Man & Beast, page 1
MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY PRESS
An imprint of Melbourne University Publishing Limited
Level 1, 715 Swanston Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia
First published 2016
Text © individual contributors, 2016
Design and typography © Melbourne University Publishing Limited, 2016
This book is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means or process whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publishers.
Every attempt has been made to locate the copyright holders for material quoted in this book. Any person or organisation that may have been overlooked or misattributed may contact the publisher.
Phillip Adams’ ‘Lassie’ was first published in Adams’ Ark: Dogs, Frogs, Roos, Bulls and Other Memorable Animals, Penguin, 2004
Les Carlyon’s ‘The Horse Whisperer’ was first published in The Sunday Age and the Sun-Herald, 26 January 1997
Robert Drewe’s ‘Masculine Shoes’ was first published in The Rip, Penguin, 2008
Jonathan Green’s ‘Rein Lover’ was first published in The Age, 2006
Garry Linnell’s ‘Stud’ is an edited version of longer piece published as ‘Stand and Deliver’ in Good Weekend on 2 November 2002
Frank Robson’s ‘Lucky’ was first published (as ‘Lucky’s Last Voyage’) in Good Weekend magazine, March 2012
Andrew Rule’s ‘Kid on a Crock’ was first published (as ‘Dream Ride’) in The Sunday Age, 3 November 1996
John Silvester’s ‘Animal Acts’ was first published in The Age, July 2016
Paul Toohey’s ‘Roo Dogs’ was first published in The Bulletin, September 2006
Don Watson’s ‘Society of Birds’ was first published in The Monthly, Christmas edition, 2007; the extract from ‘Birds’ by Judith Wright, is reproduced with permission of HarperCollins Publishers Australia and New Zealand © Judith Wright Estate
Cover design by Philip Campbell Design
Typeset by Megan Ellis
Printed in Australia by Ligare
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry
Rule, Andrew, 1957– author.
Man and beast/Andrew Rule.
Four Legs Bad
The Horse Whisperer
Man and Bird
Cat and Moustache
A Boy and His Dog
Smiling in the Dark
Kid on a Crock
Mimi and Rosa
Society of Birds
Gee Gee v GG
All his life he hated swimming and liked animals. He had his reasons.
A dog had saved him once when he was running away from a hard-hearted pig farmer, a distant relative who remembered to work the homeless boy seven days a week but forgot to pay him.
He told us the story nearly seventy years later, the way old men do when they realise the past means more than their future.
His absent father, a gambling man, had shunted him from family to family after his mother had died in childbirth in the early 1890s. So it was early in the new century that he was working in East Gippsland for the relative, name of McDiarmid, on the promise of a small wage that was never paid. What he got instead was hard work, bad food, a makeshift bunk in a shed and the constant threat of a hiding.
He seethed quietly for months. When he finally confronted the farmer about the missing pay, he was told he wouldn’t be getting any. And what was he going to do about it?
The boy had nowhere to go but he went anyway, bolting west through paddocks and bush, the injustice burning his brain, fear driving his feet. He was striking out for the Stratford district, avoiding roads and bridges where he might be seen. By chance, a working dog followed, a big, rangy thing he’d befriended on the farm.
He struck the swamps the locals called ‘the Morass’. In wet years the streams feeding Lake Wellington spilled over and filled a maze of creeks, billabongs and reed beds, ideal for ducks and snakes but not for the runaway boy.
He thought he could wade across one lonely stretch of water but it was deceptive. He was soon out of his depth and had to swim or turn back. His clothes weighed him down and he was tired and terrified of drowning. He could hardly dog paddle but his four-legged mate could. As he started to struggle and panic, the dog jumped in and swam to him.
He grabbed its collar and held on. It was a strong dog. Strong enough to get him to the far side and a long, cold walk into an uncertain future.
No one alive knows what that dog looked like or his name, if he had one. It must have turned for home when it got hungry but the boy couldn’t. The swamp was his Rubicon. He’d burned his bridges.
That boy’s name was Len Rule and a lifetime later he would become my grandfather.
Somehow he survived, scraping a living working for farmers and contractors. One Saturday he got hold of a pony to ride to a race meeting at Stratford, a sleepy little town where the highway and the railway line bridge the Avon River near Sale.
He was worried that McDiarmid or the police might catch up with him, so he planted the pony, saddled and bridled, in a clump of trees near the course, ready for a fast getaway if things went wrong. It sounded like something out of Robbery under Arms but there was no dramatic punchline, no chase.
Nothing bad happened that day. But it did soon enough, after Len joined his older brother Ernie on the other side of the ranges. On Boxing Day 1904, the brothers went to the races run by the publican at Buxton, in the hills between Marysville and Alexandra.
Ernie, who was sixteen, rode in four races that day. He placed in the first three. In the fourth, his mount, Cronje, fell and Ernie suffered what The Argus reported the next day as ‘terrible injuries to the head’. A local newspaper reported nonchalantly that the Buxton racecourse was ‘rather rough’ and had caused several bad falls but that
As the revelry began, Len was in a dray taking his unconscious brother on the agonising trip to hospital at Alexandra. Ernie died the next morning. At thirteen, Len was now the oldest of two survivors of six children.
His world was cruel but he never was, to man or beast.
He lived in the machine age and saw the space age begin but never quite embraced them. Until the day he died (peacefully, after an afternoon spent rounding up sheep on a pony called Scout) he oiled his old harness in the shed as if the internal combustion motor might prove a temporary fad and he’d be back to real horsepower, the four-legged sort. He couldn’t cut the tie with the past and the animals he knew there.
Even those we were too young to remember, he spoke of so fondly it was as if we knew them, too. There was Peggy, the wise and kind Alsatian bitch that looked after his little children, my father and aunt. And the bay hack he called Plum ‘because he was such a peach of a horse’.
Behind me as I type this is a picture of him holding two grey ponies on a far-off morning long before I was born. Their names were Bluey and Sonny. There’s another picture of my father as a nine year old on Bluey, holding his baby cousin in front of the saddle.
Len was a ‘soft touch’ to the end, rescuing a tough old black dog—we called him Bill—he’d found limping along the road. Probably a handy dog that fell from a stock truck, the old man would assert, as if answering an unasked question about why he’d feed a stray for years.
He bought a plain old thoroughbred mare with a split hoof from the killer pens at Bairnsdale horse sale, and surprised everyone except himself by breeding a slashing colt out of her, such a fine type it went on to win Supreme Champion stallion at Melbourne Royal the year after the old man died.
Just short of eighty, he had handled that big colt so well that when my cousin the horseman jumped on him the first time, the horse went so easily a kid could ride him out of the yard half an hour later. I was the kid, King Arthur on his charger.
Ancient instincts linger, making us fond of our fellow creatures in ways that defy cold logic. Our caveman ancestors first tamed fire, then tamed the wild forebears of our sleek domestic breeds. Surely that’s why it’s so deeply satisfying to sit in front of a fire with a dog or cat—at some level we are back in the cave, the sense of shared warmth and safety imprinted in man and beast.
Once, in Cambodia, I met a man whose family had been murdered in Pol Pot’s killing fields. His parents had been educated city people, doomed to die under the dictator’s mad plan for a peasant society. They smuggled their little son to peasant cousins in the provinces, hoping he at least could fool the Khmer Rouge killers.
The boy saw terrible things. His own relatives did terrible things to survive, turning on neighbours and watching as innocent people were slaughtered—in fact, he would much later give evidence at war crimes trials at The Hague. Long after the holocaust he became a tourist guide, a multilingual gun for hire who made money and built a successful life in the place where his family was butchered.
We travelled with him for days but he did not share his story until the last few hours. He spoke evenly of the murder and torture, like the cool witness he had been. Then he talked of toiling in the paddy fields with a water buffalo he’d seen as his only ‘friend’, a living creature he could talk to that would not betray him.
He was a streetwise and worldly man, a survivor in an unsentimental society. But his face softened and his voice quavered as he described the beast of burden the frightened boy had used to plough the rice paddies thirty years before.
‘I loved that buffalo,’ he said, tears springing in his eyes.
Of course, the buffalo didn’t really love him. As several writers in this collection point out, our relationship with animals is real but it is one-sided. We provide food, shelter and affection. Animals are expert at doing what it takes to keep up the supply.
Still, there’s a bit of the water-buffalo boy in most of us. It’s a hard heart that hasn’t fallen for an animal some time.
That’s why a middle-aged man, now a grandfather himself, sits down in a city skyscraper at the start of every working day and taps out the name of a pony mare he had half a century ago.
Her name was Amber and it’s the only login I can remember.
‘Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices. This praise, which would be unmeaning flattery if inscribed over human ashes, is but a tribute to the memory of Boatswain, a dog.’
Byron (epitaph for a dog buried at Newstead Abbey)
‘Whotsyer dog’s name?’
That was an embarrassing question to a self-conscious thirteen year old. My dog was a funny old thing, an ecumenical merger of cocker, foxy, heeler, you name it. The tail should have been a little shorter and the legs a lot longer, but she had a nice face. And just as working-class mums often lumbered their daughters with the names of movie stars, which served only to emphasise their stoic lack of glamour, a previous owner had called her Lassie.
‘Lassie,’ I’d mumble.
‘Lassie! You call that Lassie!’
Actually I hadn’t called her Lassie. She just was Lassie. A second-hand dog, a used dog, a hand-me-down dog, she came with a name. Just as she came with a collar, a length of chain and a small crate that served as a kennel. She’d been offered to me by a departing neighbour, a bloke simply known as ‘the English migrant’, who’d lived in a larger crate, a crate that had contained an imported English car. A crate that had ‘Humber’ stencilled on it. He’d plonked it on his block of land and put a bed in it, ignoring the complaints of neighbours and the local council.
He claimed to be getting round to building a proper house but, finally, changed his mind. After a couple of years he left the big crate and went back to England, leaving me the little crate, with the dog. The English migrant’s name was Bruce. Hers was Lassie.
I resented the poor old dog for not being a sleek, long-legged collie, and would have preferred to have a male dog I could have called Bluey. And when I apologised for her, she’d look up with eyes full of love, making me feel tawdry and disloyal.
I’d wanted a dog all right, something spectacular to lope beside my bike as I pedalled the 4 dusty miles to school, to play Cheetah to my Tarzan when I went Weissmullering in the scrub. When the setters or Alsatians weren’t forthcoming, I’d settled for Lassie.
Lassie was no puppy, so she fretted for a while. I’d find her down the road, whimpering by the ‘Humber’ crate. Yet when the dog finally resigned herself to her new fate, she gave me her total commitment. Half a century on, I remember that devotion with wonderment and pain.
I was ten years old when my mother decided it was time for me to live with her again. For the first time since I was two. She’d long since divorced my father, who, returning from the war, had gone back to the Congregational church as a local minister only to be dismissed from the posting because of a mixture of insubordination and alcohol. My mother had married again, and living with my stepfather was like being trapped in a horror film. When he wasn’t threatening me with an axe, he was trying to run me down in his big black Studebaker. Or he’d pull all the fuses from the box and walk around the darkened house brandishing a rifle. Outbursts like this were comparatively welcome; moments of catharsis to punctuate something far more soul destroying—his constant abuse of both me and my mother. Years of tension and trauma had their effect, turning me into a lonely, alienated kid, who, exiled in his bedroom, spent most of his time reading and writing. Except when attacks on Mum forced me to try to fight him. The day we moved into the house, surrounded by empty paddocks, in Briar Hill, there was such a fight. When he lunged at my mother I somehow managed to hurl him across a double bed into the venetian blinds—which would, forever after, bear his imprint.
So I read hundreds of books borrowed from the local library and filled cardboard boxes with scraps of short stories and ideas for novels. The result was a thirteen year old entirely lacking in social competence, whose shortage of schoolfriends made his need for a dog all the more intense.
‘Have you got that rotten dog in there?’
‘No, Pop.’ I refused to call him Dad. Even ‘Pop’ outraged my sense of decency and justice. But it had been a negotiated sentiment, to make things easier for my mother.
Lassie was, of course, under the bed. She became very good at hiding.
Every morning she’d run beside me, detouring to chase sheep or magpies. At school she became very popular because of her ability to field cricket balls and, for a time, I enjoyed some reflected glory. She’d sit outside the classroom, stealthily returning after the caretaker had chased her away. And at lunchtime, I’d see her darting and sniffing among hundreds of uniformed kids, looking for me. Then it was a moment of rapture and she’d trot behind me to the quince orchard to share my sandwiches. I’d eat the centres, she’d eat the crusts.
‘Adams, you must stop bringing that dog to school,’ the headmaster would say, but without much heat. In the end she was accepted, marching behind me around the oval in those weekly ceremonials, snapping at footballs, chasing the magpies from the dustbins.
After school, some of us would climb into the hills and go swimming in a big dam in an area where some of Eltham’s artists—painters, sculptors and potters—lived in their mudbrick houses. Here Lassie would go berserk. As soon as I dived in the water she’d follow, desperately trying to save me. She’d take my hand or foot in her mouth and, flailing in the water, try to pull me back to the shore. And when I was out she’d set about licking me dry, convinced that this sizeable child was her puppy.
Once a month, on a Friday night, I’d be allowed to walk the 3 miles to the Greensborough pictures, a tiny cinema in the shopping centre, holding about 100 in acute discomfort. On these occasions I’d command her to ‘Stay home’. And I’d meet Carl Andrew, my only friend at school, and we’d talk about not believing in God and how logical communism was, and we’d hike to see some wretched Esther Williams movie, or Doris Day in Calamity Jane.