Not the Way I'd Planned It

Friday, 18 September

Today began like most second Fridays. I woke up and worked on my blog, walked the dog, ate breakfast and worked more on my blog, this one about progress on our barn reconstruction project, as well our growing knowledge of this place in the Perche that we bought last year. Recently we have had visits from several people who know it well, including the last owner of both house and land. Yesterday the local historian Eric Y returned with his completed three-volume report on this 600-year old property.

As I sliced some tomato and avocado for lunch, the names of past owners, the configurations and reconfigurations of the property and some of the report’s more colourful details were still swirling in my head. I opened the fridge to get out some cheese and the light was off. So were the little green lifeline lights on the internet box in the corner. I trotted across the courtyard to the main electricity switch and it was still on. As were all the fuse boxes. Strange, I thought, as I dribbled oil and lemon on my salad. Maybe they’re working on the line. The masons had gone on their lunch break; David was walking Tasha.

Just as I sat down the front door burst open. “The field is on fire,” said David.

Indeed a large patch of field, right next to the desiccated maize, was burning. Low flames were licking up at the edge of the hedge that rings our garden. At first I couldn’t imagine how the fire had started. Certainly not, as with the El Dorado blaze in California, from 'a pyrotechnic device' set off at a gender-reveal party. Spontaneous combustion from extreme drought? Then I noticed that the electric wires, which usually stretch high above us from one concrete pole to another, were severed and on the ground. The wind, blowing strongly for the umpteenth time these last months, must have finally got the better of a tree in the overgrown hedgerow and caused the cable to snap.  

I called the fire department. The man asked me a million questions but finally promised to send an engine. The minutes lasted forever. Because of the broken electric wire, we were afraid to carry water over to the field ourselves. Each time a gust of arid wind blew, my heart leapt like one of those flames. With photos of the apocalyptic fires on the west coast of the US much on my mind, I imagined the hedgerow whooshing up, thus causing the old elm, a rare survivor of the Dutch elm disease that ravaged its family 50 years ago, to catch fire. The weeping willow would be next, then the massive fig tree that started life nestled next to a barn built in 1587 that, we recently learned, had been torn down 30 years ago. Embers would fly over to the 450-year old house and it too would go up in flames, a moment of perfect irony, given that we had just commissioned its history.

Fortunately the masons returned from lunch. Christophe, le chef, mobilised his two colleagues to wet old sweaters and beat down the areas approaching the corn and the hedgerow. While David drove out to meet the firemen and ensure that they didn't get lost (GPS doesn't always get you here), I soaked some old sheets and supplied The Team.

By the time the pompiers drove up, the worst of the fire was over but it was still a relief to have professionals and some hoses on the scene.

The fire chief, a man exuding competence, calm and experience, looked over at the maize and said: “I guess no popcorn today.”

Two men from the electric company Enedis arrived. I asked one when we might get the power back. “In a week,” he said.

“Okay,” I replied gamely. My sister in Connecticut, after the last hurricane, had no electricity for six days.

He looked at me, astonished. “I’m just kidding. It’ll be back on by this evening.” And indeed it was.

That we got off so lightly seems a miracle. Conditions, which I have written about frequently and was determined not to mention today, despite being on my mind night and day, were perfect: drought, wind and heat (after a scorching August, we have been hovering around 30°C/86°F this mid-September). Every morning, walking with Tasha, I hear the brittle corn crackle flammably.

I feel both incredibly lucky and grateful. Christophe’s quick thinking helped avoid disaster. Public sector France did its public sector job. The firemen arrived as promised and the electricity repairmen spared us great inconvenience.  

Late afternoon I tried to give Christophe some money to replace the clothes ruined in beating out the fire but he refused, saying: "We just did what anyone would have done." All he would let me do was take the top photo. Though Tasha didn't deserve to be in it (she barked at the firemen and after being locked in the house ate my avocado), he insisted.

The fire gave us a good scare, even if it was in the end rather a non-event, especially in the context of the raging conflagrations elsewhere, but also in the long history of this place, about which I will finish reporting next week. The nano-episode did, however, restore some faith in humanity, made me happy all over again to be living down here at the end of the lane in the Perche.

Saturday morning; order restored