I went to get some seedlings from Tryfonas, a local nursery, on the way back from the school run this morning. Usually I plant seeds, but for certain things including lettuce, kohlrabi, celery, and parsley, I prefer to buy seedlings even though it eats into my profit margin.
So, thinking of nothing much more than the weather and how lucky I’ve been to finish big chunks of work in the nick of time before rainstorms, I turned off the motorway and headed for Anarita. Two hundred metres later I left the asphalt and turned on to the rutted dirt track for the greenhouses. Bracing myself, I passed the house where two yapping terriers usually dash out and attack my front wheels, but nothing emerged. The track has deteriorated in the bad weather, and I prefer to take the Landrover than the Toyota, so I slowed to negotiate the ruts on the last uphill when I saw from the corner of my eye a huge leaping dark shape and a donkey jumped down the bank and planted itself foursquare in front of the car. Hitting the brakes, I skidded to a halt, and the donkey dropped its nose and nuzzled the bumper.
Cyprus donkeys are bigger than other donkeys. They have been beasts of burden here for centuries, and are still used in many of the villages for harvesting grapes and other agricultural work. During both World Wars, the British Army used them and the big mules that they produced when crossed with draught horses, extensively and Best Beloved’s uncle served as a muleteer in Italy, carrying ammunition up and wounded soldiers down the precipitous tracks around Monte Cassino.
Usually a dark chocolate brown, in the winter they have a heavy coat, thick as a deep pile rug. This one showed no sign of moving, so I turned off the engine and got out. He pushed his nose into my hand and I stroked his neck and pulled at his ears.
“Come on!” I said, clucking as one does to a horse, and tugging on the rope tied around his neck (Cypriots typically leave their donkeys tethered to graze, the rope tied either to a leg or knotted around the neck). He reluctantly shifted a little to the side, butting his head into my stomach and lipping at the side of my hand. I pushed up his lip and looked at his teeth, guessing that he was three years old at most.
“Git over!” I said, pulling a little harder and leaning on his shoulder. His big brown eyes blinked slowly but he shifted to the side enough for me to get into the car. Then he lifted up his head and started to nibble the plastic wind shield on the side of the window.
“No! You can’t eat that!” I started the engine and pulled away and he followed the car, breaking into a trot before being pulled up short by the rope around his neck. He stood in the centre of the track, staring after me, long ears pricked until I crested the hill.
“Who’s the donkey in the middle of the road?” I asked the Bulgarian woman who was filling cubes with seeds in the greenhouse. She shrugged: “I think it belongs to the boss.” And laughed when I told her what had happened.
“He couldn’t be hungry,” I said as I left. “There’s plenty of grass around. I just hope he doesn’t cause an accident!”
As I was leaving, a middle-aged Cypriot man pulled up in a four-wheel drive.
“Who’s is the donkey in the middle of the road?” I asked. “I almost ran into him!”
“Belongs to the boss,” he answered. I related my story and he doubled over laughing.
“That donkey! It’s just a baby, but it’s learned that all the employees will stop and pet it, so now, whenever it hears a vehicle it runs into the road hoping for a treat.”
As I topped the hill on the way back, I saw the donkey grazing on the top of the bank, silhouetted against the early sun. He lifted his head as he heard the engine, pointed his ears, and leapt down the bank in an attempt to head me off.
But I was too quick. He reached the road running just behind me, and once again I watched him jerked to a stop by the rope around his neck. He stood and watched me as I passed the now-terrierless house (had someone with a little less patience than I finally run them over?), and then returned to cropping the grass by the side of the track, waiting for the next traveller and the endless possibility of treats.