The Animals of Montenegro

Yesterday there was a small earthquake. They are not infrequent here and sometimes serious; but this was only brief. It could have been a train passing by. If you were talking at the time you might not notice, but the animals did.

Earlier in the day we drove to Dubrovnik to take our friends Nadia and Olia to the Airport. We stopped outside Kotor to pay a bribe to a traffic policeman. As the mayor says, the army and navy have been stolen, there is only the police force left and it is for sale. After dropping Nadia and Olia off we drove on into Dubrovnik in order to see the famous old town.

It was immediately apparent that although it was October many other people had had the same idea. The central square was packed. There are two types of people in the old town of Dubrovnik, the crowds from the cruise liners, lurching around following their leader, unneeded fleeces tied round their tummies, and gay men of all nations with their iron-grey hair, toned and unfleeced tummies and shorts of precisely that length that straight men never choose.

There are wonderful buildings and romantic alleyways, but the better half truly remarks that there is no sense of a once-important city, from which sailors set out to explore and subdue the world or to whose libraries scholars flocked from the north and the east.

I have an old friend who is working in Dubrovnik for a year and we joined him for tea at one of the countless restaurants. He told me that he had decided to become gay for the duration of his stay. It’s so much easier, he said. Croatian girls, you spend hours afterwards picking hair out of your teeth – and that’s just from a kiss on the cheek. He laughed coarsely. I pointedly didn’t join him.

It was a satisfactory outing and it was particularly nice to get away from the mosquitoes. When we turned right off the mountain road back to our village the sky darkened and swarms of them hurled themselves against our windscreen causing the honest Korean workmanship to groan and splinter.

We now have a menagerie and it was waiting for us.

There are three dogs. Two are friendly mutts, mongrels and flea-ridden but companionable and ready to be sent on their way when their attractiveness palls. There is a third dog, owned by the mayor. He is black and sleek and there are actual breeds recognisable in his make-up. He is also flea-ridden but he has the good manners to take himself a few feet away to scratch.

We also have a family of cats. There is a mother and three kittens. She is still breast-feeding them and is protective of them. When we first arrived she would not approach us and would not let the kittens do so. She would hiss in a way that would be genuinely frightening if the appropriate allowances for scale were made. Food had to be left and we would then retire to a suitable distance. The kittens got more and more bold. She still hisses but out of form, I think. There is a semi-absentee father, who has only three workable legs. When food is made available, the pale Montenegrin sausage for instance, she will secure it, parcel it out to the kittens (ensuring that none of them gets an unfair share by, for example, sitting on the head of another one while it to tries to eat) and then to the father and finally to herself.

(Come to think of it, with the pale Montenegrin sausage I would be inclined to be similarly generous.)

She can see off the dogs, no problem.

Nadia says that each year there are young cats but they are always different ones, so it is a short life but a happy one. I just hope that their destiny is not the unfleeced tummies of the enormous Montenegrin snakes that we have glimpsed slithering away from the pathways.

Without delay we prepared the homestead against attack. We lit the little spirals that give off acrid smoke. We sprayed each other with industrial strength Autan. Only then did we turn the lights on and looked round in the dusk, taking stock. The mosquitoes had retired, as did we vis-à-vis the cats, to a safe distance from their food. We were, with our Autan and smoke, as it were hissing impotently at them. Anyway, there they hung like a curtain of flesh – my flesh, actually – through which the trees beyond could be seen only indistinctly. There were bugs of all sizes, from individually invisible midgies through mosquitoes to enormous ponderous beasts. I assumed that these were hornets but for all I know they were the assassin drones that Mr Obama sends to keep us in order.

The dogs took advantage of the temporary respite, ceasing for a moment their scratching, and staring impudently at our tormentors.

This was the moment of the earthquake.

The better half, who was talking, did not immediately register, but as I say the animals did. Everything stopped. The curtain shivered. The dogs whimpered. The kittens went into a three-kitten ball. Their mother girded her loins to defend them to the death, whatever this strange new threat might be.

Some birds flew into our small sanctuary.

A hedgehog crawled into our circle, blinking – or at least it seemed to me to be blinking.

A small pig arrived.

Then two bees. Whose side were they on!

Then there was a much more sinister intrusion, rustling almost silently under the curtain of mosquitoes and along the ground.

Ah! Think it’s a –

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