Man & Beast, page 11
One morning, though, I didn’t even make it to the bomb shelter. I was, it must be admitted, carrying a lot of weight—a Big Charlie stick, a packet of Black Cats and a Beachies Musk all crammed in my Stubbies shorts’ odd little front pocket—as I ran through the grounds.
Karl came from nowhere and I had no choice but to leap up on the sharp wire netting of the tennis courts in the fire station grounds. The metal dug into my fingers and toes, while, below me, Karl leaped and snarled.
These courts were open to public hire and a game of doubles was in full swing. A big woman in a small hat with a visor, and a ballooning pleated tennis skirt that swirled like some sea anemone, was stalking the baseline in between serves.
‘I could never, ever vote for the Whitlam fellow.’ She paused, inspecting the balls, as I clung to the wire. ‘He may not be a communist but I’m sure he’s a socialist.’
She stopped and turned to look at me. She had green–black clip-on shades attached to her glasses, and I could see the whole scene reflected in her specs—me, Karl, and, staggering along, the officer’s son, Karl’s owner. He had a hold of his collar and was trying to quieten him but the big dog was shaking him like he was a toy.
I hung in her sunglasses for what seemed like ages, until I heard the boy say in his awkward way that it was all right to go, as Karl had calmed down. I jumped down, saw the boy was scratching the ears of the big dog, and walked, then ran, to the safety of our fence.
I heard the woman in the anemone skirt. ‘A socialist!’ she snapped as she hit the ball …
Back in the vet’s waiting room, Nina the German shepherd puppy looked cute all right, but when I saw her I still felt the wire netting of the court on my fingers and toes.
I looked around the surgery.
A big grey cat called Biscuits was asleep in the arms of a young woman who was a walking monument to the age of punk. She had a safety pin through her eyebrow, dyed, spiky hair and the loveliest smile. There was a Vietnamese family with a budgie called Kevin, and a younger couple with another budgie, named Thor.
Paddy wandered from the consulting room and called out, ‘Eric, you want to bring Peewee through?’
Eric got up slowly. The punk, still cuddling Biscuits, stood and offered a hand.
‘Cheers, love,’ said Eric and rolled into the consulting room.
He was very old.
I suppose a lot of people don’t see the point of pets. It doesn’t make them bad people. Likewise, the fact some people make money from pets does not make the pets bad. They’re still pets, even if they are mass-produced ‘designer pets’, which some might see as making them just another decoration or accessory. It says a lot more about the shallowness of the owner than about any shortcomings of the pet. Once, probably when a young Eric watched Johnny Weissmuller play Tarzan, pets ate the scraps from their owners’ tables; now the pet food industry is worth tens of millions of dollars.
But sitting in a room with a bunch of people and their pets makes me feel okay. I remember that crazy German shepherd and his owner. Karl wasn’t mad all the time. Not long after I was hanging suspended, reflected in the glasses of the woman with the anemone skirt, I heard the boy laughing. I was lounging in the hammock on our side veranda, and looked out and saw him playing with Karl. The big dog was shoving his head against his owner’s and nuzzling for a cuddle.
‘They make him feel happy,’ my mother had said about the boy’s pets, ‘and that is a gift.’
The tenderness that people show their pets makes us all a little better.
But, all in all, I’m still not sure about German shepherds.
A Boy and His Dog
When I was very young—I must have been about eight or nine—I had an imaginary dog. At least, I’m told it was imaginary. My mother assures me I did not have a real dog until I was fourteen: a black-and-white sort-of-kelpie called Jerry that I didn’t like very much because he was crazy.
I remember Jerry well because he’d bark a lot and chase the spores that rays of sunlight lit up as they streamed through my bedroom window while I was trying to study in the afternoons. He’d yap at them and jump on my bed and I’d have to take him outside and throw a tennis ball at him until he’d settle. Yeah, I remember him—but this other dog I remember just as well was a different one. A light brown, almost yellow, labrador that was very calm and used to lay his head in my lap while I was reading and smile when I stroked his head. The memory is vivid—but, as I say, my mother assures me we never had a dog apart from Jerry.
Now, I know memories are notoriously unreliable but, for a while, I simply couldn’t believe that Tim (that was the dog’s name) had never existed. My mother is quite elderly and I wondered at first whether it was her memory that couldn’t be trusted. But she told me I certainly used to talk to her about Tim when I was young: she thought at the time it must have been a dog I played with on the way home from school; that is, until she found me ‘playing’ with him in the backyard.
Apparently I was running about and laughing and hugging the air and throwing sticks and worrying everybody unnecessarily. I’m not sure who the ‘everybody’ was but the lady from the NHSA didn’t seem too bothered by it when my mother took me in and made me tell her about our adventures. I was quite happy to relay one or two of our more dangerous escapades and, at her request, even draw a picture of the most hair-raising one with the special soft crayons she had called Cray-Pas (a small packet of which I was allowed to keep).
It was the time Tim and I crossed that river. Of course, there was no river at all near my suburban Adelaide home; there was a storm drain and there was a creek up at Brown Hill but nothing that resembled the raging torrent that almost swept Tim and me away.
A few years ago, though, when I was cleaning out my parents’ shed (preparatory to putting them in a home or maybe an asylum), I came across a box of mouldy old comics. These were the Phantom ones I didn’t really like much but were quite cheap and so were what I bought with my six-cents-a-week pocket money. I was disappointed my father hadn’t looked after these more carefully because this collection, if pristine and not a damp mass of papier-mâché, would have fetched plenty on eBay. But that was my father: he’d already burned my first-edition Rupert the Bear albums because ‘they were old’.
Inside the rotting comic book box, though, was a little red dog collar I distinctly remembered Tim wearing when we went looking for that prison escapee that time and that I had to cut off with my Barlow pocket knife when he got tangled in an elderberry bush. It was getting dark and we’d heard a noise we were convinced was the convict lurking in the shadows. Tim barked at me to run home and save myself but I certainly wasn’t going to leave him behind to God knows what fate at the escapee’s murderous hands. I whipped out my knife and hacked through Tim’s collar, heart pounding so hard I could barely hear the thunder that cracked over us. Then the heavens opened up with a mighty boom! Whether it was the killer’s bony hands on my shoulder—or perhaps just a stray branch—as soon as Tim was freed we bolted through the driving rain to safety.
Scrambling up the embankment, though, I tripped and struck my head on a rock and blacked out. Tim, way ahead and already trying to get under the barrier, came back to me, licking my face between flashes of lightning until I regained consciousness, then dragged me back to the road by the hood of my jacket and stood guard and barked at passing traffic until a kindly policeman stopped and took us home. My parents were sick with worry and my grandmother, whom I rarely saw because she was rich and lived on the other side of town in a big house that smelled of pine needles and Fabulon, was there too, with a block of peppermint chocolate for me to have when I felt better. But my mother said I wasn’t allowed to eat it because I had scared her and my father half to death. So she ate it instead.
Tim had saved my life. He was a hero. In the real world he would have been awarded that medal for animal bravery they gave those dolphins in World War II.
The adult me showed the severed collar to my
‘But don’t you remember we both went fishing with him that time?’ I asked. I was sure we had. He thought a moment as he continued peeling an apple with a small knife (using only one hand; a skill I always admired but, sadly, never acquired).
When the peel was off he shook his head. ‘No, no—that was Wolfie Leigh. And I couldn’t come that day because I was working …’
Wolfie Leigh. I hadn’t thought about him in years. Wolfie’s real name was not Wolfie, but Tony. We called him Wolfie because he had a single eyebrow and incisors that looked like fangs. He lived two houses down from us. His father had been a Spitfire pilot in World War II and during a mission his windscreen had been shot out by a Messerschmitt. His face was horribly disfigured. Wolfie’s mother was much younger and quite beautiful, much more so than the other neighbourhood mothers and so, of course, none of the mothers liked her. Wolfie had a sister, too, and she had encephalitis. It was a strange family but Wolfie had a television set and we didn’t so I spent a lot of time over there and we became pals, much to the consternation of my mother, who thought the Leighs were ‘like something out of Tales from the Crypt’.
Wolfie and I had gone fishing at Brown Hill Creek without telling anyone. We’d just seen The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the pictures; we had been rather taken with it. Back at Wolfie’s place, we made fishin’ poles out of a broomstick and an old curtain rail and, barefoot despite the fact it was winter, with Wolfie in his mother’s sun hat and me chewin’ on what I thought was a piece of straw but was probably one of the long matches Captain Leigh used to light his pipe, we set out on our adventure. I guess I was Tom Sawyer because Wolfie had the freckles. With no bait or line or hook we caught very few fish but we did manage to get some tadpoles in a jar we found. And we got very muddy. We lost track of time and when it started to rain we took shelter under a bridge.
Meanwhile, our parents were frantic and had called the police. Captain Leigh had led a search party along the canal and into the big stormwater pipe, where no one was supposed to go. A little boy had been found in there once, we’d been told. There were never many details given but we assumed the poor boy had been found dead. True or not, it was the cautionary tale for children in our neighbourhood, solemnly recounted whenever a child was naughty.
The creek was swollen and the rain was beating down but Wolfie and I could still hear the voices of the adults as they crossed and re-crossed the stone bridge we were under. It was exciting. We wondered if we should stay where we were until they all went home, then reappear dramatically in the morning, perhaps even sneaking into our own funerals, like Tom in the movie. In the end, Captain Leigh shone a torch in our faces and Wolfie got a whipping.
I was spared anything like that. My mother and father sat with me in silence in the back of my grandfather’s car as he drove us slowly home, my mother holding my hand, and my father’s wet hat dripping on the picnic blanket they’d wrapped around me. My grandfather’s fierce eyes looked at me now and then in the rear-view mirror but he said nothing. We weren’t close. I saw him even less than I saw my grandmother. He was a policeman but, regrettably, he had brought his normal car …
My father handed me a bit of apple and creaked back in his old chair, feet on the desk he used, his whole life, to sketch his designs (he was a commercial artist, responsible for the original drawing of the Coppertone girl in 1953).
‘You used to like movies and comic books back then, didn’t you?’ he said. Sure, I did; they were my life. Adelaide in the 1960s was almost as dull as it is now. ‘You remember what the Phantom called his dog?’ Of course, I remembered. His name was Devil and he was a wolf.
My father fed himself another sliver of apple straight from the blade. ‘And what was the other film on the bill that day you saw the one about Huck Finn?’ I thought hard but couldn’t remember. Dad went through the drawer in his desk and pulled from it a yellowing cut-out from the cinema section, an ad for Old Yeller starring Tommy Kirk. He was right. I’d cried when Old Yeller died but then, so did everyone—why had he kept it? Dad shrugged and smiled. ‘I took you and Wolfie that day. We saw it together. It was your birthday, remember?’ I hadn’t. ‘You had your heart set on a puppy and your mother and I gave you a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird instead. We went to the pictures to cheer you up.’
That’s right, that’s right. Of course, I read the book later and loved it—it was why I wanted to be a lawyer—but at the time I’d wanted a puppy just like the little one in my father’s Coppertone ad.
‘Remember what Old Yeller got bitten by?’ my father asked, leaning back in the chair again. ‘A wolf, wasn’t it? It gave him rabies. That’s why Tommy had to shoot him. And remember the name of the dog in To Kill a Mockingbird that Atticus shoots because he has rabies?’
Oh God. Old Yeller was a ‘yellow’ labrador that contracted rabies, just like Tim Johnson. I’d conflated my experience with Wolfie, and made Wolfie a dog through my association of him with the Phantom’s wolf dog, The Phantom being written and drawn by Lee Falk—Lee as in Leigh, see? And I’d created a false memory of being rescued in the rain from the clutches of an evil stranger by a trusty and heroic, but completely imaginary, dog. When in fact all I’d done was go to the pictures with my dad and my best friend and then get lost in a park. Even the trip home with the policeman was really just with my grandfather.
I’ve always been an impressionable lad. That night, I had dinner with my parents. My mother made flapjacks and hominy grits and Pop and me sat by the fire a’whittlin’ and talkin’ about that whole mess o’ crawfish we was gonna catch the next day after church. Ma sang some old darkie work songs from the kitchen as she rustled up them vittles and just as the big ol’ sun disappeared behind them big trees over yonder I looked down and there lyin’ on the floor with his head in my lap was good ol’ Tim, just as peaceful and a’smilin’ as he were all them years ago.
I stroked his head and let him have a puff on my corn-cob pipe. ‘This is the life, eh, Tommy,’ he said.
‘It’s fine and all,’ I replied, ‘but I reckon I got to gits me out for a spell and head west, afore the Widow Douglas tries to adopt and sivilize me. I can’t stand it, Tim. I been there before. I beeeeen there before.’ And Tim laughed and shook his head.
At least, that’s my memory of it.
Smiling in the Dark
An hour before dusk and the river vegetation is exhaling a dank brine. I breathe it in and watch; the correct way to approach a river in this country.
I flick a prawn into the deep shadow beneath the melaleuca. The line moves a fraction, just a tiny nudge. Stillness. The line moves again, slowly, heading for the bank. I strike and the rod curves with all the startled strength of a big bream. I tug the fish away from the submerged forest of snags and reel it in. I bring it up to the jetty and its eye is furious but soon dulls to confused acceptance of the drug it is breathing.
I slice the fillets off either side and turn to feed the frame to the pelican but he must have been off hunting with the family, so I snap the neck and toss the carcass into the river.
I watch it float and turn in the water. It’s close to full tide, the flow is sluggish and the fish barely moves downstream. The stomach still has air in it and the frame drifts on the surface.
Fingerling mullet gather to fret and fray the skeleton. They are busy little fish and their communal effort makes the carcass jig and pitch: they are like tiny tugboats tending their big dead cousin.
Then the eel arrives. She covets any food in this part of the river. She has a small world of perhaps 70 metres at this time of her life but it is hers and she guards it with teeth li
She takes hold of the fish’s tail and jostles it against the wattle trunk that fell into the river the flood before last. She nudges and pushes, trying to loosen flesh from the bones and then she wrenches and lashes her long body. The little mullet are not too alarmed. They work around the eel in relative safety: she scorns the amount such small fry consume.
The mullets’ greater concern is the kingfisher, which has the habit of watching such river cameos then darting in to snip a slip of silver from the water and return to its perch, little fish flipping helplessly. The kingfisher’s beauty belies its murders.
But the kingfisher has not long flown upstream and probably won’t return before dark. Do the mullet know this? Have they seen the image of the disappearing bird blurred by the water and feel emboldened to feed on the bream carcass dandling so temptingly on the surface?
A stingray slides beneath the jetty and rises to inspect the activity on the surface. I expect the eel to turn on the stingray, gnashing its fearsome teeth, but the ray rises and glides past the dead fish and the eel writhes across its back but seems strangely deferential, perhaps nervous of the blade on the ray’s tail.
The stingray repeats this manoeuvre and each time the eel slides, coiled, across its back while the fry remain unconcerned, continuing to tug at the edges of the bream.
Finally, the eel curves away to the murky light at the bottom of the river and disappears. The ray keeps making passes across the fish and I see no reason for it until I realise it’s feeding on the mullet, positioning its mouth to scoop them up as they concentrate on their own meal.
The river is slow enough that I can still see the entire drama as if staged just for me. The eel, by bunting the bream carcass to the bank, has slowed the show down even more.
Still the ray makes its solemn passes and still the mullet scatter only to reform their frittering cloud like machinists in a sweatshop sewing factory.