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BooksOctober 27, 2016

Book of the week: Steve Braunias on the dog that died


Steve Braunias writes about Lucky, the unlucky dog of Mercer, in a new anthology of writing about dogs – dogs as pets, dogs as farm animals, dogs as meals, and other kinds of mutts.

The graveyard was across the road from the school, and over the fence from a three-bedroom house on the edge of a paddock. It was raining hard, at last; summer’s drought had rusted the green countryside. Mercer – exactly half-way between Auckland and Hamilton, a fast 40 or easy 50 minutes’ drive in either direction – smelled of chimney smoke on a Friday morning in early winter. A thrush was singing above the dirt track which led to the gates of the primary school, rated decile two, with a roll of 22, 17 Maori and five European. A spade and a copy of the Jehovah’s Witness magazine The Watchtower were inside a corrugated iron hut, like a bus shelter, in the grounds of the cemetery. Grave markings blamed the Waikato River, which flowed past the town: GEORGE SELLWOOD DROWNED AT MERCER 1900. Roy Carter drowned, aged 27, in 1920: SOMETIME WE’LL UNDERSTAND.

The sky was almost black, and the dark outline of a man could be seen through the windows of his three-bedroom house. Paul Whitelaw, 53, was a new face in Mercer. He had moved in exactly two weeks ago, and torn up the floorboards and lowered the ceiling. He’d packed a suitcase of clothes and shifted from Whitianga to run sheep and beef on an 1100 acre farm. “No family. Just on my own.” He touched the new ceiling. “What d’you reckon? Bit bright for you?” He’d bought very white 10ml ply for $15 a sheet. “The house was rat-infested,” he said, and pointed to a black rubbish bag in the kitchen. “Full of droppings. When I pulled down the ceiling, paper and nests came spilling out. The smell! Took days to get rid of it.” He was happy. Moving to Mercer marked a return to farming in the district where he was born. “I’m excited about it. But it’s not been the greatest of seasons to kick-off, and I’m just praying it’s not going to get cold.” He was thinking about his 1000 ewes.

Peter Black, who he’d known since school, called in to see if he needed a hand. He employed eight people as a drain-laying contractor. “Mercer’s good,” he said. “It’s quiet. And it’s got the rowing club. All my kids have rowed for Mercer.” Paul started up an electric saw. Peter shouted, “Mercer used to have an IGA! A butcher shop!” We walked outside to get away from the noise, and he continued his litany of Mercer’s past glories. “Twenty-six truck and trailers used to be based in Mercer. They’d take sand to Hamilton and Auckland when they used to dredge the river.” But now the only thing left in Mercer was the Food Junction Service Centre. All day, every day, traffic on the State Highway 1 Waikato Expressway turns into an offramp, crosses an overbridge, and stops at the centre for gas, for coffee, for the familiar happy stench of McDonald’s. Peter said: “I never go there.” The history of Mercer was still on his mind. “Go and see Terry Carr,” he said. “Lived here all his life. Retired now. Fit as a trout. He’s down the road, waiting for his dog to die.”

Photo of Terry Carr: Jane Ussher, first published in North and South

The houses of Mercer were built on the side of a hill above the river. Terry was at home with his wife Dorrie. She said, “It’s not a very happy home today.” She looked at Terry. He met her eye, then put his hands in his pockets, and sat down in the dining room next to the brightly painted kitchen. Dorrie put on the kettle. The sky had turned darker; midday had the pall of 5pm. Terry said, “Just buried Lucky.”

He sang of his great friend, “He lived like a king. Never slept in his kennel. He’d back in, and decide it wasn’t for him. He always slept in the shed. But he was going blind and deaf, and…We took him to the vet this morning.” They weren’t there long, and returned home. Terry put on his gumboots, and shovelled the front garden in the rain. “That’s where he is now. Old Lucky.”

The sudden absence of his 14-year-old border collie made the house feel empty. “I guess I’ll move now,” said Terry. “The dog was the stumbling block. He would have hated it.” He meant Pukekohe, 10 minutes’ drive north, where Dorrie had lived for the past two and a half years, while Terry stayed put in the family home, waiting for Lucky to die. “The new house had nowhere for him to run around. It’s one of those places where you can hand a cup of tea through the window to the person next door.” Dorrie said, “No, it isn’t.” She admitted their home in Mercer was on a larger section, which included a vast magnolia tree. “It’s not in great shape,” said Dorrie, “because someone’s not looking after it.” She looked at Terry. They both smiled. She said she was 70. Terry said, “I’m 77. No. 78?” Dorrie said, “Think again. You’re 76.” Terry said, “You’re the boss.” They had lived apart for two and a half years: Dorrie stayed over on Saturday nights, after a round of golf at nearby Te Kauwhata: the rest of the time Terry looked after himself, cooked his own meals. “Spuds and vegies. Sausages. Steak once in a while.” Dorrie smiled again, and said, “Bachelor’s heaven.”

Did he shop at the service centre? “No.” He gave a brief history lesson of Mercer. He said there used to be shipping on the river, there used to be railway station tearooms (which inspired poet Rex Fairburn’s quality pun, “The squalid tea of Mercer is not strained”), and there used to be a wine bottling plant. There also used to be a tennis court. It was on their own property, abandoned now, netless. They laid it in 1971 – the sand was dredged from the river – and was open for everyone in Mercer as well as their own two kids. “We ran Housie down the pub to pay for it,” Dorrie said. There used to be a pub.

Soon, too, Terry would be part of Mercer’s past, and move to Pukekohe. “It’s been a bit frustrating, you could say,” said Dorrie. “It costs extra to run two houses.” She said Pukekohe had a doctor and a supermarket: “We’re just waiting for a Farmers, then we’ll have everything we need.” Terry looked out the kitchen window towards the front garden with its freshly dug grave. He said, “I’ve got no excuse now.”

Good Dog!: New Zealand writers on dogs (Penguin Random House, $35), edited  by Stephanie Johnson, includes writing by Fiona Kidman, Owen Marshall, Tusiata Avia, Captain Cook, Finlay Macdonald, Barry Crump, Charlotte Grimshaw and others.

The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.

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