The beach pulled us from hundreds of miles away. The car slid across the desert seas, its windows open, and I sat with my mouth open, the wind blowing into it as if I was a sail and might be pushed along or even lifted right out of the window and up into that big sky. It dried my tongue until it was an unfamiliar leatherish thing and I couldn’t have said a word if I’d tried. Everyone asleep except me and my father – about as close as we ever got – his elbow at the window, one finger tap-tap on the steering wheel, a buzzing sound in his throat like a dog’s low growl. Maybe it was a song to him.
A great arm of lion-coloured hills hugged the bay and at the cliff top a low stone wall stopped the sightseers’ cars plunging to the beach. The sand was yellow and the sea was blue and the reefs were covered in black barnacles which hurt our feet but didn’t stop us running on them. In the end we got used to the pain or our feet toughened and we laughed to think how soft we had been.
There were fossils from long ago and shell middens from the people who had lived all up and down here, feeding off the reefs, sheltering in the caves and hidden slips in the cliffs. They had dogs too. I read about them once. For a while a plaque above the cliff-top lookout told about them and the trade routes that ran all along this coast for hundreds of miles – ochre and stone tools and seashells and seaweed. It was a land of plenty back then all right.
Now people stand out on their cement porches with their hoses in their hands watering their couch lawns, and mowing them and worrying about the dandelions getting a toehold, fags bobbing as they talk. Kids wilt down the esplanade on the way to the milk bar. ‘Gunna be another scorcher, d’ja reckon young fella, hey?’ the permanents say, and they laugh like old wheeze boxes, heh heh heh, and cough and spit.
The plaque disappeared. ‘Vandals,’ some said, ‘pity.’ Others said, ‘What plaque? I don’t remember seeing any plaque’, or they looked away as if they were talking to someone else or had seen something very fascinating down the road. Some things people prefer not to notice or remember. But maybe they had their reasons. Maybe they weren’t so bad.
Summertime. Not everyone likes the people who come in, ice creams and board shorts and fancy cars. But I don’t mind. Got as much of a right as anyone else. Some of them come every year. Who am I to say they belong less than me just because they haven’t sat out the winter storms? They know it in their own way, far as I can see. They like it fine.
There’s one of them, a boy, I never can remember his name. He and Rusty sort of clicked and now he picks Rusty up of a morning or an afternoon. His mum and dad come past sometimes, checking me out to make sure I’m okay. Fair enough. I’ve got no children myself. Never saw my way clear to getting married. Not for me. Not sure what I might do and thought it better not to risk it.
‘Can I take your dog for a walk, mister?’ the kid says, every time.
‘Go for it, matey,’ I say, and off they go up the beach and back, never a thought of a lead, not a mention. He’s got a bit of a knack you’d say. Rusty sticks close by crossing the road, chases seagulls on the beach, nips in and out of the waves, then home. I’ve seen them from the esplanade.
‘Mister,’ the kid says at the gate and opens it and Rusty runs through – he knows where he belongs, he knows he’s safe here – and touches my hand with his wet nose. The boy waves and walks away. Rusty charges back up the path and leaps the gate like a little steeplechaser and follows him to the corner. I can hear the boy from here: ‘Home, Rusty. Go on,’ and Rusty reappears panting, a grin on his face. A big joke to him, see, having the gate opened when he can jump it easy. Dogs’ll surprise you like that. They’re humorous animals.
I moved here twenty or so years ago now, I suppose. Couldn’t see any reason not to. I always liked it. When Mum died, she left the old place to me. Said that would teach the old bugger. I don’t think anything would have taught him anything. He never changed.
The First Rusty
The stories I could tell. Some you try to leave behind, but they’re like a dog you’ve abandoned on a track who looks after you, wondering what’s going on. It cocks its head and thinks, Nah, that can’t be right. I belong to him, and it slinks along quiet like (because there’s that little bit of doubt in its mind) through the scrub by the track’s side. It’s just a flash of rust and white, low, and it comes closer, the gap narrowing and that night you’ve set up camp, and you’re feeling lonesome though the fire’s crackling and the billy’s on and the sausages are coming along nicely, and he’s there creeping in warm by your side. And you give him a bit of bread and butter you have by you, and a drink from your cup of water. He’s thirsty all right.
Your father finally sees him – been enjoying hisself from his flask – and bellows, ‘That useless bloody dog. Told you to leave him behind. No more chances’, but his heart’s not in it. Rusty and you can both see that. Rusty makes a whining sound in his throat and wriggles closer.
‘He’ll stay with me. I’ll make sure of him. He won’t scare anything off, promise.’ You hand a cup of tea and a sausage to your father. You wouldn’t think it, but he always had a soft spot for dogs.
Rusty puts his head on your knee and you give him a pat and he looks at you and you know he’s not one to harbour a grudge.
See what I mean about stories? They’re like that, back with you in no time. There’s no getting rid of them; they’re part of you. Might as well make your peace with them. They’re what I think about, sitting on my porch of an evening watching the sun go down.
The Slicing Machine
I found a slicing machine in the shed once, when I was nine or ten, I suppose. There were other things I could have fiddled with: paddles from a butter churn, wooden fruit boxes with jars of screws lined up in them, a box of new pencils, little tins of enamel paint – Fire Engine Red, Emerald Green, Sky Blue – things that wouldn’t hurt anybody or anything. I don’t know why I chose the metal thing when I didn’t know what it might do. I held it easily and spun the red knob handle – a jaunty looking thing, like a toy – and a shriek came from it, high and thin, like a baby crying in another room or a needle in your skin. You would do anything to stop that sound if you could. I turned it over.
All along the blade were little grains of flesh, and something else. The gap in the blade was a window and inside the machine were two soft black eyes in a frantic head. They were staring and shiny as blackberry seeds and I could see how it hurt, like it was speaking to me: Do something. Nothing more than stumps of legs rearing from the blade. No breath in me. I shut my eyes and squeezed the handles together harder and held it as far from my body as my hands could reach and spun that blade fast and didn’t look at what fell to the floor. A little peppermint skink. I didn’t mean to kill it. That was his home and it sliced him right up. It’s a long time ago now, but thinking of it still makes my fingers and legs tingle, like I’ve had an electric shock.
I wish I hadn’t been there – it was not by choice – but it was warm and safe and had a good smell of oils soaked into wood and dried up paints and grease and turpentine. Even the big tin of strychnine with a dark ooze thick with drowned dust around the lid didn’t bother me. I didn’t know what it was the day I killed the skink. It was just a container with its lid jammed shut.
I heard of a cat that was old and didn’t like to go outside if it was dark or cold or raining. No one could blame it for that. The cat was grumpy. Perhaps it was in pain. Its fur was growing matted because it couldn’t groom itself. It smelled. The cat’s owner didn’t want to spend more money on the cat and gave it some sleeping pills to kill it and put the cat in a shoebox and dug a hole and buried it and didn’t think about it again until a bit later he told someone what he had done and the person said that if the cat was still floppy a while after it had died it wouldn’t really have been dead but been buried alive and that it would have woken up in the close dark of its grave. Or it would have died while it was unconscious because it ran out of air, which I hope was what happened. Sometimes I have to stand and hold my arms out when this story comes to mind, to feel the wind blowing over them and the sun shining on them.
Once I took an apple and bit into it expecting it to break clean under my teeth. I always knew how to choose a good apple. Call it an instinct. I held it in my hand and looked at it and felt its weight and gave one good tap with a forefinger and the sound and the feel came back clear as a gumnut falling on bare earth. The apple – round and red and streaked with yellow like stalks of wheat – was a liar. My teeth had hardly more than dented the skin when I knew. The juice was scant and what there was not sweet. I threw it out the window and when my father found it I lied and blamed my brother and things didn’t go well for him.
After giving out one of his wallopings, my father’d feel bad, I think, and take himself off with a tent and a rucksack filled with tins and oranges, live rough in the scrubland nearby if we were at the beach; if we were home he’d head into the bush.
Someone found a skeleton a little way up the coast one year, in the scrubland. You could see the place from the cliff easily. It seemed like we should have spotted the bones from these miles away. But we didn’t.
Mum went walking there once, looking for my father because sometimes he went there when he was having one of his spells. Mum said it gave her the heebie-jeebies, it made the hair stand up on her arms and her scalp was all pins and needles. She tried not to touch anything, not a twig or a leaf, and was relieved when she came out. She might’ve seen the skeleton. We weren’t sure; she wasn’t always sure herself. She might have been the one that reported it. It was someone who’d been missing for a while. Then someone said it was an old aboriginal burial ground and people came and took the bones away. But I’m not sure about that. Or it might have been the bones of a tramp in his armed services coat, down on his luck, shell shocked maybe or what do they call it, post-traumatic, living on baked beans and bags of oranges, things that wouldn’t go off in the heat. Funny how you could live near the old riches of that coastline and still die with nothing; how something turns into nothing so easily.
Now it’s an eco-friendly housing estate in a pristine coastal tea tree setting. Signs all over: Private Property No Entry Allowed Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted and the like. Ridiculous.
All of these stories, the same bones, the same time, feel as true as the sun sending out its heat into me. But see how it is sometimes? Stories mix up in your mind and split and join up again, like the colours in the kaleidoscope I had once. I don’t have a story about the kaleidoscope, just that I had it and then I didn’t and I don’t remember where it came from or where it went. I liked it fine; I remember that.
The temper my father had on him. Death boiled in its wake. As far as I was concerned he killed the skink. It never would have happened if he hadn’t thrown me in the shed. Only time I ever interrupted a walloping, and got one myself instead.
When my father let me out of the shed the morning after the skink, he stared at me. ‘You,’ he said. ‘You’ll keep out of things that don’t concern you. You’ll mind your own beeswax or there’ll be consequences.’
Mum hobbled across the yard fast as she could, looking as bad as I’d ever seen her. ‘Don’t you touch him.’
Oh, he gave her such a look, like he might or he might not and whether he did or he didn’t would not be affected by her views one iota. ‘Do you see my hands on him?’ he asked.
She shook her head.
‘Do you see my mark on him?’
She shook her head.
‘And you, boy, do you see my mark on your mother?’
I looked at Mum and knew what she wanted me to do, the same as always. She wanted me to shake my head so he would give one of his curdling smiles and say, ‘A bit of breakfast, if you don’t mind, Mother,’ and we could go inside. Only this time I nodded.
‘That was a mistake,’ he said, and walked away.
When I found Rusty lying cold and hard beneath the car next morning I knew what he meant.
‘Foxes about,’ my father said. ‘Where there are foxes there’ll be bait. Pity.’ He shook his head. ‘Should have kept him closer by you. Should have looked after him better, boy.’
Mum helped me dig a hole for Rusty and we buried him. He was a good dog, my best mate. Afterwards, Mum went into the shed and I followed her. She was looking at the tin. There were fresh drops around the lid. ‘That’s poison,’ she said. ‘Don’t ever let me find you touching it.’
I went inside. My father wasn’t in the kitchen where he liked to sit at the table sometimes, or in the lounge or on the porch. Noises were coming from the bedroom: drawers opening and closing, packing. Well, good. Still, I was always a bit toey till he was gone, couldn’t settle, and there was the cold space by my side where Rusty’s warm head should have been.
‘I can hear you out there. Bring me some oranges.’
I ran to see Mum who was sitting outside in one of the cane chairs in the sun, her crochet blanket about her.
‘He wants oranges,’ I told her.
She levered herself up and went inside and picked seven oranges out of the fruit bowl and put them in a bag and went to the shed. ‘Stay here,’ she said.
I waited and in a minute she came out again with the bag of oranges. She limped on by through the open door, inside. Pretty soon he came out, swinging his pack onto his shoulders and was gone up the road. I watched him, his steady march away, chin up, shoulders back, striding out even. He moved well, he looked fine, but he was different on the inside. A liar.
That was the summer he didn’t come back. No great loss, in fact considerable gain. After that we stayed. It was Mum’s house and had been her parents’. There was no reason to leave anymore, not that we wanted to. Everything was lighter then, like I’d imagined it would be flying out of that car window and up into the sky.
Sometimes I feel those stories around me and I’m afraid I might drown but the touch of a nose to my hand or an ear beneath my fingers brings me to shore. Other times it’s not so bad. Thoughts and memories shift about, like pigeons rustling their feathers before settling of a night.
The places I’ve seen. Coober Pedy – houses underground like a rabbit warren or a graveyard. I couldn’t stay there. What if your door didn’t open one morning? No. I took my swag up above ground. I couldn’t sleep there either, my fingers itching to be digging up those bodies below. Stars like you wouldn’t believe. I read once that people used to think they were holes in the roof of heaven – our roof, their floor – and I imagine Rusty snuffling at them as if he’s found an interesting smell, and Mum on her settee holding her face up to the sun, one hand resting on her little cat. Then further inland. Red dirt and a few scrawny bushes all around: land like an old dog. But it’s got something too. That sky: if it was a pool you’d never hit the bottom. Once I saw a family out there – seven, eight of them, children too. I thought they’d broken down and stopped to make sure they were all right. A couple of days’ drive to anywhere else and they’re sitting away from the road roasting a goanna, just off for a few days’ hunting. Invited me to stop for a spell and I did; hospitable of them, I thought. Joined them for a game of footy under a red sky and went on my way. And travelling down that rope of road, the desert air turned soft in the dark, blowing in the window and all across me, I felt quite good, all things considering. Yes, I’ve lived a life and have heard stranger tales than mine. In the outback those fellers can spin a yarn – serpents and rainbows and rivers, all sorts – that could make your head spin at considerable speed. Like mine when I’m drifting off of a night and I can almost feel the first Rusty still there, keeping me company like he did that night, waiting on the other side of the shed door. He made a sound in his throat to let me know he was there and when I laid my hand to the crack I could feel his warmth seeping under, like water.
It’s best in the morning, the sun flying over the hills behind, down the valley to my place where it hits my big old lone pines, turning their trunks pink and making shadows from them, thin as chopsticks and they fall onto the grass and the road, spillikins. The magpies go bananas and the cockatoos scream like they’ve won the lottery. A few jokers there. I give them a wave to stir things up. They hang upside down from the trees and bomb me with pinecones. Think that’s pretty funny. I like to think on their conversation: ‘D’you see that, Doris? See that? Waving at us.’ ‘Edie, don’t get me started. Cheek. The same yesterday. No manners at all.’ Mainly I talk to Rusty and a few others hereabouts. Where are the fish biting, sort of thing. Cool change tomorrow they say, and the like. I take my pot of tea and a plate of toast onto the veranda; sit on my little settee on Mum’s crochet blanket – glad I kept that – Rusty at my side. This Rusty’s a whippet, not a bit of red on him. He’s like a little tiger, a good rabbiter. I take him up in the hills, let him catch us both a bit of supper. He earns his keep but I wouldn’t care if he didn’t. Rusty has his toast and I have my tea.
Me and the kid stand on the beach of an evening sometimes, fishing. One minute it’s just me and Rusty, next minute the kid’s there. The sun’s turned around and now our bony shadows are shooting across the beach back towards the cliffs like some rock paintings I saw once in the outback.
I say, ‘How you going, Matey?’
He says, ‘Good. Caught anything?’
We don’t say much but we get along okay.
We throw a couple of fresh lines out. Sometimes we catch something, sometimes we don’t. Doesn’t matter either way. Dolphins come through and once a shark, we saw its fin.
We stand there one evening, the end of a scorcher, the smell of hot baked clay and wormwood and pine trees rolling down the cliffs. People are out on their evening perambulations, dogs and children in tow. Rusty dances up with an old fish he’s found and chucks it at our feet. The kid strokes Rusty’s head and picks the fish up by its leathery tail and gives it a good throw. Rusty flies after it. ‘Wish I had a dog,’ the kid says.
The Dog and the Sea
A woman and a man walk up the beach, stone cold silent while they’re passing us then shouting when they’re further away. A miserable black Labrador waddling behind makes a pass at Rusty’s fish. Rusty skips off, fish and ears and tail flying.
‘Stupid bloody dog,’ the man bellows when he sees how the Lab has fallen behind. ‘Come here. Come here now!’
The dog lowers its head and sets its course towards them, a boat ploughing through stormy seas. Rusty’s lost interest in the fish by the time they come back, but the Lab hasn’t. He snuffles it out, picks it up and carries it along for a bit, still behind its owners, coming towards us. The man turns and sees it and he goes wild and runs up the beach and the dog drops the fish and shears away and the man chucks the fish right out to sea. I’d say every single person on that beach is watching the flying fish and the angry man and the sad Lab. The fish lands with a splash and the dog bursts into life. He lumbers through the low waves and soon he’s swimming, shoulders pumping and nose up.
The man stands there, hands on hips, and looks at the woman like it’s her fault, like she should be doing something about it.
‘Jackson. Jackson!’ she starts calling and she’s wading in after her dog.
The man shakes his head. ‘I don’t fucking believe it. Get out! Jackson. Get back here!’
I get the shakes. I can’t decide whether to hit him or run. Sometimes I’m a stranger to myself. I put my fists in my pocket.
Jackson does a circle, his nose still up, and he’s got the fish, and I swear he takes one look at the shore and what’s going on there and his likely reception if he goes back and just heads right on out to sea.
The woman starts swimming but she’s no swimmer – anyone can see that – and she turns back. So a young feller goes in, but that dog has a head start and the man’s girlfriend screams at him to come back. A minute later he does. There’s not a boat to be seen, but quite a way out there’s a paddle boarder leaning up against the red sky. He slows at the black head and bobs around for a bit, trying to haul the dog up I suppose, but the dog’s off again, a dark speck, getting harder to see now the sun’s so low.
‘Jackson,’ the woman moans. She sinks to the ground.
The man looks at her. ‘He was a useless fucking dog anyway.’ And he turns and walks away.
‘Mister?’ the kid says.
I look out to sea. It’s shiny as crushed foil, the light bouncing all over. It makes me squint. I look down at the kid. His eyes are popping. He tugs my arm.
I ruffle his hair. Rusty nudges his hand.
I hold my hand up; make a veranda of it over my eyes. I face the sea again. I think I can still see him, his head out of water – a dark speck above the deep.