In the evening, her dog waited at the front door. His name was Rain, and his steps sounded like raindrops rolling down a windowpane after midnight. François thought he remained in that town because of the animal. If he went away Rain would starve. Anna forgot to feed him and didn’t give him baths. She worked day and night on her short stories and translations. Oceans of love roared in the books she translated into French. There was no food at home. She stared at her computer like a bat, her hair disheveled, her dictionaries scattered under the table, on the floor, in the corridor.
Rain lay in the corner on his tattered pillow and looked at her. She swore at the long sentences and drank constantly: milk from a bottle or strong black beer that made her eyes glisten like those of a sick man. She ignored that François had come home. She poured milk into a saucer for Rain. The dog smelled it, and it was suddenly warm in her eyes. Sometimes she gave Rain beer too, and he snarled, his teeth shining, wild and sharp.
François went to the kitchen and made sandwiches for her. There were dirty dishes in the sink, and her shoes and stockings were all over the corridor. She wore socks of different colors and she had put on one of his sweatshirts, the first one she stumbled across. Sometimes she wore his leather jacket, too.
That day she had not aired the room, and at noon the curtains were drawn. Although the window was not that big, François loved to look out of it. He watched the warehouse full of ramshackle used cars and felt some of the tension fall out of his body. She translated her books and breathed the stale air. This time she didn’t even look up. When he brought her sandwiches, she wolfed them down and forgot about him almost right away. François went to sleep, imagining she mumbled something under her breath.
Rain had got accustomed to her voice and waited by her side, staring at her dictionaries and at her old computer. François slept on the mattress around which CDs, sheets of paper and her books were scattered. Well after midnight, half-awake, he felt her lying beside him. She didn’t wait for him to drift out of sleep. She kissed him savagely as if to punish him. She loved him without saying a word then suddenly called him names as bad as November downpours. François couldn’t live like that any more. He couldn’t bear the stale air that waited for him every night. He hated her dog and her love. It was a moment of sunshine that slipped behind a cloud, leaving him starving in the fog of Brussels.
He had tried to go away several times, but Rain followed him, his steps like raindrops hitting the pavement. François feared that one day the dog would die among the dictionaries and the characters in her short stories. Several times Rain had run after him behind the puddle that surrounded the warehouse, behind the used cars where Anna went to draw inspiration from the cold, moist air. She was a poor eater. Her face became paler and more impenetrable as she wandered among the used cars. The dog brought autumn in its wake, it almost always started to drizzle when Rain went out.
François suspected that if he left that place, Anna wouldn’t come back to that window to the north, and the light of her computer would burn all the characters she had invented.
There wouldn’t be anyone there to open the window and get rid of the heavy air — riddled with idioms — that she adored. François was sick and tired of her silly love. She slept atop his chest, her skin as thin as the wind. Rain watched them, quiet, more and more miserable, his fur thin and falling off with old age.
One day François left for good. Rain followed him, his eyes glowing in the mist. Even after François caught the bus the dog ran after him, his fur dirty and shabby, a scrawny old thing that brought the autumn fog and left it to live above the spire of the quiet church Notre Dame d’Evere. Anna had told him that winters began and ended in Notre Dame d’Evere. He loved the quiet short January afternoons that were born in the streets around the church. François would be sorry if a truck driver or a motorcyclist ran over the dog. The animal had sensed that this was the day François would leave. That day, Rain ran after the bus to the railway station. François jumped onto the first train on Platform 1 headed for Oostende, the noisy Belgian port he had never liked. The dog gave a howl and dashed after the train, but soon lost the game and collapsed on the rails, frail and miserable in his thinning fur. François heaved a sigh of relief when the train pushed its way into the tunnel and Rain disappeared from sight, his howl dissolving in the rain. I hope he wasn’t run over by a train, François thought.
Later he often tried to drive away the thought of that cold room, of the window onto the rows of used cars and the big black puddle around the warehouse. He saw her computer that spewed out words in the night, and hated to think that now there was no one to make sandwiches for her.
Many times he felt like running back to the house. François was glad he lived in a big noisy town far away from her short stories. Monotonous West-Vlaanderen, the cars on the speedways, the winter and the tunnels separated him from her dictionaries. François hated the bridges, which led to her street. He tried to blot out the memories of that place, so he bought a dog and called him Rain, too, but his bull terrier didn’t have autumns and peaceful fog in his eyes, and didn’t look shabby the way her dog did.
François sometimes wondered what had happened to her, but he had no more life to waste. Of course he found another girl who was sparklingly clean and healthy. She loved him and she didn’t make him think of old computers, black puddles and rows of used cars. It was odd that once in a while he could hear quiet raindrops in his dreams, very odd.
In early summer he crossed the West-Vlaanderen that stretched between him and the rows of old used automobiles. He didn’t go on business; he even didn’t want to meet Anna. Perhaps at the back of his mind he hoped he might glimpse her, nothing more.
That day François got out of the taxi, calm and reserved. He had a good job in Oostende, he made a lot of money. He hoped he had forgotten the shabby and deserted street. No way. He knew every inch of it.
He felt like running to her building but had a drink instead. A glass of brandy always helped him. The speedway and the cars had gone, and there were no tunnels either. The house waited and the puddle was there, big and black like autumn. Suddenly he heard raindrops behind his back. It was raining, it was raining indeed! There were no peaceful afternoons and silver rains in the town on the Nordsee where he lived. There were clean carpets, brand new electrical appliances, neatly arranged books and pictures in his house. There wasn’t a single dictionary there. He had told his wife that, years ago, he knew a girl, a translator, and he had spoken about the characters in her short stories. His wife threw all dictionaries out of their home. She loved him and looked after him very well.
He noticed a vague silhouette. A woman appeared. She was so thin and pale that François could not breathe. The warehouse was silent. Suddenly it stopped raining. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
He suddenly thought of his clean house with the carpets and books and pictures on the walls. He thought of the train that would take him home. He had crossed West-Vlaanderen to speak to the building she lived in.
François could hear the raindrops fall. He couldn’t move and he knew something had broken inside him. The vast plains of West-Vlaanderen had not helped. The brandy hadn’t either. The tunnels were all gone. He turned around. A dog, scraggy and weak, trailed after him. The man felt like shouting. The dog’s fur was shabby and miserable, but he loved it. The dog, whose steps were raindrops, stood still and watched him. There were silver Brussels afternoons in his eyes. They sparkled with joy, they were happy François had come back. Many autumns and winters François had loved that dog.
“Rain, Rain!” François whispered.
The dog trembled, approached him and let him touch his shabby back.
“How’s Anna?” François asked.