A couple of recent posts by other WordPress bloggers got me thinking of the past – my past, that is. One (Manipal) comprised a black and white photograph which might have been drawn directly from the pages of ‘past as an idyll’; the other, a little getting of wisdom from a young woman who calls herself sued51 recalling a couple of things she ‘had to endure’ because of financial circumstances as a child. Inspiration for a quick Saturday Blog, I thought.
The more I remembered, and wrote, the more foreign my (way back in the) past life seemed to become. It wasn’t interesting to me in a Norman Rockwell, or John Howard white-picket-fence-type of nostalgia to drag the past into the present, but that it seemed to now belong to a discrete place in time, with a specific culture, and sometimes, customs and traditions. It was interesting, too, to feel that somehow my story was becoming a little less personal – more biographical than autobiographical – and that this slight disengagement with the self allowed my life, for the first time, to become integrated into the corresponding time in my parents’ lives, and beyond.
Examining some of my memories in this light has taken up most of the day, and in truth has been a little disconcerting – the monster that is ego being the most obvious culprit, but also the sadness that the distance in time precludes my saying sorry to people who are long gone from our world.
Many of you will have memories like this. I wonder where you’ll go, if you delve deep and try to flesh them out with some of the details of your bygone past?
I have an emotional (as opposed to literal) memory of Ruggie coming into my life – a squirming bundle of black, all muscle and wagging tail. After the untouchability of Tiger – the ginger Tom who refused to go with the Masons when they sold the farm to Papa, and survived being caught in a rabbit trap, to continue hunting on three and a half legs – he was the cuddliest most wondrous tactile being I could ever have dreamed of. It was I who called him Ruggles, all over me like a rug, I suspect, but I can’t remember that.
I know I was small when he came. I can remember Ma tucking me up one night – it was after I’d graduated to a proper bed, complaining that the dog was almost as big as me now, there wasn’t enough room for the other cuddlies – it would have to be the dog, or the pink elephant and the other toys. All were discarded, never to be treasured again. I had Ruggie, who could ask for more?
I can remember sitting on a big, overstuffed pillow from the veranda, which Papa would tie to the handle bars of the rotary hoe (precursor to the little grey Massey Ferguson tractor), me perched there between his arms as he trudged steadily up and down the rows of grapes, ploughing his perfectly straight furrows, me chirping away merrily (I was chatty in those days) and the puppy Ruggie leaping around us, wanting to forage, and wanting to be part of this noisy conversation too.
Ma told how she never worried about me wandering around the farm “with all that water” (the dam and our sometimes flowing irrigation channels) because I always had Ruggie to look after me. And apparently he bore out her faith in him one day, tearing into the house, barking his head off till she followed him to the water wheel where she found me, propped up against the side of he channel, wet from head to foot, saved, she swears, by my huge black guardian. I can’t remember that.
I spent a lot of time at the water wheel, and around the sluice gates at our channel junction. There were myriad creatures to discover in and around this watery word. I remember the frogs, the loveliest green/yellow/black colours (which somehow escaped, every time I caught them and Papa made a Frog House for them); and slimy leeches, as big as a cigarette; dark-chocolate crickets; tiny black water snails, with their perfect conical shells; and, if you were very quiet, very still, a dark, river-green yabbie would venture from his hole to feed on creatures I couldn’t see amongst the reeds. I’m not sure what Ruggie liked best about being at the channel – probably just being wet, he was a lab after all.
Later, after Ruggie died, when I was perhaps nine, nearly ten, I learned to ride the water wheel. At first I was content just to keep my balance: stepping over the blades as the wheel rotated with the flow, measuring the water released into our farm’s many little channels. Ultimately, the game was to dance on the flashing black blades, forcing the wheel to drive more and more water down toward the thirsty trees. Ruggie would have hated it, prancing and barking around on the bank, pleading with his eyes for me to play some other game in which he too could participate. I wonder if I’d have obeyed? By that time I would definitely have been bigger than him, and it was so much fun – and yes, dangerous.
Ultimately, something did stop the game: I was seen. I don’t know by whom. Thrashed, I was, by the disappointment in Papa’s eyes, as he explained that my game had upset the quota system by which every farmer got his share of water released into the channels; now he knew why there had been so much trouble. How ashamed he must have been. Thrashed too, by Ma’s tongue, as she played out her fears at the top of her voice. Oh, the responsibility of being a child, keeping oneself safe so as not to upset the mother.
So Papa built me a trapeze, suspended from a protruding willow branch, swinging way out over the dam. I was never keen on the game of letting go, at the highest point of the swing’s trajectory, and bombing into the murky waters of the dam. No, there were unfathomable mysterious depths of sludge down there, hiding places for who knows what. So by the time I met Jilly (my first real human friend) it was all flying angels and other acrobatic tricks. I wanted to run away with the circus, if it would ever come back to town.
The winter of 1956 was wet. For a child accustomed to the occasional rainy day associated with twelve and a half inches of rain a year, it seemed to rain all the time, that winter. One day, stuck on the verandah, bored and feeling sorry for myself, I looked out into the garden to see Ruggie – going berserk, it seemed. Transfixed in horror I watched as he ran, obsessively, round and around the tree in the centre of the lawn, making a terrible, braying noise. Papa was out, he had the car. By the time he arrived my darling friend lay panting and frothing in my arms, beyond help except the mercy of the Vet’s needle.
Years later, our neighbour admitted that he had set a poison bait for him, saying he was the ringleader of a pack of dogs which terrorised his sheep. Until the day she died, Ma would, I’m sure, have continued to deny his culpability, me too. But, on reflection, he did go to the bait place, didn’t he? And for hours every day I abandoned him – away at school. He wasn’t a dog who liked to sit still. It kills me to say so, but Mr. McCann was probably right, and we never said we were sorry for the mayhem Ruggie must have created among this man’s sheep.