Donkey Business: a Pyrenean Adventure of the Heart

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.


Chapter Two - A sculpture in string

I'm not being rude or anything, but mum's really not much good at tying knots. In fact, she's not much good at anything to do with ropes. While she was talking to Uncle Stan's friend, I looked at the way she'd tied Tipod's rope to the tree. The problem was that she'd wound the rope round the branch too many times so it wouldn't come undone very easily, which is the whole point of a quick release knot. But I didn't say anything because she can get quite grumpy. And I didn't want to hurt her feelings.
The reason why I'm so good at tying knots is because I've been doing it all my life. When I was little, uncle Stan gave me a stuffed dog with floppy ears for Christmas. I named it Derek and one day when Will had the string out I tied some round its neck, to make a lead. Will's my dad, but I call him Will most of the time, although sometimes I call him dad. I didn't know how to make a knot that would hold so I just kept looping the string round and round until nobody could get it off, not even Will. After that I took Derek with me round the house and at night I would tie the end of his lead onto the bar of my bed. Sometimes in the morning when I tried to untie him, I couldn't, so I would have to ask mum or Will. They're not together any more, by the way, but they were then. My knots were so complicated that they started calling them 'Toby-knots'. I was quite proud of that. A 'Toby-knot' is a special knot that's particularly difficult to undo.
Mum got into the habit of taking a ball of string with us when we were out and about, because she said I was never bored if I had a ball of string. One time, when I was quite a bit bigger, we went to visit mum's cousin Alice. Alice is an artist and she has a big garden with a couple of apple trees in it. It was a summer's day and mum and Alice were sitting at the garden table, drinking tea and chatting. I got really bored because they weren't talking about anything interesting. So I went and got the string out of mum's backpack. Alice had already said it was okay for me to climb her apple trees. I pulled myself up into the nearest tree till I was sitting across the biggest branch, and then I knotted the end of the string round it. It was quite tough, white string and there was lots of it. I started winding the ball round the second biggest branch and back round the biggest one and back up to the second one, and then across to some spindly little twigs on the far side. Then I dropped the ball and jumped down out of the tree and connected the string to another tree. After a while, Alice got up from the table and stood and watched me. I got the feeling she really liked what I was doing, and I was right, 'cos she went indoors to fetch her camera. When she came back out, she took quite a few pictures. 'It's a string sculpture,' she said to mum. 'The boy's a genius.'
It wasn't long afterwards that Will bought me my first rope. We were in the shop where we get all our camping gear and we saw two teenagers trying on a special harness that you use for rock climbing. Next to the harnesses, there was a big coil of pink rope. I was looking at it and thinking of all the things that I could do with it, and Will said he would buy me a piece. When we got home, he helped me to coil the rope round my waist – it was quite heavy – and then I went up the tree in the front garden. Will stood at the bottom, and I stood in the tree, and I knotted the rope round a branch. Will checked the knot and it was okay and then I abseiled down. It was really good fun.
One day a few weeks later I was with mum in a park where they had an aerial runway. I had a good look at the way it worked and then next time I saw Will, I asked him to buy me a pulley. He said if I was going to try to build an aerial runway by myself, I had to be very careful, as they are quite tricky. So we sat down together and worked out the knots, and then he let me have a go building a runway from his tree to the swing in the back garden. It was quite difficult but I managed to make it work – well, sort of. Actually I bumped my bum quite badly when I landed on the grass beside the swing.
Anyway that was last year and I'm older now and my knots have got better, and Will bought me an extra long rope to bring on this trip. (He bought me a penknife, too.) So when we start camping, I'm planning to build an aerial runway between two trees. I've said to mum that I hope sometimes we can camp beside a river, because the best possible sort of runway is when you fly from one side of the river to the other. Mum says she'd like to camp beside a river too, or at least beside a stream, but it will all depend on the route we're taking and whether there are any rivers.


Chapter Three - Tipod the clown

Just after Luc drove off, a commotion broke out behind me. Diego, who was standing at the electric fence with the two nameless donkeys, threw back his head and began to bray. It was a strange, half-strangled noise, full of agony and indignation. And it wasn't just a single 'eeyore' such as you read about in children's books: rather, after the initial 'eee', the 'orrrrr' went on and on and on, until the sound ricocheted off the rocks on the escarpment and bounced around the flields below.
And no sooner had Diego let out his last, exhausted 'orrrr' than Tipod, too, threw back his head, rolled back his upper lip revealing broad, yellow teeth and gums and replied, with equal vehemence and at equal length.
Toby clapped his hands in delight. 'Mum!' he cried. 'Listen to that!' But to me, both donkeys were expressing deep anguish, as if they feared they might never meet again. The sound reminded me of how I'd felt the night Suleiman and I said goodbye.
When the braying subsided, Pierre gave Toby an oval-shaped plastic brush and told him to groom Marinette from just behind her ears to her tail. He gave me a second brush for Tipod and stood back to watch us work.
Tipod was quiet now and his chocolate brown eyes gave nothing away. I wondered what he was thinking as I rested my left hand behind his ears and began to brush his neck. His coarse, rusty brown coat was flecked with dried mud. Clouds of dust rose in the air as the thick prongs of the brush did their work. A rich smell of earth and animal filled my nostrils, and the natural oil in Tipod's skin stained my fingers.
Glancing up, I saw Toby run his brush lightly over Marinette's hind quarters and offer it to Pierre. But Pierre smiled and shook his head, saying 'Non, non, pas encore'. He stepped forward, ran his hand over the underside of Marinette's neck and pointed out some remaining spots of mud. Toby was to start all over again, he insisted, and carry on until her coat was smooth as silk. Pierre looked at me. 'If you leave even a tiny bead of mud on her, and the saddle rubs against it, she'll get a sore. This is why the grooming's very important, very important.' I translated for Toby. He was getting tired, but after a moment petting Acrobat he went back to Marinette and started to brush her afresh.
Working away at the encrusted mud on Tipod's flanks, I let my mind drift to Suleiman. I still remembered the sensation of heat that would spread through my body when we lay skin to skin, he on his back and me stretched out along his length, my breasts pressed into his chest and my fingertips under the lobes of his ears. Those first few nights, we had spent hour after hour with our bodies locked together, gazing at each other in shyness and disbelief.
How different it might have been, I often thought, if he hadn't come to Manchester that week. Painful though our reunion had been, I couldn't help feeling that the whole thing had been intended by fate. Toby was away with Will for half term and a friend had fallen sick and given me her ticket to see 'some band from Mali'. She knew I'd lived and worked there, and thought I might enjoy it. It wasn't until the band was on stage that it even occurred to me that Suleiman could be among the musicians.
He and I had been colleagues for a few months, towards the end of my time in Mali. There had been a strong attraction between us even then, but doing anything about it would have cost both of us our jobs. When it started to become unbearable, Suleiman quit to become a full time musician, and I moved on to Ethiopia.
It was eleven years since we'd last seen each other, at his sister's house in Bamako. And suddenly there he was, not ten feet from me, as lithe and energetic as ever, playing the kora with his sinewy arms and unbelievably long fingers.
I would never forget the expression on Suleiman's face when I went to the stage door at the end of the gig. He was smoking a joint with one of the roadies when he caught sight of me. He had shaved his hair very short for the European tour, which gave him a curiously westernised look, but when he shouted my name and smiled it was the same pair of eyes, the same beautiful face, the same mouth, as I remembered so well from Mali.
'Mum,' Toby's voice broke into my thoughts, 'you know Pierre said we should tell the donkeys secrets?'
'Yes, love.'
'What if we haven't got any secrets?'
'I don't know. I was wondering that, myself.' This was a half truth, but it would have to do.
There were frown marks at the centre of Toby's forehead. 'D'you think my donkey'd like it if I talked to her about other things, that aren't really secret?'
I leaned against Tipod's tummy and ran my hand over his back. He was shaped like a barrel, as if he'd eaten too much juicy spring grass. 'I expect so, darling. They seem to be quite sociable creatures. Why don't you try?' Privately, I thought it was a great idea. Toby had a great deal to say for himself, and it would make my life much easier if he had a second listener, for the moments when I was either too busy or too tired to give him my full attention.
My son stood still, brush in mid air, while Pierre flicked the ash from his cigarette with an air of amusement. 'I think I will.' He looked pleased. Then a fresh frown puckered his brow. 'But mum… I can't speak French!'
I was leaning over Tipod's haunch as I brushed the area round his tail. A sweet, waxy smell rose from his coat. 'I'm not sure that matters. I think from Marinette's point of view, it's the fact that you're bothering to talk to her, and your tone of voice that she'll like, even if she can't understand the words. Try it, my love. See how she reacts.'

When I was pretty sure I'd removed all the mud from Tipod's left side, I placed the palm of my hand firmly above his tail, stepped behind him and began brushing again on his right side.
I wasn't sure I could cope with any more secrets. The thing with Suleiman had left me feeling so raw that I'd sworn it would be years before I took my chances with another man. Seven months on, I was still struggling to put the episode behind me. Wild love affairs were all very well if you didn't have children, but I had Toby to consider in everything I did. When something went wrong in my life, Toby always felt it.
But if, I mused – by some unexpected fluke - I should acquire a new secret here in France, I'd sooner confide in Marinette than Tipod. Marinette was female and surely a secret was best passed from one female to another? I stole a longing glance at her across Tipod's withers. She seemed very calm and contented, listening to Toby's chatter. I tried to suppress a twinge of envy. I should be grateful that Pierre had assigned her to Toby, for, being a mother herself, she would understand that her tender cargo must be borne with care.

Toby was working over Marinette for the third time now, using a new brush with soft bristles. Marinette's coat shone in the dappled light under the tree and something akin to a smile played around her muzzle. Nothing could be more to her liking, it seemed, than the touch and chatter of a young boy.
I was still busy with the plastic brush, working at a patch of dry mud on Tipod's flank, with my back to his head. Suddenly I felt something tugging quite hard at the Goretex jacket which I wore knotted round my waist. Turning, I saw that Tipod had taken hold of the sleeve with his teeth. His neck was arched round towards me and he was staring at me with a deadpan expression, as if to say “Well? What're ya gonna do about it?”
'Hey!' I snapped. 'Let go!' The jacket was new and had cost me a lot of money. But Tipod was unmoved. He stood very still, gazing at me with sullen eyes and keeping his teeth firmly clamped on the dark green sleeve. Right, I thought, I'm definitely not telling you any secrets. I dropped my brush, took him by the muzzle and tried to make him open his jaw, but to no avail. Pierre had heard my shout and came to watch, smiling to himself as he rolled a cigarette.
Toby followed close behind, an expression of delight spreading across his features. 'See, mum,' he crowed, 'Pierre said your donkey's a clown.' Tipod's nostrils were quivering and his bottom lip stuck out beyond the top one. And then I saw it: a slight shift in the muscles around his eyes, revealing beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was laughing at me.
'Ouvrir!' I commanded, thinking perhaps he didn't understand English. But the word had no effect whatsoever. At last Pierre came to my rescue, showing me how to insert my thumb into a gap in Tipod's teeth. Tipod shot me one last look of mockery before letting go the sleeve. It was covered in slobber, but at least it wasn't torn.
Behind me, Toby lay on the ground, clutching his stomach and howling with laughter. As I shook out my jacket and wiped it on the grass, he scrambled to his feet, rushed up to Tipod and patted him on the nose.
'Good boy,' he enthused, 'good boy. I think we should give him some bread now, mum, don't you?' Before I could answer he ran to Pierre's car and returned with a hunk of dry baguette.
'Reward him for biting my Goretex?' I retorted. 'No way!' But it was hopeless. Toby had already proffered the bread on his flattened palm and Tipod was crunching it up with an air of cool satisfaction.



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. 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.


Chapter Two - A sculpture in string

I'm not being rude or anything, but mum's really not much good at tying knots. In fact, she's not much good at anything to do with ropes. While she was talking to Uncle Stan's friend, I looked at the way she'd tied Tipod's rope to the tree. The problem was that she'd wound the rope round the branch too many times so it wouldn't come undone very easily, which is the whole point of a quick release knot. But I didn't say anything because she can get quite grumpy. And I didn't want to hurt her feelings.
The reason why I'm so good at tying knots is because I've been doing it all my life. When I was little, uncle Stan gave me a stuffed dog with floppy ears for Christmas. I named it Derek and one day when Will had the string out I tied some round its neck, to make a lead. Will's my dad, but I call him Will most of the time, although sometimes I call him dad. I didn't know how to make a knot that would hold so I just kept looping the string round and round until nobody could get it off, not even Will. After that I took Derek with me round the house and at night I would tie the end of his lead onto the bar of my bed. Sometimes in the morning when I tried to untie him, I couldn't, so I would have to ask mum or Will. They're not together any more, by the way, but they were then. My knots were so complicated that they started calling them 'Toby-knots'. I was quite proud of that. A 'Toby-knot' is a special knot that's particularly difficult to undo.
Mum got into the habit of taking a ball of string with us when we were out and about, because she said I was never bored if I had a ball of string. One time, when I was quite a bit bigger, we went to visit mum's cousin Alice. Alice is an artist and she has a big garden with a couple of apple trees in it. It was a summer's day and mum and Alice were sitting at the garden table, drinking tea and chatting. I got really bored because they weren't talking about anything interesting. So I went and got the string out of mum's backpack. Alice had already said it was okay for me to climb her apple trees. I pulled myself up into the nearest tree till I was sitting across the biggest branch, and then I knotted the end of the string round it. It was quite tough, white string and there was lots of it. I started winding the ball round the second biggest branch and back round the biggest one and back up to the second one, and then across to some spindly little twigs on the far side. Then I dropped the ball and jumped down out of the tree and connected the string to another tree. After a while, Alice got up from the table and stood and watched me. I got the feeling she really liked what I was doing, and I was right, 'cos she went indoors to fetch her camera. When she came back out, she took quite a few pictures. 'It's a string sculpture,' she said to mum. 'The boy's a genius.'
It wasn't long afterwards that Will bought me my first rope. We were in the shop where we get all our camping gear and we saw two teenagers trying on a special harness that you use for rock climbing. Next to the harnesses, there was a big coil of pink rope. I was looking at it and thinking of all the things that I could do with it, and Will said he would buy me a piece. When we got home, he helped me to coil the rope round my waist - it was quite heavy - and then I went up the tree in the front garden. Will stood at the bottom, and I stood in the tree, and I knotted the rope round a branch. Will checked the knot and it was okay and then I abseiled down. It was really good fun.
One day a few weeks later I was with mum in a park where they had an aerial runway. I had a good look at the way it worked and then next time I saw Will, I asked him to buy me a pulley. He said if I was going to try to build an aerial runway by myself, I had to be very careful, as they are quite tricky. So we sat down together and worked out the knots, and then he let me have a go building a runway from his tree to the swing in the back garden. It was quite difficult but I managed to make it work - well, sort of. Actually I bumped my bum quite badly when I landed on the grass beside the swing.
Anyway that was last year and I'm older now and my knots have got better, and Will bought me an extra long rope to bring on this trip. (He bought me a penknife, too.) So when we start camping, I'm planning to build an aerial runway between two trees. I've said to mum that I hope sometimes we can camp beside a river, because the best possible sort of runway is when you fly from one side of the river to the other. Mum says she'd like to camp beside a river too, or at least beside a stream, but it will all depend on the route we're taking and whether there are any rivers.


Chapter Three - Tipod the clown

Just after Luc drove off, a commotion broke out behind me. Diego, who was standing at the electric fence with the two nameless donkeys, threw back his head and began to bray. It was a strange, half-strangled noise, full of agony and indignation. And it wasn't just a single 'eeyore' such as you read about in children's books: rather, after the initial 'eee', the 'orrrrr' went on and on and on, until the sound ricocheted off the rocks on the escarpment and bounced around the flields below.
And no sooner had Diego let out his last, exhausted 'orrrr' than Tipod, too, threw back his head, rolled back his upper lip revealing broad, yellow teeth and gums and replied, with equal vehemence and at equal length.
Toby clapped his hands in delight. 'Mum!' he cried. 'Listen to that!' But to me, both donkeys were expressing deep anguish, as if they feared they might never meet again. The sound reminded me of how I'd felt the night Suleiman and I said goodbye.
When the braying subsided, Pierre gave Toby an oval-shaped plastic brush and told him to groom Marinette from just behind her ears to her tail. He gave me a second brush for Tipod and stood back to watch us work.
Tipod was quiet now and his chocolate brown eyes gave nothing away. I wondered what he was thinking as I rested my left hand behind his ears and began to brush his neck. His coarse, rusty brown coat was flecked with dried mud. Clouds of dust rose in the air as the thick prongs of the brush did their work. A rich smell of earth and animal filled my nostrils, and the natural oil in Tipod's skin stained my fingers.
Glancing up, I saw Toby run his brush lightly over Marinette's hind quarters and offer it to Pierre. But Pierre smiled and shook his head, saying 'Non, non, pas encore'. He stepped forward, ran his hand over the underside of Marinette's neck and pointed out some remaining spots of mud. Toby was to start all over again, he insisted, and carry on until her coat was smooth as silk. Pierre looked at me. 'If you leave even a tiny bead of mud on her, and the saddle rubs against it, she'll get a sore. This is why the grooming's very important, very important.' I translated for Toby. He was getting tired, but after a moment petting Acrobat he went back to Marinette and started to brush her afresh.
Working away at the encrusted mud on Tipod's flanks, I let my mind drift to Suleiman. I still remembered the sensation of heat that would spread through my body when we lay skin to skin, he on his back and me stretched out along his length, my breasts pressed into his chest and my fingertips under the lobes of his ears. Those first few nights, we had spent hour after hour with our bodies locked together, gazing at each other in shyness and disbelief.
How different it might have been, I often thought, if he hadn't come to Manchester that week. Painful though our reunion had been, I couldn't help feeling that the whole thing had been intended by fate. Toby was away with Will for half term and a friend had fallen sick and given me her ticket to see 'some band from Mali'. She knew I'd lived and worked there, and thought I might enjoy it. It wasn't until the band was on stage that it even occurred to me that Suleiman could be among the musicians.
He and I had been colleagues for a few months, towards the end of my time in Mali. There had been a strong attraction between us even then, but doing anything about it would have cost both of us our jobs. When it started to become unbearable, Suleiman quit to become a full time musician, and I moved on to Ethiopia.
It was eleven years since we'd last seen each other, at his sister's house in Bamako. And suddenly there he was, not ten feet from me, as lithe and energetic as ever, playing the kora with his sinewy arms and unbelievably long fingers.
I would never forget the expression on Suleiman's face when I went to the stage door at the end of the gig. He was smoking a joint with one of the roadies when he caught sight of me. He had shaved his hair very short for the European tour, which gave him a curiously westernised look, but when he shouted my name and smiled it was the same pair of eyes, the same beautiful face, the same mouth, as I remembered so well from Mali.
'Mum,' Toby's voice broke into my thoughts, 'you know Pierre said we should tell the donkeys secrets?'
'Yes, love.'
'What if we haven't got any secrets?'
'I don't know. I was wondering that, myself.' This was a half truth, but it would have to do.
There were frown marks at the centre of Toby's forehead. 'D'you think my donkey'd like it if I talked to her about other things, that aren't really secret?'
I leaned against Tipod's tummy and ran my hand over his back. He was shaped like a barrel, as if he'd eaten too much juicy spring grass. 'I expect so, darling. They seem to be quite sociable creatures. Why don't you try?' Privately, I thought it was a great idea. Toby had a great deal to say for himself, and it would make my life much easier if he had a second listener, for the moments when I was either too busy or too tired to give him my full attention.
My son stood still, brush in mid air, while Pierre flicked the ash from his cigarette with an air of amusement. 'I think I will.' He looked pleased. Then a fresh frown puckered his brow. 'But mum… I can't speak French!'
I was leaning over Tipod's haunch as I brushed the area round his tail. A sweet, waxy smell rose from his coat. 'I'm not sure that matters. I think from Marinette's point of view, it's the fact that you're bothering to talk to her, and your tone of voice that she'll like, even if she can't understand the words. Try it, my love. See how she reacts.'

When I was pretty sure I'd removed all the mud from Tipod's left side, I placed the palm of my hand firmly above his tail, stepped behind him and began brushing again on his right side.
I wasn't sure I could cope with any more secrets. The thing with Suleiman had left me feeling so raw that I'd sworn it would be years before I took my chances with another man. Seven months on, I was still struggling to put the episode behind me. Wild love affairs were all very well if you didn't have children, but I had Toby to consider in everything I did. When something went wrong in my life, Toby always felt it.
But if, I mused - by some unexpected fluke - I should acquire a new secret here in France, I'd sooner confide in Marinette than Tipod. Marinette was female and surely a secret was best passed from one female to another? I stole a longing glance at her across Tipod's withers. She seemed very calm and contented, listening to Toby's chatter. I tried to suppress a twinge of envy. I should be grateful that Pierre had assigned her to Toby, for, being a mother herself, she would understand that her tender cargo must be borne with care.

Toby was working over Marinette for the third time now, using a new brush with soft bristles. Marinette's coat shone in the dappled light under the tree and something akin to a smile played around her muzzle. Nothing could be more to her liking, it seemed, than the touch and chatter of a young boy.
I was still busy with the plastic brush, working at a patch of dry mud on Tipod's flank, with my back to his head. Suddenly I felt something tugging quite hard at the Goretex jacket which I wore knotted round my waist. Turning, I saw that Tipod had taken hold of the sleeve with his teeth. His neck was arched round towards me and he was staring at me with a deadpan expression, as if to say "Well? What're ya gonna do about it?"
'Hey!' I snapped. 'Let go!' The jacket was new and had cost me a lot of money. But Tipod was unmoved. He stood very still, gazing at me with sullen eyes and keeping his teeth firmly clamped on the dark green sleeve. Right, I thought, I'm definitely not telling you any secrets. I dropped my brush, took him by the muzzle and tried to make him open his jaw, but to no avail. Pierre had heard my shout and came to watch, smiling to himself as he rolled a cigarette.
Toby followed close behind, an expression of delight spreading across his features. 'See, mum,' he crowed, 'Pierre said your donkey's a clown.' Tipod's nostrils were quivering and his bottom lip stuck out beyond the top one. And then I saw it: a slight shift in the muscles around his eyes, revealing beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was laughing at me.
'Ouvrir!' I commanded, thinking perhaps he didn't understand English. But the word had no effect whatsoever. At last Pierre came to my rescue, showing me how to insert my thumb into a gap in Tipod's teeth. Tipod shot me one last look of mockery before letting go the sleeve. It was covered in slobber, but at least it wasn't torn.
Behind me, Toby lay on the ground, clutching his stomach and howling with laughter. As I shook out my jacket and wiped it on the grass, he scrambled to his feet, rushed up to Tipod and patted him on the nose.
'Good boy,' he enthused, 'good boy. I think we should give him some bread now, mum, don't you?' Before I could answer he ran to Pierre's car and returned with a hunk of dry baguette.
'Reward him for biting my Goretex?' I retorted. 'No way!' But it was hopeless. Toby had already proffered the bread on his flattened palm and Tipod was crunching it up with an air of cool satisfaction.

Donkey Business: a Pyrenean Adventure of the Heart

firefox Format: Kindle ebook
Publisher: self-published
Publication date: October 2013
Category: women's commercial fiction