Man and beast, p.16

Man & Beast, page 16


Man & Beast

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  We rang at 9.01 a.m. on the Monday he became available. When we got him, it felt like we’d won TattsLotto.

  A day or two later, we collected him and the vet told us that he’d nearly failed his personality test, and was almost put down. ‘You’re going to have your hands full with that one,’ he said.

  A tough-looking woman in a flannelette shirt presented us with forms about desexing and registration. She scratched the dog’s chin and cooed doggy love and ignored us completely while we signed the papers. Eventually she spoke.

  ‘Are you two planning to have children?’

  We were so taken aback, neither of said anything.

  She ploughed on, undaunted. ‘It’s just that I see a lot of couples like you, in their thirties, who want kids and so try things out with a dog. Then they have kids and guess who suffers? Guess who ends up back in here.’

  She was glaring at us. Our new dog was looking at us too, although less accusingly.

  ‘We’ll be good pet owners,’ Tam said, which was better than I could muster. ‘We know it’s a commitment.’

  The woman seemed suspicious, but further discussion was beyond the bounds of even her prodigious rudeness. Besides, he was ours. We had the adoption papers.

  And so he came home with us. He was so petrified of the car on that first drive that he had to be nursed in the back by Tam.

  His first meal was fresh chicken, and I had to wrestle his hind quarters to the ground to stop the vertical leaping and achieve something approaching a sit.

  We put down newspaper and built barricades—tables, chairs, rolled-up carpets, cabinets, and other assorted obstacles—to keep him in the back room. His dog bed was tucked behind the set of Les Misérables.

  He was out within thirty seconds.

  We rebuilt the barricades, taller, wider.

  We laid in bed, pet owners at last, listening, wondering if the barricades would hold. Two minutes later, we had our answer. Pdd, pdd, pdd, pdd, pdd. The tiny padding of paws on carpet.

  He slept outside our room that first night.

  We called him Charley Dog, after the character in Looney Tunes. The one who says, ‘Oh boy, I’m gonna have a piazza. I’m gonna have a piazza!’ We spelled it Charley with an ‘ey’ because we thought that’s how it was spelled in the cartoon. As it happens, it’s just regular ‘Charlie’ with an ‘ie’. But it took seven years to find this out. By then we’d already engraved the dog tag.

  The other jokey name we had for him was ‘Epsilon’. This was because the rude woman at the pound had been partly right. We did plan to have children. In fact Tam was pregnant with our first baby twenty-five days after we took Charley home. So even as Charley enjoyed the beam of our combined attentions—two walks per day, liver treats, puppy school, dog clubs, cooked meals, social outings, regular bones, Christmas presents, there was a sense that competition was coming. ‘We’re Alpha and Beta,’ we’d joke as we scratched his ears. ‘And the kids will be Delta and Gamma. So you can be our little Epsilon. You’re a good little Epsilon!’

  When Polly was born, we fussed over the introduction like the impeccable dog owners we were. I dragged a baby jumpsuit home from the hospital to allow Charley to smell it. When the baby followed, he welcomed it in his Charley Dog way. An occasional sniff, a very occasional foot lick. We could call him off getting too close, as we could call him off anything.

  That was the joy of the young Charley. He was so trainable, and so eager to please. What the vet had promised would be a handful was anything but. He had magnificent recall. He didn’t dig holes or bark incessantly. He was great around food, always waiting to be invited. He didn’t chew things. He was well behaved with other dogs. Even cats! He once set off after a possum at the park and Tam called him off, just as he was flinging himself into the tree. Charley pulled up and stared at her, as if to say, ‘Oh, you’re kidding, that is not fair.’ But he copped it. He always copped it.

  Charley was a magnificent Delta.

  He was a magnificent Epsilon too. Our second baby was a boy, Harry, arriving in 2009. This time, Charley didn’t get baby clothes to sniff. No warning at all that another pale, shrieking bundle of human was wriggling in on his hard-won territory.

  Breastfeeding and toddler wrangling dominated Tam’s days, so I’d take Charley to the Abbotsford Convent, where I had a writing studio. I’d ride the 5 kilometres there on the roads and he’d run on the footpath, learning within the space of weeks to stop at each side street, to wait for the shouted instruction, ‘Cross.’

  He’d sit under my feet all day, barely stirring. Then we’d ride and run the 5 kilometres home.

  He was a super athlete, a loyal and loving pet. Polly adored throwing the tennis ball for him. Her first word was ‘gog’, short for Charley Dog.

  He didn’t deserve to become Zeta in 2011, with the arrival of Jack.

  He absolutely didn’t deserve to become Eta in 2015, with the arrival of Alice. When she arrived home, Charley just looked at me, as if to say, ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding. Another one.’

  We now have four kids under ten. The third one, Jack, was born with severe cerebral palsy, which requires constant attention. Charley has his favourite spots in the house, watching the endless parades of shrieking mayhem with slowly blinking brown eyes. His coat is just that little greyer. His knees are too sore for tennis balls. He gets a pat when I guiltily think to myself that the day’s almost over and I’ve forgotten to give him one. He doesn’t seem to mind. I wonder if he remembers how Tam used to sauté offcuts and make doggy casseroles for him. Even with the seven-seater Tarago, we struggle to take him on outings with us. Prams and wheelchairs pile in the back. So often, there just isn’t room.

  The woman at the pound was right about this. The kids do overtake you.

  I’ll even tell this story. I know this is an animal book and 99 per cent of readers are barracking for the animals. But this actually happened, and I’m not proud of it. I’ll only say by way of defence that I’m genetically predisposed to extreme bouts of vagueness. Famously, my mum left my newborn sister in the greengrocer’s when she was five weeks old. A few minutes into the drive home, she had her frantic realisation and returned to see a large Greek man on the footpath, staring bewilderedly into the middle distance, nursing a baby against his apron.

  My story is nowhere near as bad as that.

  It happened on the day of my A-League commentary debut. I was sidelines reporter for Francis Leach on ABC Radio and had spent the hours beforehand nervously swotting up on jersey numbers and formations. I’d done some of this with the three older kids at the park, some on the train, and the rest prior to kick-off, pacing the media zone on the sideline.

  At the start of the second half, with Melbourne Victory leading the Central Coast 2–1, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Tam.

  Weird question I know but Charley Dog not here—Did you take him …?

  I was on the sidelines of an A-League game at Etihad Stadium. Did I take the dog! My stomach lurched with panic.

  ‘No!’ I texted back.

  Francis asked me down the line for an opinion about the fitness of the Central Coast striker. I garbled something, but all my thoughts were on the dog. Where could he be? The last time I’d seen him was at the park, with three kids in tow, around 5.30 p.m., but he would have come home with us. Charley, abandoned as a puppy, never strayed further than 50 or so metres. Surely he came home with us. Unless … unless …

  ‘Oh my god, Tam!’ I said, making the call and attempting to speak into the phone with one side of my face as I listened for Francis’s crosses with the other. ‘Charley is at the park. I tied him to a park bench. I can’t talk because I’m on air. But he’s tied to a bench at the park!’

  This is the bit where you’re starting to judge me. You’re picturing him watching us leave, attempting to follow, but being dragged back by the lead. You’re hearing one or two plaintive whines, not barks because Charley would have figured he didn’t need to bark—It’s not
like they’d leave me here, he’d have thought. I’m one of the pack. They love me. You’re thinking about the three hours he spent next to that bench, as day became evening, as They’ll be back soon became They’ll be back soon. Surely? Won’t they?

  At home, Tam started ringing around to find somebody to watch the kids while she ran to the park. At the ground, I remembered the dog tag with my mobile phone number around Charley’s neck. I checked for missed calls. There were two from unknown numbers. Again, I did the trick of phoning with one ear while listening for Francis’s crosses with the other. Oh shit, Leigh Broxham’s warming up. Please don’t cross to me now, Francis. Please!

  I dialled the unknown number. Hallelujah, it was a man at the park. Double hallelujah, he was still there with Charley. I whispered that I was commentating an A-League match, so couldn’t chat, but asked if he could hang there for another couple of minutes because my wife was on her way. He said he could see a woman running towards the dog. I thanked him, restored my headset to position, took a deep breath, and did a bang-up job of enthusing about a Carl Valeri 360-degree turn that nearly produced goal of the season.

  ‘Got him,’ Tam texted.

  ‘Thank god. So sorry,’ I texted back.

  ‘He’s furious. Hasn’t wagged at all. Has sprinted straight for home.’

  Should I attempt to justify how it happened? How it was a perfect storm of carrying a disabled child, while pushing a swing, while answering a five year old’s questions about bark? How I was trying to learn the Mariners’ players’ names? How it’s so rare that we tie Charley up, but there were so many kids in the playground …

  Are you willing to cut me some slack?

  Would the woman at the pound be willing to cut me some slack?

  Because Charley was. He was there wagging at the gate when I arrived home.

  Gee Gee v GG

  Tony Wright

  In the winter of 1975, aboard an ill-tempered pony named Rami, I came within a short half-head of changing Australian history.

  We, the pony and I, very nearly performed manslaughter upon the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.

  It was not deliberate. I blame a hare.

  You need quite a few unexpected elements to collide if you are to become party to what might have been interpreted as the assassination of a vice regal. I was between jobs; washed up as a bush journalist at the age of twenty-four, adrift in the national capital, Canberra.

  Canberra is an unusual sort of place. It’s judged by its isolation: an hour from the Hume Highway, a couple of hours from the coast, more hours from the capitals of Victoria and New South Wales. All because an argument between the pumped-up chests of Melbourne and Sydney needed to be settled.

  All sorts of interesting characters have been bunched together in this outlying city ever since it was built. You might run into a prime minister in a shopping centre, though Gough Whitlam was busy trying to hold together a disintegrating government in mid 1975.

  It was the year I met the family of the butler from Government House, Yarralumla.

  His name was Bryan, and he was a large and loud Welshman who’d butled for the royal family before finding his way to the colonies and marrying a woman who already had seven children.

  It struck me as bizarre to know someone who was butler to a governor-general, but it seemed to be unexceptional in Canberra.

  Somehow, being between jobs and short of cash for things like food, I got into the habit of arriving at the family’s home each day in time for dinner. I’m not sure the huge family even quite knew I was there sometimes.

  One of the seven children was a young woman who had outgrown her enthusiasm for horses. Her passion that year was the guitar.

  Learning that I had been brought up on a farm, she enquired whether I could ride a horse.

  It happened that my father was a horseman and had presented me with my first pony when I was three.

  My new friend explained that she owned a horse that hadn’t been ridden for a while. She wanted to sell it but felt it might need a little work first, just to gentle it after its idle spell.

  Would I take it for a ride each day until it was sale-fit?

  Why not? I had time to spare and perhaps something to prove.

  This being Canberra, the horse wasn’t grazing in any old paddock.

  It was stabled at Government House. Bryan the butler had made the arrangements.

  There are those unkind enough to say Canberra is a good sheep paddock spoiled, and Government House, which sits on what was a splendid sheep station, has kept a decent-sized paddock for visitors to imagine what might have been and for vice regals to groove on: 54 hectares; or 133 acres, in the language sheep-station owners used. No sheep these days, though a mob of kangaroos hops lazily from the shelter of one tree to another.

  And so, for a couple of weeks in June 1975, I drove my car out to Government House, where a kind policeman opened the gate to the servants’ entrance and tipped his cap, and I was free to drive around to the stables that stood behind the stately viceregal residence. No one ever asked for identification. Bryan’s name was my password. Such days were they.

  Rami was a little grey gelding with an evil eye. He pricked his ears and turned his head and measured me with that eye at my first approach, too much white showing around its dark depths.

  Still, he allowed me to brush him down, get the bridle on him and the bit in his mouth, and he only shivered as the saddle went on and the girth tightened. But those ears moved back.

  He’d been scamming. As I got my boot in the stirrup, about to swing aboard, Rami snapped his head around and tried to take a bite out of my leg, teeth bared. He couldn’t quite accomplish it, but I should have known what was coming.

  As I sank into the saddle, Rami’s ears flattened and he put his head between his front legs. Squealing, he took to pig-rooting and bucking and trying to get my weight off him and into the dirt. He would have done it, too, but he turned out to be a bolter.

  His bucking stopped as swiftly as it had begun and we took off across 133 acres that were supposed to ease the spirits of those burdened with ceremonially heading up a nation.

  Rami wasn’t much bigger than a pony, but he could gallop. There comes a moment when a horse’s gait changes from a canter to a gallop and it is like changing gear to overdrive. Everything smooths out and there is only the sense of urgent power beneath you, the song of wind mixing with hoofbeats.

  The problem was that Rami would not answer to the rein. He would not turn or slow however I sawed at his mouth.

  No horse can bolt for long. The lungs and the heart won’t support the stress of it.

  And so it turned out with Rami. He slowed to a canter, kicked his heels a bit and calmed down until I could hold him and turn him and scold him, and eventually walk him back to the stable and towel off his sweat.

  We built a morning ritual. Day after skittish day.

  Rami would allow me to saddle him, and he’d buck and bolt with me clinging on until he’d simmer down and let me work him.

  Each day, Rami’s theatrics got a little shorter, a little less determined.

  He still had the evil eye, and I never quite trusted him or lost my uneasiness. But I couldn’t walk away and tell a girl whose stepfather was my daily key to the most exclusive address in the nation that I had failed to handle her horse.

  Just as I began fooling myself that Rami and I were reaching an understanding and that the governor-general’s green fields were my personal domain, I learned the truth.

  On a particularly cold morning, with frost on the grass, Rami had performed his introductory snorting and pig-rooting and we were sailing across the old sheep paddock when I knew we were headed for trouble.

  I spotted it before Rami, which allowed me half a heartbeat to get myself balanced and my boots hard into the stirrups.

  Squatting behind a tussock was a hare. With Rami thundering towards it, the hare jumped and sprinted, dodging.

  And Rami went mad.
r />   Mid-stride the little horse plunged, altered course and found new energy. He picked up speed and was instantly further out of control than even on that first day.

  Worse, we were running out of paddock.

  Rami headed directly towards the old three-storey mansion that is the governor-general’s residence.

  And right out the front, on the ceremonial lawn, a lonely figure strolled, hands behind his back. A shock of pure white hair capped a recognisable head. Sir John Kerr, Governor-General of Australia, was taking a morning constitutional. Perhaps he was walking off his customary hangover. Bryan had let slip that Sir John was a fierce piss artist.

  Neither the hare-addled Rami nor the queen’s sot appeared to have any cognisance that we were all on a high-speed collision course.

  Still at full gallop, Rami was just metres from mowing down His Excellency Sir John Kerr, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, currently the eighteenth Governor-General of Australia, when I began bellowng.

  ’Lookout lookout lookout!’ I cried.

  Sir John stopped, raised his head and looked with astonishment as a berserk horse and a rider barely clinging on rushed by, almost tearing the buttons from his cardigan.

  I booted Rami to keep him going, performing an arc around the great house, storming him towards the stables. I tore the bridle and saddle from him, locked him away and took to my car.

  I never looked back.

  Rami was sold, and I trust he went to someone who enjoyed excitement. Sir John Kerr lived to dismiss the government of Gough Whitlam, who might never have forgiven me if he’d known I’d shouted a warning that had saved the life of the governor-general only five months previously.

  I married the sister of the girl who owned Rami, and I returned to journalism.

  In time, I attended receptions, dinners and garden parties as a guest of other governors-general. The stables had been torn down by then, but I never lost the urge to wander around and remember the day a mad little horse and I almost changed Australian history.

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