south – the visitor. story 5
Time passed. A month. Time almost unmarked but by the change of light to dark and the two of them became familiar with each other more in the ways of elder and younger brother rather than grandfather and grandson. Toby spent long days roaming about the lagoon and forest with his dog Alf, a fine new arrangement that suited them both splendidly.
The small ute that Tom had used to drive Toby back from the station was only taken out once a month for the long trip into Eden for the shopping, or the mail, or to visit to Father Harry for a beer and to trade a few books. Both men were avid readers and old friends. Tom usually left the vehicle under a tarpaulin beside the chicken coop between trips.
Tom showed Toby how to plant up a small vegetable patch of his own and he also gave him the job every morning of finding enough eggs for breakfast from the chook-house that adjoined the larger vegetable garden. This was where Toby soon learnt that roosters can fly and are not afraid of dogs.
Tom heard the battle as he was walking out of the kitchen on the first day of Toby’s egg collecting attempts.
First a scuffling commotion, a commanding squawk, a yell from the lad, the sound of running feet, then Alf’s deep bark.
Tom slowly walked around the house and came up against the wire that separated the chook-house from the garden. There were three broken eggs lying on the dirt and Alf was backed up hard against the fence and being stared down by Chester.
Chester was a young Barnvelder cockerel but he had matured early and he only respected the golf club that Tom carried on egg fetching duty and the appetites of the local foxes when they visited the area from time to time.
Alf suffered his total dominance, the two bitches never came near him, and the newcomer Tobias looked to present no problem whatsoever. Wherever he was.
Tom opened the hatch and let Alf out as Chester strutted his ground, comb proud and a full parade gloss on his richly coloured feathers. The chastened dog immediately left for distant parts and as the old man refixed the hatch he wondered to which of them the lad had also fled.
Some little time later …
‘ I don’t like Chester granddad. ‘
Tom was working on the dinghy and he looked up as he heard the boy’s quiet statement.
‘ He flies at you and stares. ‘
Toby had grazed his knee on the dirt and ripped his shirt as he had fled through the wire in panic from the surprise attack earlier that morning.
‘ Where have you been little feller? ‘
‘ Alf and I have been up at the anthills, Alf doesn’t like Chester either. ‘
Already the lad is growing taller thought Tom, and he hasn’t worn a shoe in weeks.
‘ How am I goin’ to get eggs for breakfast then if you won’t go in? ‘
‘ Maybe Chester will die from being angry and then I can get them. ‘
‘ We won’t have chickens to eat without Chester. ‘
The old man paused here for a moment as he recognised too late what could be difficult ground ahead.
‘ How does Chester make chickens? ‘
‘ Remember that time I said that Alf likes to be with Betty sometimes? Well Chester likes to be with the chooks the same way. ‘
This took the boy’s interest immediately, and unfortunately.
‘ Are the chooks Chester’s Missus granddad? ‘
‘ Well, yes. ‘
‘ All of them? ‘
‘ Well, yes. ‘
The youngster walked over to the boat and looked at the resin-coated fiberglass that his grandfather had used to coat the transom. Poked a finger at it. Then he turned to look over at the chicken coop.
‘ Maybe he should just have one Missus like Alf does, then he wouldn’t be so cranky.’
– Fair enough, thought old Tom, that sort of scheme would fix up a few things in a lot of places.
The worst job the boy had been given was to check the water tank for dead leaves every couple of days and his granddad had given him a long handled net to scoop them out. One day he found a dead rat floating in the water and he had to take it away and bury the small body in the sand. Later he watched Alf dig it up and roll all over it.
The afternoon of the rat they had their first visitor since Toby’s arrival. The boy was playing on the beach when both the female dogs rushed out from under the house barking in a harsh uproar. Alf joined them with vigour and they only stopped when they were all up to their shoulders in the water of the lagoon. Toby followed their line of their sight and saw somebody paddling across from the Ocean Beach side on what looked like a piece of wood.
One of his grandfather’s screeching whistles brought all the dogs to heel immediately and the paddling man gave a long hoot as he drew nearer to the house. Toby could see that he was dragging a little raft behind him and on it was a large hessian sack and a knapsack.
‘ Here comes some fresh crayfish for dinner. ‘ Said Tom as he walked down to meet their visitor and the two men greeted each other warmly at the water’s edge. Tom retrieved the raft and sack as the visitor dragged his old balsa surfboard up onto the beach.
‘ Who’s the sprite? ‘ Said the paddling man as he peeled off his wetsuit top, he was only a skinny little fellow and he had no hair anywhere.
‘ My grandson. There’s two of us here now so you’d better come over and meet him. ‘
Both men walked over to where the boy was sitting.
‘ Toby, meet Monty. he’s our nearest neighbour and the worst drafts player in the Southern Hemisphere. ‘
Closer up Toby saw that Monty was about as old as his granddad and had tattoos all over his arms and old healed slices over his stomach.
‘ Hullo sprout, ‘ Monty said as he offered his hand, ‘ how are you getting on with Chester? ’
The hessian sack held about six big redclaw crayfish and when the men let them out of the bag they walked around on the grass backwards with their large claws waving at whatever moved in front of them. The dogs had reappeared and only when Bess was nipped on her leg did they lose interest.
Tom lit the kindling in the outside fire pit and set a tubful of water on the iron griddle, and as soon as Toby realised what was going to happen to the crays he and Alf decided to walk up to the Bend to see if there were any ducks around.
‘ He seems to be a nice little bloke Tom. ‘
Lunch was over and the two men were sitting companionably on the top step of the verandah sharing a bottle of beer and playing drafts. The sun warm on their backs. The female dogs lay at their feet and the occasional yip of the two puppies played softly to this, the quietest part of the day.
‘ Yeah, he’s got a way about him that you wouldn’t expect in a young feller, or maybe it’s me being away from youngsters for so long. ‘ Tom took a long pull at his beer and squinted off into the lagoon. ‘ The way I see it though is that anyone from any of my two girls has got to be alright eh? ‘
Monty nodded in agreement despite never having met any of his friend’s family.
‘ I took him past Eternity Rock last week, you know that great stone that’s lying over by the Southern Headland, all on its own? Well I sat him down and put it to him, just to see how he’d go, that if a wave had rolled it up there in the first place how long we would have to sit and wait for another one to come around and roll it back. ‘
‘ What he say? ‘
‘ Nothin’ right away, He’s a bit big on reflection I’ve found, but later on when we were walking back along the beach he stops and asks me how long it would take to walk backwards into every footstep you have ever made. You know, retrace your life. He’d been lookin’ backwards at the steps we’d made, all the way back to the rock. ‘
Monty tickled Betty’s stomach with a bony big toe. He had always thought that Tom had a touch of the mystics about him and now it sounded like he had pretty good company.
‘ What did you say? ‘
‘ He never gave me a chance. Next minute he and Alf had bolted after a wallaby they’d spotted up the beach. But I reckon he’ll get around to it before too long. All I know is that I sure like having the little bloke around the place. Next week I’ll take him into town and introduce him to Harry. That should be interesting for all involved. He’s going to need a bit of schooling.’