I wrote this story on the train, the same day that it happened at the end of May 2014. Here it is, typed up ten months later:
On this mild but quite sunny afternoon the bench on the railway platform is vacant.
Vacant, except for a large dog lying down on the ground near a young woman perched cross-legged at the end of a bench, with her large suitcase to the side. She sat there as if this was the most comfortable position to adopt on a cold metal bench while waiting for a train. She sat there as if the view was of a beach on a sunny day, instead of dirty railway tracks immediately in front, and trains to vague destinations beyond.
It is a long time since I ate a hearty hotel breakfast. As I remove a bottle of water and chocolate bar from the vending machine, my eyes are drawn to the dog once more. He is a large Labrador crossed with some other breed, also large, and the colour of chocolate. He is calm, relaxed, but alert enough to notice my approach.
I settle down on the other end of the bench, and say hello once I have my legs crossed and feet resting on top of my suitcase. By way of reply, I get a bright white casual smile framed by a tanned face and shoulder-length, light brown curly hair. Her hair is the kind which lends itself easily to dishevelment; the kind reminiscent of lazy contented Sunday mornings in bed.
I say that I did not know such big dogs were allowed to travel on the train. She replies that her boyfriend left his dog with her, and while my mind starts wondering about the circumstances of the boyfriend’s departure, she adds the detail that the dog requires a muzzle and a special licence to travel thus.
It turns out that the calm young woman on the bench is Italian, so this information comes via the scenic route of hand gestures, with English interspersed with the occasional Portuguese word in the manner of one speaking broken Spanish.
I comment on how calm the dog is, and think to myself that the dog’s behaviour is in perfect synchronicity of its temporary human. “Tranquilissimo is the dog”, she says.
I think of the three black Labradors we had before we emigrated, the sharp pang of the void I feel every time I do so, and how strange it was to burst into tears uncontrollably about a month after arriving in Portugal when I found myself surrounded by shelves stacked high with dog food in a supermarket one day. We struggled to feed our dogs in the months before we left Zimbabwe; the food shortages applied to stockfeed and dog food too.
Sara confirms that Tranquilissimo, the dog of the five-syllable name, is part Labrador. I say he has the classic head shape of that breed. I mention how I had dogs once, but I don’t speak of the rest of the memory.
We are now sitting closer together on the bench merely to hear each other properly. The platform is filling up with people, but they stay away from the bench because of the dog. I offer a cigarette, which is casually accepted in they way people who have run out of cigarettes but have no money to buy more accept them.
I notice she has bitten fingernails which are at odds with her apparent calm. I am once more struck by her tan. It is the kind of dusky tan one gets from being on the open road. A hitchhiker’s tan. She has a regular suitcase for luggage, though. She tells me that she is tired now, after twenty days on the road since she left Spain.
As she says this she turns the rope fashioned from a cheap ball of thick twine in her hand, seemingly checking knots and the efficacy of the muzzle, not yet on the calm brown obedient dog. “Oh well,” she says, “I have to get the dog home somehow.” I hear of the odd jobs she has had recently. In her last job she baked cakes in a bakery for the three days of the weekend. I tell her I have a niece, who has the same name as her, training to do the same thing, and that she might visit me here one day.
I ask her if she feels free. She wants me to be more specific. I ask whether travelling – not being tied down – makes her feel free. Sara stretches her arms above her head to try out the idea of freedom.
Then she half yawns, and says “Yes, but”. Yes, but she is tired of the constant moving. Her youth makes her strong, resilient. She has bright, well-fed eyes. She says she is tired without any sadness or disappointment. There is no trace of despair nor hint that she needs or necessarily wants approval or advice. Here eyes gaze around, as if tracing the route she has taken on her travels. As she shakes her curls, which mask the real action of shaking her head, I see that she is definitely not going to stay with the boyfriend; the owner of the dog. She does not say so, however; she must be the loyal type. Yet her expression as she now cocks her head and smiles – at me, not the memory – is the kind owned by those who do not see the sense in speaking badly of fellow sinners.
I ask a lot of questions. When I ask her age, I tell her mine, for I am almost twice as old as she, and in my defence I say that time passes. She shrugs as she reveals her age and says she has time on her side. I see the humour of it. We both laugh. She adds that it might be time to settle down quite soon.
Every time someone asks me where I am from, the story gets briefer. I tell her we left Zimbabwe because of hyperinflation, although technically a state of hyperinflation had not yet been reached as it was in the Weimar Republic, but I do not mention technicalities or historical detail. Instead, I tell her one reason for leaving was that a week’s worth of my manager’s salary was not enough money to buy one bread roll. Then I cave in, and tell her about not being able to find a suitable home for our three Labradors, so we had to put them to sleep.
I say that it is good, so very good, to be a free spirit, but you cannot actually choose the precise time your life moves from one phase to another, nor exactly how it is going to change. Sara finds this enormously funny.
I tell her that you can choose what you change but not the how and the when.
I tell her about my beloved being in the care facility for the very first time. About the 27 days I have left to rest and be free. I tell her how the conference I have just attended was great, but now my life starts again.
I look into the distance in the hope that my tears will be instantly transported there before they are fully formed. She asks if something is wrong, and says I look sad, and asks why.
I tell her life has changed again. A new phase has come, and I do not really know how to do it, how to handle it.
If I had been in group therapy right then, I would have thanked everyone for allowing me to say that. Instead, Sara’s dog comes and gives me his paw and gnaws at my knuckles. She is concerned until she sees that I do not mind. Instead of saying thank you, I take out a second cigarette, light it, and take a drag. I take out another cigarette and hand it to her. I say it is all the same to me if she smokes it now or keeps it for later.
“Here is my train. I’ll keep it for later.” Off she goes with the obedient dog which is not hers. I almost tell her I think she has a great character, but a sad heart. I resist the impulse. I let her be. She is still free.
Allison Wright ©2015