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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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“He must be starving,” she said. “He’s eaten his seat belt. Isn’t he wonderful?”

The dog was coaxed from his seat and stood there wagging everything. He looked frightful—an unsanitary furball the size of an Alsatian, with a garnish of twigs and leaves entwined in his knotted coat, bones protruding from his body, and an immense brown nose poking through the undergrowth of his moustache. He lifted his leg against the side of the car and kicked up the gravel with his paws before lying down on his stomach, back legs stretched out behind him and six inches of pink tongue, speckled with fragments of seat belt, lolling from his mouth.

“Isn’t he wonderful?” my wife said again.

I held out my hand to him. He got up, took my wrist in his jaws, and started to pull me into the courtyard. He had very impressive teeth.

“There you are. He likes you.”

I asked if we could offer him something else to eat, and retrieved my dented wrist. He emptied a large bowl of dog food in three gulps, drank noisily from a bucket of water, and wiped his whiskers by hurling himself on the grass. Our two bitches didn’t know what to make of him, and neither did I.

“Poor thing,” said my wife. “We’ll have to take him to the vet, and get him clipped.”

There are moments in every marriage when it is futile to argue. I made an appointment with Madame Hélène,
toilettage de chiens
, for that afternoon, since no respectable vet would touch him in his current state. Madame Hélène, I hoped, would be used to the grooming problems of country dogs.

She was very brave about it after her initial shock. Her other client, a miniature apricot-colored poodle, whimpered and tried to hide in a magazine rack.

“Perhaps it would be best,” she said, “if I attended to him first. He is very highly perfumed,
n’est-ce pas?
Where has he been?”

“I think in the forest.”

“Mmm.” Madame Hélène wrinkled her nose, and put on a pair of rubber gloves. “Can you come back in an hour?”

I bought a flea collar, and stopped for a beer in the café at Robion while I tried to come to terms with the prospect of being a three-dog family. There was, of course, always the chance that the previous owner could be found, and then I would have only two dogs and a distraught wife. But in any case, it was not a choice I could make. If there was a canine guardian angel, he would decide. I hoped he was paying attention.

The dog was tethered to a tree in Madame Hélènes garden when I got back, wriggling with pleasure as I came through the gate. He had been clipped down to stubble, making his head look even bigger and his bones even more prominent. The only part of him that had escaped severe pruning was his stumpy tail, which had a whiskery fringe trimmed to a modified pom-pom. He looked mad and extraordinary, like a child’s drawing of a stick dog, but at least he smelled clean.

He was thrilled to be back in the car and sat bolt upright on the seat, leaning over from time to time for a tentative nibble at my wrist and making small humming noises that I assumed were signs of contentment.

In fact, they must have been hunger, because he fell on the meal that was waiting for him at home, putting one foot
on the empty bowl to keep it still while he tried to lick off the enamel. My wife watched him with the expression that most women reserve for well-behaved and intelligent children. I steeled myself, and said that we must start thinking about finding his owner.

The discussion continued over dinner, with the dog asleep under the table on my wife’s feet, snoring loudly. We agreed that he should spend the night in an outbuilding, with the door left open so that he could leave if he wanted to. If he was still there in the morning, we would call the only other man we knew in the region who had a Korthals and ask his advice.

My wife was up at dawn, and shortly afterward I was woken by a hairy face thrust into mine; the dog was still with us. It soon became clear that he was determined to stay, and that he knew exactly how he was going to convince us that life without him would be unthinkable. He was a shameless flatterer. One look from us was enough to set his whole bony body quivering with evident delight, and a pat sent him into ecstasy. Two or three days of this and I knew we would be lost. With mixed feelings, I called Monsieur Grégoire, the man we had met one day in Apt with his Korthals.

He and his wife came over the next day to inspect our lodger. Monsieur Grégoire looked inside his ears to see if he had been tattooed with the number that identifies pedigreed dogs in case they should stray. All serious owners, he said, do this. The numbers are stored in a computer in Paris, and if you find a tattooed dog the central office will put you in touch with the owner.

Monsieur Gregoire shook his head. No number.
“Alors,”
he said, “he has not been
tatoué
, and he has not been fed correctly. I think he is abandoned—probably a Christmas
present that grew too big. It happens often. He will be better living with you.” The dog flapped his ears and wagged himself vigorously. He wasn’t about to argue.

“Comme il est beau,”
said Madame Grégoire, and then made a suggestion that might easily have increased the dog population in our house to double figures. What did we think, she asked, about a marriage between the foundling and their young bitch?

I knew what one of us thought, but by then the two women were planning the whole romantic episode.

“You must come up to our house,” said Madame Gregoire, “and we can drink champagne while the two of them are …” she searched for a sufficiently delicate word “…  outside.”

Fortunately, her husband was made of more practical stuff. “First,” he said, “we must see if they are sympathetic. Then, perhaps …” He looked at the dog with the appraising eye of a prospective father-in-law. The dog put a meaty paw on his knee. Madame cooed. If ever I had seen
a fait accompli
, this was it.

“But we have forgotten something,” said Madame after another bout of cooing. “What is his name? Something heroic would be suitable, no? With that head.” She patted the dog’s skull, and he rolled his eyes at her. “Something like Victor, or Achille.”

The dog sprawled on his back with his legs in the air. By no stretch of the imagination could he be described as heroic, but he was conspicuously masculine, and there and then we decided on his name.

“We thought we’d call him Boy.
Ça veut dire ‘garçon’ en Anglais
.”

“Boy?
Oui, c’est genial
,” said Madame. So Boy he was.

We arranged to take him up to meet his fiancée, as Madame called her, in two or three weeks, after he’d been inoculated, tattooed, fed decently, and generally made into as presentable a suitor as possible. In between his trips to the vet and his enormous meals, he spent his time insinuating himself into the household. Every morning he would be waiting outside the courtyard door, squeaking with excitement at the thought of the day ahead and grabbing the first wrist that came within range. Within a week, he was promoted from a blanket in the outbuilding to a basket in the courtyard. Within ten days, he was sleeping in the house, under the dining table. Our two bitches deferred to him. My wife bought him tennis balls to play with, which he ate. He chased lizards, and discovered the cooling delights of sitting on the steps leading into the swimming pool. He was in dog heaven.

The day arrived for what Madame Grégoire described as the
rendez-vous d’amour
, and we drove up to the spectacular rolling countryside above Saignon where Monsieur Grégoire had converted an old stone stable block into a long, low house overlooking the valley and the village of St. Martin-de-Castillon in the far distance.

Boy had gained weight and a thicker coat, but he was still lacking in social polish. He bounded from the car and lifted his leg on a newly planted sapling, churning up a patch of young lawn with his back paws. Madame found him charming. Monsieur, it seemed, was not so sure; I noticed him looking at Boy with a slightly critical eye. Their bitch ignored him, concentrating instead on a series of ambushes mounted against our other two dogs. Boy climbed a hillock at the end of the house and jumped onto the roof. We went inside for tea and cherries marinated in
eau-de-vie
.

“He is looking well, Boy,” said Monsieur Gregoire.

“Magnifique,”
said Madame.

“Oui, mais …”
There was something worrying Monsieur. He got up and fetched a magazine. It was the latest issue of the official organ of the
Club Korthals de France
, page after page of photographs showing dogs at the pointing position, dogs with birds in their mouths, dogs swimming, dogs sitting obediently by their masters.

“Vous voyez,”
said Monsieur, “all these dogs have the classic coat, the
poil dur
. It is a characteristic of the breed.”

I looked at the pictures. The dogs all had flat, rough coats. I looked at Boy, who was now pressing his great brown nose against the window. His coat had grown after clipping into a mass of grey and brown ringlets that we thought rather distinguished. Not Monsieur Grégoire.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “he has grown to resemble a
mouton
. From the neck up, he is a Korthals. From the neck down, he is a sheep. I am desolated, but this would be a
mésalliance
.”

My wife almost choked on her cherries. Madame looked dismayed. Monsieur was apologetic. I was relieved. Two dogs and a sheep would do for the time being.

Boy is still, as far as we know, a bachelor.

Passing 50 Without
   Breaking the
      Speed Limit

I have never paid any great attention to my birthdays, even those that marked the accomplishment of having tottered through another ten years of life. I was working on the day I turned 30, I was working on the day I turned 40, and I was quite happy at the thought of working on my 50th birthday. But it was not to be. Madame my wife had different ideas.

“You’re going to be half a hundred,” she said. “Considering the amount of wine you drink, that is some kind of achievement. We should celebrate.”

There is no arguing with her when she has a certain set to her chin, and so we talked about how and where the deed should be done. I might have known that my wife had already arranged it; she was listening to my suggestions—a trip to Aix, a
déjeuner flottant
in the pool, a day by the sea at Cassis—out of politeness. When I ran out of inspiration, she moved in. A picnic in the Lubéron, she said, with a few close friends. That was the way to celebrate a birthday in Provence. She
painted lyrical pictures of a sun-dappled glade in the forest. I wouldn’t even have to wear long trousers. I’d love it.

I couldn’t imagine loving a picnic. My picnic experiences, limited as they had been to England, had left memories of rising damp creeping up the spine from permanently moist earth, of ants disputing with me over the food, of tepid white wine, and of scuttling for shelter when the inevitable cloud arrived overhead and burst on top of us. I loathed picnics. Rather ungraciously, I said so.

This one, said my wife, would be different. She had it all worked out. In fact, she was in deep consultation with Maurice, and what she had in mind would be not only civilized but highly picturesque, an occasion to rival Glyndebourne on a dry day.

Maurice, the chef and owner of the Auberge de la Loube in Buoux and a serious horse fancier, had over the years collected and restored two or three 19th-century
calèches
, or open carriages, and a horse-drawn limousine, a stagecoach,
une vraie diligence
. He was now offering his more adventurous clients the chance to trot to lunch. I would
love
it.

I recognize inevitability when it stares me in the face, and it was settled. We invited eight friends and kept our fingers crossed, less tightly than we would have done in England, for fine weather. Although it had only rained once since early April, two months before, June in Provence is unpredictable and sometimes wet.

But when I woke and went out into the courtyard, the seven o’clock sky was a never-ending blue, the color of a Gauloise packet. The flagstones were warm under my bare feet, and our resident lizards had already taken up their sunbathing positions, flattened and motionless against the
wall of the house. Just to get up to a morning like this was enough of a birthday present.

The beginning of a hot summer day in the Lubéron, sitting on the terrace with a bowl of
café crème
, the bees rummaging in the lavender, and the light turning the forest to a dark burnished green, is better than waking up suddenly rich. Warmth gives me a sense of physical well-being and optimism; I didn’t feel a day older than 49, and looking down at ten brown toes I hoped I’d be doing exactly the same thing on my 60th birthday.

A little later, as warmth was turning into heat, the hum-buzz of the bees was blotted out by the clatter of a diesel engine, and I watched as a venerable open-top Land Rover, painted camouflage green, panted up the drive and stopped in a cloud of dust. It was Bennett, looking like the reconnaissance scout from a Long Range Desert Group—shorts and shirt of military cut, tank commander sunglasses, vehicle festooned with jerricans and kitbags, face deeply tanned. Only the headgear, a Louis Vuitton baseball cap, would have been out of place at El Alamein. He had crossed enemy lines on the main N100 road, successfully invaded Ménerbes, and was now ready for the final push into the mountains.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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