Three inquisitive goats stood on the windowsill looking in at me as I wandered sleepily into the kitchen after a bad night. I'd slept in and feeling guilty, poured two mugs of coffee and took them outside. Mathilde the gardener was sitting on a wall staring at her phone and smoking. The goats are her pets and she brings them to work for company. She's a friendly woman in her forties whose sad and almost pretty face brightens readily when she sees you. The first day I met her it was bitingly cold. This not being my own house, I didn't feel I could invite her in. She told me her feet were frozen. I disappeared into the house and returned a few moments later with a thick pair of socks and she's liked me ever since. We often chat, and despite language problems cover a wide range of subjects - but mainly we talk about olives, goats and divorce. Whenever she mentions her ex, who refuses to see their young child, she lifts an imaginary gun and pumps several rounds into his imaginary body.
We'd just started on the menopause when one of the goats, Violetta, crept up close and eyed me with malevolence. Mathilde smacked her gently on the nose and told her to cheer up. Normally a placid and friendly creature, Violetta was in a bad mood, Mathilde told me - apparently suffering from PMT. This led to a discussion about goat fertility in general. Both male goats were castrated. At that moment, as if in defiance of the subject, one of the billy goats mounted Violetta. In response she walked free, lifted herself up on her hind legs, lowered her head and struck her horns with some force into her assailant's head several times. Such eloquence.
Shortly afterwards the three half-feral ginger cats jumped off the roof to see what the rumpus was about. I prefer dogs but have become fond of this lot. On the coldest nights they sleep huddled together on the doorstep for warmth, but when the sun comes out lie elegantly posed on the windowsill. I appreciate the distant affection they show me and gladly return it. But they make a racket and their greed is unsurpassed - they eat like ravenous Labradors. And, being well fed but still in possession of animal instincts, they hunt for pleasure and deposit the results at the door.
The previous day I'd gone out in the morning with a can of Whiskas, to find a robin lying on the mat with its surgically removed gizzards lying perfectly parallel to its stiff little body. Worse, they hunt mice in the evening and bring them to me live while I'm having my nightly gin and fag on the terrace. Perhaps they think I'll enjoy the gladiatorial display and final kill. On the contrary, I send them flying with screaming expletives while gently warning the mouse it's got until the end of my cigarette to escape, after which, given the plummeting temperature, I'm going back in.
Another cat showed up last month. It was a pitiful creature; a mangy black and white thing with the most plaintive cry I've ever heard. 'Ow, ow, ow, Ow, OW...'. This poor, hungry, frightened, unfriendly creature with the voice of an anxious baby seemed to perfectly articulate the whole world of human, never mind feline, suffering. For this reason, having enough troubles of my own, I shooed it away at first. I'd hear the first distant, 'ow...', hold my head in my hands and groan. But one evening, worn down by the gut wrenching cris de coeur, I decided to feed it. I spoke to it kindly in both English and terrible French. It ran away. I gave chase quietly, bag of Purina in hand. It hid. I put out some food and retreated. It refused to go near and disappeared. The gingers, although busy making pigs of themselves at their own bowls, missed nothing and enjoyed an extra course.
Violetta lost interest with me and the amorous billy goat lost interest in her. All three goats began stripping the lower leaves from the olive trees. Mathilde and I, penniless both, discussed the urgent need to win the Euromillion lottery. Suddenly, she stopped mid sentence and, looking over my shoulder, said, 'bordel de merde! I turned round and saw a Rottweiler charging towards us from the woods.
The animals saw the dog too and soon all eight of us, goats, cats and women, took up strategic positions - male goats to the fore with Violetta and her PMT not far behind. The cats posted themselves, hackles up, at intervals along the wall, while Mathilde and I stood a little way back, square shouldered, hands on hips. Mathilde told me it was her ex's dog, excitable but not dangerous. He sometimes took it hunting nearby. At that moment the biggest of the billy goats charged the dog and struck it twice on the shoulder. The dog yelped and stumbled, then seeing all three goats advancing with a feline and human rearguard, ran off. From over the back we heard a familiar sound, 'ow, ow, Ow, OW.'