This short story emerged during a week-long holiday in Mallacoota on Victoria's south-east coastline.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, was a tall man. He was gangly. At least he used to be gangly before ten years of marriage settled around his belly and hips, padding them out so you couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. She, his wife, still saw him as gangly, and you could see how she could do this. The outline was still there, only blurred. Tombstone Ted had a small paunch, a gut really now that he was a naturalised Australian, and it stuck out from his frame, his once gangly frame, and made a rounded lump somewhere under his hand-knitted, but shop-bought sweater. He called it a pullover. She called it a jumper. He was English, sort of, but not now. Now he was a naturalised Australian.
Tombstone Ted had married twice. His first wife had died. She had died from cancer. His second wife didn’t have cancer. She was with him here, sitting quietly on a fold-up chair. Tombstone Ted’s wife, his second wife, sitting quietly. Sitting before the fire.
She liked her chops burnt. She said this. She said, ‘When they’re black on both sides they’re ready.’ She liked her sausages burnt too. Tombstone Ted liked his chops and sausages burnt. They had this in common. They both liked burnt chops and sausages. And turmeric in the rice salad. The turmeric coated each rice grain yellow, an egg yolk yellow. The rice glowed in the firelight.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, drank red wine from a beer glass. The glass was smudged from Tombstone Ted’s fingers and lips. It did not stand empty for long. He liked his glass to be full to the brim with red wine. He poured red wine like it was beer, and you half expected a frothy pink head to form over the claret liquid rising in the glass, and leave a pink foaming track across Tombstone Ted’s moustache. But it didn’t. He fitted the rim of the glass beneath his moustache, beneath his front teeth, and sucked the wine up into his mouth. He smiled. He smiled all the time. His front teeth escaped from his lips and left him smiling, even when he didn’t mean to.
She didn’t drink wine. She sat before the fire on a fold-up chair. You could see the flames darting on her spectacles. You’d look at her and imagine she was a devil with glowing red eyes. But of course she wasn’t. She was Tombstone Ted’s wife, his second wife, sitting quietly before the fire on a fold-up chair.
She didn’t drink strong drink. She had a glass of soft drink. She occasionally raised it to her lips and drank back a draught of the pale yellow liquid. Whenever the glass became empty, she refilled it from the plastic bottle she had put down beside her chair. She had drunk near on half a large bottle. She and the child.
Tombstone Ted liked women. He liked talking to women. ‘When I was young,’ he began, ‘two of us used to drive down to Folkestone, and we used to light a fire. We used to bring a bottle each,’ he said. ‘I’d take cider, and if my pal took whisky,’ he said, ‘then you’d know you were in for a good night. We used to light a fire,’ he said, ‘a big fire, and sit around and drink straight from the bottle.’ He chuckled. The firelight danced on his teeth, his front teeth. ‘When I was young, I used to go down to Folkestone,’ he said, ‘and sit by this fire, a really big fire we’d make, and drink whisky and cider. You should have seen us the next morning,’ he said, ‘after half a bottle of cider and half a bottle of whisky.’ He sucked up some more red wine and grinned at his listeners. ‘When I was young I used to go down to Folkestone,’ he said, ‘and drink all night. One of my pals, the one who always brought the whisky,’ he said, ‘ordered a sheep dog, a Border Collie, and took it down to Wales. They don’t have fields much in Wales,’ he said, ‘and the dog, being a Border dog, didn’t know, and rounded up all the sheep from miles around. My pal had to send him back,’ he said. A black and white dog, possibly a Border Collie, stood in front of Tombstone Ted and looked at the few charred chop bones remaining on the plate on his lap. Occasionally the firelight would catch the plate in its dance and skate smoothly over the grease and single rice grains.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, liked women. He liked talking to women. His wife sat quietly before the fire. She sat quietly and let the flames flicker on her spectacles. She drank up her drink. She put the glass on the arm of the fold-up chair and when one of the women picked it up to wash, she said, ‘I was going to have another drink,’ but the woman didn’t put it back.
Tombstone Ted refilled his glass, his back to the fire, and said, ‘When I was young a few of us used to go down to Folkestone. No ladies of course,’ he said, ‘no ladies at all. We’d go down on motorbikes and build a big fire, pull a lot of old timber together,’ he said, ‘and sit around on old car tyres, and drink straight from the bottle. The fire would still be going in the morning,’ he said, ‘but we wouldn’t be. He laughed. ‘Drink. You should have seen us,’ he said, ‘in the morning after a night drinking straight from the bottle. I still remember that whisky,’ he said, ‘and how it burnt all the way down. It was all right with a bit of cider chasing it though,’ he chuckled. ‘And that’s what I always brought. The cider. Well it was the cheapest, wasn’t it?’ He looked around at the women. The firelight made his eyes shine brightly.
Tombstone Ted, although his real name was Ian, lurked around the barbecue talking eagerly to the women. His wife sat placidly on a fold-up chair before the flames, reddening the mudbricks, and dancing on her spectacles in tiny fingers of orange and scarlet silk. She was a thin woman and wore her thick dark hair plaited into a thick dark rope down her back. Her jacket, a sensible jacket with many useful zippered pockets and side flaps in which to conceal a child’s knitted hat and vinyl mittens, was khaki. This colour did not suit her. It did, however, match the frames of her spectacles.
She was a tall thin woman who was used to the cold. You could tell this because of her jacket, a warm waterproofed jacket that wouldn’t show the grubby stains of motherhood, much less reveal the once milk-engorged breasts which, in their swollen state, had danced in the firelight too, as she suckled the child against her skin, against the cold, in the room made warm with the fire of off-cuts and broken briquettes. If she’d been asked she would have said, ‘No, I don’t like the cold.’
But no-one asked.
The little fat dog sprawls on the wooden deck. The spring sun soaks into his brown-splotched belly. His tail is long gone, only a short stump left to wag out his pleasure. He isn’t a bad dog. But he isn’t an entirely good dog either. Once he nipped the kid next door and they called the council and then the council issued proceedings so it was off to court, not once but three times, and a fine to the lost dogs’ home plus an apology to the kid. Jack didn’t mind the letter or the fine but the court was another matter. ‘Bloody goes in circles that system,’ he said afterwards, ‘makes sure everyone gets paid for doing something.’
Now when there are kids about he calls the dog close, even though it’s only some kids the dog takes an interest in. He snarls at black kids with white smiles and legs that seem to go on forever. Jack likes them but the dog doesn’t seem to much. The dog also likes to chase chubby kids on bikes. When Jack sees one coming his way, he picks the dog up, tucks him under his arm. Jack doesn’t have a view one way or the other about chubby kids. The same with black kids. More than once he’s wondered why the footy scouts aren’t recruiting them, the black kids, not the chubby kids, for the footy team. ‘They’d be unbeatable in the back line,’ he says to anyone who listens. ‘Teach them to kick and you’d have a ripper of a team. Not like some of those bloody ones they recruit now days, all hairstyle. They go to water too easy.’
Jack prefers rugby but his years up and down the east coast taught him to mix it up, especially when he was down south on a job. Just now he isn’t on the job on account of injury. He doesn’t think he’ll be back on the job either. Three years and five months since his last day at work. He reckons no one on the job misses him. Not that he really cares. He doesn’t like having the pain though. Every morning he and the dog go down to the papershop and afterwards around the park. It feels better after a walk. He knows a lot of them now, the other dog owners. There are some real trimmers, too. ‘Bloody precious,’ he tells one woman. ‘The dogs’ll sort it out. No need for all that yelling.’
The dog gets up and moves further into the sun, snout pointing south, back legs lightly crossed, fat belly not touching the deck timber. Jack gazes at him. A little dog going to be put down, drowned probably, until Jack went into the milkbar and saw Pup free to a good home on a note taped to the counter. It was one of the hottest days of what was already a hot year and Jack needed a drink after the long meeting about his accident. When the milkbar lady took him out to the yard he knew straight away he’d take the dog. A little mess of a thing with whopping brown eyes that looked straight into him. When Jack picked the dog up he felt him go stiff.
‘You’ll have to handle him a bit,’ she said, ‘he hasn’t been touched a real lot.’
Jack marvelled at how you couldn’t help handle him. His ears were long jersey caramel pointing to chocolate, smooth and soft, fitting snugly between index finger and thumb. His pink belly was covered in easy spots running like liquid toffee into each other. He put his nose down to the flesh and breathed in the pup’s belly. Jack settled him onto the back seat and drove home.
It is cooling down, equinox weather. The dog moves again, back to the brick wall, belly to the sun. There isn’t much for Jack to do. Sit outside and read the paper and the book from the library about knots. He’s got a nice piece of cotton rope, about two metres long. He sits tying knots, the book open on the bench beside him. It says the bowline and the hay knot are probably the most useful, but the hitch for lifting round timber is the one he is tying now. He drags a length of sapling cut for firewood from the stack by the fence. He is trying to tie it like in the book. He doesn’t know if he needs to lift round timber. Perhaps. He only rides a bike now so he might be able to bring a log home from the park if there’s any lying round.
Jack’s always liked knots. His father knew how to tie them but there was never time for Jack to learn. After his father died he inherited the job of taking his mother a cup of tea in bed before he cycled to work. He did that every morning until he left home, and whenever he came back to visit, he did it again. It’s a long time since he’s made anyone a cup of tea now. He doesn’t miss it. Since he’s moved, there isn’t the need. He used to make Jean a cup every morning and it was only a couple days before she asked him to leave that she said she liked coffee better. Jack used to drink tea. And coffee. He used to drink beer. Whiskey. Port wine. Sherry sometimes. Beer mainly. That went on for years. He did some things. Bad things really. A bit like the dog, only worse. Then he stopped.
He’s stopped a lot of things in his time. Funny how things start, stop, start up again. Fifty years and here he is tying knots and riding a bike. He’s only just starting with the dog though.