Conspiracy at the Train Station

AS I settled down in the train to town I had a sense of excited expectation. I was on my way to the Mozart opera I love perhaps best of all, ``The Magic Flute.'' There was only one seat left for this final performance and I had it: I'd be just behind the conductor, looking straight down into the orchestra pit. Already in my mind's ear I heard the familiar music, its theme of the forces of light triumphing over those of darkness.

There was only one other passenger in the front carriage of the train, an elderly man from the country whose character could almost be read on his face. It was fresh and rosy, with something naive and honest about it, as if he would be incapable of telling an untruth.

We smiled at each other. Where was I heading, he asked. He seemed eager to talk. I told him about the opera. He liked the sound of timid comical Papageno, the bird catcher, of the formidable Queen of the Night, and of the noble Sarastro. The more I took in his countrified appearance, the old tweed coat and cap, the more I liked him. He certainly did not seem the kind of person to spring any sort of surprise, but I was mistaken.

I was suddenly startled by something that seemed to move in the folds of his furry-textured tweed. ``I didn't know you had a dog with you,'' I exclaimed as a moist black nose and floppy ears emerged. His face lit up.

``I can see that you like dogs,'' he said. ``That's Benjy.'' He was launched. There was nothing that Benjy couldn't do. The old man gave examples of the dog's wisdom and insight. ``He knows what I'm going to say before I say it. He even knows what I'm thinking. He's like my other self.'' He paused.

The dog put a paw on the old man's knee. ``He'd guard me with his life,'' he went on. ``There's not a thief who would dare come near me.'' At this, all at once, his face clouded over, as if something pushed to the back of his mind by our talk had come to the fore.

``You see,'' he burst out, ``that's the trouble. I told my son about that, and it set him thinking. The fact is, I'm taking Benjy to town to hand him over. My son and his wife are out a lot, and they need a good watch dog. He thinks I'm far too old to go tramping over the hills and moors with a dog. He means to be kind, but I don't think he realizes that we're what you'd call inseparable. You'll understand, perhaps, that there're few things better in life than walking under a wide sky and smelling the country air, your dog running close beside you.''

The train was drawing into the station. I was off to the opera, and he to hand over his closest companion.

In certain encounters, there is a moment when a warning voice tells you that the tentacles of involvement are closing around you. If you don't retreat now it will be too late; there will be no turning back. We went down the platform together, the dog huddling against his master, scared of the crowds rushing past, the music on the loud speaker, the grimy odor of a city station. There was no lark song here, no perfume of sweet briar.

``Is your son waiting for you?'' I asked.

``He may be held up at work. You see, he's a very busy man. I hope you'll enjoy your opera,'' he said, holding out his hand.

The station clock chimed 7 p.m., half an hour until the magical moment when the players in the orchestra would stop tuning up, the lights would dim, and the conductor would appear on the podium, the score spread out before him. There would be the sharp tap of his baton, the overture would begin, and the curtain would slowly rise on enchantment.

But the seat in the front row would be empty, for here I was with the old country gentleman and his dog. It was suddenly quite impossible to walk off and leave them. They looked hopelessly forlorn, the tweed coat never shabbier, the cloth cap quainter, the dog more of a rough-haired country collie. ``I've still got time,'' I said. ``I'll wait till your son turns up.''

``You mustn't be late for the theater,'' he objected, but I could feel his relief to have company.

We settled on a seat near some plants and miniature fir trees, under the information board. I tried to pick out kindly, gentle-faced middle-aged men, younger editions of the father. ``Is your son like you?'' I asked.

``Oh no, he's quite different. He's what you'd call a city bird,'' he replied. I wondered if the dog's tail would wag when he saw him approach, if he would jump up on him in welcome, trot willingly off with him, transferring allegiance from the old master to the new.

The dog, as if sensing some dread and ominous transaction about to take place, shivered, huddling closer and closer to the old man until he seemed to merge into the tweed coat. ``What about the theater?'' he repeated, but the truth was that the theater had begun to matter less and less in the face of this small human drama.

JUST then a tall dapper figure came striding up to where we sat, an obvious city dweller - no cloth cap for him. ``I couldn't get here any sooner,'' he called out. At the sound of his voice, the dog slunk even further into the folds of the coat so that it was difficult to tell where man and tweed left off and dog began.

``Do you really need a dog?'' the old man asked uneasily, and I could feel his panic, his desolation.

``Now don't go into that all over again,'' his son said firmly. ``It's quite settled.'' I waited. Would Benjy now be coaxed and dragged from under the seat, the leash handed over to his new master? Would we watch the pair of them leaving the station, the dog jerked along and, if it resisted, perhaps getting a sharp clip over the nose?

And then the old man sprang yet another surprise. Something happened that amazed me and probably amazed the old man himself. It was a sudden inspiration. ``The fact is,'' he began slowly, then paused. I wondered what on earth was coming now. ``The fact is there's no dog,'' he said.

``What do you mean no dog? I'm in no mood for joking. I've come away from an important meeting and you tell me there's no dog, no what's his name? Sam, Toby? Where is he?''

``The fact is I gave him to a neighbor, to a farmer.''

It was as if a conspiracy had been formed between the three of us. And as if the dog knew what part he had to play in this instantly conceived plot, he lay low and said nothing. ``You might have let me know,'' the son said. ``The farmer could have phoned me. You know how busy I am. Well, come along, I'll see you on to your train.''

TOOK up my role in the plot. ``I'll see your father onto his train,'' I said. ``We travel to the same station.'' He took me in for the first time, including me in his displeasure. Irritation was written all over his large smooth face, at me, at the missing dog, and most of all at his stubborn old father.

``In that case I'll get on my way,'' he said. ``I'll look for a watch dog elsewhere. At least now you won't have to wear yourself out walking the beast.'' He patted his father's arm, tried, perhaps, to think up some kindlier phrase, failed, and stalked off down the concourse, an imposing figure.

Benjy crept out, wagging his tail, as if indeed he had understood every word.

We seemed to have lived through a lifetime in the station, the three of us carrying off a hastily improvised drama of our own, a plot thought up on the spur of the moment with the principal actor stealing the show without even appearing on the stage; animal actors always do.

We returned in the train together. Every now and then the old man gave a happy chuckle. ``He did it!'' he exclaimed, patting the dog's head. ``I told you he could read my mind. He knew. There's another thing he knows: My son won't be visiting us for a long time after this!'' Then he remembered, distressed. ``But you missed your ``Magic Flute'' and the bird catcher and Sarastro.''

``I gained far more,'' I said. ``Sarastro would have approved.''

We exchanged smiles, and he settled back in his seat. He fell silent for a while but something was troubling him. ``After all,'' he said, ``it was a white lie I told.''

``Never a whiter,'' I replied.

We were both silent then, and the only sound was the contented thump-thump of the dog's tail on the carriage floor.

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