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Interludes: The Importance Of Friends

...I have learnt how to pick out a memory from the past, to flesh out the bones by just looking at it so that everything comes to life in a three-dimensional way, or so it would seem. If you stare for long enough into the corner of your mother’s kitchen, for example, it is unbelievable what pictures, what minutiae, emerge from the cobwebs of time: that old treadle sewing machine that you forgot was there, the carver chair painted periwinkle blue (yes, you’d forgotten that too) and the way the buddleia flowers outside the window always tap on the glass when the wind blows...

Sylvia West extols the values of memories and friendship.

Sylvia's wonderful columns deserve to be added to your own personal store of things worthy of being remembered. To read more of them please click on Interludes in the menu on this page.

Just after my fiftieth birthday, I made two decisions, unplanned and unexpected. The first was to go into town and buy myself a Teddy Bear, a lovely big plush-coated fellow, a warm coffee colour with a gold neck-chain. The Ted of my childhood had disappeared one hot summer’s day, whisked away on the roof of my Dad’s car when he went back to work after lunch. My young heart was broken beyond repair, and although an investigation of MI5 proportions located him a fortnight later at the local sewage works he could never again be held in my arms or snuggle down in my bed, for reasons that I was too young to understand. I was inconsolable.

So, after fifty-odd years the crack in my heart was partially mended. Ted sits in my room and looks at me still, with his sweet, gentle eyes that never turn away. My friend has returned at last.

My second decision was to go to the services at a Spiritualist church. There were many reasons, and I found those visits helpful and satisfying, but I think the best thing of all was that I learnt to meditate. I know there are many schools, many different teachers of meditation, but I learnt how to close my eyes and fix my attention on one special thing and hold it there. Not too easy, and you do need to practise the discipline, and practise again.

All these years later I am happy and enriched by being able to do this: I have learnt how to pick out a memory from the past, to flesh out the bones by just looking at it so that everything comes to life in a three-dimensional way, or so it would seem. If you stare for long enough into the corner of your mother’s kitchen, for example, it is unbelievable what pictures, what minutiae, emerge from the cobwebs of time: that old treadle sewing machine that you forgot was there, the carver chair painted periwinkle blue (yes, you’d forgotten that too) and the way the buddleia flowers outside the window always tap on the glass when the wind blows. It’s wonderful, you should try it! So much is not really forgotten, it’s just waiting to be uncovered again, to be brought back to life.

A further upside of this mental training is that memories flick in and out without warning. You are doing something else, a trigger switches on the light - and there you are! There’s no escape: turn away from the bad ones, but the good ones, the poignant, the beautiful, the life changing - they stay with you for as long as you choose. The downside can be that you can’t escape, and they will return whether or not you want them to. Sometimes, the most trivial, the most unexpected, have the greatest persistence. They can open the door to the greatest happiness, or the deepest sorrow.

* * * *

The road curls up through five hamlets, narrowing here and there to the width of a small tractor, or a man driving his goats to another pasture. Each little settlement has four or five houses, and you can walk from the T-junction up though all five in half an hour. One warm, sleepy afternoon I climbed the track from my son’s house and joined the road as it wound up and on, talking to myself and rounding the corner towards Pereiro. The valley and the marmalade tiles of every house shimmered in the summer heat.

“Hello Little Chap,” I said. “Are you coming with me?”

The little black and tan dog came trotting up the road and went straight past. He could have just come across the valley, or he could have called in at my son’s place to see if the bowls of food were out. Years before, Cris had saved Little Chap’s grandmother from starving on the road, and now those of her offspring that were still alive would come by from time to time, to eat something, to sleep awhile, and then to be off again to roam the valleys. They lived a vagabond life and were beholden to no-one.

Little Chap, for whatever reason, had decided to come with me. He went past, then stopped and turned to look. He waited until I had caught up.

“Shall we sit down a bit?” he seemed to say.

Just round the corner the afternoon sun flooded the road where the clump of trees came to an end: pines and mimosa, sweet chestnut and eucalyptus, pungent, aromatic, the fragrance of Portugal. The grass verge fell away, and as we reached the spot I said “You’re right, Little Chap. let’s sit here for a while.”

I sat on the edge, my feet on a rocky outcrop, and looked away to the west. The outlook was down and then up again; well-tended fields and rows of olive trees, vines full of grapes and little families of goats nibbling at everything. In the distance a solitary figure was picking cabbage leaves for the evening meal, and a toy car turned in at the T-junction and disappeared under the trees.

As I gazed at the peace and beauty below me, the little black and tan dog came to my side and sat down. Little Chap had come to share the moment, unbidden, unasked. I looked at his lovely head, and he looked back a me: not with love, not with affection, but with companionship. We were friends, and he had come to befriend me.

After a while I put my hand on his shoulder to stroke his back; not too much, just a little, with respect. I didn’t want to thrust my gratitude upon him. But I felt he would like a gesture of friendship from me. He looked at me again, and I knew I had not been mistaken.

We stayed there for a long time, but at last it was time to go. The cabbage picker had long gone and the shadows were lengthening across the fields. I walked back the way I had come, and Little Chap went the other way. Why did I expect a backward glance, I wonder? Did I really think that he would say good-bye? I watched him trot away, zigzagging from smell to smell as dogs do, longing for him to turn round just once, but of course he didn’t. He came to a gap in the bank and disappeared from sight, down some familiar, hidden track.

I was only a visitor to the valley, and I went home a week later. Soon after that my son called me to tell me something, and I heard the sadness in his voice.

“Someone has shot Little Chap,” he said.

Apparently he had been molesting the goats. I suppose he could have been.

He was, remember, beholden to no-one.

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