that, they got stuck into John Travolta-style disco dancing to a very noisy band and this went on all night. Something has to be done! Actually, they are probably not mice but tree rats who are rather beautiful creatures with soft faces and white fur on their bellies, but sorry, I need my beauty sleep and I don’t need the wiring chewed. What to do is always the problem. Candy, my best buddy, who lives in America, was invaded by mice a while back and she used a humane trap. She’d bait it and then the mouse would simply walk in the door of the trap, which then closed behind it. She also drilled her trap with extra vent holes for air and put cotton wool balls inside so the poor ‘ickle’ mouse would have something soft to snuggle up to whilst it waited overnight for her to find it. That’s my Candy!

Once in the cage, she carried the trap over the hill and way down to the creek bottoms below and released it on the other side of the creek. By the time she got to mouse number 105 she gave up, as she suspected they were simply walking back up the hill to the quarters they shared with Candy and Bob’s two Old English Sheepdogs. Mind you, they’d have had to swim the creek first. Her neighbour said they probably enjoyed the ride and beat her home. She either took 105 mice over the hill or one mouse 105 times. She’ll never know.

If I get mice in a cupboard, I put down spring traps, which at least kill instantly. I could live without disposing of their little bodies though. Poison gives a slow death and is so cruel but what do you do when you’ve got the little buggers in your roof? Well, I’m not going to address the problem this morning. Instead I’ll look out of the window and enjoy the view.

Before me, I see the Mediterranean but when I look at the hillside to my right, there is a sea of green, mostly chênes verts (holm oaks) and pines that grow way down to the ruisseau (stream) called the Calf below. Visitors often love that view more than looking at the sea. Trees are so calming, aren’t they? The Calf, when it’s rained a lot, is a torrent carrying boulders and fallen trees as it rages down the mountain, but in summer, it's barely a trickle. One day, a couple of years ago, Candy found the decomposing head of a sanglier (wild boar) down there. Of course she had to take this back to America in her suitcase so it sat for days in neat bleach (Javel in France) in an attempt to rid it of the morsels of brain attached. She now has it displayed in her living room in Ohio along with hornets’ nests, turtle shells, deer antlers and animal skulls she finds on her walks along the creek bottoms. Candy’s interior decoration is un peu spéciale as the French would say.

Candy retrieving a sanglier skull from the stream

It constantly amazes me that I live in the countryside alongside olive and citrus growers yet the house is only 5 kilometres from the sea and 11 kilometres from the buzz and glamour of Monaco. And it feels even more ‘country’ to me, because my neighbour keeps his pet sheep under the motorway.

We are four neighbours in this little quartier. Way above me on the main road is the doctor, his wife (a nurse) and their family. The other three including me, are down a rough track opposite their house. First down the track is Monsieur Cocular and his family, then, turning in the direction of the sea, you’ll find Pension Milou and below is my neighbour and friend, Agnès and her family.

Monsieur Cocular is the old man who keeps the sheep. 93 years of age, he wanders the lanes for most of the day cutting fronds of olive leaves and other plants for his pet sheep. The sheep are not kept for meat or milk and certainly not for their wool, as their fleeces are none too tidy. They are his pets and he adores them and when one dies, it’s buried on the hillside. I suppose if he didn’t have his sheep to care for, he’d die. They give him a reason to live. He’s a sweet little old man, very thin, who used to push his chariot around the neighbourhood, stuffing it full of cuttings, but now he makes do with an old sack.

The problem is he cuts the plants in our gardens too. Fences are supposed to denote private land, non? Monsieur Cocular leans over my fence and cuts back anything his sheep will eat and ruins my plants at the same time.

This has gone on for years and up till now I’ve thought: – poor old boy, trying to find free forage for his sheep, does it really matter if he cuts your plants, Jilly? And the answer had to be no. Indeed, when my olive trees are trimmed in winter, I lug the branches up to him. He gets all the weeds too, most of which can be fed to sheep. I’ve bought him bales of hay and told him I’m happy to continue buying hay but on condition he doesn’t cut the plants in my garden. Of course it makes no difference.

And always he denies he’s cut anything he shouldn’t. ‘Ne couper pas mes plants, Monsieur Cocular.’ Mai, non,’ he replies. Huh ! I wonder what his wife would say if I walked into her potager and cut her vegetables.

For years I decided, because he ignored my pleas, that he was simply old, probably a little senile and didn’t know what he was doing. Lately though, I’ve noticed, canny old man, he waits until my car has gone and then he’ll walk down the track with his knife – chop, chop, chop at my plants, many of which I’ve raised from seed or bought in the nursery.

Last summer I had a car park area built. A large area of concrete surrounded by retaining walls to hold back the hillside. Ugly it is, but practical and hopefully kinder to car tyres than the rough stones that used to be there. So, I bought half a dozen rosemary plants which will eventually tumble over the wall and soften the look. So what happens? I go out shopping and when I get back I find Monsieur Cocular has clambered up the hill, behind the retaining wall, and chopped all of them back, almost to the roots. Grrrrrrrrrr.

Agnès, my other neighbour, suggests I have a word with Monsieur C’s daughter. I decide not to phone – that makes too much of it. A few days later I happen to be walking up the track to the mailbox when I see Marie-Christine getting out of her car. I ask her if I can have a word, explain the problem and ask if she’ll speak to her father. At that moment, Monsieur Cocular appears and also his wife. He denies ever cutting my plants. ‘Ce n’est pas vrai,’ he says. His daughter says, ‘Oh Papa,’ and shakes her head. His wife wants to know what’s going on. I explain as gently as I can. His wife is angry. ‘My husband doesn’t cut other people’s plants – he goes up to the hills to get the food for the sheep,’ she says. She asks if I’ve seen him cutting my garden. I tell her I have seen him. I tell that the other neighbours have seen him and that Sylvie, who works here on Saturdays, has seen him. She gets angrier and insists it’s not her husband who has committed this heinous crime. She says she has personally seen someone else walk down our valley and cut plants. What nonsense. Of course she hasn’t.

Really we get nowhere fast but hopefully, now it’s been discussed, he’ll stop looking for sheep fodder in my garden. I’m not counting on it though. And now I feel so guilty as I’ve doubtless got this poor old man into trouble. Oh the guilt – will I sleep at night for thinking about it? – well no, because the mice will keep me awake, won’t they? But perhaps the rosemary will grow…


Anonymous said...

Excellent, Jilly.
I love the way you've told the story of your neighbour. We have a shepherd living next door to us too even though Opio stopped being real country years ago. He walks the sheep round and they'll eat the overgrown grass on the roadsides and clear vegetation from empty plots.
Wonder if he's a relative of your shepherd.
Good luck with your spring plantings!
Angela from a life in the south of france

Anonymous said...

Well you could try putting some spring traps using rosemary cuttings as bait in the trees and around the car port. See if he clues into the subtle joke or ends up wearing several band-aids.

Anonymous said...

You could let one of your guests prowl the fenceline but a dog could do more damage than the man. :)

Great story.

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