Fidelis ad ultimum

1.

After lunch, Mrs Smith prepared to go out, She was going to have to leave her dog behind. Her dog was a little terrier, very intelligent, but not great at being left alone for a long time. The dog was prone to what some people called “separation anxiety”. She talked to the dog as she prepared herself, telling him what was happening, informing him why she could not take him along. It wouldn’t be strictly true to say that the dog frowned, but you could see that he knew that something was going to happen that he would not like. In his doggy mind, he formed the impression that he would be taken to the vet – the worst possible thing he could think of.

Mrs Smith was in fact going to a hospice to visit the husband of her dearest friend. The poor man was dying of cancer and was not long for this world. Mrs Smith would be going to meet her friend at her house, and together, they would drive to the hospice.

As Mrs Smith put her coat on it finally dawned on little Fido that he was going to be left behind, and he started to whine.

“Stop that!!, said Mrs Smith. “I don’t want to hear it. You’ll have to put up with being on your own for a few hours.”

Stooping down, she said “C’mere”, and the little dog ran, tail wagging, to be petted and fussed over. The terrier calmed down somewhat, and Mrs Smith got back to her feet – slowly, for she was no longer a young woman. She did it slowly mainly to avoid dizziness and seeing stars.

The dog stood in the hall, quite still, as Mrs Smith left the house. The front door closed with the distinctive click peculiar to that particular door. Not for the first time, Mrs Smith reflected that no two doors shutting ever sounded alike – each door was different. That caused a moment of reminiscence as she remembered the sound of the shutting of the front door of her home when she was a little girl. Mrs Smith had a walk of perhaps a mile to her friend’s house. It was a bright fresh morning in October. Cold – but not too cold. As she walked along the street she saw the postman and waved to him, as she always did. This postman was the most cheerful and helpful man imaginable, and bore a close resemblance to a popular TV personality.

Mrs Smith and her friend were very close, and had known each other for a long time. They drove to the hospice to visit with her friend’s husband, who was terminally ill. He had been ill for some years. It is of course never easy to deal with a loved one dying in this way. Mrs Smith’s friend sometimes wondered if she was responding in an inappropriate way to the impending death of her husband of forty years. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him deeply, or that they had not had a wonderful life or deeply satisfying marriage – although with all the ups and downs you might expect of any marriage. She sometimes felt that the younger generation tended to wear their hearts on their sleeves in such matters. She was of an older, perhaps more emotionally continent generation. Her own mother had been born during the Second World War and had recounted to her harrowing stories of living through that conflict as a little girl in a family with no breadwinner.

Mrs Smith and her friend managed to have a short conversation with the dear dying man who had been so important to them both for so much of their lives. Towards the end of the conversation, he fell asleep. It was clear to them both that he was in a good deal of pain so this was perhaps a good thing. Though no perceptible signal passed between the two friends, they got up to leave at exactly the same moment. No word was spoken; none was necessary.

When Mrs Smith got back home, she knew something was wrong almost the instant the key slid into the lock. One distinctive noise, normally followed seconds later by another – the exciting yapping of her terrier as he bounded towards her in greeting. Except the second sound never came. She went into the house and shut the door behind her. Nothing seemed out of place; there was no shredded newspaper on the hall floor. No coats had been pulled from the coat rack. There were no deep scratches in the newel post at the foot of the stairs. But the dog was not there. There was quite literally no trace of him. His basket was there, but it had been there when she left after lunch. She looked all around the downstairs of her house; she checked that the doors were all locked. Fido was quite clever enough – though neither strong enough nor big enough – to trip the handles of doors and thus make his escape from a room. She checked upstairs; she checked downstairs. She checked upstairs again, looking under the beds. There was no doubt about it – the dog was gone.

Could her one of her sons have arrived unannounced and taken him for a walk? This was unlikely. Both of them lived hundreds of miles away and both had families and worked full time. Both were unlikely to come to her house alone or without giving her some notice beforehand. Could the dog have got through a door she had missed and left unlocked? No. She had left every door locked. Could a thief have stolen him? No – realistically, why would they steal such a dog? But in any case, there was no sign of breaking and entering, no sign of any disturbance of any kind whatsoever. But the dog was gone. It seemed beyond belief. She wondered for a moment, whilst absent-mindedly putting the kettle on, if she was losing it. Could she herself be struggling with dementia or memory loss issues? It was possible; since the death of her own husband some years previously she had wondered if she should remain on her own in this big old house. A wave of self-doubt and uncertainty swept over her as she waited for the kettle to boil.

But the dog was gone. She should at the very least, report it to the police and to the RSPCA.

2.

In my dream I was on holiday, sat at a little table outdoors. The table was one of two or three on a terrace at the rear of a large villa. Behind the villa are gentle wooded hills. The terrace was made of light-coloured flagstones, and at the edge, there were two small carved stone lions, worn and old, barely recognisable as lions. They were made of a darker red sandstone, quite different from the flags of the terrace and the low wall supporting them. From between the lions a few steps descended to a path through some scrubby, grassy dunes to a beach. The curve of a bay was visible; in the distance, a headland. It was a glorious summery evening in a hot country. The sky was a vault of the clearest blue, with the promise of sunset.

A waiter, wearing a cream dinner jacket and a black bow tie, appeared from the house, carrying a tray. He looked to be of Mediterranean descent. On the tray, a jug of water, a bottle of red wine, glasses, and a bowl of bread. The waiter set the tray down with professional aplomb and delivered these items onto the table, saying nothing as he did so. I looked closely at the waiter, for he seemed somehow familiar. No flicker of recognition came as he opened and poured out the wine. He nodded with grave professional courtesy, and smiled, saying, “enjoy”. And then he disappeared, walking back up to the house as unobtrusively as he had appeared.

I settled into my chair, sipping a very good Malbec, and nibbling at the bread. A tremendous burden seemed to have lifted from my shoulders; a huge task of work was now complete. I could relax. I was almost too tired to think, and quite content to just sit and look at the dunes and the beach, and the occasional wheeling sea birds, and enjoy the sunshine.

Sometime later, as the sun neared the horizon, I spied movement on the beach. People were there, of course, sunbathing and walking and relaxing, and they were moving about, but this movement stood out against that pattern as unusual. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an unusual pattern. A hidden part of my mind noticed something odd. A large brown dog was making it’s way purposefully along the beach. The dog seemed to know where it was going, quite content to trot along past various people, with no obvious sign of a master or an owner. The dog was not wandering aimlessly with nose to the ground, as dogs do.

It came up the steps and crossed the terrace towards me, and greeted me, licking my hand briefly and allowing me to stroke him. It was a big German Shepherd, and it seemed somehow familiar. This was odd, because I’ve never owned a dog or known such a dog. But then again, this is a dream.

The dog turned around a few times, and lay down to doze. Occasionally it twitched in its sleep and thumped its tail. Time passed; evening fell, the light faded and the sunset was glorious upon the sky. By and by, the red wine was finished, and it was night. I decided to get up and go indoors. The promise of a chill was in the air – not the chill itself, just the hint of what might come later. So I got up and stretched, creaking and stiff after so long sat down. I made my way up the villa, leaving the wine glass and bottle on the table. The dog, sensing me move, likewise got up, shook itself, followed me across the terrace and into the house.

Inside the house there were a few dim lights. There was no-one about, in what seemed to be a small hotel of some kind. I went up the stairs to the first floor, and the dog followed me up the stairs. Some way along a musty and ill-lit corridor, I pulled a key from my pocket, unlocked the door to one of the rooms, and went in. The dog was at my heels, so I held the door open, and the hound went ahead of me into the room. There was a bed, a chair and a washbasin, and a simple desk. An elegant antique wardrobe stood in one corner.

Deeply tired now, and with a pleasantly buzzing head from having drunk a full bottle of good red wine, I prepared myself for bed. I did so by the simple expedient of taking my clothes off and laying them over the chair. After washing my face and drinking water straight from the tap, I was into bed, which was just sheets, after the fashion of a hot country. The dog, after checking things and looking round the room and sniffing for a few moments, found himself a place and lay down, making that curious circling round that dogs sometimes do when laying down. Lying in bed, I was happy to be able to relax, grateful for the rest and peace. It seemed again as if some great task, some mighty or immense work, some tremendous effort, was behind me now. It was accomplished. Glad I was to have been sitting in the sunset and sipping good red wine. Soon enough, I slept.

3.

And I dreamed again, a dream within a dream. I was walking my dog in what seemed to be the North Downs, something like the quiet, secret chalk valleys around Woldingham. I knew it was a dream because I don’t have a dog. I’ve never had a dog. I admire well-behaved, aristocratic, classy dogs. I like clever dogs and I like working dogs – sheep dogs for example – but I never owned a dog myself. But here, in this dream, I have a dog. This does not seem odd. This is a dream. Anything can happen, but in another sense, everything that happens will make perfect sense. I’ve always valued dreams. In my youth I wrote them all down, trying to remember them from year to year. Some classics have stayed with me all my life; others I can remember only because I wrote them down. I can remember only that I once must have dreamed that dream, but cannot recall the dream itself. I have found that the great God above sometimes speaks to us mortals through dreams and visions.

The dog was deriving immense pleasure from being required to fetch sticks. This can be tiresome after a while, but today I too was satisfied with hurling the stick into the distance. The dog watched carefully to see which way the stick would go, and then bounded off joyfully, and with endless enthusiasm and energy, to fetch the stick back. With the stick grasped firmly in his jaws, the dog crouched down, eying me, playing a kind of teasing game, not releasing the stick until it wants to.

I spied a man crossing the hillside, dressed in a Barbour jacket and wellingtons. He had the look and dress of a landowner about him. My dog bounded up to him to say hello, and he squatted down to make a fuss of the hound. He glanced up at me and I was somehow not surprised to see that the man appeared to be the waiter that served my wine last night. Or was it on a hotel terrace in Italy many years ago? And yet also, he seemed to be someone I should know.

“You’ll forgive me”, I said, “but I’m sure I know you from somewhere, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“No, that’s fine.” He replied. “I know a lot of people and I do have a very good head for faces. I’ve known you for years, and we have met once or twice, but you may not have recognised me when we met.” He said this with a little smile.

I was nonplussed. I knew him from somewhere, that’s for sure. “Are you the owner of this land or the farmer or the estate factor?” I asked.

He gave me an odd glance before replying. “Yees, I suppose I am something of that sort. It’d certainly be true to say that I’m familiar with the country round here, and isn’t it beautiful?”

He had an odd accent that I could not for the life of me pin down or place. I’ve always loved language and accents, even to the extent of trying to understand accents in different languages. A German speaking in an Essen accent; the French of a person from Algeria; Russian spoken by a Muscovite.

“On a day like this, for sure. On any day, in fact. You’d hardly believe that London Bridge and the Square Mile is only twenty miles from this place. What I like here is that you can barely even hear the M25. I used to live in the north of England and I could do lots more visiting places like the Lakes and the Yorkshire Dales. I sometimes miss those places terribly, lovely though it is here. I remember driving through the Lake District years ago and having that feeling of returning home. I had to pull over; I was in tears.”

“Mmmm. It’s a strange thing to miss a place you once loved, isn’t it?” he observed. “Like you’re a stranger in a strange land, a country not your own. I think we’re all in exile to an extent, and that somewhere else there is a true home for us all. I guess you’re retired now?”

“Well yes, as such. I haven’t been well lately, and to be honest it’s nice to be able to get out in the fresh air. I was an engineer for years, working all over the world, and after that I had a desk job, but I stopped that years ago. Nice to do something different”. I told him about church, about being the church warden and a lay preacher, and about working with the Rotary Club, and he listened politely, nodding at intervals.

“Yes,” he agreed. “I learned my trade as a joiner, working with my dad. I worked with him fifteen years until he died, and I took over his business. Bit of general building work. Nice to work with your hands. But the opportunity to do something different came up. As I said, I look after all kinds of things now, and this land is only a small part of what I do. I do get about it a bit, travel a lot, and it’s nice, as you say, to be out in the fields and fresh air, meeting people”.

We spoke more, of my wife and our children and their families, their hopes and dreams. We spoke of the church and of the young people; we spoke of the political situation. He was quite the most remarkably courteous fellow; he never interrupted or got hot under the collar about politics, as the English often are. That accent of his was niggling me; this pleasant and well-mannered fellow was no Englishman, however well he seemed to know the North Downs. I never got around to asking him where he was from. So delightful a listener was he that the time just flew by and it was me talking, talking all the time. And yet that seemed right. I was not bending his ear, nor was he just putting up with me out of politeness. Without seeming to be too interested in me, he had the knack of giving me his full and complete attention. I know – over the years I’ve seen enough of the signs of boredom, and tried not to express them myself. The cocktail eyes, the surreptitious glance at the clock on the wall, the edginess. I remember being in an interview with a very clever and very observant priest and making every effort not to look at my watch at all – but at the end this priest said, “I know you want to get on…I’ll let you go now”. He knew, he knew all along how shallow were my attempts to be courteous. But this gentleman’s courtesy was whole-hearted. It was if the whole of his attention, the entirety of his being, was given over to courtesy and politeness.

“You’ve been wondering about my accent…”

I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out.

“It’s Syrian. My name is Maran. Maran Atha. I was bought up in the Middle East; I came here after the Syrian Civil War. It’s been good talking with you, but I think your dog” – he said this with a sidelong glance at the dog – “wants to get on with stick throwing.”

The dog was bored with all this conversation and was whining. He wanted attention. I waved him towards me and he came to me, licking my hand as I fussed over him.

“I’m sure we’ll meet again, and quite soon”, said Mr Maran Atha, looking at me with that same little smile. And I woke up.

I was back in the hotel room and the brown dog was licking my hand. The dog was whining, trying to tell me something; insistent, it would not give up. I’d no clock or watch, but bladder pressure seemed to tell me that it was later in the night than earlier. The dog continued with its whining. Coming back from using the bathroom, I peered out the window but it faced northwest and I could see nothing of dawn.

I became aware that I was still dreaming. This was somewhat confusing because I’ve just woken up from a dream of speaking to a man on a chalky hillside in southern England. A very few times in my life I’ve been in a dream within a dream – woken up from a dream to find that I am still dreaming. Though on those occasions it was only afterwards when I woke up fully that I became aware of this. Remember the old film “Inception”? I thought I’d best get out of bed, and run with what was happening.

The dog waited patiently for me to fling on some clothes. The two of us left the room, went down the stairs, through the hall and out onto the terrace. The house was quiet and dark, with the strange smells of a house not your own, and the strange unfamiliar shapes of night time. There was no night porter or concierge; all was quiet, and the door out onto the terrace was not locked. Once outside, it was clear that it was very early morning, and sunrise was at hand. The dog and I walked around the side of the house to find the eastern sky ablaze with the promise of sunrise, above the tree-clad hills. The dog trotted off ahead, and I followed along an ancient track, up the hill behind the house, towards the sunrise. It seemed to know the way. The path led through the gloom under trees and shrubs, past an old and decayed shed, unused for decades. As we climbed, the view of the bay opened out behind me, and the pre-dawn light grew stronger as the minutes passed. The dog and I climbed on for a while, sometimes steeply uphill, sometimes level and in the valleys of little streams, always through trees. Somehow it was always still just before dawn. In due course, we reached a hilltop, and the trees came to an end. Here was a flatter place, a kind of terrace. A stone wall marked the edge of the woods.

All of a sudden, in that way that occurs only in dreams, there was an odd and disorienting kind of shift, one of those strange and unexplained changes of circumstance, rather like when you find yourself running in treacle or getting onto the train dressed in your pyjamas. I had become a downed airman in enemy territory, and here was a guide from the resistance, to lead me across a frontier from a war zone into a peaceful country. A man was waiting for us, by the stone wall. He resembled a friendly waiter I’d once met, but I couldn’t be sure. The dog had disappeared.

“Hallo, my friend.” he said, “I will be your guide, anbd we shall make this last stage of your journey together. You’ll need my help”.

“Why?” I asked.

“At the frontier there is a deep and fast-running river to cross. You cannot cross it alone or without a guide to help you.” With this he looked right at me and I knew him for the man in my dream last night, when I’d dreamt of being on the North Downs.

And with no further word, the man who was to be my guide turned away and set off, and I followed him towards the rising sun.

5.

In the early morning, the phone rang, and Mrs Smith was instantly awake. She was a light sleeper in these times, the more so since the disappearance of her dog the other day. Dawn was in the air; there was light behind the curtains. Even as she reached out for the telephone, she knew who it was and what would be said. The call was from her dear friend whose husband was dying. In a few words, Mrs Smith’s friend passed on the news that her husband had died only a few minutes before, not long after sunrise.

“It was a remarkable thing,” she said. “I spoke to him last night, and he said was so very tired. But right at the end he seemed very relaxed and peaceful, after everything he’d been through.”

Mrs Smith thanked her friend and she rang off. They would meet later.

She got up out of bed, and started to go downstairs. About half-way down the stairs, she had an odd moment of disorientation when she heard the click of her dogs paws on the wooden floor of the hall. It was disorienting because it was quite impossible – her dog was gone these few days. She’d reported the loss, and had had a telephone conversation with a nice lady from the police, who in the end, was no help at all, however nice she’d been to talk to. Mrs Smith wondered once again if she was losing her senses. Not a great feeling to have when coming down the stairs at 7 o’clock in the morning in your seventies.

But no, there he was, the cheeky and intelligent little terrier, looking up the stairs at her, waiting patiently for her to get to the bottom of the stairs, as if he’d never been gone.

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