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.
Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.