wildlife chapter 3

3.

a wild animal

The last frosts have finished and it is the beginning of unsettled spring weather, the time of winds. As the days get warmer the pace of life picks up in the bush outside. Little male wrens are turning a brilliant blue and other birds are having squabbles over territory, courting and building nests. The first reptiles appear on hot days, bronze skinks are waking from their winter hibernation, like miniature crocodiles as long as my hand when fully grown. They each have their separate territory; the most prized positions are along the big windows where there are always easy pickings of trapped flying insects, and outside the kitchen door around the small concrete pools of the water garden. Fierce territorial battles occur every spring, sometimes to the death, particularly when one skink is well outmatched in size, but often it is settled by strange, spasmodic struggles, with long pauses while the opponents stare and size each other up, then sudden scuttling wrestles as each tries to bite the other’s tail, until finally the loser retreats with a bloody stump that takes months to grow back leaving its disembodied tail writhing on the ground.

I write in my journal: …picked up puppy on the road yesterday. Feeling a bit clearer not smoking so much pot I lost the plot there for a while it does help the depression but makes me even more tired and confused and I’m trying to save it for a last resort. So the gods have placed a dingo pup on my path for a while might not be a bad thing…

There’s not a lot I can do physically, I’m still very weak and the hot weather quickly flattens me and I soon seek out somewhere cool to wait out the hottest part of the day. All I can do is mind work, and I begin to see that I have a golden opportunity. I continue with my task of trying to go down, down, back into the past, through the layers of fog and grab onto a glimpse, a scene, a memory that I can build onto, try and fit the piece into the expanding jigsaw puzzle picture of my early life. I try to remember every detail of the house we lived in when I was ten, and in my mind I walk through the garden and into all the ground floor rooms, up the white marble staircase and into my bedroom, trying to make contact again with my child-self, remembering my mother and how I felt, trying to understand the person I had become.

Home is a half-built house in the bush...

After her return from England with a walking frame came the slow realization that this sudden change was not going to go away: that the unspoken tension and sadness in the house were now permanently part of life. I knew something was seriously wrong, but my parents were pretending that everything was fine, and I was expected to go along with the charade. I was aware of my ability to bring my mother out of her new preoccupied brooding and back to the present, and I believed that I could make her better somehow if I could just give her more and more of myself. My clearest memory from this uncertain time is of setting off from the house one morning to walk across the road to the parkland, while my mother watched me from her bedroom balcony where she sat in a chair. I intuited that she was taking in every moment she could see me with a thirsty intensity, absorbing every detail of a life that was about to irrevocably change. I waved to her as I went, turning around every few steps to wave again and again as I got further away, trying to keep her from slipping back into that distant gloom where she was unreachable.

It was a strange kind of split: I was still a child and could lose myself in play and the intensity of the present, and yet I was also acutely tuned into what was going on, clearly picking up on the seriousness of the situation, knowing that I was powerless to influence these life-changing events. My parents were still trying to pretend everything was fine, but I sensed otherwise, and felt the stress that was now constantly in our home. In the adjoining yard of the house behind ours lived a dog that often barked, and my father had taken to exploding out the back door and shouting at the dog over the fence. I did not know how to express my confused feelings, so I kept them inside my private world.

At the beginning of the religious festival of Lent, known as Clean Monday, Greeks traditionally go for a picnic and fly kites. For weeks people flew hexagonal kites made of tissue paper and dowel. I loved them and would spend many hours flying them, untangling knotted string, making repairs. One day a lady from our street gave me a large colourful kite, the biggest one I had ever seen. It was my pride and joy, and I gradually added more and more string so it could fly higher and higher. One cold bleak windy day I had it way up in the sky soaring as high as Mount Hymettus it seemed, until the string broke and my kite blew away on the wind. I tried to follow but it blew further and further away until I couldn’t see it any longer. Although it was only a paper kite, it felt like something more was blowing away: as if my past life as a normal, happy boy with a clever, creative mum and a confident, successful dad had blown away as well, and I could not regain it no matter how hard I tried. Something changed in me that day. It was the first experience of what would become familiar: a tight painful knot in my diaphragm, of wanting to cry but not being able to, of feeling numb and lonely and sad, but having to keep it to myself because my parents had more important things to worry about. Around this time grey fog started to roll in over my memories, and I began to wall things off in my mind.

1967 brought the beginning of a turbulent period in Athens. Greece at that time was in the front line of the cold war, and external powers had taken sides in the bitter, long-running enmity between the haves and the have-nots that had flared into civil war not many years earlier. A group of colonels in the Greek army decided that they didn’t care for the likely outcome of the pending elections, with an inevitable swing to the left, and overnight a military coup suspended democracy in the country that had given birth to it.

I remember the sound of street demonstrations, massive synchronised roars of Ochi! Ochi! (No! No!) and Papandreou! (the name of the likely leader of the next government), and for a while I couldn’t go to school because of a curfew. We lived near an important military headquarters now guarded by tanks, and every day a line of them would lumber up the road and form a defensive circle in the vacant land across the road while the crews had some time off duty. I thought it was very exciting having the sinister-looking barrel of a tank cannon pointing at the front window, but no doubt it was all rather stressful for my parents.

My mother already knew a lot about Multiple Sclerosis as one of her sisters also had the disease, but a more slow–moving form that had left her able to get around with the aid of a walking stick. At that time little was known about MS, but looking back now I am sure the stress of the move from Australia, of leaving my sister behind in boarding school, and the heat and noise of Athens in summer all played a part in bringing about a rapid decline in my mother’s health. We had a maid for a while who was deeply unhappy, and soon ran away back to her boyfriend in Egypt. Mum tried to make the best of her declining mobility and got around with the walking frame for a while, but the house we lived in had many flights of stairs, and so we moved closer to the city to a new house that was all on one level. It also had a piano, and I began playing every day, discovering chords and sounds I liked and composing bits of music. I already loved singing in the choir at school, but for the first time I had a musical instrument to experiment with.

I have very few memories of this time. The carefree endless summer of ten years old was gone, and now I spent many hours sitting in cars and hospital waiting rooms trying to overcome my boredom and impatience, while tense, distracted adults pretended nothing was wrong when I knew otherwise. The best thing I could do was not to cause any more problems, so I kept my feelings to myself. After a few months, just as I was getting settled in the new house, it was announced we were returning to Australia.

I had come to love this country, with its friendly relaxed people who spent hours talking and drinking coffee in cafes, eating and socialising in the outdoor tavernas on warm summer evenings. I loved the incredibly clear waters of the Mediterranean, the ancient marble buildings and the layers of history everywhere. Reluctantly I said goodbye to Greece leaving behind the life I had felt so comfortable with, all my books and archaeological treasures that my father forbade me to bring back to Australia because of quarantine restrictions, my precious cats that I tried to find homes for before we left, and with Mum in a wheelchair we boarded a Qantas 707 flying to Sydney.

jingo1

I made a nest for the dingo pup underneath my bed platform on the bare concrete floor of my half-built house in the bush that has a roof, some finished walls, and sheets of corrugated iron and canvas covering the many gaps. During the day she hides in her cardboard box and sleeps, but she becomes increasingly active and playful at night, keeping me awake. Getting up to pee and stepping in her cold shit in the middle of the night convinced me that she needed a new den. The next day I tried to pick her up but she growled and snapped at me so I caught her by the scruff of the neck, weighed her, then put her and her cardboard box bed inside an old enclosed wooden bed base that has drawers underneath it, and makes quite a good den. This is in another uncompleted room, still a building site with a corrugated iron roof and waist-high unfinished stone walls, open to the garden at one end, the floor bare dusty earth. I removed one of the drawers in the bed base, and put food and water inside it in two old heavy enamelled cast-iron saucepans to get her used to her new den. The next night I put the saucepans on the dirt floor outside of the bed base, leaving her alone to eat. When I come back she has dragged them both inside. Over the next couple of days I try and lure her out, at least to feed, by putting the saucepans with her food out in the room, but she will have none of it. I see her reach out and pick up one of the saucepans in her jaws and lift it inside the bed base. At the time she weighed three kilos. For the first time I see what a powerful predator is growing in her little body. A day or two later I find a freshly killed rabbit on the road when I go to town and bring it back for her. I leave it in the garden where she can smell it, and the next morning the rabbit is gone and I don’t see her for three days. I can see fur and bone from the rabbit in her scats in the garden. Later when I move the bed I find only one small piece of bone: she had eaten the entire large rabbit.

Soon after this I give in to my desperate loneliness and corner her under the bed, drag her out and stroke her soft fur. She submits unwillingly in silence. The next day she is gone–taken off into the bush, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again. From then on she will not come anywhere near me. I leave food out for her but she waits until the middle of the night to come and eat when it’s quiet and I am in bed. I catch occasional glimpses of her. Sometimes I see her at dusk chasing flying beetles. If I try to go anywhere near her she growls menacingly and slinks off. I feel sure that if I try to push the relationship she will really disappear into the bush, and I know she can’t survive on her own. I ignore her, hoping she will get over her fear and distrust of me.

She never comes back inside the house. The message is clear: she is a wild animal.