August: The Dry Life


(Mark Sampson) #1

It's dry and arid here on the highlands above the plain. We haven't had any rain to speak of for what seems like months. The rain butts are all empty now and great cracks have appeared in what was once a perimeter lawn. I have not yet had a nightmare about either falling down one such fissure or the house disappearing into the nether regions below the foundations, but who knows? Everything now, in the words of a Sean O'Casey character, is in such a state of 'chassis'.

None of which yet renders this area California or Ethiopia – although I'm sure I spied a herd of wildebeest wandering pitifully over what was once the meadowlands below in search of a pool of water – but it does make for depressing viewing. The garden is barely hanging on and the Good Wife and I have abandoned our short-lived schedule of half an hour's weeding before it gets too hot on days when she and I are both at home. You can't pull weeds out of reinforced concrete by the roots.

Fanatical watering is contrary to all our greenest principles, so we've had to make hard decisions about which plants to help along the way and which to abandon to their fate. Besides, I still haven't got around to rigging up a drop-by-drop irrigation system, because it requires another project involving my indispensable friend, Bret, who's busy administering to others this summer. It's no good watering with a hose, in any case (I read), because the water evaporates in the heat before it can properly soak the ground. Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Watering is so unutterably boring.

Nothing much is growing, anyway. The courgettes have withered on the vine and anything bigger than a cherry tomato is as dry as... well, our perimeter lawn. The old guy in the nearby hamlet whom I call Poodle Man (because he's married to Poodle Woman, who walks or rather waddles her latest poodle, named like his predecessor after a cocktail nut) tells me that the lack of fruit and vegetables is due to the abnormally mild winter, which failed to kill off any lingering maladies. Without the water from the Dordogne, he reckons, the local petits producteurs (who are not all physically small, I should point out) would have nothing to sell at market.

Of course, it were all very different when he were a lad. And for once I well believe it. After all, he and his friends used to cycle to school at Vayrac, which is ten minutes away by car, a journey that entailed freewheeling down the Côte de Mathieu early in the morning and, more to the point, climbing back up it at the end of each afternoon, at the end of a long hard day at school. My point is that he probably doesn't look back through rose-tinted glasses. His nostalgia must be seasoned with a healthy pinch of stark reality.

Back in the old days, it tended to rain at night. The heat would build up at the end of the day and there would be a storm. Indeed, I remember that very phenomenon from our early pioneering days in the old village. But now there's no rain during July and August – and last year not until early December – added to which, a frequent pesky wind further dries things out. Where is this wind coming from? Poodle Man asked rhetorically. I shrugged Gallically. Perhaps the wastelands of the Russian Steppes. He suggested, quite convincingly, that we're now getting a Toulousian climate. Everything's shifting northwards. But we knew that anyway. I had to get on. I needed my breakfast and the two dogs wanted to get back to their ball-launching.

With two dogs to walk most mornings and evenings, I must be perceived as a serious semi-retired malingerer now. One dog is more business-like; two suggests that you have nothing better to do with your time. I've rather enjoyed these last six weeks or so with a brace of hounds. Sacha's maîtresse is back now from her long sojourn in Colorado and on Friday she's driving away whence she came with her sweet and docile sheepdog in the back. I will be sad to see him go.

And how will Daphne react? Oh, that's odd. One minute he was here and the next he's gone. Oh well, back to life as I tend to know it... She'll rule the roost once more and maybe stop showing off and acting at times like a hooligan. But it has been genuinely interesting and heart-warming to observe them building up a working relationship. When I walk them by bicycle in the mornings, Sacha trots along a little insecurely somewhere near the back wheel, while Daphne goes trail-blazing on ahead. But they come together every now and again for a casual sniff or a more concerted kind of olfactory conference and, without wishing to sound too anthropomorphic, they seem to co-exist as friends. A twosome. And it's kind of nice.

I've even worked out a modus operandi for the ball launching. Sending Daphne far off into the field towards next door's building site (to leap like an NFL receiver and pluck the ball out of the air), I get Sacha scampering off in the opposite direction, sniffing blindly as he races hither and thither in search of my short-ball. By the time that Daphne has delivered and gone tearing off after another aerial bomb, Sacha's back and there's just enough time to prise the slimy ball out of his jaws (helped if necessary by a tap of the plastic launcher on his muzzle to reinforce my words of command) and send him off again on another wild goose chase. Only when they arrive at the same time does my synchronised launching degenerate into chaos. At which juncture, I tend to lose both patience and temper and stalk off with both balls, followed by a pair of panting and ever-hopeful dogs.

Life will be easier with one. We reached the same conclusion about children – and so, generally, it has proved (and it's even easier with said single child away working during the drought in a vegetarian restaurant near the wonderful Pech Merle caves). Two dogs are more of a tie. You can't easily palm them off on a friend if you need to go away for a few days, even if this lodger's as well behaved as our full-time resident is capricious.

At least, I thought he was – until this very morning. Yesterday, even before Poodle Man delayed my breakfast with his personal take on climate change, I'd bumped into the (young) farmer's (young) wife. She was out walking the pedigree spaniel they acquired about a year ago for their teenage daughter. She clasped the dog to her bosom because she was on heat (the dog, that is) and Sacha was sniffing around her (the dog's) parts. I assured her (the farmer's wife) that Sacha had been 'fixed up', so there was nothing to fear. She (Mrs. Farmer) teaches history and geography at the local collège. Since she knows that I am a serious student of history, we talk darkly about whatever little bit of history happens to be repeating. Yesterday she told me about Putin's overtures to the Turkish crypto-dictator and we reminisced gaily about the Crimean War.

Anyway, Sacha's returning maîtresse happened to reveal over dinner that her dog has not been fixed up after all. He is simply very docile. This does not, it seems, preclude the call of the wild. Sacha went off this morning and I had to get on my bicycle and ride, with Daphne this time at my side. I found him down at the hamlet, sniffing around the sheep shed. Presumably the pedigree dog's heat had rubbed off on her master, who tends the sheep shed. These dogs, remember, can sniff out a bone dropped into the middle of Lake Baikal.

I had to raise my voice in order to bid him follow. Half way up the hill back to the dog's meadow, I realised that Sacha was no longer following. So, the paragon of virtue was canine after all. Turning round, Daphne and I sped back to the hamlet and this time I had to get very stern with the recalcitrant beast. Obviously the absence of sex can turn a dog – as it can a man – into a very different creature. I had to sort of corral him back home with my front wheel as Sacha might an errant sheep, given gainful employment.

Dogs, eh? Who'd have 'em? Well, I would for one. In return for food, exercise and affection, they give me entertainment and companionship. Perhaps even psychological insights. This much I have learnt over the last few weeks: one's company, two's more company, but three's verging on the obsessive. Whatever, I like dogs much more than I do a summer drought.