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Timoleon Vieta was the finest breed of dog. He was a mongrel.
The self-conscious preening, superior airs and inbred neuroses of the pedigree were not for him. His heritage was clearly such a mess that any attempt to untangle it could only be a futile exercise. Even so, its very mystery had served to revive a few flagging conversations as people scrutinised him and saw beauceron in his coat, a touch of Swedish Vallhund in his outsized ears, something Nordic in the slight curl of his tail, pinscher in his gait, or sloth in the way he so often lay on the ground or in the armchair he had made his own. But really there was nothing much to go on, and nothing pure to save.
Nobody knew how old he was either, but Cockroft had thought he had looked about two when he had appeared in the kitchen in the middle of a storm, his tail between his legs and his saturated fur accentuating his pitifully skinny ribs. That had been five years before, and thus he became seven.
From a distance there wasn't much to distinguish Timoleon Vieta from any of the other mongrels in Umbria. He was black with occasional spots of white and tan, and of average size, maybe a little smaller. But close to, he was somehow different from the others. He was very well looked after for a start, even indulged. He was no longer anywhere near as skinny as the Perugia strays, his nose shone with moisture and his coat, while being of various, apparently random lengths, was glossy and clean.
And there was something else that stood out about him -- something that made him particularly unusual, and different even from other strays who had unwittingly stumbled into good homes. For although he was a mongrel, Timoleon Vieta's eyes were as pretty as a little girl's.
Cockroft had spoken to nobody but Timoleon Vieta for a long time. Nobody had dropped by, and nobody had called. His last fully-fledged conversation had been on the phone to his accountant back in England, six days previously. It had started with a discussion of the small pension he had recently started to draw, and which made him feel so incredibly old, and ended with an argument over an aria, and the slamming down of a receiver. He had been drunk, and couldn't remember which of them it was who had done the slamming down this time, or even which aria it had been that one or other of them had deemed too strident, but it made little difference. In happier times they had been friends and sparring partners, and had cheerfully lost evenings attacking and defending the works of various musicians, conductors and composers over bottles of wine. But not any more. Now they just got on each other's nerves, and she had become no more than the person who managed his dwindling financial interests. The pension was enough to keep him alive and the roof free of holes, and a trickle of royalties from music he had written or arranged kept him in diesel, wine, cigars and the occasional weekend away, and just about stretched to the upkeep of a mongrel.
Timoleon Vieta was the fourth dog Cockroft had owned in the fifteen years he had been at the old stone farmhouse. He had lost the other three. The first, a red setter, had reacted badly to some pills and died in his arms of thrombosis at the age of seventeen months. The second, a Dalmatian, he had killed in a rage. His then boyfriend, a middle-aged Austrian music publisher whose name had slipped from memory but whose big grey moustache and fierce, hooded eyes lingered on, had just announced that he was going to sleep in the spare room that night, and that Cockroft could suck his own stupid penis for a change. This had been the culmination of hours of bickering, and Cockroft had hurled a heavy glass ashtray across the room. He had never meant to hit Jurgen, or Fritz, or whatever his name was, but merely to register his fury. It had, after all, been the Austrian's favourite ashtray, and its destruction would have been an incredible blow to him. It had carried a picture of a foaming stein, and he had loved it so much he had brought it with him all the way from Klagenfurt. The way he cherished it made it seem as though flicking the ash of his enormous cigars into any other receptacle would have nullified any pleasure gleaned from the smoke. It hit the ceiling and crashed down on to the Dalmatian's head, fracturing its skull. The Austrian drove away the next day, taking his unaccountably unscarred ashtray with him. Though they had started by talking so romantically of blood tests and joint accounts, it had run its course in less than six weeks.
The other dog, a Samoyed, had simply vanished. Cockroft remembered somebody telling him that the Italians secretly ate dogs, but he tried not to think about it. He preferred to think of her being gently picked up by a breeze and blown back to the Arctic Circle, like a little cloud.
Unable to face anymore such heartache, Cockroft had decided never to own another dog. But the house seemed lonely without one, particularly during the long months he spent living alone, so when Timoleon Vieta had arrived, four years almost to the week after the disappearance of the Samoyed, it was as if the stork had brought him. He became the centre of Cockroft's world, and was lavished with food, comfort, attention and love. And in return Timoleon Vieta stayed with him, largely going about his business on his own, but occasionally returning to his master's side, wagging his tail and looking up at him, his head cocked to one side, with those irresistible eyes.
The house stood halfway up a hill, about two kilometres from the nearest proper road and a few minutes walk from the next house. Timoleon Vieta spent his days roaming around, and whenever he began to feel tired or hungry he returned to a big bowl of food, a comfortable armchair or patch of grass, warmth or shade depending on the weather, and the loving fuss of his first real owner. And for five years he had remained unshakably loyal. Men had come and gone. Young ones and old ones. Nice ones who had broken Cockroft's heart, and nasty ones who had broken his heart and stolen his belongings. Smooth pretty ones and big hairy ones. But the dog remained, through even themost trying of times. 'Timoleon Vieta,' Cockroft would say to him when they were alone again after another romantic apocalypse, 'you are a saint.'
They were sitting in front of the house, Cockroft in his deckchair and Timoleon Vieta by his side. It was a warm evening in early spring, and everything was quiet except for the rustling of a packet of nuts and raisins, and Timoleon Vieta's occasional wolfing of rejected Brazils.
Cockroft was trying to remember whether or not he had already told Timoleon Vieta about the time in the mid-sixties when he and Monty 'Misty' Moore had written Wrens, a stage musical for all ages about a good-hearted but misguided scientist who was secretly breeding killer wrens the size of emperor penguins in his underground laboratory. Thanks to Monty 'Misty' Moore's treachery it hadn't come close to being staged. Before he started to tell the story, regardless of whether or not the dog had heard it before, he was unexpectedly delighted by the sight of a scruffy, but handsome, young man walking up the track that ran in front of the house. 'That's funny,' he said, stroking his fussily trimmed silver beard. 'Who do you think this could be?' Timoleon Vieta's eyes were fixed on the raisin that had stalled halfway between the bag and his master's mouth.
The cars and jeeps of distant neighbours occasionally went past, but walkers never did. This one appeared to be somewhere around his mid-twenties. He was at least six feet tall, and was wearing old black jeans and a greying black T-shirt that was mottled with sweat. He was carrying a black bag, and his dark hair was looking, rather wonderfully, in pressing need of a cut. At times like these Cockroft kicked himself for knowing next to no Italian. 'Rough stuff,' he confided to Timoleon Vieta.
He smiled and waved at the young man, who didn't smile or wave back, but left the track and walked up the path toward the house. Cockroft had been expecting him to carry on up the track, and was surprised when he stopped just a few feet away from him.
'I have walked from the town,' he said quietly, looking not at Cockroft but at the house. 'You should have told me you lived such a long way from everywhere.' He dropped his bag on the ground, and there was a silence as he continued to scrutinise the house through narrowed eyes. 'But I am here now.'
From deep inside the dog came the low rumble of a growl. 'Oh, be quiet Timoleon Vieta. Really,' admonished his master. 'What have I told you about behaving in front of visitors?' The dog backed away, but still quietly growled to himself. Cockroft rolled his eyes and shook his head in exaggerated exasperation, stood up and offered his hand. The young man took it. It felt clammy, and he wondered whether the old man had been playing with himself.
'So,' said Cockroft, trying his best to hide his confusion, 'you have my number.'
'Here.' He dug into his pocket, and brought out a card. On it was printed: Carthusians Cockroft -- conductor, composer, raconteur. Underneath was his address and phone number. On his weekends away Cockroft gave them out like confetti -- to handsome waiters, to gondoliers, to strangers he found himself talking to in art gallery snack bars and in museums, and to almost everyone he introduced himself to on his trips around the bars. The card was always accompanied by an open invitation to visit him at home. A few times over the years people had taken him up on his offer of hospitality in the hills, but they had usually called first to make sure he was going to be in. They didn't just arrive. 'You gave it in Firenze,' he said, his voice monotonous and barely audible. 'When you invited me.'
'Oh,' said Cockroft. 'Yes.' He tried to place the stranger's face, but he couldn't. 'Of course' he said, smiling as broadly as he could. 'It's so lovely to see you again. I was hoping you could make it.'
'I am thirsty. It was a long walk from the town. Maybe one hour. More. Maybe five or six kilometres. I don't know.' 'Of course. Where are my manners? Do sit down.' He gestured towards his deckchair. As the young man moved towards it Timoleon Vieta exploded with rage, his hackles raised and his barks piercing the still evening air. 'Oh, Timoleon Vieta, please,' said Cockroft, almost firmly. Again Timoleon Vieta moved away and lay down, but he resumed his low growl. Cockroft went into the house.
After a couple of minutes the old man came back out, carrying a tray on which were four glasses, a jug of water, a bottle of sparkling wine and a plate full of chocolate biscuits. By the time Cockroft had assembled the spare deckchair, the young man had drunk all the water straight from the jug and poured himself a glass of wine, having fired the cork over the scruffy lawn and on to the track. Timoleon Vieta usually chased and returned fired corks, but this time his half-closed eyes didn't leave the newcomer's face.
'You are thirsty,' said Cockroft. The man did not respond. Cockroft poured himself a glass of wine and sat down. From the corner of his eye he continued his inspection of the unexpected visitor. He was almost muscular, and looked weather-beaten and tired. Cockroft wanted to prescribe a rest cure: lots of relaxation, a bit of feeding up, and a lot of very close attention. He went to Florence every once in a while, and tried hard to remember having met the man there. His last couple of trips to the city had been blurs of sex, wine and tiramisu. He was sure he hadn't slept with him though. He would have remembered such a young, firm body. As he looked at the man in the deckchair beside him he was driven half wild with frustration. He wondered whether somebody such as this could ever even have heard of people like him. What? the young man would cry, slapping his thigh and laughing as Cockroft told him of their existence. You mean there are men who kiss other men? And enjoy doing it? Oh Cockroft, you come up with the funniest ideas. I've never heard anything so preposterous in all my life, you old comedian. Or maybe he would just stare at the distant hills, as he was doing now, and mumble without a smile, Well, nothing surprises me any more. Either way, Cockroft was sure he was out of luck. The man grabbed a handful of biscuits from the plate and stuffed them into his mouth whole, not waiting until he had swallowed the first before eating the next. Cockroft took two -- one for himself and one for Timoleon Vieta.
Cockroft handed the man a cigar, and started imagining they were long-term lovers enjoying a drink and a smoke as the sun went down over the distant hills, and about to enjoy a little, maybe post-coital, chit-chat. He didn't know what to say. He couldn't ask him his name, or where exactly it was they had met without appearing rude. 'So,' he said, after a lot consideration. 'Where are you from again?' Cockroft wasn't very good at telling where people were from by looking at them, but it was clear that the man was not Italian. He could tell from his accent.
'I told you already in Firenze,' he said. He paused for a long time. Then, in a broken whisper, he said, 'I am from Bosnia.'
'Oh, you poor boy. You poor, poor boy.' Most of Cockroft's life was played out before the backdrop of the World Service. It played on the kitchen radio almost every waking hour, and he knew all there was to know about the terrible things that were happening in what had once been Yugoslavia. At least until this conversation he had thought he had known everything. He certainly knew the names and places. Slobodan Milosevic. Sarajevo. U.N. Peace Keeping Force. Mostar. Radavan Karadic. Mujahedin. Kosovo. Vance-Owen. He seemed to know everything except, now he came to think about it, who had been fighting whom, who was on which side, what the sides were, which ethnicities were being cleansed, and what the various wars had all been about. He only occasionally read the papers, and tended to daydream through the main news events as they were broadcast on the radio, catching only the barest of outlines. He only ever paid close attention to the short pieces that rounded off the bulletins -- like the report about the nine-year-old golf prodigy who had lost an arm in a fairground accident, or the woman who had fallen in love with her rapist and was struggling to have the charges against him dropped, or the man from somewhere outside Osaka who was lobbying The Guinness Book of Records to be entered as the loneliest man in the world. He had never really been able to untangle what had been going on just a short way to the east, and events had become so complex that without really thinking about it he had given up even trying to work them out.
He didn't know what to say, but felt as though he had to say something. He tried: 'Which side were you on?' He was sure the answer would mean nothing to him.
The Bosnian stared into the distance, seeming to be focusing on a point a long way beyond the horizon that Cockroft assumed was his ravaged homeland. Eventually he spoke, almost inaudibly. 'The side,' he said, 'with the guns.'
'Oh, you poor boy,' Cockroft repeated. He wanted to reach out and pat his hand. His strong hand, with its big, slightly dirty fingers. 'As I was saying to Timoleon Vieta the other day, I can never understand why people can't just get along with each other. It all seems so silly, all this fighting.' He held out the bottle. 'More?'
Without taking his eyes from the view, the Bosnian nodded almost imperceptibly, and Cockroft poured two more glasses. It was almost like drinking champagne.
* * *
After a bowl of pasta, a few more cigars and glasses of wine and a large glass of brandy, the Bosnian was shown to the guest bedroom, where he fell asleep on dusty sheets. Cockroft packed up the deckchairs, read for a while, kissed Timoleon Vieta goodnight and went to bed pleased that he would have somebody to talk to in the morning.