If I were given the chance to start my French adventure all over again, the one thing I would change is that I wouldn’t take so long to get a dog. I’d have found one straightaway, instead of waiting for Digby to arrive as a part of a two-for-one deal when I acquired a fiancée three years later.
Oh, and – as a slight aside – I would also not drive to Limoges on a wet day to buy kitchen units because (a) I would thus avoid crashing a perfectly good car, and (b) I would not now be lumbered with a huge stack of kitchen units languishing in the barn, after the fiancée became a wife, and couldn’t see the point in having two kitchens at La Folie. Alice is right: the chances of our having both our mothers to stay at the same time are slim. Almost as slim, in fact, as the chances of coming downstairs one morning to find that Cat and Dog are sharing a bed.
Though I grew up with dogs – a dachshund, a boxer and an Irish wolfhound – I hadn’t realised it would be such a bonus, rather than a bind, to have one at La Folie. Indeed, I am beginning to think that a house in the country without a dog is a bit like a brass band without trombones. It somehow lacks bottom. True, the cat and the women who have visited La Folie wearing skirts or dresses may not agree with me – especially the French ones, who appear to excite Digby’s surprise attacks from the rear even more than do les Anglaises – but there’s no doubt in my mind that, dank-snouted goosing aside, having an enthusiastic, velvety-eared mobile floor-cleaning unit on site adds a delightful extra dimension to life in the French countryside.
Yes, the house is a damn sight muddier than a dogless one would be, although I know this is down to me more than Digby, because it’s my fault that we still don’t have any guttering along the front of the building. As a result, the quagmire at the bottom of the steps becomes a little squelchier every day, which means that Digby cannot help making his paw-shaped potato-prints in thick black goop on the kitchen floor. It also means that it’s only a matter of time before one of us comes down with trench-foot.
Ah, and then there’s the fur.
“His hair is just extraordinary at the moment,” wails Alice, vacuuming the floor of the winter sitting-room for the second time in one day. “There’s so much of it.”
I consider this for a while. “Why don’t you cut out the middle-man,” I suggest, “and just hoover the dog?” From her expression, Alice doesn’t find this quite as funny as I do.
But it’s outside the house that Digby really comes into his own. My pushy pal has introduced me to the landscape around La Folie in a way that I might never have discovered had I not been inspired to take him for longer and longer walks: he, striking out ahead and sniffing the breeze, ears flapping, nose held high, like a Victorian explorer in a pith-helmet; I, clinging to his leash as if I were a seven-stone charioteer attempting to control a team of runaway stallions.
I’m ashamed to say that it took a visit from my sister, several months after I arrived at La Folie, to establish that there is a charming, tree-lined footpath from here all the way to Jolibois. Until Jane told me this, I had been persuading energetic visitors to yomp into town via the main road. But with Digby’s arrival, I have gone on to explore all the ancient footpaths that criss-cross this corner of darkest France: first at walking pace and then, as we have both become fitter, on helter-skelter cross-country runs, side by side, at first light.
Even on rainy mornings, this beats hauling out stroke-after-identical-stroke on the rowing-machine that lurks at the unheated end of the house: I rarely feel so alive as when I am careering along these muddy tracks through an unpeopled landscape, splashing through puddles and skittering past fields dotted with ruminative sheep, while a bright-eyed labrador gallops at my side, on a set of paws so many sizes too big for him that they look like hand-me-downs from a much larger beast.
I can see that Digby is benefiting from the extra exercise, too. He’s certainly calmer. This morning, as I creep into the kitchen in my running-clothes, I’m surprised to find that he doesn’t immediately leap up to greet me. And when I wander over to his bed, I can see why: there’s someone he doesn’t want to disturb. For there, curled up beside him, fast asleep, is the unmistakable shape of the cat.