The French countryside around here is teeming with wild boar. They visit the shack at night to eat the pansies and nose up the flower-beds, and their violent flare-ups over a disputed morsel wake us up. Standing about in the lane the other night, blocking it, was a 25-strong gathering of them. They ranged from cheerful little tackers to daft adolescents to suspicious old bruisers. And when we take the old dog on her daily walk, we hear them thrashing about in the tinder-dry undergrowth on either side of the track. Our neighbours advise taking a stick with us at this time of year, to fend off an attack, but as the boars seem more afraid of us than we are of them we don’t bother. All summer long they’ve been left in peace to procreate and raise litters and enjoy what must be an idyllic existence among the native scrub oaks. But now the hunting season is open, and they are being vigorously persecuted again.
Last Saturday, gunshots rang out at first light and the rapid rate of fire throughout the day suggested that the boar population was getting a good dusting. We stepped out for our afternoon walk nevertheless. The three-day mistral had blown itself out, our sanity had returned, and the sun was hot enough to warrant a hat. From our shack we can step out of the door straight on to the mountain track without a dog lead. I might take along a small rucksack to fill with wayside pine cones, which are more combustible than shop-bought firelighters.
The walk is half an hour uphill, half an hour on the level, and half an hour back down through dense pine and oak forest fragrant with wild herbs. Catriona has the acutest sense of smell I’ve ever known. I read the other day that a male silk moth can detect a single molecule of a female silk moth’s sex hormone from a mile away. That’s nothing. An almost imperceptible scent of pine, wild rosemary, thyme or lavender, wafted past her nose on a warm breath of wind, sends her into transports. ‘Smell that!’ she’ll say, almost swooning with ecstasy. ‘Smell what?’ I say.
On Sunday we hadn’t gone far when I was taken short and veered off into the undergrowth imitating a U-boat emergency-dive klaxon. ‘Hang on,’ I shouted to Catriona and I squatted down and evacuated a ten-inch stool, broken in three places and coloured a vivid ochre by the turmeric supplement I’m taking. It was really quite something; I examined it with awe. In England there would have been a broad-leafed tree or bush on hand with which to mop up. But in Provence the foliage is all spikes. And while I was wondering whether to use the least sharp piece of limestone I could find, the rucksack toppled over, complicating matters further. Scraping the affected area of the rucksack through the dust only made matters worse. A shot rang out, deafeningly close. Then another. A minor difficulty owing to the lack of tissue paper or an old bus ticket had escalated into a shoot-out. What, I wondered, would be next in this unfolding drama? Sprinting boars closely followed by hunting dogs giving joyful tongue? Would I perhaps be mauled by the one then broken up by the other, and with my trousers down? The height of my ambition before this had been a half-hearted hope to be back in time for the football results. Now it was simply to stay alive.
Nothing porcine or canine materialised. Nor did a tissue or an old bus ticket. I pulled up my trousers and hoisted on the rucksack and regained the track. Catriona and the dog were waiting patiently 50 yards higher up. ‘I thought you’d had a cardiac arrest and lost the power of speech,’ she said. ‘I was about to come and see.’
I didn’t explain. It was too ridiculous. We pressed on up the hill. A jeep driven by a grim-faced hunter wearing a high-visibility tabard bounced past, three of his four wheels off the ground. Further up the track was a crimson trail of blood spots, wet and shiny. We followed the dots. The trail ended in an appallingly copious splash into which the dog pressed her old nose and inhaled with a sort of mad relish. ‘What a ghastly smell,’ said Catriona. ‘Can you smell anything?’ For a change I could smell something. I could not only smell it but I could also identify it, and with certainty. I was amazed that she hadn’t recognised the smell of her own cooking. ‘Perhaps the hunters have started gutting them already,’ I said.