A Dog Being A Dog

This is from a book we studied in High School, The Mango Tree by Ronald McKie, and I keep going back to it, as it is really a great piece of writing. It is a coming of age story in North Queensland in the early 20th century. This is the story of a rather unloveable dog.

“Two special Sundays stuck in Jamies’ memory with the persistence of a bogged wheel in the white porous soil of the Hungry Country.

Sunday was the one day when Grandmother rose early and ordered him to clean her best shoes.

‘Without any of that muck on the buckles now.’

She dressed in her best black with her best whalebone net collar and a long string of onyx beads that hung like a witch doctor’s totem. She even muttered a brief grace to herself before breakfast. Jamie wanted to giggle.

Another of his Sunday chores was to lock u Admiral Beatty at half-past ten to prevent him following her to church, an act of doglike piety she disapproved. Then, fifteen minutes later and wearing her black hat, with two jet-headed pins impaling the crown and white daisies around the brim, and carrying her black parasol in one hand and in the other her hymn book with a red silk marker hanging from it like a tongue, Grandmother was at the front gate as the cab turned the corner.

‘Top o’ the mornin’, missus’, Old Mick called from the box, touching the peak of his cap as Grandmother, with a foot on the lower iron step, and Jamie pushing from behind, emptied her frailty into the cab.

‘An’ a foine day tis fer th’ Godfearin’.’

‘Don’t be a clown, Mick,’ she retorted. ‘It’s going to be a blisterer.’

‘Ah, well,’ said Mick, picking up the reins and waiting for her to settle, ‘it’s all a matter of taaaste.’

And then he asked, as he always did, ‘An’ where would we be galivantin’ today?’’St Peter’s Basilica, of course’, Grandmother said, as Jamie slammed the low back door, with the catch that sometimes failed to grip, and she clutched the iron holding rail with a black gloved hand.

A game. Played in different ways with different lines, as Grandmother left for the dour delights of the eleven o’clock service at the Presbyterian Church where the parson, in his black gown and white bib, preached before a Burning Bush that had been painted with great care by Jim Downes. So realistically that it changed the planked back wall into a bushfire whose scarlet and yellow flames seemed about to reach the roof and consume the building.

Grandmother was at times critical of God and the Churchbut on ‘His washing day’ as she called Sunday, their misdemeanours were forgotten, their errors absolved, in the hope of storing up credit in heaven. She delivered herself, with all the eagerness of a vestal virgin, to what the Professor later called a ‘corrroboree of organised piety’. The hereafter was one of Grandmother’s weaknesses. On week days Jamie often wondered if she gave salvation a thought.

But the day Admiral Beatty escaped Jamie waited for the dome of heaven to fall. Admiral had a personality not often given to dogs. He was pure on both sides but the breeds struggled with each other like drunks in a brawl. His sire was a pointer, his mother an Aberdeen terrier. The result : alarming. The legs of a pointer, the body too short for his legs, a small tail and blunted head with small erect ears. Grandmother said that when other dogs saw Admiral for the first time they averted their eyes. He had the pointer colouring with stray blotches of dark grey and his longish hair had the tired look of an old sheepskin rug. Admiral, unlike his famous namesake, was a cur and had been known to run for a quarter of a mile without a glance back when a Pekinese yapped at him. He was also gun-shy. At a glimpse of Jamie’s pea rifle he would dive under the nearest bed and stay there for hours making silly noises, and if he happened to be anywhere within sound when Jamie used the rifle he would fold himself into a ball, unwind like a released spring ant take off howling. Over a hundred yards he was faster than a whippet, which was how he avoided the challenge of every fighting dog in town. At home his manner was warm and his habit gentle and when he curled his pointer lips over his Aberdeen teeth he wasn’t snarling but giving his most ingratiating smile. He also had a passionate habit that no belting could cure. He liked horse – fresh and steaming.

This Sunday, as usual, Jamie had shut Admiral in the feed-room at the stables, where he normally complained dismally before settling down on a bag to sleep. But this day some urge only dogs understand, some race memory of hunting packs, took charge. He climbed on a box, dived through the closed window and with a short run and leap reached the top of the eight-foot fence, balanced like a tightrope walker and dropped. Once free he did not hurry. He left his visiting card on posts that deserved it, then headed for the cab rank where Emperor had only recently dropped and rolled in the smoking heap. He arrived at the Presbyterian Church just after the sermon had begun.

From the front of the church Admiral examined each row of seats, moving slowly forward and beneath them, and with every move wiping trousers and dresses as he advanced, to an accompaniment of subdued hisses, little cries of alarm and rougher dog commands. A strong ripple on the calm surface of the church, and when the ripple reached the front row a pause before it began again down the seats on the other side of the aisle. When Admiral, seven rows down, found Grandmother he smiled and hurled himself into her lap. As she yelped and tried to push him off, helped by worshipers on either side, the parson faltered, stopped, tried to continue, lost the Good Samaritan on the road to Damascus and stopped again as the congregation became aware, for the first time as a united group in the confined space, of the overpowering sweet stench that now filled the church. At the same time worshippers were bending to examine their trousers, the hems of their skirts, and even their boots and shoes and making alarming discoveries. They began to rise and hurry for the door. Twice, the parson called ‘Brethren’, plaintively and depairingly, for the stench had not yet reached the high pulpit below the Burning bush and he was bewildered at the disturbance and the erratic but determined departure of his flock.

As the church emptied, Grandmother kicked Admiral down the aisle. And all the way down, cringing and resisting, he still tried to smile up at her, dog innocent of what he had done. She kicked him out of the church and down the front steps, and, never once forgetting her dignity, marched stiffly home, turning every few yards to shake her parasol and hiss, ‘Filthy beast.’”

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