Weeks after moving into our house in Panton we began to become familiar with the faces of villagers. We did not know them, had not yet met them, so we named them ourselves, or learned their nicknames, from the men who were renovating our house. Fond recognition of these characters helped us to begin to feel at home. ”Phil Oakey”, “Homer Simpson” and “Il Postino” would stop and say ola as they sauntered around, at a pace that would place them in danger of being trampled in Sydney. We had names allocated to us too: “Las damas Australianas”.
The day after we moved in, our neighbour’s dogs introduced themselves. One barged into the kitchen, rolled onto her back, and demanded the attention that the previous owners of our home had taught her to expect. She had also learned from them that leaving without a snack was not an option. Her shy, doddery companion hung back, unsure of us. Unsteady, nearly blind, and completely deaf, she navigated life behind her bolder, smarter pal. She had fluffy, white fur, so we called the her Snowy, and her friend with the mismatched eyes, Maria.
We got to know other dogs too, as we walked our international jet-setting Chihuahua-cross, Raphael. We sat in the village square drinking coffee, with him beside us – something we were never permitted to do in rule-raddled Sydney. A sweet-natured giantess came and introduced herself, sniffed Raphael, then abandoned him for my churro. She was Nesca, a mastin. A squishy-faced bruiser, with bags of attitude and a remarkable under-bite was Pauwel. A flirtatious little Maltese lady, who made eyes at Raphael, then lavished him with delicate kisses, was Fortunata.
One odd-bod little fellow with silken black and white fur, and spaniel ears, trotted behind them all, on short, muscular legs, that turned up into huge paws. His luxurious tail was a feathery flag that he waved all the time. He followed everyone human too, seeking friendly attention, but was more often ignored. Some people fed him table scraps, which he ate delicately and slowly unsure of when more might come.
We would see him lie at one particular spot on the fringe of the village, head on paws, waiting. Day after day. Week after week. A new friend told us that he followed her and her two dogs, Merlin and Annie, on their daily walks. He followed our neighbour too, through the woods with his Labrador, Rodney. He called him “Shadow”. We named him “Stumpy”
Stumpy began to appear with “Snowy and Maria”, whom we now knew by their real names, Pinta and Karolina, every day. He would follow them down the lane, and lie forlornly in a ruined alpendre behind our house, out of the rain, shuddering with cold and wet through. Raphael would wag his tail at him through the sitting room window, then retire to his soft bed and fleece blanket. The spoiled rich kid.
We started to feed him each time we saw him. And he never refused. Patting him, we could feel his ribs under the long fur, and closer inspection revealed many fleas and ticks which we rid him of as best we could. So, we started to groom him properly, and gave him a Seresto collar. We laid some cardboard and an old blanket down on the spot where he lay. He began to run to welcome us when we opened our gate, and enjoyed the fussing and affection we lavished on him. After many weeks he began to return each night to sleep on the blanket.
As autumn turned, and the cold grew sharper, Stumpy’s fur would be stiff with frost; he would shiver as he devoured his breakfast. We added warm water and vitamins or a raw egg to the mix. He would delicately pick out all the biscuits first, then lap the meaty gravy, but not before a thorough patting and loving had been enjoyed! A friend donated a plastic dog bed; we bought him a waterproof mattress, and layered more blankets on. Stumpy revelled in the new luxury, and would spend the colder days lying on his back, snoring.
We wondered if his owners missed him, so we made enquiries. Then our electrician confirmed it – he knew him, and knew where he had lived with his family; Stumpy was “abandonado”. He and his brother, who had vanished a year before, had been simply left behind when the family moved away. The empty house was where Stumpy lay each day awaiting their reappearance; returning to his new bed and the strange Australian ladies who had fallen in love with him.
We called out our vet, and Stumpy stepped into the van, fearful of the smells, but sweet and gentle. A thorough examination revealed that he was not microchipped, intact, about three years old, and in very good health. He was vaccinated, wormed and given tick protection. A new, smart collar went on beside the Seresto, and Stumpy became Mario.
Mario comes when he is called, enjoys treats and regular meals, but is a free spirit wary of confined spaces and indoors. He still sleeps in the ruined alpendre while we finish our house, but will have a bed in our boot room once it it finished. Snoozing at our back door most days, sheltering from the newly bright sunshine, he flings himself at our feet for belly rubs as we pass back and forth. He is still one of the Three Amigos, trotting around the village on those huge feet behind Pinta and Karolina. Mario returns each day to claim his spot at the door of his new home, with his new family, who will never abandon him.