Sunday, August 29, 2010

The 'Claudia S'

The dog was dead when he got to it. Poor bugger. What was he going to tell Phil? 'Bloody big boar got your dog. Sorry mate, I missed.' Argh shit! What a mess.
     It seemed to Brogan that his whole life was a mess at the moment. Janice had buggered off with the kids. Gone to her mother's in Te Puke. Said she needed a break. She'd had enough. Well, Christ, hadn't he? Was it his fault the mill was laying off? More shops boarded up every week, businesses moving out of town? What did she expect him to do?
     He knelt down and stroked the dog's muzzle. Fanned away the flies that were already gathering around the wounds and the eyes, seeking moisture. Pulled a tangled fern loose from its tail. He sighed. "Didn't plan for you to end up like this, mate."
     The tear in its belly was oozing blood, warm still, crimson against the yellow hair. Ferns and undergrowth lay flattened and bloodied. Cicadas stilled. Perhaps he could tell Phil it scarpered. Happened like that sometimes. Dogs get a whiff of something big. Get spooked. Known them turn up in town a couple of weeks later. Skinny. Feet bleeding. Brilliant that, the way they find their way out of the bush.
     Slowly Brogan stood up, eyes peeled. Listened intently. A cornered boar would go berserk, he knew, but given the chance they usually just ran off. Reassured, he pushed back his hat and relaxed. Wiped the sweat from his forehead. 'Can't even bury you, can I. Got no shovel. Can't leave you like this though,' he thought and turned to look back down the track. Overhead, a canopy of Totara and Mountain Beech shut out the sun. He remembered a fallen tree. Leaving his pack he dragged the dog by its back legs. It was awkward with his rifle but he daren't lose it, just in case the boar returned. It might be wounded. There was a slight hollow where the dead tree had uprooted. He positioned the dog in this and covered it with dry leaves and twigs. Made a mound. He felt there should be some sort of a marker. Around the fallen Beech nature had taken advantage of the gap in the canopy. Tree ferns had taken root. Lacey parasols reaching up towards the sunlight. Taking out his knife Brogan balanced on the rotting trunk and cut the lowest branches from a young Punga fern. Like starched counterpanes he draped them over the leafy grave. "I reckon that's the best I can do," he said, pulling his hat on firmly. "See ya, mate."
     With Janice away there was no need to rush home. He could kip down in the bush again. Maybe head down river, do a little fishing. Get back to the car tomorrow. He retrieved his pack and hoisted it onto his back. Nah, he thought, the dog's death had taken all the joy out of the trip. May as well cut his losses and head for home.

     Phil's line was engaged. He'd rehearsed his speech. 'Bloody dog scarpered,' he'd say. 'Freaked out. He'll turn up sooner or later. Man, you should've seen the pig. Tusks like a rhino.'
     He opened a six-pack and went out onto the back verandah. The screen door rattled behind him and a cat came from out of the darkness and rubbed against his legs. He bent to stroke it. "Want some tucker eh? Me too. Well there's no pork. Have to make do with Kitty-Kat." Then he remembered. "Aw shit! Forgot to get some."
     He sat for awhile listening to the crickets and thinking of the dog. And Janice. They'd been alright before he was laid off. He knew it was hard with the kids and all. Money was tight. Her job at the supermarket didn't pay much, but she was careful. Better than him. She juggled the bills. Always rushing about she was. Taking the kids to school then going off to work. Picking them up again. He helped her all he could. Reckoned he did as much as anyone.
     The sandflies drove him indoors. There was nothing in the fridge to eat. He switched on the TV for the news. If his Lotto ticket came up, they'd be fine. A siren wailed. The nine o'clock shift starting. Lucky bastards. Funny, he'd never thought of working at the mill as being 'lucky' before. Just something you did. God it was humid. He picked up a can of beer and went back outside.
     The front gate klinked. Three large dogs, Kelpie cross, bounded around the corner of the house. They were followed by a big Maori guy wearing shorts and a singlet. Tattooed dragon on one arm, Lorraine and a rose on the other. Pony tail. Carved, bone fish-hook around his neck. He led a geriatric Rottweiller on a short lead. "G'day, mate. Saw your light on. Knew you must be back. How'd it go then?"
Brogan spluttered through his beer, "Phil...! Come on in. Tried phoning you but the line was engaged."
     The dogs flitted about, tails wagging. Nose to ground, following zig-zag tracks in the dark. Peeing against bushes. Jumped up at Brogan, off on the trail again. The Rottweiller stood panting. Blind and hard of hearing. Happy just to be there. Anywhere.
     "Where's Blossom, mate? She work well for you?"
     "Yeah. Er, there's something I have to tell you, Phil. You see ..."
     "Bloody good dog Blossom. Reared her myself you know. She's never let me down. Can track a deer for days, no hassle."
     "Come indoors, mate. I'll get some more beers."
     They sat at the kitchen table. When it came to it, Brogan couldn't lie. Phil took it badly. By the sixth can tears flowed.
     "Shit, man," Phil's speech slurred. "You should've seen her when she was a pup. Never had a pup so bright and eager to learn. Took to hunting natural-like."
     Brogan passed him another beer. "Yep! Bloody good dog he was. I'm really cut up about this, mate."
     "She!" Phil thumped the table, dragged the back of his hand over his face and pulled open another can. "She was a bitch. Best little bitch I ever had."
     Brogan looked away, embarrassed. "Don't know how I can make this up to you mate. Just say, and I'll see you right."
     Phil took awhile to compose himself. Wiped his face on the bottom of his singlet. Sighed deeply. "Got anything to eat?"
     A couple of tins of baked beans and a tin of tomatoes. That's all Brogan could find. He put some bread in the toaster and bashed about in a drawer looking for the tin opener. Phil sat with his face in his hands. The old dog under the table stirred. A foul stench drifted upwards.
     "Jesus Christ!" Brogan wafted the door back and forth.
     Phil lifted his head. "What was it like, the pig?"
     "Bloody, big boar," Brogan explained. "The dog had it cornered. Didn't stand a chance. Up against rocks. It was quick though. Neck broke."
     Phil slumped again. One of the other dogs crept up. Flopped down against the chair, head resting on his master's broad, bare feet. Brogan stood at the sink. Studied the grease on the vinyl floor, the pattern obscured by stains and scuff marks. The toast popped up making him jump. He unwrapped a screwed up packet of butter and tried to spread cold lumps onto the toast. Beans bubbled furiously.

     The midnight siren wailed. Brogan swatted at a mosquito hovering over the bedside lamp. He could still smell the old dog though Phil had been gone awhile. Should have some fly spray somewhere, he thought, rummaging through the cupboard by the bed. Janice hated bugs. He could get her to do anything for him by threatening her with a spider. She went weak at the knees. He visualised her knees. She'd got good legs. He sat on the bed and thought about her legs. Then her shoulders and her breasts. He saw her funny crooked smile, shy like, then he started to come on all horny. God he missed her.
     She was right to get angry with him. He remembered the way she'd looked when he pulled up with the boat on the trailer. She was as excited as the two kids. 'It's cool Dad. Wow! Real cool!' He'd jumped out of the car and shown them the outboard and the artwork. 'Claudia S' with a woman in a red swimsuit like on the old American bombers. 'Who's is it Dad? Is it ours?' Their joy when he said he was captain and they could be first and second mate. Her face as the realization dawned on her. How she flew at him, lashing him with her tea towel. 'You stupid, fucking idiot!' she'd called him.
     He'd never had such a big wad of money. The pay-off covered it easily. A once in a lifetime chance to own something he'd always dreamed of. He didn't know it was going to be so difficult to get work. He thought he'd be in another job in weeks. Eighteen months now, it'd been. But it was a matter of principle. She couldn't speak to him like that.
     Boat had only been out once anyway. Couldn't afford the fuel. She'd nagged him to get rid of it. Wouldn't let the kids near it. Refused to have anything to do with it. She could be so bloody stubborn. But he had his rights too. Didn't he? The can of flyspray he was holding went off all over his bare feet. He reached for the phone.
     "Yes, babe. I know it's late ... but ... no, don't hang up." He pushed the cat off the bed and swapped the receiver to his other ear. "Honey ... I just wanted you to know ... I've done it ... What you wanted ... Yeh, yeh, I know I was wrong. I was bloody stupid ... You were right. It was a dumb thing to do."
     He caught sight of himself, grovelling, in the dressing table mirror and immediately felt embarrassed. He stood up, pulled on the leg of his shorts which had ridden up and was cutting him in two. Shook himself comfortable. "Well I didn't expect to be out of work this long. Thought I'd have something in a month at the most ... Who's that, your mum? Tell her I won't be long ... No, tell her, nothing's wrong."
     He paced around the end of the bed, sat down, composed himself. "Listen babe, something happened and, well, I owed Phil a favour ... Yeh, Phil with the dogs. He always wanted to come in with me on the boat. So ... I let him have it."
     He flopped backwards onto the bed, dragged himself up to the pillow. Waited for her reaction. It was a bit disappointing. She said she needed to think. He sensed she thought there was a catch.
     "Phil was dead keen. He's happy ... shit, he should be ... No, no regrets. Honest. Well, maybe just ... No, no babe. I just want you to come home." The cat had snuggled down on the bed again and pressed up beside his legs. He caressed its ears. "We've run out of Kitty-cat and Muffin misses the kids ... Yeh, I miss them too."
     Next morning Brogan was up with the birds. Quick shower. Shared some Corn Flakes with the cat. Picked up the clothes that were lying around and forced them into the washing machine. Poured in some blue liquid from the bottle with the missing label. Smelled soapy. Took the empties out to the bin and cleared away the dishes in the sink. Scooped up some dirty ash-trays and opened the windows.
     Out in the garden he fumbled with the keys till he found the one for the garage. He'd not been in the garage for weeks. Parked the car out in the drive since he bought the boat. Just going near it could spark off a row between them. She needn't know he'd retained an interest. Phil was a good mate. He'd be here after the banks opened.
     The padlock slipped off and he pulled on the heavy wooden door. After the bright sunlight it took awhile for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior. He held out his arm in front of him to reach for the boat. "What the ...?" He pulled on the other door to let in more light. "Holy shit!"
     The garage was empty. Nothing there but a grease mark on the concrete floor. Pinned to the dartboard on the wall was a note.

                                I got a good price for it.
                               Will be home when you've calmed down.

                               Love, Janice. XX

     The front gate klinked. Brogan had never seen Phil in regular clothes. A fucking tie, for God's sake. By the look on his face the tie had done the trick.
     Phil waved an envelope at Brogan. "Reckon we're in business, mate."
     Brogan dug his toes into the gravel drive. "That's great man. Look, better come indoors. Got some beers in the fridge ..."

© Christine Stanley
First published in Peninsular Magazine

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