Man & Beast, page 6
Knees bent, hands out, Terri Irwin readied and braced herself to jump on the crocodile’s head, some kind of crazy-brave warrior jungle woman-meets-devoted suburban mother of two.
‘Terri will go first,’ hollered the chief wrangler. ‘And then the rest of the jump team, you will go like a stack of dominoes. Bang, bang, bang, bang. You’ve got to get in there and get those back legs off the ground so he can’t push off.’ The team lined up behind Irwin. Ulysses was furious. He began to death roll in the air, making great twisting leaps, arching, heaving, every muscle pulling the rope-wielding wranglers closer to his snapping jaws. Short, sharp directions were given.
‘Too much rope. Coming round, coming round. Back, back, back.’
The ground thundered when Ulysses landed and then, to my eternal surprise, Terri Irwin leaped on top of the beast, the domino wranglers following behind her until nine or so people were stretched across mighty Ulysses’ black and green back, pinning him to the ground so his jaws could be taped shut and so Franklin could swiftly and painlessly fix a satellite tracking unit to the back of the beast’s head.
Her body weight still pushing down on the crocodile, Irwin nodded me closer: ‘Put your hand on him.’ I placed a gentle hand on Ulysses’ head.
And that’s when I saw my grandfather.
I don’t know why he flashed into my mind at that precise moment but there he was, sitting in his armchair in the corner of the lounge room at the old house in Sandgate, not far from the lice-filled seawaters of Bramble Bay, northern Brisbane. The late Vic Dalton. Rat of Tobruk. Quietest, most humble grandfather who ever lived. Resting in his armchair, resting in peace, his war-brought wooden leg stretched out straight like a fallen karri tree, the great survivor, watching his tearaway young grandsons playing marbles on his lounge-room floor. A war hero, to be sure, my old man said. Even more of a hero back home, a bloke forever known in his sleepy Sandgate beachfront community as the dad who hobbled along the streets pushing his polio-suffering wife, Beryl, in a wheelchair; a bloke who hopped around on one leg in endless games of tag with his four kids on the Bramble Bay mudflats.
Ulysses, that great survivor, that dear old perfect killing machine, reminded me of Grandad.
It was something about his skin, so old and soft and journeyed.
‘You’re in the presence of a dinosaur,’ whispered Terri Irwin. ‘We still know so little about them. You get up close and they’re soft and chubby like a baby’s skin and then you learn that they’re great mothers and fathers, extremely protective and intelligent parents.’
I leaned in close to hear Ulysses breathe, and the air from his nostrils lifted the hair on my forehead and it was clean and fresh like a Sandgate sea breeze. And, in that moment, I was sure I was close to some new insight into age and wisdom and existence; living and dying. There’s a rare palm on the edge of the Wenlock River that takes sixty years to grow out of its surrounding tropical tree canopy and find the sun. It flowers briefly, only once in its life, and dies. In that moment next to mighty Ulysses, I was that palm having its first and fatal feel of the warm sun, briefly brushing up against some deep eternal knowledge, like there was something important to learn from Ulysses but my human brain was too small to understand what it was. Whatever that feeling was, it left as quickly as it came.
Mighty Ulysses was fitted with his tracking unit and, from a safe distance, the tape and ropes were carefully removed from his jaws and he slipped quickly back into his winding kingdom, the glorious and pure waters of the Wenlock.
We sailed back to camp and I sat at the front of the tin boat, eating from a packet of chilli beef jerky, trying to remember things about my grandfather.
I was humbled by the beast. I was saddened by him, too. He made me wish I had talked to my grandfather more. But you can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand. James Joyce said that. Ulysses.
Before leaving Los Angeles to hunt locations for Universal’s new tropical island adventure–romance, Tyler Foss searched ‘Queensland coast’ online and came up with coral reefs, cyclones, crocodiles, ultraviolet radiation, partying high-schoolers, marine stingers and lost skindivers. He also found constant references to paradise on earth. Uncertain terrain, thought Tyler Foss.
As the advance guard, the person at the sharp end of any film project, the veteran Hollywood location scout paid close attention to his image: outlaw-rocker, with a lone-wolf air. He absorbed all the internet information about white Coral Sea sands, harsh sunlight, rainforest lagoons and salt-lashed boardwalks, gave his clothing the usual careful consideration, and decided, as always, on denim, leather and T-shirts. The only problematical item this time was footwear. Tyler Foss was fifty-five and 5 foot 7 inches, and at all times he wore custom-made cowboy boots.
After his thirty-five years in the business, the cowboy boots, along with the silver ponytail and chin stubble, the chunky Navajo bracelets and the unfiltered Camels, were part of the Foss persona—the Foss legend, he liked to think—set forever in the 1970s. They shouted wise-old-dog-knowingness and keeper-of-celebrity. And, incidentally, the heels added 2 inches to his height.
He owned two dozen pairs, including boots in ostrich skin (smooth and full-quill varieties), alligator (belly and back), snake (Burmese python and king cobra), lizard, caiman, conga eel, crocodile (Nile and Australian), stingray and kangaroo.
But on this assignment, much seashore reconnoitring over wet sand, cliffs and rocks would be required. Foss’s bespoke boots averaged $4500 a pair. On the Massachusetts coast he’d lost his favourite king cobras while scouting The Perfect Storm for Warners. The cobra skin had quickly flaked and succumbed to the salty Atlantic fogs. Now, for coastal work, regrettably, cowboy boots were out.
An actual cowboy could not have felt more angst at giving them up. Eschewing the boots was a considerable blow to Foss’s sense of self. He hadn’t worn lace-up shoes, the footwear of the Suits, the Average-Joe citizenry, the office-going nine-to-fivers, since high school. But he was a professional, and intensive research into the best footwear for coastal tramping eventually turned up an alternative: something called the Nature-Grit sneaker. To Foss, the word ‘sneaker’ had a childish, suburban ring to it, not to mention the off-putting eco-hippie sound of ‘Nature-Grit’. But it was made of yak leather, which sounded fairly exotic and hard-hitting, and came in suitably masculine shades: sand-yak, rust-yak, mineral-yak and—presumably for evening wear when traction was needed—black-yak.
Foss got a couple of pairs in sand- and mineral-yak. He was pleased to find they were surprisingly cool and comfortable on the job; moreover, that yak skin—perhaps it was the Himalayan high-altitude factor of the beast—really ‘breathed’ down here at sea level. After a long day’s tramping through rainforest humidity or sand-dune heat, even without socks, they smelled less than regular sneakers. And, as he’d discovered on the Gold Coast, ifyou wished to undress quickly, especially after an evening’s drinking, they required far less time and effort than boots. Cowboy-boot removal, Foss had to admit, could cost a man valuable impetus and energy these days, with sometimes depressing results. As well, the Nature-Grits were about $4000 cheaper than, say, his alligator bellies or conga eels. He could almost forgive them for the missing 2 inches.
For the whole late-autumn month of May—according to his research, a dry, benign, season-turning month in Australia, when anything cyclonic, venomous or man-eating should be absent or dormant—Foss roamed the north-eastern seaboard in his yak-leather sneakers, scouting the required adventurous-cum-romantic ‘look’ for the film, which was set on an unnamed tropical island in an unnamed ocean. And neither daytime saturation by sudden tidal surges nor night-time bar spillages and nightclub and casino scuffing could mar his Nature-Grits. Surf, salt, rocks and reefs, beer and bourbon drips, Camel ash: the yak leather resisted them all. Despite the effortless professionalism of his new shoes, however, even after three weeks’ extensive searching, no coastal loc
At an anxious ebb, Foss lugged his cameras and battered leather duffle bag (the sort that brought pirates or World War II air aces to mind) aboard a tourist ferry to an offshore island famous for its translucent sands. And as the boat slowly chugged along the scenic eastern shore, allowing the passengers their holiday snaps of migrating humpback whales, his anxiety began to fall away. How was it possible for a lagoon to be so clear, for a beach to be even whiter than the coral shores he’d just left? This sand was like crushed pearls.
What excited him as the boat drew closer, however, was the dramatic potential of the ornately rooted pandanus palms, lawyer vines and shadowy eucalypts poised on the edge of those pale sand-hills. The stark vegetation provided a sinister backdrop to the serenity of the shore. Winter storm tides had eaten into the dunes, and undermined trees lay toppled on the beach all along the high-water mark. Their exposed roots and claw-like branches now gestured at the sea and grabbed at the sky.
Lustrous sands, accessible jungle, crystal seas and menacing trees; Foss couldn’t snap shots quick enough. He had a good feeling about this place: it should more than satisfy the director’s and production designer’s creative visions. The producer, too: the island was conveniently situated only thirty minutes from the mainland. Curiously, it did seem to be inhabited by many lean and tawny stray dogs, but as Foss and the other ferry passengers disembarked, the dogs skulked into the shadows of the wharf pylons and vanished into the rainforest. Easy enough for the animal wrangler to keep them out of frame, mused Foss absently, checking into his hotel.
His immediate task that first afternoon was to take some offshore photographs of the island. Leaving the sand-yak sneakers on the beach, he rolled up his jeans and waded out into the shallows. For perhaps an hour, until the tide began to turn, he snapped away determinedly, capturing the main beach from many vantage points before wading back to shore. Strangely, he couldn’t find his sneakers anywhere. They were gone. Stolen.
For a few minutes, Tyler Foss stamped the sand in fury and frustration. There was no one else around now. What sneaky son of a bitch would steal a man’s shoes from the beach? Because he prided himself on travelling light, he’d packed only one other pair, the mineral-yaks. But, eventually, taking deep breaths, he told himself life would go on. He’d suffered worse tribulations than bare feet and stolen footwear—pneumonia, for example, while scouting sites for Cold Mountain in Romania (Romania had to pass for Virginia and North Carolina). Not to mention the king-cobra boot disintegration in Massachusetts.
As dusk began to fall, his temper finally settling, he padded back to the hotel with his first island location shots.
Showered and re-shod an hour later, his sanguinity returned, he sauntered out into the hotel gardens in order to have a customary end-of-the-working-day Camel and Jim Beam, to plan the next day’s schedule, and to see what the night might bring. Seeing what the night might bring was Tyler Foss’s favourite part of the day. Mostly the night brought nothing but a hangover, of course, but he was an evening-optimist by nature, unusual in someone thrice divorced.
Ever since he was sixteen, a short, pimpled boy showering before a movie date at the neighbourhood Rialto, this magic time of day had filled him with hopeful anticipation.
Anything could happen, especially in hotels; especially in hotels in foreign parts. As he well knew, when people were overseas, or on ships or islands, they did things they would not do at home. It was something to do with the sudden separation by water, the partition from their ordinary lives. And watching the last pink streaks of sunset fading between the coconut palms, and the deft fingers of the cocktail waitress adjusting a frangipani in her hair, he felt the old anticipative frisson.
As he sipped his drink, Foss became aware of some activity involving ladders and wires at the far end of the hotel gardens. A local film crew was bustling about and setting up under the palms. What was this? Already he felt a territorial imperative: this was his film location. He collared a passing gaffer and discovered they were shooting a beer commercial the next day. He tapped the loose shreds from a Camel, lit up, and through a spurt of smoke magnanimously informed the gaffer, ‘I’m in the business myself.’
When the crew finished setting up, he invited them to join him for drinks. He was loudly convivial, as if he and they really were in the same industry, as if these Aussie TV-commercial makers and Universal Studios were even on the same planet. But they seemed amiable company, quite awed by him, in fact, and as far as he was concerned, any film crew in the world held more possibility of night-time action than a garden of tourists.
Meanwhile, the production assistants kept consulting clipboards and frowning at their watches, on the lookout for the commercial’s director, producer and art director, and eventually there was a dramatic clattering in the darkening southern sky and from the direction of the Gold Coast came a helicopter. It hovered for a moment before landing by the swimming pool, discharging the people Foss’s drinking companions were expecting, plus an attractive woman in a short banana-coloured skirt that accentuated her legs.
‘That’ll be her,’ remarked one of the production assistants, with respect in her voice. ‘That’s the octopus stylist.’ And it was. The octopus stylist had multihued bird’s-nesty hair, a chirpy manner and a confident pointy chin reminiscent of the actress Reese Witherspoon. Tyler Foss was an old hand but he couldn’t recall ever meeting an octopus stylist before, or even considering the possibility of their existence. From the moment of their meeting, however, when she generously joined the crew for drinks and ordered a mango daiquiri, he imagined that for the rest of his life whenever the subject of octopus styling came up, he would think of her.
Her name was Mia McKenzie. On the crew she was listed as ‘cuisine art director’ but her bailiwick was seafood and her forte was cephalopods. Octopus, squid, cuttlefish. Her job was styling them to look attractive on camera.
Apparently, she was in great demand for television, magazines and coffee-table food books. Her professional brief this time was to turn a smorgasbord of molluscs and crustaceans into an artistic display to sell more beer.
This TV commercial was intended to change the image of beer drinkers as sweaty, blue-collar pie-eating men with bulldozers and cattle dogs. (Those people drank lots of beer already.) The nation’s middle-class women needed to be shown what a sophisticated and natural image a glass of beer could give them.
Hence the presence of six lean-waisted extras in a tropical island party setting, all wearing white, raffishly crumpled natural fibres while enjoying glasses of beer in the vicinity of tastefully designed fresh seafood. Hence Mia McKenzie’s octopus styling. It had nothing to do with eating. It would be an exhibition, however fleeting its eventual moment on screen, to illustrate the sophisticated yet natural world of today’s beer drinker.
All this Tyler Foss gathered as he competed with the crew for her attentions. For once his own range of impressive and scandalous Hollywood anecdotes was forgotten; he was tongue-tied by her rainbow hair, endless legs and vivacious manner. ‘Lobsters are a cinch,’ she was declaring. ‘A spray of glycerine and they look fabulous. And crabs, too, once you’ve oiled them. Prawns, whole fish, oysters—any smelly old fish shop can style them. They’re all a cliché.’
She was waving her arms for emphasis. Chopping the air. ‘The shiny red lobster, symbolising passionate life, although actually boiled to death. The dramatic aggression of crab claws. The pink excess of a mound of prawns—just an invitation to gluttony. The oyster’s sexual associations. Give me a break. Old, old hat. It’s the octopus that stretches your imagination.’
‘I can see how it would,’ Foss said. ‘All those legs. Or are they arms?’ Oddly adolescent and awkward in her company, he gave a snorting laugh, which accidentally turned into a tobacco cough.
Her look was suddenly wary. ‘Yes, there are those to consider,’ sh
‘What about squid?’ he asked. He couldn’t believe he was labouring this conversation. ‘There’s no way a squid looks edible,’ he stumbled on, self-consciously. ‘Very ugly suckers.’ His accent, thickened by bourbon and cigarettes, rumbled in the night air. ‘I don’t think I could style a squid,’ he heard himself say. ‘I guess I’d be more of a beef stylist.’
Mia McKenzie was staring at him now, squinting slightly, as if she normally wore glasses and wanted to really register his presence. The grey ponytail with its tinge of nicotine yellow, the elderly white stubble, the chunky turquoise and silver Navajo bracelets, the ageing-rocker garb. ‘Yes, I’ve met a few homely squids,’ she said, and turned her attention to the young assistant director on her other side.
Last drinks were called. ‘Nightcaps in my room!’ announced Tyler Foss, ever optimistic.
‘We’re shooting first thing,’ someone said firmly, and within a few seconds the film crew had swept up the octopus stylist in their tide and surged out of the gardens. Alone, Foss stubbed out his final cigarette, sighed, stretched out his feet in their mineral-yak Nature-Grits. So much for comfort; without his cowboy boots he’d lost height and panache. He’d mislaid his humour and banter, and his successful way with women in foreign places. Wearily, he got up from the table.
Apart from some night creatures rustling in the bougainvillea, the distant throb of surf and the sudden hum of the pool filter, the hotel garden was silent.
Rising at dawn as always, Tyler Foss washed down some aspirin with orange juice and set out along the western shoreline to take more reconnaissance shots. The tide was out, a light fog blurred the horizon and his eyes watered in the sudden sharp sea air. A pale flurry of ghost crabs parted at his approaching steps, panicked back and forth, scattered into three groups, then re-formed and continued to bustle alongside him. For perhaps twenty minutes he strolled along the shore, occasionally snapping photographs, before he reached the eroded dunes and collapsed trees. This was what he was looking for.