La Poubelle is on the warpath again. She’s set up a one-woman roadblock outside her house, accosting every passerby indiscriminately. A small boy on a bicycle was retained for a full two minutes, and she’s even appealing, in urgent tones, to tourists, who have no interest in our neighbourhood affairs. Which is unusual.
‘What is it this time?’ says Aspasia, a little too loudly. Aspasia has no tact. But then again, she has no use for tact, which is probably why she’s never bothered to acquire any.
We’re standing by the drystone wall, just around the corner from where La Poubelle is stationed; she can’t see us, but she could, in theory, hear us, if she stopped talking for a second. She speaks excellent Greek, a fact that Aspasia is fully up-to-date with when arguing with her about the chicken coops or the bin, but conveniently forgets when she wants to talk about her.
‘I don’t know,’ I whisper, uselessly. ‘I’m trying to stay out of it.’
‘Well, go find out! Aspasia commands, her dark eyes asparkle, and shoves me, playfully but with surprising force for her size, causing me to stumble just past the bend and directly into La Poubelle’s line of vision. Who turns her head sharply, and clocks me. There’s no turning back.
I take in the scene: La Poubelle appears to be in the process of interrogating a Greek middle-aged couple, who seem terrified, variably shaking their heads and looking down at their feet. Next to them stands Jean-Pierre, looking utterly distressed but unable to contribute to the conversation, as his Greek only stretches to “Good Morning” and “Good Night”. Six foot something and a remarkably attractive man despite nearing seventy, rugged and lined in all the right ways, he should be towering over his wife but he seems, as always, cowered by her presence. He sees me and bounds over.
‘Hello, Jean-Pierre,’ I greet him, slowly. His English is almost as sparse as his Greek. ‘Is something wrong?’
He opens his mouth, closes it again. ‘Bertrand,’ he manages, desperately.
‘L’âne! Ze… ah, merde!’ He throws his arms open, indicating something big. ‘L’âne!’
I think I know this word, but I don’t understand why it’s being shouted at me repeatedly.
‘The donkey?’ I try.
‘Oui! Ze don-kay! Il a disparu!’
‘The donkey has disappeared?’
Jean-Pierre, exhausted by this multilingual exchange, just nods sadly.
‘Um,’ I say. ‘What donkey?’
‘My donkey,’ explains La Poubelle, who has materialised by my side. ‘Ours.’ Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the Greek couple retreating; the woman shoots me a look that’s part-gratitude, part-pity.
I turn back to La Poubelle. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand. What donkey?’
‘My donkey,’ she repeats, with more than an edge of impatience. ‘Bertrand. He has vanished. So now we have to find him.’
Her name is obviously not La Poubelle; it’s Cathy, pronounced cah-tee, because she is French, but everyone in the neighbourhood calls her by its Greek equivalent, Katerina. All except Aspasia, who clearly thinks the fancy French bitch is lording it over us enough as it is, without being further encouraged by a Greek name. ‘She’s not one of us,’ she clarifies, at every opportunity.
We call her La Poubelle because of the crusade she launched, a few years back, against the bin. Serving perhaps twenty or thirty houses, half of which are holiday homes, our solitary bin had lived in the same place for thirty-odd years. It’s true that in the summers, when all of us city-dwellers arrive and the population of the village doubles, the bin struggled to keep up and rubbish spilled out onto the path, raising questions of hygiene. But we all bore this stoically, until Cathy came along.
Fresh from Paris, chic and artistique to a level only achievable by the French, Cathy arrived determined to fully immerse herself in the local culture. (A propos, in a Greek accent, without any attempt at the French pronunciation, the word chic sounds exactly like “sick”.) She had a very clear vision of island life, rustically charming albeit “un peu sauvage”, and she took against the bin on grounds of aesthetics. And chose to address this concern to Aspasia, who keeps goats and chickens and makes cheese for a living, and who has as little use for aesthetics as she has for tact. It did not go down well. She was told to fuck off in no uncertain terms, but Cathy would not relent. She stood by the bin for hours at a time, rhapsodising. ‘Look at these beautiful cobblestones,’ she’d say. ‘Look at this magnificent caper bush, growing wild out of the rocks. And look at that bin, la poubelle! Like a scar, like a stain! Absolument insufferable!’ She started a petition. She appealed to the council, actually tracking down the Mayor himself, at his home. She kept it up for weeks. And she won. The bin was moved to a less aesthetically-offensive location, forcing us all to trek halfway across the village to dispose of our rubbish. Aspasia has never forgiven her. ‘Crazy stuck-up fool,’ was how she put it to me. She did not use these words exactly, but you’d be surprised at the richness of insults contained within the dialect of this quaint little island.
I return from my mission. Aspasia pounces on me as soon as I round the corner, grabbing me by the shoulders; she is practically vibrating with excitement. She has heard.
‘They lost the donkey?’ she shouts.
‘Shh,’ I say, indicating backwards with my head, towards where La Poubelle is waiting to ambush her next victim; Jean-Pierre, devastated by the disappearance of Bertrand, has retreated back inside the house.
Aspasia rolls her eyes, gives a dismissive wave. ‘Pah,’ she says, ‘she doesn’t understand.’
I know better than to correct her. ‘Yes,’ I confirm. ‘The donkey is gone.’
She emits a squeal of pure delight. ‘Thank you Jesus for this blessing!’
But now I’ve had enough. I interrupt her as she crosses herself.
‘Seriously, Aspasia, what donkey?’
She grins, and grabs my hand. ‘Come.’
In her kitchen, Aspasia serves me an alarming array of treats – half a chocolate bar, a piece of honey pie, some capers, a chunk of cheese – and fills me in: The donkey belonged to Manolis, the travelling grocer, who used him to transport his wares when he went round the village, once a week, with a fresh batch of produce. But the donkey was getting old, and could no longer bear the weight. He stumbled a couple of times, and sprained his leg, and sent a whole basketful of apricots flying all over the path. He also had some trouble with his eyes. Manolis was going to have him put down. Word of this somehow reached Cathy, who tried to reason with Manolis, on humanitarian grounds, while he patiently explained he couldn’t afford to keep a sick animal. Failing to reach any sort of compromise, Cathy suddenly conceived of the perfect solution: she would adopt the donkey. Manolis, seeing a business opportunity, agreed to sell it to her for 100 euro, and the newly-baptised Bertrand was taken to his new home.
Which, according to Aspasia, is when the fun really began. Cathy and Jean-Pierre’s boutique yard was obviously not equipped to accommodate a donkey, besides which they refused to tie him up and limit his freedom. Bertrand trampled all over their flowerbeds, scattered their collection of artfully-arranged pebbles, and knocked over their furniture. They had no idea what to feed him, so they tried to tempt him with an assortment of overpriced salad leaves; he still preferred their potted plants. Being a donkey, he also liked to kick, especially when confined to a small space that offered very little in terms of entertainment or shade, and given all kinds of unwelcome attention. Cathy and Jean-Pierre had taken it upon themselves to rehabilitate poor, traumatised Bertrand, and heal the wounds inflicted upon him by years of cruelty and slave labour, by introducing him to gentle touches and softly-spoken words. The donkey clearly resented being treated like a mental patient, and delivered a sharp kick to Jean-Pierre’s shin. His adopted family forgave him at once. This was obviously just an expression of the intimacy issues he’d developed as a result of being mistreated all of his life. They would persevere, with love. And, in Jean-Pierre’s case, a slight limp.
The funniest thing, however, was their outings. Judging that Bertrand needed a sense of purpose, especially now he was retired, they tried to instil one by making him carry their rubbish to the (faraway) bin, or their shopping from the supermarket. The donkey, which was used to a certain treatment and trained to respond to a specific set of commands, was completely baffled by this odd couple trying to sweet-talk him into following them, and generally just stood around, looking confused and blocking the path. Plus – this is certain – he had absolutely no idea who Bertrand might be and thus, understandably, did not trot after them when this name was called. It was just as bad when Cathy tried to ride him. As she explained to anyone who’d listen, donkeys were the traditional mode of transport, and she, for one, was not above going about her affairs with this fine, noble animal between her legs. Which is actually not how you ride a donkey: you do it sideways, as she promptly and painfully discovered. Once perched in the correct position, she would pat the donkey on the head with one hand, while clinging onto his wooden saddle with the other.
‘Alors, Bertrand, on y va!’ she urged.
And Bertrand would lurch forward a few steps and then stop, and refuse to move until someone, finally, issued a command that made sense to him.
Apparently Cathy attempted this a couple of times before giving up, and Bertrand had since spent his time in the yard, chewing on Jean-Pierre’s prized almond tree and being assured that he was loved.
Until last night, when he inexplicably disappeared.
(Drawing by Eleni Dori)
All the neighbourhood kids are cross-examined in turn. Having conceded, reluctantly, that Bertrand’s disappearance can probably not be attributed to actual theft – because, as the entire village pragmatically pointed out, no one in their right mind would steal an old, useless animal – Cathy is now convinced it could only be a malicious prank, masterminded by the children. But none of her interrogation techniques yield results and the kids, individually and collectively, insist on their innocence. Admitting defeat, she sends them, instead, to search, promising it’ll be like a treasure hunt.
‘What’s the prize?’ asks one of the smaller boys.
‘Why, finding Bertrand, of course!’
‘Do we get to keep him?’
‘No. You bring him back home.’
The children shuffle away, and no one except Cathy is surprised when none of them return.
Reports of donkey sightings start coming in that evening and throughout the next morning, and a search party is dispatched each time, to places close and far, to fields and churchyards and even, once, a beach, but to no avail. Then, just before dusk, Cathy appears at our door.
‘Aspasia heard that Bertrand was seen in Exambela. We’re going there now. Please come.’
I follow her to her car. We are joined by Jean-Pierre, and Aspasia herself. She is uncharacteristically eager to help, and I’m immediately suspicious.
Twenty minutes later we park and wander around aimlessly for a while, until Aspasia takes the lead and brings us to a farmhouse on the village’s edge. And there, in the middle of a fenced-up field, standing in the shade of a fig tree and tied to it by a generous length of rope, is the donkey.
‘Bertrand!’ cries Cathy and runs over to the gate. The donkey does not react.
Aspasia joins her. ‘Do you know whose field this is?’ she asks, in a very deliberate manner. As if on cue, the farmhouse door opens at the far end of the field, and Manolis steps out.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says as he reaches the other side of the gate, and shrugs helplessly. ‘He turned up this afternoon. Found his way back. I didn’t know what to do. I called Aspasia…’ He trails off.
Cathy acts as if he hasn’t spoken. ‘I don’t care whose field it is,’ she says through gritted teeth. ‘I’m taking my donkey home.’ She starts frantically trying to unlatch the gate, but Jean-Pierre throws a restraining arm across her body.
‘Cathy,’ he says. ‘CATHY! Regard! Look!’
Having spotted Manolis, the donkey has stopped grazing, and is staring straight at him. He cocks his head, flicks his ears and snorts. And then, slowly but purposefully, he shuffles right up to him and gives him a single nudge with his muzzle. After which, being a donkey, he is distracted by a patch of grass and goes off to graze. The rest of us, being human, stay still and watch Cathy.
La Poubelle, for the first time in her life, is lost for words. She sweeps her fringe back and forth across her forehead and purses her lips.
‘I see,’ she whispers. ‘He is home.’ She says it in Greek, but Jean-Pierre seems to have understood because he squeezes her shoulder. ‘Oui,’ he says gently.
‘Katerina, I’m sorry,’ Manolis repeats. ‘I’ll keep him. I’ll use the money you gave me, OK?’
I don’t know if he’ll keep his promise, but for now the donkey briefly known as Bertrand is safe and happy, tethered to a life that he understands, with shade and wild grass, and the human who shouts at him just the right amount, in words that make perfect sense.
Cathy gives a tiny nod. ‘OK.’
She takes one last look at her donkey, and turns to leave. Aspasia steps into her path.
‘Cathy,’ she says. ‘All is well that ends well, yes?’ She raises her hand, as if to touch her, then appears to reconsider. ‘You did a good thing, Katerina.’
This is a moment that will probably not come again, and the two women acknowledge it wordlessly, looking at each other for as long as they can bear. Then Cathy nods again, and sets off towards the car, with Jean-Pierre on her trail.
Aspasia and I walk back together. She did a good thing too, and it’s cost her, but I know she won’t admit it if I bring it up. So I tell her, instead, about Cathy’s secret nickname.
She tries the words out in her mouth, la-poo-belle. Then she beams. ‘You know we move that bin right back every winter, don’t you?’
I didn’t. We both laugh, pleased with the gifts we’ve exchanged, and look ahead to where Cathy is gracefully sliding into the car.
‘La-poo-belle,’ says Aspasia, with a wicked glint in her eyes, keeping her voice low for once. ‘She is so very sick.’ And I swear she knows no English but, in this moment, there is nothing I would put past her.
Read original post: Exchanging Gifts