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A dog's life? Not here

A 4x4 stopped at the end of my drive as I sat out in the spring sunshine the other day.

Being short-sighted and not awfully good at telling one car from another, I wave at everything and anything that passes.

Perhaps the driver thought I'd beckoned him/her in. He/she was obviously French. Only friends and foreigners would dream of driving up to a front door unannounced.

In the country it's the height of bad manners to even use the entrance of a drive to do a quick three point turn when heading the wrong way.

I rose and walked towards the car. A woman, early 40s, slim and smiling, reached me. She gabbled her name and reminded me we'd met at a drinks thing and that she'd often thought of stopping when she saw me waving but was usually in a terrible rush with the children.

At this point she gave me two bisous on either cheek and paused awaiting my confirmation of our meeting. Her smile faded in the face of my quickly disguised blank stare.

Merde. What is left of my memory bank reached into the vaults and produced... nothing. Neither glimpse nor glimmer of any meeting, anywhere.

"Of course, of course," I lied, figuring all might be revealed in some flashback that would drive the subsequent course of any conversation.

She didn't want coffee, as she had to get back to the puppies. I was so relieved I blew it: "Ah, the puppy farm woman," I said with a big grin.

"Yes," she said with a little less warmth, now knowing I'd been winging it.

I gave the universal twirl of forefinger around my head to show it was nothing personal - just another mad expat in La France Profonde; brain gone to mush.

Anyway, it seems she has a crate of English books left in a house her mother bought in a nearby village.

As none of them speak English they were of no use. "I know you love books and have loads so I thought you'd want them."

Having failed to recognise her and filled with trepidation of confrontation over my futile effort to derail her business several years ago, I responded as if she'd offered me her second born in lifelong servitude.

"How marvellous. Wonderful."

It's not actually. I need a crate of old, musty books like I need an old musty farmhouse in France.

Thankfully it was apparent she'd never found out I was the only person in the area to register an official complaint against her farm plans.

I thought I was nipping in to make an enquiry about it, but found myself the only person in front of a tricolour-sash-wearing lawyer giving evidence about the cruelties of such places.

He told me I was the only witness in two days and praised me for my courage. Courage? Why? Ah, I was so innocent in those early days.

Fortunately she is a Belgian import so the locals took no cudgels up against me.

They hate Belgians almost as much as they hate Parisians.

However, that aside, what intrigued me was that she knew I had a house full of books despite having never been in here. We have no French friends or acquaintances in common and she doesn't mix with the expats.

But then how do I know that her marriage has broken down, that the farm was on the market as suitable for conversion to a nightclub of all things, and that she'd been trying to breed an English bulldog with a Sheltie?

Gossip of course; the dangerous, lovely lifeblood of rural existence. A bit here, a bit there and a narrative is born. "I hear you're on the market," I said.

"No, not now but my husband's gone. He's found work further south so I'm keeping it. It's hard but I manage."

"How many pups?" I asked without baring my teeth.

"Soixante." Sixty - sold direct or through pet shops; exhausted breeding adults given away or worse, used up at four years old.

She used to have poodles and chihuahuas, turning them out for as much as 1000 euros a time. Now it's mainly Shelties. "I'm not doing bulldogs any more. My stud dog …well, he's gone."

I'd heard too she'd refused entry to a government vet from Paris after a complaint from a customer. He'd failed to bring the proper paperwork on his visit.

And I knew of a builder who'd turned down work he badly needed because he found the whole set-up both disturbing and against his principles.

Then there was a young Englishwoman she passed often in her car as she walked her dogs. She always stopped and pressed an invitation for coffee.

It was never taken up purely because of what she was doing.

And now here she was before me, the one noted objector, offering to bring gifts and catching me wrong-footed by her surprise arrival.

She's returning with the books and time for a coffee, wincingly grateful to be asked. I caught a hint of a lonely creature.

But then I thought of 60 others.

On her return I will tell her what I did and see what she says - then give the books away.

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