I know very little about Mila the dog. She belonged to my grandfather when he was a boy growing up in Lancashire and dogs like Mila were kept for ratting not pets. I found a dusty old photo of her in an album my father kept from childhood. Mostly it contains pictures of people I don’t know. In the photo, the dog has a crouchy stance, as if she’d rather be running flat out. The person on the other side of the camera interests me greatly. Perhaps it is my grandfather, a boy who took enough pride in his ratting dog to keep a photo of her. Lots of people take pictures of their dogs now, but did they then? The dog is looking straight ahead. If it were his dog, wouldn’t it turn to look?
This picture fills me with a deep sense of longing. Saudade,
Gil would say. Portuguese. The longing for something loved and lost, something gone or unattainable.
I cannot explain the feeling of sadness I have looking at
this picture. Mila the dog has been dead for eighty years.
Everyone calls my father Gil. Gil’s childhood friend has walked out of the house he shared with his wife and baby. No one knows where he went or why. Matthew’s wife phoned Gil, in case he wanted to change our plans. In case he’d heard something.
He hadn’t. Not then.
We will take the train to the airport and it is important to remember our passports. Marieka tells me to take good care of myself and kisses me. She smiles and asks if I will be OK and I nod, because I will. She looks in Gil’s direction and says, Take care of your father. She knows I will take care of him as best I can. Age is not always the best judge of competence.
The train doors close and we wave goodbye. I settle down against my father and breathe the smell of his jacket. He smells of books, ink, old coffee pushed to the back of the desk and wool, plus a hint of the cologne Marieka used to buy him; one he hasn’t worn in years. The smell of his skin is too familiar to describe. It surprised me to discover that not everyone can identify people by their smell. Marieka says this makes me half dog at least.
I’ve seen the way dogs sniff people and other dogs on the street or when they return from another place. They want to put a picture together based on clues: Where have you been? Were there cats there? Did you eat meat? So. A wood fire. Mud. Lemons.
If I were a dog and smelled books, coffee and ink in a slightly tweedy wool jacket, I don’t know whether I’d think, That man translates books. But that is what he does.
I’ve always wondered why humans developed so many languages. It complicates things. Makes things interesting, says Gil.
Today, we are going to America, where we won’t need any extra languages. Gil ruffles my hair but doesn’t actually notice that I’m sitting beside him. He is deep in a book translated by a colleague. Occasionally he nods.
My mother plays the violin in an orchestra. Scrape scrape
scrape, she says when it’s time to practise, and closes the door. Tomorrow she will set off to Holland.
I narrow my eyes and focus on a point in the distance. I am subtle, quick and loyal. I would have made a good ratter.
Saudade. I wonder if Gil is feeling that now for his lost
friend. If he is, he is not showing any sign of it