A cold front

Winter catches us with our pants down again. The entire Belgian nation slides sideways into the landscape on whited-out highways. Nobody, but nobody had their winter tyres on when the first snow fell unexpectedly early in the last week of November. Everybody thought it would be gone within a couple of days. They were all wrong.  Eighteen days later and, although all but the most impacted snow departed pretty briskly over a milder weekend, the cold snap (minus 6° today) is biting once again into our feet and fingers and mountains more of the fluffy stuff is falling as I type these words. There is no such thing as bad weather, we were always told, only inappropriate clothing. This time no one wants to be without the right wheel-ware and suppliers have run out of the most sought after (i.e. cheaper) brands of tyre. Those still without are being forced up market into the big-name brands, the ones with the limited-edition calendars.

Of course, to be able to drive your car it helps if you can get into it in the first place. Mrs Harker (I haven’t yet told you about Mrs Harker, she “does” for me twice a week: laundry on Mondays and cleaning on Thursdays) … Mrs Harker, despite at least one English parent, speaks not a word of anything but French (I blame it on the War) and is what one calls a “pearl”. A pearl means someone who is proper and punctual, also frugal and fastidious, terms that apply admirably to the good lady, when she turns up. But Mrs Harker won’t drive in the fog or in the dark or if it’s raining too hard and certainly, absolutely not in the snow. Given our weather here in the Ardennes, this takes care of a good many weeks of the year. Fortunately she’s not drawing a salary, nor am I especially fussy about a bit of dust.

A couple of weeks ago, on a fresh and sunny Thursday (perfect Harker weather), she came bowling down the drive nearly an hour late because the door locks were frozen on her seven-year-old, two-door, mustard-coloured VW Polo and she had to first find a hair-dryer and then borrow a power extension from her neighbour, a retired captain of the Belgian Parachute regiment and passionate gardener with a well-stocked tool shed (at least she mentioned he was “bien équipé” and I hope that’s what she meant). All this, of course, took a while.

Having already started late, by the time she was done, it was getting dark and the snow was falling heavily. I began to think she might have to spend the night in my guest room, which for prim Mrs Harker would be a novelty quite out of character. By the way, I should point out that there used to be a Mr Harker, though his name wasn’t Harker but Dupond (with a “d”), a name commonly used as an alias in crime stories, thus granting that gentleman in death a strangely romantic aura that he probably did nothing to earn in life. Now Dupond, whether with a “d” or a “t”, is doubtless a better name for a pearl who speaks only the language of Molière with the accents of Wallonia than the possibly protestant and puritan Harker. However, in Belgium a woman maintains her birth name for all official matters, which of course includes any relationship as employee, however irregular and weather-dependent. Thus the Francophone housekeeper keeps house with her Anglophone moniker for the slightly dog-eared and shabby English gent that I have become after many years of assiduous practise.

“Oh, non, Monsieur, Madame would not like that”, she insists, when I mention the guest room. I have not the slightest notion to whom she is referring, as the last lingering trace of “Miss Dior” on any of my cushions has long since ceased to bear witness to any feminine presence in these walls (Mrs Harker herself is perfumed entirely by “Mr Proper”) but I let the remark pass, assuming good-naturedly that she is perhaps better informed in these matters than I am and that there is a Madame somewhere on the premises whom I have managed to overlook. The upshot of all this is that after some futile attempts to once again unfreeze her door locks (Is Wolfsburg somewhere in the tropics? Why do VWs have this problem?) I am forced for lack of a hairdryer (bit of a scratchy towel man myself) and excess of snow to offer Mrs Harker the sumptuous leather interior of Miranda and the use of a tartan blanket that once belonged to my great aunt Sylvia. My formerly chilled “pearl”, now much warmed by a tiny glass of port from Miranda’s walnut cabinet (“juste une goutte, Monsieur”), tells me several times that she has never been driven home in such style. Fortunately my girl did not play any of her tricks, but behaved like the true lady she is, bringing Mrs H safely to her “villa” (we would call it a bungalow) and raising the eyebrows of the retired captain to such lofty heights as may require the use of his parachute to get them down again. No, it was on the drive home that disaster struck.

Miranda’s boots, which were recommended to me by the secretary of the Alvis Owner’s Club, and are of a dimension not found on any modern vehicle, are supplied at horrendous expense by the sort of snobby manufacturer who grew out of the girly calendar phase back in the 1930s. They have white-wall trim and are said to be of the “all-weather” persuasion. The hollowness of this claim was soon demonstrated by a slow and utterly uncontrollable slide on a downhill left-hander into what looked like both a deep ditch and a thorn hedge. As fortune would have it, a gateway materialized at exactly the point where Miranda finally met the verge. She glided through, sideways, with mere inches to spare and, after drifting for what seemed like eternity, ended up with a soft bump against a large and suspiciously dark mound.

In the country there is but one place where snow never stays for long and that is on a midden. The heat generated by several hundred cubic metres of fermenting cattle dung will keep even the hardest frosts and blizzards at bay. If we could only stand the smell we would build our low-energy homes of the future smack in the middle of such heaps. In the slanting light thrown by Miranda’s big twin-beam headlamps I could now see that the entire, steaming pile was covered, fortunately for me, by a tarpaulin. And this tarpaulin was held down against all weathers by tens, dozens, even hundreds of car tyres … with any luck there were probably four perfectly good winter boots among them that might fit Miranda, and none other. I would return tomorrow on a reconnaissance mission, with or without the farmer. Perhaps I would enlist the help of the well-equipped captain. Nothing like a night manoeuvre followed by liberal quantities of tokay and a few tall tales to lay the groundwork of a friendship.

But the more acute question now was: given that I’m the sort of Luddite idiot who refuses to own a cell-phone, how the hell would I get home?

Edwin Drood

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