We have become familiar with street libraries which have popped up in the most unlikely places providing a much-needed community service. People take books that pique their interest and bring back ones they have read, but no longer wish to keep. There are no forms to fill out, no due dates nor any fines to worry about. It is a self-regulated system that works because everyone who uses it benefits. It only takes one person to start it, keep an eye on what comes and goes, tidy up every now and again, and occasionally cull. No wonder they have become such a hit.
Yesterday, as I was walking two dogs at a local park in Watson, Canberra, I discovered a variation on the theme – a stick library. My first reaction was joyous laughter. Such a charming idea matched with a quirky sense of humour, and a doggone purpose. In its vicinity, I spied four people and at least double that number of dogs. I should also mention that there was a lagoon nearby. The humans were standing at its edge, throwing sticks into the water for the dogs to fetch.
I walked up to a man whose Border Collie ran towards us with two sticks in his mouth.
‘What a great idea,’ I said, pointing to the stick library.
‘Yeah, whenever we used to come down here, no one could ever find a stick to throw,’ he said. ‘Then some guy decided to do something about it and since then, people bring sticks back for others to use.’
‘I love the community here in Watson,’ a younger woman chimed in. ‘The stick library speaks volumes about the kind of people who live here. It’s such a friendly place.’
‘Someone called ABC radio the other day to say thank you for the stick library and the switchboard lit up,’ the man added. ‘Now they’ve tracked down a guy called Tom who’ll give an interview at the local radio station.’
I nodded in appreciation and could immediately see the appeal of this good news story. After all, we are a dog loving nation. One in three households in Canberra owns a dog. You don’t have to walk very far to encounter a pooch with its special human beaming with pride as they make their way to the nearest off-leash area. Exercise is essential, especially in a city brimming with apartments. And what better exercise than to fetch a good old-fashioned stick?
My mother’s first job in Australia was at the ABC in Ripponlea back in 1972. She worked at the canteen where she served meals, made cups of tea, and cleared tables. My mother often took me to work so she could keep an eye on me. Naturally, I was bored and began chatting to the staff when they came down for their break. It was there that I met Leigh, a young university student doing a work placement over the summer holidays. She took a liking to me, and we spoke about many things that summer, including our love of dogs. Leigh lived with her parents in Ferntree Gully and owned a kelpie.
‘Kelpies are Australian dogs. They’re the best,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come and meet him?’
‘Would I ever!’ I said
‘I’ll have a talk to your mum. Maybe you could come over this weekend to meet him,’ she suggested.
Leigh kept her word and arrived the following Saturday to collect me in her Mini Minor. My parents hadn’t owned a car since I was five and I felt grown up and important sitting in the front seat. At that time, I had seen very little of Melbourne and only knew the places in my immediate environment, places I could walk to easily. We drove for what seemed like hours, down straight roads and through endless suburbs. Finally, we came to a house up on a hill. The driveway was steep and treeless. A sleek brown kelpie ran to meet us, barking and nipping at the wheels. When Leigh stepped out of the car, he could barely be contained. His tail wagged his whole body. This dog was loyal, smart and a whole lot of fun. I wanted a dog just like him.
Leigh and I hatched a plan to get a rescue pup.
‘I won’t be allowed to keep it, Leigh’
‘Leave it to me, I’ll talk to your mum.’
I wasn’t so sure. ‘What if she says no?’
She laughed. ’I’m pretty good at convincing people.’
Leigh worked her magic on my mother, and I was finally allowed to go with her to the Lort Smith animal home in North Melbourne. We drove from the ABC during one of her long breaks. Going in the car with Leigh always felt like an adventure. We drove down St Kilda Road all the way into the city, then past Queen Victoria markets and up Flemington Rd. Everything was so new to me. The modern office blocks on St Kilda Rd, Flinders Street station with its open mouth reminding me of the entrance to Luna Park on the St Kilda Esplanade and the smells wafting from Victoria markets were all new sights and sensations. I could have driven around town with Leigh for hours, but I was anxious to get my new pup.
When we finally arrived, we were taken to where dogs were kept in what looked like large cages. The sound of dogs barking, whining, and howling echoed along the concrete walls. The result was a cacophony of misery. Walking along, I felt as if I were a warden in a prison, just like I had seen on our black and white television set. It was a depressing scene to witness. Dogs came to the front of their cages and pleaded with us for their freedom. I found it hard to meet their gaze. And then there was the foul odour of too many dogs in a confined space. It smelled like wet dog, excrement, and fear. It may have been cleaned regularly but the smell crept into every corner and was impossible to eradicate.
Finally, we came to an enclosure teeming with tiny black and tan pups. The warden with the key opened the gate and we were let in.
‘Go and choose one,’ Leigh said. ’Take your time and choose the one you like best.’
There were about ten puppies in the enclosure. It was feeding time. The pups all ran towards the trough and the strong ones pushed the weaker ones aside. One small pup with a protruding belly was trying to get to the food but was not strong enough to muscle in. It looked sad and forlorn. My heart went out to that pup.
‘This is the one I want,’ I said, pointing at it.
‘Are you sure?’ Leigh asked.
‘Yes, this is the one that needs me.’
The pup was taken for a check-up at the veterinary hospital attached to the facility. The vet looked at us.
‘Are you sure you want to take this one? It looks as if he could have distemper, and he may not survive,’ he said gravely.
‘He is the one I want.’ I said with tears welling in my eyes. ‘If he dies, at least he will be loved until that time.’
The vet looked apologetically at Leigh.
‘We’ll take him,’ she said.
‘Look, if he dies in the next couple of weeks, we’ll give you another one,’ said the vet. What will you call him?’
‘Scooby,’ I said. ‘Like Scooby-do.’ It had been my favourite cartoon when I lived in England.
Leigh paid not only for the dog but also for his vet bills. It must have cost her a packet. Despite everyone’s concerns, Scooby pulled through and lived to a ripe old age.
My mother stopped working at the ABC and Leigh went back to university. After that summer, I lost contact with her. Even now, so many decades later, I wish I could express my gratitude to her for the kindness and generosity she showed to that little migrant girl in her fledgling months in Australia.
I was 23 when I first returned to Europe, to search of the girl I had left behind. The girl that I remembered was more like a character from a storybook than a younger version of myself. That trip, half way across the world in a Boeing 747, so many years before, had marked a complete break with the old world. I was never to write to anyone, never to speak German, never to mention Austria. As my father never did learn English, we continued to speak Hungarian at home. I desperately wanted to fit in. At the time, bilingualism was a social stigma in Australia and, armed with that knowledge, I decided that trilingualism must make me even more of a target. I pretended not to understand or speak a word of German.
When I returned to Vienna with my then husband and mother-in-law, I found that I had not forgotten my German at all. In fact, I could get by quite well. I had no addresses of school mates, I only knew where we had lived. I simply drew on my memory and found my way back.
We took the commuter train from Wien Westbahnhof to Pressbaum in Lower Austria. This was the same train line my father had travelled twelve years earlier on his way home from work. It took just over half an hour from Vienna to Pressbaum, the little township nestled in the Vienna woods. In my memory we had lived a long way from the city.
Once there, I followed my nose. I climbed up the steps from the railway station to where the small kiosk stood, midway between the station and the walking path through a forest. It was shut. As I looked about, I remembered it as a little oasis between home and school. This is where I had bought Twini ice-blocks in summer, holding the siamese twin pop-sticks until I could pull them apart so I had the illusion of two treats when I had paid for only one.
I had many happy memories of this small kiosk. My father had a tab there which he allowed me to freely use. On pay day, he settled his account after a couple of glasses of beer with weathered old locals whose dialects were unintelligible. I wondered where these old men would meet now. They had always had a Stammtisch – a regular table, and sat there from morning to night – or so it seemed to me. These locals must have felt as displaced as I did now, looking at the forlorn, boarded up wooden structure.
We turned left at the top of the path, walked through a small patch of forest and sought out the house where I had lived. The gate was shut and no-one stirred behind the curtains. I looked up to the second floor and thought of the kindly old woman who had once lived there and supplemented her pension by selling moonshine to her loyal supporters.
I have some photos taken in the last couple of months before our departure from Austria. Black and white, they show me holding the handlebars of an ancient bicycle in front of the gate at number 40 Bahnhofstrasse. Although I know that the child looking at the camera is me, she is a time traveller from a bygone era. I said goodbye to that girl in the photo and crossed the railway line.
Next stop was the old station masters’ cottage. The tiny two storey house stood frozen in time. Before I could ring the bell, an old dog came tottering up the path. It was Rigo. A very old dog now, his tail still had the piglet curl. I was sure he wouldn’t recognise me but my heart skipped a beat when I saw him. My handsome and faithful dog who had accompanied me in my adventures through the surrounding woods was still alive!
Then, an ancient, crooked woman approached the gate.
“Frau Deim?” I ventured.
Her eyes searched my face and crinkled into a smile. “You’ve come back!”
She unlocked the gate and my first reaction was to reach out for Rigo. He was happy to see visitors and who knows, maybe he did know who I was. After giving the dog a long pat out in the cold, we were invited in. Frau Deim apologised over and over for the state of her house. I was simply happy to see her.
In the past I never understood my mother’s desire to leave Europe behind. For years I was homesick for this place yet I could never tell anyone. Europe was a door slammed shut. My job was to face forward, embrace the New World and not look over my shoulder lest I turn to a pillar of salt. But for years I furtively glanced back, when no-one was watching. Now I came face to face with what we had left behind.
Frau Deim was the widow of a railway worker whose body was found strewn across the tracks one icy January. She kept to herself, worked hard and bought up her only son as a single mother, well before the term was coined. The only assistance she received was her right to live in the signal master’s cottage until death tracked her down.
In 1983 she was an elderly woman with few means and plenty of problems. She had no running water and was reliant on a hand pump in her garden. Then, one day she noticed a foul odour emanating from the well. She asked the Austrian railways to investigate. The water was deemed to be undrinkable. From that day, she had to boil her water for ten minutes before it could be used.
Entering the house was like entering a sauna. Water droplets formed brown constellations on the ceiling, gliding down the walls and fogging her windows. It was hard to breathe. Mould invaded every crevice and advanced with military precision. Frau Deim looked about apologetically. Her bedroom opened onto the kitchen and had suffered the same fate. Her clothes hung limp over doors, on nails and draped forlorn over her bed. The wardrobe doors were swollen and warped.
As I witnessed the pitiful fate this woman had to endure, I saw my parents’ choice to leave with adult eyes. Leaving Europe was like buying a lottery ticket. The outcome was uncertain but it had offered them a last chance of starting anew.
‘No, she’s not a groodle, or a cavoodle, she’s a standard poodle,’ I explain patiently as someone stops to enquire about Zoë’s breed. ‘I always thought poodles were small dogs,’ is the usual reply. I sigh, go into detail about the different poodle sizes and temperaments before concluding that the standards are the best poodles by far. They are.
I have had minis and even a rescue toy poodle. Except for one of the minis, none of the other dogs have come even close to the intelligence, elegance, and devotion of the standard. Zoë is not a lap dog nor is she particularly cuddly, but she is constantly by my side without getting under my feet. If I’m working in the kitchen, she leans into me. It is her way to claim me as her own. Her bark would deter most people from entering the house, but she is friendly with strangers, as long as I am relaxed in their presence. She is the perfect companion.
Zoë is well known around the village. People may not remember my name, but they know hers. If we stop at the corner store for milk, she is often rewarded with a piece of bacon from the proprietor. Children come and pat her and visiting tourists stop to have a chat. Zoë knows how to wheedle her way into most hearts.
One of her endearing qualities is her love of toy bunnies. Whenever I bring a new squeaky animal into the house, Zoë leaps with joy and plays for hours, biting obsessively until she finds the squeak she is looking for. We then play a game of fetch which will be repeated every morning until the squeak dies and it is time for a new bunny. She is like a young child at Christmas taking her toy to bed and protectively putting a paw over it. Her devotion to her bunny melts my heart.
A less endearing quality is her love of chasing real bunnies. Selective deafness is a well-honed skill and when she sees a rabbit, no amount of calling, cajoling, or yelling will stop her. She is off through the thick scrub but she ain’t never caught a rabbit… What she does come back with is a coat full of burrs which take the best part of an afternoon to remove – one by one, tugging them loose from her woolly coat. Zoë is never sorry for her disobedience; she always returns with her tongue out, eyes sparkling and tail wagging. It is hard to stay annoyed with such a display of exultation.
You can see standard poodles are hardly lounge lizards. While they don’t need a huge amount of exercise, they do love a good run. They will chase balls, their favourite human, and of course other animals. I have seen Zoë keep up with kelpies and border collies at the dog park. There’s an elegance to her run, a regal poise, and a graceful stretch of the legs as she flies through the air, ears flapping behind her. Out on a field, she is cheeky and playful, bursting with energy and joie de vivre. Poodles are quintessentially effervescent party animals. They are a pure joy to watch when playing with other dogs.
I never have to worry about doggy smells in the house, nor are there any dog hairs to sweep. As poodles don’t shed, even people with allergies can safely own one. They are clean dogs but do require regular clipping. If you don’t, before long, they will resemble your favourite reggae singer without any of the musical talent. I don’t recommend home haircuts; dog clipping is much more complicated than you think. It is well worth the money to employ a groomer every six to eight weeks. Zoë isn’t ever coiffured to resemble topiary at Versailles. After a trim, she simply looks like a well-heeled, short haired dog.
I can’t imagine my life without Zoë. I never feel lonely with her in the house, and she motivates me to go for long walks which are good for us both. Zoë can read my mood and responds accordingly. I would go so far as to claim that she has more EQ than most people. I have often thought, she would make a great therapy dog. But then, I believe that every dog has the capacity to be a therapy dog. Zoë just happens to be mine.
The grass is long after all the rain. In parts of the reserve, it reaches past my shoulder. Rivulets of water course down the slopes to form boggy marshland and the creek runs fast and free to pool in a small pond. These are the things I forgot to mention when I invited my friend, Penny, for a walk with her two dogs. I have sensible walking boots; she wears flat slip-ons. Our dogs run wild while we jump across puddles or find grass tufts that take our weight as we cross the great wet expanse. Her shoes squelch and slide, but we make it across the worst of it with our balance intact.
Birds twitter in treetops and we hear a stream burbling not too far from us. As we approach a small bridge, the type you would find depicted in a Monet but without any of the charm, water rushes past us as if in a hurry to make it downstream. One of her dogs leaps in and lets the deluge wash over him. We can’t help but be swept along with his exuberance. After a while, he joins us on the path shaking the water off his loose skin, seemingly in both directions at once with a whip-flick motion that drenches us as he runs past. We laugh at his joie de vivre and watch the dogs bound through the high grass.
As we reach a well-trodden path around a pond, we hear a chorus of frogs in the tall reeds. Looking closer, we see a mother duck with five tiny ducklings drift towards the foliage for protection. The dogs haven’t noticed them. They are much more interested in a larger version waddling on the path ahead of us and make a half-hearted attempt to run after it. The duck launches itself into the pond and elegantly glides away. None of the dogs have an appetite for a serious chase, especially one that involves the effort of swimming. They are already running zigzag, following a new smell that has caught their attention.
On the other side of the pond is a park bench. We head towards it for a rest. The bench is dedicated to the memory of a girl called Mel, the same age as my daughter. She would have been 25 when she died. I think of her family and friends and the unspeakable loss they must continue to endure. My heart breaks for these nameless strangers. I wonder how this young woman died and why the seat was erected here. I can’t help but imagine various scenarios and fill the gaps with conjecture, but I will never know her true story.
We take a seat, but the dogs start barking and beseech us to keep moving. After a couple of minutes, we give in to their demands and begin our walk back. I decide that the asphalt track does have its merits, especially as we feel the first drops of rain, first on our arms and later, on our shoulders. Tree roots have cracked open the surface of the path and we tread carefully to avoid tripping on fissures and craters. At the same time, I’m glad nature is winning the battle here, and consider it likely that the trees will outlast the asphalt.
The path is suddenly steeper. We see hemlock growing up to two metres and it has invaded large tracts of the grassland. The plant is highly toxic and there is no antidote to hemlock poisoning. We call the dogs and make sure we don’t brush against it. This section of the reserve looks neglected, and we are aware that there may be snakes in the weedy vegetation. Best move on swiftly.
A galah flies across our path while a magpie struts in the next field, head bobbing forward and back until it sees our dogs. Begrudgingly, it flies to the nearest branch and keeps a wary eye on these bumbling, ground-sniffing predators. The birds, as ever, win against these domesticated, well-fed, and pampered dogs.
We reach a plateau where large fallen limbs of tress are neatly placed along the verge of the path. No doubt a storm has raged here not long ago. Some of the branches are horizontal while others lean precariously on the trunk of a tree. In time they will offer shelter to ground dwelling creatures and their sacrifice will not be in vain. Further, there are trees with protruding branches at crazy angles that remind me of some Halloween prank. They look almost human with one or two additional limbs waving in the wind. We marvel at their shapes and pick up our pace. We can feel the steady drops of rain on our faces now and head for the car.
The dogs have one final crazy dash across a field. They sprint in circles just as though they were running on an invisible racetrack. We call and they return, tongues to one side, panting and spent, content to go home. We laugh at their antics and know we must come again soon. At the carpark, we say our goodbyes and stomp to remove the mud from our shoes.