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  By: Peter Mayle

 

A Balanced Education
By Peter Mayle


I was a diamond in the rough in those early days, brimming with promise but somewhat deficient in the social graces. Iíd never eaten from a bowl before. I had a cavalier attitude toward bodily functions, which caused one or two raised eyebrows with the management. I was unused to navigating around furniture. The world of gastronomy was unknown territory, and I was not at ease with tradespeople. In other words, I lacked polish. Hardly surprising, really, when you consider that my first few months had been spent in solitary confinement with occasional visits from a man whose idea of savoir faire was taking off his boots before going to bed.

However, I wonít dwell on my humble origins, except to say that they had not prepared me for my new life of regular meals, sanitary habits and harmonious coexistence with two old bitches. I had much to learn.

Fortunately, I was gifted, even then, with keen powers of observation. There are those in this world who merely look, but take nothing in: Irish setters come to mind here, and I;ve heard the same said about office receptionists, although Iíve never met one. But I do more than look. I watch closely. I absorb. I note and inwardly digest. I like to think of myself as an eternal student of behavioróants, lizards, other dogs, people, they all fascinate me, and studying their odd little quirks and rituals has greatly helped my intellectual development, worldliness, social composure, and all the rest of those attributes one needs to live in harmony with man.

To start with, I paid particular attention to my two roommates. These were the Labrador in her outfit of dusty black bombazine, and the senior bitch, more rug than dog, who has been said by some people with highly suspect judgment to resemble me. The two of them, I assumed, had spent several years learning the ropes, and by using them as role models in matters of routine and general deportment, I would pick up the necessary domestic skills in no time, impress the management, and go to my natural place at the top of the class.

Have you ever tried living with two elderly females who are settled in their ways? Probably not, and if I were you, I wouldnít bother. They nag, you know, and tend to take offense at the most trivial things. Iíll give you an example, which happened soon after I arrived, and which made me hobble for a week.

I told you Iíd never eaten from a bowl. Thereís a knack to it, because if youíre anxious to get at the rations, you tend to plunge in, and the more eager you are, the more the bowl skids away from you. Iíve since learned to jam it into a corner, where it canít escape, but at that time my technique was to place a paw in the bowl to keep it firmly anchored. I should also mention that I am not one of those fussy eaters who take an extended stroll between mouthfuls. I donít leave the bowl until itís empty, which I consider to be good sense and good manners, and I eat with gusto (some might say unfettered greed, but you have to remember my deprived upbringing).

In any case, I had finished and was sucking the last of it from my paw when I noticed that the bowl next to mine was unattended and half-full. I canít abide waste, and so I transferred the paw to the bowl next door and was about to deal with the contents when the senior bitch returned from her travels, found me tidying up what sheíd left, and bit me extremely hard on the thigh. Snarls of outrage followed, and I was obliged to hop off smartly on three legs. So much for any sympathy I may have had for the feminist movement. Theyíre more than capable of taking care of themselves, the gentle sex, and I have the scars to prove it.

But apart from their possessive attitude toward food, I found them to be reasonably good-natured and a great help in guiding me through the reefs and currents of daily domestic life. These are some of the lessons I learned:

It is permitted to bark at neighborhood dogs who have wandered off course, at the man who comes once a month trying to sell subscriptions to a yoga magazine, and at strangers at the gate. It is not permitted to bark at the telephone every time it rings, at the electrician on a mission of mercy, or at a centipede you find in your basket at three in the morning. Growling and dental displays are frowned on, as are major excavations in flower beds, the concealing of bones in visitorsí handbags, and romps on the couch.

It is considered very bad form to break wind, and here I have to say that the Labrador excels. Unfortunately, once you make a name for yourself at the sort of thing, you tend to be treated with automatic suspicion, sometimes unfairly. I remember one winter evening, logs cracking merrily in the hearth, friends around the dinner table, we three dogs minding our own business as the banter flowed back and forth, when the atmosphere of well-being was sullied by a real torpedo, possibly the result of too much rich cheese. It was impossible to ignore, and conversation ceased while everyone looked for the guilty party.

Now I happened to be lying close to the perpetrator, a small and excitable man in journalism, as a matter of fact. But was there any attempt on his part to claim ownership? Certainly not. With the practiced effrontery that came, Iím sure, from many similar lapses in the past, he waved his wineglass in the direction of the Labrador and said, in so many words, Officer, arrest that dog. The poor old thing was expelled into the night, a victim of her reputation.

I wouldnít want you to think that my domestic education was limited to avoiding the disapproval of the management. Stemming, I suppose, from fondness and gratitude, and maybe a touch of self interest, I also wanted to please them. It wasnít long before I picked up some invaluable hints on establishing myself in their good graces, laying up a store of benevolence against the day Ė accidents and misunderstandings will happen, as we all know Ė when it might be needed.

The human responds to spontaneous displays of affection. These can take the form of the straightforward, head-on-the-knee and adoring-gaze variety or the early morning salute with tail at full wag, to more complicated indications of joy, trust, fidelity, and a desire to ingratiate. The transportation and delivery of precious objects, for instance, never fails to please. Following a trifling faux pas on my part, I once disinterred, with some reluctance, the remains of a mouse that I had been saving until it reached full maturity and placed it at madameís feet while she was in the kitchen making mayonnaise. She was overcome with gratitude; at least, I think it was gratitude. She summoned the other half, and they both regarded the mouse with expressions of wonder. Rather touching, really, and well worth the minimal effort involved, since I was forgiven immediately. Iíve had much the same gratifying reaction to other tokens of esteem- cushions, hats, mislaid airline tickets and discarded items of lingerie from the guest quarters, a favorite book, urgent faxes from foreign parts, or the back half of a grass snake. The nature of the gift doesnít seem to matter. Itís the fact that I take the trouble to choose it personally that counts.

Iím a quick study when thereís some advantage in it for me, and so it wasnít long before I mastered the routine of everyday domestic life and could turn my attentions to learning about the outside world. Here, of course I had to rely more on the management and it is probably appropriate at this point to give you a brief character sketch.

They are not like other couples, Iíve discovered, in that both of them stay at home. In normal circumstances, so I hear, people leave the house in a bad temper shortly after breakfast and go to work. They have offices where important and serious activities take place, meetings and paperwork and what have you. This is not the case chez nous. Honest employment is avoided, and I sometimes wonder why. Madame seems perfectly capable, particularly in the kitchen, and I would have thought that a steady job in a canteen would not be beyond her.

The other half, alas, is not visibly gifted. I have observed his attempts at gardening and minor domestic tasks over the years, and they usually end in pain or bloodshed: Wounds from screwdrivers, shovels, and pruning shears; scalded fingers from kitchen utensils; broken toes caused by clumsiness with heavy objects; and temporary blindness from a poorly aimed salvo with the rose spray are only some of his disasters. Thank heaven he doesnít hunt. He is not dexterous, except for a certain facility with the corkscrew. Even this small skill could be put to commercial use Ė bars need bartenders, and after all Ė but he shows no signs of ambition, preferring to shut himself in a room for extended periods, sharpen pencils, and gaze at the wall. Odd, if you ask me.

Nevertheless, they appear to be contented enough, and the arrangement suits me very well. Itís not often, as Iím sure youíve found out, that you like both members of a couple, and here I consider myself fortunate Ė happy with either, happier with both. Theyíre punctual with the food, great believers in the benefits of fresh air and exercise, and solicitous over my ailments. They place rather too much emphasis on hygiene for my liking, but nobodyís perfect, and in terms of general care and attention, I donít have any serious complaints. If Iím allowed on criticism Ė and as this my book, I think I am Ė it is simply that they are unable to come to terms with their own social habits, which can be a little exasperating from time to time.

They claim, loudly and often, to be lovers of the quiet life, content to vegetate, admire the beauties of the countryside, and tuck themselves up with the bedtime cocoa shortly after the sunís golden orb sinks slowly in the west (their words, not mine). This is self-deluding nonsense. For two people who like to believe theyíre one step removed from the hermit of the woods, theyíre dismal failures. I canít remember the last time we had a day when the house was empty. If itís not neighbors or the men who seem to be on permanent duty with the cement mixer, itís a deputation of refugees from overseas Ė a boisterous, disreputable collection, by and large, addicted to drink, late hours, loud music and gossip.

Not that I mind. Itís rarely dull, and if, like me, you have a healthy curiosity about the ways of the world, thereís no place quite as illuminating as my spot under the dining table, learning by eavesdropping.

This has been going on for years now and has provided me with what you might call a wide-ranging, eclectic education. I know, for instance, that 1985 was a particularly good vintage in Chateauneuf; that one of the local mayors likes dressing up in a nurseís uniform and playing the trumpet; that all politicians and lawyers are rogues; that writers are saintly and hard-done-by artists, exploited by brutal publishers; that the Channel Tunnel will be the end of England as we know it; that a baker in the next village has eloped with an exotic dancer from Marseille; that a diet of foie gras and red wine prolongs life expectancy; that the European Economic Community is run by venal buffoons; that the British royal family is moving to Hollywood; and so it goes on. All human life is there, and itís fascinating stuff if you can stay awake

What is sometimes even more interesting is the critical assessment that is delivered in the kitchen once the revelers have left, and here we return to the management.

I try never to miss these gentle exchanges as the empty bottles are counted and the dishes are being dropped, and thereís a comforting familiarity about the course the conversation takes. It starts with a brisk difference of opinion about the quality of the food, with madame expressing disappointment with her cooking, and the other half pointing to the evidence of bare plates and bones picked clean.

This is followed by a prolonged discussion of the highlights of the eveningís entertainment and personal remarks, which we neednít go into here, about the various guests. Act three is a unanimous vote to avoid all social contact for the next six months. But then we have the encore, which is the realization that invitations have been accepted for a replay. And so to bed. You see what I mean? They say one thing (ďNever againĒ), then do precisely the opposite (ďSee you next TuesdayĒ).

But the constant flow of guests has been instructive, as I hope youíll see from the pages that follow, and by keeping eyes and ears open, I gradually learned much of what I know today. You could say that observation and eavesdropping have provided me with a sound intellectual base. For practical knowledge, however, there is no substitute for experience in the school of hard knocks. I give you the incident of the plumber under the sink.

Henri is his name, and he appears frequently at the house toward the end of the morning to arrange his tools on the kitchen floor. This is an apparently vital part of the plumbing process, a kind of limbering up before the mysteries of valve, spigot, and overflow are investigated. And so he lays out his rows of hammers, adjustable wrenches, drills, blowtorches, and his special hat with a lamp on the front for peering into dark corners, looks at his watch, and goes off to lunch. The master plumber, so he says, cannot plumb on an empty stomach. Madame is left to pick her way through the equipment and mutter, in her usual way, about giving it all up and going to live in a tent, the other half, in his usual way, finds something pressing to do as far from the kitchen as possible.

Normally, I donít pay too much attention to plumbing, but on this occasion. I was intrigued. For some days, there had been an interesting and increasingly strong aroma coming from the closet under the sink. I couldnít place it myself, but I overheard Henri saying that, in his professional opinion, there was a small, dead creature, or maybe even a nest of them, lodged somewhere in the pipes. Iím never averse to a corpse, as long as itís not mine, and so decided to supervise activities and see for myself exactly who was hiding in the kitchenís intestinal tract.

Henri returned from lunch and the management went into hiding, a habit of theirs in the face of potential catastrophe. Ever since the unfortunate business with the upstairs ball cock, I think they fear the worst whenever Henri pits himself against the plumbing, and I must admit he has a patchy record: played thirty-two, won ten, and lost the rest, and that was just since Iíd been keeping score. Anyway, with the management well out of harmís way there were just the two of us in the kitchen.

Henri adjusted his hat and switched it on, crawled on all fours under the sink, and started the process of diagnosis, which was to hit everything in sight with a hammer. He talks to himself while heís working, and so I was more or less able to keep track of progress, although there wasnít much in the way of excitement, unless you have an interest in corroded joints and deformed waste pipes.

And then he must have found what he was looking for, because there was a sudden intake of breath, and Voila! Was mentioned a couple of times in a satisfied way before he reserved out of the closet to rummage through his collection of instruments on the floor. I took his place under the sink, and it was immediately obvious to me where the foreign body was, halfway up the U-bend. I was amazed he couldnít smell it himself, but thatís plumbers for you, I suppose-all brute force and wrenches, and very little talent in the nostrils.

It was a vole in there, I was fairly certain, and I was thinking of somewhere suitable to bury it when there was a tap on my back, and I turned around to see Henri and his illuminated hat. He was anxious for me to leave, I think, because he dragged me out by my back legs, called me something insulting, although technically accurate, and shoved me aside on his way into the closet.

Something in the genes took over then, a wild, primitive desire to be in at the kill. Also, it was as much my closet as his. I squeezed back in so that I could look over his shoulder and witness the extraction of the vole at close quarters. Henri elbowed me out. I pushed my way in again. And so it went on for several minutes. It was a battle of wills, but eventually my determination prevailed, as it usually does. Dogs are more single-minded than people, you see, as youíll know if youíve ever watched anyone trying to coax a Jack Russell out of a rabbit hole.

I think Henri would have shrugged if there had been room. But he nodded at me instead, beckoned me to come closer, and went to work with an adjustable wrench. Simple, trusting soul that I was, I thought our territorial differences had been resolved, so I put my chin on his shoulder, the better to see what happened next. A mistake. He performed one last turn with the wrench, ducked aside, and let me have the full benefit of the dead vole and several gallons of pent-u[ water right between the eyes. He blamed me for the subsequent flooding, too. Moral: Never trust a plumber in a confined space.

Itís the kind of experience that leaves an emotional mark, and Iím sorry to say that there have been others. Take the postman, for instance, who objects to my running out for harmless frolic with his van keeps a handful of gravel at the ready to throw at me. Or the cyclist who tried to part my hair with his pump; he lost his balance and fell off, as I happened, and retired hurt, with the torn shorts and blood pouring down his leg. That was a just and satisfactory ending, but there have been times when things havenít worked out quite the way they should have Ė the chicken-training episode, for one. Iíll deal with that later, but I think you take my point. Pitfalls abound, and people are unpredictable. The world can be a perilous place.


From Dogís Life, A by Peter Mayle, copyright © 1995 by Escargot Productions, Ltd. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

 

Photographs by Cami Johnson, www.oldyellerwsrevenge.com