On New Friends and the Convention of Names
Flaubert and Dog
The house was quieter now, settling down for the peace of evening, marking the passing of another day in the life. Just an ordinary day perhaps but nonetheless Armande was forever aware and thankful that these ordinary days still held magic and wonder. It wouldn’t last, couldn’t last. It was in the very essence of childhood innocence for it to burst into full bloom before fading all too quickly on the cynicism of experience. He looked down at his grandson with the pride and gratitude that he felt every time he contemplated his own good fortune.
Drew was eight now with the same thirst for knowledge that Armande had had as a boy. It seemed to Armande that they had crammed three days’ worth of playing, laughing, shouting, tumbling, building things up and knocking things down, all jam-packed into one heady afternoon. That tipping point where the young determine there is nothing more to be learnt from the older generation was close, so close. But not here yet, not right now.
This particular day, however, was done and dusted. The time for dreams was stealing nearer. Drew wriggled down under the Spiderman duvet, his eyelids violet with tiredness as he fidgeted against sleep. But he still had one more ploy. The nightly ritual never changed much but Armande feared the time that it would. The day would probably come where too much sense and reality would wrap their sinuous tentacles around imagination and drag it down into irrelevance. Probably. The best he could hope for was to spin things out a little longer at least.
“Granddad. Tell me one of the stories of when you were a boy. Tell me the one about Flobbutt and the dog.”
“Flobbutt and the dog. You know, in that place where you met Granny, when you were little.”
“Ah you mean Flaubert and the dog……… In Paris, yes? His name was Monsieur Flaubert. In French we say Flowbear..…Flowbear,” he enunciated slowly.
“That’s right. That’s what I said. Flobbutt.”
At that point Armande gave up and a soft smile wrinkled his lined face. The story was one of his favourites too. It wasn’t just the story of those first life enhancing moments with Janine, the moments that shaped his whole future existence. No, it also opened a window to gaze out over Clermontville, on the flights of old Flaubert’s fancy, on the tales he spun of fortune and intrigue. Tales played out in the small village lazing beneath the cliff tops of Provence under the warm Mediterranean sun, so long, long ago.
In the hallway outside Drew’s room Sophie paused as she eavesdropped on the exchange between her father and her young son. She had to admit she still felt the enchantment herself. Where pictures could be conjured up from the rich palette of the words she had heard so many times before and painted by her own imagination.
Along the landing Drew’s little sister Eliza was snuffling contentedly in her cot so there was time for Sophie to suspend the final wrapping up of her busy day. With her back to the wall she slid slowly down to sit, knees bent, on the floor. She wrapped her arms around herself, tilted her head back and closed her eyes as her father began his well-worn tale.
When he first encountered Flaubert in Paris back in nineteen fifty seven, the young Armande was a few months shy of his fourteenth birthday. At that time he was just a loose-legged, knobbly kneed colt of a boy. His thin, freckled face was crowned by a wiry nest of curls the colour of dark chocolate that steadfastly rebuffed any attempt to bring order to their chaos. His gleaming charcoal eyes were forever opened wide and alert, eager to draw in all the wonders from this emerging world. It was all knowledge to be distilled and locked down in ordered rows, deep in the greedy caves of his memory.
Flaubert himself was reclining reflectively on the bench overlooking the city. Paris never really slept but at that time of the morning many Parisians would be rubbing the dust of sleep from their eyes, stumbling into their daily routines. Below him the jewels of the lamplights still twinkled in the gloom and the shapes of the great buildings began to rise out of the light morning mist.
Beside him on the pavement lay Dog, quietly at rest with his gnarled muzzle resting on his paws. Dog could never be described as a handsome member of the canine fraternity. Ugly would be a harsh but far more accurate portrayal. Not that Dog would have cared one jot even if he could have understood such an insult.
He carried a black patch over one eye which gave him a piratical look. His coat was smooth but essentially a dirty white in colour. It was interspersed with random black spots of varying sizes. Another black patch encircled the base of his stumpy old tail. One black sock on a bandy foreleg gave the casual observer the impression that when he was standing Dog was lopsided and liable to topple sideways at any moment. He wore, with a quiet dignity, the scars of many a past battle scavenging for survival on the cold cobbled streets. A pair of rather moth-eaten ears drooped either side of his deep soulful eyes to complete the picture.
Dog’s love for Flaubert and his for Dog were absolute and unequivocal. Where Flaubert went so went Dog. They never challenged each other, never fell out, rarely separated for any length of time and on those odd occasions when they did they were always waiting patiently, each for the other, to return. A silent understanding seemed to bind them together. Quiet company and mutual coexistence was the foundation of their relationship. Each mindful of the needs of the other, the noise of too much talking or barking was superfluous and unnecessary.
Armande was just exiting Madame Dudonner’s emporium. His daily chores before going to school required an early morning visit to her establishment to collect the basic groceries for him and for Papa. If he was honest with himself he would admit that he also looked forward to seeing Madame’s daughter Janine and the chance to chatter with shy bravado of hopes and ambitions and adventure.
Janine was a couple of years younger than Armande. Being quite a perceptive girl she was, as many young girls seem to be, wise beyond her years. She was nine. Nine years old but going on thirteen, that is. At the very least. It seemed to Armande that he had known her nearly all his young life. Janine would never judge him or pour scorn on his aspirations. She was always there to share his fanciful musings of a far different future than the one that life seemed to have planned for him.
She lived with her mother above the store from which they sold all manner of fresh produce. The richest and ripest cheeses vied for prominence on display alongside delicious sausages, hams, dishes of fragrant duck pate, farm fresh eggs and glossy black olives. Pats of cool, creamy butter almost begged to be spread on the heavy rough bread. The shelves clinging to every available centimetre of wall space bowed under the weight of tins of pickled fish, oils and mustards, bulging packets of dried beans, pulses and rich dark coffee, small jars of black pepper and vinegars. Over in one corner bottles of wine, glittering velvety red through the thick green glass, stood tall and still as sentries. Sacks and trays of vegetables spilled across the floor; aubergines, artichokes, onions, potatoes still smeared with peaty earth, bright green haricot beans and creamy white cauliflowers. Raucous red tomatoes and peppers demanded attention and gnarled cloves of garlic cascaded down in straw plaits from the shelf above.
For Armande the daily visit to Madame Dudonner’s shop was both a treat and yet almost an exquisite type of torture. So much of the plentiful bounty on display was way beyond his and Papa’s meagre budget. But still Armande never felt resentment at what he could never have. Instead he took his pleasure from exploring in his head the rolling fields where farmers tended the vegetables, imagined driving the pink nosed cows, udders heavy with milk, towards the barn and the waiting dairymaids, dreamed of the straining ships carrying their cargo of precious spices from far away shores to be sold in the city stalls and shops. His eyes would grow even wider as the colours and diversity assailed his senses. Most of all it was that smell, oh the smell. Aromas of the rich cheeses and ripe vegetables entwining with that of fresh bread and coffee would almost make him giddy.
As with every other day he was dressed in a worn linen shirt that hung loosely over his gangly frame, a frame that was deceptively stronger than first sight would suggest. A ragged cap was crammed onto the back of his head but his chocolate curls escaped the attempted restriction and flopped carelessly towards one eye. Faded threadbare dungarees with patched pockets and a pair of rope soled plimsolls that had known and forgotten many a better day completed his ensemble.
His bare ankles lay testament to the fact that socks were an absent luxury. The curled leather knapsack slung over his shoulder sagged with the weight of the milk, sausage and rough bread bought for his and Papa’s breakfast. They lay side by side with today’s copy of Figaro, fresh and strident with yesterday’s news, and the twenty-five grammes of dark pungent pipe tobacco to tar his father’s lungs.
That morning, however, Armande had been a little early going about his daily chores and that was how he first came across Flaubert and Dog. As he exited the shop Armande turned to take in the panorama of early morning Paris. Across the road the rickety old street bench was now generously filled by a very large man dressed in a rather tatty old black overcoat. His shapeless once-grey trousers hung like gigantic deflated balloons and a worn striped collarless shirt strained every remaining button to contain his ample girth. The soles of his boots seemed eager to part company from the uppers. A greasy cloth cap of an indeterminate colour completed his attire. Armande concluded from such sartorial elegance that they must indeed both share the same tailor.
Dog lay snoozing at the old man’s feet, his head on his outstretched paws. He flicked a lazy eyelid in the general direction of the boy, quickly determining that no further energy was required and returned to his dreams of a steak dinner or whatever it is that dogs dream of.
“Pardon Monsieur,” asked Armande politely, for he had been well brought up to remember his manners, “Pardon Monsieur. What’s his name?”
Flaubert turned slightly to cast a somewhat quizzical look at his young questioner.
“Pardon Monsieur,” repeated Armande, “Your dog, Monsieur. What’s his name, please?”
“Oui Monsieur, the dog. What’s his name, please?”
“Oui Monsieur, the dog. What do you call him, please?”
“I said Dog.”
“Yes, Dog. That’s his name. His name is Dog.”
Armande paused for a couple of seconds to absorb this new piece of information before replying, “Pardon Monsieur,” for he still remembered his manners, “But isn’t that rather a strange name to call him?
Flaubert turned to take in the boy’s serious expression. The gentle glow from the streetlight still lingered on both their faces as the thin blades of fragile sunlight slowly peeled the cloying skin of night away from the city below.
Then, biting back a grin and giving a knowing little nod of his head the old man pronounced with mock gravity, “The animal in question is a dog, young man, a dog. He is not a cat, nor is he a horse and he most certainly is not a parrot. If he were to be a mighty elephant from far off India or a ferocious lion from deepest Africa, to call him Dog would indeed be highly confusing and misleading. But he is neither an elephant nor a lion. He is a dog.
Furthermore, up till now all my attempts to master the language of Bark have failed miserably. At the same time, to the best of my knowledge the animal in question does not possess the ability to speak French. If he does he most certainly is keeping that particular skill well hidden. Suffice it to say that as neither of us are able to communicate to each in the language of the other, then adding the complexity of intricate names would seem to neither help nor hinder any attempt at conversation and as such would prove to be totally superfluous.
And therefore it appears to me that in order to remove all measure of doubt or misunderstanding, to call the animal Dog is accurate, sufficient and entirely appropriate. Therefore his name, young man, is Dog. His name is Dog.”
Armande was silent for a moment or two as he considered Flaubert’s response. It was clear that the old man’s logic could hardly be faulted. Pulling himself up to full height he pronounced with as much assumed pomp and gravitas as he could muster at such short notice, “When you put it like that, Monsieur, I can plainly see that the name Dog is most appropriate indeed.”
Giving a further slight nod of his head in apparent appreciation of Armande’s measured endorsement, a hint of amusement twinkled in Flaubert’s eyes and he seemed satisfied. Looking again towards the boy, he cleared his throat and asked, “Ahem, just so. And whilst we are on the subject of identification young man, may I be so bold as to enquire after what your own name may be?”
“Of course, Monsieur” replied Armande without hesitation. “My name is Moreau, Armande Moreau. But you may call me Armande and I am most pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Just so,” said the old man, suppressing a smile, “Just so,” and he reached down casually to give his canine companion an affectionate tweak of the ear. Dog just snored on the pavement at his master’s feet and blew a raspberry in his sleep.
Pausing once again and after seeming to weigh up his next words most carefully, Flaubert turned back to face Armande. He finally seemed to come to a decision and announced, “My name is Jean-Pierre Flaubert but you may call me Flaubert,” and, extending a huge bear-like paw, said, “Here is my hand, young Armande, and I too am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Reaching forward Armande’s youthful fingers were completely engulfed by those of Flaubert as they solemnly shook hands to seal the introductions. At which point they simultaneously both burst out into spontaneous peals of laughter and a new friendship was born. Neither were aware then that it would last a lifetime. But it did. Dog continued in his slumbers and blew yet another raspberry to mark the occasion.
Just then the slight figure of Janine Dudonner emerged from her mother’s shop to join the little group. She was a little taller than many of the other girls her age and slim almost to the point of being skinny. Her long strawberry blonde hair was parted in the middle of her head and pulled severely down over her shoulders in two tight plaits. A sprinkling of freckles dusted her nose and cheeks beneath her warm hazel eyes.
The white cotton dress she wore was adorned with a pattern of small red and yellow flowers and it rippled softly in the gentle early morning breeze. She wore flat heeled black shoes and a pair of indecisive white socks that couldn’t quite make up their mind if they were supposed to be pulled up or bunched around her ankles. It appeared that a compromise had been reached as they had settled for one of each. She was Armande’s best friend, even if she was a girl and, he conceded, probably quite pretty although he couldn’t possibly bring himself to admit that to her directly. He made the introductions.
“Janine, this gentleman is Monsieur Jean-Pierre Flaubert.”
“Just Flaubert, please,” interjected the old man.
“Er, yes, this is Flaubert,” acknowledged Armande. “Flaubert, this is my friend Janine Dudonner. Her mother owns the shop here,” waving an arm behind him. Addressing Janine again he added, “And this is Flaubert’s dog. His name is Dog.”
“Dog? The dog is called Dog?”
“Yes Dog. That’s his name and although I know that may seem unusual I think it is a very good name for him,” asserted Armande. Flaubert’s uncluttered logic had clearly resonated.
Dog had been keeping one eye on the exchange and twitched his tail a few times in greeting. The effort obviously took a lot out of him as he promptly settled back to his slumbers with a heavy sigh.
“Well I must say, even if he does have a rather odd name he seems very nice,” replied Janine. “He looks friendly enough,” she added curiously, “Is he friendly, Flaubert?”
“Certainly,” said Flaubert. “He’s always very friendly towards my friends. My friends are Dog’s friends and his are mine. And as you two are my newest friends I’m sure that you will find him just as pleased to meet you as I am.”
Despite the reassurance Janine noted the various combat scars adorning Dog’s muscly physique and, opting for caution, decided that perhaps the old adage of leaving sleeping dogs to lie may still have some merit after all.
“Have you been together long?” she enquired.
“Oh yes. We’ve been together since he was just a little puppy. I suppose from the look of him he couldn’t have been more than one year old then and that was, oh I don’t know, it must be eight years ago now.”
“That makes Dog nine then, the same age as me!” exclaimed Janine clapping her hands excitedly. “How did you two meet?”
“Well now young lady, that’s a bit of a story. You see I first came across Dog when I was working way over the other side of the city, working nightshift in a factory just up from the Place des Maçons ………..”
The damp of the early morning hung in the air and Flaubert shivered a little. He pulled his old Navy greatcoat a little closer around him to ward off the chill. This sort of weather certainly didn’t agree with him and his leg began to ache again from the old scars. Autumn was running its course and winter would soon be scuttling in behind it like spiders in the dark. On the window panes and on the grass icy fingers of an early frost had begun to take an insidious grip across the city. However, it wasn’t the cold he disliked so much, it was the damp. The mist and the rain seemed to seep right through to his bones. If you could actually feel a colour this is what grey felt like.
His route home from the factory took him through some of the narrow twisting Parisian alleyways where the tops of the buildings almost kissed as they bowed towards each other like old lovers. Emerging from the darkened maze it was then just a hundred metres or so along the embankment to his three roomed basement apartment. The route was always the same. As he turned into Rue Avignon he heard the soft scratching of padded feet on the cobbles behind him. He didn’t turn to look, didn’t need to, he knew who it was. The footsteps matched his own, slowing when he slowed, stopping when he stopped, never getting any closer nor moving any further back. It had been the same routine for the last four mornings.
Five days ago, when he first realised he was being followed, he had stopped and spun around quickly but there was no-one to be seen. The alleyway was empty as far as he could tell but he could sense rather than see that the darkness held someone, or something, just out of his sight.
“Come on, show yourself. I know someone’s there.”
Flaubert was a big man and didn’t scare easily. His wartime experiences at sea, surviving the sinking of his ship and enduring the hell of the prisoner of war camps for two years had given him a healthy respect for danger yet with a steely disregard of fear. Now, six years on, his resolve was just as tough but his mobility was not as great as it used to be. His muscles had never fully recovered from that moment when the piece of white hot shrapnel tore through his leg. He still walked with a noticeable limp and now, with his movement curtailed, the lack of exercise meant that over the years he’d put on a lot of extra weight too.
He ventured back up the alleyway and then stopped as a slight scuffling sound ahead of him confirmed that his instincts had been correct. He wasn’t imagining things. He was definitely being followed.
“Come on, you can come out now. I know there’s someone there.”
“What do you want from me?”
Again no answer.
His eyes adjusted to the murky light of the alleyway and there, several metres away, peering timidly around the steps leading up to an old shop doorway he could just make out a small white head with what looked to be only one eye in it.
“Mon Dieu. It’s a dog. What are you doing here boy?” Ignoring the sharp reminder from his leg Flaubert crouched down until he was a lot closer to the little animal’s level.
“Well come on out then. Come and say hello,” Flaubert murmured kindly and held out a hand.
His follower looked on nervously and poked his head out a little further. Flaubert was able to make out that this was not a one eyed mutt after all. The black patch over one eye had deceived him at first.
“Are you coming out then or are you going to hide behind that step all day?”
The pup made no attempt to move any closer but maintained the few metres separating them. By this time Flaubert had to stand and stretch again to try and ease the dull ache in his leg. The sudden movement seemed too much for his timid little shadow who turned tail and fled back up the street before diving through a hole in a wall and disappearing out of sight.
“That’s one scared little chap,” observed Flaubert to himself. “I hope he knows that there’s no way I would hurt him.”
He turned back down the alleyway and wandered his way back home.
The next three mornings were very much the same. The dog seemed to know when Flaubert was turning into Rue Avignon but would stay out of sight until the big man had walked a safe few metres past the hole in the wall. Only then would he venture out. When Flaubert heard the patter of the paws he would stop and turn and his stalker would stop as well. At first he attempted the same gentle approach to try and win the animal’s confidence but the little fellow would have none of it. At Flaubert’s first step in his direction the dog would turn and flee back to the safety of his bolthole.
On the third morning, after turning back and offering his softly spoken morning greeting, Flaubert opted for a different strategy. Realising that this could take some time he abandoned any attempt to get closer. He just stood and chatted kindly for a couple of minutes.
The dog still kept his distance but at least he was not hiding behind steps anymore. He seemed confident enough to stand there in plain sight but not brave enough yet to bridge the gap between them. Flaubert resumed his journey down the rest of the alley with the little animal trailing behind him. As he exited to turn left onto the embankment his companion seemed to have reached the limit of his bravery and instead retreated back into the depths of the alley once more. The fourth day was a repeat performance.
This morning, however, the fifth morning of the little routine, Flaubert had another tactic up his sleeve. Or, to be more precise, in his pocket. He had come prepared with a welcoming gift. He had saved a pork chop from his dinner the day before and had placed it in the small knapsack he always carried when he went to work. Just before he turned into Rue Avignon he retrieved the chop from his bag and transferred it to his pocket.
On his way down the alley the same old routine began as before. He stopped at his usual juncture, turned and greeted the dog, again as usual. He told him that today, however, he had a little surprise for him. The dog merely cocked his head to one side, almost as if he understood that this was something new, but as usual was far too nervous to come any closer. Flaubert continued down the alley. He stopped for a second time just before he came to the end. The poor creature almost skidded to a halt behind him. The confusion was almost laughable.
“You weren’t quite expecting that boy, were you? Here, I’ve got a little something for you. It’s not much but I thought you’re probably not getting a lot to eat so I’ve brought this pork chop for you. I guess you would run away if I tried to give it to you directly so I’m just going to lay it on the ground here for you, see, and then I’m going to carry on home. Is that OK with you Dog?” It was the first time Flaubert had afforded the little chap a name.
Flaubert carefully laid the offering at his feet, mindful not to make any sudden movements, then covered the final couple of steps to the end of the road before turning on to the embankment. He couldn’t resist immediately flattening himself against the wall and peeping back round the corner to see what the reaction would be. Dog eyed the tempting morsel on the ground and sniffed expectantly. After a quick check to make sure he was alone he slowly padded the four or five metres to the prize. He gave another sniff to confirm the authenticity of Flaubert’s gift and with a last look around to make doubly certain it was still safe he gratefully snatched up the meat and fled back to his makeshift home. Flaubert couldn’t suppress a low chuckle of satisfaction and went home himself.
The next two days were his days off but Flaubert couldn’t let his new friend down so he returned to the alley at his usual time and repeated the performance with a new breakfast offering each time. Dog hungrily accepted his good fortune without question. The next week the routine was the same, at least until half way through.
Dog had looked up to catch Flaubert peeping round the corner. The old man froze but didn’t move back out of sight. They continued to stare at each other for a moment or two before Dog offered a couple of twitches of his stumpy tail. Grabbing up his breakfast he trotted off briskly to his lair. After that Flaubert didn’t bother anymore with concealment around the corner, he just stood at the end of the alley at a respectful distance and watched Dog scoop up his meal before disappearing back homewards.
It was Saturday morning and Flaubert had just finished his Friday night’s shift. He stood at the end of the alley as usual. Breakfast had duly been accepted. The pup was already turning back towards his hole in the wall when everything seemed to change in an instant. Flaubert turned onto the embankment and came face to face with a mean looking young man waving a kitchen knife threateningly.
“We want what’s in the bag old man. Hand it over before you get hurt,” the youth demanded, pushing the knife up towards Flaubert’s face.
For a split second the world seemed to stop turning before Flaubert’s wartime training kicked in and with an angry roar he slapped the knife to one side with one hand before delivering a hefty punch to the face of his attacker with the other. A look of astonishment seemed frozen to the young thug’s face as he tumbled backwards, executing several untidy involuntary summersaults along the pavement. He came to a sudden halt as he crashed against a wall. Before Flaubert could take a step towards the dazed would be thief a sharp tug on the strap of his knapsack from behind pulled him backwards. He felt the cold edge of another blade pressing into the folds of his neck.
“He said we want your bag old timer,” a voice sneered into his ear, “Hand it over or I’ll slit your throat right here.”
Flaubert stilled at the sound of the second thug knowing that the threat was very real. He had no time to consider a reaction before an agonising scream almost deafened him and he was instantly released. Turning as quickly as he could he saw Dog with his jaw clamped like a vice around the young man’s calf.
“Get off me you mutt!” yelled the thief painfully.
He slashed downwards with the knife, kicking out with his injured leg at the same time to free himself from the dog’s fierce grip. Dog was sent skittering across the slabs to lay motionless with blood oozing from an ugly gash across his shoulder. Flaubert responded immediately with a mighty bellow of rage that threatened to shatter any nearby windows. A meaty fist arced towards his assailant who had just enough time to skip half a step backwards to avoid the full impact of the blow. It was just as well for him that he did as the punch would have felled an ox.
Nevertheless Flaubert’s swing still connected sufficiently to lift the thief clean of his feet. It sent him flying to land in a heap at the foot of a lamppost. Somehow both attackers managed to stagger to their feet and fled the scene in opposite directions. A pair of abandoned knives lay in the gutter.
Meanwhile Flaubert’s attention was centred on his injured rescuer who still hadn’t moved. As Flaubert approached he feared he was too late. Tears came unbidden and rolled down his cheeks as he knelt awkwardly by the little dog who had unthinkingly risked his life to save him. The blood from his shoulder dripped down to pool on the cold pavement. Laying a trembling hand on the dog’s flank he was surprised to feel his ribcage moving up and down. Dog was still breathing! He was still alive. Hurt, battered and knocked unconscious, but nevertheless still alive.
Flaubert quickly shrugged out of his greatcoat and laid it on the ground. Rummaging through his knapsack for something to tend the wound he came up empty. He reached up to his own shoulder and tore the sleeve from his shirt. Tenderly he bound it as tightly as he dared around the wound and lifted Dog gently onto his coat. Dog was beginning to come round and gave just the quietest of whimpers as Flaubert wrapped him up in the coat and carried him back home.
It took the next couple of days for Dog to recover but he was only a youngster and surprisingly resilient. Meanwhile Flaubert fussed over his friend constantly. For Dog’s part there were certainly no objections raised. From that moment on they were inseparable.
Even when Flaubert went to work Dog accompanied him. The foreman was a dog lover himself. Once he had heard the tale of the brave intervention he allowed Dog to wait in the factory gatehouse until Flaubert had finished his shift. An old cardboard box was adapted to serve as his basket and Dog could not have been happier.
The only thing that lingered from that fateful day was that neither seemed prepared to venture down Rue Avignon ever again. They found an alternative route home and the extra three minutes it took was no price at all to pay.