Sighing with tired relief, we plopped our suitcases into the dusty, grey earth – we had arrived! The journey to Florence took far longer than we had anticipated and weariness dragged through our bodies like a ball and chain around an ankle.
Our train started to pull off, rattling and screeching away from the station as we soaked in the new surroundings in the cool night air. I squinted at some small colourful objects in the distance and realised with a nervous twang that a pack of dogs was padding towards us. They looked like strays – thin, patchy with the sure demeanour of streetwise urchins that know how tough life can be – and who to trust and who to run from.
One dog, a rotund golden Labrador carefully approached me, sniffing the air as he warily drew close. Instinctively, I extended my hand towards him, wanting to make friends with this worldly wise creature; wondering if he would trust me or not.
A delighted smile spread across my face as he came up and sniffed my hand, and then with a small, jaunty skip, he bounded around and walked off a short distance, clumsily sitting himself down onto the dirt.
We had to find our hotel. So, consulting the map we began to walk the dark Florence streets half blindly, hoping fervently that we were going the right way.
The Labrador watched us from a safe vantage point, panting. He gave an exerted push to a standing position and started to walk ahead of us. The rest of the pack looked on but stayed behind as our new tour guide walked a few metres ahead as though he knew where we were going.
We dragged our wheeled suitcases up the long and seemingly endless main road, right to the entrance of the hotel. Our confident guide never left us in all the thirty minutes we trudged.
Once or twice he looked in my direction as if he was checking that he wasn’t going to loose us.
Our new friend left us as we entered the hotel and trotted on as though he had now had done his bit and had other places to be.
I couldn’t stop thinking about him and what his life might be like on the harsh city streets. I looked out for him every day as we touristed ourselves around Florence’s sights.
Not finding him again, I began to loose hope when one day, whilst walking around a city square, I spotted him lying in the shade of a palm tree, panting hard from the heat but eyes bright and ears cocked in interest at the goings on of the human world around him.
‘Hey’ I gently and happily greeted him. He seemed to recognize me and hopped up awkwardly onto his paws, his weight bucking his short, sandy spindly legs a little. I looked for some water and miraculously found a half full water bottle on a kerb next to a park bench, on the edge of the square.
I poured the water onto the ground and nodded at him to take a drink but he just looked at me kindly as if I was a little loco. So, thinking he didn’t understand what I meant for him to do, I poured some more water and this time he waddled over. I nearly keeled over from my crouching position in surprise when he started to lick at the water pouring from the bottle neck. This chap clearly knew what he was doing! He clearly knew that ground was dirty and anything from it could be bad for him. I was astonished at his wisdom. Wow. All this time on the streets had obviously taught him some amazing survival skills.
When he had finished drinking, he let me scratch his ear. Clearly enjoying the attention and sensation, he half closed his twinkling eyes in ecstasy and panted a little more gently this time. And my heart just melted. He loved to be loved. What had happened to this fella so he had ended up on the streets? Had he been someone’s dog before? Had they thrown him out like an old pair of socks or couldn’t they look after him anymore? I really wished I knew his story.
When he had enough of my lavishing attention on him, he turned abruptly with his small, jaunty skip and trotted away. I chuckled to myself in amusement. He knew when enough’s enough.
We began to walk back down the tourist filled streets to the hotel and to my utter delight, my Labrador friend was following behind. Again, it felt as though he was our guide and protector. And again, as we reached the hotel entrance, he walked on, not turning around as though his job was done.
I didn’t see him again for the rest of the holiday and my heart sank when, bags packed and hotel bill settled, we stepped out onto the busy street and my friend wasn’t there.
Dragging my suitcase across the pavements, we reached the train station to begin the first leg of our journey back home. Ticket paid for and bottled water bought, I looked expectantly one final time at the entrance to the train station, hoping to see a dog’s figure in the empty archway.
This time my heart leapt for joy – he was standing there in the sunlight, tail slowly wagging, panting with four of his ragged companions sitting a short way off behind him. I forgot about the luggage and my travel partner, and went over to my gorgeous boy to say goodbye.
As I extended my hand to scratch behind his ear. he leaned into my hand and his chocolate brown eyes locked into mine dancing with a glow that said ‘thank you’. He rested his patchy, yellow muzzle against my thigh.
‘And thank you my friend’ I whispered to him, a lump forming in my throat‘. Thank you for looking after us and your love. You look after yourself and stay safe’.
I stroked the side of his head and we shared a short moment of companionable silence in the Florence heat. One that I will never forget. I was his daily bread that day and he was mine.
Wishing I could take him with me, I tore myself away from this big hearted street angel, tears pricking my eyes. I blinked hard to push them back.
I took the handle of my suitcase and watched him as he stood at the entrance for a moment longer and then he was gone.
As we walked onto our platform, I began to breathe a small prayer for the dog and his pack. Fighting the tears back, I looked over the railway lines and there he was; lying in a sunny spot by the station building with two of his pack brothers – seemingly un-bothered about the turn of events and possibly waiting for the next lost tourist to guide and protect. I knew that he was happy and going to be okay. And he looked content in the warmth of the sun, as though things were as they should be.