Dog day

Do you have to wrap that stuff in so much paper?” one of the brothers said.

“If you want to drink from broken glasses, no”, answered a woman’s voice from the kitchen.

“Hey, when are we going to start putting the stuff in the truck? It’s ten already.”

“Soon. Soon. As soon as the bows are on the boxes.”

“Bows?”

“Yeh, I think so.”

Jocey walked into the room with a stack of plates in her hands. “I don’t care. Take them all now and we’ll see what happens. Why you had to move the furniture first I’ll never know. Sitting on the floor for two days, it’s been painful.”

“I asked you what should go first last week and you didn’t have any suggestions. Just like a woman.”

“Oh, how’s that?”

“O, woman, so womanly. You can never — ”

“You’re only like this because your brother’s here.”

“Now, now. Leave me out of this, please.”

“Yeh, go on. Leave him out of it!”

The brother at the door squatted, bending his knees around the width of one of the boxes and prising his fingers between it and the carpet. It turned out to be the heaviest of the boxes, the one with A to Q of the New World Encyclopaedia in it. The elder brother pushed down the flaps of the box containing plates and picked it up. When he was half-way down the driveway of the house the other man was just then opening the back of the truck.
It looked too large. Though the floor space would be barely sufficient for what had to be put in it, the ceiling was fifteen feet high. It would be mostly empty when they had finished.

“God, she’s so fussy.”

“Can’t be helped. Joan’s like that, too.”

“They’re all the same. Sometimes I wonder why I did it.”

“What?”

“Got married, of course, you twit.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“My dog’s more friendly.”

“Oh, come on … ”

“Really!”

“I like her. She’s always been nice to me.”

“I noticed.”

“What does that mean?”

“I notice how nice she is when you’re around.”

“She was like that before.”

“Before marriage everything is nice … Your dog’s been making a hell of a racket.”

“Had strangers around?”

“Nup.”

“We’ve trained our dog. He shouldn’t bark at nothing.”

“It’s both of them. Noisy when they’re together.”

“Let one out in the front for a while then.”

“OK.” He slid the box containing plates down to the back of the truck and then jumped down to the road. “Drive this thing up closer to the house will you? And I’ll get the gate open.”
Tom started up the truck and manoeuvred it backwards along the driveway, and Mike released the Dobermann into the front garden.

“Have to travel to get to see you now.”

“It’s not that far.”

“Still, it won’t be the same.”

“Don’t get sentimental about it.”

“I’m not. It’s just that it’s really going to be the first time we’ve lived even in different suburbs. It’s strange.”

“It’s not strange. It’s normal. Stop being queer.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“That’s OK. Any time.”

“Jocey, I really don’t understand why you’re moving. I mean, it doesn’t seem to have anything going for it. It’s further from Mike’s work. The house is smaller. There’s nothing wrong with this place. I can’t see anything wrong with it. There isn’t, is there? Is it haunted, or something?” Jocey was looking out the kitchen window with an expression that was a little cold, a little aloof, as though there were a performance in the garden, one too obviously intended to inspire pathos. “Oh! The place is haunted!”

“No. Not with ghosts, anyway.”

“With what, then?”

“Who knows? With Mike and me, I suppose. I was just thinking about the people who are going to live here after us. I can’t imagine anyone living here after us, after Mike and me. Not living. Screaming, I can imagine. Or dying. Or murdering. But I can’t imagine anyone putting together something like a life in this place, in this particular house, in that garden.”

“You are in a bad way.”

“I’m in a great way. It’s a bad marriage I’m in. You know, it’s really funny, I like murder mysteries … ”

“Yes. You like murder mysteries.”

“I can sit all evening at that bench with one of them, a different one each night. Mum says they’re trash; ‘escapist’ she calls it. But they’re not, because I set them all here. This place is full of suspects. Mike’s half of them and I’m the rest.”

“I think I know what you mean, but … ”

“We don’t like each other any more.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I’m not really sure that it is. Not terrible for me, anyway. After all, Mike is treating me the way he treats everyone. That’s fair, I think.” Jocey wrapped cutlery and kitchen utensils into tea-towels. Joan stacked arm-fulls of linen she was moving from a hallway cabinet. “I haven’t answered your question, have I?”

“I don’t know.”

“I like it here. We’re leaving because we like it here.”

“I’m going to make a cup of tea. Want one?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“Doesn’t sound like a very good reason.”

“With any luck we’ll have destroyed everything before we have any children. Then make a clean break.”

“You’ve talked about that?!”

“Hardly.” The electric kettle began to rumble. Joan looked at it, thinking for a moment it might say something she could understand. She searched the benches for milk and sugar. “Milk’s in the fridge.”

“Tea?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a blue thing. Try in that box over there.”

“Blue? Here it is.”

“It should be blue, of course. Tea’s a blue drink. And gin, but I’m too young for that.”

“Have you talked about that?”

“Mike prefers non-verbal communication. Grimaces. Shrugs. Silence. Grabbing hold of me like a piece of furniture to be moved when I’m in the way. Maybe we shouldn’t have married so young. There was no need to.”

“Milk?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“What are you going to do?”

Tom’s great Dogue de Bordeaux stepped up onto the back porch and looked through the kitchen window at the women talking. The wrinkles between its eyes and a mouth that hung down at the sides of the face made the animal look always perplexed. Taller than the Dobermann and more muscular, this dog, nevertheless, seemed to Jocey more lovable and more human. “Is there sugar in this?”

“No, sorry. Here it is.”

“What am I going to do?” Jocey’s head swayed a little side to side, like an unbalanced gyroscope, unable to find an answer. “What am I going to do?” She looked out through the window again. The dog was still watching her, as though he, too, were waiting for an answer to appear on her lips. “You know I appreciate having you to talk to, Joan. We’re like sisters. It’s us against them, I think. The women against the men. They’ll kill us if we don’t stick together.”

“All of them?”

“Mike and Tom.”

“Oh, no, Jocey, that’s not right. Tom wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“You don’t think they’re alike, then, that they don’t stick together?”

Joan felt a knot forming in Jocey’s words, one she feared she would not be able to untie, and it made her angry. The brothers were not at all alike, but Joan wanted to give some explanation. “They’re brothers.”

Jocey stirred her tea then sipped it quietly. “The dog is watching us”, she said, as it turned its hindquarters to her. The head started its dizzy, rolling movement again. Joan thought she might cry.

Tom had moved quietly into the kitchen doorway and watched the women sitting in the sun beside the window.

“I must’ve married the wrong one, then.”

“You and Mike finished, are you?”

“No. Just come in to see what’s happening.”

“We’re having a cup of tea. Want some?”

“No, thanks.” Jocey was taking no notice of them. Tom mouthed a soundless word and tilted his head, signalling Joan should follow him out.

“I’m going to see how they’re getting along. Back in a minute.”

Tom looked back from the front door into the living room to see that Jocey was not following them. “What did you say to make her like that?”

“Nothing!”

“If Mike had heard that he’d have killed me. It couldn’t be nothing.”

“I asked why they were moving.”

“That’s all?”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“No. Jesus!” Tom exclaimed in whispers. “Mike already thinks his wife likes me more than him. Don’t make it worse, please.”

“She does!”

Mike stopped for a moment near the truck and looked at his brother standing in the front door of the house. The Dobermann ran across the lawn from the street with a ball in its mouth. “Good boy!” Joan looked over Tom’s shoulder at the dog sitting at Mike’s feet. “She does what?!” He threw the ball away again and walked past the two at the door to pick up another box. “What does she do?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Who are we talking about?”

“A neighbour of ours.”

“Oh.”

Tom followed him into the living room, leaving Joan at the door to stare into the dog’s black, almond eyes. She walked to the back of the truck. “It’s going to be empty!”

“Might’ve done better with a ute.”

“I want to get it over in one.”

“Whose dog is this?”

“Oh, that’s the photo I gave Mike when he said he wanted a dog. You’ve still got it! Framed it and all!”

“Nice looking dog, that.”

“You think so?” Joan asked. “I think they’re a bit ugly.”

Mike stopped to stare into Joan’s face, waiting for her to look up and notice his attention. When she did, he said, “ — Just like women.”

“I’m sorry you couldn’t show it, Mike.”

“Not your fault. Nobody’s really.”

“It was a terrific looking pup. Still looks fine.” Tom attempted conciliation. Mike’s dog had developed an hereditary fault, its hocks crowing visibly. He’d been sold a dud, but one he liked, nevertheless, perhaps more because it was now useless for showing.

Unwelcome or uneasy inside and outside the house now, Joan walked on the front lawn, pretending interest in the progress of the garden.

“He looks terrible. The hocks are shit.”

“That’s not much of a problem.”

“I’m not saying I don’t like him.” The brothers sat down on the porch steps, elbows on knees.

“This truck is big. We’re only filling the bottom of it.”

The Dobermann stuck its head and forechest between the brothers’ shoulders, then sniffed at Mike’s ear. “Life’s like that.” The dog walked through the front door of the house into the living room and put its square muzzle into several boxes.

Jocey, still in the kitchen, had begun to wrap glass bowls and small jars which she kept on the sill. One of them, containing clear green marbles and eucalyptus oil, neck blocked with a cork stopper, she opened sometimes to cover unpleasant smells. She poured out the oil into the sink, ran hot water into the jar to clean it. Hearing paws patting on the linoleum floor, she turned and said “Hello, stupid” to the dog. It stood up, knuckled feet resting on the edge of the kitchen bench. “Shoo! Go on. Get out of that!”

Jocey watched low, grey cloud move above the garden, moving apart, turning the day overcast to bright in a minute. A sheet of light entered the room, striking Jocey’s breast, passed her and fell to the floor. The dog lapped it up, lying on its back in the magnified heat. Jocey looked into the garden thinking how quickly its mood had changed, everything in it unmoved but suddenly luminous, green, and felt trapped by its life like a potential suicide opening the door on her own surprise birthday party. “Damn. That’s really ruined my depression.”

Roused by her voice, the dog patted across the linoleum to sniff at Jocey’s legs. “Oh, piss off! You’re as bad as your master.” The dog persisted, pushing neck and withers between Jocey and the sink cupboards, getting stuck there until Jocey stepped back to complain again. Circling quickly, it stood up, forelegs at Jocey’s back and shoulder, muzzle in her neck, and red penis poking at her thigh.

Mike stiffened when he heard the sound of breaking glass and Jocey yelling “Stupid…,” “Rotten…,” “Mongrel!” He thought, and didn’t think, noticed himself concentrating on those sounds, repeating and reducing them to exactly the feeling they intended. They were no longer glass or word but an expression that could be read plainly on his face. The dog ran out the front door, but he took no notice of it. It was Jocey he wanted. Where was she? Where is the stupid, rotten bitch? He did not walk straight through the house to the kitchen, where the sounds came from, where he knew she would be waiting for him. He walked into the living room and looked at the floor as though he were looking for evidence or for something lost, knowing that he would find nothing. He stood there for a moment and looked at the blinds covering the window which faced the back garden, and the spears of light they sent into the room. He wanted her to come out and look into the dog’s face, chase it down the street, to scream, now, while he was there. “Where are you, you bitch!”

Jocey, though, would do none of that. She was already calm, exhausted. “Your stupid dog tried to fuck me. I can’t believe it. It stood up and tried to fuck me! Stupid thug. Now look what’s happened. That beautiful jar with the marbles. I’m not going to find another one like it.” She bent down to pick up a marble, and searched, crouching, for others. “These will be OK, anyway. I can’t believe it. Do you have to let that thing in the house?” When Jocey stooped to reach near Mike’s feet he thought he might kick her. He took a step back from the kitchen door and looked at her head. He could do it. It would be easy. The anger was written in red strips across his face; in clear, vivid stripes of light on his red face. Tom’s dog barked in the back yard.

“Get out of the way.”

“It’s your dog’s fault. The stupid thing.”

“Get out of my way.”

The absence of anything meaningful to say had paralysed them both, replaying, in this moment, the scene which was their daily life together.

“I can’t believe it.”

“Let me out.”

Mike gripped Jocey’s shoulders, lifted her up straight, and moved her aside. He walked out the back door and Tom’s dog rushed towards him. He led it off the back porch down into the garden and then to the gate. Jocey watched them from the window as they left the back yard to join the others.

The dogs barked together.

No one spoke a word but got on with the business of moving boxes. Mike and Tom moved back and forth between living room and truck. They moved more and more quickly, urgently emptying the house. Joan moved more slowly, slipping across the path of the busy brothers like a pedestrian through fast traffic. She stopped and laughed at them quietly, and then, embarrassed, thought they must have heard because the yard was quiet, too. The dogs were silent. “What’s happened?” Joan asked.

The dogs were there, standing on the street, completely still.

“What’s going on with them?”

The brothers stood together, looking quizzically on the quiet scene in which the dogs also stood together like statues left in the middle of the road. The black dog moved first. Tom’s dog ran second. They seemed to spring into a chase of something hidden in a neighbour’s garden, but nothing could be seen there.

Mike, Joan, and Tom moved out onto the footpath and looked across to the garden of the neighbour directly opposite them. The dogs had gone.

“That’s strange. What are they doing?”

“Shsh!”

Since they could not see anything beyond the row of low bushes except the row of higher trees, and not even anything of the house beyond those, except the roof, they waited with their ears more open, staring blankly into the leaves.

Next came the sound more musical and human than they expected, shrill and feminine and clear, a voice half wailing and half singing. It was not the cry of physical pain, but the tuneless singing of someone terrified and sad.

Mike crossed the road, looked up at the house, and decided to go in. He did not see the dogs anywhere in the yard. The voice had stopped its strange song, leaving Mike to listen to his own thoughts. He wondered if the dogs could have attacked the old woman or her husband. No, it is not that. He sees the old man standing at the door, walking backwards, turning, not sure how to move. Closer, almost at the door himself, he sees the old woman raise her hands to her head, open her mouth, and release an odd note.

Beneath the note he heard the low growl and grunt of the two dogs, and then saw them, down at the floor in the middle of the old couple’s living room, tugging at a bloodied bundle. Mike shouted a command at the top of his voice and, when it appeared the dogs might not willingly give up their prize, moved toward them threateningly, with his hand raised, repeating the command to stop.

The dogs ran and Mike followed them out of the house. He watched the dogs closely, shepherding them back to his own territory where Joan and Tom waited for an explanation. He held his lips tight together, concealing the laugh in his throat. “It’s all right,” he said, and his teeth showed.

The things in the sea

Two things in the sea
We came to see,
One, the great No,
Monumental and black,
And one, the white Yes,
Lucid and clear.
We stood in the mouth,
The world at our back,
To hear the things speak.
Two things in the sea
We came to hear,
The drums of the No
And the hush of the Yes.
We stood in the ear
Of the world at the sea
And whispered our wish
And wished it would hear.
Two things in the sea
We came to taste,
The salt of the No,
And its bitterness, Yes.
We stood in the hand
Of the world on the beach
And counted our lives
In mouthfuls of sand.
We went there to ask,
To see for ourselves,
The puzzle that rises
In seeing the sea —
The curtain of sky
And stage of the sea,
The speech of the tide,
The quandary of being.
Two things in the sea
We came to see —
To see the great No,
To see the white Yes,
Their drums and their hush,
Their salt and their sand.
It did not show
Or speak; it did not
Hear, or care to know,
What wish we had,
What pain we bear;
It did not answer
To our fears, though
The things in the sea
Were moving there,
Beneath the foam
And grey, they neither
Let out any word, nor
Sent us on our way.

Originally published in Perseverance Poets’ Collection 1991-92, 1992

‘Red streamer’

The Palace Hotel is nothing more than an ornate shoebox thrown on a hill. Bushes have had their hair cut. Trees are tall and lean. The lawn is green felt. There is a driveway snaking elegantly to and from the entrance. I am standing on the lawn in the middle of the dream of luxury. A car drives up. Two Americans step out. I know the woman but not her name. Her daughter is with her. We exchange a few words and decide I will take a photo of them standing in front of the shoebox. She leaves the camera with me as she drives off with her daughter to park the car somewhere out of sight. I frame the palace façade in the viewfinder of the camera, trying to get the right angle. The light is diminishing quickly. The woman and her daughter come back by foot but as soon as they reach me it is dark. There are no lights anywhere. The moon is out. There are no stars in this part of the country. “Why are there no lights?” we ask. We wander around, arms stretched out in front of us, trying to find an entrance or an exit. We are frightened and asking ourselves, “Why are the windows blocked so that no light comes through them?” We find an entrance and go inside. Inside is a great hall decorated with little more than a few plush chairs and sofas. Middle-aged and old people are sitting and standing around the room. No-one talks. A woman in grey breast-coat and knee-length skirt, very prim and proper, hair bunched tight to her head, obviously a complete bitch, enters the hall. She says something about breakfast being served at 5-30. I immediately think that this is an odd time to have breakfast: too early, or too late, depending on which way you look at it. “What sort of dump is this?” the American woman says just before she and her daughter run out the door into the darkness. They obviously don’t want to have breakfast at 5-30. I run after them to fetch them back. Outside the palace there is no reference point. Someone’s voice calls out to me. I think it is a man’s voice but actually it is only a rasping whisper coming from the trees that line the façade of the palace. I reach out to grab whomever is there. I get hold of it. It may not be a person at all. Is it a dog? It runs away from me and I am falling over. I slip and fall to the ground, legs up in the air and my right arm being pulled down between my legs towards my feet. I’m horizontal. Whatever it was I grabbed has turned into a long red splash, lighting the road and lawn beside the palace. It stretches out across the lawn like a red streamer. The sky is lightening suddenly into an icy sea blue, the form of the palace and the color of the lawn becoming visible. Though I tried to hold it, the red streamer curls and twists, climbing into the air. Breakfast is being served.

This dream-story was first published in The Ninth Satire. It is included among dream reports because it was originally a dream. In later years I abandoned attempts to turn dreams into stories and concentrated, instead, on finding a way of writing dreams that allowed them to remain, more obviously, what they were.

How we sleep

How do we sleep while our beds are burning?— Midnight Oil

This particular white-fella, rather podgy,
over-employed, committed unionist
and Nikon-owner, gets to a time of life
(not even thirty) thinking about superannuation
and which plan is best for safe retirement.

I cringe through the whole year,
complain quietly of terrible excess
in times restraint is hard to bear, and
manage some murmurings about “the Treaty”
— but that’s all. So, how do I sleep?

This far, I must admit, it’s been easy:
buffered by green suburbs, relative riches
and silence, I could not fail in ignorance.
Some excel in it, are proud to destroy,
build on the ruins, and have no fear to rest with bones.

I have slept by forgetting.
Without pills or drugs, dope or whiskey, to sleep
it is enough simply not to think,
as though a thought or word
would make the whole house burn.

In my watchmaker’s hands

Showing my palm to the watchmaker’s tongue
He licks the time-line right down
The crease of my present senses and

The clock stops just there.

Now, I take or leave god
Depending on the weather
And, like most of us,
Consume astrology in small doses
To guess at twists of plot in life.
As for clocks, there’s no mystery,
They are purely functional:
We tell them what to mean.

Like nothing else, these sudden stillnesses of love
Make me wonder,

Not what spring keeps the galaxy spinning,

Rather, how
In my watchmaker’s hands time dies,
How my stupid body lives!

Idea for a garden

The beds in this ward are for certain death,
for diseases even dear relatives fear and hate.
There are new lovers, though, as well as old,
who make a plan for paradise in this hell.
          When sun fell on a light sheet covering
one man’s ribs, where carers look
for signs of life, small movement, someone
had the idea for a garden.
                    Friends brought small bushes
that will be always green, signifying faith, endurance,
bulbs for sudden happiness, stones and pebbles,
showing some things never change.
          They gather there to make a prayer
of simple actions. Some to the God outsiders say
forsakes them, some to the hope small happiness
will last, they sing in whispers, put wishes to the edge
of lips, where a wind takes their words away.

Dimitris is not dead

Another poet wrote, unpacking myths
And colors for dying days, of meeting him,
That special feeling, and published
To confirm undying admiration.

Last night, though, Dimitris was at dinner,
Wearing his old, aqua beach trousers,
Comparing recipes for home-made bread—
“Two parts wholemeal, one of plain …”

“The tasteless olives, promising to look at,
Should be jarred in vinegar, water, a little oil.”
“And Greek bishops—the word for them
Is despot—have reigned a thousand, stable years.”

Who knows if he will live that long, taking his pipe
Out to the porch, smoking under a quiet April?
A little thin, perhaps, but as for ‘death’—
He has thought of it, and then thought better.

Originally published in Quadrant, December 1989. Dimitris Tsaloumas died in February 2016 on Leros in Greece where he was born.