Sport 6: Autumn 1991
Guy Allan — Ancient Processes
Alan had mentioned Puppy in a long letter of hints and instructions. He was a foundling, mothered by the cat, Misha. A photo of scrawny cat and boisterous dog had made one of the Rome dailies. Misha seemed to have used up all her goodwill on Puppy and was now ill-tempered. She would appear once a month, snarl for food and leave if it was not produced immediately.
Alan wrote of many other things that might happen. Like the mice and rats in the cantina or the electricity going off if you tried to run too many appliances from it. Or how to spot when the septic tank was on the point of overflowing and where the bucket was. There was another dog, Pecorino, the little sheep. Puppy was a wanderer, had another 'owner' up in the village, ran with the pack there. Pecorino stayed close, a cuddler and a thinker. He liked to sit in the middle of the field, halfway between the cane clump and the big cherry tree. The kids would play around him, riding canes like cock horses. He would sometimes run or walk with them but mostly he would sit and watch and think. He sat there for an hour during a storm. I liked his nerve and we developed what they call a bond when I held him down, fully conscious, on a table while a vet in a mohair sweater operated on an infected ear. Pecorino died in terrible circumstances that it may be appropriate to tell of later.
A dog answering Puppy's description ran after the car the first few times we drove to the village. Sure enough, he came to the farm soon after but was gone within hours.
The shepherd arrived about eight o'clock one morning in late January, six weeks after we had moved in. He called from outside and I went to the door. He stood about fifteen metres away, bowing, wringing his hands a little. I walked a few steps forward, he shuffled a few and started to explain his disaster in a kind of cringing tone that steadily became pleading and then outraged.
I had been feeling smug about my Italian. I was taking informal lessons page 114almost daily in Piero's village pharmacy. Piero liked being teacher (I found later that he had a huge, chin-out Mussolini portrait on his living-room wall), patient but prissy and dogmatic. Although actual pharmacy business was far from brisk, locals streamed in and out as part of the chat circuit. Piero chose which ones to introduce to me . . . a distinguished war veteran, a former school teacher, a man whose cousin lived in Australia and had possibly visited New Zealand. Piero's son, Enrico, talked serious rock music—I mean, the Doors, the Velvet Underground, the darkest Neil Young. Giovanni was nearly always there, doctor and drunk. He told of research he had once done at Oxford. He had been 'doing research' at Pisa or Florence on days when I had not seen him. Piero said that he would more likely have been in bed with a bottle. I doubted Piero's motives. Giovanni, very intelligent, as everyone conceded, was taking over as principal teacher. I would announce plans to check out the Joyce haunts in Trieste or Hemingway's Dolomites, he would raise the ante by talking of Joyce's fine singing voice. I would refer to the Portrait, he to Finnegans Wake (surely not!) and both of us would turn arrogantly on Piero when he said that Steinbeck was the best novelist in English because he stuck to the story.
I would become light-headed after an hour of this, turning to look out the shopfront window. There was a good chance of catching the three old men who walked back and forth through the village from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. They had been born there, had been boyhood friends, had known one another for over seventy years, had been doing this walk together every day for at least fifteen. I never got to Trieste or far enough into the Dolomites. A trip to Pound and Yeats' Rapallo was in a night train and they were flickering lights on a hill just before we entered a tunnel.
Modernist literary method was easier to manage than the shepherd's story. A signora in the village had sent him to me since I was the owner of one of the two dogs that had killed ten of his sheep. He thrust two handfuls of fingers and thumbs at me. Dog meant little Pecorino, who was yawning thoughtfully close by. I looked puzzled and motioned towards him. No, not this dog . . . a big one (admiringly) . . . with a beard. Puppy.
I lied immediately: Pecorino was the only dog I knew. What was more, I was not the owner of the house, just a visitor looking after it over the winter. But I was not Scottish? No, I was a New Zealander. The owner was Scottish but he was in New Zealand and unlikely to return for at least three months. I was jabbering now, telling this ridiculous, true story again, more page 115fluently, I hoped, as if improved style might help the credibility of the content. His arms flapped, he said something about millions of lire and the signora in the village, then suggested firmly that I follow him up there.
I made a quick assessment of my rights and assured myself that I was in the clear. I knew I was not Scottish. There was a passport to prove it if necessary. But I went, following his motorbike over the white stony roads up the hill to the village, to a house I had never seen, to a weeping woman I had never met. She smiled sadly, confirming that I was not the Scotsman in question. The shepherd's face plunged into his hands and I backed away.
Next day in the pharmacy I asked Piero about the incident. Strangely, he knew nothing of the shepherd or of the alleged killings. But the capo polizia would be sure to have heard. Someone slipped out the front door and returned moments later with the capo. He was a big man with a spade beard, wearing a frayed uniform that was a good size too small for him. He was known as il sovietico, partly because of the beard and partly because he was active in the Communist Party. The village was Communist-controlled but that meant little. The family names of the Communist council members were the same as those who had been fascist before the war and doubtless of other labels in other times. An old document recorded a visit to the village by Machiavelli.
The capo was from one of several police forces in the village, all with little to do. On a scale of importance, he was somewhere between the traffic warden, a cross-eyed man who doubled as assessor of local art projects, and the carabinieri. The latter were feared and scorned. Feared because they had machine guns and used them occasionally on the tyres of cars that were slow to pull over for a random anti-terrorist check. Scorned because they were all said to be black-eyed boys from Naples and so, by Tuscan standards, sub-moronic. Carabinieri jokes were of the Irish/Polack type.
A young Neapolitan starts with the carabinieri. He is told that he cannot go wrong if each morning he greets the maresciallo with a cup of coffee and a copy of the newspaper. Of course, he knows little about newspapers, buys five copies of the Monday edition and leaves one with the coffee on the boss's desk each day. On the Friday, the maresciallo speaks to him for the first time, clearly pleased with the service. He says, 'My boy, you know something? We carabinieri have a bad reputation. They say we are stupid. But look at this photo in the paper. That silly bugger has had a car accident page 116every day this week!'
The capo nodded. Yes, he had heard of the allegation. Ten sheep? He thought it was seven. It looked as though Puppy might be a culprit. He was non-committal about any other dog, proof, witnesses or what might happen next. There was no question of Puppy's being destroyed. He was a nice dog, wasn't he? When he had gone, Piero shrugged his shoulders, spread his arms out and his palms up.
I wrote to Alan that night. The case was confused but did not look very threatening. Legally, the shepherd's position seemed weak. I presented it all as another colourful Italian adventure. I could not see what else to do, he was sure to be able to sort it out when he returned. The passing of time would probably work to his advantage in that it would blur things further.
Weeks passed, some of them very wet. We saw the Jacopo della Quercia Tomb of Ilaria in Lucca before a crazy took to it with a hammer. Pecorino had his ear problem. My son had a bad cough; Piero prescribed suppositories.
We planned a trip to the Adriatic. I discussed an itinerary with the pharmacy gang. Piero was hot for San Marino, very cool on Ravenna and Ferrara. He would wag a neo-fascist finger, shake his head, tch-tch, understanding our ignorance but feeling obliged to make us aware of its full extent. I held a brief for Ravenna's mosaics and, tenuously, the Browning/ 'My Last Duchess' / Ferrara connection. He responded with Ravenna's war damage and the fact that his father had lived in Ferrara. I once dined with the father. He was deaf and mumbling, over eighty, an old sailor who, on discovering that I spoke English, suddenly shouted 'Liverpool-Cardiff-Tilbury-New York!' and then fell silent. He drank half a litre of sweet white wine with each meal. His son and grandson claimed that he was mad but how could they tell?
We defied Piero. The Ravenna mosaics were wonderful, the best in the little Tomb of Galla Placidia, the kind of blue you get on the cusp of evening and night, full of stars and pictures of small animals. No dogs, though. In the old part of Ferrara, the streets were cobbled, the eaves perpendicular to the walls, not sloping in the Tuscan style. They made you less aware of the sky.
We returned to a worried letter from Alan. Time was not on his side. I should sort out as much as I could before the shepherd strengthened his argument. The key person to see would be Puppy's owner in the village. I page 117asked Piero for the address and what he thought of the state of play. Did he think the whole thing was phoney? A swindle? A joke on the foreigner? He looked knowing but said he knew nothing. For once, Giovanni did not want to pass the definitive judgement.
I went to the address. It was the house of the weeping signora. She remembered me, beamed, ushered me into the house, loaded me up with a huge aperitivo (it was around 9.30 am) and talked, fast, operatically, with gusts of mocking laughter. I interrupted every now and then with a summary of what I thought she had said. I hit the jackpot when I suggested the shepherd's story might be an immagine, a fantasy. Esatto, esatto.
Back at the pharmacy, I tried this line out. It sounded solid. The shepherd's numbers were changing all the time and what of this other dog? Who owned it? Piero and Giovanni turned away and talked about something else.
I wrote to Alan. More weeks passed and at the end of April, he, Jane and their children returned. The Puppy affair was on his mind but there were other things to consider first. The most important seemed to be regaining the old rhythms. This involved late nights drinking and talking, rising a little before noon. He started work about three, usually with his toddler son in a backpack, peering over Alan's shoulder while he chainsawed wood or weeded around kiwifruit vines. He was surprised that I, a New Zealander, could not tell him why they were not thriving. Once I watched him from the house, frozen in a standing position for twenty minutes. He had been listening to a nightingale. He loved playing, dropping everything to join a soccer game I had going with the kids or coming over to ask if we wanted to see something interesting like an old badger set or a plant whose green flowers were of almost the same colour as its leaves.
After four or five days, early in the morning, the shepherd arrived. He sought me out to congratulate me on the honesty of my strange story then pursued his grievance. Alan left with him and returned after dark with several bottles of the shepherd's wine. He explained the complications while we drank the wine. The shepherd was Sardinian, a recent arrival to the area, a poor man but good-hearted and distantly related to a villager who had once done Alan a substantial favour. The dead sheep number was down to six. The other dog's owner was doing nothing, waiting for Alan to move. Puppy's village owner, the signora, was denying ownership and, as I had heard, the shepherd's story. It was, Alan said, looking a little beyond me, a page 118delicate matter not of law but of honour.
Honour! I was starting to realise how far I was out of my depth. Next morning, the septic tank overflowed. Alan and I carried buckets of its slop to mulch raspberries that he sold to a local restaurant. I raised doubts about sanitation. Alan laughed. It seemed to be like honour, something that was done that way. As I walked down to the raspberries, I looked over to the hills at the bottom of the valley that had been settled at least as far back as Etruscan times. What had they done with their shit without plastic for buckets?
The next Sunday, I helped Alan with rabbit manure that we gathered from a neighbouring farm. The rabbits were raised in an intensive, battery-type arrangement and the shit was great for olive trees. I was shovelling it in the early afternoon, still thinking about ancient processes when two cars drew up beside the bay tree. Eight or nine people emerged, all well dressed, a tiny baby, an old man and others covering the spectrum between them. They approached in a wide fan, smiling, nodding, looking ready for anything. The old man was the other dog's owner and he took the next three hours explaining his position to Alan. I kept shovelling.
That night, Alan described the growing complexity. The old man had an old man's honour, one of the strongest going, and he was saying no payment. The shepherd had a poor shepherd's honour. The weeping, laughing signora had effectively made herself irrelevant. Whatever the facts were—of sheep numbers or anything else—had become unimportant. Alan's whole social basis, his justification for occupying this Etruscan earth, was on the line. No longer the loved, accepted straniero who everyone had been asking about a few weeks earlier, he was reduced to a displaced Edinburgh lawyer playing at being a Euro-peasant. Piero, Giovanni, the three walkers, war veterans, distinguished and undistinguishedall would be monitoring his handling of this one.
Nothing had been resolved when we left for Paris a fortnight later. Alan wept as we hugged goodbyes. I thought of him and Pound as we went through Pisa—stupid, poetic thoughts. As soon as we were into the Rapallo tunnel, I told the kids about hot French bread and their pale, saltless butter and about my dead gorilla namesake at London Zoo.
The situation was in perfect poise, like Alan and the nightingale. It was my best Italy story and I told it often back home. You might be hearing it for the second time. My incomprehension, ever-worsening, was a vital page 119ingredient and so I did not expect too much from the outcome without my being there to fail to grasp its significance. Alan wrote two letters before mentioning it. He was more concerned with a motorbike accident he had had and trouble with a knee. Doctors in a Pisa hospital had operated—unnecessarily, he suspected—and given him a course of suppositories. Hasty surgery and suppositories were the hallmarks of Italian medicine. In the end, he covered it in a hundred words. The old man had held out. His standing was enough to beat back a Sardinian newcomer. Alan was less confident of his own but by the time they talked lire, the shepherd had largely given up and asked for little. Alan was able to throw in fifty thousand above the agreed sum and come out fragrant.
Puppy ran off somewhere soon after. Pecorino? His story was much less protracted but Alan did not want to put the details of his death on paper. He told them a few years later when visiting here again. We had been walking through the Waitakeres bush, then swimming, naked and manic, in the surf not far north of the Manukau Heads. We were gathering tuatuas, grinding our feet into the sand to find them. A bitch in a neighbouring farm had been on heat. Alan had tied Pecorino up but when that had not worked, locked him in an old van. He was left there with food and water one day when they had gone off to see friends. It turned out to be very hot and they expected that little Pec would be thirsty when they returned but he was dead. Alan knew I would be as upset as they had been, the dog and I had been so close, the bond. A big wave hit me while I was trying to work out a reaction.