A strange few days, with the kind of strangeness that might have the germ of a story, though it’s too soon to tell. It started on Wednesday morning. I was going to Rome to teach for four hours. This involves catching a train, and I was waiting at the station reading a copy of Il Manifesto, something I rarely do these days, when the stationmaster announced that all trains were suspended for an undefined period. This is common practice in Italy: to tell you what, but not why. I’m convinced it’s part of the country’s enthralment to the church and the idea that knowledge is necessarily arcane and the prerogative of the few. I carried on reading my paper, enjoying the sun, enjoying the sense of irresponsibility that dependence on others or, even better, public infrastructures, provides. I phoned home, but not work; my mobile was almost flat; I wasn’t sure what I’d say. After more than an hour and a half, and no further announcements, I asked a man sweeping the platform if he knew what had happened. Yes, he said, a man has thrown himself under a train. How long will it take before the trains start running again? I asked. He shrugged. The police have to do their work, he said. I called home again with the last trace of current in my mobile. I think I’m coming home, I said. On my way through the station, I spoke the to the man behind the ticket window. He’s a tight-faced irascible type, so I said: I know you can’t give me any precise information but I wonder if, given your experience, you might have some idea when the trains might begin to start running in the direction of Rome? A question so full of implicit flattery and qualification received the answer it deserved. A shrug. A pout. Tempi giudiziari, he said finally. He might as well have said next week, next year. I caught the bus home.
After calling work and cancelling my lessons, I turned the computer on and found that my server was down. It isn’t the first time, it happens to us all, but I was in no mood to be patient. It takes very little to remind us how fragile the net of fields and currents and lines that support us really is, how easily it turns into a cage. A train line blocked, a mobile out of power, a computer that won’t talk with the rest of the world and therefore silences me as well. Ratlike and turning, vaguely guilty—should I have waited longer?—I tried to call the station but a recorded voice told me I wasn’t abilitato for the number. I tried another station further up the line. The same recorded voice. At this point I called my provider. Twenty-seven minutes of something that sounded like Scott Joplin, but wasn’t, and I found myself talking to a man whose patience ought to be a model to us all. It took us an hour and ten minutes to establish that the problem wasn’t at my end, but somewhere undefined (that word, the second time that day) on a line that doesn’t belong to my provider at all, but to Telecom. He promised it would take no more than five working days to fix. Five, I repeated. That was Wednesday, nobody works at the weekend so, with luck, I should be up next week. In the meantime, it’s dial-up. Tempi giudiziari.
What I didn’t notice during all this was that Toffee, our dog, was ill. She’s a timorous beast, as our vet puts it, and doesn’t like loud noises. When she hears one she scuttles to the corner by the fridge and sits there, tucked into the corner, until she feels it’s safe to move. But this time she seemed to have all the symptoms of a panic attack. Trembling, panting, eyes starting from her head, flopped onto the ground as though she didn’t have the strength to move. I picked her up and we drove her to the vet. It isn’t the first time she’s behaved like this, but normally it’s because she’s eaten some filth she’s found in the street, the way dogs do. Paola, our vet, examined her and ruled out food-poisoning, fever, infection; she didn’t know what it was. As doctors tend to do when there’s nothing organic wrong, she suggested antidepressants, which startled me, or filling the house with pheromones expelled from a small plug-in device, like an anti-mosquito gadget, to cheer her up, rather like soma in Brave New World. Is that available for people too? I asked. We decided to wait and see how she was. Later that day, she threw up. White viscous froth. Paola’s husband, also a vet, told us it might be a form of epilepsy.
Yesterday Toffee spent beneath our bed. When we moved it and I tried to pick her up, she bit my hand, just hard enough to let me know she was serious without breaking the skin. We spent much of the day on our hands and knees making coaxing noises, to no effect. It wasn’t until the evening that she came through to the kitchen and drank a bowl of water, but refused some rice and turkey, prepared on Paola’s recommendation.
I had a dream last night. I was watching Coronation Street. There was a room in it and a man I’d never seen before, talking to what appeared to be a dog. But the dog had a child’s head. I asked Jane, my sister, who these new characters were and she explained that they were a family that had lost their dog and put their child into the dog’s skin. That’s terrible, I said, but she didn’t seem perturbed. I looked again and saw that the child’s head was sticking out of the head of the dog skin, which resembled one of those all-in-one pyjamas children sometimes wear. The child was crying. I woke up and went into the kitchen, and found that Toffee had drunk another bowl of water and eaten the rice and turkey. She seems to be on the mend.
The man who threw himself beneath the train was 82 years old and he didn’t throw himself at all. When the train was announced, an Intercity, he climbed down and sat quite calmly on the track in front of all the other people waiting for trains (customers, as they’re now known). His wife and children were in Argentina, where he’d worked for most of his life. I don’t know why he came back to Italy, nor why he chose this moment and method to die, although the local newspaper says it’s known to be the most painless way to commit suicide, information I hope I’ll never need. The trains were suspended for more than three hours, so I wouldn’t have made it to work if I’d waited.