Dedicated to my dear friends Sue and David, without whom things would have been very different.
They say you don’t know who your friends are until the chips are down. I’d say you don’t know who strangers are either. Or even an old friend you haven’t been in touch with for years. Or her husband whom you’ve never met. You don’t know who anyone is until the chips are down.
“Hello lovely! Ooh look at you! And this is Rotty? Oh what a sweetie! Let’s get her settled upstairs first, and then we’ll come back down and fetch your things.” Sue hugged me so tight it made me laugh. Her dark hair fell over her jacket lapels. Brown boots clicked on the tarmac. There was a splash of Spanish flamboyance to Sue. She hadn’t changed a bit.
“Are you sure it’s OK for her to be in your flat? We’ll be fine in the van if not. Really.” I looked at the horizon. The rain had cleared, but the sky remained swollen and dark on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela. I inhaled the smell of eucalyptus from the forests around, while Rotty sniffed about the van, shoulders raised in two furry triangles, head lowered to the ground.
“Oh yes! I’m hoping she’ll persuade David to get a dog too. I’d love a dog. I still miss my dad’s old Labrador, Sam.”
And with that we all turned and made for the apartment block door.
Two days later, the three of us we were huddled at the vets. It was a spotless establishment, with all the pet accoutrements of the first world. A dark-haired woman in a white coat walked quietly into the room, a thin slip of paper curling in her hand. She shook her head and began speaking.
“She says Rotty has stage 4 renal failure,” Sue translated. “The leishmania has attacked her kidneys.” My old friend put her arm round me, her face drooping in glumness. Tears dug at the corners of my eyes. Leishmania requires an aggressive chemotherapy type treatment which is horrible to administer. Rotty’s kidneys were shot to bits. We were on the road, and she couldn’t travel.
“But...but last time it was worse than this, and she survived!” I said. “She went down to 14 kg.”
When the vet received the translation, she stared at Rotty hard. “It’s unbelievable. It was a miracle then,” the woman said, shaking her head gravely. She was right. The events of last summer had been a miracle. And now I believed in them.
As we walked back to my van, Sue held my arm again. “Don’t worry. You can stay with us until this is sorted out.”
“Sue, I came for a day or two. This could take weeks!”
“My dad has a flat on the coast. If it comes to it, you can go there. But for now you need to be here near the vet. I don’t think David will mind.”
Would he have said if he did? Because David was a nice guy. Seriously.
Thus began two dramatically upsetting, powerful, exhausting, heart-warming, shocking and amazing weeks. It was as if the universe threw everything into the drum of that fortnight, from best to worst, and span it at 1000 rpm. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Now I don’t normally put too much stock on human beings. We’re a fickle, callous bunch at the best of times. But over the next two weeks, my faith in human nature was steadily reconstructed from the bottom up. It can’t be easy to house a grieving person plus their dying dog in your attic flat after all.
Yet somehow we all got on. It was like our North London flat share all over again. Sue was the working girl, so she was out most of the day educating the Galician youth in the tongue of the Angles. When she wasn’t at work, she could usually be found in the living room, surrounded by towers of files and text books. Every now and again, her head would rise out of the nest of paperwork. “Ooh I don’t know why I always seem to be surrounded by work!” She’d wail before sinking below the marking again.
David was a quiet, meditative chap, which was fortunate, because there wasn’t too much room left in the conversation once Sue and I bit into it. He taught taekwondo in the evenings, and that left us both at home in the day times. Often we’d meet for lunch and have a chat over a nice glass of Alburino.
“He won’t tell you himself, so I shall have to. You know he was the Galician taekwondo champion four years in a row,” Sue said one night at dinner.
David grinned rather coyly, and slid his spoon toward the pan of homemade aloo gobhi on the table.
“He also studied the Camino de Santiago for his thesis. Many strings to his bow, this one.”
“Oh I’d like to do that one day.”
“Well, let me tell you, once people walk that road, it seems to hook them. They just keep coming back to do it again and again. Or different bits of it. It never leaves them.” Sue munched contentedly on some rice.
“There are many roads. Many Caminos,” David murmured mysteriously. He placed his fork carefully next to his plate.
“Tell me more,” I said and reached for my wine glass. “When did the Camino thing start?”
David stood up and piled our plates on top of each other. He spoke slowly and deliberately. “They think it was a Pagan way. May be it was the path to the sun. Because the ending, it is in Finisterre.”
“The most westerly point in mainland Europe,” Sue clarified, pushing her plate away.
“So it’s like Christmas and Easter. They slapped a Christian ritual onto a pagan one.” I chortled and banged my wine glass onto the table.
“You know how it is. Made it easier for the locals to swallow that way.” Sue grinned. Abruptly she turned around. “Oh flower! Come here my little perrita, how are you?”
Rotty wandered into the kitchen and visited each of us in turn, tail wagging. Then she flopped onto the floor by the table. We all looked at her. I suppose it was obvious. But because she’d returned from the brink before, I just didn’t believe it.
Ten days after I arrived at Sue and David’s, Rotty...well...what actually happened to Rotty? What happens to any of us? It is life’s most important mystery.
We are not often honoured enough to watch a good death from start to finish. Human deaths are all too often closeted in old people’s homes, knotted up amidst wires and catheters in emergency wards, or ripped to pieces by violence. And this is tragic because when life evacuates a body, a profound power is released. I witnessed that power. In a dog.
It was the small hours. The witching hours. The hours all supernatural things occur. From somewhere within the thick of sleep, I sensed someone staring at me. Heaving my eyelids up, I vaguely made out Rotty, nose almost touching mine, gawping unblinkingly at me. I reached for the light, and sensed my dog wanted me to move next to her, which in itself was unusual, because she hated sleeping next to me normally. So I laid beside her, head on her cushion, stroking her ears. Her features relaxed. Then for a full hour she stared at me so intensely I thought she was reading my soul.
Rotty was standing at the gate of the mystery. And she knew.
Yet here is the thing. The vet had already told me Rotty’s hemoglobin count was so low she would die any time. She couldn’t understand how my dog could still walk, or poop outside, or indeed do anything. But my dog was walking. She had walked out of the vet that very afternoon, head forward, eyes focused with the determination of a marathon runner.
Groaning, I heard Rotty pulling herself onto her legs. She began pacing the room, claws clipping on the parquet flooring like a deranged tap dancer. “She needs to pee,” I thought. So I hauled myself up and opened the door.
It was barely six am, and the air outside was still inked out with night. Rotty sniffed the darkness, as though she were smelling the stars. Finally she peed, then turned to walk back to the car park. It was here she ran out of steam and slumped onto the tarmac. Bending down, I scooped her up into my arms feeling as sorry as a dog owner can.
Minutes later we were back inside the apartment. I placed my Rotty gently down on her bed. And then it happened. Suddenly her body heaved. I gaped aghast as she took a three or four rasping breaths.
I don’t really know what I saw leave Rotty in the moments after her last breath. But something did. Her essence drained out of her. And yes consciousness leaves gradually, it’s not an on/off-switch affair. You could see it pulling out of the cells. Then at some point, the body that was previously animated, became a piece of meat. No Rotty. No life. No awareness. Just a carcass. I’m still left clueless about it. What was it that left? And where did it go? Can something that powerful, an energy that vibrant, suddenly vanish into thin air? It certainly didn’t feel like it vanished. Because the air in the room was full for a good two hours. But what with?
Now there are all types of words and definitions and theories you can slot into the gaps here, religious, scientific or otherwise. But when you witness it, if you are honest, you are left simply not knowing.
What a mystery death is. What a strange and uncharted land. An unknown laced with signs and meanings, stirred by the hand of fate. My dog made it to Santiago to Compostela and died, her pilgrimage apparently complete. Yet it brought to light how incomplete mine was. I watched something leave my dog’s body, but I didn’t know what it was. Her light perhaps? The light we all carry along the Camino of life. But what is it? What are we? What is that essence that holds the rest of our being together? Because if we don’t know this, and we don’t even bother to research it, then what the hell are we doing?
Ah Santiago de Compostela, city of spirit, how kind you were to me in my hour of darkness. Every single one of your inhabitants, from the vets, to the crematorium, to the random acupuncturist we phoned to obtain herbs, to my dear friends Sue and David...each rose to the occasion. Every single one did their level best, and then a bit more. Compassion and integrity stole through your alleyways, both medieval and modern. You hummed with them.
For a month I couldn’t leave. I drove round the Coast of Death, to the most westerly point of mainland Europe. The rocks roared with messages. The sea foamed and churned in time, before I circled back to Santiago. I walked the Camino too, and saw spirits, ghosts and more. The light of millions of human pilgrims seeped into me, until I rediscovered my own.
Eventually it was time to leave. To reach into another place. Portugal stretched in front of me like a golden finger of promise. Yet as my van crossed the border and the soft green slopes of Galicia slid into the rear view, something told me I was coming back.
I first saw a sign for the Camino de Santiago somewhere just past Biarritz; a bunch of yellow spikes jutting out in the shape of a scallop. I didn’t know about scallops back then. In fact I didn’t know much about the Camino other than what I could dredge up from my 20 year old memories of Paolo Coelho’s Pilgrimage.
The Pilgrimage wasn’t to be the only throwback from the late 1990s, though. Because before long other 20-year-old ghosts would start calling to me. Was there a loop in time somewhere? A kink in the ribbon of my history?
None of this was apparent back in January though. Rotty and I sat, noses pressed to the windscreen of the van as it hugged the curve of the Atlantic. And at some indeterminable point on the A63, road signs switched from French to Spanish. I grinned at the quirky entity that is Europe. Love it or hate it, (and I love it) there is something incredible about the multitude of carefully preserved cultures, languages and histories squashed into this gnarled shoebox of a continent. It is a rich place, Europe; the wines, the cheeses, the roads throbbing with intermingling stories...
Now, back in France I’d planned to head south from here. To plough on down to Valencia for some winter sun for my chilled old bones. But something happened just past San Sebastian. Was it the the magnetism of the sun’s own path? Or was it the call of the Atlantic? I don’t know. All I know is we were pulled westwards. And westwards we drove.
Thus the north coast of Spain spread before us like deep green tapestry. Oh what roads we traced Rotty and I! They were asphalt cords tying together a breath-taking landscape of grassy slopes, stone villages and a writhing coastlines. The tyres of the van whirred from the misty lakes of the Basque country to the pea green fields and rocky inlets of Cantabria. Many a morning I’d let Rotty out for a pee, only to find a mountain path so beguiling, we’d end up walking it for two hours before my stomach barked at me to go back and eat breakfast.
I didn’t quite get it then, because I didn’t really know where the Camino was, but as we drove down the north coast of Spain, Rotty and I began to trace what is known as the Camino Del Norte. Yes. There’s not just one Camino, as I was about to learn, but a network. A mesh of paths all leading to one rather mysterious place: Santiago de Compostela.
It was amidst the towering peaks of the Picos de Europas that life began to slide back on itself. Sitting in my van, gaping at the huge shards of rock that cleaved apart the landscape, I recalled an old friend of mine called Sue. I hadn’t seen her since – you guessed it – the 1990s. We’d shared a flat together in North London back when we were newly qualified languages teachers, and when NQTs could actually afford to share a flat in N1, albeit a submerged rabbit hutch.
Twenty years ago, around the same time I moved to Turkey, Sue had moved to Spain. I knew it was somewhere in the north. I thought it might have been Galicia.
We hadn’t spoken for years. She had no idea about my blog or my books. No idea that I had up and left Turkey. I searched my email contacts and found an dubious looking address from ages ago. Shrugging, I flung an email far into cyberspace, not really expecting much to come of it. So when a mail pinged back into my inbox a few hours later, I blinked in surprise.
“YES,YES,YES Of course I would LOVE to see you. It would make my year! We live 4 kms from Santiago de Compostela... I would never forgive you if you were in this part of the world and we never met up!!!!”
Something inside me exploded when I read the mail. Was it a rush of past affection? Was it the capital letters (because Sue most certainly does speak in capitals, large bold letters littered with plenty of exciting punctuation and warm hugs)? Or was it, as another angel put it later on, the needle on the compass in my heart swinging to show the way? For no apparent reason I began to feel very excited about meeting up with Sue. I was sure she held a gift for me. I thought she might lead me to a magical plot of land, or something. I was wrong.
A few days later, Rotty shuffled over to her self-appointed post at the passenger window. I hugged the steering wheel. And we ploughed on westward, still pulled by something I didn’t quite understand. Though now at least we seemed to have a goal: Santiago. The region of Asturias slid into the rear view mirror along with its massive peaks and lakes in the sky. Unknowingly, we were also still tracing the Camino Del Norte, a pair of pilgrims, six legs and four wheels between us. But on pilgrimage to what?
We chugged into Galicia. It was a coastline which was half Cornish, half Scottish. A mythical littoral of coves and slippery crags. I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised to see Merlin standing on one of the barnacle-encrusted rocks, waving to me.
Then something wasn’t right. Rotty was tired. Didn’t want to walk. Began to pick at her food. I upped her meds. The night before we turned onto the highway for Santiago, her nose leaked a little blood. And I knew the parasite of leishmania was trying to make a comeback, though I wasn’t unduly worried. We were heading for the city of Santiago the next day. Somewhere with a vet. And a place to stay.
Pulling up in front of a beach, I watched the copper disc of the sun dropping into the frothy folds of the Atlantic. I thought it was a good place to overnight. There was even a tap. Rotty and I leaped out of the van and made for the sea shore. Shiny black rocks lined the cove. I found a hollow in them with a small tree growing over it, roots trailing. Reclining in the hollow, I watched Rotty sitting on the sand staring at the horizon like some wise old sea captain. The rock held me. I felt the Earth’s hands on my shoulders. Her breath on my cheek. Galicia was speaking to me.
The next morning, as I typed Sue’s address into my Sat Nav, I glanced at Rotty. Her nose was clear. And I sighed with relief. I shut up the van, closed all the cupboards, packed all the stray food into the fridge, and filled up with water from the municipal tap. Then I turned the key in the ignition and pulled onto the highway, to Santiago de Compostela.
Atulya K Bingham
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