I remember that very first evening feeling feverish, sweat running down my back leaving the telltale damp patch down the centre of my clean shirt.
I was unfortunately seated close to a crackling oak log fire which didn’t help matters, but I was too polite, too English to ask to move to another seat.
My hand trembled as I reached out to select a few potato crisps and soft cheese apericubes from the array of nibbles Madame Dubois had prepared as an aperitif.
It was our first invitation to dinner since we had moved permanently to France. Our new home sat on the outskirts of what is now our village and this was our first opportunity to test our conversational French on our most important hosts.
My wife and I had spent the previous twelve months immersed in the language from “Teach Yourself French CD’s and attending night school twice a week.
The invitation came quite unexpectedly from Monsieur and Madame Dubois who were our second nearest neighbours. I had been called upon with some urgency that morning to help divert a stampede of cows that were heading up the narrow lane towards the prized organic pig enclosure belonging to Monsieur Dubois.
Sitting here at this splendid table my wife had noticed that I was looking a little off colour and was trying to attract my attention. My lip-reading skills unfortunately had deserted me as she mouthed something to me from the other end of the dining room table. All I could do was to shake my head in response. She responded with a facial expression which over time I understood to be “I don’t believe you”!
I ignored any further attempts she made to communicate with me as I dared not say how I was really feeling! This meal could be the most monumental moment in our new life as our host’s were the most important people in the village. Monsieur Dubois was the Mairie!
Conversation was kept at a basic level as we were in rural Brittany and the local language was a mixture of French, Breton and Gallo and the lessons we’d spent so much time on were failing as our host’s could hardly understand a word we said! However, we managed to get by with hand gestures and mime.
Our friendship albeit tenuous at this early stage was tested when I tried to explain the art of paint spray can painting and the need to shake the can vigorously prior to use and used mime and hand gesture to explain.
There was a sudden hush as Mr. Dubois computed my gestures. His face contorted with every thought from deep wonderment, surprise and finally to a guttural laugh as he realised what I had meant by my actions. From what could have been a complete disaster turned out to be an ice breaker moment!
Earlier that morning, a car had raced down our drive towards the house. It was a sandy coloured Renault 4 Quatrelle. The driver skidded to a halt on the gravel adding to the list of jobs I had to do that day and the lady who was driving shouted something to me which by her tone meant for me to get into the car.
She drove a short distance to where I met Monsieur Dubois for the first time at the entrance to his farm. I offered my hand in friendship, but Monsieur Dubois was in a state of panic. Le vache, le vache he shouted pointing up the lane.
He took me to the centre of the tarmac and stood upright with his arms outstretched to the sides.
Comme ca, comme ca. I obeyed his request. He then took up the same stance about 10 meters away at the entrance to his farm.
The driver of the Quatrelle introduced herself as Madame Dubois, she explained as best she could that a herd of cows were stampeding from another farm and were heading our way. She explained that I was to stay in position and guide the stampeding cows down the middle lane away from the farm’s entrance.
I spotted a cloud of dust in the distance and that cloud was heading in our direction at some speed! Within a few seconds I saw the first cows just ahead of the dust cloud, there was no other word for it than stampede!
From my quick calculation I counted at least thirty cows were heading in our direction.
Madame Dubois stood in front of me with her arms outstretched sideways whilst holding a piece of broken tree branch in each hand. Comme ca she said and explained that the branches would extend my reach and make me appear larger to the stampeding cows. This, she continued, should either stop them in their tracks or cause them to divert away from Monsieur Dubois prized pig enclosure and the problem would pass.
We listened to the rumble of the cows as they headed towards the farm. Monsieur Dubois shouted attention, reste ici!
It was at this point that I wished I was wearing my brown corduroy trousers and a modicum of aftershave to mask any odour should I lose total control!
The cows were charging towards us up the lane. I glanced over to Monsieur Dubois to reaffirm my readiness and spotted him ducking down behind the corner of his barn. With no chance of stopping the cows I ran to the side of the lane where there was a mud bank and a concrete electricity pole.
I pressed myself against the pole as the cows stampeded past buffeting me against the mud bank as their huge bodies collided with mine.
After promising that I’d never eat another steak, the noise had stopped and the cows had passed. I wondered over the lane through the haze of dust left by the cows. I could not see my own hand in front of me. I heard a horn sound and felt a breeze pass very close by; it was La Poste our undiagnosed maniac postman late for his deliveries or was he chasing the cows?
I saw Monsieur and Madame Dubois emerge from behind the barn; they both hugged me pronouncing I was a “Hero” for saving their jambon even though they had both deserted me leaving me well and truly in the merde!
I was invited in to their farmhouse where we sat around the old battered kitchen table and Monsieur Dubois opened a bottle of homemade cider which looked like a very large sample one would take to the doctors to have tested! I drank several glasses of the cloudy liquid before I was whisked off to tour of the farm.
We went into a shed that contained approximately one hundred pigs which were for consumption generale he declared. The stench took me by surprise and during the first sharp intake of breath breathed in what felt like a small fly which hit the back of my throat. Rather than just spit it out, I swallowed and coughed to dislodge it.
We came out of the rear shed door and found ourselves ankle deep in pig slurry. As Monsieur Dubois took a step backwards, a jet of the foul-smelling slurry squirted from under his boot and hit me directly in my face, entering my mouth. As this was no time for manners and tried desperately to eject the liquid from my mouth. I inevitably swallowed some of the liquid which, on second thoughts would give the fly something to do whilst waiting to be naturally ejected from my body.
I was invited along with Madame Race, my wife, to dine that evening at 7.00pm. Madame Dubois drove me home and I started raking all the gravel back to where it belonged prior to her earlier visit!
At the dining table, I was beginning to feel worse, my neck was getting stiff and I felt as if I had flu like symptoms. Madame Dubois placed the main course into the centre of the table. The sauce was a shade lighter than battleship grey with mounds of grey meat in the centre.
Langue du boeuf proclaimed Monsieur Dubois proudly, servez-vous. I don’t know if it was the fever or the prospect of eating langue du boeuf but I was now sweating profusely.
I fished out the smallest of slices of meat, which turned out to be a complete cows tongue complete with taste buds and took some potatoes to accompany it. I sliced into the meat, metaphorically held my nose and forked the dripping grey slice into my mouth.
I could feel the cows taste buds on my own taste buds, it was awful, it felt like the cows tongue was licking the inside of my mouth!
We both managed to finish the meal despite being offered second helpings because my wife had said it tasted marvellous and with the help of lashings of red wine was feeling slightly better.
At the end of the evening following two glasses of cerise brandy we wobbled our way back down the lane to our home, happy that we could now count the Mairie and his wife as our friends.
It was 3.00am when I awoke, my throat badly swollen. I took some paracetamol hoping for some relief and a short while later fell asleep.
I woke again at 9.30am, my mouth was watering constantly, my head was splitting, and I could not swallow. I tried to drink some water but it just ran from the sides of my mouth, my throat had completely closed up!
I constantly had to spit saliva from my mouth. I’d lost most of my energy and slumped down onto the settee. To prevent myself from running to the bathroom to eject the saliva, I placed a bucket beside me to my wife’s dismay. I could no longer speak!
I wrote a note asking my wife to call the doctor and got an appointment for that afternoon.
Patrick, as he insisted I call him, was fluent in English. My wife explained my symptoms to him. He looked down my throat and felt all around my neck. Hmm he said remodelling his handlebar moustache. Un virus! He wrote out a prescription and my wife paid him our twenty euro’s fee. I quickly scribbled a note on his desk pad; I cannot swallow, and turned it to him. Ahh pas probleme, he lifted his tongue and pointed below it. Frustration engulfed me, no one understood!
We collected the medication from the pharmacy and made our way home. I slumped on the settee, taking my place next to the bucket and remained there all day. I attempted to take the medication, but this just caused me to dribble even more so was not getting any into my system.
By late evening I was tired, my head hurt, I could hardly move my neck and had not eaten or drank for over twelve hours. I dragged myself upstairs which added to the exhaustion.
I fell asleep for a short while but woke up in a panic almost unable to breathe; I could now only breathe through my nose! I went downstairs and stayed on the settee. Morning came and I asked my wife to call the doctor and ask him to come to the house, it was Friday. He arrived at 5.00pm.
What is it Julian he said in his heavy French accent? I cannot breathe I mouthed. But you have not taken your medicine he said. I can’t I replied in a strangled whisper, I can’t swallow anything. It is a virus; it will pass, try and take the medicine and left the house. My wife, taking the side of the doctor was getting annoyed with me and said you have to take your medicine. Everything was against me, no one would listen and no one was doing anything to help.
I stayed downstairs where I was less trouble, my fever had increased so much that I had to drag a chair outside where I sat for three hours in the middle of the driveway trying to reduce my temperature.
Freezing on the outside but boiling on the inside, for the first time I thought I was going to die! Weak and dehydrated I remained on the settee for another full day and night.
At 5.00am, I begged my wife to take me to hospital which was twenty-five miles away. She refused so I took the keys and went to start the car; I had to get someone to believe me. She finally agreed and drove me to hospital; we sat in the emergency room.
Eventually a male nurse came to see me. My wife explained the symptoms and he looked down my throat with a torch. An alarm sounded, and he rushed away. Just around the corner we could see someone’s feet and then heard the sound of a defibrillation machine shocking someone’s heart. We saw the patients feet jump as the machine sent its life giving shock to the patient’s heart. Several times we heard the defibrillator and witnessed the jerk of the patient’s feet. There was no response so the nurses covered the body with a sheet.
Almost immediately, another alarm sounded; again the sound of the defibrillator could be heard. My wife said, come on let’s go home; they are far too busy for a sore throat. Conceding, I agreed and we drove home.
Monday morning came and I could no longer go on. I told my wife to get me to the doctors as quickly as possible. I must have looked ill because she did not argue.
We asked to see the doctor urgently. We were told that we would have to wait until there was a spare appointment.
Luckily, in France the doctor comes out of his office to greet and collect his patients. Three times he appeared before I collapsed at his feet.
I found myself on a stretcher in a side room and was being examined. Patrick asked my wife several questions and then I felt myself being turned over onto my side and a needle being pressed into my buttock. I was later told it was antibiotics.
I recovered slightly and Patrick said I was to see a consultant in St Brieuc the following day and he would visit us later that evening to administer another injection.
Having not eaten or drank for five days, I longed for a piece of apple. Unable to resist the urge, I cut a small piece and savoured the taste. Out of habit I swallowed. The tiny piece of apple got stuck in my swollen throat and I was choking.
I managed to cough up the piece of apple into the bathroom sink and saw blood was pouring from my mouth. Although in a panic, thankfully it stopped bleeding after a few minutes.
Later, Patrick arrived and administered another injection. My wife explained the incident with the apple and he said to wait until the consultant investigates further.
We headed in to St Brieuc early the following morning. A few minutes after arriving, I was shown into the consulting room and sat in what looked like a dentist’s chair. The young consultant read the notes that Patrick had given to me and picked up a flexible tube. He spoke English which was a blessing and said he needed to look down my throat. I obligingly opened my mouth and he proceeded to insert the tube up my nostril and I felt it wind its way down into my throat.
Ohh la la he said in his best English! He was looking at a monitor where there was an image of my throat. Regarde, he said losing his English totally. I raised my eyes and looked at the screen; it was my throat and was live on TV!
He pointed to a large swelling which had closed up my throat totally. We could see a cut in the swelling and it oozed blood as he manoeuvred the camera around. He said that the swelling was a sac of poison and it had been pierced by the apple skin before healing over.
He removed the flexible camera and called to the nurse. She appeared holding a large syringe and what looked like half a pint of clear liquid sealed in a bottle.
The nurse inserted a cannula into my hand and the consultant gave me an injection of what he said was antibiotic. It was the largest amount I had ever seen outside of a veterinary surgery.
I was told to attend the clinic at 4.00pm that day for another injection and was to keep the cannula in for the following five days, attending the clinic at 9.00am and 4.00pm every day for further injections. If the swelling closed the throat further, we were to call for an emergency ambulance.
My wife asked what had caused the swelling and he said it was the result of a virus known as a “quinsy”! He said I was lucky that I did not delay any further as quinsy’s can kill!
He asked several questions regarding my movements over the previous week and my wife explained what had happened at Monsieur Dubois farm which the consultant thought may have been the source of the infection.
I attended the arranged appointments and after a week of medication was almost back to normal. What a joy it was to eat and drink again!
I was tested for hepatitis as little did Monsieur Dubois know, his fosse septic tank was blocked and overflowing into what was thought was pig slurry; in fact it was human slurry!
Luckily, I tested negative and Monsieur Dubois had a new more modern fosse septic installed, all at prix speciale of course!
Madame and Monsieur Dubois, although affectionately known in the village for trying to kill his English neighbour, remain to this day our best friends!
© Julian Race 28/06/2021
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Julian! Wow! Three words: I love this! Add more... We want more...
Thanks for the kind comments, there is more - see The School Sports Day - a memoire and The Great Wall, there will be others shortly :-)
An excellent and well written story of English reserve and a nightmare illness, but all came right in the end. Good stuff, can't wait for the next story!
It was a nightmare I can tell you! Thanks for the kind comments and come back soon :-)
Wonderful story, well written, contained drama, tension, humour and a great ending, well done, I loved it!
Really enjoyed this story and so glad you survived. I'd love to read more, do you have a book out or where can I read more?
Great story again Julian, something to keep you interested all the way through. I'm assuming this is a true story as I know you write about personal experiences mostly. Brill!
Who is the author of this story