It's amazing how virtuous it can make you feel when you put yourself, voluntarily, through some kind of ordeal.
All week long and more, with the countryside busy breaking out in dandelions, the Good Wife and I have been drinking an elixir made of birch sap. She brought back from Brive one day a big plastic jerrican full of the stuff. It came from a fellow therapist, who drinks a glass full every day before breakfast as a cure for... well, I'm not quite sure what, but you know what the French are like with their cures. Miraculous antidotes to all that comestible excess.
This fellow therapist swears by it. She's married to a goat farmer and they live somewhere up on the Corrézian plateau not far from Lapleau, high above the upper reaches of the Dordogne. I guess they have a lot of birch trees on their land. Once every year, the sap of all these trees rises and the pair of them tap it like latex or maple syrup. And then they drink it.
It looks innocuous enough: like a cross between water and nail-varnish remover. But the taste becomes increasingly vile the longer you leave it in the fridge. We've been trying to find the most apt analogy. So far the closest we've got is: fermented toenail clippings strained through a muslin soaked in the sweat of rugby players' armpits. It's not pleasant and you have to knock it back in one. The Daughter has already dropped out of the competition. I'm not quite sure, though, why her parents are persevering, because neither of us has noted any kind of increase in energy or well-being. Next year, I doubt if we will be repeating the experiment.
In the great scheme of things, I suppose, it doesn't represent much of an ordeal, but still... During the last few days I've had to factor-in the fosse septique. The waterworks have been bubbling and smelling rank for several months and we've had to bite the bullet – reluctantly, because it only seems like a couple of years since the local farmer did the deed for us. This time around, I called International Rescue in the form of one of those custom-made vidange lorries.
A very pleasant local man from Montvalent turned up on Thursday morning with such a paradoxically pristine lorry – given the nature of his profession – that I was charged with cutting down overhanging branches with some heavy duty secateurs as he backed carefully down our track. He must take a genuine pride in the gleaming bodywork.
We chatted as the lorry's 20m-long proboscis sucked up the unsavoury contents of our fosse. For a start, it seems, it's not un-us-ual to have to empty your tank roughly every three years. So there isn't necessarily something terribly wrong with our sanitation arrangements. Secondly, he told me not to bother buying the expensive sachets of micro-organisms to kick start your fosse once you've replaced filthy water with clean. Don't bother either, he suggested, with the weekly sachet. It's all a con, just more big business. He reckons we produce sufficient bacteria in our own effluence to keep a septic tank nourished.
When it came to testing time, I flushed a loo and emptied a couple of basins while Monsieur Vidange observed the flow of waste water into the tank. It was not good. More of a trickle than a torrent. This would explain the extreme gurgling we have experienced in the pipe work. Before taking his leave, he told me to dig down at a given point and I should locate some kind of regard, or observation hole. Once located, I should contact him and he would come back to complete the operation. A service, he pointed out, that more expensive competitors would be likely to skip.
So this I did, under the leaden sky of a grey Good Friday. Daphne thought this was great sport and she took it upon herself to dig a complementary, smaller hole further down the slope. In the last couple of weeks, her mutton chop whiskers have grown apace to give her the look, in certain lights, of the great Victorian Whig prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. She's also developing rampant eyebrows in the manner of a Dennis Healey. So I'm beginning to think that she's got a political career ahead of her. I'll have to train her soon to lie and to avoid direct answers to questions, so she'll be equipped for the cutthroat world of parliament.
The outcome of such double digging was unfortunate. I managed to uncover part of the fosse without too much effort, but couldn't locate any kind of regard. So I had the bright idea of peering inside the tank itself, which by now was half full of the rain water I had siphoned out of three of our four green plastic butts. On my knees, with my head sticking down inside the plastic tank, something shot out of a pocket and plummeted into the murky water. Oh my God! Not again...
But yes, it was. It was the Sony Eriksson phone that my friend Nick had given me to replace the phone I dropped down the loo a couple of years ago. I liked that phone. It was simple to use and reliable. I trudged inside and my news occasioned a little sympathy but rather more mirth. I phoned Nick, because I remembered that his wife, Sophie, also had a spare phone. She still had it and yes, I could have it. What's more, there was her ex-father's former phone. Two to choose from.
If only we had the technology to replay such idiocies and press a Pause button so we could put everything right. Ah yes! Look, you see? The pocket wasn't zipped. If we zip it up, then the phone will stay on his person even when upside down. Let's re-run it, to see what would happen. But alas, life doesn't work like that. And just to compound the misery, I had the bright idea – half an hour too late – to look through the photographs I took during the construction of our house, just to see whether there happened to be one of the installation of our fosse...
And there was. Despite all the heavy shadow from overexposure to bright sunlight, you can make out clearly enough that there is no regard. I could have saved myself all that trouble if... Too late. What's done is done and all those other clichés. On my friend Bret's advice, I later tried to fish the phone out of the depths with a rake. There was just a chance that I could rescue the SIM card and preserve my contacts. But no. It didn't work.
So now, when I think about it, it's not virtuous that I'm feeling so much as plain stoo-pid. To adapt one of Oscar Wilde's most memorable witticisms, to lose one mobile phone via a sanitation fixture is careless; to lose two mobile phones is clueless.