An extract from Donkey Business

Chapter One – Donkeys like to hear secrets

TOBY tugged at my hand. ‘Mum, why do donkeys have such enormous ears?’ My son was keen to meet his mount and trotted beside me at a lively pace.

‘I’ve no idea, my love.’ We followed Pierre, the donkey man, across the tufty grass in the wind and sun until he stopped beside an old white Peugeot parked under a stunted tree. I’d not met Pierre before. We’d spoken a couple of times when I called from England to arrange to hire the donkeys, but this was the first time we’d come face to face. I put Toby’s question to him in French.

‘They have long ears,’ he began, ‘because donkeys like to hear secrets.’ Lank, rather greasy, shoulder length hair fell across his pale face, almost concealing his dark brown eyes, and I couldn’t tell whether he was pulling my leg. He glanced at the small dog which scampered at his feet, before fixing a steady gaze on me. ‘If you want your donkey to be happy, every day you should tell him a secret.’

I smiled, unsure how to respond, before turning to Toby and translating this edict. Then I returned Pierre’s gaze. His jeans and T shirt were smeared with donkey grease and he moved with a bow-legged gait, as if he’d spent too much of his life in the saddle. But a soulful quality in the lines around his eyes suggested an artist more than a keeper of animals.

‘I… I don’t have any secrets!’ I announced at last, opening my eyes wide and forcing a laugh. A sharp pang shot through me as I uttered the words – for in truth, I did have a secret, but I’d left it behind in England, well buried in the pages of last year’s journal. Even now, and at this distance, the memory produced in me a mixture of elation and regret.

Feeling the colour rising to my cheeks, I glanced back across the grass. As I did so, my eyes lighted on my brother’s friend Luc, with whom we were staying in a village down the road. He had gone to his car to fetch his wallet and was fifty yards behind us. In contrast with the slight and wirey Pierre, Luc was something of a giant: square-shouldered and tall, with a strong face and thick, wild hair. He seemed much more relaxed here in France than on the few occasions I’d met him at home, when he’d bordered on the morose.

Pierre took a couple of halters from the boot of his car. As we set off again, he raised his eyebrows. ‘If you don’t have any secrets, Julia, it’s a problem!’ A sudden look of amusement kindled in his eyes. ‘You‘ll need to acquire one or two…’

Oh dear, I thought. Leaving aside my three week affair with Suleiman, which I’d gone out of my way to conceal from Toby, I really didn’t have any secrets. I wasn’t planning to murder anybody, I didn’t have a stash of money under my bed, and I wasn’t in love any more… so what could I possibly confide to a donkey?

This time we stopped by an electric fence at the top of a steep escarpment, where

gorse and heather grew in profusion among outcrops of chalky, white rock. Donkey paths meandered downhill in every direction, disappearing behind shrubs and small trees bowed by long exposure to the wind. At the foot of the escarpment, a vast patchwork of fields stretched south under a heavy white sky, laden with rain clouds. Toby sat down on the grass and began to play with the little dog, which was named Acrobat.

‘We’ve brought an awful lot of gear,’ I told Pierre. I pictured the mountain of tents, sleeping bags and cooking pots piled on the floor in the tiny bedroom which Toby and I were sharing at Luc’s place. ‘I hope your donkeys are strong!’ At the foot of the escarpment, a vast patchwork of fields stretched south under a heavy white sky, laden with rain clouds.

Pierre shrugged his shoulders. ‘Bof, they’re strong, but you mustn’t overload them, or they won’t want to walk.’ A look of anxiety passed across his features. He pulled a packet of Rizlas from his pocket and began to roll a cigarette. The dog was dancing on its hind legs, trying to lick Toby on the nose. ‘They can carry forty kilos each, on the flat, but if your son wants to ride, then his donkey must carry much less. How much does he weigh?’

Toby was eight. I thought he weighed around thirty kilos.

‘Let him walk, as much as possible. Let him lead his animal, that way he’ll enjoy it.’

Toby got to his feet and tugged at my hand. ‘Mum,’ he demanded, ‘when’re we going to see the donkeys?’

‘In a minute, love, in a minute.’ Inwardly, I felt as impatient as he did.

Luc reached us as a cool breeze bent the seed heads on the long grass. He crouched down beside Toby and I glimpsed a smouldering warmth in his eyes which I’d not noticed before.

‘See that funny little tree, halfway down the hill?’ He pointed at a small, wizened cherry tree.

Toby followed Luc’s finger.

‘See something white, just moving a tiny bit?’

‘I saw it move its tail!’ Toby was suddenly excited.

Luc smiled. ‘That’s the backside of one of them.’

I turned to Pierre. ‘Can we go and have a look at them?’

‘Of course.’ Pierre slung the halters over his arm and unhitched a rubber hook in the electric fence. As we walked through the opening, the sun came out from behind the clouds, illuminating the scrubby grass at the top of the incline and turning it a rich, emerald green. Dropping down the hill towards the cherry tree, we brushed past prickly gorse bushes with bright yellow flowers. Toby pushed his way to the front of the party and cantered beside Pierre, with the little dog frolicking around his heels. I sauntered at the back behind Luc.

A moment later I heard Pierre cry out.

Attention!’ He had Toby by the shoulder and appeared to be steadying him after a fall. Toby twisted round and grinned at me, holding up a muddy hand. The seat of his trousers was sodden with dew and his cheeks were turning pink with excitement.

Just then Pierre made a sound which seemed to issue from the bottom of his throat. His gaze was fixed on some brambles a few yards from the cherry tree. I was searching for the backside of a white donkey and I couldn’t see anything of the kind; but suddenly I spotted a pair of tall, pointy brown ears, flopping up and down as they moved towards us. Next I saw white nostrils and a long brown face and behind it a big brown belly and the huge ears see-sawing like mad as if they were trying to send a message in semaphore.

‘Mum!’ Toby shouted. ‘There are loads of them!’

I hurried down the hill to join him. Behind the first donkey came another pair of ears and another until I counted five donkeys ambling towards us. The one in the middle was white and the other four were chocolate brown, with thick, furry, winter coats.

The first donkey was big, more like a pony than my idea of a donkey and she carried her head with a special grace. Her ears moved in rhythm with her feet and her large eyes were full of intelligence. When she reached Pierre, he dug into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out a crust of bread. The donkey ate the bread out of his hand, making a loud crunching sound as a string of saliva trailed from the corner of her mouth. Pierre rubbed her nose and spoke in a low voice. ‘Tu es belle, toi, tu es tres belle.’ As he did so, I noticed an expression of great tenderness spreading over his face. Then he turned to Toby.

‘Her name is Marinette,’ he said in broken English. ‘Your donkey, to ride when you feel tired.’ I saw that tender look in his eyes again. ‘Friandise,’ he added, passing Toby a piece of dry bread. ‘A little something for her.’ He pronounced it some-sing, showing Toby how to open his hand very flat and hold the bread under the donkey’s muzzle. She opened her mouth revealing huge yellow teeth and the bread was gone in a couple of seconds.

Toby giggled as he wiped his fingers on his trousers. ‘Mum, did you see that? This donkey’s starving hungry!’ He reached up again to pat her on the nose. She stood very still, the picture of docility. Long whiskers protruded from her wrinkly lips. A sweet smell of dung mixed with wildflowers hung in the air around her.

By now the white donkey had pushed its way to the front and was nudging Pierre hard near the pocket which contained the bread. Pierre gave him a piece, patted him firmly on the neck and told him in no uncertain terms to move off. Behind the white donkey stood a smaller, fatter, brown one, with a dark, matted fringe that flopped over its forehead. It lacked the feminine charm exuded by Marinette and I couldn’t immediately read its expression.

‘Tipod’, Pierre announced, still straining to speak English, ‘the son of Marinette. ‘He’s very strong, he can carry your bags.’ He glanced from Toby to Luc, who stood watching with an air of amusement. ‘He’s a very nice donkey. But you have to keep an eye on him, he’s a bit of a clown!’

‘A clown?’ said Luc. ‘Sounds promising.’ He grinned at Toby and scratched Tipod behind the ears, until the white donkey barged in beside Tipod, stretching its neck again towards Pierre’s bread pocket.

I put a protective arm around Toby as Pierre placed his hands on the white beast’s whithers and pushed him backwards. Then he took more crusts from his pocket and fed them to the other two donkeys. Pierre explained that all the brown donkeys were from the French Pyrenees, but the white one, which was taller than the others, was Spanish.

He pursed his lips. ‘Diego’s a bit of a handful. I’ll give you Marinette and Tipod for your walk, they’re very strong, and used to children. Marinette’s as gentle as can be. She’s sweet-natured, maternal, just the sort of donkey you want for your son to handle.’ As he spoke he slid one of the halters from his arm over Marinette’s head in a single deft movement. Once he had pushed her black fringe to one side and pulled her long ears gently into place, he secured a rope to the halter and gave the end of it to Toby. A moment later he repeated the process with Tipod and gave the rope to me.

Allons y’. Pierre gestured to Toby to lead the way.

Toby glanced at me before turning to Marinette, who was standing very quietly at his shoulder. ‘Come on, then,’ he said, setting off briskly up the hill. Marinette walked beside him, picking up her small, un-shod hooves with the delicacy of a ballet dancer. She seemed unperturbed by Acrobat, who trotted just in front of her.

I followed with Tipod and the men brought up the rear. At the top of the incline, Pierre opened the electric fence just long enough to allow us through, ensuring that Diego and his friends remained on the other side.

When we reached the stunted tree, Pierre showed Toby and me how to knot the halter ropes to a low-hanging branch with a special, quick-release knot.

‘Why do they have to be tied up?’ Toby frowned at me.

Tu veux la monter, hein?’ Pierre spoke slowly in French, miming the actions of swinging a leg over a donkey’s back and swaying in the saddle to the rhythm of its hooves. ‘But first,’ he continued, still in French, ‘you have to learn to take care of her. Try the knot a few times, while I fetch the grooming brushes.’ Pierre had already explained to me that he wanted us to learn to groom the donkeys and clean their hooves before we started to take them on walks. He winked at me, gesturing at Toby. ‘I’m going to speak to him in French as much as possible, that way he’ll learn.’

True to form, Toby grasped the knot first time. For the next few minutes he watched, trying to mask his impatience, as I struggled and failed to get it right. ‘Shall I do it for you?’ he offered sweetly. But I was not to be defeated and persevered, turning my back to the men and cursing under my breath. I had just succeeded when Luc walked over and announced that he had things to do in Mirepoix. He would leave us with Pierre for a couple of hours and collect us on his way home. I said I hoped that wouldn’t take him out of his way.

‘Not at all,’ he replied, smiling. ‘All part of the service.’

I watched Luc stride across the grass towards his battered white Passat. It was awkward depending on him for transport, but my budget wouldn’t stretch to hiring a car. Staying with people you barely knew was always tricky, I told myself, but we were only planning to be here a few days, and I had the impression Luc had quite enjoyed seeing the donkeys. I was still watching as he closed the door of the car, revved up the engine and drove off very fast, leaving a cloud of dust on the track.