The dog shelter was located in that odd netherworld at the edge of our cities where suburbia seems to end but the country has not quite begun. The carpark had more potholes than parking spaces, and it was with a rising sense of irritation that I finally managed to manoeuvre my black Mercedes coupe into a runt-sized spot between a concrete wall and an old Mazda. Squeezing myself out of the car I pointed the key to lock it, my heart sinking as I noted the rust and dents on its homely neighbour.
I had just turned towards the bleak architecture of the shelter complex when the chest pains began again. I’d been getting them for a few weeks now—the doctor seemed to think they were nothing to worry about—but this time they felt worse and I had to stop to catch my breath. Waiting for the discomfort to subside, I found myself leaning against the little beaten-up Mazda, my mind replaying last week’s medical consultation.
“I can’t find anything wrong with you, Margot. All your tests came back negative.” My doctor—I always like to think of him as a lost Persian prince—is an Iranian refugee who fled the Ayatollah the year after the revolution. “But you’re ten kilograms overweight,” he said, running his eyes over me with a sigh of resignation (it’s not the first time we’d had this conversation), “and I think you might be depressed.” Now it was my turn to sigh—don’t they always fall back on this old chestnut when nothing else turns up in their test-tubes?
“What’s that got to do with chest pains?” The hint of challenge in my voice as I said it echoed in my head now as I stood in the carpark, still unable to draw breath, confronted with a “possible causal link between mental depression and heart malfunction”.
My eye was drawn to one of the neighbouring farm’s paddocks, a blaze of bright yellow over a lush green—completely overgrown with some variety of noxious weed. As I looked, the breath that had been so long coming finally arrived, the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come, and I inhaled with greedy abandon. Still leaning against the little car, I took a few moments to steady myself, taking in the view, making a solemn vow to cut down on the cultured butter I had fallen in love with on my last trip to Paris.
I pushed away from the Mazda, dusting the snug backside of my “Slim Illusion” workout pants—my one concession to the doctor’s suggestion that I get some exercise. As I headed out of the carpark I took another long look at the paddock in all its gaudy glory. It’s one spot of brightness at any rate, I reflected, as I walked with a thousand misgivings towards the reception office.
A weary-faced woman named Bev took me through to the pens. As the gate opened with a loud chink I felt the familiar tightening in my guts. It was the barking that got to you in these places. My third attempt to adopt a dog and you’d think I’d be used to it by now, but no, the sound of fifty or so dogs raised in dismal unison, I don’t think that’s something I could ever get used to. This would be the last time, I promised myself. If I couldn’t find a dog today I was going to a breeder for a puppy—a cute, cuddly golden cocker spaniel or Cavalier King Charles—what I’d wanted in the first place before my friend Lucy laid the big guilt trip on me.
“A dog isn’t a fashion accessory, you know,” she had chided me one afternoon, about a month before, as we sat on my Italian-silk sofa, drinking coffee, leafing through my glossy dog book. I had just been admiring a platinum blonde mini-Samoyed, marvelling how its coat was almost the same colour as my plush-pile carpet. Looking up from the book in surprise I replied, “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing,” she said, though she might as well have said everything, and I was a little taken aback, for up till then she’d seemed to share my passion for finding the perfect pooch. We’d been discussing my dog project for a while, ever since my divorce, when I’d declared it was probably a better move than trying another husband. And I’d always liked dogs—at least they weren’t forever wanting to go home with someone else. Lucy had laughed at this, saying that after what Tom had put me through, she could see my point. She had even gone out and bought me the dog book. Now, as she paused to take a deep draught from her latte, everything seemed to be qualified. “Only, well,” she continued, “I know you being you, Margs—you just want everything to look beautiful,” and she waved her hand around to indicate the décor of my apartment, which had taken me the better part of a year to create. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but,” she seemed to be struggling for the right words, “did you ever consider adopting a dog, you know, from a shelter?”
“You mean—a mongrel?”
“Some of them are adorable,” Lucy insisted. “I’ve been having a look at a few on the websites. And they’re not all mutts, either—plenty of pure-breds find their way there, you know.”
I stared into my cappuccino. “But wouldn’t a lot of them have, you know—problems?”
“Not necessarily,” Lucy went on, seamlessly now. “They get surrendered for all sorts of reasons. And even if they do, all they usually need is a little training and TLC. And, well—it’d be like something out of Charles Dickens, wouldn’t it, taking one of the ones that nobody else wants?” She could be powerfully persuasive sometimes, but I remained unconvinced.
It all sounded like descending into some murky underworld, just when everything was starting to work out so nicely for me. The work on my flat was finished at last, and my interior-decorating business was making progress, all those trips to London and Paris finally starting to pay off. I had spent the past two years hauling my life out of the mire of being married to a man who made everybody else’s party go, and I just couldn’t do interesting or challenging any more. But Lucy was relentless, conquering all my objections with just one question, “Do you know how many dogs get put down in Australia every year?” Then she frog-marched me over to the computer and began trawling through shelter websites, pointing out any likely candidates.
So here I was, passing pen after pen of sad-looking mutts, the odd pure-bred or two—a giant German shepherd that lunged at the bars of his cage with a bloodcurdling snarl, a sweet-faced greyhound shivering in the cold, a sad Jack Russell that turned away from my extended hand and crept back into the little screened hermitage at the back of his pen. I tried not to look too closely; if I did I would be lost in the tragedy of this place and all the other places like it.
Finally, we reached the one I had seen on the website, the last one in the row, right next to the overgrown paddock. “Here he is. How are you today, gorgeous? We all call him Gorgeous George here.” Bev’s tired face lit up, her eyes twinkling as she spoke baby-talk to this strange-looking dog. A rough-terrier head, too small for its long dingo body; nice colouring though, tricolour with a white chest and blaze, and white socks on his too-big feet, one of which he poked through the bars of his cage, like a king offering his hand to a loyal subject. Bev took the proffered paw and shook hands with him, laughing.
I tried to conjure up some enthusiasm, but all I could think about was how long his legs were, legs that could easily do—what was it I’d read about kelpie-type dogs—fifty kilometres a day? I hadn’t noticed them in the photo on the website; the photographer must have shot him from above to make him look smaller. He was one of those dogs that usually carry the proviso that they’d do best on a property. And if they’d said that, I wouldn’t be here now—my yard was the size of a postage stamp.
There was one thing they had got right in the photo, though, and that was his big smiley clown-face and almond-shaped brown eyes that sparkled with good-natured intelligence. All that happiness, I thought, and so little reason for it. There were tight blue bandages on his back feet where his dewclaws had been removed, and a swollen pouch of skin where his testicles used to be. He’d already spent a month in a shelter in Ballarat before being sent here, his last chance for adoption.
“Would you like to take him out for a few minutes, see how you get on together?” Bev asked. This was the point I’d always baulked at before. Averting my eyes from the dog, I looked over at the paddock, at the sea of yellow flowers rippling in the breeze. As a girl I had always wanted to pick such flowers and take them home, but then Mum or Dad would say, “They’re not flowers, they’re weeds. Come on now—we don’t want them at home.” Usually I would ignore them and pick myself a hurried bunch while they walked on and I would have to run and catch up. At home I would put them in a glass of water (Mum would say they didn’t warrant a vase) and sit there looking at them with their delicate stems bruised from the trip home and feeling foolish that I had thought them beautiful. How could they be when nobody wanted them?
A wave of numb resolve moved through me as I recalled myself to the present. What had I been thinking? Of course I couldn’t take the dog—I had no time to spare for long walks and driving him to leash-free parks, it would be cruel to take him, wouldn’t it? Someone else would take him, someone who could manage him properly, someone who could give him what he needed. But as I told Bev my decision, her face resumed the mask of weariness it had been wearing before. “Of course,” she said, “yes, I understand, a dog like this is a big commitment … so few people prepared to take them on … and if you don’t have the room, or the time … yes, yes, I know, biting off more than you can chew, no sense in that.”
Bev walked back with me to reception. We made our way in a shroud of awkward silence. All the tension inside me had unwound now, and I thought I should have been feeling better, but there was nothing in its place except an emptiness as real as hunger. The sound of the gate clinking home behind us, the sound that should have heralded my blessed release, seemed to me more like a prison bell as it reverberated. We said our goodbyes without looking at each other, and I returned to the carpark.
It was empty now, save for the Mercedes, and as I moved towards it I wondered why I had chosen black. Not just chosen black, but gone to such lengths to get a black one, for they weren’t very common at the time; I had to drive all the way from Mornington to a dealer in Essendon, as his was the only place in Melbourne that had one. Now I thought it looked just a touch—sinister was the word that lodged inside my head, though I did my best to get rid of it. I pointed the key to unlock it—something that had always made me feel a little like Merlin the Magician. But now, instead of power, a wave of weakness swept through me, turning my legs to rubber. Hoping no one was looking at me, I stamped my feet on the ground, trying to get some feeling back into my legs.
When I was finally able to will my legs to carry me to the driver’s side door, I saw that the thing I had feared, that the ragtag Mazda had lashed out at my blue-blood beauty, had not occurred, and that lovely, long coupe door was just as gleamingly unblemished as before. But now this gave me no solace whatsoever. On the contrary, I almost wished for a scratch or two, maybe even a dent, like that little Mazda.
Just as I reached for the door handle, I noticed some movement in the golden-weeded paddock. A utility truck had driven in with a tank mounted on the tray. A man in high-vis protective gear got out of the passenger door and hooked up a spraying apparatus to the tank, before fitting a mask over his face and beginning to squirt the poison in a steady, side-to-side sweep as the truck moved slowly through the paddock. As I watched him, something went cold and heavy in my chest, and I found myself dragged back to the day I thought I’d managed to bury forever, under all the layers of heritage paint and Morris-print wallpapers, the thick moss-green carpets that looked and felt like fine English lawn, behind the velvet drapes and Tiffany windows that glowed like gems in an Oscar Wilde fairy-tale.
That was the day the olive-skinned Venus wearing only a towel answered the door of the town-house that Tom had disappeared into some thirty minutes before. This was after weeks of mysterious medical appointments when, frankly, he had never looked healthier. Suspicion had finally driven me to follow him one afternoon, about five minutes across town to one of the new estates, where I sat in the car for nearly half an hour trying to get up the courage to knock on the front door.
From the look of horror on her face I think she must have known who I was straight away. It was one of those moments when time seems to stretch, freezing us both in some eternal farcical nightmare, as I stood there taking in this girl looking like a nymph who’d just stepped out of an Elysian pool. All I could think of was how my fifty-six-year-old body must look to Tom when I was similarly clad.
I can’t recollect what either of us said, or how I got myself out of there. I only remember thinking, in the after-shock, that this is how you must feel if someone is killed in an accident. I couldn’t get over the feeling that Tom was dead.
And now, as all this played over in my mind, and my eyes followed the man spraying the field, the chest pain suddenly hit again—harder than ever before, a silent, savage knife-thrust to my very core. I staggered against the car, gasping for air, clinging to the door handle as if my life depended on it. I managed to get the door open and collapse into the driver’s seat, where I sat with my head slumped over the steering wheel, my breath coming in short, tortured gasps, the pain in my chest increasing with each moment. I thought of my mobile phone, but the task of retrieving it from the depths of my handbag and doing anything with it was already quite beyond me. All I had left was my mind, but now I could feel even this beginning to dim, beaten down under the relentless onslaught of pain. My thoughts began to come in strange, ever-more illogical sequences as I slid down into the shadow-lands of unconsciousness, until all that was left was a mere pinprick of light.
I fixed my mind’s eye on that tiny star, drilling into it every last shred of volition I could muster, willing it to grow bigger, but instead it began to flicker alarmingly, like an expiring candle. Then it was as if my heart was taken in a pair of giant pincers, and squeezed without mercy.
Suddenly, the car door was wrenched open and I found myself looking up into Bev’s face, a face that had lost all its weariness now as she placed a strong hand on my shoulder and asked if I was all right, her dulled eyes now clear blue mirrors of concern. The pain was so bad I was unable to answer, only stare up at her dumbly, into the light-filled eyes that seemed, somehow, to be my only hope. And as I continued to stare up at her the strangest thing happened. The two eyes began to merge into one disc of blue-white light that became brighter and brighter as I continued to stare. Now I found myself looking down a long, bright tunnel stretching towards something in the distance, something that glowed with the most intense golden luminosity.
I felt myself begin to move down the tunnel, but as I went my eyes were drawn downwards, and I was watching from above the scene unfolding around the Mercedes in the carpark below. I saw Bev standing with the door open, her hand on my shoulder as she talked to me, and a few other people milling around with their mobile phones. Then an ambulance arrived, red and blue lights flashing, siren wailing. Two paramedics leaped out, one older, short and barrel-bellied, the younger one tall and athletic-looking. I watched as they took me out of the car and put me on a stretcher, yet I felt no panic or alarm, only a sense of detachment—as if I was watching it happen to someone else on the news.
For a brief moment I wondered if it was wise to continue down this weird corridor of blue-white light, but the desire to do so was so irresistible that common sense didn’t have a hope. My whole being longed to get to the end of that tunnel, to find out what it was that shone with that unearthly shade of gold—one I had never seen the like of in all my years of fabric-swatches, sample-books and paint-charts. And so I let myself be drawn down to the end, feeling like a phantom from an old ghost tale, for I glided through that strange space without any sense of a physical body, except for an unusual sensation in my chest.
And there, spread out in front of me, as far as my eyes could see, was the golden paddock, but now the gold of the flowers and the green of the pasture had taken on something new, something more than I remembered, beautiful as it was. The colours now were so intense they seemed to bleed into the sky, and as I stood there drinking in this special splendour, I noticed two figures in the distance, running towards me through the paddock. As they came closer I could see they were a woman and a dog; closer still, and I recognised the dog from the shelter, and—but how in the world?—the woman looked like me.
In astonishment I watched the woman gambolling about with the dog. She was laughing as she tried to run and he kept getting under her feet, and as I continued to watch I felt something strange happening to my face; as if my features were being twisted and turned without my control, and then I realised I was smiling. Aeons it had been, or so it seemed, since a genuine smile had suffused my face, so long, in fact, that I had almost forgotten what it was like. And then I realised the pain in my chest was gone, and in its place an unusual sensation, a steadily expanding warmth that filled my chest and began to radiate out into the rest of my body.
Once more I found myself looking down at the scene unfolding in the carpark. The paramedics were working frantically over my body, the older one yelling, “She’s flat-lining, she’s flat-lining! Get the shock-pads!” I could see something like a convulsive shock moving through the crowd as the young one hooked up the equipment and handed the pads to the older one. Everyone stood by in a still silence as he applied the pads to my chest.
As I watched my body jerk and convulse under the electrical surge, something began to pull at me from behind, like a giant magnet, sucking me backwards along the tunnel, away from my golden field. The woman and the dog were moving away from me now, slowly dissolving into the luminous backdrop, and as they went I felt a great sobbing cry tear through me, No! No! I don’t want to go—I want to stay here forever! But the whole scene was falling away, until once more it was merely a fabulous glow in the distance, at the far end of the blue-lit corridor.
My eyelids flickered open and I was looking up into the perspiring faces of the two paramedics. The older one smiled down at me. “Gave us all a bit of a fright now, didn’t you?” he said, turning to check his monitor.
“Not as much as I gave myself,” I said, with a wan smile.
“How do you feel now?”
“Okay, I think—there was this terrible pain—”
“Well,” he replied, still staring at the monitor, “everything looks fine here, but we’ll have to get you to hospital and have you fully checked out.” In the background I could hear the young one shooing the crowd away, “Okay, okay everyone, show’s over.”
“No, wait—please—” I said, trying to raise myself on one elbow.
The older paramedic jerked his gaze away from the monitor, fixing me with a look of alarm. “Now look here, Lazarus, none of that please,” he said, easing me back down onto the stretcher.
“But I’ve got to talk to Bev—she was here just now—”
“Okay, okay,” he said, patting me on the shoulder, “but just take it easy, will you?” He turned to the departing onlookers and called out, “Anyone here called Bev?”
I heard a little hubbub break out in the background. I remember looking up into the sky, and how unbelievably blue it looked, with just one or two delicate puff-balls of cloud floating across. I heard steps crunching over the gravel, and Bev’s puzzled face appeared above me. And as I looked up into her kind blue eyes I knew it would be all right now, I didn’t know how, but it didn’t matter. Because all I wanted now was to run through endless fields of flowers rippling in the breeze, with Gorgeous George by my side.
Andrea Ockerby lives in Victoria.