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Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Dog with a Bony Backside



You know how some memories stick in one’s mind as though they happened yesterday? That’s how it is with this incident.

It was a very hot day in May, I’ll never forget it. I’d just finished my housework and we were heading out to our local auberge in France for Sunday lunch. This was a treat I always looked forward to.

As Jack, my husband, and I drove down the almost deserted road towards our eatery, I relaxed and idly flipped through the menu in my mind. H’m what would I choose today? The fillet of salmon and mixed salad was always good and would go very nicely with a glass of ice-cold beer. And for Jack? Doubtless he’d be ordering a plateful of meat, laced with frites à la maison. He jolted me out of my daydreams with a series of tuts.

Tsk, just look at that – what a mess!”

“What?”

“Up ahead, there’s a whole load of cardboard in the middle of the road.”

Sure enough, although it was some way off, it looked distinctly like someone had discarded a large cardboard box. I tutted teamily, but as we got closer we realised how wrong we were.

“Jack, it’s moving!”

“You’re right. It must be an animal, perhaps it’s a deer that’s been hit by a car. What a shame.”

We drew alongside the lightly twitching form and got out to see what we could do, only to find that it wasn’t a deer at all. Barely alive, with its head flat on the tarmac, it was a dreadfully emaciated male dog. His ribs and spine stuck out like coat hangers, stretching filthy fur into grotesquely unnatural shapes. Cuts, bare patches and old scars covered much of the animal, it was a pitiful sight.

There was no way we were prepared to leave it exposed in the middle of the road. Aside from the obvious danger from other motorists, the sun was so hot on the tarmac it was causing mirages to form. The dog had to be moved.


So far he hadn’t acknowledged us at all. Swatting away the buzzing flies that surrounded the pathetic body, I stared in dismay at his muzzle. It was a mass of scabs, some bleeding from the bites of fleas and mites which visibly infested the threadbare fur. And he stank. As we began lifting him, he weakly raised his head. Completely docile, he gazed at us pathetically as we gently carried him to a cool, shaded patch of grass on the side of the road.


I waited while Jack dashed back to the house to get a supply of food and water (the photos above show the water bowl). We weren’t sure whether it was wise to give the dog any food, but we felt certain he needed water. We put both down and he managed a little of each. At that stage there was nothing else we could do. We continued on to the auberge and had an unsettled lunch. Somehow our meals didn’t taste quite as good as usual.

We tried to rationalise what we’d seen. Perhaps the dog had wandered off from his kennel. Maybe he had tired himself out and lain on the road, exhausted. Perhaps the owner would come looking for him. Whilst almost logical, those theories didn’t tally with the reality. We talked to our local chums in the auberge and everyone had the same opinion. It was a well-known trick. The animal was probably an old hunting dog who was no longer useful and had been dumped on the road in the hope that someone else would take it in.

With this appalling thought in our minds we said our goodbyes and returned to the spot where we’d left the dog. At first we thought it had gone, but no, we followed a trail of flattened grass and found him. He'd had dragged himself to a shadier spot. There was nothing for it, we couldn’t possibly leave him there all night, so we put him in the car and returned home.

Fortunately, we have a small grassy pen with a kennel so we put the dog in there, isolating him from our own dogs, Aby and Max. At that stage we had no idea whether he might be carrying a disease and didn’t want them in close contact, but we did allow ours to have an introductory sniff through the fence. This didn’t take long. Aby and Max decided there was no fun to be had here and mooched off to do something more interesting.

The dog had been too weak to walk so we left it propped up on some bedding in the kennel with a fresh supply of food and water. That night was a tense one. We prepared ourselves that it would probably be dead the next morning and were amazed to find that not only was it alive, it was standing.


We weren’t entirely sure what to do next but one thing was quite clear, the poor animal needed urgent medical attention. I took him to our vet for a full examination. Doctor Arnaud had seen this kind of case before and was incredibly caring as usual. He confirmed our early suspicions. There was no tattoo, microchip or other form of identity on the dog, he was badly emaciated and had several superficial injuries, including a broken tail. But the list got longer. Blood tests showed that he had a kidney problem, and a dicky heart. He was running a temperature and had a skin disease. He was also old and nearly deaf.

Our vet concluded that the dog had almost certainly been abandoned and asked what we wanted to do. Put it down, or keep it? This was a scenario we hadn’t properly considered. I asked the vet if the dog was in pain. He replied that, other than discomfort from the superficial injuries, he wasn’t. That was all I needed to know, I called Jack to confirm the results and we decided to keep him. Sometime later I left with a huge bag of tablets, special antiseptic shampoo, extra special food and a very large bill.


Now that we had a new dog in the family we had to give it a name. That was easy. Doctor Arnaud had told me it was a wild boar hunting dog; he’d even shown me a particularly nasty looking scar which he thought had been made by a boar’s tusk. Our new dog was named Hunter.

The next few weeks passed in a flurry of activity for Hunter with some basic requirements receiving rapid attention. There was no denying it, he was very smelly indeed. He was also covered with fleas and other small critters, which had a tendency to jump rather a long way. This wasn’t a winning combination for a dog that was going to be living with others, so early action had to be taken.

His general state of filth meant that Hunter was quickly bathed – twice. Did he ever put up a fight? Never. He simply peered mournfully at me with his rheumy eyes and succumbed gracefully to what had to be done.



The level of bug infestation was so high that he was given anti-flea treatment in tablet form and as a liquid spot-on. This nearly worked but not quite. The second application of antiseptic shampoo, whilst effective in eliminating most of the unwanted odours, did a great job of turning my fingers a strange colour and also dissolved the spot-on. The tablet clearly wasn’t up to the job of handling French fleas all by itself so another spot-on had to be applied.

Then there was the question of worms – we couldn’t seem to get rid of them. Hunter lived in the pen while he was undergoing his primary health-care programme and two things happened. Firstly, we noticed his poo contained extremely wriggly-looking parasites, which caused me to rush back to the vet for further supplies. Then his poo disappeared.

Unlikely though the concept was, I assumed that Jack had transformed into a hygiene-conscious kennel maid and he, apparently, thought the same about me. It was only when I complimented him on his selfless husbandry skills that the ghastly truth was out. Hunter was supplementing his regular diet by eating his own poo. That explained why we couldn’t get rid of the worms and the reason for his rank breath, which had a similar effect to pepper spray.

Back I went to the vet for a discussion about the dog’s psychological issues and to buy more wormer. Doctor Arnaud wasn’t at all surprised by my awful tale. He explained that most hunting dogs in the area live in kennels. Many are kept in excellent conditions but, in a situation such as Hunter’s, evidently not always. Come feeding time it was probably survival of the fittest. Food would be put down and the older dogs were often bullied out of the way by the youngsters. This explained why our dog resorted to unsavoury tactics to fill his belly, it also helped explain why he was so thin and poorly. Thereafter, Hunter was stalked and poo removed the moment it was deposited.

We began to see some positive changes in mid-June. Hunter started gaining weight and padded around his pen with a gait most sea dogs would be proud of. Finally we could see what a handsome chap he must once have been. Not very tall, but with a fine head, floppy ears, strong body and deep chest, he had the distinct look of a bloodhound. He was also gentle as can be and amenable to any amount of fussing that came his way. He was a proper country gent who gradually captured our hearts.

Once his primary problems were sorted out, he spent his early days gently pottering around in the garden with our two young Australian Shepherds. He was a pack dog so there was no reason why they shouldn’t get on, and our two were always up for a play with a new pal. Once he started to tire we’d take him back to rest in his own pen. This routine worked for everyone, or so we thought. One morning all that abruptly changed. We were woken by the mournful baying of a hunting hound. It took us a moment or two to realise where the sound was coming from. It was Hunter, and he had found his voice.

Delighted, but worried that something was wrong; I hurried out to find him booming his head off at the pen gate. He was absolutely fine and just making it clear that being shut in the pen was no longer an acceptable option. That was the start of his transition to becoming a house dog.

During the hot summer days the doors were usually left open so he could come and go as he pleased, but he was returned to his pen at night. He would have lived in a kennel so we assumed he wouldn’t be house trained, and anyway we thought he’d be more comfortable outside. Not a bit of it. Once Hunter discovered the delights of comfortable dog beds and warm, dry conditions, that was it – he wanted in! This was when we began to realise what a determined lad he was.

Every morning at daybreak we would be roused by a constant report of deep barks, which continued until one of us opened the gate. Then, to our surprise, holes started appearing in the fence. It took a couple of days for us to work out what was going on – Hunter was chewing through the galvanised wire – we couldn’t believe it, this was supposed to be strong enough to keep wild boar out. We cut our losses and took a chance on letting him sleep in the house. Did he wee on the floor? Never, there was no problem at all, except for Aby, whose bed he commandeered.

For the rest of the summer Hunter was in his element and his wonderfully mild character flourished. He ate like a horse, finally put on weight and started to look like a healthy old dog again. But there were one or two issues. Hunter, being a hunting dog, was extremely single-minded, and with that came a certain degree of obstinacy. His deafness emerged as a distinct advantage, and was a condition he conveniently used like a trump card.



When Hunter decided he wanted to do something that nobody else wanted him to do he completely ignored any contrary instructions. This was frustrating for me, and completely intolerable for my hyper-impatient husband. Cries like, ‘Hunteeer! Argh! That bloody dog won’t listen to a thing I say,’ commonly rang around the garden as Jack pointed furiously at a disappearing bony backside.

Once Hunter had gained enough strength for longer outings we allowed him into the ‘dogs’ field’, a three hectare (over seven acres) enclosed pasture. It is cut for hay each year by a local farmer and the dogs use it for general exploring, constitutionals and honing their scenting skills while they’re waiting for a proper dog walk. The moment Hunter set paw in the field he was off and it was a joy to see. With his nose to the ground he shuffled around with his ungainly gait. Sniffing, pausing, sniffing again – head up for a moment, then down again. Just doing his job. He weaved across the field with remarkable speed for an animal who had so recently been close to death. But there was a practical problem with all this.  

After the first few visits we realised he was having a wonderful time and seemed strong enough to be left on his own. A fine idea in theory except that Hunter had no idea when to stop. The other two dogs would come back after a short excursion, abandoning their old pal who would be somewhere in the field, head fixed to the ground as usual.


The pattern never changed. Once he’d been out for a while I would walk to the field to bring him back in. But it wasn’t easy, he was hard to spot. His tawny-brown fur blended nicely with the grass and became the perfect camouflage. When the prospect of disrupting a satisfying hunt was in the offing I swear he used that together with his cloth-eared deafness to great effect. Looking like a slowly moving tussock of grass he completely ignored my bawls of, ‘Hunter, supper, come!’ The inevitable result being that I would trudge across the field, lasso him, and drag him home.

On one occasion, as I forlornly watched the bony backside snaking around the field in the distance, I had a cunning idea. Aha! We have Australian Shepherds, they’re herders, why not send them out to collect Hunter? Sadly the dogs took a pretty dim view of my brilliant plan. Aby evidently decided that the bed-stealer was best left out there and Max had a couple of half-hearted attempts, but since Hunter wouldn’t play Frisbee with him, declared him to be no fun at all. That was it, I ended up traipsing across the field and hauling Hunter back – every time. And he was very good natured about it all.

The next problem came via his paws. Hunter had enormous ones – they were like shovels. I was alerted to a sound I can only describe as a hound dog song. You might be familiar with it. When a hunting dog picks up a particularly tantalising scent they will alert their fellow hunters by making a strange, continuous call, it’s quite different to the normal bark. One day in the field Hunter started making a similar sound but it was more like a quavering hoot. Initially charmed by this peculiar noise, I ran over to find that he had discovered an extremely interesting scent, but it was beneath the ground.



Hunter took the term ‘dogged’ to a whole new level. He had started digging and wouldn’t stop. Aby and Max were extremely impressed, joined in for a bit then gave up, evidently deciding that he was being a bit ‘OCD’ about the whole process. But then they are shepherding dogs. I watched, amused for a while, until it dawned on me that he really wasn’t going to stop. Eventually concerned that he might injure his bulldozer-like paws I pulled him off and towed him out of the field.



As the weeks wore on this became a regular event. Every day Hunter would dig holes – long ones, wide ones and sometimes very deep ones. His health didn’t seem to be suffering although we were worried that the effort might be straining his heart. I checked with the vet who said he should be fine. Jack dryly observed that whilst the dog was fine the farmer might not be thrilled when one of his tractor tyres disappeared down a newly-created crevice – but I felt this was a slight exaggeration. So we left him to enjoy his retirement days weaving, sniffing, hooting, digging and then digging some more.



One day in the late summer Jack rushed up to me with a panicked expression.

“You have to come and have a look at Hunter. Something terrible has happened.”

“Why what’s wrong?” I asked, slightly exasperated that my satisfying weeding session was being disrupted.

“His balls have exploded!”

What?

“Honestly, they have.” He winced, with look of anguish only another male can express.

“I’m sure your exaggerating again, where is he?”

We found Hunter snoozing in the sun outside the kitchen door and sure enough the poor dog’s testicles were very swollen and oozing a ghastly fluid through flaking skin.

“I can’t believe it, he was absolutely fine this morning,” I cried.

“I know, it’s awful isn’t it, poor bugger,” groaned Jack. “Oh God, you don’t think they’re going to drop off do you?” he shuddered.

“Don’t be so ridiculous,” I retorted hotly, fervently hoping I was right.


I took our uncomplaining dog back to the vet for more blood tests which showed that he had a nasty infection. We were told that the treatment would eventually clear it up but unless he was castrated he was likely to develop testicular cancer. This decision was ours to make, and it was a hard one. Hunter was very old and had a weak heart. Was it right for us to put him through the traumas of surgery?

We spent the next week treating his symptoms with strong antibiotics and cleaning him up several times a day. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, but the site of the infection was taking a long time to respond. Akin to that I noticed a few dark, scabby patches on his tummy and legs where his fur had worn to the skin. Unsure as to whether this was part of the infection we cut our losses and decided to risk it, Hunter was to have surgery.

To our relief Hunter pulled through incredibly well. Doctor Arnaud carried out a new battery of tests and found that he was suffering from a kidney disease that was causing his skin to break up and fur to fall out. Once again we sought his advice. Were we right to keep the old hound going? The response was the same. He was responding well to treatment, he was in no pain and the skin condition could be kept in check with a different special shampoo and regular baths. Decision made. Armed with further supplies of medication and a new lot of special food, we decided to work with our aging canine retainer.


Autumn brought the deer and wild boar hunters out in enthusiastic droves. We live in rural France and every weekend the air would be filled by the cries of frantic hunters and our home surrounded by baying hounds. They were so loud that Hunter heard them, or possibly smelled them. He would stand by the entrance gate sniffing and watching as dogs whizzed past in pursuit of their quarry.


On one such hunting day I was working in the house when Jack shouted for me to come outside.

“I’ve lost Hunter!” he cried, in exasperated tones. “Just look at what he’s done.”

I walked over to the gate and saw a gaping hole in the wire. Hunter had chewed a hole in the netting that covered the wooden gate, and disappeared. I was horrified.

“Jack, that’s awful, he’s far too old to be outside on his own. He might get run over or caught up in the hunt.” Then a thought struck me. “Ooh, I wonder if it’s his old pack out there?”

Jack went off to have a look, which in some ways wasn’t a great idea. Being in the potential firing line of our hunters, or actually anywhere in the same vicinity is never advisable. I tensely waited, listening to Jack shouting his head off, but it was to no avail. He came back a short time later absolutely furious.


“That bloody dog,” he puffed, “I could see his bony arse in the distance but would he come? No he bloody well wouldn’t.”

“Oh dear, I hope he’s going to be alright, his poor heart,” I replied, feeling decidedly anxious.

His heart? What about my sodding heart? I nearly had a coronary galloping across that field. Anyway he’s probably gone for good now – back to the idiot huntsman who messed up his health in the first place. Huh, that’s gratitude for you!”  

With that, Jack stalked off in a huff. But I know my husband, underneath that bluster he’s a big old softie at heart. He spent the next few hours wandering around looking for Hunter and was thoroughly forlorn when his search proved to be fruitless.

By the end of the day we’d morosely decided that Hunter had either had a serious accident or returned to his pack. Our chat was interrupted by a funny noise. It was that unmistakable quavering hoot – the old warrior had returned. We rushed to the gate and there he was, filthy dirty, but otherwise unharmed and extremely hungry.

Incidents like this weren’t isolated. If he managed to chew his way through a newly replaced piece of netting he would always return. He knew where his home was. Happily he eventually stopped trying to join a pursuit and renewed his focus on excavating the now pitted field. He was in doggy heaven.

Friends and visitors who came to visit immediately fell in love with our gentle old boy. He was handsome, he was placid and loved the kindness that was showered on him. One did have to be a bit careful though when handing out treats. Clearly used to fighting for food in his youth, he’d make a sporty grab for whatever tantalising titbit that was being offered, whether or not a hand was in the way.  

The thing is, Hunter was a true hunting dog. This was reinforced by a series of incidents that took place in the spring of the following year. One day I saw him sitting under a tree in the garden with a bundle of white in his mouth. Quite where he had found the speed to grab one of our fantail pigeons was beyond me, but I managed to rescue it before it met an early demise. The grass snakes he regularly trapped and crunched on were less lucky.


While he was having a lovely time, his skin condition wasn’t. It was worsening. Bi-monthly baths turned into weekly ones. New shampoos were used and different tablets given. Still no pain or discomfort so we persevered, which enabled him to commit another grave sin. We live in an ancient property which is surrounded by an old, mostly dry moat. The first I knew of this next set of misdemeanours was a hollering from Jack, who was suffering from a nasty bout of sciatica.

“Come quick, we’ve got a problem with Hunter!”

I rushed out to find Jack teetering on the edge of our moat staring down at something. Hunter had somehow scrambled down the bank and had got himself stuck up to his legpits in a particularly stinky patch of muddy water. We looked at him, he stared solemnly back – motionless.

“It’s no good, I’m going to have to get him out, he’s obviously too weak to do it himself,” snapped Jack, through gritted teeth.

He disappeared into the house and returned wearing wellies, which was a bit pointless because the moment he climbed into the brackish depths, water poured into his boots, filling them in seconds. He shoved and pushed and hauled the old dog and eventually got him to a dry part of the moat where I could help. Whilst Hunter seemed to be completely unperturbed – Jack was in agony. He started spitting out instructions.

“You pull while I push – just watch you don’t slip, we don’t want another injured party in here, we’ll all end up at the bloody vet at this rate.”

“Rightho, just watch your back,” I gasped, trying to grab Hunter’s shoulders.

“Very funny, God Almighty, for a dog with such a bony arse I can’t believe how heavy he is. He’s like a sack of potatoes. Come on, Hunter, make an effort!”

Hunter didn’t make any effort at all and relaxed into the fireman’s lift routine like a pro. It took us quite a while to get him out and when we did he gathered himself up and shuffled off to have a kip. We on the other hand were shadows of our former selves. Jack declared that his back would never be the same again and I was covered in moaty slime. Actually we both were.

I’d like to say that this was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. In between times he continued to enjoy his halcyon days in a variety of ways. He messed around with the other dogs, teaching them bad habits. He snoozed in flower beds, never beside them, dug more holes, chewed on things that didn’t look remotely chewable and ate like a horse. He was a magnificent character, but he was becoming more poorly. More health checks showed further deterioration. His heart was becoming weaker. But he never showed signs of pain, just pure contentment with the gift of prolonged life.


One morning the following summer he didn’t come in after breakfast. I went out to find out our old boy lying on the lawn, completely flat – he couldn’t move. Panic-stricken, we placed him on his favourite bed and I rushed him to the vet. The vet did what vets have to do. He ran yet more tests, explained that Hunter’s kidneys were now failing and gave us our options. Yes, we could keep him going for a while longer, but was this for the best? It was our choice. Deeply troubled, I looked down at the old scarred head with big floppy ears. For the first time since that fateful day when we had found him he didn’t raise his head. Hunter was tired and ready to go.

With heavy hearts we made our decision and the vet put our old boy to sleep. It was a dreadful, awful decision to make, but we knew it was the right thing to do.


Now when we look back on our experiences with this ancient old warrior, we smile with enormous affection. Was he independently minded? No, he was bloody minded. He caused havoc to our land and bank account and was incredibly time consuming to deal with. But here’s the flip side. He had been cruelly mistreated yet remained accepting, stoic, affectionate and so very content with his new home. For all his foibles we loved our old hunting hound dearly and still miss him terribly. Watching that dog with the bony backside enjoy the autumn of his years was a privilege.  


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Fat Dog and French Estates Part III is Good to Go!



It seems like an age since we set out on that fateful day for our expedition to buy a property in France. But it wasn’t.  Our two fat dogs, Sam and Biff, joined me and my husband, Jack, on a journey that would take us the length and breadth of France. It was also one that would change our lives forever.

The situations we faced, and adventures we had, were so extraordinary that I decided to share our experiences. Writing the story was just one part of the challenge. I needed an illustrator who would be able to bring the key characters to life. Happily, my search ended quickly when I found Maggie Raynor. 

Originally famed for her skills in creating equine art, she read my manuscripts, and produced drawings that perfectly matched the words. Her interpretation of the dogs, their mischievous behaviour, my grumpy-but-lovable husband – not to mention our car and our surroundings – were just right.


Finally, Fat Dogs and French Estates Part I was good to go, and I’ll admit it was all a bit daunting.


To my delight I found that lots of people loved reading about our early exploits. Not only that, many asked for more. That gave me all the encouragement I needed. Working in tandem with Maggie, Part II quickly followed, which completed another part of the jigsaw, but not all.


I am very excited to announce the next instalment of our incredible exploits, Fat Dogs and French Estates Part III, is good to go. This time we, and our portly mutts, are involved in adventures of a very different kind.

Feedback from the Beta readers, (whose advice has been second to none) has been wonderful, here's an example:







The book is currently available for pre-order at a discount price, and will be published on the 2nd December 2016.


If you are one of those readers who asked for more, I’d like to say a big thank you for your support. If the series is new to you, I hope my tales make you chortle and brighten your day, and I look forward to you joining us in our latest exploits – we’d love to have you along.


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Ferries, Autoroutes and Two Canaries



Moving house is rarely plain-sailing, especially when a new country is thrown into the mix. My friend was moving over to France from Scotland and had most things covered apart from the final journey by car. This ought to have been relatively straight forward were it not for two practical matters. Her steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car and she was bringing a small menagerie with her.

As we all know, the French drive on the right hand side of the road, and the British, the left. Motoring with a right-hand drive car in France is perfectly fine until one encounters a péage (toll station) on the autoroute. Unless the lone driver has an exceedingly long left arm it is impossible to reach out of the front passenger window to use the auto payment system. Therefore the driver is required to alight from the vehicle, and walk to the machine in order to make the payment.

This situation usually constitutes an intolerable stoppage for the average French motorist, who delights in a quick-fire session of rabid car horn tooting, just to hurry things along a bit. Piercingly encouraging though this may be, it rarely speeds up the hapless right-hand-sider and usually results in a fumbling or dropping of coins/cards, or when my husband, Jack, is driving – a full-on argument.

The other significant-ish matter was the animals. My friend announced that she would be bringing her pets. This sounded perfectly reasonable until she mentioned the birds. Janet has two canaries. Obviously she couldn’t leave them behind, and pretty little fellows though they are, nobody seemed to want a couple of raucous yellow chirpers who have a tendency to shout from dawn to dusk. Letting Bubble and Squeak loose in the wilds of Scotland was unthinkable, so they had to come too.

With half a house, together with several noisy animals, stuffed into Janet’s car, we decided she needed a co-driver/zoo-keeper for the French leg. That job fell to me. We hatched a cunning plan. Janet would drive the 460-ish miles from Scotland to Portsmouth, in the south of England, where I would meet her. We would take the ferry from there to St. Malo and drive down through the country to her new home in the south-west. I already live in France so this meant I had to go backwards to go forwards.


On the day of our great voyage Jack dropped me off at Toulouse airport for my flight to Heathrow airport in London. En route he began issuing a string of instructions. “Don’t faff around shopping in London, the traffic’ll be awful on a Friday. Get straight down to Portsmouth.”

“Oh of course not, I hadn’t even thought of going shopping.”

Or the Natural History Museum! If you start lurking in there you’re sure to miss the ferry.”

“Okay, okay!”

“And make sure you activate the location finder on your phone so I can track you. I don’t want you getting lost.”

“Rightho, but I don’t think we will. Janet tells me she has a GPS system in her car, a very large map and they do have excellent road signs in France as you know.”

“Yes, but since the pair of you have a constant flow of verbal diarrhoea, the GPS lady won’t be able to get a word in edgeways. Then you’ll forget to look at the map and ignore the signs. You’ll not be concentrating properly and, not for the first time in your joint travel history, you’ll end up lost,” he declared, with a needle-eyed look.

He had me there… “Don’t worry,” I replied, using reassuring tones, “we’ll be perfectly focussed.”

“Oh, and don’t let her drive, I’ve seen the way she attempts a reverse manoeuvre.”

Jack finally ran out of counselling points and we parted with our usual hug and kiss and my pledge to keep in constant touch. An emotional moment though it was, I was returning the next day.


Increasingly, airports are becoming very different places. I walked past the most recent signs of the times, honestly grateful for the renewed emphasis French authorities had placed on securing the safety of travellers. It was all very quiet and tranquil until I reached the check-in queue for British Airways. Mayhem!

I have often wondered why it takes some travellers so long to execute the very simple process of placing their luggage on a conveyor belt, having their documents checked and receiving a boarding card. But it does, and that day was no exception. I joined the queue of already weary people, and soon realised why they were looking so irritated.

A group of four huddled around the check-in desk and seemed to be cemented to the spot. Precious minutes passed as they fiddled with passports and prodded suitcases. Bag tags were issued, completed, ripped up and thrown in the bin, and new ones filled in. Just how hard could be to write down a name and address? It was certainly confounding these passengers. Eventually they managed and we all shuffled forward half a metre. This presented a new challenge.

The family directly in front of me consisted of two adults, one daughter and a screamer. I couldn’t be sure whether it was a little boy or girl, but it certainly had a healthy pair of lungs. The next 15 minutes were tortuous. Tiny howler upset everyone including the check-in staff. Evidently unable to cope with the shrill and continuous assault on their ears their registration rate was reduced from dead-slow to nearly full-stop, thus causing yet more delays to the simplest of procedures. Meanwhile time was getting on.

I finally made it to the desk, presented my cabin-safe squashy bag and was off to security to face my next challenge. Some years ago I had a car accident which left me with several broken bones and these were repaired with bits of metal in my legs. They enable my legs to operate very nicely but when I walk through a security machine all hell is let loose. Without fail I set off the scanner sirens and I’m instantly surrounded by armed security officers, though usually they’re brandishing their wands, not their guns. Today was no exception.

I was parked to one side and told to wait to be searched. Yet again I was losing time. The lady at the front of the ‘being searched’ queue was in the throes of being told to remove her belt, bracelets and enormous hooped earrings. This was causing practical problems because she couldn’t get them out and the security guard wasn’t allowed to touch them. Just as I was on the point of hauling them out for her she managed all by herself and walked back through the scanner. Once again she set it off.

Variously frustrated, we all studied this woman, who had very little else to remove, trying to work out where the missing metal was. Finally it was located. In a moment of inspired revelation she remembered that she’d left a couple of euros in a hidden pocket – what a relief. Fortunately things went much more smoothly for me. I was frisked, wanded and dabbed for gunpowder and set back on my way.

The next challenge at Toulouse airport is passport control. This usually morphs into a scrum because the now-late passengers are all rushing to catch their flights. It’s a survival of the fittest situation here. Elbows are sharpened, bags become shields and ones toes are normally trodden on as we stampede towards the booths. Breathlessly I joined the sweaty throng and fought my way to the departure gate just as the last passengers were boarding my flight. Phew!


With the first leg of my journey successfully completed I sent a text to Janet to see how far she had got. ‘Gretna Green’ was the response. Although I’m not precisely sure where that is, it sounded suitably south of Scotland so she must be making good progress. I sank back in my seat only to have my nerves shattered by an announcement made by the pilot.

“Good afternoon everybody. Although our flight was on time I regret to inform you that it is now unavoidably delayed. One of our passengers has slipped on the ramp and broken their leg. (Audible ‘tuts’.) She’s now off to hospital but we have to find her baggage and remove it from the hold. This could take a little time. (Sympathetic sighs evolved into despondent groans.) I apologise for this inconvenience but we’ll dig it out as soon as possible.”

Some while later we took off. While the flight went to plan, inevitably, because of our delayed departure, we were left hanging around above Heathrow airport for 20 minutes while a new slot was found for us. Not to worry, I kept telling myself, I’ve left lots of time of time to get to Portsmouth, I hope…


Friday afternoons in any major city are often busy and London is no exception. I was lucky enough to be picked up by a friend at the airport and as we drove towards the centre of town we realised that my ambition to shop and make the ferry check-in time of 6.30pm was likely to be doomed. The traffic was already dead slow and was quickly getting worse. I swallowed my disappointment at a retail therapy or pop into my favourite museum opportunity lost, and instead we cruised through Kensington, past Harrods and got back on the road that would take us to the south coast.


Meanwhile poor Janet was battling with her own traffic problems in the Midlands. I gave her quick progress call. “How are things going?”

“Awful!”

“What a shame, what’s happened?”

“I’m still north of Manchester stuck in roadworks. I’ve got over 260 miles to go, I’m never going to make it at this rate.” she wailed.

“Look, don’t worry. We’re making good time here, I’ll alert the staff at the ferry check-in, I’m sure they’ll be fine. Anyway, how are the animals doing?”

“The bloody cat howled for the first two hours. The dog’s fine and I’ve no idea whether the canaries are dead or alive.”

“Oh dear, poor Jake (the cat), he must be terrified.”

“Poor Jake? What are you talking about? My nerves are shattered here – poor me more like it!”

It was clear to me that Janet was somewhat rattled. This is never an easy state of affairs. A mercifully bad phone signal came to my aid and I rapidly rang off. But now we had a travel predicament. Even if she made it past the roadworks fairly soon she would then hit weekend rush hour in each of the cities she had to bypass on the way down. With the best will in the world it was unlikely that she’d make it in time.

I considered the possibilities. Drive over to Folkestone and take one of the regular Channel Tunnel transporter trains to Calais? Or, wait for a later ferry crossing at Portsmouth? That was a distinct possibility. I could find out about that but it might risk losing our original ticket money. The final option was the good old sweet talk routine. The obvious choice! The check-in time was very early so I felt sure I could persuade an appropriate official to allow us a little flexibility.

I was duly dropped off at Portsmouth ferry port nice and early. I made a beeline for the check-in desk which was manned by a very pleasant young man. I’ll admit that when I explained the situation I may have erred on the animal-drama side of things a tad, but he couldn’t have been nicer. He assured me that late check-ins were permitted, especially where animals were concerned, and that I should keep him informed. With all that settled I sat down and had a cuppa.

Two hours later and Janet still hadn’t showed. I didn’t like to bother her but we only had five minutes to the standard check-in time so I needed a progress report. After several failed attempts I managed to speak to her on a severely crackly line and was horrified by her spat response of “70 miles to go”. I repeated this to make sure I’d understood correctly but the line went dead. This news made our chances of making the ferry sailing very slim indeed. I returned to the check-in desk and was in the middle of confessing my friend’s latest travel woes when a text came through from Janet. It was extremely easy to understand.

            7 miles to go, not 70!

I assured the lovely young man that she would arrive imminently and dashed outside into the darkness to see the silhouette of a white car with a large roof box sailing around the carpark, heading towards the wrong ferry. I couldn’t shout from my position so grabbed my phone and called her again to give her directions.

Guiding Janet in wasn’t the easiest of jobs and reminded me of Jack’s sage instructions about her prowess as a driver. It seems that the very large anchors decorating either side of the check-in door were posing a problem, although quite why I had no idea. They were on the pavement and, ideally, she was going to pull in on the road. She finally managed to avoid them, came to a stop and thrust a bundle of travel documents into my hand. Within moments we were booked in and heading off towards the ferry. What a relief!


It’s fair to say that at this stage my friend was in a bit of a fluster. I couldn’t blame her, she’d had an awful journey and was exhausted, but I do know that she’d not to be messed with when in this kind of mood. Fortunately there were very few cars in our line so we decided to pull up just before we reached the security area and let Spike, the dog, out for a wee and check the animals. Janet decided that this should be my job and turning to me said, “Look, I’ll stay in the car in case we have to move it and you check the animals. Hurry up now, we’ll have to board any moment.”

“Okay, fine. Hang on I’ll check the birds first… Erm, how many did you say you had?”

“Two.”

“Ah yes, but I can only see one. Hang on it’s so dark I can barely see. There’s a great big fat one sitting on a perch and, ah, oh dear – the other one’s the bottom of the cage!”

“Is it upside down?”

“No, right side up I think. Cor, it’s tiny isn’t it?”

“It’s alright then, and yes it is. Just get on with it will you, I’ve been driving for 11 hours, I need a gin and tonic.”

“Okay, okay. The good news is the cat’s fine, poor lad mewing like that…”

“Hurry up!

“Blimey, you’re grumpy this evening. Right, oh deeear, the bad news is that there’s a big wet patch on Spike’s bed.”

“Nooooo!”

“Nope, only kidding.”

Before Janet had an opportunity to lambast me with further abuse I grabbed a lead and Spike and we trotted over to a grassy patch where he could relieve himself in peace before the final stage, which was security checks.



Janet and I may think we are tall, we certainly talk it at times, but in fact we’re fairly close to the ground. The security guard lady allocated to us was even closer. Nevertheless, with important wand in hand and a belt full of interesting, serious-looking accoutrements, it was clear that diminutive height would not present a problem to this feisty lady.

Her first error of judgement was to march up to the car and stick her head in the window. She was now nose-to-nose with Janet. This immediately caused Janet to recoil with a scowl and shriek “Oh!” Spike started growling, a canary began trilling and I cleared my throat with operatic efficiency in an effort to drown out the evensong. (I had no idea that canaries sang their heads off in the pitch black.)

Our fearless guard was obviously used to this kind of reaction and didn’t even flinch. Adopting a wonderfully officious manner she said, “Evening, madam, open your top box please.”

“No,” came the snapped reply from my grumpy pal. I couldn’t help thinking that this wasn’t her best response.

The officer persevered. “But I need to see in it.”

“You’re welcome to open it if you want but I’m not getting out there to do it for you, I can’t reach.”

The lady looked at Janet, and Janet looked back, the personification of a person about to explode – it’s the beetroot face, a dead giveaway.

With admirable determination the officer had another go. “But this is a security check madam and I can’t do it, you have to,” she gamely insisted.

“I realise that and we want to drive onto the ferry. Do you have a step ladder?”

Now this was slightly more helpful but it did flummox our lady.

“No, madam, we do not.”

“I see. Well in that case I don’t know how you’re going to be able to inspect it. However, as I said you are welcome to have a go but it is very full with clothes so please replace them when they fall out.”

This was turning into a Mexican standoff. I shrank back in my seat, hoping against hope that the canaries weren’t about to cheer us up with a stirring chorus of Jerusalem. That, together with my friend’s tone, would surely result in a total-car strip search.

Our officer pondered Janet’s offer for a moment then had a refreshingly new idea. “Right, we’ll have a look under the bonnet instead then please, madam.”

Phew, that was a relief, at least they could both reach that. 

After a few moments fumbling (Janet obviously hadn’t been troubled with the need to open her car bonnet before) she found a lever. The petrol flap magically opened. Would the officer care to inspect the petrol cap? No? Didn’t think so. Right, another lever was eventually located and up popped the bonnet. Janet and our stalwart officer both studiously examined the engine parts, which were declared safe.


The final part of our check was to have the rear of the car examined. This contained the dog, the cat, the canaries and a great deal of miscellaneous luggage. Spike was already less than impressed by the sight of a stranger rummaging around his car, but managed to reduce his growls to a throaty hum. Jake the cat looked bored and luckily the canaries seemed to have gone to sleep. We were confirmed safe to continue our travels and waved on to board the ferry.

Our overnight voyage was blissfully peaceful. All animals were fed and bedded down comfortably, and we dined and relaxed, and then slept well in our hobbit-sized cabin. Ideal for us.

We were roused the next morning by gentle music coming from somewhere in the cabin followed by several announcements. We grabbed a quick breakfast and rushed back to the car, apprehensive about our animals – but we needn’t have been. Spike was thrilled to see us, his little tail wagging madly. Jake was watchful and looking decidedly as thought he’d prefer to be somewhere else and even the canaries were still alive. Bienvenue en France! We were good to go!


Our journey down through the country was easy, uneventful and crowned with the bluest skies and warm autumn sunshine. Jack tracked us all the way. He called every now and again to make sure we were still on the correct side of the road and to confirm that we were travelling in the right direction. Where would I be without my faithful Jack?



 
We decided to refuel and eat at a service station with a grassy area so Spike could have a run. We pulled into an ideal place, bought a couple of large sandwiches and opened up the car doors so everyone could have a proper breath of French fresh air. The canaries immediately began singing their heads off and preening. Jake assumed an Oscar Wildesque look by draping himself across his cat bed and sniffing the air in a purrfectly languid fashion. That left Spike who bounded out of the car excitedly and started dashing around, examining his surroundings.

We were all in heaven, that is, until Spike found an open storm drain. We politely waited until a fellow traveller had finished peeing in the gentle flow before allowing Spike to potter around in the clear water up stream. Thinking we were in a safe spot we munched happily on our lunch, relaxing for 10 minutes in the sun.


Unfortunately something caught Spike’s attention; he galloped off back to the drain. To our horror we watched as he disappeared into a large cement pipe that was partially concealed by dense brambles. Dropping my lunch I yelled, “Spike – get back here! Janet, call him, there might be ragondan in there.”

“Spike, Spike, come!” she bellowed at the pipe. Then turned back to me, “What are ragondan anyway?”

“You know, they’re also called coypu, or nutria – animals that look like a cross between a big water rat and a beaver.”

“Oh no, they’re massive! SPIKE!


This caused a reaction from the assembled picnickers, but nothing immediate from the drain. We were in the process of berating ourselves for being so careless and working out a rescue plan when a small brown nose poked out of the pipe. Spike had returned and was completely unscathed. That’s inquisitive Jack Russells for you – speaking of which, at that moment an SMS appeared on my screen. It was from another Jack:

You’ve not moved for 25 minutes. Are you OK?



After explaining to Jack that neither the car’s fuel tank, our stomachs, or the dog’s bladder were capable of hanging on for more than 100 km, we resumed our journey, driving down through the country watching the terrain change and the temperature rise. Seaside flatlands exchanged places with rolling hills. Triffid-like windmills lined our route to be replaced with vineyards. We played games, trying to work out the wording on the tourist information signposts. Janet’s response to one in particular reminded me that she’d need to begin French lessons very quickly. Then finally we were on familiar territory, just a few kilometres from home.




We pulled off the country lane into Janet’s new driveway. Her house is only a short distance from ours. It was a typically gorgeous October evening and Jack was there too, fiddling with something technical. We piled out of the car and let Spike run in the enclosed garden. The canaries hollered in excitement at coming to a place that was definitely warmer than Scotland and even Jake deigned to look interested. It had been a long journey, my friend had done incredibly well to manage so much of it all by herself and we hope she’ll be as happy as we are in our little corner of France.