A Boy and His Dog
Shaun Micallef recalls his imaginary best friend in this essay from the new anthology Man & Beast.
When I was very young — I must have been about eight or nine — I had an imaginary dog. At least, I’m told it was imaginary. My mother assures me I did not have a real dog until I was fourteen: a black-and-white sort-of-kelpie called Jerry that
I didn’t like very much because he was crazy.
I remember Jerry well because he’d bark a lot and chase the spores that rays of sunlight lit up as they streamed through my bedroom window while I was trying to study in the afternoons. He’d yap at them and jump on my bed and I’d have to take him outside and throw a tennis ball at him until he’d settle. Yeah, I remember him — but this other dog I remember just as well was a different one. A light brown, almost yellow, labrador that was very calm and used to lay his head in my lap while I was reading and smile when I stroked his head. The memory is vivid — but, as I say, my mother assures me we never had a dog apart from Jerry. Now, I know memories are notoriously unreliable but, for a while, I simply couldn’t believe that Tim (that was the dog’s name) had never existed. My mother is quite elderly and I wondered at first whether it was her memory that couldn’t be trusted. But she told me I certainly used to talk to her about Tim when I was young: she thought at the time it must have been a dog I played with on the way home from school; that is, until she found me ‘playing’ with him in the backyard.
Apparently I was running about and laughing and hugging the air and throwing sticks and worrying everybody unnecessarily. I’m not sure who the ‘everybody’ was but the lady from the NHSA didn’t seem too bothered by it when my mother took me in and made me tell her about our adventures. I was quite happy to relay one or two of our more dangerous escapades and, at her request, even draw a picture of the most hair-raising one with the special soft crayons she had called Cray-Pas (a small packet of which I was allowed to keep).
It was the time Tim and I crossed that river. Of course, there was no river at all near my suburban Adelaide home; there was a storm drain and there was a creek up at Brown Hill but nothing that resembled the raging torrent that almost swept Tim and me away.
A few years ago, though, when I was cleaning out my parents’ shed (preparatory to putting them in a home or maybe an asylum), I came across a box of mouldy old comics. These were the Phantom ones I didn’t really like much but were quite cheap and so were what I bought with my six-cents-a-week pocket money. I was disappointed my father hadn’t looked after these more carefully because this collection, if pristine and not a damp mass of papier-mâché, would have fetched plenty on eBay. But that was my father: he’d already burned my first-edition Rupert the Bear albums because ‘they were old’.
Inside the rotting comic book box, though, was a little red dog collar I distinctly remembered Tim wearing when we went looking for that prison escapee that time and that I had to cut off with my Barlow pocket knife when he got tangled in an elderberry bush. It was getting dark and we’d heard a noise we were convinced was the convict lurking in the shadows. Tim barked at me to run home and save myself but I certainly wasn’t going to leave him behind to God knows what fate at the escapee’s murderous hands. I whipped out my knife and hacked through Tim’s collar, heart pounding so hard I could barely hear the thunder that cracked over us. Then the heavens opened up with a mighty boom! Whether it was the killer’s bony hands on my shoulder — or perhaps just a stray branch — as soon as Tim was freed we bolted through the driving rain to safety.
Scrambling up the embankment, though, I tripped and struck my head on a rock and blacked out. Tim, way ahead and already trying to get under the barrier, came back to me, licking my face between flashes of lightning until I regained consciousness, then dragged me back to the road by the hood of my jacket and stood guard and barked at passing traffic until a kindly policeman stopped and took us home. My parents were sick with worry and my grandmother, whom I rarely saw because she was rich and lived on the other side of town in a big house that smelled of pine needles and Fabulon, was there too, with a block of peppermint chocolate for me to have when I felt better. But my mother said I wasn’t allowed to eat it because I had scared her and my father half to death. So she ate it instead.
Tim had saved my life. He was a hero. In the real world he would have been awarded that medal for animal bravery they gave those dolphins in World War II.
The adult me showed the severed collar to my aged father, hoping he would be inundated with the same Proustian flood as I had. But no, he couldn’t recall the incident and chuckled softly at the mention of my imaginary dog. He said the collar had belonged to Jerry and that it had been cut up when he ran over it with the lawnmower.
‘But don’t you remember we both went fishing with him that time?’ I asked. I was sure we had. He thought a moment as he continued peeling an apple with a small knife (using only one hand; a skill I always admired but, sadly, never acquired).
When the peel was off he shook his head. ‘No, no — that was Wolfie Leigh. And I couldn’t come that day because I was working …’
Wolfie Leigh. I hadn’t thought about him in years. Wolfie’s real name was not Wolfie, but Tony. We called him Wolfie because he had a single eyebrow and incisors that looked like fangs. He lived two houses down from us. His father had been a Spitfire pilot in World War II and during a mission his wind-screen had been shot out by a Messerschmitt. His face was horribly disfigured. Wolfie’s mother was much younger and quite beautiful, much more so than the other neighbourhood mothers and so, of course, none of the mothers liked her. Wolfie had a sister, too, and she had encephalitis. It was a strange family but Wolfie had a television set and we didn’t so I spent a lot of time over there and we became pals, much to the consternation of my mother, who thought the Leighs were ‘like something out of Tales from the Crypt’.
Wolfie and I had gone fishing at Brown Hill Creek without telling anyone. We’d just seen The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the pictures; we had been rather taken with it. Back at Wolfie’s place, we made fishin’poles out of a broomstick and an old curtain rail and, barefoot despite the fact it was winter, with Wolfie in his mother’s sun hat and me chewin’ on what I thought was a piece of straw but was probably one of the long matches Captain Leigh used to light his pipe, we set out on our adventure. I guess I was Tom Sawyer because Wolfie had the freckles. With no bait or line or hook we caught very few fish but we did manage to get some tadpoles in a jar we found. And we got very muddy. We lost track of time and when it started to rain we took shelter under a bridge.
Meanwhile, our parents were frantic and had called the police. Captain Leigh had led a search party along the canal and into the big stormwater pipe, where no one was supposed to go. A little boy had been found in there once, we’d been told. There were never many details given but we assumed the poor boy had been found dead. True or not, it was the cautionary tale for children in our neighbourhood, solemnly recounted whenever a child was naughty.
The creek was swollen and the rain was beating down but Wolfie and I could still hear the voices of the adults as they crossed and re-crossed the stone bridge we were under. It was exciting. We wondered if we should stay where we were until they all went home, then reappear dramatically in the morning, perhaps even sneaking into our own funerals, like Tom in the movie. In the end, Captain Leigh shone a torch in our faces and Wolfie got a whipping.
I was spared anything like that. My mother and father sat with me in silence in the back of my grandfather’s car as he drove us slowly home, my mother holding my hand, and my father’s wet hat dripping on the picnic blanket they’d wrapped around me. My grandfather’s fierce eyes looked at me now and then in the rear-view mirror but he said nothing. We weren’t close. I saw him even less than I saw my grandmother. He was a policeman but, regrettably, he had brought his normal car …
My father handed me a bit of apple and creaked back in his old chair, feet on the desk he used, his whole life, to sketch his designs (he was a commercial artist, responsible for the original drawing of the Coppertone girl in 1953).
‘You used to like movies and comic books back then, didn’t you?’he said. Sure, I did; they were my life. Adelaide in the 1960s was almost as dull as it is now. ‘You remember what the Phantom called his dog?’ Of course, I remembered. His name was Devil and he was a wolf.
My father fed himself another sliver of apple straight from the blade. ‘And what was the other film on the bill that day you saw the one about Huck Finn?’ I thought hard but couldn’t remember. Dad went through the drawer in his desk and pulled from it a yellowing cut-out from the cinema section, an ad for Old Yeller starring Tommy Kirk. He was right. I’d cried when Old Yeller died but then, so did everyone — why had he kept it? Dad shrugged and smiled. ‘I took you and Wolfie that day. We saw it together. It was your birthday, remember?’ I hadn’t. ‘You had your heart set on a puppy and your mother and I gave you a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird instead. We went to the pictures to cheer you up.’
That’s right, that’s right. Of course, I read the book later and loved it — it was why I wanted to be a lawyer — but at the time I’d wanted a puppy just like the little one in my father’s Coppertone ad.
‘Remember what Old Yeller got bitten by?’ my father asked, leaning back in the chair again. ‘A wolf, wasn’t it? It gave him rabies. That’s why Tommy had to shoot him. And remember the name of the dog in To Kill a Mockingbird that Atticus shoots because he has rabies?’
Tim Johnson. Dad nodded. Tim.
Oh God. Old Yeller was a ‘yellow’ labrador that contracted rabies, just like Tim Johnson. I’d conflated my experience with Wolfie, and made Wolfie a dog through my association of him with the Phantom’s wolf dog, The Phantom being written and drawn by Lee Falk — Lee as in Leigh, see? And I’d created a false memory of being rescued in the rain from the clutches of an evil stranger by a trusty and heroic, but completely imaginary, dog.
When in fact all I’d done was go to the pictures with my dad and my best friend and then get lost in a park. Even the trip home with the policeman was really just with my grandfather.
I’ve always been an impressionable lad. That night, I had dinner with my parents. My mother made flapjacks and hominy grits and Pop and me sat by the fire a’whittlin’ and talkin’ about that whole mess o’crawfish we was gonna catch the next day after church. Ma sang some old darkie work songs from the kitchen as she rustled up them vittles and just as the big ol’ sun disappeared behind them big trees over yonder I looked down and there lyin’ on the floor with his head in my lap was good ol’ Tim, just as peaceful and a’smilin’ as he were all them years ago.
I stroked his head and let him have a puff on my corn-cob pipe. ‘This is the life, eh, Tommy,’ he said.
‘It’s fine and all,’ I replied, ‘but I reckon I got to gits me out for a spell and head west, afore the Widow Douglas tries to adopt and sivilize me. I can’t stand it,Tim. I been there before. I beeeeen there before.’ And Tim laughed and shook his head.
At least, that’s my memory of it.
This essay by Shaun Micallef is just one of many that appears in the new anthology Man & Beast edited by Andrew Rule.
Other contributors include William McInnes, Phillip Adams, Tony Birch, Greg Combet, Don Watson, Liam Pieper, John Harms, Tony Wilson, Les Carlyon, Robert Drewe, John Clarke and more.