south – the first day. story 3
- Snug Cove
The house in Toby’s much creased photo stood high amidst a grove of stunted Casuarinas and had its foundations buried in soft white sand, and the three dogs that lived in the shelter under there filed out head to tail when he came out from the house to stand on the verandah on that first morning.
A sombre tribunal of inspection.
The two bitches sat by the bottom step as the bigger male trotted up to the verandah and thrust his brutally scarred snout into Toby’s hand.
His Grandfather Tom, sitting in the sun on an ancient wooden bench with a russet coloured cat asleep by his side was rebinding the top eyelet of a long black cane fishing rod. The cat had an ear missing and it slowly opened one golden eye to observe the trespassing hound.
‘ That’s Big Alf come up to say hullo and the other two are Betty and Bess, they’re sisters, ‘ said the old man with a smile, pleased to see the unexpected welcome from the big dog who had always remained wary around strangers. Until today.
‘ Betty’s about to have pups and she can get a little moody these days, best leave her be. ‘
The little boy’s hand scratched at Alf’s broad head as his eyes roamed around this new place. There was so much more here than was in the photograph.
Below him a strip of grass fell away onto a narrow beach that bordered a wide and still lagoon. A long line of high dunes stretched away on the far side and a muted and unending rumble over there told him that the mysterious ocean was very near.
Stretching away from both sides of the old house and rooted into the pure white sands of the lagoon was the coastal forest. Its first rank of trees all stunted and bentback from the weight of the constant south-easterlies that blew throughout summer. In the deeper foliage, and invisible to him at first were noisesome flocks of parrots and cockatoos climbing about the branches in search of seedpods and nectar.
The only birds he was familiar with at Beaudesert were the melancholy crows.
Now all the dogs were around him and under the urging of their bumping and boisterous good humour Toby sprinted down and onto the beach and in a moment he was running along the hardpacked sand of the lagoon edge, chasing the dogs as they in turn chased the seabirds.
The white backed gulls, which most of them were, wheeled about in the sky like hard-tethered kites and from time to time one would swoop low above the dogs and send them all into another frenzied burst of barking as they leapt and sprinted along the shallows. First chasing the low flying gulls and then their own fleet shadows. Only Betty stayed back, lumbered with the weight of her pups.
Before long the boy too had fallen behind the dogs as he stopped constantly to examine a new piece of seashore wrack.
- Spirula – Rams Horn
He wandered the softer sands that ran up and under the shade of the tea-trees and saw there the pugmarks of kangaroo amongst the heaped driftwood; he walked knee-deep in the water and bent and tasted it with his fingers. Tom watched Toby as he stood and felt the sea breeze on his face, knowing that he was tasting the salt in the air.
When Toby finally returned to the house he carried an armful of water smoothed sticks and every one of his pockets bulged with his findings.
Tom was at the back of the house righting a small aluminum dinghy.
‘ Granddad. ‘
‘ Whatsat mate. ‘
‘ Look! ‘
Toby held up the salt cured remains of a large sea horse.
‘ Is this a dragon? ‘
‘ No mate, it’s a sea horse. Where did you find it? ‘
‘ Down there. Look! ‘
The little boy had squatted down on the grass and was emptying from one pocket shells of all colours, most not quite whole. Then from another pocket part of the whitened skull of a baby tern, yet from another he tugged out two large pieces of cuttlefish bone and the wire hook and float end of a snapper rig, then some small rounded stones and a couple of coiled spirula, and finally a plastic banded Japanese wristwatch with a date and hour eleven years past corroded fast into the dial.
The dogs all came around from the water bowel under the house and they sat panting about the boy as he appraised and sorted his finds. Alf settled closest as Toby struggled to fasten the old watch to his right wrist.
Cack-handed* like his Mum thought the old man as he heaved the small boat right side up.
‘ Can we go over there? ‘
The little fellow was looking over the lagoon and at the dunes that hid the sea to the east, and he shaded his eyes from the glare like any old fisherman would with one day on the coast under his belt.
‘ There must be lots of good stuff over that far. ‘
‘ You want to do everything on the first day don’t you?
Toby sat back down at his treasures and gave the big dog another friendly pat.
‘ Can Alf come too? ‘
Once the dinghy had been righted the old man saw that the transom showed more wear than was safe and he decided that the timber needed replacing before it would be safe to hang an outboard.
‘ How about we have some lunch instead, then I’ll fix this so’s we can get over the other side tomorrow. ‘
The little boy walked over and looked down into the hull to see what had to be done. He had never seen a boat before. Then he checked the time. Twice.
He had used the piece of wire from the snapper rig to fasten the big watch’s band onto his wrist, the wrong way around.
‘ I’m really hungry Granddad! And I think Alf is too. ‘
The old man chuckled and ran his hand over the soft-cropped hair of his grandson’s head.
This is going to work out ok bar the haircuts, he said to himself as he climbed up the wooden steps and walked into the house, forgetting for once to shake the sand from his bare feet.
That night after dinner they both sat together on an old lounge on the verandah and watched the night creep it’s darkening mauve bruise over the sky. The early summer evening was warm and the low murmuring of surf faded to quiet as a wavering image of a full moon commenced its journey over the lagoon surface.
The day stood still.
A radio was paying inside the house and when Toby asked his Granddad what it he was told it was a piece by Rodrigo, the blind Spanish composer. The boy absorbed this information in quiet reflection and drew his feet up under his chin, as boys do.
‘ My dad plays a guitar, ‘ he said quietly, ‘ and he told me that when I get longer fingers I can play one too. ‘
As he sat and listened to the music gathering it’s plaintive strength the sadness slowly returned to his young face. Alf, his first day companion and now partner for life, and who had not yet been told to join the other dogs under the house, lay at his feet and thumped his heavy tail a couple of times in an instinctive sympathy.
Man, boy and dog sat silently as the music played out its melancholy song into the softening airs and their hearts were heavy for a time. Four days only were past since the funeral.
They hardly knew each other.
– and only Alf heard the low growls that signaled the delivery of Bettys’ two pups.