I first thought of rewriting this to make it less simple, more subtle, perhaps. Then I started reading Geert Mak's lovely book, An Island in Time, about a Dutch village and the end of agricultural village life in Europe. I thought, mine will be the last generation to remember this - even a single, isolated experience of it - the peasant life, milking a few cows by hand in a mucky cowshed on the ground floor of a small house, with the family living above. Let this memory stand as I remembered it from the mid 1970s and wrote it some thirty years later.
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, a difficult love, what to do with my life. 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 was 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 base of 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. 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: Bon Dieu, 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 time, much needed, never forgotten.
In Geert Mak's book, which is not a whimsical or sentimental book, but a well researched account of working terribly hard for very little, an old woman remembers:
" You made sure you had a little foam, and then you carried on milking, you just carried on milking. And then you let your thoughts wander. You thought about the new day, the weather, the birds. Your thoughts skipped from on thing to the other. What is happening to the world? Why do things turn out the way they do? "