In the autumn of 1984, I was staying with a friend in the South of France. Driving back from Toulon one day we saw an old gypsy caravan sitting in a field with a For Sale sign beside it. We parked the car and I went to have a look. It stood under a pine tree and was covered in needles. There was no one about and the door was open so I had a look. Inside was a little kitchen, with wooden cupboards, a sitting room, and a bed at the end.
When I was a child, I would spend the last day of the long summer holiday beside the road. I had a small suitcase beside me and a massive plan. When the gypsies would drive by I would join them and run away.
They never came.
I have always secretly longed for a gypsy caravan. When young I explored them at every opportunity and always asked to be permitted to come on board so I could marvel at the ingenious use of space. The gypsies were always indulgent and kind.
My find was falling to pieces but I HAD TO HAVE IT. One condition, a dog came with the caravan. Where was the dog? Nobody knew. A week later, the caravan limped up the steep drive to my friend’s house. It became my holiday place.
The white shadow, as I called her, appeared one morning and just stood and stared solemnly at me. I decided a visit to Madame A., the village gossip, was required to find out more. “O Christ, prends pitie…” she intoned dramatically. Apparently, the owner had died suddenly and left the shadow orphaned.
Un étranger, from the Balkan, said Madame A., an artist, and a very strange person. The dog is very strange too, and Russian.
Apparently. Did the dog have a name?
Something what? She could not remember.
I called Rene to ask for advice. He gave me a dozen words to try to see if there was a response.
I took my list, found the shadow, and called out the first and in hindsight the most obvious word, “Bijela”. She came, stood, and ever so slightly waged her silky tail.
That night she sat in the corner of the caravan as I lay on the bed. Slowly she began to edge closer. I fell asleep. When I awoke in the middle of the night, she sat next to me, staring at me. Gently she sniffed my hand with her long cool nose, and looked at me with her shining almond shaped eyes. Then, she gave a heartbreaking sigh, wagged her tail, and went to sleep. This was the beginning of a long love.
Bijela remained a white shadow and a dream of a dog. Never once did she bark.