Man and beast, p.9

Man & Beast, page 9


Man & Beast

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  Regulars on a favourite stretch of beach near Yidney Rocks, they became friends with one of the old blokes who lived by himself at Poyungan Rocks, on the beach just to the south. There is very little freehold land on Fraser, but Reg Rabies, a retired cocky from out west, who could have been any age from fifty-six to seventy-eight in that weathered outback Queensland way, actually owned a block. He had no one to pass it on to when he went to God. He wanted the block to go to a family who genuinely loved Fraser, so he did a deal with PJ’s dad: if they kept him in motor vehicles, they would eventually own the title of the land.

  That was a tougher deal than it first seemed. Fraser is harsh on four-wheel drives. The salt corrodes the metal. But the more immediate danger is the tide. To get around on Fraser, you drive along the beach, which is like the Gold Coast Highway for much of the day, but shrinks to nothing in many places at high tide. You can get caught. Many a proud (but inexperienced) owner has watched as their Jeep or Toyota has been sucked into the ocean by the surf. It is embarrassing, and expensive. Rule one at Fraser: know the tide times.

  Old mate was a little careless with cars, and after a number were caught in the waves and last seen heading for New Caledonia, PJ’s dad suggested a different arrangement. Rather than keep him in cars, they kept him in beer and looked after his medical prescriptions. Eventually the poor old bugger died.

  His block was right on the beach. PJ’s family built a simple, functional two-level shack with a couple of bedrooms—one with a double bed and one with about ten bunk beds in it. The upper level has a balcony, which looks out across the magnificent Pacific Ocean.

  I didn’t know about Poyungan in those days. PJ went to London and played up like a second-hand Victa, but returned a very capable dentist. The transition amazed most of us. We were battling away ourselves but, by the mid 1990s, most of us had taken enough steps along life’s path to be able to organise our own time (with a bit of warning). So, we would respond to PJ’s annual call. He’d nominate the week, put together the touring party, and off we’d go.

  A party of old uni mates is a good (and dangerous) thing. We’d come from all over and meet at PJ’s in Maroochydore. A couple of four-wheel drives would be stacked with the essentials—fishing gear, and enough supplies to cater for our rehydration—and off we’d go.

  It was all about the fishing. (Really?) Fraser is famous for tailor, a fish that arrives at the island en masse. When they’re running—in late winter—people stand shoulder to shoulder on the beach, reeling them in.

  We toured in quieter times, times of fewer fish, in search of bream. We’ve always had our spots. Like the wreck of the Maheno, a ship that ran aground on the east side not far from Poyungan in 1935. It has attracted bream and other species ever since.

  After crossing the Noosa River, we’d head along the mainland beach, past Double Island Point and Rainbow Beach, and on to Inskip Point, where we’d catch the barge to make the short crossing across shallow water to Fraser Island.

  Then we’d drive along the beach and around the infamous Hook Point, which has caught many an unsuspecting driver. I recall seeing the expansive beach for the first time—wide, on low tide, it went forever. The late-spring light. The heat in the midday sun. The rich blue of the ocean. The huge sky. The white water of the crashing surf. And its sound. The massive dunes of the island, some gouged by the previous high tide, some like waves of perfect sand, some dotted with pandanus and casuarina trees and other vegetation. The beach, so flat, better than any paved city freeway, except for the many little creeks that leave the dunes and drain into the ocean.

  Fraser Island is a paradise. It is a sand island. The inland lakes—especially Lake McKenzie—have to be seen to be believed. The water is pure, so clean, it’s hard to gauge how deep it is. The stands of giant satinay and scribbly bark, among many other species, make a canopy, and rainforest. Fraser is filled with animal life. It’s nothing to spot a sandy coloured goanna the size of a small crocodile. The bird life is majestic. Sitting at PJ’s, you can watch the brahminy kites arc high into the sky. There are dingoes, and for a long time, there were mobs of brumbies.

  The tours are always brilliant, but I remember one absolute cracker in the late 1990s. I was struggling (generally) to find the motivation to keep going with postgraduate research. I was sitting in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland, looking at microfilm of 1930s newspapers, when on the screen appeared a news item about the sinking of the Maheno. ‘Ah, Fraser Island,’ I lamented.

  And then: ‘What an idiot I am. What on earth am I doing sitting in a dark library when I could actually be on Fraser?’

  The incident became the catalyst to thrust my name before the selector (PJ) for a new tour.

  That tour proved popular. There was BSN (a sort of forty-something Ferris Bueller), Sheeds (the vet), Big Trev (another dentist), Aldo (the pilot) et al. A fine bunch. It was the tour we had beach sprints, and played some dune golf with royal and ancient sticks; the tour when Rogan Josh won the Melbourne Cup.

  There was no debate about the day’s schedule. A post-sunrise fish out the front or at the Maheno—for bream—followed by pan-fried bream for brekkie. Maybe an early ale. A rest. A swim, perhaps, to get the hair salty and the skin feeling like you’re on holidays. A drive along the beach to find pipis (Paphies australis)—some for lunch and some for bait. Pipis surface after a wave; the slightly raised wet sand at water’s edge is the indicator. ‘Pipis!’ someone yells, causing PJ to come to a screaming halt—then it’s dig, dig, dig.

  A heap of pipis in chilli, white wine and lime juice, cooked in the wok over the wood fire in the yard, washed down with a nice Riesling. A little more Riesling. A book and a rest. A game of 500. Dodgy phone coverage and no thought of the internet; a blessing. PJ and BSN sorting out the fishing tackle, and driving up and down the beach in search of the right gutters. Some yabby-pumping and some wriggling in the sand for worms to augment the supply of pipis. Who knows what a bream fancies in the late afternoon.

  Then three hours of can-in-hand (XXXX, of course) fishing.

  The bream is the Corolla Seca of fish. It may not be a big fish, and it may not be the most defiant or sporty fish, but it’s playful enough, especially for the once-a-year angler whose eyesight makes baiting a hook a victory in itself. I don’t have PJ’s touch—he’s been known to wade in and grab fish with his hand—or BSN’s determination, but I know how to celebrate when a decent glistening bream is dangling from the line. And when PJ does the honours on the cleaning table at home and he’s preparing the catch for dinner. What follows is always conversation with blokes thinking they’re funnier than they are, the red having performed its duty, until a few Bundies and a game of Rickety Kate fill the room with more laughter.

  I have many memories of glorious Fraser afternoons when I look to the south or the north and see half a dozen of us spread along a pristine beach, golden sun behind us, favourite old T-shirts hanging over even older shorts, trying to outsmart a bream. These are some of the characters with whom I have lived my life. I just don’t see them often enough.

  I thank Fraser Island for getting us together. And I thank the humble bream.

  Rescue Dog

  Malcolm Knox

  We went to the animal shelter for a cat and came away with Bruce.

  The cat was the sensible idea. Two young children whose commitment to caring for a pet was untested against their enthusiasm for the idea of one. Two parents who had enough going on. So, yes, a cat: low-maintenance relationship, starter pet, family on trial.

  But at the shelter that bright Saturday morning, the cats seemed to sense our commitment phobia and gave as little as they got. They said miaow, we said meh and found ourselves in the dog section.

  There is no sadness like dog-shelter sadness. Instead of lively, love-starved puppies we found a gallery of invalids and discards, weepy-eyed mongrels who had been around the block once too often yet not often enough. Our experience, browsing from cage to soul-destroying ca
ge, was akin to potential foster parents visiting an orphanage to find their choices narrowed to mature-aged divorcees, incurable gambling addicts and generationally unemployed chain smokers. You want to be a good person, but can you be that good? You want to be able to start a life, not steward a comfortable decline. I wish we could have had large enough hearts to take home a PTSD, arthritic, reeking spanielterrier cross with, literally, a kicked-dog expression when it could bring itself to look dolefully out of its cage.

  We kept moving, propelled by guilt and melancholy, until we arrived at an empty cage with a name taped above it: BRUCE.

  ‘Who’s Bruce?’ we asked the volunteer worker.

  Her face lit up. ‘Ah, Bruce. He’d be outside.’

  We found Bruce in the fresh air. He was pulling another volunteer on a lead down a slope towards the shelter, or, as we would have it, towards us. Bruce was a six-month-old bundle of charisma with a kelpie’s bod and a blue heeler’s winsome eye-patches. Liquid brown eyes and chick-magnet grin. He had us at hello.

  ‘You’re lucky,’ the handler said. ‘If nobody took him this weekend, I was going to take him myself.’

  I was back at the shelter on the Monday, the completed paperwork and a cheque for $280 in my pocket. Driving along Pittwater Road, I tempered my excitement to slow down through several speed-camera zones. Then it was up Mona Vale Road into semi-rural Ingleside, a hinterland off Sydney’s northern beaches that houses nearly every animal shelter north of the city, like a specialised shopping district.

  Riding shotgun was Greg Greene. We had moved into our house as a family of four. Six months on, we had acquired Greeny, and today we were adding Bruce.

  Greeny was excited too. It was good to see him looking revived. Greeny is ten years older than me, and I have known him since I was at school. The first house I moved into as a renter, for a six-month period back in the 1980s, was under Greeny’s lead tenancy. A worldly law and maths graduate, he had been a kind of life mentor to my friends and me; we had remained friends as he broke the ground for us, into the thirties, forties and fifties, ten years ahead, like an advance party.

  In the early autumn of 2009, soon after we moved into our house, I had made a routine phone call.

  ‘Hey, Greeny, how’s it going?’ Rhetorical question, phatic communication, no reply necessary.

  ‘Not so good, actually.’

  Greeny, now fifty-three, was living with his 80-year-old mother in her retirement village unit. He had split with his long-term partner, who owned the house they had shared for a decade, and been kicked out. Amid his crisis he had lost, or walked out on, his job, and had no idea what he was going to do next. He had also lost his driver’s licence for DUI. And he needed a shoulder reconstruction. Actually, not so good.

  ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you need anywhere to get some respite, you know we have a granny flat, and you’re welcome to use it …’ ‘That’s all right,’ Greeny said. ‘Thanks for the offer, I appreciate it, but I’m fine with the old lady.’

  ‘… for a weekend,’ I finished my sentence, as Greeny spoke over the top of me.

  The offer, and the decline, were almost Japanese: ritual forms of polite conversation, small talk between old friends, not statements with genuine will or content.

  Or so I thought, until a week later, when Greeny called.

  ‘You know what you said about your granny flat?’

  Five months on, Greeny had put down deep roots in the flat. Still without job or licence, he had installed a fridge and a microwave and turned our outbuildings into a Kaczynski-ish hermitage. Sometimes he failed to emerge for days. He couldn’t have been more ensconced in that flat if he’d been on witness protection. Occasionally he tiptoed past the house to slip out the side entrance, as if he could make himself invisible to us, but the more quietly he slinked, the more he was noticed.

  On the upside,his shoulder had been successfully reconstructed.

  We who lived in the main house had discussed the possible impact of the Bruce situation on Greeny, and couldn’t see anything but positives. Although he was fundamentally a cat guy—when I lived with him, he had two beloved Burmese, Leon and Pris, as in Blade Runner—Greeny had expressed enthusiasm about our getting a dog. Taking Bruce for a walk, we reasoned, might get Greeny out of the granny flat for an hour a day and give him a much-needed (so we thought) sense of contributing to family life. Or, if he couldn’t tolerate Bruce, it might well prompt him to get a job and move out. In other words, win-win.

  So: Monday, midwinter 2009, Greeny and I rolled up to the animal shelter at Ingleside. I had bought a dog harness so that Bruce could sit on the comfortable imitation-leather back seat, rather than in the skanky back hatch area, for the ride to his new home.

  ‘Bruce,’ Greeny said as we parked. ‘Is he a Bruce kind of dog?’

  He was now. Bruce hadn’t necessarily been my wife’s name of choice for a family dog, but we had spent the weekend spooling through alternatives and nothing had suited that kelpie–cattle dog blokey bloke’s dog quite so well. A Bruce by any other name …

  The animal welfare people shed tears while saying goodbye to Bruce. He panted and grinned and wagged his tail as we took him to the car and clipped him into his harness (at which, on my harness debut, I went through various permutations of legs and holes until I got Bruce right, reminding myself of a university lecturer I once had who had managed to convert a bench-pressing apparatus on a Nautilus machine into something on which she lay on her front while flexing her quadriceps; everyone else in the gym was too nonplussed, and amused, to set her straight).

  God knows what Bruce thought of this display, and God knows what Bruce has thought of us ever since. What do dogs think? Although I grew up with dogs, I have always been very sceptical about anthropomorphising their thoughts and emotions. Does a wagging tail really mean a dog is happy? Do dogs really smile, or are their faces a funhouse mirror, a pathetic fallacy of resemblance as we smile back at them? Dogs bark when they are hungry, of course, or want to come inside on a winter night, and they do the pathetic flattened-eared mope when they are ill or seeking forgiveness. But other than that, I read dogs as I read wines: the extremes are obvious but the massive middle is a mystery. And I defy others to say they understand a dog’s mind or moods. I don’t even know if we have the right to call them ‘he’ or ‘she’, as if they have gender as well as sex. My brother, a veterinarian, thinks much the same, in a more rough and clinical way. They only have signs, he says, not symptoms. Not only can you not know a dog’s thoughts, you cannot even know its capacity to think. You don’t know its ability to remember. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the emotional connection between dog and man comes from man. Which is why they’re our best friend. They’re the one relationship that forces us to give more than we receive, the one friendship where we must do all the emotional heavy lifting and supply all the affect. Whether we give a lot or a little, with dogs we are always giving the most. They are good for us in the way charities are good for the giver: a monstrously selfish altruism.

  That said, Greeny and I didn’t have to be dog whisperers to realise that Bruce was not having a happy car ride. We were not even out of Ingleside and onto Mona Vale Road before Greeny was raising his nose, sniffing the breeze and swivelling from the passenger seat.

  ‘Bruce, no!’ Greeny turned to me. ‘He’s puking.’

  Smelling it before seeing it, I lowered the windows, but for every litre of fresh air blowing into the car, a cupful of spew was jetting out of Bruce, standing on the back seat with his back arched as he convulsed, the harness now acting as a choker.

  ‘Should we stop?’ Greeny said.

  ‘It’s only twenty minutes home,’ I said, thinking I didn’t have any towels or paper to mop up, and to stop and buy some would only prolong the agony. ‘He can’t have much more in him, I’ve got to make a run for it.’

  I was wrong. By the intersection of Mona Vale and Pittwater roads, Bruce had emptied his stomach four or five more times. Somehow
each vomit brought forward new reserves, as if he were the commander of an inexhaustible Red Army. Greeny was holding tight in the passenger seat, his gills trout-skin green, looking no better than the broken man who five months earlier had moved his refugee roll-on into the granny flat.

  ‘Jeez, Bruce!’

  I didn’t need to turn around to know what Greeny was seeing now. By Warriewood, Bruce was going from both ends. The lagoon of vomit on the floor was being fed by a creek of diarrhoea dripping off the edge of his seat. I used to do this, when I was a kid; it was due to the new-car smell. This car wasn’t new. Maybe for Bruce it was a new-family smell.

  Safe to say, Bruce wasn’t very happy on that drive. But what was the species of his unhappiness? Memory? Pavlovian reaction to being in a closed space, some recollection of abuse? In times to come, Bruce would freak out, barking and yelping inconsolably, if ever we went into an echoing concrete space such as an underground car park or the entrance to our local supermarket. What buried trauma was triggered by those cold vaults, by that back seat? Was Bruce remembering something in our car, or was it purely the moment, the panic and revulsion at strange motion and unaccountable smells?

  We project much of our notion of ‘intelligence’ onto animals, but we cannot know where their senses and minds operate in relation to ours. Not only might they be unhappy when we think they are happy, and vice versa,but their happiness and unhappiness might run on different coordinates, in a different dimension. Their minds may be more rudimentary than ours by any degree; they may also have a completely extra-human perception—for all we know, they might be able to intuit the future. If we think they are less intelligent but more happy than us, they might be the converse: more knowing and filled with dread.

  What if Bruce was seeing into the future? He might have seen the day, a few weeks hence, when I would take him for a run while riding my bike, and he ducked in front of my wheel so that I ran him over, gashing his hind leg and necessitating a trip to the vet for stitches that cost us $350, which made him, in automotive economic terms, a write-off.

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