Ducking and Diving
Only I could end up with an IRA ‘H’ Block duck.
It’s ‘on the blanket’, having smeared its cell (a plastic milk crate) with its own shit. It’s on hunger strike despite being offered the finest chickenfeed this side of Tolosa.
His three brothers, having free range of the orchard, two ponds and a converted chicken shed are, every morning and nightfall, served lashings of high protein feed and are thus deemed ‘free’, whilst he is a political prisoner, held against his own will, and subjected to warm morning baths in my kitchen sink, forced feeding and inhuman treatment ie being wrapped in my Spurs towel after his bath. All because he can’t walk or lift his head or quack or waddle like other ‘loyal’ ducks do.
Chairman Miaow is fascinated and envious. He gets just a saucer of semi-skimmed and a bowl of cat biscuits each morning and maybe a rub down with the same Spurs towel if it’s been raining. As the cat’s not allowed inside he sits on the kitchen windowsill glowering at the duck who pointedly ignores him.
Huey, Dewey and Louie are eating themselves to their doom. Once they reach 2 kilos they are Christmas specials. Chewy has opted out of the rush to become Christmas Fare by refusing to engorge himself on the limitless supply of chickenfeed. He prefers the contemplative life of a hermit duck, abstinence, beak firmly pressed to the ground, mind in neutral.
He protests on behalf of the anti-hunting lobby by flapping his wings and spilling his drinking water every time Antonio next door lets off a few rounds at passing doves, which is a couple of times every morning before he goes to work at 7:30 and a dozen or so shots when he arrives home at nightfall. I haven’t actually seen the doves Antonio is shooting at yet, but I’m assured they are overhead, somewhere in the swirling mists and sleet clouds. Antonio says it’s the rain that’s stopping me seeing them.
The roar from the new waterfall that has recently burst from the mountainside across the valley from my bedroom window drowns out the rumble of the snow plough that manages to follow me up the valley instead of leading the way. Last night the 9 kms from Leitza took nearly 2 hours as I skidded and slipped my two tons of Cadillac around slushy, steep hairpin bends. Actually it would have taken half the time but I stopped at Basa Kabi, the hotel at the top of the pass, for a quick glass of electric soup. I did so at the invitation of the motorist behind me, who, recognising the Blue Beast, flashed me as we approached the turn off and when I pulled over, insisted we went inside for ‘una copa‘. My nerves by this time were shot to hell so I only protested a little bit. Downhill from Basa Kabi later on was much more of a jolly sleigh ride than the approach, funnily enough.
I’m getting the hang of ‘The Rocket’ as my wood burning stove is affectionately known. It’s a wood burning stove because it burns more coal than the Queen Mary on the North Atlantic. Also, when burning coal it gets very hot as I discovered the other evening. Having to light a stove on a freezing morning is such a pain that old men like me become obsessed with ‘keeping it in’. On a recent overnight trip away I decided to fully charge the Rocket so that the house would be lovely and warm on our return. I filled the furnace full of coal and my best logs, shut everything down and was all set to leave when I remembered the whole load of underwear in the brand new washing machine in the garage. The old model had spun and rinsed for the last time and a huge mound of washing had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of its nimble successor. I loaded up the flash new model, delivered hours earlier by a pair of half wits who had managed to get lost on a 30km long straight (well windy, but you know what I mean) road without any turn-offs. Within minutes I had piles of freshly washed clothes.
Knowing all about Agas, I carefully folded all my smalls and stacked them on top of the Rocket to air as, no doubt, countless generations have done before.
We returned the following evening to a curious glow from the kitchen. My entire collection of commemorative T-shirts, all my sexy boxers and a full set of mismatched socks had melted into a smouldering black sludge that filled the house with a thin orange film of foul-smelling grime.
The glass in the kitchen door had shattered from the heat and the wood frame was scorched but Basque houses are built to last and this one just shrugged it off.
Unfortunately, this was the day I had chosen to rescue Chewy from the cold and damp, so I’m not sure he is not suffering from smoke inhalation. They do say that smoking stunts your growth.
I never asked to have ducks.
I was with Bautista discussing what to do with the half ton of maize I’ve harvested from our allotment. I was all in favour of a pot-bellied Vietnamese pig whilst he wanted to take the maize to the local watermill and have it ground to flour.
“What then?” I asked.
“Make it into pancakes”
“Eat ’em with roast chestnuts”
Apparently the valley lived like this throughout the winter with the odd bit of meat or game until Spring. And many still do. Not until the coming of freezers and cars has there been any enhancement to their diets.
Which is why, when I asked if there was anyone who was good at plucking ducks, I was advised that Jose Luis’s aunt (he’s the landlord of the hostelry in Ezkurra) was renowned for her skills and would be delighted to wring the necks of Huey, Dewey and Louie when they passed the 2kg marker. She’s 93
Anyway, having rejected the idea of keeping a pig, the conversation turned to lambs (no, they eat the bark off the apple trees), goats (ditto, plus they smell) I suggested geese. Bautista reckoned they had too little meat on them for the amount they ate and that ducks fattened up quicker. I plumped for skinny geese. We had another drink and I thought no more about it.
The next morning at crack of sparrowfart, I heard a voice calling me from below and, throwing open the shutters, I saw Bautista carrying a cardboard box from which were coming the most plaintive peeping sounds. He’d been to market to buy me a goose but had bought four small, yellow, fluffy ducklings instead.
I now have three white Aylesbury brutes and Chewy, small, clumsy and inedible.
This is not the first time I’ve got into trouble in Bautista’s company. I found a delightful restaurant in Tolosa called ‘Casa Julian‘ which not only hasn’t got a menu, it hasn’t got a choice. You either have the biggest, juiciest, tenderest, rarest steak cooked in front of your eyes over an open charcoal fire…. Or you don’t. The walls are black with smoke and the front entrance looks like the back door of a Chinese takeaway; stacks of boxes and old refrigerators, crates of wine and sacks of vegetables impede your path as you wriggle past the storeroom into the cosy little dining room behind. The old kitchen knives are as sharp as scalpels and the bare wooden tables and benches would look kitsch if they hadn’t been there since God knows when.
Bautista and I ate our steak and drank our wine and left at 4:30 with a while to wait until the knife shop opened. I had been in the knife shop earlier to enquire whether they were any good at sharpening knives as I had a smart set of Sabatiers that needed re-sharpening and didn’t want them buggered up. Without speaking, the young girl pointed to an axe on the top shelf. I reached up to run my practised finger along the blade and rapidly hid the burst thumb behind my back as the blood dripped onto my trousers. These are the people who sharpen the blades for the professional axe men who slice whole logs in 10 minutes in Basque competitions.
Bautista bought me a plaster and now we were going back to collect my razor-sharp knives. We filled in the wait by having another digestif in a bar he remembered. After we collected my knives, we popped into another café he knew before nipping into a place he hadn’t been to for years. Then we had a couple of heart-starters at another noisy bar before one for the road at his favourite and then he drove home to Irun whilst I was off, back to Ezkurra, 35kms away along country roads.
It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me well that I was struck by a low-flying stone wall on the way through tiny Berastegi.
As I was travelling at a mere 35 kph at the time, hunched over the wheel and peering into the darkness, I was able to stop immediately outside the wall’s owner, a farmhouse on the outskirts of the village. Most people on hearing the sound of a two-ton Cadillac clipping their garden wall would rush out to see what the hell was going on. In Basque country they aren’t so hasty.
After a while the front door of the cottage opened and an old couple came out. He was clutching a pair of red warning triangles and she had an electric mechanic’s lamp on a long length of flex.
“Happens every night” he said glumly as we picked up the bits of shattered moulding and hub cap from the road.
My trip to a Californian scrap yard to buy a new door for the Blue Beast is the subject of another chapter.