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A Woman and a Dog: A Sicilian Story
A Woman and a Dog: A Sicilian Story

A Woman and a Dog: A Sicilian Story

davidDavid E. Cooper

Erice, April 2022

Barbara stepped quickly, but carefully, out of the cable car, as it came to a stop. She didn’t think of herself as scared of heights, but a fresh wind had buffeted the car on its 750 metre ascent from Trapani to Erice, and she was glad to plant her feet on solid ground. Still, the ten minute ride was less fraught than the journey to Erice she’d taken nearly thirty years before. The old Funivia had been closed down and visitors to the Norman town that loomed above Trapani were forced to brave a steep, hair-pinned climb in a rusting bus.

The new Funivia wasn’t the only thing that distinguished Erice today from the place Barbara remembered. In those days, there were no Ryanair flights to Trapani, and what had been an almost disturbingly silent old town was now bustling with tourists. The main street, Via Vittorio Emanuele, was now teeming with gift shops and restaurants, and tourists were urged to buy expensive tickets to see the fine churches, like the Chiesa di San Martino, that once asked visitors only for a modest donation.

Despite these changes, the lay-out of the town was the same as Barbara remembered it – the same, she guessed, as it was in the 14th century. She had no problem, therefore, in following the narrow, cobbled streets to Via Roma, where the house she’d visited those many years ago stood. She had no trouble, either, in distinguishing the house, with its distinctively studded door, from the adjoining ones. Except for the electric door-bell she was now ringing, the place seemed unchanged.

Prego?’ asked the young woman – a baby cradled in her left arm – who opened the door.

Scusi, Signora Carla è a casa?’ asked Barbara in turn.

The young woman responded with a gentle and sad smile. Her mother, she explained, was no longer alive. She had died two years earlier, during the first wave of the Covid pandemic. Here, in Erice, she went on, the virus had not been as virulent as in other towns in Sicily, but her mother had been unlucky.

Barbara began to express her condolences to the daughter of the woman she had been looking forward to meeting again. But she was interrupted by two small dogs who, emerging from dark interior of the house, ran up to her squealing and barking. At the sight of these dogs, the years that separated the present moment from the day Barbara had stood on the same spot thirty years ago vanished. Clear, sharp images of another dog, another woman and another child took shape. She’d never quite understood what people meant when they spoke of being transported back to the past. Now, in a flash, she did.

Trapani, October 1992

Barbara wasn’t sure why she had selected Trapani as the place for a week’s autumn holiday. The place had to be in Sicily – an island she’d visited before and whose history she’d studied – and it had to be by the sea and in easy travelling distance to some historic towns, like Erice, that she wanted to see. But it also had to be a place that British and other northern European tourists had not yet invaded.

Barbara’s divorce had come through only a few weeks before, and she was already tired of being asked how she felt, and what she would do, by relatives, friends and colleagues whose commiserations struck her as gushing rather than genuine. Especially irksome was the refusal, by many of them, to believe her when she expressed relief that a largely loveless marriage, punctuated by her husband’s several affairs, was over.

As for what she would ‘do’ – well, one reason for coming to Trapani was to give this some thought. With money from the divorce settlement, she could afford to give up her job in the magazine publishing house and become a freelance translator of Italian – an ambition she’d nurtured after graduating with a degree in Modern Languages nine years before. She was sufficiently attractive, she judged, and certainly young enough, at thirty, to imagine, or even expect, a future relationship with a man less self-centred and promiscuous than her ex-husband.

The taxi that had collected Barbara from the train from Palermo – where she’d flown to from London that morning – pulled up in front of the hotel she’d booked. It was located in the old city – a peninsular jutting out into the ocean – and faced the sea across the road, the lungomare, that ran alongside it. A first glance at the surroundings, in the fading evening light, was encouraging: the buildings were elegant, the streets were peaceful, and the pairs of young lovers in the shadows added charm to the colonnaded Piazza Mercato del Pesce just along from the hotel.

An hour later, Barbara was seated at a window table to which she’d been escorted by the enthusiastic owner of a trattoria not far from her hotel. In front of her was a strong Sicilian white wine in a gaudy ceramic jug. This had appeared without her ordering it and, indeed, the dish she was about to eat was the one the owner had virtually commanded her to eat. Couscous alla Trapanese, a dish originating in the town’s Arab past, he’d explained in broken English, was something every tourist must eat the moment they arrive. Who was she to argue, reflected Barbara, as she sipped the wine and looked out towards the ocean and the lights of the boats bobbing upon it.

The following morning, Barbara set off to visit ‘the places of interest’ briefly mentioned in her guidebook to Sicily, as well as some others recommended by the manager of her hotel. The cathedral, located on the busy, pedestrianised avenue that bisected the narrow peninsular turned out to be worth the visit. As did the rather spooky and suitably named Church of the Holy Souls of Purgatory, with its huge wooden effigies of Christ’s Passion, each paid for in the 18th century by a guild, of stonemasons, say, or bricklayers. The statue of Jesus in his tomb, apparently, was commissioned by the pasta-makers guild.

But, as she’d found with many Italian cities, the main enjoyment was to be had less in sight-seeing than in the unhurried sipping of a coffee or eating of a panino in a shaded piazza. Here the world could be gently observed. Two drivers arguing over a precious parking space, a sleepy dog forced to move off the pavement by a woman pushing a pram, a girl giggling as her ardent boy friend nuzzled her neck. Little everyday episodes that, for Barbara, formed a mosaic of life that she rarely tired of observing.

That evening, she returned to the trattoria where she’d dined the night before. The food she’d been ordered to eat had, after all, been delicious, and she was happy to let the owner dictate what she would have tonight. It was Sarde a Beccafico, a traditional dish in which, fortunately, stuffed sardine had long ago replaced the stuffed fig-pecking bird that gave it its name. This dish, apparently, was the one that every tourist had to eat on their second night in Trapani.

As she ate and drank, Barbara decided that the following morning she would get up early and splash out on a taxi to take her to the Greek ruins of Segesta. In the event, she woke up late and, still feeling tired, decided instead to have a quiet day on the beach, sunning herself and swimming. Maybe, she reflected, the divorce proceedings and finding a new flat had taken more out of her than she’d thought.

According to the guide book, there was a lido a kilometre along the lungomare from the hotel. Her leisurely breakfast of fruit, cannoli and other equally calorific pastries over, she headed to the lido, equipped with towel, sun-cream, bikini and a big, fat novel. It struck her, as she reached the place, that bikinis might still be banned on Italian beaches. She’d soon see – or, rather, she wouldn’t, for one look at the lido was enough to dissuade her from staying there. The beach was dirty, the water looked murky, the sunshades and deckchairs were frayed, and a depressing end-of-the-season air engulfed the place.

When she returned to her hotel, she asked the receptionist about a good place to swim in Trapani. The girl took hold of Barbara’s map of the town and explained that, on the narrow strip of land leading to the old Ligny watchtower, there was a small sandy beach. No tourists knew of its existence, and the water was beautifully clear – and, yes, the girl added in reply to Barbara’s next question, a bikini would be fine.

Barbara took the receptionist’s advice and once more set off with all that she needed for a beach. She found the place with no difficulty. The girl had been right. The beach was small, but uncrowded, and the water was crystal clear. She was soon in the water, alternately floating on her back and swimming gently so that she could watch the small fish zig-zagging their way through the waving plants and jagged rocks below.

She didn’t notice the dog until she had almost finished the peppery pecorino cheese panino that she’d bought at a delicatessen. When she looked more closely, she saw that there were three or four other dogs, further away, lying on some sandy grass by some steps that led down to the beach. The dog she’d first noticed was slowly and nervously approaching her. He was a young, fairly small dog – the size of a cairn terrier – and of no discernible pedigree.

As he drew closer, Barbara could see what a bad condition he was in. The light-brown fur was tangled, dirty and, in places, was missing altogether, so that bare patches of skin, some of them with sores, showed through. Several scars were visible on either side of the pale stripe that ran down the dog’s forehead and muzzle – trophies, Barbara guessed, of attacks by other dogs. A small triangle of his left ear had been torn away. The dark-brown eyes were large and sad – those of a dog that, young as he looked, was no stranger to suffering.

Barbara resisted the temptation to throw the last piece of her sandwich to the dog. She didn’t want to attract the attention of the other dogs, who were now watching her, and to cause a fight. She feared, too, that to give him even this much might encourage the dog to follow her back to the hotel. The sight of him, lying down with his head on his front paws only a few feet away, was too upsetting, Barbara found, to allow her to sleep or read. Instead, she took another swim in the turquoise water, in the hope that that he would move somewhere else. It worked: when she returned to where her towel was stretched out on the sand, the dog had re-joined the other dogs by the steps.

She must have read and dozed for a couple of hours, for when she looked at her watch, it was late afternoon, the air was distinctly cooler, and the few other people on the beach were gathering up their belongings and going home. Barbara watched a child and two women – mother and grandmother, she assumed – walking towards the steps up from the beach. As they did so, the young dog stood up from his patch of grass and followed them. When the younger woman realised that a dog was close behind her, she screamed at it to go away – ‘Vatene!’. A second later, the child turned round and hit the dog with the plastic spade he was holding. As the dog ran back to join the other dogs, Barbara could hear the older woman cursing the local authorities for not doing something to deal with the town’s stray dogs.

When, a few minutes later, Barbara set off back to the hotel, she avoided the steps, instead clambering over some rocks to reach the road. As she passed the women and the child, who were ambling along, she was tempted to admonish them for their treatment of the dog. But what, she reflected, would be the point? Venting her anger might make her feel better, but it wasn’t going to change how these people felt.

The episode with the dog had shaken Barbara, who decided that only a glass of wine would enable her to put it out of mind. So, even though it was early for dinner by Italian standards, she went along to the usual trattoria and was escorted to what was fast becoming her table. She asked for a carafe of wine, telling the beaming owner she would leave the choice of food to him.

Despite the relatively early hour, there were several other diners, including, at the table next to Barbara’s own, a smartly dressed man eating a plate of tagliatelle. He, naturally, had noticed her arrival and she was aware that he was glancing at her between mouthfuls of pasta. He would, she predicted, soon begin a conversation with her. And she hoped he would, for a couple of glances at him persuaded her that he was an attractive man with looks in the tradition of such Italian heart-throbs as Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroiani – glossy black hair, classically straight nose, olive skin, and heavily-lidded dark eyes.

When he had finished his tagliatelle, he leant across to Barbara’s table and asked – in tolerably good English - if she objected to his inquiring where she was from. It was unusual, he added, with a wide smile that exposed a perfect set of teeth, to see such a charming foreign lady in Trapani. When she replied, with her own best smile, that she had no objection, the man gestured towards the empty chair at her table, and moved across from his own table. ‘Gianluca,’ he said as he shook Barbara’s hand.

After she had provided a brief sketch of who she was and what she’d been doing in Trapani, Gianluca explained that he was here on business – exploring, for his company, the development of tourism on the west coast of the island. His conversation was relaxed and Barbara, having by now drunk two large glasses of the strong wine, found herself talking with a freedom and enjoyment she hadn’t experienced for a long time.

When, after nearly an hour, Gianluca announced that he had to leave Trapani early the following morning, Barbara wondered if this was a prelude to his inviting her to stay the night with him. And she wondered what she would say if he did invite her. But she was wrong. He would, he explained, be back from Agrigento on the day after tomorrow, and hoped that he could invite her to dinner that evening. Barbara, whose eyes were being increasingly drawn towards his, didn’t hesitate in answering that she would be delighted to have dinner with him.

Gianluca rose from the table, took her hand and kissed it, and turned towards the door. As he left, she couldn’t resist saying to him, in her fluent Italian, that she hoped he would have a successful trip to Agrigento. After the initial expression of surprise, Gianluca smiled his toothy smile, wagged an index finger at Barbara in mock censure of her disguising her linguistic proficiency, and walked lithely and elegantly out of the restaurant.

Barbara did not sleep well that night. She was unable to expel alternating, and sometimes merging images of a smiling Gianluca and a frightened little dog on the beach – Benji, as she now called him, in honour of her favourite Italian singer, Beniamino Gigli. Her sleep was constantly interrupted by the very different questions that the images prompted. Was there anything she could do about the dog? Would she sleep with Gianluca when he returned from his trip? She was certainly attracted to him and a lightning holiday romance – a two-night stand at the most - might be just the thing to help her bounce back after the difficulties of the last few months.

Because of her disturbed night, Barbara decided not to travel, as she’d intended, to Segesta, but instead to take the ferry across to the island of Favignana, just ten miles off the coast. With the recent collapse of its tuna industry, the place had, she was informed, retrieved its former peaceful, somewhat melancholic atmosphere of earlier times.

After an aimless, but pleasant, stroll through the quiet and rather faded streets, Barbara ate a light, but leisurely lunch of fish soup and cheese salad on the shaded patio of a restaurant on the main square. The question that bothered her as she ate, and also as she sat on the deck of the ferry back to Trapani, was whether to return to Benji’s beach. The weather was warm and she would enjoy a swim, but yesterday’s experience had been a disturbing one that she would not want to repeat.

In the event, she decided she would return to the beach. When she got there, she thought for a moment – and with a certain relief - that Benji was not there. But shortly after she’d laid her towel on the gritty sand, he and another, even more mangy dog appeared from behind a rock and took their places on the sandy grass near to the steps.

Like the afternoon before, Barbara swam, floated on the water, and lay down on her towel. This time, though, she fell asleep. When, thirty minutes later, she woke up, she then watched an almost exact replay of yesterday’s events. A young Italian couple, having packed up their beach things, were slowly clambering up the steps to the road. Following at their heels was Benji. The second that the girl became aware of him, she shouted and flicked her towel at him. The boy turned round, saw what was happening, made some loud, guttural sounds and flapped his spare hand to shoo Benji off. The dog, as before, retreated, without a murmur, to his patch of grass and lay down, head between his paws, his eyes expressionless.

There was, Barbara suspected, a pattern to the dog’s days. Having spent the day on the beach, sleeping and searching for scraps, he would then, in the late afternoon, follow a family as it set off for home. And it was a home, of course, that Benji was looking for. How many times, Barbara asked herself, had the poor creature been rebuffed by the people he followed? And how many of them did so in the heartless way she had twice observed?

That evening, Barbara chose a Chinese restaurant in the newer part of the town. Sicilian cuisine, she decided, was delicious, but too rich for someone not accustomed to it to eat at every meal. As she sat toying with the undistinguished chow-mien in front of her, she anticipated the following day with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. She looked forward to seeing Gianluca in the evening, but worried over how she could help Benji.

By the end of the meal, she knew what she should try to do, even if it was likely to come to nothing. In the event, her pessimism was proved right. After breakfast the following morning, she walked to the impressive police station that stood on one side of a large square. After waiting half an hour in a great marble hall, she was invited into a small office where an officer behind a desk stood to attention as she entered and effusively greeted her. But his enthusiasm waned when she explained that she had come about a stray dog. A few shrugs of the shoulder later, he said that she might visit an animal welfare organization that had recently been established in Trapani. But, he added, it was already overwhelmed with calls about stray dogs. If she took Benji to its premises, he would probably end up being put down.

Barbara thanked the officer for his advice and set off back to her hotel to put her Plan B into motion. This consisted in phoning the UK Embassy in Palermo. For over an hour, the line was either engaged or unanswered. When eventually, she got through, Barbara explained to the woman at the other end that she needed to know the regulations for bringing a dog from Sicily back to England. The long silence suggested that the woman was unsure which official, if any, might be able to advise Barbara. Finally, she was put through to a young man who, thankfully, seemed well-informed on the issue. No doubt, she reflected, she was hardly the first soft-hearted British tourist to have made a similar enquiry.

As she predicted, the information was depressing. It would be complicated to arrange, the attaché explained: inoculations, certificates and a good deal of paperwork would be required – and then, of course, there was the matter of the six months long quarantine in the UK. Clearly a man of some compassion, he questioned whether it would be humane to subject a dog used to living in the open to imprisonment in a tiny compound.

When she put down the phone, Barbara agreed with the Embassy man. Hard and loveless Benji’s life might be, but he was, after all, a beach dog – an animal accustomed to the company, rough as it was, of other beach dogs, and to an environment in which he could freely roam. For such a dog, a quarantine cell would be hell.

Barbara could think of only one further plan. But to decide on that, she would need first to return to the beach and work out how to execute it. So, after a light lunch on the way, she found herself walking once more along the road to the watchtower and descending the steps to the beach. Occupying her usual spot, close to a large rock, Barbara had a quick swim and laid on her front to allow the sun to dry her back. Instead of focusing on the problem of Benji, she found herself drifting into a half-sleep. The morning spent discussing the dog with the police and the Embassy had left her tired.

She woke with a start when she felt a gentle pressure on the back of her neck. Before she could turn her head to see what it was, she heard the quiet, deep voice of a man saying, in his charmingly accented English, ‘I don’t want your beautiful white skin to be burnt’.

It was Gianluca, kneeling beside her – dressed, incongruously, in a dark suit and tie – and carefully applying sun protection cream to Barbara’s neck and shoulders. This felt too pleasant for her to stop him immediately, but when she did, eventually, turn over onto her back, she smiled and asked him what on earth he was doing here on the beach.

She had, he reminded her, told him of the little beach near the watchtower. He had returned earlier than he’d expected from his trip to Agrigento and thought she might be there. ‘You see, I couldn’t wait until this evening to see you!’ he exclaimed with a grin. It was lucky, he joked, that he had found her: otherwise her back would be the colour of a lobster.

The water, he said, looked tempting and, to prove it, suddenly stripped off his clothes down to his dark red boxer shorts. ‘Andiamo!’ he shouted, as he took Barbara’s hand, then pulled her upright and towards the sea. The two of them swam out beyond the deep blue water to a shallow reef twenty yards from the beach. A large flat rock lay just under the surface, just wide enough for Barbara and Gianluca to sit on, their legs dangling in the water. It had been a long time since Barbara had been so close to a man’s body, and even longer next to one so beautifully toned as this Italian’s. When, after a minute, Gianluca turned his head and kissed the side of her neck, she responded by pressing the side of her body closer to his.

‘Sadly,’ he said, just as she was expecting him to kiss her on the lips, ‘I must go back to my hotel. Some urgent business calls I need to make. About this hotel in Agrigento. Non vedo l’ora che arrivi stasera.’ Nor, Barbara said to herself, could she wait for this evening either. She squeezed his hand and they swam back to the beach where, with the help of her towel, Gianluca managed to take off his wet boxer shorts without displaying himself and put on his shirt and suit.

Stasera, then, Barbara. Same table at the trattoria. 8.00 pm. Don’t be late!’

Stasera, Gianluca. I promise I won’t be a minute late,’ replied Barbara. ‘We English are punctual.’

She watched as he walked, even on sand and rock, with his loose, almost feline, gait towards the steps. As he began to climb them, she saw Benji detach himself from the nearby group of dogs and begin to follow him. He had almost reached the road before he realised that the dog was close behind him.

Barbara had no trouble hearing and understanding the words Gianluca screamed out as he kicked Benji down the steps. ‘Get away, you filthy animal.’ A couple of seconds later, she also heard him shouting to two passers-by, his features made ugly by his anger, that he couldn’t stand dogs, and that these strays should be shot by the authorities. He recovered himself enough to look down onto the beach, force a smile and wave goodbye to Barbara. She pretended not to see.

Benji, who had rejoined the other dogs, was not, as far as she could tell, injured by the kick. But the episode had convinced her that, the following day, she must put into action the plan she’d been mulling over. There was, however, something more urgent she needed to do. When she returned to the hotel, she sat down at the desk in her room to write a note to Gianluca. As she did so, she tried to recall the handsome face that she’d looked into across a restaurant table and, today, on the beach. But she succeeded only in visualising the distorted, hate-filled face of the man who’d viciously kicked a dog down the steps leading to that beach.

‘I lied to you about being divorced. I am a happily married woman who, for a moment, was tempted. I won’t be joining you this evening. Enjoy your meal. Barbara.’ When she’d finished writing these words, she placed the note in a hotel envelope, walked the short distance to the trattoria, and handed it to the owner. Would he please give it to the man she was with two evenings ago when he arrived at 8.00pm? ‘Certo, Signorina,’ he replied, with the resigned smile of a man accustomed to the romantic foibles of his customers.

A decent night’s sleep helped Barbara to shake off any disappointment she felt at the collapse of her holiday ‘fling’. And far from any regret about sending that curt message, she enjoyed imagining the expression, as he read it, on the face of Gianluca. He wasn’t, she was confident, a man used to being stood up.

Once again, she abandoned the idea of going to Segesta, even though this was her last full day before flying back. She wouldn’t get back in time from the ancient Greek site for the shopping she needed to do. Instead, she settled for taking the fourteen mile taxi ride to the island of Mozia. An ancient Phoenician settlement that was later the main Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily, the island became, in the 19th century, a home of an English family trading in Marsala wine. Barbara strolled around the ancient ruins – gingerly stepping back from a couple of vipers that slithered in front of her – before visiting the fine museum into which the wine merchants’ house had been converted.

Back in Trapani by early afternoon, Barbara had lunch in a couscous restaurant, in a part of town she doubted that Gianluca would frequent. She took her time. She needed to finalise her list of things to buy, and anyway it would be an hour before the shops reopened after the long lunch break. As she sipped her coffee, Barbara checked the list: a tin of dog meat, a packet of dog biscuits, a dog collar, a flea spray, a hairbrush and comb, a dermatological cream, and a bottle of shampoo. She didn’t think she’d left anything out.

It was Gianluca’s shout of ‘filthy animal’ that had confirmed Barbara’s belief that Benji would stand a much better chance of being adopted if he didn’t look so dirty and mangy. The thing to do, then, was to make him look, as far as possible, like someone’s lost or abandoned pet – a dog to whose plight a family might sympathetically respond. After all, she’d read somewhere that Sicilians, unlike people in some other parts of Italy, were inordinately fond of their pets.

The shopping trip went smoothly. Barbara found most of the items in a general store, and the only other one – the skin ointment – she bought from a pharmacy. The decision now was whether to go to the beach later in the afternoon or wait until early tomorrow morning. Impatient as she was to put her plan into action, she decided to go in the morning. If she went to the beach now, she would have an audience watching her – and probably laughing at this eccentric foreigner – as she cleaned Benji up. And, anyway, by tomorrow, after a night on a dirty patch of grass and sand, he’d probably be looking almost as unkempt and unappealing as before.

Barbara regretted that, on her last night in Trapani, she couldn’t eat at the trattoria: but the risk of finding Gianluca there was too great. Instead, she bought some bread, olives, cheese, smoked fish and an expensive bottle of Sicilian red wine. She would spend the evening in her hotel room, enjoy her food, and either settle down to a good book or try to get the rather battered TV set working.

The girl at the hotel reception, only just arrived herself, looked surprised when, first thing in the morning, Barbara came downstairs carrying a large plastic bag and, with a cheery wave, set off down the street. When she reached the beach, her sudden fear that, perhaps, Benji didn’t spend his nights there was put to rest. There he was, with a couple of other dogs, all of them looking as surprised as the receptionist had been at Barbara’s early appearance.

The other dogs soon went back to sleep, but Benji, as Barbara had hoped, followed her down the beach to the edge of the sea. To gain his trust, she gave him a couple of biscuits. He was, to her relief, remarkably uncomplaining when she picked him up, placed him waist deep in the water and proceeded to lather him with shampoo. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the novelty, and his tail was wagging as she dried him with a towel, sprayed his fur with the flea repellent, and then gave him a good brush and comb. The task she dreaded most, since it was likely to cause the dog pain, was smearing ointment onto the open sores where the fur was missing. But Benji didn’t wince as she applied the cream, and was even trying to lick her hand.

She wondered, too, how he would react to having a collar around his neck, but he didn’t protest as she put it on and fastened it. Barbara had had the foresight to buy a collar with a small plastic container for the address or phone number of the owner, in case the dog went missing. It was not an address that Barbara wrote on a slip of paper, but the words ‘Sono Benji. Voglio una casa, prego.’ She rolled the paper up and inserted it into the container. Maybe, just maybe, a family would read this plea for a home to live in and take Benji back to their own.

Barbara paused to admire her handiwork. Benji was transformed: with his smart red collar, and fluffy coat of hair, smelling fresh and clean, he could pass for a well-cared for pet that had strayed from home. It remained only to give Benji a good meal, one that would provide him with the energy to look bright and alert. She put the dog meat and the biscuits on a paper plate she’d brought and placed it behind a rock. With his tail wagging ever more vigorously, Benji immediately and greedily started to eat. Barbara watched only for a few seconds, then quickly collected her things and walked, indeed ran, in the direction hidden from Benji by the rock. When she reached the road, Barbara didn’t look back. She was certain she would cry if she saw the little dog standing there and wondering where she’d gone.

Two hours later, Barbara was on the train to Palermo from where, in the afternoon, she would fly back to London. The book she tried to read couldn’t compete, however, with the images that arose of Benji with his collar, his tail wagging, and his look of happiness as, perhaps for the first time in his life, he was being shown kindness.

Erice, April 2022

It took Barbara several seconds to recover from the startling return of the past that the sight of the two dogs at her feet had caused. Carla’s daughter was looking inquisitively at her, puzzled perhaps by the effect that the news of her mother’s death had had upon Barbara.

‘Please, come in,’ she said in Italian, at the same time shooing the dogs back into the house. ‘Let me offer you a coffee.’ Barbara thanked her and followed her through the house to the small patio at the back. The vine that grew up and over the trellis shaded the seat she was invited to sit on. ‘You knew my mother?’ asked the young woman. ‘How was that? And please, what shall I call you? My name is Gina.’

Barbara told the woman her name and explained that she’d met her mother in 1994 in Erice. ‘And I think I met you as well,’ she added, ‘though you won’t remember it. You were in a pram.’ Gina laughed: ‘Yes, I was two years old then. But tell me how you and my mother met.’ Barbara sighed, leant back in her chair, and said that it was quite a long story. Did she have time to listen to it? Gina replied that she did and sat in a bamboo chair close to Barbara’s.

Barbara told the young woman about her week in Trapani back in 1992: how it been dominated by a small dog on the beach, and how she had washed him and spruced him up. Gina’s face brightened as she listened. ‘Was the dog’s name Benji?’ she asked. Barbara laughed and said that indeed it was. ‘Benji was my first dog … I mean the first family dog I can remember,’ Gina said excitedly. ‘And now I remember, too, my mother telling me when I was a little girl that she’d found Benji on a beach in Trapani!’ She then clapped her hands together and exclaimed, ‘But this is wonderful – that you’re the person who had looked after him. But what I don’t understand is how you knew where Benji had gone – from Trapani up here to Erice.’

‘It was by chance – or fate,’ replied Barbara, who went on to tell Gina how, two years after her week in Trapani, she was again in Sicily. By 1994, she was a full-time translator of Italian, and had flown to Palermo to discuss with its author the English translation of a recent, well-reviewed book on the history of the city. When she found herself with a couple of days to spare at the end of the visit, she decided to take the train to Trapani and a bus up to Erice. She’d regretted not seeing the hill-top town on her earlier visit.

Like most visitors to Erice, she continued, she’d wanted to see the great 13th century Norman Castello di Venere, at the south-east corner of the city, with its panoramic views over the countryside and the sea below. On her way back to the centre of the town, on the Via Roma, she moved aside to leave room for a woman pushing a pram, to which a dog was attached by a lead. The dog suddenly began to squeal, tug at the lead, and paw the ground in an attempt to approach Barbara. After her initial surprise, it took her only a second to recognise the dog. And she knew she wasn’t mistaken when the woman with the pram shouted ‘Benji! Benji!’, followed by a string of apologies in quickfire Italian for the dog’s unexpected behaviour.

Gina listened, attentive and smiling, as Barbara went on to explain how, after she’d told her mother that it was she who’d put the note in the container on Benji’s collar, Carla had invited her back to the house. They’d sat and talked - and laughed and cried - on the very patio where she and Carla’s daughter were now sitting. Carla had told Barbara that the family dog had died shortly before the trip to the beach in Trapani. When Benji followed her and a friend up from the beach, she’d assumed the dog had run away from home. After reading the note, she’d taken the dog back to Erice and persuaded her husband and ten year-old son to have Benji join the family.

Gina stood up, again clapped her hands, and declared that this was an occasion for a glass of good Sicilian limoncello. When she returned with the liqueurs, Gina said that, if her mother had ever told her about meeting Barbara in Erice, she must have been too young to remember.

‘I’ve got a question for you, of course, Gina,’ said Barbara. ‘What happened to Benji? Did he have a good life?’

After another clap of the hands, Gina replied, ‘For sure. For sure. He was always a happy dog. The only time I saw him anxious was when the family went down to a beach in Trapani on a festa day. It was … how many years? Fifteen years after we got him, I think, when he died – in his sleep. I remember we all cried, especially my mother.’

Gina then raised her glass: ‘Cin cin! To you, Benji!’ Barbara raised her own glass and repeated Gina’s words. As they drank, the two young dogs appeared on the patio and played at Barbara’s feet. Gina pointed to the dogs. ‘They’re Benji’s great, great … Oh, I can’t remember how many ‘greats’ – grandchildren. I told you: he was a very energetic dog!’

As she looked at the stripe that ran down the muzzle of each of the two dogs, Barbara recalled the one on Benji’s face. Once again, time became compressed, and she experienced what it was like to be the thirty year-old woman she had been those many years ago.

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About The Author
David E. Cooper
About This Story
21 Jul, 2022
Read Time
32 mins
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