Last night I drove out Chester Pass and saw my year's first of those strange household Christmas installations adorning some horrible brick veneer, um, home. I understand that this is the only time of the year this house will be anywhere near striking. I even get, when I'm feeling generous, the impetus behind the flashing lights, fake Santas, snow and reindeers, despite it being midsummer fire season in Australia.
About five years ago the West Australian ran a competition for the best domestic Christmas lights fiasco. The same year I got lost in suburban Perth in the middle of the night, a refugee from the south coast trying to find a wedding in the city of Fremantle. I kept doubling back in the Bedford van and blundering into the same brick and tile Rockingham wasteland sporting sparkling rooftop sleighs driven by fat men in Coca Cola suits. Even Indiana Jones would have felt disenchanted. I've hated that newspaper ever since.
Stop fussing, please. I'm getting around to burying brindle dogs. Stay with me here.
At about the same time, a suburb in Albany began specialising in the domestic Christmas thing. Whole streets of houses were strung up with Christmas bling and there were even oldies coming out to give kids lollies. It sounded great and I decided that I'd take my children on a tour of the Christmas lights. Unfortunately, I'd run out of petrol that morning - the usual starving student, single mum scenario - so I asked my Mum if I could borrow her car.
My mum had this dog who she'd saved from a certain death several years previously. Mum saves dogs a lot because, like me, she's an old witch who knows that dogs are her familiars. Gypsy was a great dane crossed with bull mastiff; a friendly, brindle killing machine. Her genes were completely dodgey. This living example of humankind tampering with nature always shits me. Some people just think they can build dogs to extend some ridiculous idea of themselves.
By the time she was eight years old, Gypsy's back could no longer hold up her body and she was in constant pain.Then she started trying to kill other dogs. I took her for a walk one day and met a man and his child on the bridge. His beautiful two year old daughter tried to ride her like a horse and Gypsy bit her when the toddler began to throw a leg over. Not only Gypsy's physical pain but the look in her eye began to bother me.
My mum and I had stern words.
"It's only a matter of time," I said. "She'll tear some kid's head off. You can't trust her. It's gotta be done."
On one of those pre-Christmas days, Mum put Gypsy in the back of her little sedan to get her put down. It was a hot, busy, chaotic day.
That night, we drove around the Christmas bling suburb. The eve was steamy with new summer smells. We drove up and down suburban streets lit up with festivities and we stopped often to walk around and wonder at the massive efforts of the householders and eat their offered sweets. Whenever we got back into the car, I started sniffing at my freshly adolescent daughter. "Darling, it's okay not to have a shower every night. But you must change your clothes. That's what it is. It's hot. You are sweating more now you are a teenager. "
They will never know. Right?
That their mum took them on a tour of Christmas delights with their beloved Gypsy going off in the boot. The next morning my mum told me that because I'd been working all day and wasn't around, she wasn't able to lift the great dane's body out on her own. She sold the car eventually. She was never able to get the smell out.
Gypsy wasn't the first big brindle dog to grace my life.
I used to live in the centre of town with several babies, chickens and a brindle kangaroo dog. In Europe they are called lurchers, the original poaching dogs. Silent, (they don't bark when hunting) incredibly fast, brindle and shaggy, they are the bedraggled kings and queens after my own heart. Lurchers in Australia tend to be dearly loved by Aborigines and old-school farmers. A strange connection, I know.
Daisy was a feral mix of wolfhound, staghound and Rhodesian ridgeback. Her kin appeared lounging around King Lear's hearths. She died when she sniffed out a plastic bag of rat poison on the back of a ute. I'd taken her out to the farm when she went on heat to avoid Black Dog who turned up every six months on the dot. When the farmer alerted me to the empty bag of rat poison blowing in his yard, I took her to the vet who pumped her with vitamin K. She lived for another week. Finally her big body lay on the vinyl floor, showered with flowers from the vet's garden.
Black Dog stayed at my house, waiting. Sometimes I fed him.
I dropped the kids off at school and then the nurse helped me carry Daisy's body out to my car. I got home, dragged her out of the car and wrapped her in a tarpaulin. For the rest of the day, I dug.
It's an old part of town. I had a conversation yesterday with the current owner of the house I lived in then and he agrees on the strata. There is basalt rocks and seashells and bones and the remains of a lumber yard. I dug all day, turfing out rocks, other families' beloved dead dogs, olive oil tins and sea shells. Then I went to pick up the kids from school.
We three stood around the massive hole. Pearlie and Stormboy couldn't believe Daisy had actually died.
All of us were sobbing. Believe me, perhaps the death of a long-removed family member is an assault on our knowledge of grief. Try dogs. I lowered the tarp-clad body of Daisy into the hole. She didn't fit. Fuck. I'd spent all day digging that hole but the dog's legs were stretched out in rigor mortis and she was the size of a calf. Pearlie and Stormboy started crying even more. I desperately tried to widen the hole with my shovel.
Across the road lived the local ABC radio announcer who (I'm pretty sure) saw all my weekly dramas and domestics play out. I'd always liked him and his wife but was too inundated and shamed and baby-tired to acknowledge them.
I saw him cross the road. He must have been watching me dig that dog's grave from his front room. He walked up to me and took the shovel from my hands. He patted my shoulder and said, "No-one should have to do this on their own, Sarah."
And he started digging.
I loved him then.
I always will.