It must be six months since I saw Mme Alibert, and I hardly recognised her today. She was limping slowly down the street, leaning heavily on a cane, with no dog following devotedly at her heels.
I still remember the first time we met. Purdey and I were on our favourite walk, down by the river. It was late June and the Thongue had dwindled to a trickle, barely lapping at the stepping stones that three months earlier had been completely submerged.
Unusually for a spaniel, Purdey is a wuss about water. It has to be calm, and warm, before she will venture a dip. She was just cautiously contemplating a toe in the water when… WHAM! A small, solid, brown and white furry ball came hurtling out of nowhere and cannoned in to her. It was a Brittany puppy.
Purdey was taken by surprise. Whap! She shot out a paw, and over and over rolled the pup in a flurry of paws and fluff. Horrified, I was about to rush and rescue and soothe when I caught sight of the puppy’s owner. A tall, dignified woman of some eighty summers, she was twinkling at me as she raised an admonitory finger. Wait!
Sure enough, the pup gathered herself and, wriggling her entire bottom with delight, rushed back for more. This time, Purdey loftily granted an approving lick, and that was it. They were Best Friends Forever.
After that we often met Mme Alibert and the puppy, Uba, on our walks by the river. Purdey would spot them long before I did, and go hurtling down the path to fling herself with ecstatic wags and licks on the much smaller puppy. Uba never seemed to mind the rough treatment, which was Purdey’s idea of love and affection, and Mme Alibert was one of those sensible dog owners who recognise play when they see it.
Today I had to disguise my shock. My upright, stately friend was suddenly an old woman. And where was Uba? I greeted Mme Alibert with cautious concern, asking about her health, not daring to mention the dog. I was careful to maintain the polite ‘vous’ of a younger person to an older. And then she told me the tale.
“It’s the arthritis, mon chou,” she explained. “It has caught up with me at last: my days of walking by the river are over.
“Now I am as you see me, an old woman, tottering along. I had to give Uba to my son, it wasn’t fair on the dog, I can’t take her out any more. My beautiful Uba.” The fierce blue eyes softened and her voice caught. I helped her to the bench that stood by our garden wall and as she sat Purdey trotted over to say hello, her absurd stump of a tail waggling furiously.
Mme Alibert put out her arms and Purdey, who never sits on anyone’s knee but mine, jumped into her lap and pushed her head under the old lady’s chin. Woman and dog cuddled close. I heard a noise like a sob and Purdey put out a pink tongue and licked at the salt that had fallen on to her muzzle.