It’s mid winter here in Oz and the heads on TV keep telling me we’re suffering a particularly severe cold spell from the Antarctic–personally I have no intention of going outside to check it out. They have mentioned snow in unusual places and if it happens to snow in our garden I’ll go outside but otherwise I’ll stay right here with the heater thank you very much. I will have to leave the comfort of my lounge room tomorrow but it’s Sunday here today and I’m staying put.
I realize it’s Saturday and summer for most of you and I don’t envy you that either–autumn and spring are the best times of the year here. I will admit winter is good for sleeping, for those of us lucky enough to have a nice cosy bed.
In my last blog I wrote about how my experiences affect my writing and mentioned my time on a Queensland beach–as a young couple my husband and I slept in a tent until a cyclone wrecked it and then in our car for a while. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it sounds now and I think it’s great to have life experiences that are perhaps a little removed from the mundane. I wrote a short story ‘Brown Dog’, in which I used some of my memories of beach-combing and being broke, away from home. Unlike Luke, the protagonist in my story, I was not friendless, nor suicidal! Fortunately we were able to find work and accommodation before too long; some of that work–like cutting sugar cane by hand (we lasted half a day)–is probably worthy of a place in one of my stories at some stage.
For now, enjoy ‘Brown Dog’, from my short story collection, ‘Connections‘.
(c) Christine Gardner
It was the ugliest dog Luke had ever seen. He was standing at the edge of the sea, not really contemplating suicide (but oh, what a seductive sea it was, just walk on in and don’t look back). The dog ambled over to him and just sat beside him, uninvited and unwanted. It was skin and bone, with long legs like a greyhound. All brown, with no relieving patches. Just an old brown dog. It whined and wagged its tail back and forwards across the sand.
‘Get lost, mutt,’ Luke said, with no real animosity. ‘I’m not in the market for a dog. I can barely feed myself.’
Delighted at being addressed, the dog sidled up closer to Luke and pressed itself against his bare legs. Luke felt himself being dragged unwillingly out of his black mood and somehow he was sitting down beside the dog, which was ecstatically licking his hand and jumping all over him. He laughed out loud, and was startled by the unfamiliar sound of it. He’d had precious little to laugh at lately.
Luke was living in his old EJ Holden, his tent having been wrecked by a severe hailstorm a month earlier. He was flat broke, existing day to day on whatever he could get from beach combing. This was meant to be a working holiday, but there was no work, and it sure didn’t feel like a holiday. A month earlier he’d put in half a day on a vineyard, picking grapes, after some loud mouths at the pub had been bragging about all the money they’d made. It was forty degrees by mid-morning and Luke had felt the sun burning his face to a crisp. By lunchtime he’d had it. His tally had earnt him the grand total of five dollars and he hadn’t even bothered to pick it up. Too embarrassed to face the blockie he’d just got in his oven-hot car and driven off.
Since then things had got steadily worse. In desperation he’d gone to the local social security office, only to be informed that he was not a local, and as this was an area of high unemployment he would have to wait for six weeks before being eligible for any financial assistance.
‘How am I supposed to live for six weeks with no money?’ he’d asked the pompous counter clerk. ‘Or is that the idea, I starve to death and then I won’t need any assistance?’
The clerk was not amused and suggested Luke go back home and apply at his own local office. Luke didn’t bother telling her he had no money to get home on. It would be at least $150 for petrol, and anyway there was no home really. He’d burned his bridges there.
The only hope came from a dirty looking young couple with matching dread-locks who were behind him in line and heard his conversation with the clerk. ‘Look man,’ the male said, ‘I know how you can make a few bucks if you’re hungry.’
Luke was dubious, but he was also hungry. ‘What’s that mate?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘Hey man, nothing heavy. It’s just beach combing, we do it all the time, hey babe?’ He looked at his female counterpart who nodded enthusiastically. ‘There’s a guy at the Island Bar pays ten bucks a bag for cuttlefish, y’know, for budgies? And sometimes there’s other stuff. Glass floaters are like gold; they’re off the big fishing nets, and the yuppies like to, y’know, hang ‘em on the front verandah to impress the neighbours.’
Luke thanked the young couple and headed straight over to the Island Bar to check the facts. He found the man he needed to see with no trouble at all; he managed the bar and also lived there. Big Al, as he was known to the locals, fitted in nicely between the beer barrels, being of a similar shape. His interior was probably similar as well, as he was almost never without a beer in his hand. No one had ever seen him drunk, but few had seen him sober. He was just the same any time of the day and in any state of inebriation—morose. Some bartenders are good listeners, and drinkers like to pour out their troubles while the bartenders pour out the beer. They soon learnt that Big Al, while he was prepared to listen, could top any sad story with one of his own much worse tales.
‘Look,’ he said to Luke, ‘I get bugger-all out of this cuttlefish business, but since I also get bugger-all for this job here, every little bit helps. What I really like to see is those glass balls; I can give you 40 bucks for one of them, and 20 for the plastic ones.’ He gave Luke a sugar bag and told him to bring it back when it was full of cuttlefish. He also suggested a few likely beaches, and Luke went off straight away to try his luck.
That had been two weeks earlier, and he’d been able to survive, but only just. One day he’d managed to fill two bags with the dried-out cuttlefish bone lying on the beaches and he’d bought a small packet of cigarettes, which had made him feel almost human again. Usually he was lucky to fill one bag, and half the money had to go in the petrol tank. He tried to vary his diet; mostly it was either baked beans or sardines, as well as bread. A loaf of bread lasted a couple of days if he was careful. He was always hungry though, and always depressed. The only person he really spoke to was Big Al, which didn’t exactly ease his depression. He knew if he told Al his life wasn’t worth living, Al would not only agree, but list all the reasons why his own was so much worse.
The brown dog followed Luke down the beach, bounding here and there to check out interesting smells, and rushing to the water only to back off when the waves covered his feet.
‘Chicken!’ Luke laughed. ‘It’s only water; you could probably use a bath. Come to think of it, so could I.’ He stripped off and plunged into the waves, yelling as the impact of the cold water hit him. Then as he became used to it he relaxed and began to enjoy himself, body-surfing in with the waves. The dog barked excitedly from the shore, and then hesitantly crept in to the water. ‘Here boy!’ Luke called, and the dog swam eagerly out to him.
When they emerged, the dog shook himself vigorously and then ran around and rolled in the sand. Not having a towel handy Luke decided he had the right idea, and ran along the beach until he was warm and dry. When he’d dressed again, he felt better than he’d felt in months. Alive again. The dog was dashing back and forwards across the sand and had found a particularly fascinating pile of seaweed and driftwood. Luke strolled over to him and the dog scratched something out of the pile which rolled towards Luke. It was a glass ball.
Luke was convinced now. This dog had been sent to help him, an answer to his desperate pleas to whomever or whatever was listening. He felt on top of the world and immediately went to see Big Al, dog in tow. Then with his new-found wealth he bought a bag of dry dog food, as well as a huge bone from the butcher’s shop in the main street. He left the dog beside the car with his goodies and went shopping for his own needs. He bought a pouch of tobacco which he knew would last at least a week, a few cans of baked beans and Irish Stew for when he was broke again, and best of all, fresh meat and vegetables. There was a public barbecue nearby in the park and Luke and the dog feasted on steak, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Neither of them could remember when they’d had a better meal.
That night the dog slept on the front seat of the car, with Luke on the back seat. The car stank of cuttlefish, which was always carried in the boot, and Luke had sprinkled curry powder everywhere in an effort to improve the smell. It now smelt like curried cuttlefish, but that was a slight improvement. The dog sneezed several times, but then went to sleep happily enough. The following morning brought rain, but nothing could dampen their spirits. They ran down the beach in the rain and then ran back to the car, shivering. Luke changed his clothes in the car, and left the dog outside to shake himself dry under a tree. Having declared the day a holiday Luke drove around for a while, looking for somewhere that would provide free shelter for man and dog. Usually on rainy days he hung around the indoor shopping centres, but the dog wouldn’t be allowed there.
They were strolling along under the verandahs of the main street when the dog stopped in the doorway of a bakery, drinking in the wonderful aromas. Luke smiled. ‘Yes, there’s nothing like the smell of fresh bread, is there boy?’ Then he noticed the sign in the window: Help Wanted. Accommodation Provided. Leaving the dog outside, he entered the shop and approached the middle-aged woman at the counter.
‘Hi, I was wondering about your “help wanted” sign?’
‘Yes dear, have you ever worked in a shop? Do you know how to use a cash register?’
‘Oh sure,’ Luke lied, ‘I used to work in a supermarket.’ He had in fact spent a week once helping in his uncle’s fish-shop and was reasonably confident he could work the register.
Mrs Thomson showed him the room upstairs which was large and comfortably furnished. There was a ceiling fan above the bed, a big sliding window with a view of the beach, and a desk with a portable TV. There was also a little kitchenette area and a door leading to a tiny but scrupulously clean bathroom. Luke felt like he’d died and gone to Heaven. And it was all thanks to the brown dog. He was going to be one spoilt mutt. Mrs Thomson was still talking, and Luke tuned in again. ‘Of course health regulations mean you can’t have pets here, but I don’t suppose you have any, do you?’
‘Pardon? I’m sorry Mrs Thomson, what did you say?’
‘No pets dear. You can’t have pets here.’
‘Oh. I see … no, that won’t be a problem.’
‘That’s good, only I saw a dog out the front when you came in and I wondered ….’
‘No, it’s not my dog.’
‘Just sniffing around the bakery then, we get a lot of strays.’
Luke agreed to start work the next day and Mrs Thomson said he could get his things and move in right away.
Sitting on the beach where he had first met the brown dog Luke tried to explain the situation to him. ‘I’ll come and look for you every day after work. You can hang around here and sleep on the beach. It’s not that cold. I’ll bring you meat pies and cream cakes.’
The dog just looked at him, his brown eyes reproachful and all-knowing. ‘Oh dog, what can I do? They won’t let you stay there. I’m sorry.’ He walked away and left the dog sitting alone on the beach right where they’d found each other. He sat in the car and put his head on the steering wheel, a lump in his throat. Then he sat upright. ‘No, dammit! I won’t do it. It’s like selling my soul. I’ll find some other job.’ He ran back to the beach calling out to the dog. The beach was empty, except for a stray sea-gull foraging amongst the shells. He ran along, whistling and calling. For an hour he wandered the beach.
The brown dog was gone.