An interesting feature of our sitting room and also something of a talking point, are the 6-inch long wooden penises that protrude suggestively from the back wall. These phallic oddities may seem incongruous surrounded by the paraphernalia of Casa Nevin but they, along with the remnants of a swallow’s nest are a reminder that until recently this room was used as stabling for donkeys. For those of you with filthy minds, the wooden penises were not (as far as I’m aware) sex-aids for the farmer’s wife; they were used for tethering the donkeys in their stalls and for securing hay nets and buckets of water.
Donkeys and mules are still very much part of Spanish life and although tractors and cars have now replaced much of the work that these noble beasts carried out in the past, they are still a common sight here in Andalucía. Last week a car drove through the village with two mules attached to the rear bumper with ropes, trotting along behind it. And the week before, I saw a man using a mule to pull a plough through his meadow. There are many hill top villages and towns where donkeys and mules are the only method of carting goods, people and furniture up and down the steep, narrow streets.
Whilst pondering about life in our finca, the farmer’s wife and donkeys in particular, I was reminded of the time, many moons ago when one of my children bamboozled me in to buying a donkey.
Years ago, my first husband and I drove with our four girls (Theo had not yet been born) all the way from North Yorkshire UK, down to the Algarve in Portugal. It was a long journey and there was many a time when our decrepit long-wheel base Landrover almost gave up but despite having to stop every half hour or so to open the bonnet to let out the steam and replenish the water in the radiator, it was an enjoyable and memorable trip. The highlight of the holiday for Serena, my 3rd daughter, was not the swimming pool, the fresh sardines, the constant sunshine or the piri-piri chicken; it was seeing so many donkeys. On the journey back to Yorkshire she could talk of little else and by the time we got back to our farm, the chat about donkeys had become incessant nagging to get a donkey. Serena’s argument was that if we already had 8 cows, 4 pigs, 40 sheep, 8 goats, 8 geese, 2 ducks, 1,000’s of hens, 3 dogs, 3 ponies and 3 cats, why not add a donkey or two to the mix? And who was I to argue.
But acquiring a donkey was not as simple task as I had imagined it to be. My first port of call was the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon. Surely they would be thrilled to bits for us to take one or two donkeys off their hands? Yes and no was the answer – there was a long waiting list, home checks, and various other boxes that would have to be ticked before we could hope to re-home a donkey from them. Weeks passed, then months. I scoured newspaper ads, I asked local farmers and friends and then, I had a brain wave. Ireland! Yes, Ireland they have lots of donkeys in Ireland. I’d seen lots of old photos of donkeys with baskets full of peat and fish and all sorts of things, I was sure that we could find a donkey in Ireland. I rang an old friend who lived on the Emerald Isle and told her that we were looking for a donkey. As luck would have it, she knew a horse dealer that she thought might have a donkey to sell.
Alarm bells should have started to ring the minute that she told me that the dealer’s name was Miley O’Cash. Seriously, you couldn’t make that up, but a fool and their money are soon parted and no sooner had I thanked my friend for his telephone number than I was dialing Galway 73456960 and speaking to the man himself. ‘Ah to be sure I have a donkey for you. And a very fine donkey she is too. Ta’ prettiest feet that you’ve ever seen. No, you wont’ find ta donkey elsewhere like tis, rarer than hen’s teeth she is, a beauty to behold’
Gullible as the day is long, a cheque for £300 was soon winging its way over the Irish Sea and straight in to Miley O’Cash’s bank account. The next thing that I had to arrange was transport and shipping. And by a second stroke of luck, a racehorse trainer was having some horses shipped over from Ireland to Thirsk and the transporter told me that there would be room for a little donkey. When I asked how much her passage would be, I was told it was free. ‘You see Lottie, the Irish are very superstitious about donkeys, Jeezus Christ rode on them, you know’ ‘tat’s why tey have ter cross on ther back’
A week later Serena and I headed off to Thirsk. She was buzzing with excitement and truth be told, so was I. We’d filled the horse trailer with clean straw, hung up a net of hay and had bought a dazzling blue head collar and lead rope for her. We arrived at the smarty-pants racehorse stud and parked the trailer. Serena gripped my hand as we walked through the large airy barn and stalls looking for our new donkey. A young stable lad showed us round the stable block where priceless equines worth thousands of dollars were whinnying over immaculate stable doors. He pointed to a loose box at the end of the yard.
There, lying on a bed of straw was without doubt the most hideous donkey we’d ever seen. She was not the fluffy grey or brown donkey of Serena’s dreams, with cute furry ears and a mealy muzzle. She was a filthy shade of white, had huge ears, and a most unattractive rim of pink round her eyes that made me want to grab my eye-liner pencil and start giving her a beauty make-over. Serena looked at me and promptly burst in to tears. The thing that made me burst in to tears was not her looks, but her feet. As the world’s plainest donkey stood up and shook herself free of straw, I looked in horror at her hooves. They were deformed beyond words. Instead of the ‘prettiest feet’ that Miley O’Cash had waxed lyrical about, this poor creature could hardly walk. Her hooves were so long, twisted and turned up that she had to walk on her heels.
We got her in to the trailer and drove the hour and half home in near silence. I was speechless with rage but I didn’t want to upset Serena any more than she already was. The safest topic of conversation was what we should call her. We decided on Mildred. The vet came out that afternoon and examined her. He cursed Miley O’Cash and he cursed the vet who had passed Mildred fit enough to travel over on the boat. Correcting her feet was going to take time, months and months, but the sad fact was that though cosmetically they might end up looking reasonably good, she would always walk on her heels as a result of the small bones inside the hoof being deformed due to her hooves never having been trimmed. This also meant that she could only carry weight for short periods of time.
But every cloud has a silver lining. As the vet withdrew his latex gloved hand out of Mildred’s bottom he announced, much to our great excitement that she was in foal and would probably give birth within 6-8 weeks. Serena’s face was a picture! And so almost 8 weeks to the day Joy was born. Joy or Joyce as I preferred to call her was the sweetest thing imaginable. A leggy, fluffy bundle of donkey deliciousness. I think her dad must have been brown or skewbald as her colouring was predominantly white but with large brown patches. Over time, thanks to the skill of our farrier, Mildred’s feet started to look much better and a couple of years later we acquired another donkey, an elderly gentleman called Cocoa who stayed with us until his demise at the age of 55. I never got back in touch with Miley O’Cash – what was the point? Mildred was a million times better off with us than with him and even though it was a shaky start, I know that Serena derived much happiness caring for her donkeys and that is all that mattered to me.