WE CALLED him the Great Dane, or the Giant Swede, I can't remember which. He came out of the woods not long after I came to live in France, nearly twenty years ago. He was one of the great influx of northerners - Brits, Dutch, Irish, Germans and Scandinavians - who pitched their tents and put down new roots in France in the 1980s and 90s, tempted by giveaway property prices and the promise of a better, sunnier life.
I came across the Giant Swede - I'll call him that - at the time when, shortly after my arrival in France, I was loosely attached to an estate agency. The Giant Swede appeared at our door one day, a man so vast that there was barely room for him in the tiny shop-cum-office I shared with César, a full-time employee of the agency. César worked under a massive cloud of bitter discontent. He was paid no salary: the boss paid him half any commission plus his national insurance contributions. I understood César's bitterness, but only to some extent: all I got was 15% of any sales commission.
However, at that time selling wasn't difficult. Anything sold, leprous village slums, tumbledown farmsteads, ruined barns, derelict watermills, decrepit stone vineyard huts. One of our clients even bought some abandoned pigsties to convert into a holiday house. The Giant Swede - you won't mind if I abbreviate him to the GS, will you? - had seen a property in our window that he liked the look of. Could he please go and see it? If we told him where it was, he would find it himself. No need to trouble us at this stage. César bristled with anguish. This was a dynamite proposition. French estate agents were, and maybe still are, very cagey indeed, not to say obsessed with a pathological fear, about revealing the exact location of their properties. If you told punters where le produit (the product, i.e. the property in question) was, you might as well wave au revoir to the commission. Once he'd found it, there was nothing to stop the punter discovering the owner, doing a private deal with him and leaving the agency out in the cold. Wicked. Now, the GS spoke virtually no French, but he had reasonable English, so I was deputed to take him in my car to the property. César would have blindfolded him if he could, and I was given strict instructions to make the GS sign a declaration giving exclusive selling rights to the agency should he eventually buy it.
Well, he did buy it, and eventually I got my 15% of the 8% commission on the sale price, about £144. Whatever incomers, particularly Brits, may think of French estate agents charging commissions that seem sinfully exorbitant compared with the 1% or 2% they're used to in the UK, I felt I was more than entitled to this in view of what followed.
The GS's property had once been a shepherd's or goatherd's house. It had no electricity or water and was miles from anywhere, hidden at the end of a long track through deeply-valleyed and wooded hills. In front of the house was about an acre of mature poplar trees, and beyond them a stream tumbled and gurgled. The GS wanted the poplars removed. They obscured the sun and obstructed access to the stream. Please could we clear them?
Not really, we said. Forestry wasn't our business. He would have to arrange it himself, we told him.
How could he? he asked. He was going back to Scandinavia. He wanted the trees gone by the time he came back in the spring. Couldn't we get contractors in?
We asked him how he proposed to pay.
I haven't got any money, he said. Not after paying for the house. I'm not interested in the timber. You can sell it and pay for clearance that way. If there's anything left over you can keep it. But I must have those trees cleared. We said we didn't really think we could help, but we'd look into it.
A week or two after the GS had gone home we got a local timber merchant to look at the poplar plantation. He was quite impressed and offered us - this is where the interest rating of this story gets cranked up a notch or two - the equivalent of £60,000 for good, sound timber. All César's bitterness and resentment disappeared in a puff of green woodsmoke. £30,000 each, less contractor's costs. Fantastique. Fabuleux. Our ship had come home. I rang the GS to say that all being well his trees would have disappeared by the next time he came.
We threw ourselves unto organising contractors to cut the trees down, burn the branches, cut the trunks up as requested into 2 metre lengths and stack them ready for transport. Two weeks later the contractor said he'd finished, and that would be 8,000 francs, please. (Roughly £800: this was in pre-euro days.) We paid on the dot and went to inspect our benison, our manna from heaven, our windfall.
Are you sitting comfortably? Well, every trunk was rotten. Every one. In every single trunk a broad black fungal infection threaded up the middle, like a rifle target. Our trees were worthless. Worthless. César, beside himself with bitterness and resentment, cursed and wept. There was only one way to recoup our costs. We would have to try to sell the timber for firewood. Once again, the Fates frowned. Poplar is next to useless as firewood: it's a fast-growing wood which, when dry, burns very quickly. You might almost as well put paper on the fire. And who has fireplaces 2 metres across? We would have to cut it into half-metre lengths. And then split it.
It took César and me fully six weeks of miserable early spring weather with axe and chainsaw to reduce all that timber to fireplace size. Then we had to pay for someone to take it away to store it. In the end we burnt most of it ourselves. Or tried to: it was green and wet, it wouldn't catch, it belched out a vile stinking smoke.
At Easter the GS returned. He burst into our office, grey with disappointment. He'd expected better service. What did we mean by it? All the poplar stumps were still there. Some were a good 10 centimetres above the ground. We'd clearly made no effort to clear them. He wasn't putting up with this. We'd be hearing from him further.
Not long after this I came out of estate agency work. I can't say I've ever looked back.