Monday morning. I’ve dropped the boys at school. I am now stuck in peak hour traffic – trying to get from Melbourne’s north to inner south.
Yesterday we spent a couple of hours with my dad. That can’t be helped. The boys have birthdays. They love him. Love the green snakes on his arms, the sips of sweet black coffee, his roll-your-own ritual.
I keep my head down, interaction to a minimum. Concentrate on cake, wrapping paper and the clock. Only time I ever look forward to Monday is when we see him on a Sunday.
First job. South Yarra. Posh place, pretty wife. She wants brushwood fencing around the pool security fence.
“Beautiful garden you’ve got,” I say. And it’s true. Someone loves the way those kangaroo paws peak out along the path, the weeping gum in the back corner.
“Yes, it’s my husband’s passion. None of the children are showing an interest so far.”
“They’ll miss it one day.”
“Funny creatures aren’t we.”
And then, in that sudden, silent way peculiar to big dogs, two Huskies appear – like padding giants. She clicks her tongue at them and they stop, eying me with patient curiosity. Keen to come over, check me out, but happy to be under her control.
“Time to take the boys out,” she laughs, the lines around her eyes are soft.
She and the boys glide away and I’m left with the brushwood. I haven’t seen Huskies so close since I was a kid. Dad used to run dog fights. He probably still does but I don’t ask. When I was a boy he would take me along. Often there would be a couple of Huskies in the car. Not for fighting. They are suitable dogs for blooding because of their thick hair. That means you have a good long while to test how much of a fighter your own dog is before the Huskie gets too injured.
I loved and hated seeing those Huskies in the back seat of the car. They’re such smart dogs, with such funny faces. But since I always knew where we were heading and they didn’t, I couldn’t relax with them. I fantasised a lot about setting them free.
“You promised take away – and it’s my choice,” Digger reminds me.
Work over, back in the car, after school. I am going to drop Digger at Karate, take Buddy home and then we will both come in later to see Digs in his Karate exhibition. Sara can’t make it. She’s on evening shift, so I said we’d get a treat for dinner.
“Cheeseburgers or Chinese. Someone should make Chinese Cheeseburgers. That would be awesome.”
“See my scab, Digs?”
“It’s ready to pull off. Want me to do it?”
“No it’s not ready!”
“It is. Just close your eyes.”
“Get off me. Dad!”
And so it goes on.
“Leave him alone Digs. Don’t tease him. Yes we’ll get takeaway but Buddy’s choosing if you don’t leave him alone.”
Digger is ten. He is skinny, all knees and elbows and is starting to pull away when I hug him. Buddy is our chunky little man, seven years old and still a barrel of affection.
“Will Grandpa come Dad? He said he’d come.” Digger asks as he gets out of the car.
“Dunno Digs, I’m sure he wants to. We’ll see.”
I have deliberately failed to give Dad the details of the exhibition night. On the way home my phone buzzes, it’s him. I shove it deep in my pocket, turn the music up, shout over the top, promise Buddy ice-cream if he’s a good boy at the exhibition.
There’s a smell to kids sporting clubs – the indoor ones. It’s not the heavy earth and liniment of a football locker room. There’s still a sweetness in among the sweat, the rubber mats infused with effort, like day old jam on dirty hands. The most acrid thing is the parents, blowing bitter breath on the side lines, sizing up their kid’s competitors, mean streaks or desperation in their eyes.
I don’t know much about the art of Karate but I’m learning. Watching the kids. Those little limbs wobbling, going through the motions physically without fully understanding what they mean. Like this: “Karate may be considered as the conflict within oneself or as a life-long marathon which can be won only through self-discipline, hard training and one’s own creative efforts.” I read that on the internet, printed it out and stuck it on the inside of my tool box.
It gives me a chill that my boy Digs has found his way to this. He doesn’t know much yet about the conflict within oneself – at least I hope he doesn’t. Is he channelling something of me? Don’t want to make too much of a big deal about it so I never ask him direct.
“Well hello there.”
I’ve been drifting. Shit. Where’s Buddy? Scan the room. Good, across the auditorium, climbing all over the seats with two other boys. And Digs? He’s still on the sidelines, jiggling up and down, dwarfed in his white cotton pyjamas.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she says. The pretty South Yarra lady. “I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Nick,” I say.
“Nick of course. Small world isn’t it! Thanks so much again. That was such a beautiful job. I’m sorry,” she offers a hand, long elegant fingers. “I’m Alana.”
One group has finished, they bow, we all clap, they file off and now Digger comes on. I see him scan the scattered parents. He sees me, his eyes keep searching. I can’t help but look around myself. No. Dad’s not here.
There are seven in his group. They bow and then start a series of movements that look like lunges and dance steps, then come the kicks.
“Is one of those yours?” Alana leans in.
“Second from the end. Digger,” I point.
“That’s a cute name.”
“It’s Duncan, but you know, he’s Digger.”
“He looks determined.”
I nod. Know that part of the reason is him fighting off the disappointment that his Grandpa isn’t here. But beyond that, she’s right. There is steel in his gaze. My Digger.
He glares at me after the event. After my muttered excuse:
“That was Grandpa, on the phone. Said he’s so sorry. He got the time wrong. Thought it started at eight. Next time for sure matey.”
“He said he’d come.”
Digger’s just about old enough to understand the dynamic between me and Dad. I wish I could stop him, wish in a way that both of them would stay kids forever. I pretend not to notice the accusation in his tone.
“Get Buddy. Come on. Let’s go eat.”
Out in the car park we pass behind a silver four wheel drive. I recognise it as Alana’s. Through the back window I see them. Pale blue eyes, the patient half smile. Black ears alert, waiting. They watch me, recognise me. These dogs remember.
Sara comes in around midnight, cuddles into me and whispers questions about Digger.
“He was brilliant,” I say.
“Would it break my heart?” she asks.
“Probably,” I reply.
Soon after that her gentle snore is vibrating against my back. Why do we love people most when they are asleep? My family is sleeping. My wife. My sons. When did things become mine?
I get up and I’m up at the kitchen table. I make tea and spoon sugar into it and add milk and stir it all together and hold it in my hands. It’s 2 a.m. and I want to tell someone about those dogs.
There was a bunch of kids that went to the dog fights, mostly boys. Don’t recall talking to many of them. Didn’t make friends. Maybe some of them did. I mostly remember keeping down low, avoiding eyes. Positioning myself each time in a place where a seat or pole would obscure my vision but it would still look like I was watching. If I wasn’t watching it drew too much attention. Dad would lift me up, talk to me, try to get me involved. Better to pretend. I got expert at making the right reactions with my face based on what I heard.
“It’s an ancient sport Nicko,” Dad had taken the time once to explain. “There are all kinds of rules now about things, but the basics are: dogs serve men. Once a dog trusts you he’ll do anything for you. It’s a beautiful thing.”
I was able to stop going once I was a teenager. Learned to be busy with school sport, girls, homework, anything. That was when he started calling me soft, always as a joke. I never spoke to him with the kind of attitude that Digger gives me. He only hit me once. I was 16 and I’d celebrated my birthday by sneaking out to his car and setting two of the dogs free. My singular act of defiance. He quashed it with one blow to my guts. Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t cry. Not long after that I moved out.
I prowl the house, willing myself into a state of fatigue. Put a load of washing on. Digger’s Karate pyjamas are folded neatly, perched right on top of the pile. He wants these washed, to be sharp, clean and ready for his next class.
Kids just never get tired of you looking at them. Once I’d worked that out I was happy to oblige. Hours and hours watching them run, fall, play, fight. It’s like it takes them a while to learn that they exist in their own right. Up until then, they only exist ‘cause you tell them so.
Waiting for the wash cycle to finish I go into Digger’s room and kiss his head– right in the middle of his sleeping, crushed hair. He flicks his hand up as if to brush away a mosquito.
The boys are loud and obnoxious in the morning. Too much MSG. Not enough sleep. I tell them to be quiet. I may even use the phrase:
“I don’t want to hear any more of your lip.”
Drop them at school – it’s early, 7.30 a.m. so they both have to spend an hour and a half in before school care. I have a job down in Gippsland for the day.
It’s easy enough to drive past Alana’s house. She knows I might pop in again this morning to check the fence. Told me that they would all be out early but I could let myself in. I park on the side street and unhinge the gate. Click my tongue softly and go watery inside when they appear. Their quizzical smiles. I don’t ask them to follow me. I open the back door, they trot over and jump up inside.
Do I want to scare her into taking better care of these beautiful, trusting animals? I can almost convince myself of that. I’ll have them back before nightfall. Tell her I found them in a nearby neighbourhood. Warn how they’ll go with anyone – lucky it was me.
“Just don’t leave hair everywhere,” I say. “And no drooling.”
I’m on the road much later than I would have liked. This job is on a property with a gutted house, waiting for renovation. There is no owner to greet me and nowhere warm except the car for escape. Sleeting rain cuts through the day. My hands are thick and red with cold.
“You could make yourselves useful,” I tell the boys. They jumped out of the car when I did and position themselves nearby as I work. Find myself chattering away to them on and off throughout the day. About nothing and everything. The Billabong Pro coming up in South Africa, who’s in form, early days of trying to teach Digger and Buddy to surf, or at least be comfortable in the water. Digger’s big-eyed reticence and Buddy’s delight – rolling through waves like a baby seal.
Pretty sure I detect an eye-roll from the smaller, sharper faced dog when I pour out a couple of handfuls of cheap dry dog food at lunch time.
“Spoiled rotten,” laughing, I fill a shallow bucket with water for them, wish I had thought to stop and get bones from the local butcher. They both solemnly lick my hands when they are finished eating. My couple of cheese sandwiches have barely hit the sides. So we’re all in the same boat – lean and just a little bit hungry – as the afternoon wears on.
A lightness of spirit enters me. I adore my family, but there’s a part of me that yearns for this. Hard, physical work. Simple life. No emotional attachments. I can pretend for a day that this is my life. Me and the boys. We start the journey home, damp, warm and happy.
My phone was out of range down at the work site. I fish it out of the glove box as we head back along the freeway. There are multiple messages from Sara. She has to go into work. What time will I be home? Can I call her? She can’t get onto me. Her sister is not available. Where am I? She doesn’t have any other choice. She’s calling my father.
I can see Buddy bowling him over on arrival.
Digger shy at first then coaxed out of himself. Dad’s eyes narrowing when Digs starts to talk about the Karate exhibition. He wouldn’t say anything, just apologise for missing it. He is kind with the boys, much softer than he ever was with me. He’d encourage Digger to show him a few moves. Clap and laugh, ruffle his hair. Tell him he’s a good little fighter. Show them one of his match stick tricks.
But he will know that I didn’t pass the information on. He will know that I lied to Digs. Heaviness sets into my muscles.
The dogs are in the back, softly panting. Dropping them back to Alana’s will add at least 20 minutes to my trip.
I was an idiot to take this job so far out of the city. Promised Sara I would always be there for the boys. Knowing he’s in my house with them, right now, while I drive through the cold night, I’ve never felt more useless, or as lonely.
I pull up out the front. The dogs are watching, patient. I look back at their gentle faces then I get out of the car. Walk down the side of the house, treading quietly. Through the lounge window I can see them, snuggled up on the couch. He is reading them a story.
The other thing about kids is how they trust you. Don’t always agree with you, or even like you. But you can see it in their eyes. The thought hasn’t occurred yet that you would ever do anything to harm them. I read once that the word innocence comes from the Latin phrase: I do no harm. I’d change that to: I see no harm. That’s the real innocence of children.
I go in the back door, through the kitchen and stand at the doorway to the lounge.
“Hey Dad,” Digger is casual. Me coming home is no big deal. It’s what I do. They are both in the thrall of the story, excited to have their Grandpa to themselves for a whole night.
“Nicko,” Dad barely greets me. “Just a minute, nearly done here.”
We will not talk about the Karate exhibition. He isn’t one for speeches or recriminations. We never spoke about the dogs, the punch. Barely spoke at all until the boys were born.
In the kitchen I make tea, sweet and milky, for us both. Take them into the lounge, tell Digger and Buddy to get ready for bed. They pull faces.
“Listen to your father,” Dad says.
They’re out of the room, safely on their way to teeth brushing and toilet and pyjamas. The dents from their warm bodies are still in the couch.
“I’m glad you’re here Dad,” I say.
His stillness is reptilian.
I push on.
“Found a couple of dogs. Don’t know who they belong to, but should be easy enough to find the owner.”
His eyes flicker.
“I’d bring them in here for the night, but I don’t want Digs and Buddy to see them and get attached – you know how kids are.”
“They in the car?” he asks.
“Yep,” I am observing myself. I look relaxed. “Nice boys too. Huskies.”
Dad is nodding, not just with his head. His whole body is saying yes. He leans forward to pick up his mug and as he moves, he ruffles my hair.
“You’re a good Dad, Nicko,” everything is fluid now. “That’s the right thing to do by the boys. I’ll take care of it.”
Tears are flowing down my cheeks. It’s humiliating, like I’m a little kid. I can’t stop them though. All I can do is wipe at them with the back of my hand. I think he’s going to get up in disgust and walk away. But he doesn’t. My dad sits by me as I cry.
“It’s all right Nicko. You’ve done the right thing. I’ll take care of it.”
I sit for a long time after he leaves, my bones are tired. Before going to bed I tidy up the kitchen, check on the boys, sleeping deep, and finally, I go out to the car. The dogs are gone.
The Australian Literature Review