"The Bull Calf"
By Rachel Fenton
First published in The Bactrian Room, 2013; (http://bactrianroom.blogspot.co.nz/2013/07/rachel-fenton-bull-calf.html)
It started with the word, as a joke. One of the environmentalist advisors to the government, some scientist from Otago University, wrote a report about pest control measures, only he mistyped the word pest as pets and decided to leave it in, see what would happen. It made the news. My wife, Cath, and I laughed about it. We didn’t believe then it would affect our livelihoods, let alone destroy our lives. No one thought it would stick.
The Prime Minister at the time was a bit of a dick, but we thought in all likelihood he mustn’t have noticed the mistake, or if he did he was probably going along with the joke. He seemed to enjoy sticking his neck out for one political hot potato or another. To say he was something of a free thinker was a bit of an understatement. We expected him to release a statement, blame some junior minister for making the biggest governmental gaffe of the year, blame the opposition, or, hell, blame the press – he’d tried it for every other uncompromising position he’d found himself in - but no U-turn followed.
Rational commentators remarked the Prime Minister’s brains had taken flight. Details of PETS, as the policy came to be known, was leaked to the liberal press. The media went nuts. The Prime Minister was interviewed on all the dailies. They all had the same question.
‘Why do you want to ban us from keeping pets?’
The Prime Minister spelled out in a regional radio broadcast what was to become his standard retort.
‘For the love of birdsong; for years we have fought to eradicate rats from the islands surrounding our beautiful shores.’ He began, eloquently enough, though it was clear he hadn’t reached the point and some of us were itching for him to get to it as we watched from my veterinary surgery waiting room. ‘In doing so, we recognise the value of our avian heritage,’ he said. And to make sure those less able to interpret his eloquence could understand, he explained. ‘The importance of our country’s bird life, which, prior to man’s appearance on land, had no mammalian predators.’
It was Murphy’s Law there were three lorikeets and two cats in that day. The clients started arguing. The owner of a financially rewarding springer spaniel got up and left with a promise to sign up with a rival vet.
The way the Prime Minister talked, you’d have thought he was a conservationist, some even suggested comparison to higher posts. Maybe that’s how it got so far; people forgot he was only a politician. He went on.
‘New Zealand has one of the highest pet to person ratios of any country in the world, far in excess of the United States and the UK. Each year dogs are responsible for the deaths of our national icon.’ He left a dramatic pause, but before any dog owners had a chance to call in, he balanced the scales. ‘Cats are responsible for the extinction of eight species of native birds.’
If someone had tapped the Southern Cross cable, they’d have heard it abuzz with enraged cat and dog owners, some of them scientists and members of parliament from the Prime Minister’s own party. Twitter went down overnight. Facebook followed. Blogs were reignited. Someone put a sound clip of “For the love of birdsong” on YouTube with a bunch of inflammatory photographs that went viral on the internet.
One scientist went on national radio, straight for the jugular, to talk about a study he had done, a study the government had been informed of, supposedly proving the eradication of cats would only lead to an explosion of rats, thus increasing the numbers of deaths of native birds, most of which were ground based. The Prime Minister dealt with this in a more typically political way, pointing out it had been commissioned by a member of the opposition. Though he did acknowledge the paper, his response was remarkable.
‘Nobody reads it.’ He laughed. News cameras filmed him. He was hounded by the press at the airport. ‘Who cares what you print in the papers?’ he asked, and turning to the people surrounding him, in turn, said, ‘I don’t. Do you? Do you?’ He turned to face a camera directly again. ‘How about you? No, I didn’t think so.’ Again he laughed, a giggle, as if he’d inhaled nitrous oxide.
Cath asked me if I thought he was on something as we watched the evening news.
‘In your professional opinion, I mean,’ she said. She was looking at me for the first time in a long time like she cared what I thought. I wish I could have said something impressive, or joked and said it was clear he was on a mission if not any substances, but instead I said,
‘I couldn’t tell without taking some bloods.’
Cath thought about what I’d said for a long moment before picking up her book from the coffee table and saying,
‘I’m off to bed. Coming?’
‘I think I’ll hang about for the sports,’ I said.
Cath laughed and said,
‘I thought we’d just watched it.’
I almost corrected her. Later, I thought of how I could have redeemed my humour, but saying you’ll just feel a little prick to yourself an hour after you realise your wife wanted you to fuck her is really a form of self-impalement.
The headline the next day seemed to mock me as well as the Prime Minister, though it was his photograph superimposed on an image of The Joker. But he’d been right not to worry. The rats study had been undertaken off shore, on one of the smaller islands. Yes, there had been an explosion of rats but they had now been successfully eradicated. The scientist had done the Prime Minister a favour by taking the focus off the mainland and for a while people were less enraged by the latter’s messianic outpourings but they continued at every public event he attended and in every press release.
“For the love of birdsong” became his catchphrase. All the cartoonists drew him with a beak but were accused of racism and had to stop. Some of them lost their jobs because of it and had to move to Australia to get work. As a result, the Cartoonist of the Year award went to a freelance artist no one in New Zealand Media claimed to have heard of, some foreigner who’d moved here in his teens. He won with a picture depicting a MP for a ministry department no one had heard of. But no one took the Prime Minister seriously. Not then. It was ridiculous. Not a single MP thought it would actually take off as a policy. There would be too much public outcry. Surely the people would revolt, they thought. But they didn’t. It was difficult to argue with him. “Birds don’t vote” didn’t cut it, so the opposition tried a humanist approach.
‘There are homeless people sleeping under bridges. Shouldn’t you be more concerned about them rather than going to all this fuss over a few birds?’
‘This country’s true founders were birds and if we can’t look after them, how can we expect to take care of our people.’
No one mentioned Māori specifically, although writers were quick off the mark with parodies of iconic literature such as Once Were Moa, and Kea Rider. The Prime Minister was adamant, however. He said,
‘It starts with the birds.’
‘And the bees,’ the papers added, trying, again, to poke fun at him, but their barbs only succeeded in stinging themselves. Journalists, having only the one broadsheet daddy to fill, struggled to fix on an angle. Think tanks were confounded. The Prime Minister’s ideas were totally off the map. Community groups were formed and that’s when people started coming to me.
I’m a vet; it’s my duty to save all animals, not just the chosen few. But not all my colleagues agreed.
Isaac, a recent graduate full of obtuse ideas and keenness unparalleled to share them, said,
‘Cats are domestic animals, Abe, whose supposed ecologic niche should be filled by birds of prey and mesocarnivores*. I think the scientist’s conclusions from the rat study are short-sighted and misguided.’ The Prime Minister would have loved to have heard him. I hoped to crap he didn’t have a blog or intentions to share his views with the clients.
The implications of PETS policy stretched out before me like Hundred Mile Beach. I wondered if future policies would include clauses for employers to view the political affiliations of prospective employees to prevent clashes of ethics. There was no way of knowing how far this could go.
‘So, what are you saying,’ Cathy said, tapping the bed for Adams, our cat, to jump between us when I discussed my concerns with her that night.
‘Not me. Isaac.’ I wished I’d kept it to myself.
‘He doesn’t like cats?’ She took it literally. ‘The man’s a vet, how can he not like cats? Why did they accept him into vet school if he prefers some animals over others? Why did you employ him?’
I got my first inkling then of how dangerous this whole situation could be; how easy it was to turn the emotional into militants.
‘He didn’t say that, Cathy.’
‘But isn’t it what he means, Abe? He doesn’t have a problem wiping out cats, clearly.’ She stroked Adams with fervour.
‘Everyone prefers some animals over others. I prefer dogs to cats but it doesn’t mean I’d treat one over another, and neither would Isaac, he’s a good vet. I’m not going to let you make out the man’s a tosser.’
‘Oh, Adams, don’t listen to daddy.’
I should have waited till after we’d put him out for the night.
‘Here, it’s getting late,’ I said, ‘I’ll take him.’ Adams let me carry him, but he scratched me as I let him out the back door.
‘Fuck off to you too, you usurping ball of mange.’ That’s when I saw the note. Someone must have only just pushed it under the door. It was a wet night but thepaper was dry. Adams gave me a dirty look as I closed the door. After I read the note, I went to the window. The street in front of our house was empty and with one streetlight off for energy saving it was too dark to see any further. I put the note in my jacket pocket to remind myself to tell Isaac about it the next day and went to bed.
Over breakfast news the facts were announced. Unbelievably, the law had been passed. It was now illegal to buy an animal as a pet. Up until this point, the kids had been fairly oblivious to the whole thing and the public opposition had largely been kept in check by the theoretical nature of the PETS policy proposals. But now it was law there was a very tangible reactionary state forming. The animal loving community were about to divide into nature lovers and pet lovers, Forest and Bird versus Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This was obvious, but there were other factions closer to home none of us could have envisaged in the beginning.
Kris, who had been chewing his cereal methodically throughout the report, put down his spoon.
‘Does this mean I can’t have a puppy?’ He’d been asking for one since he turned three. We’d put him off then deferred the decision, telling him we’d discuss it when he turned ten, hoping at some point along the way he’d forget or transfer his obsession to a microscope kit. He would be eleven in a matter of weeks.
Leighton shot a look at me, remembering her own part of the deal that if Kris got a puppy she’d get the choice of what she liked to the same value once she turned ten. It had been a relatively recently added clause on account of her only just having been born when Kris turned three but seemed fair in the light of democracy as a means of keeping the peace and buffering sibling rivalry.
‘Of course you can have a puppy,’ Cathy said, ruffling Kris’ hair and opening the door for Adams to come back in. Leighton smirked at me.
‘Go brush your teeth, both of you.’ I tried not to sound obvious. When I heard the bathroom tap I turned to Cathy. ‘This isn’t going to go away.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘What happened to your arm?’
‘Don’t you think you should put some antiseptic on it? It could turn nasty.’
I didn’t think she was taking me seriously and said,
‘Don’t you think we should at least be honest with our kids?’
‘Let’s just remember, who’s the dog lover among us, ay? Don’t you think you’re overreacting, Abe?’
I thought about the note in my jacket. No, I didn’t think I was overreacting but I realised I was being premature and whatever impact the law would have, Cathy and the kids weren’t ready for it. Being a vet, however, meant I had to be ready. Pets were my business.
I talked to Isaac after the early appointments were through.
‘You catch the news yet?’
‘It won’t last.’ He sounded confident, like me at twenty-eight, he thought he knew it all, but he was a young buck and had a lot to learn, especially about politics. I almost envied his naivety, but living in a colony makes long term ignorance untenable, even on the North Shore. I didn’t have the optimism to doubt the sincerity of the government on any matter of destruction or money. It was the money part I couldn’t work out, though I knew there must be some financial reward for prohibiting pets. “For the love of birdsong” rang out of the Prime Minister’s mouth, but history tells us it’s the love of money that gets laws passed this fast.
‘Read this.’ I got the note from my jacket. Isaac raised one eyebrow as he read it. When he finished, he turned the paper over then said,
‘I expect every veterinary surgery will receive something similar over the coming weeks; it’s just people getting off on the panic.’
‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘if it had been mailed to the surgery.’
‘Hand delivered late last night.’
‘Plenty people know you’re a vet though, right? Don’t sweat it.’
‘Look at the watermark.’
Isaac crinkled his nose, held the note up to the bulb on the over-reach lamp. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? Looks like regular paper to me.’
‘You’re right,’ I said, ‘I’m getting caught up in the drama of the media, forget about it.’ I folded the note and put it in my wallet.
‘Nice family, man.’ Isaac was looking at the photo that had fallen on the floor.
‘My son and – ’
‘Well, whatever,’ Isaac said, ‘you can’t let a nut job turn us out of our jobs with a stupid scribbled threat.’
It wasn’t just my livelihood at stake after all.
Everyone who came in that day asked for my opinion of the law. The treatment room felt more like a constituency surgery than a vet’s. My replies became as rehearsed sounding as the Prime Minister’s by the end of the morning. In the afternoon, Kris called me to tell me the pet store had closed. He’d seen the boards up on the drive through Takapuna to catch a movie after school.
‘But you got me a dog, dad, for my birthday? Dad, it’s in two weeks.’
I felt ambushed. There was no way he could have a dog but I didn’t want to be bad cop again on my own.
‘We’ll talk about this tonight, Kris. I’m at work now.’
Isaac rapped on the door, poked his head round as I hung up.
‘Troubles in the fold?’
‘Kris wants a puppy for his birthday.’
‘That’s rough.’ He was smiling.
‘We kind of promised him.’
‘The law’s only just been passed, Abe, who’s to know if you got the dog after the ban? You can say you got it before and kept it at the surgery for the birthday, no one would argue with that.’
‘Maybe.’ I didn’t agree and I didn’t want to be among the people stirring up trouble with the law, I’d had enough close calls in my youth to know the disadvantage of untangling myself from that.
‘Georgia just got a retriever.’
‘My girlfriend. In by a whisker before the law changed.’
I thought about why I’d waited, knowing how much it meant to Kris. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t understood what the PETS debate had been moving toward. Isaac patted me on the shoulder and said,
‘Anyhow, I wondered if you could take a look at this dog for me. Owner doesn’t like my diagnosis.’
The dog was an Irish wolfhound. Understandably, Isaac hadn’t been able to get it onto the examination bench and had done the diagnosis on his knees. The owner had been crying and her mouth was drawn into a tightrope. I introduced myself andasked for the basics: symptoms and age. I nodded to Isaac as I listened then I tried to explain to the dog’s owner that Isaac had been right.
‘But he’s only six years old,’ she said, ‘he was meant to last my son’s childhood.’
‘Seven, in giant breeds, is very old. He’s done remarkably well to last this long. Wolf hounds generally don’t make it past six.’ I thought it would make her feel better.
‘Well, do you want to go out to my car to tell my son that?’
‘Your son’s outside now?’ Isaac rolled his eyes at me.
I explained the options to her, asked if she wanted her son to come in and be part of the decision.
‘Can’t you do anything, anything at all?’
‘I have to be honest,’ I said, ‘I think it would be cruel to prolong this animal’s life.’
‘I don’t mean save him,’ she said, taking a tissue from her sleeve and blowing her nose forcefully. ‘I mean, isn’t there a way we can, I don’t know the term, but, you know, swap him?’
‘For a younger model?’ I thought Isaac was going to laugh.
‘I don’t think there is a term for that,’ I said, ‘we’re not discussing a used car.’
‘Forget it,’ she snapped, ‘I’ll find someone else, someone who will help. You say you care about pets, you have posters all over the waiting room, all over your advertisement in the yellow pages, but you’re heartless.’ She yanked the dog to its feet. ‘Come on, Stuart, heel. Get up.’ She dragged it out of the surgery.
Isaac howled when she’d left the building.
‘It isn’t funny, Isaac, you know this is only going to get worse.’
Cathy was unloading the dishwasher when I got in.
‘The kids are in bed; where’ve you been?’
‘I haven’t been to see a man about a dog, if that’s what you were wondering.’
She turned, saw the surf board, closed the dishwasher door and leaned against the counter, shaking her head at me.
‘He can’t swim.’
‘He did surf club last year.’
‘It was three years ago, Abe, and he left after a fortnight because he couldn’t swim.’
‘I took him to the pool heaps of times.’
‘You took him twice and promised to sign him up to classes. Notice a pattern emerging? Don’t walk away from me.’
‘I’m going to say goodnight to the kids.’
‘With that thing; don’t bother, they’re asleep.’
I opened my mouth to say ‘I’. Cathy caught me.
‘Promised? Yeah, well, you promised to fix this dishwasher, too, and three months later it’s still not cleaning the dishes properly. I’m going to call a man in.’
It was left to me to do door duty. Cathy’s mother arrived first.
‘Where’s the birthday boy?’
‘He’s getting ready; upstairs. Nice to see you, Elaine, can I take your coat?’
‘Oh would you, but do be careful where you put it, it’s new, expensive, I wouldn’t want the animals jumping all over it.’
‘We only have one cat,’ I said. She laughed like an old film star, dismissed me with a flick of her hand.
The kids arrived in one glut, as if all their parents had arranged a mini-bus in advance, and they were happy enough running amok in the back yard and chasing Adams up the kowhai tree with some Avalanche City blaring out. Leighton looked at the heap of unopened gifts and, always the mercenary, said,
‘If Kris doesn’t want these, can I have them?’
‘Where is he?’ I asked. She shrugged. Cathy came through with a tray of cupcakes held out like kryptonite.
‘Take these out to the kids, Abe.’ I took the tray and she disappeared back into the kitchen. I could hear Elaine’s forced laughter sounding a little less forced than I thought respectful considering she was in my house.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said, and handed Leighton the cakes.
‘Oh goody,’ she said as I left the room and went upstairs.
Kris was face down on his bed.
‘Come say hi to your guests.’
He ignored me.
‘Kris,’ I said, a little louder, and prodded him. He lifted his head from his arms, he had headphones on. He scowled at me and took them off. I put them on his desk and asked, ‘Don’t you want to see your surprise?’
‘Not unless it’s a puppy.’
‘Well, there are people waiting to wish you happy birthday, so you’d better get downstairs and –’
He leaped off his bed and pushed past me.
In the back yard one of his mates had taken the bike from the shed and was riding it round with the wrapping paper and bow still on.
‘I already have a bike,’ Kris said. Cathy and Elaine tutted and shook their heads at me.
The kid on the bike shouted over.
‘Nice dog, Kris, arf, arf, arf.’
‘Fuck you,’ Kris said, running over and dragging the lad off his wheels. Part of me wanted to stand back, watch, but I intercepted and told Kris to apologise.
‘You do not swear in this house, Kris, you hear?’
‘That’s rich coming from you,’ Cathy said. All the kids stared.
‘Do not chastise me like one of these brats.’
The bike kid got up.
‘I’m calling my dad.’
One by one the other kids rang or texted their parents.
The bike boy’s dad shook my hand, ‘Lids will be lids,’ he said in a thick South African accent, ruffling his kid’s hair before telling him to say goodbye to Kris.
The lad looked at Kris, said,
‘The only reason I accepted the invite was ’cause you said you were getting a dog. Your bike’s shit.’
‘You little fucker,’ I said. Fucker’s dad stepped up, raised his fist. I shut the door.
Leighton, still with the tray now empty in her hands, asked,
‘Didn’t you get a puppy? I thought you had a dog in the shed. Does that mean I can’t have a pet?’
Elaine tutted for the umpteenth time, pulling her mouth into a wrinkled bleb like a sultana, said she’d had enough, left the room and came back seconds later.
‘Could someone explain,’ she said, giving me daggers, ‘how this found its way into the toilet.’ She held up her coat, sniffed it then held it at arm’s length.
Cathy’s face contorted into a tragedy mask.
‘Abe. How could you?’
The door went and I assumed it would be a shot gun or another parent. It was Isaac with a golden retriever about a year old.
‘I didn’t know you had a dog, Isaac.’ Cathy said.
‘It’s not mine. Is Kris about?’
Kris flushed red and started to grin.
‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘you can take that back wherever you got it from. In fact, I’ll take it and put it to sleep myself.’ I picked the dog up and carried it out to the truck.
‘What the fuck,’ Isaac said.
Kris was screaming at me, the usual hate stuff.
I started the engine and drove.
Isaac got to me just as I was administering the Xylazine.
‘It’s Georgia’s dog, you fucking tosser.’
‘Fuck you. You want to see the papers, here.’ He pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket. ‘Here’s your papers; your proof.’ He threw them at me, took a phial ofYohimbine out of the medicine cabinet and knocked me out of the way to administer it. ‘You know, when you came to me with that note, I thought you were worried about other people turning into nut jobs.’
I pulled at my hair, said,
‘Someone slashed the tyres on Cathy’s car last night.’
Isaac was too busy checking the dog’s vitals to listen to me and I went outside. It was hot but a breeze was finally picking up. You couldn’t feel yourself getting burnt on days like this until it was too late.
Cathy called my mobile, furious. Kris had run off, the kids had left in floods of tears and Leighton was in tears. Parents were ringing to complain, and it was my fault. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I drove around for a while, down the old streets, the places where I hung out with my mates when I was a kid. I remembered my dad telling me one day, after a bunch of seniors had torn my Captain Sunshine comic to bits and scattered them across the park field, all you need’s a dog. I thought Kris was tougher than I was at his age. I would never have called my dad a dick, not even under my breath let alone in front of a house full of my school mates. I drove down Sunnynook Road and parked by the Community Centre. There was a meeting in progress.
I read the notice board: Pet Retailers Retaliate in discussion with a spokesperson of the Minister for Environment. I would have sat in but my attention was caught by a bunch of kids gathering around another kid walking an Airedale terrier. I understood the appeal, this breed and Scotties were the easiest to draw and their two dimensional looks made them an accessible draw to kids. They took it in turns petting him. This was an unexpected side effect of PETS; kindness to other people’s dogs in lieu of having your own to kick. Gradually the kids wandered off to play football or go to the shops but one or two remained, walking alongside the dog, talking to the kid with the leash. That’s when I recognised the unmistakable gait of my son.
I called out and I thought for a second he was going to run but instead he just stood where he was and let the dog and the kids walk off. Behind him, in the distance, seagulls had gathered on the grass, reminding me of the time we went to Ruapehu when he was four. So overwhelmed by the snow, it was as if he’d frozen too. The expression on his face, a look no one else would remember without photographic proof. A lorry pulled up, it had a chain attached to a hook and it lowered an empty cage onto the grass. The cage was about the size you’d need to transport a chimpanzee. I walked back to my truck, opened the passenger door, got in, scooted across and set the engine running.
Neither of us spoke for the first kilometre then Kris asked where we were going.
‘Just around,’ I said. We hadn’t been on a drive together for months, not since the last school holidays and then it was only to drop him and his mates off at the rock wall – I couldn’t remember what it was called. I pulled onto the highway and headed towards Silverdale.
It wasn’t long before I felt like we’d gone somewhere. The scenery was rougher, the trees less well groomed, and the houses dotted around the fields were unfamiliar. I wondered how long it would be before this place was jammed up with subdivisions. In twenty five years I’d seen my neighbourhood quadruple in size. I guessed it might take longer to fill up the scrubland now the PETS law had come in, at least for the traditional types who had chosen to settle here wanting more outdoor space for their animals. Or maybe that would speed things up. There’d be less incentive to keep the sections full size. It was difficult to know which way anything was going to go.
‘Pull over,’ Kris said. He looked pale.
I took the next exit off the highway and pulled in the first place I could. Without unbuckling his belt, Kris opened the door and vomited out.
‘Too much cake?’
‘I didn’t have any,’ he said between retches.
‘Have you had anything to eat at all today?’
I’d parked us at the side of a field of cows and some of them had come towards us and now lolled their heads over the fence. A couple had calves and the others weren’t far off dropping. One of the calves, a bull was pushing its head through a gap between the wires, lower down.
‘Shouldn’t that be electric?’ Kris said, wiping his chin on his sleeve.
‘I’d have thought so, next to the road.’ I unfastened my belt, got out and stretched my legs. Kris followed. The cows made some noise but the bull calf just stared through the wires at Kris.
‘Hey, boy,’ he said and was about to walk over to pet it.
‘No, Kris, don’t. Cows are insanely protective of their calves.’
‘I won’t hurt it.’ He looked at me as if I’d struck him.
‘I know you wouldn’t; that wasn’t what I meant.’
He started to cry. I wanted to put my arms around him, but I was rooted to the spot and instead of hugging him I stared like the bull calf. I thought about telling him no one would care if someone had a pet out here, but I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, start pestering us to move out to the sticks. Or maybe I did. I wondered if it really was only in the cities where the laws are put into force. It’s the only place they can easily keep a check on people. Governments are known to be comprised of idle folk.
I could smell the animals, the shit on their hooves sickly sweet and sour all at once. I started to think about what would happen if livestock replaced pets. Out here is where it would begin, with the lifestyle blocks, cow shares, arguments, neighbours coming to blows. In a few generations it would probably affect the big herds, farmers’ kids wouldn’t want to part with their favourites and feel bad for the ones they didn’t pet. Their kids wouldn’t want to take over the trade. Livestock farming would decline. Exports would suffer. I could extrapolate the whole scenario out.
Cows would become sacred like in India. Protecting them would set a precedent for the rights of other edible animals. People would care more about whether they were being hurt during slaughter. There’d be so many red tape hoops to jump through before anyone could kill the things that people would be given too much time to think. New euthanasia equipment would mean new expense. A bolt through the head and exsanguination wouldn’t do, it would have to be dignified and stress free. Eventually, there’d be an end to halal meat. Eventually, everything can be connected to Muslims by the people who want it to. They make for popular news. A field such as this could become collectible, as contentious as any fur, valuable as art, a cultural curiosity and a reminder of a time past.
I looked around, at the cows, the battered, lightening broken trees and the farmer felled tree stumps at the edge of the field, and I thought about the distance to the next town and if it were possible to live this far out and still walk for a paper.
Overhead a hawk circled, its jagged wing tips suggesting a rip in the scenery; maybe it was all just brown underneath. I heard the truck door slam. Kris was buckling up. I got in and put the key in the ignition, held it there.
‘You can’t keep that dog.’
‘It belongs to Isaac’s girlfriend.’ I turned the key. The engine whinnied before it caught. Kris looked at me. He didn’t believed a word I said. ‘You have to understand, it isn’t fair to everyone else if I let you keep a dog. It’ll bring bad luck, the way things are going.’
He didn’t answer me, just stared ahead as I drove.
Cathy said I was heartless, after going berserk with me for not calling as soon as I’d found Kris.
‘How many years have we promised the kid a dog and now this, on his birthdays of all days?’
‘I never promised him a dog, Cathy. That was all you and we didn’t know the law was going to change.’
‘You knew for months about the possibility of the law, before it was enforced, and you’d known for years in advance Kris wanted a dog for this birthday.’
‘I’m not the man who made the law.’
‘Right; you’re not a man at all, and you’re no father.’
Kris’ bedroom door opened. Adams ran out. Cathy sucked her teeth. She’d decided it was unsafe to let him out of the house since the law change, in case someone stole him.
‘Off to bed, Kris, I’ll come tuck you in a minute.’ I couldn’t look at him.
‘Why are you arguing?’
‘Your mum and I are just talking.’
‘You’re arguing about the dog,’ he said, ‘I still don’t see why I can’t have one but at least can I have an old one, one someone brings to the surgery maybe, even if I can’t have a puppy you should be able to let me have one someone else has abandoned?’
‘Why do you have to protest.’
‘Why doesn’t anyone else protest?’ He slammed the door.
Some did protest, over the following weeks, but it was futile. With only the sales of collars and food to keep them afloat many businesses went under. A few shops were set alight and one shop owner died in suspicious circumstances. People were scared. There was only one store open on the North Shore and only one employee worked there. The remaining store operatives had gone to look for other work, selling what stock they could on the sly and irresponsibly letting a lot of animals go. For the first time in memory, dog wardens became a common sight on the streets.
People whose pets died naturally became depressed at being unable to replace the irreplaceable. Those who thought their pets had been taken from them too soon became resentful of people who had bought puppies and kittens just before the lawcame in. There were malicious attacks, poisonings. One, unexpected, retaliation against the bill, however, came in the form of breeding.
Over dinner, Cathy said,
‘I don’t see why they can’t just give them all away; the law only stipulates you can’t pay.’
We had invited Isaac and his girlfriend Georgia round for a meal as reparations for the trouble at Kris’ birthday, and a friendly means of laying Cathy’s concerns that Isaac was a closeted cat hater to rest. She had thought him the prime suspect for slashing her tyres and the misunderstanding with the dog as a deliberate attempt to cause upset. She locked Adams in our bedroom as a precaution. Looking back, the dinner was also a way of pretending our marriage wasn’t over. However we justified the meal, Cathy’s natural defiance wasn’t going to make it enjoyable.
‘The authorities will get around the surplus issue by refusing to issue licences.’ We guessed inspections would follow.
‘People can forge licences, though,’ Cathy countered. ‘And there’s money to be made if convincing counterfeits can be produced.’
‘Nah,’ Isaac wasn’t convinced. ‘Technology’s moved on. Existing licences will be replaced with high tech chip and pin cards, just like in the banks. Who do you know still carries cash?’
‘I do, as a matter of fact. And I don’t consider myself an old fogey before you get onto that.’
‘No offence intended.’ Isaac laughed.
I poured everyone a top up of wine and made a fuss of the dinner. I was thankful Georgia joined in with the praise. She’d been quiet up till now, hardly surprising since I had tried to euthanize her dog. She’d left it at home. It was the first time Cathy and I noticed her accent, having been distracted until this point with her dress sense. She was wearing what appeared to be one of Isaac’s shirts only it was too smart for him and her nipples showed through, and men’s shoes. Military in influence, I thought. Disturbingly, her outfit made my cock rise to salute.
‘You’re English,’ Cathy said.
‘Yes.’ Georgia seemed at a loss for how to follow it. We all stared at the casserole dish for a moment before she finally thought of something and, obviously thinking she was speaking out in support of Cathy, said, ‘They can’t really get rid of dogs anyway. Dogs have too many uses, sniffer dogs, for starters, and what about guidedogs for the blind? Dogs have inspired some of the greatest works of art, and dog eggs,’ she said, beginning to laugh for reasons none of us could comprehend.
‘Well,’ I said, feeling need to pre-empt any offence Cathy might choose to take by disagreeing with Georgia on her behalf, cowardly giving my wife support, ‘according to New Scientist, sniffer dogs are already obsolete due to mechanical sniffers.’
‘Is that the technical term?’ Isaac obviously loved the girl.
‘I dare say the police will be unhappy. I have no idea what might happen to guide dogs, if anything, after all, they aren’t strictly speaking pets in any case.’
‘So,’ Cathy said, in a worryingly curious tone, ‘working dogs are still allowed.’
‘Yes,’ Isaac said, not asking to load his plate up again. Cathy smiled at him approvingly.
I thought about the dinner again recently. The forecasting about the licences came true in a matter of weeks. Owners had to carry their Pet Utility Proof, PUP for short, on their person at all times. Wardens took on new roles. Licence scanners became part of their kit. Every pet was also chipped to match their new licence. When an animal died it was registered too.
Guide dogs for the blind were targeted by jealous former dog owners and one maniac poked out his eyes as a desperate attempt to keep his own dog, but the authorities took it away and locked him up in a kennel of his own. It all got extreme but the trouble really started at school. Kindergartens stopped allowing kids to look after the animals in the holidays and Leighton’s elementary called us in to say they had witnessed her playing some inappropriate games in the playground. Cathy was horrified.
We sat in the classroom with our knees by our ears like crickets. It was impossible not to feel guilty in this position. When I asked what exactly the teacher meant by inappropriate she explained she’d seen Leighton putting a rope around another child.
‘Naturally, the child became distressed and told her mother that evening. The mother has since been into school to make a formal complaint.’
‘I don’t know what to say,’ Cathy said.
‘It’s totally out of character,’ I said. I’d never tied Cathy up, not that I was against the idea particularly but she wasn’t into anything that involved loss of control. ‘There must be more to the story.’ I called Leighton in from the corridor to explain.
‘I was only playing ponies,’ she said.
On the drive home, Cathy fumed internally. She wouldn’t answer me or the kids. When we pulled onto the drive she said,
‘That’s it; I can’t live like this anymore.’
‘It was only a misunderstanding, Cathy, let it go.’
‘And what’ll be next, Abe? You’ve seen how crazy this is getting. And I can’t stand that every time something happens you do nothing.’
She thought the answer was to move to Oz. Her sister had a place out there, on the Gold Coast. I didn’t want to go, the Shore was my home. I made the mistake of thinking I could change her mind. In my effort to re-engage in our home life I traded the late shift for an extra day’s holiday for Isaac and discovered the other guy.
Brett Swan was fucking my wife over the dishwashing machine he had been employed to fix. He had her on Heavily Soiled, so when she came her voice reverberated through the house. I kicked his naked arse out of the back door, cum spewing all over the place. I gave him a few laps of the yard then dragged him back in to clean the floor.
Elaine had known all about it, had taken the kids for the night. It turned out the tyres had been an act of revenge by the guy’s wife. I tried to reason with Cathy. I told her, from a man’s perspective, this guy was a dick.
‘He’s fucked over one wife, who knows how many others he’s had, and the chances are he’ll leave you as soon as a better offer comes along, and then where will you be?’
‘In Oz, with the kids and as many pets as we want.’ She slapped my face then said, ‘You left your first wife for me, Abe. Do you have a better offer lined up, ready to ditch me?’
‘No, don’t be ridiculous. I’m only sorry you had to lower yourself to this to justify leaving me.’
‘You’re only sorry you couldn’t fuck me over first.’
We kept the details from the kids. On my part I was hanging out for some, I don’t know, if not a divine act then intervention of greater kindness. A rage built inside me, but it didn’t manifest itself with clear reason, not then. On the nights when I felt my thoughts irrational as to not trust myself I’d stay at the surgery. Isaac found me one morning, dragged me to the ground and would’ve started CPR had I not shouted at him to stop.
‘Fuck sake, man, I thought you were dead. Why didn’t you answer me?’
I had been awake for most of the night and only recently fallen into a deep sleep. I shrugged.
Isaac made coffee and rescheduled my first appointment for later in the week.
‘You didn’t have to do that,’ I said.
‘No, I could let you see clients looking like this and wearing yesterday’s clothes. And don’t take this personally, mate, but when was the last time you showered?’
‘Cathy’s asked me to move out.’
‘Fuck. Shit, sorry, I had no idea.’
‘She’s seeing some bloke, fuck knows where he’s from; she got him on free phone from Hire a Hubby. She’s planning on moving to Australia with him.’
‘And the kids?’
‘They’d rather have a pet than a father, I guess.’
‘Fuck sake. Is he rich?’
I almost laughed. Elaine had been so smug when I first met Cathy, telling anyone she could find to listen I was a vet. Family gatherings were more like status parades. Cathy had said, for her mother, coming to the Shore had been a chance to shake off an old identity and become a success. What she meant was lie. Elaine had been from working stock, moved over from the North of England in the fifties and was lucky her husband died soon after, freeing her up to marry the Chairman of the local Rotary Club. Now she was harbouring my kids so her daughter could fuck a spark. The funniest part was that she’d ever believed vets are rich.
We drank coffee and Isaac said he had a confession to make. He must have read my mind because he said,
‘I didn’t fuck your wife,’ before I could ask him. ‘I’m –’
The buzzer went on the reception door. Isaac looked at his watch. ‘Shit. Forget it.’
‘Isaac, what is it?’
‘I’ll tell you later. I’ve got a new patient to write up.’ He opened the door but stopped, mid-way, turned and said, ‘Go to my place, Georgia’s at work. Get a shower and something to eat.’ He handed me his keys.
‘I have a check-up booked in for eleven.’
‘The Yorkie with the broken leg? I’ll take it. Go. And get some sleep.’
‘I have to get the kids at four, I promised to take them out for burgers before they leave.’
‘They’re going so soon? Fuck, Abe, you’ve kept all this to yourself.’ He looked reflective then told me to take as long as I wanted, he’d be there till eight. ‘Drop the keys back in here else I’ll see you back at my place, if you need a place to stay.’
‘Don’t mention it.’
Isaac’s place was an old bach, one of the few remaining relatively intact from the fifties, probably because it was only a two bed and family pads are where the money’s at. I helped myself to a bowl of cereal, showered and changed laid on the settee. After an hour I couldn’t sleep so I put the TV on and watched the mid-day news.
The Prime Minister was banging on about the success of PETS, quoting new studies. The anchor was asking him if the studies were rushed through before an inquiry was due, brought about because of a probe undertaken by the opposition.
The Prime Minister had been photographed with a number of animals in the grounds of his lifestyle block. “For the love of birdsong” would be the caption on tomorrow’s paper and probably there’d be a speech bubble with arf, arf, arf, coming from the PM’s beak.
At some point I must have fallen asleep because when I woke there was a crappy show on with pop star kids dressed like sluts and mouthing off before singing some generic song to a fuck beat. The sort of thing Leighton would watch. I looked at my watch; I’d forgotten the kids.
When I got to my house the phone was ringing.
‘I’ll get it,’ I shouted.
Cathy came down with her hair in a towel.
‘What is it, Abe?’
I hung up. The house was quiet. ‘Where are the kids?’
‘I dropped them off at the surgery, at four, like you said.’
‘I said I’d meet them here.’
‘Who said, the kids?’
Leighton was in the car park with a golden retriever, frantic, running back and forth. I shouted her name. The dog ran off. Leighton screamed at me,
‘Kris, Kris.’ She pointed at the surgery where thick black smoke was coming from the reception windows and flames were licking the overhang of the roof above them.
‘Wait here,’ I said, and ran to the back.
The windows were grilled there, for security as that’s where all the drugs were kept and the door had a security screen fitted that had to be unlocked from the inside. I felt in my pocket. I had Isaac’s keys. I picked up a rock and started hitting the glass, but I was dragged away by a guy from the fire brigade.
Leighton was on her knees, clinging to Cathy’s leg, out on the main road now. Cathy was crying, too. I put out my arms to her, but she bent down and sat on the road. A second engine arrived. All I could do was watch.
‘Why did you lie to me, why did you lie?’ Cathy said, pulling Leighton onto her knee and rocking her.’
‘Kris wanted to see the dog. Isaac said we could visit it here.’
‘Isaac said we could share.’
‘There was a dog when we arrived,’ I said, putting it together. The surgery was a perfect cover.
They had been coming for weeks. I’d been so wrapped up events with Cathy I hadn’t noticed the kids. When they started hanging round the surgery I’d assumed they wanted to spend time with me because kids can be sensitive to things like that, even though Cathy and I had kept the rows between ourselves.
‘It showed me how to get out,’ Leighton said. Cathy looked at me.
‘Tell me where.’
The fire fighters laid the body on the tarmac. Leighton knelt.
‘Time to say goodbye,’ I said. ‘What’s his name?’
‘We didn’t give him a name. Isaac said it was best not to, in case we didn’t get to keep him. He said it would save us from getting too attached, so we just called him Dog. He lied on the floor to show us what to do, to crawl under the smoke.’ She kissed him and got up. ‘Can I ride in the ambulance with Kris?’
‘Sure,’ I said. I watched her get in. Cathy pulled one hand free from Kris’ and slipped it around her.
The paramedics were about to close the doors on the other van.
‘Is he going to be alright?’
‘Are you a relative?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to put your laptop away.
My earphones dropped out as I turned my head to look up. The steward had a cake and was smiling at me. I looked back at the screen, a clip of footage showed a masked man being hauled out of the Prime Minister’s home.
‘Happy Birthday, dad,’ Kris said. Everyone on the plane clapped.
‘What present do you want?’ Leighton asked.
Kris answered on my behalf,
‘A dog, you dick.’
‘Or a cat,’ Cathy said. ‘And don’t swear, Kris.’
Leighton was thoughtful for a moment then asked,
‘Is Adams going to be alright?’
‘Of course he is, Isaac will take good care of him, and besides, he’s a cat.’
I looked out the window. I could see the curve of the earth, perfectly blue. I thought of New Zealand.
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