Monday 31 January 2011

The Names of the Sea: chapter 6

(Different title, same story.)

Chapter 6. Harry

But those long swimless days of my recovery were not quite as I have described them, alone with my map and my sunburn and my little patch of coconut shade. Something else had happened at that time too: my mother had brought home Harry. She turned up with him one afternoon as I was using a broken pine cone to draw an elaborate map in the sand. Where he’d come from I never found out. But there he was, a shabby, melancholy chap with eyes the colour of creekwater and a big lopsided smile that always looked like he was halfway between apologising and planning how to perpetrate his next devilish mischief. For Harry, I soon found out, was fond of mischief.

My mother said, “What’ll we call him?”

I blinked, incredulous at the question, and said, as though nothing could be more obvious, “His name is Harry.” And so that was his name.

He was a thoroughbred mongrel, splotched all over brown and grey except for a scraggly white tail, a scruffy hobo who’d wander the streets for scraps and bark at the moon at night and cringe in whimpering fright if ever you raised your voice or spoke a single harsh word to him. Looking back on it now, I suppose my mother thought he'd be a distraction, that he’d give me something else to think about. I suppose she thought he’d keep me from the sea.

Harry had a grim white scar running down from his ear to the corner of his eye, and he’d flinch whenever you touched it. “Was he in an accident?” I asked.

“It was his father,” my mother said, squatting down beside me in the shade. “It happens sometimes with puppies. If you don’t keep the father away, he’ll try’n kill them.”

“What for?” I said.

“The bitch, all he cares about is the bitch, mating with her over and over. Can’t mate when she’s raising the pups, so if you're not careful he'll go over and bite them, crush their heads in.” She slapped a mosquito and added, “Typical man, when you think about it.”


When I was back on my feet, the map of the island shimmering in my mind as bright as a migraine, I discovered that Harry was an inveterate explorer. Under the oppressive regime of that period – all swimming had been banned absolutely until further notice – Harry and I set out to lay bare whatever secrets the island might be concealing from us. We climbed the colossal grey rocks that line the bay. We found the places where the waves had drilled their patient caves into stone. We followed each other deeper and deeper into the bush. We surveyed the island from the hilltops. He kept lookout while I climbed the trees in search of birds’ nests. We found snake skins and cicada shells and inexplicable sheets of metal buried in sand. We crept into the old mineshaft and dug pits in the sand to trap the lions and the bears. We unearthed prehistoric bones beneath the dry creek bed. How Harry could detect these subterranean artefacts remains a mystery to me, but his skills were infallible. I tried to teach him to locate buried pirates’ treasure, but his only facility was for bones.

It was at this time that I started to draw my first maps, scanning the rugged topography from the highest trees and cartographically recording the sites of our adventures. It was also at this time that my mother sent me to church.

I know what you’re thinking, it’s hard to believe I was ever much of a churchgoer, but it’s true, I congregated at the Magnetic Island Revival Church for the better part of two years, right up until the day the drowned preacher was found washed up on the shore, his face wrapped in seaweed like a bloated Egyptian mummy.

The preacher’s name was Pastor Dave. He and his wife raised their children on a sprawling dilapidated farm over at Florence Bay. I can’t be sure of the exact number of their children since I was never able to count them all at one time, but I’d say there must have been at least twelve of them, certainly no fewer than ten. They were communists and homeschoolers and Vegetarians. They made their own shoes and grew all their own food and never ate tinned soup, because they believed the barcodes on canned goods were the Mark of the Beast, a code of eighteen digits that spelt 6-6-6. They also believed in breastfeeding, and even some of the older children could be seen walking alongside their mother, pulling down her sarong for a quick drink while she was outside picking oranges or feeding the chooks. Their farm was one of the biggest and rowdiest places on the island. There were always strangers and blow-ins and backpackers staying in the bungalows down the back while the children ran around chasing roosters and hacking down branches and setting fire to green ants’ nests and pissing on the vegetables that grew everywhere like wildflowers. Not many people went to the Revival Church, but Pastor Dave was pretty well known on the island because he was always going around to the different bays, knocking on doors and offering prayers and fresh vegetables, or hanging around at the Nelly Bay jetty telling the good news to anyone who'd listen. That’s how he’d met my mother, and when he heard about my near-fatal cirvumnavigatory swim he’d come knocking at the Old Train, more than once, offering to come and pick me up himself and take me along to the Lord’s House on Sunday morning. I suppose my mother thought I needed a bit of straightening out; so finally, swallowing her atheism and her pride, she agreed to let me go, remarking with a weary sigh, “At least they’re not Catholic.”

I was nervous the first time, never having darkened the door of a church before, and not knowing quite what to expect inside. I’d heard about the Revival Church, of course, and knew they could speak in magical languages, could predict the future, could perform miraculous cures, and could tell just by looking at you if you had an evil spirit. Once Pastor Dave had levitated six inches off the ground during a powerful sermon about repentance and the Queensland State Government, they’d even reported it in the paper, that’s what I heard.

Anyway, one Sunday Pastor Dave came by to pick me up. He drove this old school bus, painted bright and crazy as a flowerbed with JESUS IS LORD written down each side and a big psychedelic peace sign on the back. That was how he used to round up the whole flock on Sunday mornings, so there’d already be a congregation singing and clapping their hands and rocking the bus from side to side before it ever got to church. That’s how it was that morning, with a whole busload of parishioners, at least half of them the pastor’s kids, all peering out the windows at me as I stood waiting by the roadside, barefoot in my blue shorts with Harry by my side, and Pastor Dave leaned his elbow out the window and honked the horn and hollered out as cheery as if he were Santa Claus, “Well don’t just stand there matey boy, hop on board!”

The first unsettling piece of theology I ever learned was that you’re not supposed to bring the dog to church. Harry jumped on board beside me, as excited as I was at the prospect of a bus ride, but the woman up front with beads in her hair – it was Mel, the pastor’s wife – patted my shoulder and said with a pearly kind smile, “Sorry, sweetheart, no pets allowed on the bus bound for glory.” Everybody laughed and the whole place erupted into raucous song, and there I was at the middle of it all, you can just imagine, peering at all those sandalled feet and down at my own dirty bare ones, and leading poor bashful Harry back out the door on to the road, where he wagged his tail forgivingly even though I had dealt him a cruel betrayal and a terrible disappointment.

I don’t know why it is, this universal law since time immemorial that prohibits dogs from ever resting their heads in the cool shade of our places of worship. For what is more worshipful, more thoroughly possessed of religious instinct, than a dog? Even the sparrow hath made a nest at thine altars, that’s what the Psalmist says. But ever since the first hallowed bricklayer laid the blood-soaked stones of the first temple at the dawn of time, dogs have been left outside, made to stay behind while the bus rattles off down the road without them. I suppose those ancient priests and lawmakers knew that the awkward solemnity and morbid vanity of our rites would instantly be put in the shade by the free and unselfconscious, the good-hearted and open-mouthed devotion of the dog. Man takes himself too seriously to be a genuine worshipper: you’d see that right away if ever you allowed the adoring canine to prostrate himself beside you in the temple, paws splayed out in petition, tail thumping like a drum, tongue lolling on the cold hard floor at the hour of prayer.

At any rate, I went to church alone, and I don’t like to think of what Harry must have got up to in those lonely hours, left all to himself on a hot summer’s day when the sand burned like fire and your eyes stung from the sun that lit the sea as white as teeth.


Pamela said...

Superb Ben.
Growing up in the 60s in suburban Brisbane, hats were obligatory at Sunday School. I remember wearing my school hat one Sunday, almost died of shame. Bit like Dylan really.

polihronu said...

Ben, you rock. Your writing has a masterfully poetic quality. I'll have none of this "I don't really intend to finish it" nonsense :)


This is a lovely story. I'm giving you the double thumbs-up on my blog - first, by adding you to the blogroll, and second, by stealing a quote and pasting it front and center.

Also, I love your town. I spent Christmas in Sydney this year visiting my friend Jonathan Meisner and it was a revelation.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, folks — I'm really glad you're enjoying the story so far!

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