Barbara meets a friendly dingo at the National Zoo in Canberra

He parked the cigarette paper on his cracked bottom lip as his big square fingers plucked at the fine dark sweet-smelling tobacco in the pouch. Bit of apple would keep it moist.

Outside the salt streaked windows the sky was black and smeared like a grill plate in a greasy spoon joint. He spread the tobacco evenly along the paper and deftly rolled the smoke between thumb and index finger, pinching off the ends. Like riding a bike, you never forget. Like the first fumble of a girl’s breasts or the first long drink of whiskey that cuts you loose from your moorings, or the first thousand bucks in your bank account or your first new V8. With a smile he remembered the sticker on the back of his Ute: ‘only juice and milk come in litres.’

He threw some turpentine logs on the fire, sat himself back in the saggy green club chair and struck a match, inhaling the insult of sulphur. It had been more than twenty years since he quit. Hawkey was PM.

His old orange jumper was holed in the chest right about the place he imagined underneath was the creeping stain of cancer. He was unshaven and had pulled a beanie down over his surprisingly lush head of iron-grey hair. His track pants were knobbly with pulled threads and three days worth of dishes clogged the sink in the two-roomed shack on the south coast where he’d come to smoke a cigarette.

The violent coughing brought the baked beans back up into his throat and stole his breath till his head spun and he thought he would pass out. Red hot needles poked into his lungs couldn’t have hurt more than the pains that shot through his chest willy-nilly. The tobacco tasted acrid in his mouth and he was dizzy from the nicotine.

He didn’t hear her knocking for some minutes and would’ve hidden except obviously someone was inside and so he shuffled to the door, breathless and blue around the lips.

Later he’d tell police she looked like Anne Bancroft: tall, a classy brunette with a good plump figure, well dressed with soft brown or hazel eyes and a crinkly smile that reached right into those eyes. Maybe Jewish. Big chunky green necklace. No handbag, no car in sight.

I need a favour, she said. Old Mr Cyril Larkins has been admitted to hospital. He’s taken a bad turn – emphysema and now pneumonia – this is Wonky and he needs someone to take him in, just for a few days till we get sorted.

Mr Larkins won’t be coming home again.

She handed him the leash and without another word kissed his cheek, squeezed his shoulder blade and dashed out into the rainstorm. The Border collie limped into the room – Wonky indeed — and took up residence by the fire, sinking down onto the hearthrug like a hovercraft coming to rest. Expelling a deep sigh he looked up at the man and butted his dry hand with his wet nose, thumping the floor with his tail.

Christ, all I need is Johnny Cash CD and a fifth of bourbon, he said to himself.

Without his glasses, Russell Doyle couldn’t find a grand piano in a one-roomed humpy.
At St Joseph’s Convent he’d been smacked from pillar to post by red-faced nuns who tried in vain to break his habit of defacing library books. The only books young Russell read were pinched from underneath his father’s filthy mattress.

When boy turned into man, Russ worked in a sandpit on steroids, hauling loads of 350 tonnes in a mining dump truck seven metres high. He’d have loved to catch a doe-eyed nun in his headlights one night. Nah, too easy, he thought.

A thousand years ago when the tree was a sapling, rail-thin black men stepped stiff-legged like brolga in the grasses, sedge and daisies that carpeted the earth between the great floods. They would track emu and kangaroo or climb the giant River Red Gums hunting possum.

Their stories are written in rock 30,000 years old but their ancient books are in a library, which also holds some of the richest mineral deposits on earth.

Funny what you remember when you’re for the high jump. Russ had plenty of regrets starting with the destruction of those cave pictures. The bosses had noted his compliance and he’d moved on up the ladder finding a niche in workplace health and safety before branching out into the union where he’d sucked on the tit till he retired.
. . .

Every one called him Rusty. How appropriate now that he was poked full of holes. He poured a whiskey and sucked on the smoke. The dog whinnied and looked up at him with rheumy old eyes.

You poor old bugger, he thought.
And that makes two of us.

Rusty had a stack of eye-fillets on ice. He fetched one for his little mate and was strangely gratified to see the old feller light up as he scarfed down the prime cut. Rusty rubbed the top of his head gently and got comfortable with another drink. He’d been reading a Cliff Hardy mystery – they were about the same vintage him and Cliff and they shared a love of booze and old Falcons. Hardy was a fixture in his life. He ate ‘em up as fast as Peter Corris could crank em out. About 36 books so far and then the tough guy rolled over with a heart attack. Tricky for sure, but better than the Big C. You can fix up a heart like you can fix up a Falcon.

Rusty swallowed a couple of painkillers with a big gobful of whiskey and zoned out. Was it the morphine or the grog or both that loosened his tongue? Rusty started talking to the old dog like he was a priest.

Wonky for chrissakes. Who’d call a dog Wonky? You must have been young once, up for it? You border collies like to get your jollies – er sorry about that.
Fuck Wonky. I’m going to call you Tom – ok?

Rusty patted Tom and got him another piece of meat.

We’ll light a bloody fire later, old boy. Keep your old bones toasty. The smoke’ll make me cough but I can suck up a bit of morphine through my nebulizer and Bob’s your uncle.

Rusty walked unsteadily to the fridge: Milk, butter, eggs, meat, cheese and vodka.
Food is one of the things that goes when you’re getting ready to check out. Rusty had lost 20 kilos in the past few months, 40 pounds in the old money to mix his metaphors. His hair had grown back but his bony bum hurt if he wasn’t perched on a cushion.

Tom worked on his steak while Rusty worked on his drink.

You like that don’t you Tom.

Bet you’ve never traveled have you?

I only been out of Australia the once, sort of thing you can confide to a dog without feeling like a hick. Never seen the sights of Europe, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon. Why would I? Happy as a sand boy right here. No money to travel when I was young and too much sense to travel when I got older. I know this place though – not like most of them clinging to the coast too scared to have a real good look around. Some of me workmates love Bangkok – now there’s a name. Filthy with pollution but sex on a stick.

I don’t fancy Asian girls, most men do. I don’t want to pay for it, either. I like em cuddly with big tits and blond bits – a little bit drunk but not too drunk. All the better if they’re married and someone else’s problem.

Left a wife and kids way back there somewhere – well she left me. I don’t blame her. Here’s to you Sharon, hope life worked out for you and the boys. No regrets.
I’ve been happy in my little Guvvie in Canberra working for the workingman.

So Tom, just last year this travel virgin arrives in Tijuana, Mexico, via LA America. You’d be interested to know that I was after something they use to knock off animals. Nembutal, also called death in a bottle.

I like detective yarns and westerns Tom but I found myself riveted to The Peaceful Pill Handbook – it lays it out nice and easy and the best thing to get the job done is these Mexican pills Sedal-Vet or Sedaphorle or Barbital. Had those names on a little bit of paper in my Hawaiian shirt pocket and $50 bucks to pay for it. I went into a pet shop in Tijuana and did the deal no sweat. So Tom, all systems go except the bastard customs officers in the good ole US of A tipped off the Aussies and they took it off me just before I was home free. Heart fucking breaking it was. And I was charged with importing a barbiturate and bailed. But I don’t intend to hang round for the trial son.

Canberra in the summertime. It gets pretty hot some days. I used to like to ramble around a bit. Lots of trees and paddocks. Always feel better after a walk. We’ve lost the plot as a species, Tom going to work and the like. We’re animals just like you. We need a feed and a roof over our heads but we needn’t get on that treadmill for 50 or 60 hours a week. No time for scratching our balls and just lying on the hearth dreaming in front of the crackling fire and sniffing the stew. Can’t think of a useful thing I’ve done with all them hours worked.

See Tom we’ve lost our way. Shits me that our politicians style themselves as our leaders. Now that’s wrong right there. They are our servants. We give them our country to look after using our hard earned money and they come on like Moses leading his people into the Promised Land. The Unions runs the bloody Labor Party. Take that right wing idiot frothing at the mouth over gay marriage. Has he really ever asked his members what they think? Not bloody likely. Common good, no such thing. Self interest every time mate.

Tom whimpers and puts his greying muzzle in Rusty’s crotch.

A tear rolls down Rusty’s cheek.

Well mate it’s 3 o’clock. Time for me steak sandwich.

Rusty hauled himself out of the armchair, the effort leaving him blue in the face and gasping for breath.

Christ I couldn’t even blow out a candle with these lungs.

Rusty got to the stove and put butter in the frypan and a little bit of oil. When it was smoking hot he tossed in the steak cooking it for a couple of minutes on each side.

He removed the meat, buttered some bread and turned down the heat. Next he opened a package and looked at the mushrooms he’d collected on his rambles. The green hue and the white gills were a dead give away. Rusty put some more butter into the pan and sautéed the mushies, adding a little pepper and salt. Next he assembled the sandwich and took it to his chair where he poured a generous whisky.

Jeez Tom, I don’t wanna piss myself, or worse. He walked slowly to the bathroom and sat down on the can like a girl. Tears came to his eyes. Fuck it, he says, hauling himself up and pulling up his trackie pants. He did his belt up. He’d lost so much weight he’d had to poke holes in it with a fork.

Rusty made his way back to the lounge room. In a second he took in the scene before him. The dog was vomiting and shitting itself – the room stank and the sandwich with the death cap mushrooms gone.

No, he cried, Jesus no. He went to the dog and held his shaking body and patted him and cried as the dog whimpered in pain. Then with a huge effort the old collie nudged Tom’s hand with his hot, dry nose.

You knew, didn’t you, you knew, Rusty said.

Police told Rusty there was no record of a Mr Cyril Larkin being admitted to the local hospital. No Mr Larkin ever lived here. As for the mysterious woman, they couldn’t help him. The cops rang the council who agreed to collect the dog’s body.

One of the cops got him a chair.

Mate you don’t look well, the cop said.

Look the dog was old, sure to have arthritis and god knows what else. Bad heart too, probably. Kindest thing was to put him down.


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