This piece ‘Epsilon’ appears in the Andrew Rule edited ‘Man & Beast’ (MUP, 2016) along with many other animal stories.
We found him at the pound in the second week of April 2006. It was my soon-to-be-wife Tamsin who spotted him. He was a kelpie-heeler cross, maybe four to six months old with a predominantly black face and a grey blaze running the length of his nose.
He was a bouncy thing. Every time we approached he’d leap with excitement, and then wag his way to the front of the cage to press his flanks through the wire. We’d pat with fingers and thumbs, the only way we could, and he’d drum his approval with his tail. When we left, he’d retreat slowly to the back of the cage, those awful cages with their hose-down concrete floors and inevitable piles of shit. If we returned after visiting other dogs, he’d forget our infidelity and charge forward for another pat.
We were sure everybody would want him.
We rang at 9.01am on the Monday morning he became available.
When we got him, we felt like we won Tattslotto.
A day or two later, we collected him and the vet told us that he’d nearly failed his personality test, and was almost put down. ‘You’re going to have your hands full with that one,’ he said.
A sour faced woman in a flannelette shirt presented us with forms about de-sexing and registration. She scratched the dog’s chin and cooed doggy love and ignored us completely while we signed the papers. Eventually she spoke.
‘Are you two planning to have children?’
It had the tone of an accusation. We were so taken aback neither of us spoke.
‘Um … we haven’t … ‘
She ploughed on, undaunted. ‘It’s just that I see a lot of couples like you, in their thirties, who want kids and so try things out with a dog. Then they have kids and guess who suffers? Guess who end up back in here.’
She was glaring at us. Our new dog was looking at us too, although less accusingly.
‘We’ll be good pet owners,’ Tam said, which was better than I could muster. ‘We know it’s a commitment.’
The woman seemed suspicious, but further discussion was beyond the bounds of even her prodigious rudeness. Besides, he was ours. We had the adoption papers.
And so he came home with us.
He was so petrified of the car on that drive that he had to be nursed in the back by Tam.
His first meal was fresh chicken, and I had to wrestle his hind quarters to the ground to stop the vertical leaping and achieve something approaching a sit.
We put down newspaper and built barricades to keep him in the back room — tables, chairs, rolled up carpets, cabinets, and other assorted obstacles. His dog bed was tucked behind the set of Les Miserables.
He was out within thirty seconds.
We rebuilt the barrcades, taller, wider.
We lay in bed, pet owners at last, listening, wondering if the barricades would hold. Two minutes later we had our answer. Pdd, pdd, pdd, pdd, pdd. The tiny padding of paws on carpet.
He slept outside our room that first night.
We called him Charley Dog, after the character in Looney Tunes. The one who says, ‘oh boy, I’m, gonna have a piazza. I’m gonna have a piazza!’ We spelled it Charley with an ‘ey’ because we thought that’s how it was spelled in the cartoon. As it happens, it’s just regular ‘Charlie’ with an ‘ie’. But it took seven years to find this out. By then we’d already engraved the dog tag.
The other jokey name we had for him was Epsilon. This was because the rude woman at the pound had been partly right. We did plan to have children. In fact Tam was pregnant with our first baby twenty five days after we took Charley home. So even as Charley enjoyed the beam of our combined attentions — two walks per day, liver treats, puppy school, dog clubs, cooked meals, social outings, regular bones, Christmas presents, there was a sense that competition was coming. ‘We’re alpha and beta,’ we’d doggy talk as we scratched his ears. ‘And the kids will be Delta and Gamma. So you can be our little Epsilon. You’re a good little Epsilon!’
When Polly was born, we fussed over the introduction like the impeccable dog owners we were. I dragged a baby jumpsuit home from the hospital to allow Charley to smell it. When the baby followed, he welcomed it in his Charley Dog way. An occasional sniff, a very occasional foot lick. We could call him off getting too close as we could call him off anything.
That was the joy of the young Charley. He was so trainable, and so eager to please. What the vet had promised to be a hand full was anything but. He had magnificent recall. He didn’t dig holes or bark incessantly. He didn’t beg or steal food, even when left at dog height. He didn’t chew things. He was well behaved with other dogs and even cats. He once set off after a possum at the park and Tam called him off, just as he was flinging himself into the tree. Charley pulled up and stared at her, as if to say, ‘oh you’re kidding, that is not fair.’ But he copped it. He always copped it.
Charley was a magnificent Delta.
He was a magnificent Epsilon too. Our second baby was a boy, Harry, arriving in 2009. This time, Charley didn’t get baby clothes to sniff. No warning at all that another pale, shrieking bundle of human was arriving to invade his territory.
Breastfeeding and toddler wrangling were dominating Tam’s days, so I’d take Charley to the Abbotsford Convent where I had a writing studio. I’d ride the 5km there on the roads and he’d run on the footpath, learning within the space of weeks to stop at each side street, to wait for the shouted instruction, ‘Cross’.
He’d sit under my feet all day, never stirring. Then we’d ride and run the 5km home.
He was a super athlete, a loyal and loving pet. Polly adored throwing the tennis ball for him. Her first word was ‘gog’, short for Charley Dog.
He didn’t deserve to become zeta in 2011 with the arrival of Jack.
He absolutely didn’t deserve to become eta in 2015 with the arrival of Alice. When she arrived home, Charley just looked at me, as if to say, ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding’.
We now have four kids under ten. The third one, Jack, was born with severe cerebral palsy, which requires constant attention. Charley has his favourite spots in the house, watching the endless parades of shrieking mayhem with slowly blinking brown eyes. His coat is just that little greyer. His knees are too sore for tennis balls. He gets a pat when I guiltily think to myself that the day’s almost over and I’ve forgotten to give him one. He doesn’t seem to mind. I wonder if he remembers how Tam used sautee offcuts and make doggy casseroles for him. Even with the seven seater Tarago, we often struggle to take him on outings with us. Prams and wheelchairs pile in the back. So often there just isn’t room.
The woman at the pound was right. The kids do overtake you.
I’ll even tell you this story. I know this is an animal book and 98 percent of you are barracking for the animals. But this actually happened, and I’m not proud of it. I’ll only say by way of defence that I’m genetically predisposed to extreme bouts of vagueness. Famously, my mum left my newborn sister in the greengrocer’s when she was five weeks old. A few minutes into the drive home, she made her frantic realisation, and returned to see a large Greek man on the footpath, staring bewilderedly into the middle distance, nursing a baby against his apron.
My story is nowhere near as bad as that.
It happened on the day of my A-League commentary debut. I was sidelines reporter for Francis Leach on ABC radio and had spent the hours beforehand nervously swotting up on players names and formations. I’d done some of this with the three older kids at the park, some on the train, and the rest at the game itself.
At the start of the second half, with Melbourne Victory leading the Central Coast 2-1, my phone buzzed. It was Tam.
Weird question I know but Charley Dog not here – Did you take him …?
I was on the sidelines of an A-Leauge game at Etihad Stadium. Did I take the dog! My stomach lurched with panic.
‘No!’ I texted back.
Francis asked me down the line for an opinion about weather and pitch conditions. I garbled something, but all my thoughts were on the dog. Where could he be? The last time I’d seen him was at the park, with three kids in tow, around five thirty, but he would have come home with us. Charley, abandoned as a puppy, never strayed further than fifty or so metres. Surely he came home with us. Unless … unless …
‘Oh my god, Tam!’ I said, attempting to speak into the phone with one side of my face as I listened for Francis’s crosses with the other. ‘Charley is at the park. I tied him to a park bench. I can’t talk because I’m in air. But he’s tied to a park bench at the park!’
This is the bit where you’re starting to judge me. You’re picturing him watching us leave, attempting to follow, but being dragged back by the lead. You’re hearing one or two plaintive whines, not barks because Charley would have figured he didn’t need to bark — ‘It’s not like they’d leave me here’ he’d have thought. ‘I’m one of the pack. They love me’. You’re thinking about the three hours he spent next to that bench, as day became evening, as ‘they’ll be back soon’ became ‘they’ll be back soon. Surely? Won’t they?’
At home, Tam started ringing around to find somebody to watch the kids while she ran to the park. At the ground, I remembered the dog tag with my mobile phone number around Charley’s neck. I checked for missed calls. There were two from unknown numbers. Again, I did the trick of phoning with one ear, and listening for Francis’s crosses with the other. Oh shit, Leigh Broxham was warming up. Please don’t cross to me now, Francis. Please!
I called the unknown number. Hallelujah, he was a man at the park. Double hallelujah, he was still there with Charley. I whispered that I was commentating an A League match, so couldn’t chat, but could he hang there for another couple of minutes because my wife was on her way. He said he could see a woman running towards the dog now. I thanked him, restored my headset to position, took a deep breath, and did a bang up job of enthusing about a Carl Valeri 360 degree turn that nearly produced goal of the season.
‘Got him’ Tam texted.
‘Thank god. So sorry.’ I texted back.
‘He’s furious. Hasn’t wagged at all. Has sprinted straight for home.’
Should I attempt to justify how it happened? How it was a perfect storm of carrying a disabled child, while pushing a swing, while answering questions about bark? How I was trying to learn the players names? How rare it is to tie Charley up, but there were so many kids at the park …
Are you willing to cut me some slack?
Would the woman at the pound be willing to cut me some slack?
Because Charley was. He was wagging at the gate when I reached home.
‘Man & Beast’ (MUP, 2016), an anthology edited by Andrew Rule and featuring Anson Cameron, Phillip Adams, Shaun Micallef, William McInnes, Les Carlyon, John Silvester and many others.