Getting Didi Home
It was a miracle because Didi was the first ever dog into the UK from the USA on Passports for Pets. No one else had thought - at that early stage - of taking an American dog to Europe and registering it as European seven months before the doors would open to England.
I'll write about that whole miracle and how it came to pass separately. In the meantime, here's the story - and thanks - a million thanks - to the wonderful Issy Benjamin who lent me his Spanish holiday house to bring my beloved beagle home.
Frankly Speaking, Chapter Nine
Copyright Maggy Whitehouse 2000.
‘It’s Too Friggin’ Hot.’ The reproach exudes from every pore of the Beagle as she lies spread-eagled on the cool stone flags of the kitchen of our tiny home in Los Poops.
‘Bloody Flies!’ She adds with a shake of her ears and a filthy look thrown in my direction. A noxious fart will follow as sure as eggs is eggs.
The trouble is that it is too hot for her and she is fading visibly in the heat. It is actually hotter than the summer in Colorado. It is too hot to lie in the sunshine and steam. It is too hot to fossick in the undergrowth (‘What Undergrowth?’). It is too hot to eat.
Too hot to eat? Yes, Frankly is seriously off her food. Even the cunningly reconstituted Spanish ‘Chappi’ (sic) got the no-no this morning. She has hardly wanted to eat since I brought her back from her month at Shirley’s and I thought at the time that she had just been so stuffed with food that she couldn’t eat. The diet is certainly doing her good and the rolls of fat on her paws are receding but still, a beagle’s got to eat! Today she backed off almost apologetically and clambered wearily back onto my bed where she posed miserably as ‘Going To Die Any Moment And It’s All Your Fault.’
The trouble is that I believe it. A beagle that won’t eat? Impossible!
Please God, let it just be the fat and the heat. If there is something else wrong; something serious, then I just don’t know what I shall do.
Temper wins out over pathos. I shall be bloody annoyed if she expires before I’ve got her back to the UK. Much as I love her some of this is a real pain and if it’s all for nothing I shall be mad as fire, not to mention embarrassed and miserable.
The other worrying symptom of Frankly’s imminent demise is the running stream of sound effects with which her stomach is serenading the surrounding air. I’ve never heard so many gurgles that did not come from water going down the bath plug.
What if she’s been poisoned already like the other village dogs? What if she’s got a galloping stomach infection? What if she farts herself to death?
George, the irascible Yorkshireman who runs the Posada - the local hostel for travellers - is reassuring when I go up there for yet another abortive effort to get contact with the outside world by email. My server tells me to get knotted in the fifth different way this week and I realise that I have to accept that the Great Wide World and I are momentarily incompatible. It’s probably all to the good. I don’t want to have to deal with any more sympathetic emails saying how sorry they are that Alex and I split up. We didn’t split up. He left me for another woman.
There’s a difference.
George tells me that Frankly is just being affected by the heat and that all dogs gurgle over 90 degrees. His certainly do.
We discuss buying chickens. His dogs are fed on chicken feet, innards and heads, all boiled up until they are gooey. The ‘good’ bits of the chicken are served up to the Posada’s guests - not that I have seen any evidence in the last few weeks that such guests might exist.
I’ve heard that dogs in the wild would eat their prey’s stomach contents first of all to get the essential vegetable nutrients not available in just raw meat so it sounds good, but I don’t think that I have ever seen a chicken’s stomach.
‘No problem that,’ says George. ‘You get the stomachs and everything in the chickens down at the shop.’
That shop is a Tardis with hidden depths that are revealed every time I go in there.
But can I actually cope with boiling up a chicken head? Feet? Not a problem. Innards? Easy. But heads? Hmm.
As I am pondering this, George starts off on a well-worn tale of his youth in England. This time it’s his first outing with the Young Farmers to a slaughterhouse.
‘Half of us fainted before we even went in,’ he says. ‘Another quarter were sick once they set eyes on what goes on. The rest of us coped. We didn’t like it but if you’re going to be a farmer, you’ve got to know what goes on.’
He’s right of course. Most carnivores haven’t a clue what happens to bring them their steak on a plate. And we don’t want to know. Perhaps the chicken head will be my karma for 43 careless years of champing on dead animals. But can I cope?
Three hours later, there’s a pot on the stove with wonderful chicken stock in it. Frankly has already deigned to eat some cooked chicken innards with something like her old relish. But my goose is cooked. For there are not one, not two, but three chicken heads lurking under the wobbling, steaming lid.
I bought this chicken at the shop - and it really did come whole and was chopped up in front of my eyes. ‘Toda’ I said, bravely, meaning ‘I want everything’. So Maria gives me everyone else’s entrails, feet and heads as well. That’s the entrails of everyone else’s chickens by the way.
‘Gosh, aren’t I Spanish and resourceful,’ I think, carrying my booty home and putting it all on to boil. But a dead chicken’s head is one thing; a dead boiled chicken’s head is quite another. Let alone three.
In the middle of the night those heads are still haunting me. They float above my head together with the humbling knowledge that I, too, might have been one of the Young Farmers who fainted before they even got to the slaughterhouse. I expect Frankly would eat them. But what if she doesn’t? Can I face picking up a half-mangled, reproachful, grey and bloated head from the floor?
The first thing I do when I wake in the morning is steel myself get rid of them. It’s hard enough fishing them out with a wooden spoon and throwing them into a plastic bag to be carried up to the municipal bin at the top of the hill. But the relief when I’ve done it. Oh! The palpable relief.
After all, I don’t have to tell George.
Our morning walk around the village starts with the almost perpendicular slope of Calle La Era up to the main street of Los Poops. Each day Frankly grumbles at me and hangs around reluctantly as she sees me take the tortuous, cobbled route upwards and she looks appealingly down the hill to where sweeter pastures lie (together with that delicious mule dung). But at the top of the hill is the dumpster and life here is ruled by simple things such as the need to take the rubbish out.
She dawdles behind me sniffing out the customary scents and any new visitors while I keep to the shady side of the street and greet any passing Los Poopians who may be conducting a fearsome argument about how nice the weather is today. If it is before 9am the top of the slope onto the Main Street will be encrusted with the elderly and all those villagers with crutches or limps or any kind of impediment. This is the easiest place of access for anyone who lives in upper parts of the village and they enjoy a good gossip while they are waiting for the bread guy.
The sound of a tooting horn precedes Mario’s little white van each day he tours the village delivering the long thin loaves that go stale by teatime, circular loaves of the same stuff, and more of the same tied round in a ring so that there’s a hole in the middle . There are sundry other treats such as the identical bread, sugared and with a chocolate filling which is so contradictory to itself that even chocoholics like me can’t finish it. But it’s a sterling service and one without which the entire elderly section (about three quarters) of the village would crumble.
After selling his wares at the top of the village, Mario drives back down the hill away from town and turns down the lower road where he stops again in the shaded corner where the feral cats gather and the trees all lean and whisper. Then it’s a dice with death along the virtually impassable back streets, reversing round corners and squeaking past the ever-rolling concrete mixer until the little van pants its way up to the main square and the rest of his customers. Once that is done, Mario drives up to the bar for his breakfast of toast and jam (presumably with his own bread) and then the little white van begins the long and winding journey up into the hills to the next inaccessible village.
I wander down Main Street and past the Posada and the pink-walled church. When the front door is open, I often go into the porch and gaze inside for a few minutes but, for some reason, I have never gone right inside. Perhaps it is too foreign for me; perhaps it is too much of a memory of my wedding where I thought Alex and I were making vows for life. Yes, it’s that. The thought springs tears to my eyes. Think of something else. This is a good day; keep it that way. Sufficient unto themselves are the bad days.
We walk out across the square and I look at the famous plaque lauding the instalment of the automatic telephone system by a man who is now in jail for fraud. It is bolted to the wall of the rarely used municipal building and my Spanish is good enough now to realise that it doesn’t actually say ‘To Celebrate The Last Fitting Of An Automatic Telephone System In The Least Important Village In Spain’ but it might just as well as that’s what everyone tells you that it says. The rancour of being the last village to get proper telephones has run seriously deep!
It is too hot already to go very far today but Frankly and I still stagger out of the village to the east along the mule path to the spring. The path is of rocky earth and has been chipped into the side of the hill with almond trees above us and crudely carved terraces and allotments below. On the edge of the path are Century Plants, huge cacti-like things, bigger than me that flower once in a lifetime, throwing out what looks like a tree of dull flowers on a huge trunk. Once that is done, the whole of the plant is exhausted and it dies.
This morning is misty, so the great cleft in the hills running down to the sea, ten kilometres away is fuzzy with a gentle white against the blue. But even so, the horizon is just visible with Africa only a few miles further on.
I’m getting quite good at the natural history of Los Poops now. Over to the left of the path, where the earth has been roughly tilled, the plant with the spiky leaves is definitely the Lesser Yellow Whatsit. You can tell it’s the Lesser Whatsit because the plant is smaller than the Greater Whatsit which you only find to the west of the town and which has slightly rounder leaves. The grey and white Whojamaflip is pretty well over now and is less fragrant than it was but you can occasionally find a clump to rub your fingers on – it’s a little like Thyme. The Climbing Thingummy which likes the shady side of the path is definitely over, which is a shame. That really was a pretty one, all pink flowers with yellow centres but it smelt a bit like cat pee.
I clamber up to the concrete and stone reservoir where the natural water is gathered, with its different channels and troughs and sit, scratching at the mosses and lichens with a stick and looking over the hills until Frankly catches up with me. She is pootling and sniffing and snorting happily in her own sweet way. Poor love, her tongue is hanging out already. She’ll be ready for the water.
There is a mule coming down the track towards me, with its rider whistling tunelessly to himself and slapping the beast rhythmically on the neck. Time was that I would have worried about
Frankly barking or being silly as she always used to be with horses, but she knows better now.
‘Hola.’ The man and I greet each other casually as he guides the mule up to the water for a drink. It is unimpressed and stands, stolidly, ignoring the ripples and bubbles of the spring beneath its nose. ‘Aha,’ I think to myself. ‘I’m actually going to see proof that you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’
Thump, thump, thump go the man’s heels against the mule’s side. It lowers its head and sniffs the water and then blows out thoughtfully. It is bored.
Thump, thump, thump. No response. I think that the mule is falling asleep. Its long-lashed eyes are half closed and it seems to be snoring.
Thump, thump, thump, THUMP.
I am beginning to laugh. It’s rather a strange feeling as amusement has not figured too highly in my life lately. The muscles at the side of my mouth feel rather stiff but it’s a good feeling all the same.
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP!
The mule sighs deeply, lowers its head and begins to suck up water noisily. It sucks and slurps and sucks again, drinking what must be whole pints. I can hardly believe it. Giggles are suffusing my whole body and the world has turned upside down. Damn it! How many other proverbs are false?
The mule stops drinking and turns its head to look at me thoughtfully. His rider looks too, nods and smiles.
Thump, thump, thump, go his heels and the mule lowers its head to drink again.
When it has finished and the odd ensemble sets off slowly back down to the village Frankly and I both have our own drink of the cold, refreshing water and we turn back to face the blazing sun and the white walls and red roofs of Los Poops.
Into the town, we meander, relishing the shade from the walls of the houses, down the hill, to the left into Calle La Luna and we are at the beginning of the long and winding lower road back to Casa Halevi.
Big Brown is wandering around at the exit to the square, his huge lop ears and grey beard distinguishing him from his many progeny. After two weeks of mutual posturing, the Alpha dog of the village will now greet Frankly with perfect equanimity and mutual bum-sniffing and he is friendly enough even to push his nose briefly into my hand in case there may be food there. He has seen me feeding Chica the abandoned mother-bitch on the other side of the Posada and lives in hope.
Jack follows Big Brown down the hill from the Big House. Neither of his snappy little dogs are with him so my heels and toes are safe from attack and five minutes are passed pleasantly as he tells me of how badly fed the village animals are. Big Brown is a hunting dog and prized as such, but his master feeds him very little. He was once a bag of bones but now Jack and Stella feed him twice a week and he sits outside their door at the same hour every day, waiting patiently and gratefully for their charity.
Jack says he has even seen village cats fighting over a heel of stale bread thrown to them from a window. ‘Give that to our own dogs and they’d pee on it and walk away!’ he says and leaves me pondering on life and pampered animals.
The walk through the lower roads never ceases to delight. I could almost swear that the village rearranges itself each night, throwing up extra alleyways for me to wander down with different whitewashed houses and yet more sleek, basking cats to look at along the way. There are homes where the mule appears to live in its owner’s house - the stable door being the window next to the front door - and on several of the roads there is the morning evidence of the passing of the sheep on their way to what pasture there is in this brown and sun-baked land.
After ten minutes of getting gloriously lost on the ever-different sloping streets, it’s back to familiar ground on the Street of the Cat with Aquamarine Eyes. She must be a Siamese cross but those supernatural orbs shine out of the wise and pinched little tortoiseshell face like beacons, stopping me fresh in my tracks every day. She spends her time on the rooftops or high walls, never venturing down to risk encounters with village dogs or strange people and simply stares, blinking occasionally just when you think that her eyes are glued to yours. From there it’s down the Street of the Flowers where one diligent home-owner has lined the walls of her house with more than a hundred whitewashed pots and containers filled with burgeoning plants. Bougainvillea and roses, herbs and daisies, lilies and ivies flood up the walls in a cascade of brightness. Then, round the corner to the Street of Ten Tortoiseshells where the bulk of the feral cats live and there is a wonderful view of the terraced slopes down to the sea; on to the Road of the Wasps where the nest lies under a crack in the concrete and they buzz lazily around, bemused by the heat - and past the Door of the Sad Mule with Crinkly Eyelids. Frankly is trotting happily behind me, virtually ignoring the cats after the first weeks of inching past them with her hackles raised. And now we are back at the base of Calle La Era and it’s a hundred and seven paces up the perpendicular winding slope back to the house. Frankly sits down and sulks.
‘One day, when we’re low on rubbish we’ll do it the other way round, and go downhill first,’ I promise her. She doesn’t believe me.
It is a good five minutes before Frankly clatters in through the bead curtain on the door and throws herself down on the cool concrete floor. She drinks from her bowl while lying down and, when that part of the routine has been accorded its appropriate time, she climbs back onto my bed and sleeps the morning out.
I have made a resolution to read as many improving books as I can while I’m here. The house is filled with bookshelves of every book you ever should have read. You know the kind of stuff, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Murder in the Cathedral. To Kill a Mockingbird. St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’, The Rainbow, The Mill on the Floss, Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head - no, sorry that slipped in by mistake.
I’ve never read any of them (including Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head) and despite an English Literature ‘A’ level, am grossly ignorant. However, it is the last book on the list that seems to make its way into my hands for the morning’s erudition. Can’t imagine why.
In the afternoon, while I am simultaneously trying to write an article and swatting flies, the phone rings.
Still my heart jumps. Still I want it to be Alex saying that he’s sorry and that he was wrong and that he still loves me. Oh fool.
It is not Alex, of course. Instead, it is William, the best man at our wedding, which is almost as much of a surprise. William wrote both Alex and me a letter after he had heard what had happened. The same letter to both of us, photocopied.
He said in it that we both had photocopies so that we would not think he was separating us out, showing favouritism or judging one of us as being better or worse than the other. I remember sitting aghast, when I looked at it and wondering what planet William is on.
I had better say here that I’m not that far off the mark. William spent seven years living at a retreat centre in the Outer Hebrides where he became a saint. I’m not being funny: he is a saint. William is probably one of the nicest men in the world but he’s also too much of sheer perfection for most mere mortals. He always does everything with love and gently corrects you when you say something like: ‘I think that Alex has behaved dishonourably.’ What I mean to say, apparently, is ‘I feel dishonoured by how Alex has behaved.’ Yeah, right.
Of course, William is right. He always is right and he’s so damn humble with it that you can’t even hate him for it, openly at least. I expect that Judas shopped Jesus because he just couldn’t stand the perfection any more.
‘Just bloody well fart will you!’ he must have exploded some day. ‘Just say “shit!” or something when you trip over a stone! At the very least, just try to trip over a stone!’
But come to think of it, Jesus did turn the tables over in the Temple and shout at the moneychangers. Maybe Mary Magdalene had dumped him in a way that he felt dishonoured about on the previous the day.
There’s a bit about perfection in T. H. White’s ‘The Once and Future King’ which has kept me sane through three whole days this week. Sir Galahad, being perfect had no false modesty so if he did a great joust and someone said ‘Damn good show Galahad!’ he would say, ‘Yes, wasn’t it?’ instead of, ‘Gosh, thanks …just luck really. Anyone could have done it.’
Even worse, when the knights went out to rescue maidens which were about to be ravished (or was it eaten?) by dragons, they would honour the time old custom with a bit of benign ravishment themselves afterwards with the suitably grateful damsels. But Galahad did not. In fact he would not even kiss the maidens because it was not ethical. This behaviour did not endear him to his colleagues in any way, shape or form and it certainly ruined their fun.
But William is right. It is my feelings about Alex’s behaviour that are what hurt, not Alex’s behaviour itself. Any psychotherapist will tell you that it’s only your own feelings that you need to process and the other person’s behaviour is only a mirror to your own insecurities.
At this point, any psychotherapist who wants to go on living would be well advised to keep away from any small villages in the foothills of Granada where I might be residing.
William actually does think that Alex has not behaved well (which is a relief because, remember, William is always right) but he also thinks that I should be ‘processing’ things with Alex. The only thing I want to process with Alex is his penis in a liquidiser.
I think it should still be attached to him at the time.
So, anyway, William sent us both this photocopied letter, in which he says that he’s ‘sad for the shattered dreams’.
‘So what are Alex’s shattered dreams?’ I ask him on the phone this afternoon.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he says vaguely.
‘So why write about them to both of us if it’s only relevant to me?’ I ask in a tone that William would recognise as dangerous if he were anything other than a saint.
‘I wanted to let you know that I love you both equally,’ he says.
‘Well I want you to know that I felt very hurt by it,’ I reply (good move – managed not to say ‘You hurt me’ which would have been radically unintegrated of me and you do want to remain integrated while talking to William).
But this is where William comes into his own. I have no idea exactly how the conversation goes from there but it keeps going in a way that lets me know that he has heard me and even listened to me but also in such a way that he does not have to say ‘sorry.’ The man is unbelievable and admirable and extraordinary and infinitely lovable - and I want to shoot him.
Do you know something? I think that I am finally ‘in touch with my anger.’ I tell William so and he agrees with me. Then he starts off on something about the difference between anger and rage and making sure that I don’t cross the thin red line because anger is a positive force for change but rage is self-destructive.
And I shout at him. I shout at the saint! I shout fairly coherently as well which is more than you could expect of anyone as unused to anger as I am.
I have spent all my life not getting in touch with my anger, I tell him. It is time that I started to shout. Perhaps I am in a bit of a rage but hey, when you are a beginner you do not always get it just right. You have to practice. Maybe you learn to distinguish between anger and rage later. Just for now, it is sufficient to be feeling them. Either of them. And, as far as I am concerned, I think that it is William’s job not to judge it one way or the other.
‘I am 43 years old,’ I shout (again) and I am Out of Nice.’
Oddly enough the phone call ends quite quickly after that, William having been goaded into saying that both Alex and I are fundamentalists. Fundamentalist what, he doesn’t say, but the surprise of that is tempered by satisfaction that I have managed to provoke him into an unsaintly remark.
Later, as I walk to the car in order to drive down to the supermarket on the coast, I ponder this idea of anger and rage. It seems a fine distinction and one that is worthy of deep consideration.
‘Bollocks,’ I think constructively and kick the hell out of the wall leading down to the sheep pens.
At the supermarket I stock up on chocolate and decide to take Frankly for a meander on the seashore. There is a light wind which takes away from the oppression of heat and, although she trolls along with her tongue hanging out so far that it nearly drags on the sand, she seems to be enjoying herself. When I sit on the rocks, looking over the sea, she pootles around and then comes to lean against me for a cuddle while I shed a few more tears and wonder what the future can hold. It seems so unreal sometimes to be sitting here in a foreign country away from all my friends and family. Surely the sensible thing would have been to stay where I had people around me? But the little nose pushing at my hand is a friend and there is consolation in being physically far away from the situation which hurts. Presumably, Alex is living his life, happily, making love with his girlfriend and explaining to all his friends (what friends?) how unreasonable I am and how he simply had to leave for his own sanity.
He will be explaining that he did not get involved with Susie until after the marriage ended, having implied that it ended by mutual consent and completely forgetting that he took a completely unilateral decision without consultation or even warning.
No! Don’t go there. Let it go. There is no point in expecting the pain to just go away but there is equally no point in wallowing in it. Nothing can be done; he is not coming back. And I am not strong enough to pretend that I don’t care if I bump into Susie and him in the street or to deal with the ‘Oh, I’m sorry you split up,’ comments from casual acquaintances. Equally I am not strong enough to slap Alex’s face or stamp on his feet or set fire to his house. Probably a good thing really.
It is seriously dark by the time Frankly and I return to the car. Dusk falls so swiftly here and I was lost in unproductive thoughts for longer than I thought. But, once we are back in the car and turning up the long winding road up to Los Poops, seeing a lone walker up ahead in the headlights, brings it home to me that this hire car has to go back next week. What am I going to do without transport? I won’t be able to run down to the supermarket for chocolate, go down to the sea or drive out for a different walk with Frankly. The ready tears jump into my eyes again – and I am so tired of crying.
‘Calm down,’ I tell myself sternly. ‘You will cope.’ But frantic calculations about money start juggling themselves through my head. I can’t afford to keep the car. I do know that I can hitch a lift with Sue or Stella whenever they are going out of the village but the independence will be missing and I will feel so trapped.
Round the first hairpin bend, round the second, and the walker ahead of me is just yards away. It’s a young man, and he puts his thumb out to hitch a lift.
Something tells me that it’s the shepherd from the village and I stop. These sudden moods of pain and loneliness that descend on me are such that any company is welcome and it’s not much of a risk. I’ve always been taught never to give lifts, let alone to strange men, but surely the shepherd is safe enough? Frankly is with me, after all, and she is now a swaggering village dog. Perhaps she would even protect me if it came to it. ‘Sitting On His Face And Farting Should Do It,’ says Frankly in the back.
So, I am smiling as he comes over to open the car door, and even the remnant of the mood is banished as he smiles back and climbs into the car.
But the scent of him clambers in first. It is overwhelming and my first instinct is to recoil. But no, it is not unpleasant – in fact it is the most heady of fragrances. As the shepherd sits and closes the door, the night air around us simply shimmers with the aroma of warm scented wool.
No, it is more than just the wool; it is the pure essence of warmth, of life itself and of the heat of a strong, tired young man’s body. Not testosterone as much as a sense of vitality and gentleness, mixed with lanolin from the wool and warm oil and herbs that have been crushed under his feet as he walked the hills with his flock. I am suddenly dizzy.
‘Gracias,’ he says, and his teeth are white and even.
‘A Los Poops?’
And he keeps on talking, very slowly and simply because he knows who I am and that I have very little Spanish and he, obviously, has no English at all. I try to understand.
He has been down into the town to …? No, that bit I can’t make any sense of. He was planning to …. No, that is lost too. But as long as I listen and make an occasional acknowledgement, that seems to be all that is required - for either of us. And all the time, I am inhaling this fragrance of shepherd and it is making my head swim in a lake of calm and peacefulness. I am not sure if he’s been treading in some kind of hallucinogenic herb or whether this is an actual mystical experience. Maybe I am going mad but somehow I know that this is a man who would search forever for just one lost lamb.
Now he is asking me questions; am I happy in Los Poops? Why do I live there? Where is my husband?
I am answering automatically, as best I can, while keeping my eye on the hairpin bends. As we talk, I am surprised to see that Frankly is poking her nose between the seats to be stroked. He is caressing her wrinkled forehead and making gentle noises to her as if she were a ewe in labour.
When the ‘husband’ question comes, I am silent and tears begin to well up in my eyes. This is ridiculous; not now! Not with a perfect stranger!
‘Ah,’ he says – and then something I do not understand – and the hand which had been stroking Frankly reaches out to touch my cheek where the tears are falling.
I have to stop the car because that gentle masculine touch is too much. Too exquisite and too painful for me to go on driving. I put my head in my hands and weep.
And then this total stranger is holding me in strong young arms, gently stroking my hair and murmuring words of comfort. By rights it should make me cry more, but it doesn’t. The pain just vanishes as if it had never been there and I have the strangest and most surreal of thoughts: ‘It must be nice to be one of his sheep’.
‘Thank you,’ I say, pulling away a little nervously and he lets me go with a smile and sits back again in the passenger seat. Frankly climbs through the gap between us and clambers onto his lap. ‘Oho!’ he says easily, helping her and stroking her worried forehead. She is in bliss.
I drive on, half shaken, half immensely calm and nothing more is said until we reach the village.
I drop him at the top of Calle La Era and Frankly jumps down as soon as he opens the door.
‘Gracias,’ he says again with a smile and then he has vanished down the hill. I don’t even know his name.
The glorious scent lingers behind him and I think that I am okay until I am halfway down the steep path to the house. Then loneliness descends like a cloak of emptiness. There is no one to hold me or love me and the scent of nobody lingers in my bed.
Frankly follows me in her own inimitable lethargic way so I leave the house door open. After all, what does it matter if anyone hears me weeping? Nobody really cares what becomes of me. But oh God! What would I give for a bath?
Casa Christina! Suddenly, in the middle of a hiccup of tears of self-pity, I remember the keys on the back of the door. Jack and Stella’s house with the bath! The one that I promised to clean for them! Maybe I could get enough hot water if I turned the boiler on for just half an hour and boiled saucepans in the meantime. It would be worth it. It would be something to fill the long, yawning evening ahead at least.
I get to the door with saucepans and matches just as Frankly rolls in. The poor beagle grumbles and mumbles about having to go out again. ‘Well you can stay here then,’ I say callously, threatening to shut the door on her.
‘Bugger That,’ says the beagle giving me the filthiest of looks and, heaving a heavy sigh, she rolls out onto the slope again.
But she is so slow and I am cursing her as I lead the way to Casa Christina. Every moment is holding me back from that precious bath.
‘Oh you can catch me up,’ I say crossly, sprinting ahead. Frankly’s ‘Huk-huk’ exasperated noise follows, echoing against the white cobbled walls.
Casa Christina is dark and dusty and it takes precious minutes to find the keyhole let alone to get in and find the light switch. But the electricity works and, glory of glories, Jack has left the pilot light on for the cleaning I have promised to do. Almost shaking, I try and assess what kind of a boiler it is. Does it give constant hot water? If so, it will, at least, fill the bath with some warmth and I can do the rest on the gas stove. And I’m in luck.
The bath needs cleaning but it is only dust and spiders and I’ve remembered to bring a cloth and the Flash. Once four full saucepans are settled on the stove and the water is running painfully slowly into the tub, I go back out to check that Frankly is still on her way.
The barrel is rolling slowly and steadily down the last hill, puffing and blowing and sounding like an indignant steam engine.
‘Come on sausage,’ I say, kindly, stroking the broad back as Frankly doubtfully investigates the doorway into another completely strange house and looks at me as if I have personally murdered all her (non existent) puppies. There is a big broad chair where we both can sit with a book while the water boils and, after a preliminary sniff around, Frankly is quite happy to be hauled up for a lap and a cuddle. She even stays on the chair when I get up to pour the saucepans into the bath and made a quick calculation of how much more hot water is needed. Two more – so I boil four for certain and leave two by the side of the bath for top-ups.
Oh God it is bliss! The preliminary cold of getting undressed just adds to the joy of sliding into the bath and the flow of heat feels like a great wave of fulfilled desire as I sink down into the hot, hot water.
Frankly begins to snore and I tip another saucepan of water into the bath as my body heat lowers the temperature around me. There is not enough light here to read in the bath but just lying there is good enough.
‘And I can do this every night if I like,’ I think. But I won’t. Somehow, I know that it has to be kept special: for the really difficult evenings and for the times when I desperately need some comfort.
And as I lie there, with this body made strangely slender by grief and my hair floating around my head, I start thinking of the shepherd and try to remember his scent. It is elusive, but I can still feel the presence of him, the feel of his arms around me and the kindness that exuded from him. He has compassion; I know that; the cardinal virtue that Alex lacks.
No, don’t think about Alex. Think about hot water and kindly shepherds. And as I lie there, I begin to wonder what it would be like to be held and loved by such a man. Such a basic, earthy man who does not even speak my language. Someone who tends animals and lives with them, spending each day alone with his sheep and his fierce dogs on the edge of the mountains. It is as if the life force that I felt in him is working within me.
What does he do all day? I wonder. Perhaps he takes books or music to the hillside with him? But I don’t really think so. He is pretty much the last remnant of mankind without a Walkman or a mobile phone and he would more likely stand and dream or sit and watch the sky and the earth and their movements as his sheep roam and nibble and graze to fill their bellies. What do you learn of the earth if you watch it all day? What mysteries were there for the silent watcher who has nothing to do but look and see?
I lie there, thinking of him, until I find myself wafting into dreams. Then, as the water grows cool, I manage to find some discipline, sit up, wash my hair, rinse it with the last saucepan of still warm water and, getting out, rub myself briskly dry.
But, as I let the water out of the bath my hair tumbles out of the towel, falling over my shoulder like a caress and I feel myself wanting…wanting something.
Is it desire? No, not quite. Can I even remember desire? Am I still capable of feeling it? I don’t know. Desire feels dead or dormant deep inside me and no return is expected. This is a good feeling though; a feeling of life or hope or something like that.
Time to tidy up briskly and shoo Frankly out of her deep snoring sleep. Sulkily, the beagle flops down onto the floor and makes her way as slowly as possible to where I am holding the door open. ‘It’s My Bedtime,’ she grumbles. ‘That Chair Was Nice.’
We walk home together, slowly, through the still night and I am still warm from the heaven of the bath, with my hair knotted in the towel and damp on my neck. Frankly is sniffing and snorting along at the late night smells of animals and ghosts and above us, the stars circle in their courses with Jupiter and Saturn glowing side by side. The occasional streetlamps mask them a little but there is enough darkness to feel the arms of night around you.
Curled up in the hard, single bed, with Frankly snoring at my feet, I dream of the shepherd.
In the morning, I cannot remember the dream but I awaken contented and able to lie in bed for an extra hour knowing that something warm has embraced me; nothing sexual or threatening but a friendship and a compassion that I have missed for so long.As I finally get up and tip the dozy, grumbling barrel out of the front door for its morning pee, I find myself wondering, in a very abstract sort of way, how a man like the shepherd would treat his wife.