by Blake Dawson* <>

From the Preface to Chapter 1:

If you like to read this kind of story but are concerned about possible legal implications, work to change the law! If you don’t, why are you here?

*Blake Dawson is the person the otherwise anonymous author would be if “trading places” became magically possible.

Chapter 31: The Pup

We had had to get away early the morning after our fifth Thursday ritual at Bermagui, so I got Lukie to drop me straight to Walshie’s on his way to dropping Sean home, which we had figured gave us both the best chance to catch up on some much needed sleep before the next morning’s cricket. I was just a little surprised to be let into Walshie’s by Jordan North who has assumed captaincy of the Under 16s once it was clear that Hayden’s commitments at his Pennant club would mean he could not be counted on to be there all the time. I was less surprised to get an affectionate hug and kiss on the cheek from Jordan in the momentary privacy of Walshie’s hallway as we had stayed on playful terms ever since the one time we had shared a double bed with Hayden the night of our Under 12 premiership. But the plot thickened when we entered Walshie’s lounge to reveal the Under 14 coach chatting with Rusty, his captain for the season, who had been more than keen to get a turn at that job even before I had made up my mind to play above my age group, ostensibly so I could share something of Hayden’s last junior season. As it had turned out, there were only five still together in Under 16s from our Under 12 premiership team, but we were never short because Jordan had rounded up seven or eight of his mates to play over the intervening years, all but one of whom were, like him, in their final year. And I knew Walshie would have known about Lukie’s need to get to a gig on the northern beaches, so it started to look as though I had been ambushed.

“Jordan and Russell have something they want to talk to you about, and it really was not my idea, although I think it is a good one,” Walshie welcomed me in the overly formal style he was always comfortable to drop back to, then addressed the three of us collectively: “I know I can trust you guys here while I do some shopping and trust you to work out what you need to work out to everybody’s satisfaction.” I already knew that Hayden saw his rapid promotion to Pennant firsts as sufficient reason to stop trying to fit it in with even half a morning of Under 16s, particularly as the overall standard of our team gave us no chance of making the finals. “You probably know a couple of the guys who’ve been playing have younger brothers with September birthdays who have never played competitive cricket before but who are suddenly keen to play the rest of this season so they can be prepared for next season,” Jordan opened up with the one answer I might not have already guessed. However, I knew exactly who he meant, even that one of them was actually a late August, and fully understood how important they might potentially be to our team for the following season.

“Despite only having ten players we can count on for the rest of the season, our draw makes it just about certain we will make the finals,” Rusty took his tag turn. I knew from Gary that if we couldn’t beat his side we would almost certainly finish fourth and face what Gary saw as an unwinnable semi against the season’s clear top team, but I was more intrigued to hear Rusty’s response that he thought that we would still struggle to beat the second and third teams and certainly to beat Gary’s team twice, but that we had the kind of team structure that could really worry the top team in a knockout semi. And I was intrigued more for what it told me about how much Rusty’s thinking had developed even while I had never previously known him to have a moment to do what he wanted for himself outside of the kind of tightly supervised schedule that I was coming to learn was the norm for many other kids. “So while it is definitely your call, we would both really like you to drop back to Under 14s for the rest of the season,” they chorused. They did not have to know or guess that my original reason for the move had proven to be such a vain hope that I had almost stopped thinking about it, which enabled me to make my concession to their logic it terms of my public reason: “Well it probably is time I stopped taking responsibility for getting Hades off his arse, and let him get away with still sleeping in when they drop him back to the twos for the last couple of matches. So I can live with it. And I will just because I really am thrilled to see you both tackling your responsibilities head on.” “We each had a big shadow to step out from, but I think we also learnt a lot from those we were shadowing.”

Jordan said he had some other things to do and I saw him to the door, primarily to get another hug and let him know it really was ok, and I was really thrilled that he was looking after my interests for the next season. I was well aware that it had become the only time that Rusty and I had ever been one on one in private and felt that the best way to unwind our rivalries of earlier years was to make it completely clear that I was still just as much in captaincy rejection mode as I had been when it was another major untold reason for me not starting the season in Under 14s, and if I really had some suggestion to make during the course of the remaining games he would most likely get it via Sean or even Chalk or Cheese. He conceded that if it came via Sean that he would not be able to tell whether it was actually my suggestion, so that if I really wanted something to reach his ears without having been edited in transit then I should use the other options.

“Even though I’m thrilled with the outcome, this whole thing has only been my scheme for getting a private hour to talk to you about something that is a lot more important to me.” “Well obviously you have already learnt too much in my shadow to be safe to be around.” Rusty allowed himself a laugh and a “thank you” before he got right into telling me what he had obviously not told anybody else that he was worse than fed up with his lot in life. He tossed his shirt over his head to reveal a fresh bruise below his shoulder blade: “That’s just last night’s. I can’t remember a week when the bastard hasn’t invented some excuse or other to give me one or two of them. And while the witch has given up trying to spank me since I learnt to get away, she now sometimes throws dangerous objects and she is always spouting mind bending crap which is probably half the cause of the old man being what he is. Even though he is still as weak as shit taking it and then kicking me.” “I’m glad you don’t have a cat, and I’m also glad your mother wasn’t a cricketer.” He was glad to have something he could laugh at for a moment, and it only made it easier for him to continue down his well rehearsed track: “But I’ve learnt to live with that and to accept that the bit of outside life I am allowed at school and cricket and junior league in winter are letting me at least keep my head on my shoulders. And then he comes home and announces over Christmas dinner that he is going to be able to take a retirement package sometime in 1986, so we will be able to sell up and move to Queensland. And it’s two years too early. Two years too fucking early. I’m left with a choice I cannot make. I go with them and have to live with their shit for the two years it is going to take me to finish school, but without the outlets I’ve got here that keep me going. Or I chuck it all in sometime this winter and disappear completely and live on the streets until they have forgotten me.”

He gave me even more reason to respect this previously unseen Rusty when he showed that he had already got past any thought of the kind of physical retaliation of which he would soon be more than capable, nor of suicide, nor of letting the agencies of government into their lives, and he was equally certain that if he just left home to live visibly with somebody who might care for him that his parents’ false pride would force them to bring in the system. “The last thing I want is an answer now. I just needed to vent to somebody who I knew would listen and not judge, but who might give me some valuable feedback eventually.” I asked about Aaron. “I can’t get close enough to him any more, even though we are going to be back together at school this year and look to all the world like best mates, he has built up some barriers that are even higher than mine and I’m the last person equipped to try to break them down.” With Aaron and his mother having shifted back into the area right on our track to school, he was going to be joining our test team, so I knew right away who could tackle that one, or maybe already were, so I started to explain a bit about Chalk ’n’ Cheese. “And for once I really am one step ahead of you. ... Just who the fuck do you think led me to talking to you?” It was my turn to laugh. “Look if I had to say something, I would say just go to Queensland for the reason you will not allow yourself but you should—you are already more than capable of making real friends. So if you go there and make a few, you will fairly quickly find yourself finishing school with a real choice of whether to stay there or come back here and relink with a few who will not forget you. It might be coloured a bit because I’ve met a few who thought the streets were an option and were wrong. But we should sleep on it, and probably trust a couple of other people who might have useful ideas. And I think you know what I’d like sleeping on it to mean at a time like this, but I accept that you are unlikely to find the freedom for that at short notice, and you’re probably straight anyway.” “Straight? More likely asexual.” “Well you had better start giving some thought to doing something about that too.” We had long enough for him to convince me how effectively their endemic domestic violence had suppressed any hint of any sexuality before Walshie returned just in time for it to appear to Rusty’s father picking him up that the advertised agenda of getting me back to Under 14s had been the only agenda.

I had talked to mum and Walshie a couple of times about the pups as the time for them to find and be gone to their new homes approached. As much as my heart wanted to weaken, for once I left my brain in control and was completely satisfied that the lack of certainty with regard to where life might lead mum and me over the expected life of a dog made it unthinkable for us, before even taking into account my continuing involvement with Buster and the general unsuitability of our houses in Sydney and Bermagui for a big active dog. Walshie could not contemplate trading the convenience of his apartment for the company of a dog, but he had an idea of just who in our extended ‘family’ might be open to persuasion if caught in a moment of weakness. And so began one of our more notable conspiratorial successes. Mr Harris had always had a dog until his last and most loved had died at sixteen the previous winter, at which time he made up his mind “no more” because he was worried that another dog would outlive him, or at least his ability to care for it.

As part of his work for the local cricket association, Walshie had offered to check out prospective finals grounds, enlisting Mr Harris to join him for a Sunday tour of the eastern suburbs, with me tagging along to nobody’s surprise. A little tired from what turned out to be a lot of leg work as well as driving, we were heading back home when I asked Walshie if he could take a short detour so I could call and see something which they might like to share with me. Mrs James invited us through the house and ushered us into the back yard before Mr Harris had any idea what we were getting into, but as soon as he spotted the bitch and the now active pups he realised exactly what we were trying to get him into: “Oliver, I must have told you a thousand times that I’m too old to take on another dog.” Not wanting to leave Walshie to either fib or confess, I managed to keep my voice under enough control to protest: “Hey, I just wanted to see them one more time before they all found their new homes, seeing as I saw them conceived and their father dragged me over to see them on the day they were born.” “You mean the Alexanders’ dog that I have sometimes seen romping with you out the back of my place. Is he their father?” I hadn’t realised Mr Harris’s house also backed on to the back tracks as I thought of them, but soon worked out exactly where it must me.

Mrs James had second guessed me and played along, filling in all the details. The bitch at first prodded four of the pups in our direction to show them off, while making sure the other one stayed right up the back. “That one’s Embargo, you could not have suggested a better name for her,” Mrs James explained that the bitch had clearly decided that the last born was going to be her heiress and they were happy to keep that pup themselves to give her some company through her twilight years. As soon as the bitch smelt Buster all over me, she quickly shepherded three others down the back while introducing the biggest of the litter to nibbling on my sneakers and ankles. “And that one is the first born. He has done pretty well since the other four kicked him off the back teats and his father pointed him to the two up front which he has hogged ever since.” The pup sank its teeth in sharply enough that I reflexively bent and picked him up to hold in front of my face, by which time tears were running down my cheeks which had nothing to do with the nip on my ankle, but which the pup eagerly licked away. The bitch alternated between, keeping the other pups herded at the back of the yard and rubbing her flanks along my legs, as we stood all around and the conversation dried up. Eventually Mr Harris capitulated: “I suppose you are never too old to change your mind. Mrs James, what is your asking price for that pup.” “To us they are a bonus litter. If one is going to a friend of Blake’s we could not possibly ask for money, but we would be delighted if he could service one or two of our breeding bitches when he is ready.” Walshie and I assured him that if anything ever happened to prevent him taking proper care of the pup, that we would be prepared to adjust our lifestyles to accommodate. Mrs James took Mr Harris inside to go through the details and I sat down with the pup so the bitch could say her goodbyes. Sensing that we were doing what she wanted, she let the rest of the pups join us, and just before we left, I made sure Mr Harris had time to get comfortable with his new pup and the bitch. Mrs James assured me that the other three would find equally good homes and I reckoned that the bitch would do a pretty good job of screening prospective buyers.

On the short last leg home, the pup was quickly asleep on my lap from where I transferred him to Mr Harris’s. I got dropped at Warren’s, picked up Buster and we made it through the lanes and parks to Harris’s back gate by the time they had unloaded and were ready to start showing the pup his new home. At first, Buster just let the pup crawl all over him, then he started to push him around a bit ever so gently and gradually progressed to a very slow motion game of chase, before leading him back to us where Mr Harris picked the pup up and planted him on his lap where he promptly fell asleep again. Buster checked us all out one more time, put his head in the air and started off in a slow trot in the general direction of home. “Hang on boy, I’m coming too,” I yelled after him. Every other time we were out on the back tracks, Buster was always busy and running but today he clearly had other things on his mind until we got to a hillock where we often played king of the castle. Buster took the hillock in a couple of bounds, then in an eerie quiet under ashen skies let out a truly primeval wolf howl. The first things I noticed was that the chatter of neighbourhood dogs had dried up completely while Buster stood at the summit ears at full alert. As I had learnt to between a lightning flash and its thunder clap, I counted four kilometres, allowed the seconds for the return howl my ears would never hear, and four kilometres back, at which instant Buster bounded down the hillock and it seemed every other dog in the district erupted.

Natalie had gone home by the time we panted back into Warren’s, where I caught him up on the afternoon’s achievement and we had cool drinks all round before the two humans decided to pretend we were the ones making puppies.