Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Miscellaneous stuff

The Elder Tree

It was about 16h00 the light was going metallic and would soon start dimming, I decided to make this the last log I’d do. I’d been labouring in the yard for over two hours, sawing up bits of wood on the rickety chevalet (wood cutting stand) that I had cobbled together a few weeks before. In preparation for the winter, we had bought two cordes of “dry” wood, and to save money had had it delivered in a format cut up in 1m lengths rather than the more expensive 40cm that our wood stove would accommodate. Also, we had asked for the cheapest cut available (the offal of the lumberjack world) so we got not only logs but triangles of trunks and other unwieldy shapes, along with an astonishing quantity of decomposing leaves, soil and gravel.

Not only was I sawing some bits by hand but also was smashing others with a wedge of several kilos and of course with a merlin – how to describe a merlin? It is just like a sledge hammer, but one side of the head is fashioned into a snub-nosed axe blade. 20 years later the merlin and wedge are still at work. But less often.

I was now using every available opportunity to do this wood management, as an afternoon’s work only producing a meagre pile, which irritatingly Armelle reckoned would only do for a few days. And then there were the numerous rainy moments when I couldn’t go outside, so when the weather was good and I didn’t have any (rare) client’s order to complete, I was without fail, out in the yard hewing and hacking away.

The heap of wood that had been poured off the lorry still dominated the yard, (I swear it was higher than me at first) and gradually I was rendering each piece into a size that would fit into our little furnace (which we still hadn’t had installed, the drama of the flue and wood-burning stove was to come later). Once cut up, I had been storing the wood in the wood room next to the brown bathroom. Now since the wood room was just about full I was now contemplating creating a second collection under the laurel trees. I would, however, have to protect this new stack from rain, and the logistics of this had set my mind ticking.

Meanwhile, and being useful in her own way, Armelle was in town at the Law Fac attending a lecture and other stuff, and would do some shopping on her way back. I had no idea what she’d bring, but we were by necessity in a tight, mean phase these days so I wasn’t expecting sirloin steak and champagne. Last time she went shopping on her own she got soused herring (in sunflower oil) which we had with hot boiled potatoes, lettuce and vinaigrette. This herring is apparently a known dish in France, but not the sort of meal that has made the reputation of French Cuisine elsewhere. My heart had dropped when she held up the fish triumphantly for me to admire (“it was only eighteen francs!”) as I could see all the prickly little bones even through the thick plastic vacuum pack. But I’d been so hungry (we both had), that we’d wolfed it down.

I selected the last log – not too thin (that would be too easy) but not too fat (That would be too difficult) but one that was just right, a Mummy Bear Goldilocks of a log. I was comfortably tired (if that makes sense) and after this tough exercise rather hungry. Despite the possibility of more spikey fish that evening, I would have devoured anything. Even herring. I put the last log on the wood stand, placed the blade on the log and hauling away, sawed the log in three. I added it to the stack inside the house. There was really no more room there, I’d have to start the secondary pile next time.

If wood was to go underneath the low laurel branches, then I’d have to clear away the undergrowth under the laurels and ensure there would be enough room to instal the tarpaulin. Since the weather was holding out, this was the perfect moment to have a go at the Elder tree which was just to the side of the laurels, best tackle it now while the access was still easy, and there wasn’t any point waiting for Armelle to be around so I’d do the job on my own.

It wasn’t strictly the Elder tree in its entirety that I’d be tackling, just one of its branches which was growing up against the corrugated iron roof of the neighbour’s ruined lean-to. This lean-to was built right up against our concrete tool shed. Whenever there was a wind of any strength, we’d been haunted by an elusive rasping, tortured, squeaking groan; finally we narrowed down the source of the noise to this particular Elder branch moving in the wind against the neighbour’s metal roof. Although we’d located the noise some time ago, neither of us had done anything about it — until today.

As I brought out the tall aluminium stepladder from the house, François ambled by, slowed to a stop, and was now looking into the courtyard. We exchanged hellos, he indicated the wet grey sky with resignation, I made a similar gesture, then although we said no more to each other, he remained standing where he was, and watched. I put the aluminium ladder up against the tree trunk and got down again to get the bow saw. François continued watching. I always found this unsettling but didn’t think he was being a pervert. I had come to thine that he was just bored and curious, which was off-putting all the same.

We’d noticed early on that when we did anything in the cortyard, and this usually meant doing something to the car or me cutting wood, or Armelle massacring the Wisteria – whatever – we provided untold free entertainment for our elderly neighbours, especially for the Roussels who of course could watch everything from their eyrie of a kitchen window which offered them a complete, uninterrupted view over the front of our house and the way into the garden.

We must have given them many a laugh, as they certainly knew all about sawing up and breaking wood. And similarly, they were going to have a fine belly laugh from what I was about to do, for during their long lives toiling as peasant farmers, they must have had cause to lop countless branches off countless trees. I felt unusually self-conscious, for while one could pretend no one was watching from their kitchen window, it was impossible to pretend that François was not standing right by our fence watching my every move. I gave him a second cheery wave, and went into the house and took my time making a tea.

A few good minutes later, I came out to find it was now drizzling lightly and that, just as I’d intended, François had gone. But in a heightened state of alertness all the same, I knew one of them at least would be watching from their kitchen window, so I still had to look as if I knew what I was doing. I climbed up the ladder into the branches and saw that close to, the branch looked much bigger than I’d been expecting. It was well over six inches in diameter where it left the main trunk and I calculated that standing on its own from the ground this branch alone would’ve been the size of a small tree.

The branches all emerged from the Elder trunk at the same level, like fingers spreading out from the palm of a hand. This fanning of branches was above my head when standing on the ground, and now up the ladder, the spread was at my chest level. I couldn’t get any higher nor nearer my quarry as the other branches were in the way. The squeaking branch leaned away from me, I saw it would be an awkward job as it was at an arm-and-a-half’s reach to connect with the saw, and the saw was too deep to bring it any lower, so I would be obliged to do the cut by reaching up and pushing and pulling above face level.

I pushed and wiggled the ladder ensuring we were in a balanced position, placed the blade on the branch at the best angle possible (which was the only angle possible) and started sawing. The position meant I could only use a limited group of arm muscles so it was torture from the start, but ever conscious of my every move being watched, I injected a Herculean effort into the push and pull.

Though the angle was awkward Elder wood is of course soft, there was that at least, but bark fibres initially fouled the slide of the blade but luckily as the cut progressed, the branch increasingly leaned away so as to open the cut further, so the blade moved with increasing ease. Suddenly the cut was through, and WHAM! The branch slid down went smack into the higher part of my sternum OOOF and I was punched off the ladder down to the ground—but miraculously when I landed I stayed on my feet, and automatically skipped back a couple of paces with an adroit, athletic one-two step. My head span. The branch remained in the tree, having slipped down only five feet or so, its fall ultimately stopped not by me, but by its own spread of smaller branches held back by all the rest.

My heart pounded treble time with the shock, and unlikely though it may seam, my main concern still, was to make all subsequent actions look “meant” for those watching. So after my descent and the briefest of pauses I adroitly took the ladder from against the tree, swaggered back inside the house and once out of sight, with a groan I dropped the ladder crashing on the floor of the wood room, bent over with a load moan, then straightened up and continued to the brown bathroom to check the damage. With the weird pain and with the hideous thought at what a harder blow could have done, or if it had impacted higher up, like in my teeth, I was also elated to be relatively uninjured or at least on my feet. I had survived. In the 40Watt dimness dimmed further by the brown tiles, I unzipped my grubby fleece and anxiously pressed the area and peered at my chest in the mirror.

My sternum was tender, but… there was nothing to see! Absolutely nothing! A silly small part of me was disappointed. I was now coming out in a cold sweat all the same, so I zipped up my top and for courage, sipped on the tea I’d made earlier. I hadn’t finished outside, I couldn’t leave the yard nor especially the tree like that.

Remembering to swagger, I returned outside still having to deal with the loose cannon of the cut branch. The household pride was at stake as well as my own, so I willed up the equivalent phenomenal strength and denial of pain that a parent finds when lifting a car off an injured child, and savagely pulled the cut branch through the others, and after some dramatic swaying and a surprising amount of noise, it was on the ground at my feet in less than ten seconds. I paused a moment with a ghastly twinge that shot around my chest at bra strap level, catching my breath in an uncommon and distressing way. Momentarily unable to do much except prick with sweat, I sauntered slowly around the fallen bough pretending to size it up. Then when the spasm and light-headedness had subsided, I then hacked at the bough, whack, whack, chip, chop with my machete, and sawed here and there through the thicker parts of the wood. Fifteen minutes later the branch was reduced to kindling and small wood and was tidied away to dry until another day, and to burn another year. There was only a gap in the Elder canopy to show for the near tragic event. Not surprisingly I stopped after that, went inside for a shower and then put on the fluffiest, most cosseting clothes I had.

“Kaff, Kaff, are you ok?” Armelle was gently rubbing my arm.
I’d dropped asleep on the futon in front of the television which I hadn’t even turned on, and my second untouched tea was cold. It was disorientating waking up to see it dark outside, having dropped asleep when it was still light. Then the nauseating shock of being woken up from an unplanned sleep turned my stomach but I ignored the weight of malaise, did a laugh and explained that I’d overdone the exercise during the afternoon. I told Armelle I’d sawn up loads of wood, but felt too foolish to go into anything else. With a couple of concealed winces, I got up and followed her down to the kitchen.
“I won’t make you guess, but guess what I got for supper tonight!” she said as she crossed the dinning room floor. Guessing games is hereditary in her family.
“Herring.” I said to avoid all disappointment.
“Ah, no! I could tell you didn’t like it last time. No, I got sirloin steak.”
“Really?? Oooh!!” I was overcome.
“It might be premature, but I’m celebrating a very good second interview with that potential supervisor for next year!” she was beaming.
“Aach!” I exclaimed with much joy, but the pain changed the noise that came out. I too was delighted, for this was positive progress on Armelle’s long, irritating mountain path to the holy grail of new qualifications.
“So what with my good news and all your efforts on the wood front, that also deserves some champagne!” she cried, and lifted a bottle out of the other plastic bag, and put it in the freezer.
Ululating joyfully and whooping away, we did a silly little dance for a few seconds, Iggy came to the kitchen out of curiosity I suppose, saw what we were doing gave a little wiggle of her tail, and walked out again.

Many people might laugh and carp that Champagne and Sirloin steak don’t go together, but well actually they do, particularly when you rarely eat fine things and when you have been doing hard physical work al afternoon. In any case, we’d just about finished the Champagne before the steak was ready, and when it was, we had a decent red to accompany it. For a vegetable to go with the steak, I opened a tin of French haricot beans which I heated in their ‘juice”, drained, then fried them for several minutes in olive oil and garlic. With a few chunks of fresh white bread and butter, we gobbled up the whole in just over ten minutes. I didn’t even mind the mild gastric reflux that followed. It was fabulous.

“The wind’s getting it up.” Armelle said, her English going off kilter with all we’d drunk. But even drunk I didn’t mock, I’m not like that. She was leaning against the open French window door, waiting for Iggy to come back from having her before-bed pee. Beyond the doors in the dark the trees whooshed, wailed and sucked, the odd manic movement of the wet gleaming leaves made visible by the wood room light. “I’ll cut that branch this weekend,” she went on, “it’s getting on my nerves.”
The whole orchestra of noise was so familiar I hadn’t noticed the elusive rasping, tortured, squeaking groan. “Actually it’s not the branch that’s making the noise,” I said with the assurance of Total Authority, “it must be something else.”

PS : my cracked sternum continued to hurt but decreasingly so, and all pain had gone after a fortnight, give or take. Since there was never a visible shadow or hint of the trauma, I never mentioned this near tragic event to anyone, not even to Armelle.