Well we didn't know about the first ten years or so . . . but the remaining nine or possibly ten were good ones: of that I am sure.
Ezra and I rescued Una from the S.P.A (dog's home) in Narbonne, on a miserable grey day in Feburuary a couple of years after we moved to France. Mark was away in the UK and we were in the middle of an interminable school holiday: sleet, friends away, cabin fever: Well we could just go and look at dogs . . . not get one, just look.
Mark had never been keen on the idea, but he was in a warm office of the conservatoire in Birmingham, not trying to occupy a bored six year old in a freezing house.
So we went - just to have a look, but came back with an Italian greyhound with a withered leg. I didn't spot the leg problem as she moved so fast when let out of the cage. Anyway, so what? She had a sweet temperament and wonderful ears with complex movement mechanisms.
We took her to the dog-washing shop on our return. She was so trusting, desperate I suppose, having already been taken home by someone and then returned under the 'weeks tryout' policy, presumably because of the leg. She just stood, trembling, eyes fixed on me while the woman soaped and rinsed her.
Then we took her home, watched the cat inflate with surprise and wondered how Mark would react on his return.
He was fine, being the lovely, unruffled person he is. we met him at the airport with dog in tow.
"I thought this might have happened," he said, obviously remembering the various dog-flavoured conversations of late.
Quickly she became a central part of our lives as I suppose most loved dogs do. She was the distraction needed if there was a brewing Ezra sulk, the reason for a healthy walk – whatever the weather, the snuggling partner on a cold winter eve.
I think she must have been a very special dog. The local vet I took her to on the second day for an MOT obviously thought so: Madame, you know this dog is quite old and has a wonky leg? However she is charming and I think you are so good to give her a home that I will never charge you anything when I see her.
And he never did. Just talked lovingly to her and told me that he also had a wonky leg, and his parents had not decided to bin him unlike Una's previous owners, voila madame . . . a la prochain:
yes, see you next time.
Unfortunately he took his retirement and the new husband and wife team took over. Mais . . . luckily they are super lovely too.
Yesterday, the wife vet saw me coming through the door and after the recent 'near miss with death' for Una a few weeks ago, she knew why I was there. Madame, venez . . . come, is it about the old dog?
I nodded, the room blurring as I spoke cracked words. Would they contemplate a home 'putting to sleep situation'?
She looked at the diary, obviously aware of someone standing on the precipice of emotional overload, and liable to break down in the busy waiting room. Yes, ce soir . . . 6.00 pm. It is not something we do really - but I like your dog.
It was a very odd afternoon. Mark and I dug a large hole, possible this year after the continual rain - yes, one can be thankful for small mercies. I weeded a lot, an abstract activity that requires no real thought. Images came and went of Una: pinecone-chasing down the hill in 40 degrees heat, valiantly swimming after me in the sea, as she thought I was about to disappear for ever, the flat ears at our discovery of the bin all over the floor in the kitchen. She was a royal scavenger: queen of the road, eater of unspeakable things. Who knows what happened in those missing ten years, but her continual search for food suggested certainly some time as a stray.
It was half past five: death row. Urte our friend and frequent dog sitter came to say goodbye and we sat drinking mint tea and trying not to watch the clock. The vet rang to say she was held up, it would be more like seven.
Seven-thirty: Urte had gone back; the family were united in mute fear of the vet's approach, Supposing she didn't come? we would have to undergo all this again tomorrow.
The dog pottered, occasionally falling over and trying to wag her tail but the rising temperature of the day made her breath like a traction engine. It was time. all those guilt feelings were going, I knew it the right thing to do. She was nineteen, possibly twenty, unable to walk more than a few doddery steps, legs splaying with the pain, the wheezing breath.
Eight o'clock: the vet came, apologising: Madame, désolé . . . so sorry, so many people. Where shall we do it? Here on the terrace - she likes it here, yes
So that was it, with the swallows diving and rasping in a clear sky, and the roses in full bloom, the old dog lay in my arms, breath gradually slowing to nothing. It was strangely beautiful and peaceful. Thank God it wasn't at the vets: the smell of that room would always make her shrink back against me; they know of course, the smell of pain, jabs, other dog's distress.
The vet left: Bon courage . . .
and we sat for a while looking at her body. The vet had said the small dog would know what had happened, and it seemed to be the case. He had a quick sniff, a sort of goodbye and went to sit quietly under the table.
What do you put in a dog's grave? a bowl of steak, her lead, a favourite blanket?
I opted for a family photo, an ancient garment of mine and a scattering of garden roses. Then we did the thing with the earth. Done. Finished - apart from the thousand memories that will greet me as I go down the garden to the veg plot and pass the grave. And that's a good thing.
Tomorrow we'll choose an apricot tree or perhaps an Indian lilac to dress the plot.
May there be chicken liver and unlimited cat crunchies in the next life:
Una . . . walkies.