Chapter 10: Leo Ascending

by / Saturday, 22 February 2014 / Published in Book Excerpt, Dogs, Paris

Capture d’écran 2014-02-22 à 11.41.06

There’s a saying in French that un malheur n’arrive jamais seul. It means bad news is always followed by more bad news. When you are down, expect another cruel blow.

My own instinct, perhaps due to my Scottish upbringing, is to regard good fortune as suspect.

I’m not sure that my personal philosophy helped much as the weeks turned into months, as a new calendar year was upon us, as the Easter holidays were approaching. True, there was no reason to feel miserable. In fact, life in Paris was splendid. My favourite month, April, was arriving soon. I like to say that April may be the cruellest month – except in Paris.

Still, there was no reason to feel reassured either. I was still a convicted criminal in France with a tarnished casier judiciaire. After my judicial setbacks I couldn’t shake a feeling of low-grade anxiety that followed me everywhere. When out with Oscar and Leo I looked with vague apprehension at everyone, believing they might have been present in the courtroom and witnessed my “fuck you” moment. Perhaps Vanessa Attal was right: I would go down in the annals of French judicial history as the Anglo-Saxon who introduced the term “fuck you” into French judicial procedure. 

I took little comfort from that thought. In truth, my Système D self-confidence was flagging. I was apprehensive about a visit from the postman with a registered letter from the Tribunal de Grande Instance. I had completed the necessary paperwork and submitted my application for an appeal, but there had been no reply. Vanessa, now courteously responding to my pestering emails on a strictly pro bono basis, advised me to hold my horses. I took her advice, mainly because I had no other option. What made me nervous this time was the prospect of going into court without a lawyer – and in a foreign language.

Then more bad news came. One morning I was seized with a throbbing pain in my lower right side under the ribcage. I’d been feeling it for some time but thought nothing of it. I promised myself to make an appointment with Dr Slater.

Too late. After a walk with the dogs I was sitting at my desk staring at my computer screen when the pain returned. It began as the familiar burning sensation but slowly grew in intensity. I reached down and rubbed my right side, but the pain continued to build. A minute or two later, it exploded and burst throughout my entire torso. I felt like I’d been shot in the gut with a hunting rifle.

Capture d’écran 2014-02-22 à 11.36.05I got up in a panic, clutching my side, and lurched into the sitting room where I fell onto the small sofa. Gasping in agony, my eyes wide open with horror, I realised something terrible was happening to me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but the pain was paralysing. My immediate impulse was to lie down on the sofa until the pain subsided. But it didn’t – it kept building and spreading throughout my entire abdomen.

I honestly thought this was it – I was going to die. I glanced down at Oscar and Leo who were looking up at me confused, heads cocked, wondering what was happening. I was powerless to reassure them. I began to worry about what would happen to them if I collapsed and expired on the floor.

Think fast, I said to myself – do something. I decided the best thing to do was to contact a friend in Paris. The first name that came to mind: Adam Ostry. I pulled myself up from the sofa, still gripping my side, and found my mobile phone. I sent Adam a short text message: “Not feeling well, call me in one hour, if I don’t answer come over immediately, get concierge to let you in.”

My next thought was to find the building concierge and ask him to call a doctor at SOS Médecins. But when I got into the corridor, the concierge was not there. For a second I considered knocking on the door of a neighbour – maybe Madame Kessler upstairs, or her daughter, could help. I dismissed that option. What about Valentino? I dismissed that idea too. Go outside, I said to myself. If I collapsed on the pavement, at least a passer-by would see me and call for an ambulance. But I couldn’t go outside and leave Oscar and Leo alone in the flat.

It was at precisely that instant that my body commanded me to go to the toilette. I hobbled back into my apartment, crossed the vestibule, lurched down the hallway into the loo, and crashed down onto my backside. A massive evacuation followed as soon as I was seated. Then came a sensation that I could scarcely believe. The pain was gone. It lifted like a ghost passing through my body. When I stood up and gripped the wall for balance, there was no more agony. I walked out of the toilette and down the hallway like a man who’d just been run over by a large truck and got up unscathed.

I went into my study where there was a text message from Adam, worried, asking what was wrong. I typed a quick reply: “No worries, false alarm, will call later. Thanks.”

Oscar and Leo were still looking up at me. This time I smiled back.

“Let’s go for a walk, boys.”

 

  •  

 

“How is that gash on your stomach?” said Dr Slater in his deep James Bond voice. He was referring to my war wound from the encounter with the Saint Bernard dog near the rue Cler market street.

“I think I’m scarred for life,” I said. “Scarred but not scared.”

A brief pause in our small talk was my cue to tell him why I’d come to see him.

“Listen, I’m not one who goes in for swashbuckling exaggerations,” I said. “I really thought I was going to die. It was that serious.”

I described to him precisely what happened, starting with the numb throbbing in my lower right side and the sudden Vesuvius-like eruption of pain. Dr Slater listened carefully. When I described how the pain suddenly vanished after my visit to the loo, his expression opened.

“You had an intestinal spasm,” he said. “They can be extraordinarily painful, just as you described. The spasm was a reaction, it was flushing something out. What I need to know now is what it was. I’m guessing it was a gallstone, but we’ll have to run tests – blood, stool, scans, the lot.”

Capture d’écran 2014-02-22 à 11.55.41The next day I visited the Laboratoire d’Analyses Medicales in rue Bosquet with my note from Dr Slater. A white-frocked middle-aged lady informed me that blood could be taken the next morning but I would have to fast. Stool samples would be required on four consecutive days. She reached into a large drawer and pulled four small plastic jars, one for each day.

“Do you mean I have to come round here every day for four days to hand you a stool sample?”

She looked at me with amused surprise.

 “You don’t have to come every day,” she said. “You can keep two or three days of stool in your fridge and bring them all at once on the fourth day. Or you can come by twice with two stool samples each time. Or you can come every day. It’s up to you.”

It was beginning to sound Monty Pythonesque. And there was more. For the urine samples, the procedure came with puzzling details. Reaching into the same drawer, she handed me a few packets containing sterilised tissue paper. They looked like the little rip-open packets of moistened napkins they give you on airplanes. But these sterilised tissues had another purpose. The lady asked me to please ensure that the tip of my penis was cleanly wiped before providing the urine sample. Otherwise, she cautioned, the sample could be contaminated.

“This is all sounding awfully complicated,” I said.

“If you would like, we could show you here in the laboratory how it’s done,” she replied.

“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” I said.

When I left the laboratory, I couldn’t say that my spirits were lifted by the prospect of bending over my toilette seat for the next four days to fish out a scientifically valid sample of my own stool. Ever pragmatic, I decided to pop round to the laboratory every day – four in a row – on my morning walk with Oscar and Leo to drop off my stool and urine. 

I also went for an échographie scan down the road on avenue de Tourville. It was a much less complicated procedure that confirmed Dr Slater’s suspicions. When I returned to see him, he was relieved to announce that gallstones were the culprit.

“Your gallstones are small, which is actually a problem because that means they can dislodge and move about,” he said. “I believe one stone migrated and lodged in your intestinal system. The vague pain you were feeling was probably irritation. But the stone didn’t pass through your system and your intestine became inflamed. The intestinal spasm was likely your body’s way of evacuating the gallstone. That’s why the pain vanished as soon as your bowels emptied.”

I was relieved to discover the precise origin of my torment, but there remained the troubling question of the gallstones. I still had a few more lodged in there, what if they started migrating too? I couldn’t possibly endure another attack like the one I’d suffered.

Dr Slater didn’t rule out an operation, reminding me that it would involve general anaesthesia and a day in hospital.

“It used to be a messy procedure but now it’s quite clean,” he said. “They puncture three holes in you and pull the stones out.”

I let him know, frankly, that I would prefer avoiding an operation unless absolutely necessary.

“Remember Andy Warhol,” I said. “He went into hospital for a routine gallbladder operation – and died in recovery. If it’s all right with you, I’d rather wait. I haven’t had my fifteen minutes of fame yet.”

“I thought you said you weren’t scared,” he replied with a mischievous smile.

Dr Slater proposed to monitor my gallbladder irritation with regular visits, putting off the question of surgery to a later date.

“You are otherwise fine,” he said. “Blood samples fine. Stool samples fine. The only problem is your blood pressure, it’s still a bit high. When you come back next time if it’s still on the high side we’ll try another medication.”

Capture d’écran 2014-02-22 à 11.59.01When I left the doctor’s office and found myself on the moist boulevard with its spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower, I felt reassured that my days were not numbered. It had given me a fright though. For the first time ever I realised how dangerous living alone can be. If I had collapsed on my sitting-room carpet that morning, I may well have putrefied for days before someone missed my presence and forced the door open, only to find Oscar and Leo starving and yelping in frightened confusion.

I rang up Adam on the phone.

“Listen, I have a favour to ask you,” I said. “I dodged a bullet there, I could have died alone in my flat – and that got me thinking. It’s something you should think about too. We both live alone. If either one of us dropped dead at home alone, who would know? I have Oscar and Leo who might alert the neighbours with barking, but you’re all alone there, Adam. I know it sounds morbid, but why don’t we get into the habit of sending a text message or email to each other every night just to confirm that we’re both alive. One of us is certain to die one day – so it will actually prove useful at some point.”

Adam gave it some thought, then replied in a way that was both unexpected and strangely characteristic.

“I hope you are leaving me that green bowl in your will,” he said.

The object to which he was referring was a large bowl of serpentine marble in my sitting room. It had been one the wedding gifts that Rebecca and I cherished most. Adam, always the sharp eye for the splendid objet d’art, had spotted that bowl years ago when Rebecca was alive.

“Yes, Adam, I’ve left you the bowl in my will,” I said. “And you very nearly became the proud owner of it. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to take it off my hands some time in the distant future.”

He agreed to my plan.

My consolation was that, if I outlived Adam, I would inherit some of his prized pieces, including a Ruhlmann console. Maybe even the Gallia dragonfly bud vase.

 

  •  

 

It was the Thursday before Easter weekend, a glorious day in Paris. The Pâques holiday was on Monday. I had an idle long weekend ahead.

Oscar and Leo prodded me awake according to the usual ritual. I had them out on the esplanade along the Seine before seven o’clock. It was a lovely, fragrant spring morning in Paris. The sun was rising radiantly over the Alexandre III bridge and the Parisian sky was clear blue.

I let Oscar and Leo run free on the esplanade, knowing they never wandered far. Heading down the thin ribbon of manicured lawn, we came upon Madame Saint-Léon and her wire-haired teckel Atilla bumping along behind to her. This time she was also accompanied by a small girl, perhaps four or five years old, dressed in a bright yellow dress.

“This is my grand-daughter,” said Madame Saint-Leon, proudly. “She’s with us for Easter.”

“Oh how lovely – and what is your name?” I asked the little girl.

“Emmanuelle,” she replied shyly.

“That’s such a beautiful name,” I said.

She looked up at me, sweet and small, then asked: “What are your doggies’ names?”

“Well,” I said. “That one is Oscar, you can see he’s a bit bigger. The little one there is Leo.”

“Can I touch them?” she asked.

“Why yes, they’re very friendly.”

Emmanuelle reached down and pulled gently on Leo’s thick white fleece.

“They’re just like little lambs!” she exclaimed.

Madame Saint-Leon smiled, looked at me, and said, “She adores animals. She follows Atilla around the house all day.”

Capture d’écran 2014-02-22 à 11.31.24At eleven o’clock my housekeeper Helena arrived, as she did every Thursday, always greeted by a cacophony of over-excited yelping. It was my cue to leave the flat so she could get her work done. I opted, as I usually do, to head to my gym in Montparnasse. It was a gorgeous day so I walked all the way there, going down the boulevard Saint-Germain and turning up the boulevard Raspail. At Sèvre-Babylone I entered the little park in front of the Bon Marché department store. The lunch-hour office crowd were already converging on the leafy enclave with their salads, sandwiches and bottled water. I took a seat on a bench near the large fresco statue at the end of the park. In a glare of sunlight, a young mother walked by holding a small child by the hand.

When I returned home after my workout, Helena said in heavily Russian-accented French: “Il ne mange pas, Leo.”

Leo wasn’t eating. I asked Helena what she had given them to eat. The usual, she said, bits of chicken and some milk. But Oscar had eaten everything. Leo had walked away from the food.

I had been used to Leo’s unpredictable appetite, of course, and strictly followed the vet’s advice about adjusting his medication according to his behavioural signs. One of the tricky things about Addison’s disease is its unpredictable symptoms. Leo could be perfectly fine for weeks, even months, with regular doses of his medication. But then, suddenly, he would show chronic weakness and a failed appetite. When that happened, I increased his dosage as a reaction against his flagging hormonal system.

That’s what I did. I gave Leo a half-pill of fludrocortisone to boost his system. My approach had been to keep Leo on very low dosages of the drug because I was acutely aware of its toxicity. I wanted Leo to survive on a minimal amount of medication, and when necessary I increased his dosage.

It seemed to work again. An hour later Leo was gulping down small bits of chicken. His refusal to eat, followed by a regained appetite boosted by medication, was a pattern I’d witnessed countless times. After Helena left I took Oscar and Leo for a walk to the Invalides where Leo seemed perfectly normal.

That evening I poured a glass of claret and turned on the television. Oscar and Leo moved into their usual position – Oscar at the other end of the long William Morris sofa, Leo wedged between my legs. I noticed however that Leo was squirming and moaning softly, as if feeling discomfort.

“What’s wrong Leo?” I said, caressing his fluffy head.

Several minutes later he jumped off the sofa and began darting into other rooms – the toilette, the bathroom, the kitchen, my bedroom – in a state of panic and confusion. Now I was worried. I had never seen him behave like this. In the bathroom he scurried under the sink cabinets as if he wanted to curl up and hide there. I reached down, pulled him out, and took him in my arms. He was obviously troubled and frightened.

Capture d’écran 2014-02-22 à 11.27.54I decided the best thing was to turn in to bed early. It was past ten o’clock. I took them out for their late-evening pee on the pavement and had them back in the flat within a few minutes. When I got into bed with a book, they followed the customary ritual – Oscar jumped up and took his spot at the end of the bed, Leo curled up against my body.

I began reading my book, Diary of a Nobody, while keeping a close eye on Leo. He looked preoccupied, focused inward, but otherwise was tranquil. I made a mental note to take him to the vet in the morning if his behaviour was still abnormal. The clinic would be closed for the Easter weekend so I’d have to ring early to insist on an appointment later in the day.

I was lost in my reading when Leo suddenly got up and jumped off the bed. I put down my book and looked for him. But he was out of sight, down on the hardwood floor next to the bed. I heard a strange noise that sounded like liquid spluttering. Puzzled, I got up and walked around to the other side of the bed. There I discovered a large pool of brownish liquid on the parquet floor. Leo looked up at me guiltily, but remained oddly motionless.

“Oh God, Leo!” I said, feeling badly for the little chap. He’d had terrible diarrhoea. He was obviously suffering from some sort of gastro-intestinal upset. A visit to the vet tomorrow was urgent.

I picked Leo up and took him into the bathroom, where I put him down gently in the tub and sprayed his backside with the shower hose. Leo submitted as meekly as a lamb to my scrubbing. I got him out of the bathtub, grabbed a towel, and dried him off, wondering what on earth he could have eaten that caused such terrible diarrhoea.

I put Leo back on my bed and turned to the unpleasant business of cleaning up the puddle of liquid on the hardwood floor. Strangely, it didn’t have the thick wretched odour of faecal matter, but a sort of metallic smell that I couldn’t recognise. I looked up at Leo who had a frightened and confused expression. Oscar was watching everything with curiosity from his perch on the bed.

I climbed back into the bed turned out the light to signal to the dogs that it was sleep time. The room went black and quiet.

I must have fallen asleep because some time later I was awoken by a strange noise. It was the same liquid splattering as before. I got up and switched on the light. Oscar was on the bed, but I couldn’t see Leo. I jumped to my feet and raced out of the room. Leo was nowhere to be found. Suddenly I thought to look under my bed. When I crouched down, he was there, lying on his side under the bed, motionless. A small puddle of dark syrup-like liquid had spread all around him.

Capture d’écran 2014-02-22 à 11.42.34I reached in and pulled him out. When I stood up with Leo in my arms, his body had no strength. He was like a broken puppet in my hands.

“Leo!” I screamed.

What happened next is a blur in my mind. I raced out of the bedroom holding Leo, crossing the marble-floored vestibule into the sitting room. I placed him on the sofa and switched on the lamp. Taking Leo in my hands again, I held him up in front of my face, looking desperately into his eyes. He was limp but breathing, his eyes rolling and unfocused as if he were fainting.

I shouted, screamed, cried out his name in panic and horror. I could see that I was losing him. He had lost consciousness. I looked at the clock: it was past four o’clock in the morning. Impossible to get him to a vet at this hour. I didn’t know what to do or think. I was in shock.

I gently put Leo down on the sofa so I could observe him more closely. He lay there numbly, not moving, his back arching slightly. Something terrible was happening inside his little body. My mind raced desperately to comprehend.

Then it hit me: it wasn’t diarrhoea, it was blood loss. Leo had suffered an internal haemorrhage.

Oscar had followed us into the sitting room and jumped up on to the sofa, seeking my attention. I shooed him away so I could focus on Leo, who now looked to be totally unconscious. He was still breathing, but was motionless. Leo was dying. There was nothing I could do.

I picked him up, cradled him in my arms, and carried him back into the bedroom. I gently placed him on the bed and lay next to him, holding him closely and caressing his little head while repeating his name, over and over again. I lost all sense of time, but I must have lain on my bed with Leo for an hour or longer, caressing him with my face pushed against his, listening to him purr like a kitten. Slipping away, Leo was reassuring me that he knew I was with him.

And then, suddenly, he moved his head with a sharp gesture, opened his little mouth as if to gasp for air, and then quietly fell into peaceful silence. He was gone.

I lay on my bed next to Leo’s lifeless body sobbing and moaning for a long time.

Finally I got up and I walked in a numb haze to the bathroom to find a white towel. When I returned and took Leo in my arms, his little head lolled back on my shoulder and blood spewed from his mouth onto my shirt. I wrapped his body gently in the towel and set him down at the centre of my bed – the same bed that had followed us to France, the bed onto which Oscar and Leo had jumped gleefully every night for years, now the bed on which Leo had expired quietly just before Easter weekend.

When dawn began radiating softy through my bedroom window, I looked up from swollen eyes to see Oscar at the end of the bed watching the scene with puzzled incomprehension. Nothing would ever be the same for us.

Once again, Oscar and I were all alone in this world. 

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2 Responses to “Chapter 10: Leo Ascending”

  1. Kathleen Scott says :

    Your words allowed me to follow this sad journey and I felt your pain, fear and grief. Losing a friend like Leo is devastating. My Maeve and our newest family member, Brody, are my joy and comfort; as important as any member of my family. Your story of your boys, sad as it is, takes me to your pain and washes over my heart & mind, causing a revisit of my experienced pain of losing past loved pets, Tyre and Katy. Peace to you Matthew.

  2. Bridget Lawson says :

    I am captured by your words. Where can I read more of this awesome book?

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