Monday, 30 November -0001

M’aidez! My donkey is drowning

When Jo-Anne Gibbs and her husband moved to France, they never would have guessed how they’d end up the talk of the town

Written by Jo-Anne Gibbs
It is our first night in the new house in southwest France. Our friends did us proud and the move went uncannily well. We are on the terrace looking across the valley, celebrating with them.

Our garden is already home to a myriad of animals, including my two donkeys, Bella and Bobo. My husband, Brian, had hoped that our buyers would take all the animals along with our old house. No chance. Still, they already look very happy here.

‘Time to crack open the fizz.’ Brian plants a kiss on my head and pops the cork with consummate skill. I raise my glass. Beaded bubbles wink at the brim and evening rays dance off the crystal. We toast.

Night falls and most of our guests leave. Brian sits in the armchair chatting to his buddy Gervais. Caroline stands next to me. Tall, willowy and scarily intuitive, with robin’s-egg blue eyes and white hair, she turns heads. If she were not my friend, I’d swear she was a witch.

‘I am so happy for you,’ she says. ‘More fizz please, Brian.’ Caroline does not hold back on the bubbly. With charged glasses, we turn and look out over the sloping terraces.

‘Someone’s going to fall into that,’ she says, pointing at our circular pool, hidden beneath its green winter cover.

‘Not tonight,’ I laugh. ‘It’s far too cold.’ But something in her voice unsettles me.

Brian is overcome by fatigue from the day’s work, but we clink our glasses and drain the bottle. I love the rawness of the first night in a new house. Chaos reigns, there are boxes everywhere – and yet, with a few basics, it feels complete.

For now, the four of us are happy to sit back and relax into the balmy night.

‘Right, supper!’ Gervais breaks the easy silence and pulls from nowhere a cool bag from which he unpacks baguettes, smoked salmon, crème fraîche and chilled rosé wine. Brian, an ex-Royal Marine, mutters something about how it was all dry bread and water in his day and heads for the bedroom.

It’s midnight.

‘I’ve got my cards,’ says Caroline, fixing me with her eager blue stare as she pulls a dog-eared Tarot pack from her bag. Oh my! Caroline, champagne and Tarot are a lethal combination.

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‘Really, Caroline. Do we have to?’ I plead.

‘Just a simple reading,’ she says, slapping down the pack. ‘Cut.’ I do as I’m told.

Now Gervais looks nervous as Caroline turns the first card – and I am left staring at a horrifying image of a robed youth, carrying seven unfeasibly long swords. I don’t like it.

‘It’s okay, it’s the Seven of Swords,’ she reassures. ‘It symbolises a change of residence, an indication of triumph in the face of adversity... actually, it’s a good card.’

‘Well, the change of residence is alarmingly accurate... but adversity? Caroline, are you really sure it’s a good card?’

‘Yes, Jo,’ she says, but her look tells me otherwise. And as she lifts the second card, an ungodly wail – followed by an almighty splash – splits the night.

Something big is in our pool – something big, and uncannily donkey-like. Time stops. Caroline drops the cards. Gervais sits motionless. I am running down the uneven terrace steps, two at a time. I don’t know the garden, yet I run to the pool in moments and without a second thought, jump in.

The great grey figure of Bella, my female donkey, is lunging uncontrollably in the freezing water. I take her massive head in my hands. Her panic is tangible.

Gervais jumps in and helps hold her up as Bobo brays from the edge of the pool. It breaks my heart. Bella makes an almighty leap, but falls back into the water.

‘Push her up,’ I scream, but half a ton of saturated donkey is too much.

‘What on earth is going on?’ Brian shouts from the terrace.

‘Bella is in the pool. She can’t get out,’ I howl like a banshee.

‘Right, I’m calling the pompiers,’ and without hesitation Brian summons the local fire service. I love this man.

After what seems like an eternity, they arrive. Flashing lights illuminate the scene and six uniformed Adonises leap out of the truck.

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‘You ’ave a donkey in ze pool?’ one asks me in his extremely sexy broken English – although I would have thought that was pretty obvious.

‘Ramp arriving!’ Brian and Caroline approach holding aloft an entire shutter, big enough to ski down. They lower it into the pool, hoping Bella can use it to escape. But it floats, of course – it’s wood. Did they think she could use it as a raft?

‘We empty ze pool,’ suggests a gorgeous pompier. ‘You aver pump?’

I don’t. I have champagne glasses, night lights, smoked salmon, chilled rosé, but no, I forgot the pump.

‘We get one,’ says the fireman. ‘Keep her movin’.’

It’s sound advice, but I’m not sure whether he’s referring to Bella – or me. At this rate, we could both be getting hypothermia. Everyone vanishes to get the pump and it’s just me and Bella in the dark, chilling water. I hold her head, look into her chocolate eyes and stammer into her long, wet ear. I tell her everything is okay, but I don’t really believe it.

The pump arrives and its rhythmic hum is music to my ears. If Bella can’t get out of the pool, we can at least get her dry. As the water subsides, I am shaking but elated. Brian pulls me out of the pool. I try to jump back, not thinking logically, but I’m not strong enough to resist.

‘Get inside. I’ll take care of Bella,’ he promises.

In the shower, I peel off my wet clothes. My teeth have stopped chattering but my body is still shaking. Oh God, how must Bella feel? Pangs of guilt flash through my mind – I should be with her.

Afterwards, I make my way back. Bella is now circling the nearly empty pool, head down, her movements slow and laboured. And Brian is nowhere to be seen.

‘He’s gone to see the mayor,’ Gervais explains.

Of course. The mayor is bound to be up and waiting to meet the new residents and their sodden donkey at two o’clock in the morning. Has my husband completely lost it?

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Bella acknowledges me with a pathetic whinny. I rub her nose and kiss her ear, and then an almighty roar shatters the night. Dragons’ eyes loom. But as the two balls of fire take form, I realise it’s a massive tractor. It drives right up to the pool edge. There goes our pool surround, I think.

Straps are put in place and tightened as Brian appears, accompanied by an immaculately dressed, greyhaired man. So, the mayor is up to meet the new Brits – how could I have ever doubted him? In fact, he is shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with all and sundry. What a star.

‘And I have vinegar for the donkey,’ says Brian, who is clutching two bottles of brown liquid.

Before I get the opportunity to ask why, he jumps down and pours it over Bella’s saturated stomach and begins to massage her. ‘It will thin her blood and keep the organs going,’ he says. ‘Mr Mayor keeps several bottles in the mairie for just such occasions.’

Straps in place and vinegar administered, the tractor raises its massive arms. But as Bella’s head comes level with the pool’s edge, she panics. The front straps slide backwards and she slips all the way back in again.

An air of desperation, of hopelessness, sinks over us. No one speaks. But then something incredible happens. The miracle of the Universal Mind at work. All our silent prayers are heard and a renewed energy seems to ripple through the crowd. Even Bella feels it and gets to her feet.

If the tractor can’t lift her, then we must. Bella allows us to secure the straps once more and on a count of three, we haul in unison. She is lifted. Rescued. Her massive frame lies motionless on the poolside. But only for a moment. When Bobo calls from the orchard, Bella clambers to her feet, and disappears into the night without even a backwards glance.

‘Well, that’s gratitude,’ Brian says, drily. ‘Bloody donkeys.’ Everyone laughs a joyous, relieved, contented laugh.

It’s 5.30am and we are all in our kitchen – even Caroline, who is lying on a makeshift mattress, snoring.

‘Bienvenue en France!’ The mayor raises his coffee cup.

With no words to adequately express my gratitude I grab the Armagnac and pour. We all toast: ‘Santé!’

This is a good moment. Thanks to a donkey, a very cold swimming pool and some very kind neighbours, we are already completely and utterly at home.


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