11 September 2006

Café Milou

A client is sitting across the counter from me. ‘Another coffee?’ I ask. She passes me her cup: ‘Just one more and then I really must get going.’

When clients bring their dogs to Pension Milou, they often stay and have a coffee or a glass of wine. Clients become friends, of course. The nature of my metier means it's often difficult to leave the dogs and so I love it when the world comes to me, if only for a coffee and a quick chat. The kitchen, a cuisine américain, as it’s called in France, opens onto the living room so we sit either side of a wide terracotta tiled counter. Wooden beams frame the opening and hanging from the crossbeam above us are bamboo chimes given to me by Youdi, a Chinese/Dutch artist friend who lives in Nice. Next is a wooden goat’s bell from Nepal and further along, a yak’s milk container from Tibet: both bought from a traveller in Menton market. There’s a large brass bell I bought in Spain and a small Lautrec print on glass hangs at the end. It all looks rather 1960's, I suppose.

When clients collect their dogs and stay for a while, their little darling, who up till then, had been playing happily with the other dogs, suddenly becomes a dervish of mock ferocity. ‘Don’t you come near MY Mum.’ Yes, we dog people refer to ourselves as Mum and Dad – and why not? Our dogs are part of our family – in some cases, dogs are all the family we have.

Charlotte (Tessa and Hattie's owner) - sitting at the counter with Pixie
We are chatting and the client asks me if I’ve ever had a dog die whilst staying here. She makes the comment that it must be something to worry about. I agree. I tell her I have a friend up the road who looks after dogs in her home, much as I do, and she won’t take old dogs for that very reason. Personally I like looking after old dogs but yes, there is always the risk one could die whilst here.

‘When I lived in Wales,’ I tell her, ‘I used to board cats: The Valley Hotel for Cats, it was called. Lordy, how original I was! I eventually built kennels to board dogs but never added the word Dog to the sign post at the top of my valley. It hardly mattered anyway, as the Welsh Nationalists defaced any signs written in English. One morning I went down to clean out the cats. In one cage were two cats from the same family and one of them was as dead as the proverbial dodo. I didn’t have a telephone number for the owners and had to wait two weeks before the family returned from their holiday. I asked my vet if he’d do a post-mortem but he said he couldn’t do that without the owners’ permission and suggested I put her body in the freezer to await their return. I barely slept for two weeks worrying about how I’d tell them, how they accept it. How do you tell a family that their adored pet has died and worst of all, in your care? The day arrived – they drove down the valley. I showed them in, took a deep breath and told them their black and white cat had died. ‘Oh, that’s OK,’ the wife said, ‘she was very old and had a heart condition and we knew she could go any minute. So sorry, we forgot to tell you.’'

I make myself another coffee. Riff, was a very old Jack Russell who had been to stay at Pension Milou three or four times. On this occasion, she arrived for a three-week stay. Her owner told me she’d not eaten for a couple of days but that this happened sometimes and anyway it was probably because she was so old. I asked if I could take her to the vet if I was worried and he said he’d be pleased if I would but again, he felt she was just a very old dog, nearly 17. That day she ate a little chicken but she couldn't keep it down. That night she slept OK but the next day she was not a well dog. Once the rest of the dogs had been fed and had a run around the garden, I sorted them out: put some in the bedroom, a couple in the study, left some in the living room and bundled Riff into the car and off we went to the vet.

The vet examined her, tested her heart, felt her stomach, looked in her mouth and told me he suspected a liver or kidney problem probably caused by her very dirty teeth and inflamed, infected gums – he didn’t think she’d last very long. Dirty teeth result in infected, bleeding gums and toxins get into the blood stream. Riff’s certainly needed cleaning but you couldn’t put a dog that old under anaesthetic, not even a light ‘calmant’ as they give here in France. I remembered another old dog I used to care for: Tigger, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. He’d exhibited the same symptoms as Riff, the vet had given massive doses of antibiotics and happily he’d got over the infection. Later, he had his teeth cleaned, some rotten ones removed and went on to live another two years, dying when he was 16: a great age for a Cavalier. The vet gave Riff a shot of antibiotics, gave me more antibiotics in tablet form but told me he didn’t hold out a lot of hope.

When I got home, I made her comfortable in a little bed in my bathroom – she was very listless and not interested in food or water. I called her owner in London to tell her what the vet has said. ‘Oh Jilly, I don’t want her to suffer. Please take her back to the vet and have him put her to sleep.’ I told her about Tigger and asked if we could just give her 24 hours in the hope the antibiotics would fight the infection. She agreed. That evening though, little Riff took a turn for the worse. I’d been giving her water by syringe, as she wasn’t strong enough to drink. I so hoped the antibiotics would kick in as they had for Tigger. Now she started having difficulty breathing - she wasn’t long for this world. I called her owner and told her I had some sedatives for dogs who travel badly. I told her that if I gave these tablets, it would be likely Riff would never wake up but at least her suffering would be over. ‘Oh please, please, Jilly, please give them. I can’t bear to think of her suffering.’ I couldn’t either. I crushed a couple of tablets, mixed them with water and syringed the mixture gently down her throat. She lay in her bed, covered by a soft blanket, gasping for breath. I sat and stroked her till she fell asleep. She never woke up. In two hours her heart stopped beating. By then it was two in the morning.

Riff's last day
Her owners had asked me to call them, whatever time it was – of course they weren’t sleeping anymore than I was. They were so kind, so considerate of my feelings yet I knew they were devastated by the loss of their old dog. They wanted to bury Riff in their garden in Menton but they were not coming back to France for three weeks. What to do? ‘I’ll put her body in the freezer,’ I said. Well, you need to know that I didn’t have a big freezer here as I’d had in Wales. I had a small freezer compartment on top of my refrigerator. The next morning I tidied the freezer as best as I could. I put Riff into a black plastic bag and up she went into that cavern of chilled air to share space with bread, pasta and last year’s home made tomato sauce. Sometimes, over the next three weeks, after I’d taken out a slice of bread for toast, I’d have to push a leg back to get the door closed.

Three weeks later, Riff was buried under a favourite tree in her Menton garden.

Another coffee?

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