The first funeral was my father’s.
The second was Janine’s, our neighbour Maurice’s copine. Cancer ripped through her in a few months. We sent the first daffodils from the garden but never visited, as requested. The village turned out when she died – even Pierrette who hated her guts. Albin, Maurice’s strapping, lovely boy, who I taught English and who split logs for me in return, stood alone in the midst of it, gangly and helpless. I remembered Janine putting condoms under his pillow the day he turned 16. We filed past her grave, threw clods of earth, and life went on.
The third…well, let’s rewind.
I grew up without pets. My dad had been bought up with cats, my mum loathed them. She leaned towards dogs, my dad hated them. Rabbits? Least said about my one experience with owning one of them the better. Fish fared no better. I yearned for an Old Enlish Sheepdog to share my room at Cambridge and walk round the Quad with (I dreamed big,though neither of these dreams amounted to anything). My Grannny’s cat would sit demurely on my knee then, at the merest sign of an affectionate stroke would turn and strike. My childhood arms were streaked red with claw marks. Cats were fur and evil, however cute kittens could be.
And then there was Tez. We picked him up outside the bowling alley near Epsom. He was 18″ high, black and white and all adorable. His sack of food was bigger than he was. We were looking after him for 2 weeks but, as we drove away in the soft top Peugeot 205 with his soft black ears flopping in the wind as he stood up proud and inquisitive in the back seat we all knew that 2 weeks wouldn’t be enough. Love at first sight doesn’t begin to describe it – even my dog averse dad was besotted. Soon we were finding excuses to look after him and eventually he stayed. When the France move was on he was jabbed and through the tunnel and off to the lanes of La Croix Haute. Years later we met his original owner again and explained that he had moved to France:
“I always knew that dog was destined to travel” he pronounced.
Fast forward a few years, past the first and second funerals. I’m walking Tez down our local lanes, at harvest time, the rumble of farm machinery in the nearest field. Suddenly, he stops and refuses to budge. I stop too – and listen. Faintly, through the rattle of engines, I hear a tiny, pitiful miaow and a minute kitten emerges from the corn. He is tabby with kohl rimmed eyes and he strolls over to where we are, unconcerned. We walk on. He follows, tail in the air, the cat that walked. And he continues to follow as we walk our usual route and go in through the gate.
And that was how we found Eric.
The next day we all three set out for the morning walk and we all three stop in the same place, by the same field, and wait as another minute kitten emerges, this time from the ditch. He is tabby with a white vest and those same dark rimmed eyes. And now we are four.
The kittens were allowed to stay on condition of being barn cats – as if. Within days guilt and their sheer overwhelming cuteness sees them move into the sun room. Then the living room. Eric likes to roll around in the wastepaper basket and poke his head into things – my boots, a milk jug. Pascal is more placid, preferring a lap to curl up in like a furry comma. One day, when I’m up a ladder, painting the side of the house, I’m aware of Eric, that same unconcerned air, perched on the top rung at my feet. Until he loses his footing and manages to catch hold and swing, like a small furry gymnast. With that same insouciance – if he could have whistled, he would. I rescued him and we ended up at the vets which cost me 20 euros. I was nearly out of petrol in the middle of the great petrol station blockade. He was worth every penny. Eric the 20 euro cat.
Of course the third funeral was his. He was hit by a car and left by the side of the road. I couldn’t get to the vet in time and he died in the back of the car as I drove through Faye L’Abbesse. I pulled up in the square and heard him cough and go still. I wrapped him in his favourite red fleece and put him in a suitcase and howled with every spadeful of the hole that I dug under the willow tree in the garden. I couldn’t finish it in the end and watched as Maurice finished the job, howling with rage and the injustice of it.
Pascal stayed with us, sleek and placid and beautiful. Until we had to go back to the UK and he no longer had the comfortable lap and the titbits he adored. Maurice thought we were crazy, fou, that cats worked for you and fed themselves. When we came back, he’d gone.
Years passed – I met my now husband, we walked Tez together round the lanes, we sold our beautiful house. And Pascal came home – feral now, but still as sleekly beautiful. He’d come to the window, or perch on a garden wall, allowing us to come just so close but never to touch. It broke my heart. It still breaks my heart.
The wedding of course was ours – a June day of showers and warm sun. It shone down on us as I walked home from the church with my new husband and my little black and white dog.