Southern Times

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Four legs good, six legs... aaaghh!

Monday 1 March 2004, by Patricia

I do have a kind of sympathy with the rebellious creatures of Animal Farm. Four legs good, yes. Two legs bad? Well, not always. Six legs - or more? Lemme outta here!

I was prepared for spiders, of course, when we moved into our Midi home. But nobody told me about scorpions. Scorpions are things you get in Africa, aren’t they? Great black things a foot long with a sting that can stun an elephant. Surely not in the friendly south of France?

Until the day, or should I say the night, when I woke up and just knew I wasn’t going to go back to sleep. It was a hot, hot summer night so I was wearing, er, not a lot. And when you switch on the light and there on the white wall is the biggest, blackest, evillest creepy crawly you ever imagined, and you haven’t even the protection of a pair of socks, well you feel a tad vulnerable.

I wakened Himself by the time-honoured method: "Are you awake?" I hissed. And then, in the way of wives immemorial since time began, I sweetly suggested "Well, deal with THAT!"

I’ve got a lot more laid-back since then. Today I can take scorpions in my stride, and prefer to capture them in a glass and put them outside, rather than send them prematurely to meet their Maker. But one creature I cannot, will not come to terms with is that long, hairy, multi-legged, evil-sting-equipped thing, the local centipede. I’m even too afraid to squash them, let alone get near enough to trap them in a glass. Those, I’m afraid, take their chances in the next world - once I have summoned up enough courage to scream for help.

On the other hand, Sid is always welcome. Sid is the generic name we have given to the lizards - all of them - with whom we are privileged to share our terrace during the summer months.

Over the years we have come to know quite a bit about Sid. For example, his addiction to soft fruit. We have got into the habit of leaving a piece of peach, strawberry or grape on the wall where Sid is accustomed to sun himself. It’s quite amazing: one minute no lizards in sight, a grape later and there are half a dozen circling the offering, snarling at each other (as we suppose from their body language) and making little darts at the fruit.

These are tiny lizards - the oldest and biggest no more than six or eight centimetres long - and we thought they were very cute indeed. Until the day I was experimenting with a video camera and took a close-up shot. Suddenly these enormous jaws came into view and clamped with vicious intent on a piece of peach. Tyrannosaurus Rex in miniature.

Since we came to live in the village we’ve had a fair few encounters with local fauna, most of them a lot more endearing than our six-plus legged friends.

For example, there was that summer night when we sat in the kitchen, the coolest place we could find, all doors and windows open. As we lingered over our meal Himself suddenly remarked "There’s a cat in our living room" "Yes, dear," I replied soothingly, wondering if that last glass of rosé had been an altogether good idea.

Himself knows that tone of voice. "But there is," he insisted, "there is a large grey cat in our living room." Now it’s not often a girl has to admit this about her bloke, but I have to say he was right. There was a large grey cat in our living room.

We didn’t know it then, but Pouchkine had come to stay. Cat-like, he had noted a soft billet and simply moved himself in. In those days we were only spending a couple of summer months in France, and cat passports were unheard-of, so adopting him full time was out of the question. In any case, he had perfectly good owners of his own but, being French, they didn’t pay him quite the homage he felt was his due. A soppy English couple fitted the bill nicely.

So during the day Pouchkine had the run of our house - and, naturally, the fridge - but when we were out, and at night, he was firmly shown the door.

Suddenly the early mornings took on a whole new flavour. It went something like this:
6 a.m. Waaow?


6:30 a.m. Waaow? Waaow?


7:00 a.m. Waaow? Waaow? WAA-ow?


7:30 a.m. WAAOW! WAAOW! WAAOW! (I can keep this up forever) WAAA-OW! WAAA-OW! WAAAAA-OW! WAAA...

(wearily, the door opens).

ZZZZZZZ-TT! (A grey furry streak shoots into the kitchen) Where’s my milk then?

Lap. Lap-lap. Lap-lap. Lap-lap-lap-lap-lap-lap-lap-lap.

PRP! OK, time for cuddles! Prr-rrr-rrr-rrr-rrr-rrr-rrrrrrrrrrrr...

As will happen, the holiday drew to a close and it was time to head back to England. I have to admit I worried about Pouchkine. Who would cuddle him? Who would feed him milk? I needn’t have fretted. A few weeks later there was an excited phone call from one of my French neighbours. "Guess who I saw, sitting in Madame Untel’s window today?" It wasn’t too hard to guess.

A year or so after Pouchkine, Gulliver came along. We have the good fortune to play host to a large variety of birds in our village. Some are here year-round, others only pay a summer visit. But every year there is the usual sad quota of small fledglings which have launched themselves from high places with more hope than experience, and come crashing to ground.

Gulliver was one such.

We weren’t exactly sure what he was, although we knew that his parents probably belonged to the summer visitor group. We often debated their species: swifts? swallows? house martins? What use are bird books and details of markings when all we see of them are fast-moving silhouettes against a dazzling or darkening sky?

Then we found the answer. Swifts, according to the bird book, have "… vigorous, dashing flight, wheeling, winnowing and gliding; excited parties chase each other squealing around the houses in small towns and villages…" Yesss!! That’s just how our summer birds behaved.

Gulliver didn’t look remotely like the picture - an all-black bird with a long, graceful forked tail. His tail was stubby and he had a fawn band on his back and fawn underbelly. But he was a baby, so perhaps he would grow into the bird-book image. And anyway, we had named him Gulliver, hadn’t we? And Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, didn’t he? The case, in our minds, was proven.

We had Gulliver for a week. We kept him in a cardboard box on the window sill at night, and during the day encouraged him to explore and try out his wings. We taught him to drink water. We fed him, to the huge and mocking delight of our friends, on charcuterie. The one time I managed to catch an insect he turned up his beak at it.

Then one afternoon I was on the terrace sunbathing, Himself upstairs having a siesta. Suddenly Gulliver began to climb up the house wall. Sensing something was afoot, I called urgently up to Himself. "You’d better get down here fast, I think Baby is leaving home."

Himself arrived at a gallop. Gulliver climbed on steadily till he reached the guttering on the roof. Then he turned and looked at us. I could almost hear him say "Watch me, Mum, watch me, Dad." Then he launched himself into space. We held our breath. He tumbled through the air and we tensed for a rescue mission. Then he began to climb again, airborne this time. And as he rounded the church another bird swooped down and flew beside him. We felt proud and tearful - we had reared our first chick.

Now there is Purdey, and she’s here to stay.

She entered our lives, much to our surprise, last summer. Himself and she adopted each other in the village. We duly reported her at the Mairie and took her to the vet, who said she wasn’t tattooed or microchipped but she would surely be claimed as she was a fine specimen - spaniel cross, obviously used for hunting.

Sure enough, two days later her owner turned up. I took one look at Himself’s stricken face and asked said owner if he wanted to sell her. He said (in French) "If my wife agrees I’ll let you have her - I’ve got two others and she’s a rubbish hunting dog."

Now Purdey is officially ours. We originally named her Perdi, short for Perdita, for obvious reasons. But then Himself pointed out that Purdey is a make of shotgun used in hunting, which seemed appropriate. (Actually I think it’s because Himself is wildly in love with Joanna Lumley, who played Purdey in the Avengers).

She’s absolutely adorable, house trained, intelligent, willing and affectionate. Even, occasionally, obedient. She loves people and other dogs. A friend came to visit, took one look at her and pronounced "She’s a Brittany spaniel." And so it turned out to be, and pooh to the vet who called her a cross.

We, of course, are besotted. She has us wrapped round her small paw, and we find it hard to talk about anything else. In fact, we now have an imaginary bell which we ring at each other - ding-ding - to remind us not to bore our friends rigid with Purdey stories

Purdey embodies both the fur and the feathers aspect of life down here. Her expressive ears are fringed with brown fur which I call her feathers, and they provide my abiding image of her. When we walk together she will go off exploring, but once she gets to the end of what I think of as her invisible lead, she has to come back and check on us. And if we are out of sight, she comes at greyhound speed, all four feet off the ground, tongue lolling, feathers in the wind…


© Patricia Feinberg 2004

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