2019: BUCHANAN'S BOULEVARD
By Suzanne Frankham
One of the first things I learnt when I was training to become a ranger was, ‘Don’t anthropomorphise’ – don’t make the mistake of thinking of wild animals as individuals with human characteristics and emotions. I think the teachers were trying to weed out the dewy-eyed dreamers with no real inkling into how confronting the job could be. It was drummed into us: some animals you’ll have to do everything in your power to protect; others, like feral cats, you’ll have to kill. Being a ranger is a job that needs a tough, level-headed person.
And that’s the way it was for fifteen years, until the Mels turned up. Two of the perkiest twenty-somethings I’d ever met. I’d been expecting them, Masters students from the Uni in Hobart. I’d even driven to the hut a day early to give it a once-over. The firies bunk down there in summer and it can get pretty feral.
‘Are you Catherine Granger?’ one of them asked, her smile a mile wide, displaying the most perfectly engineered teeth I’d ever seen.
‘People call me Cath,’ I said, trying not to stare. They were dressed identically: runners, tight blue jeans and black T-shirts with ‘Bettongs Rock’ emblazoned in bright green across the front.
‘Hi, I’m Melody,’ she continued, offering her hand, ‘and this is Melissa. But you can call us both Mel. One of us will answer.’ They glanced at each other and giggled. ‘People muddle us up all the time. We’re used to it.’
I took the hand that was offered and shook it, wondering how on earth anyone could possibly mix them up. Melody was tall and thin, with blonde hair pulled back into a tight high ponytail, and Melissa was short with dark hair gelled into spikes and a red rose tattooed on her forearm. I immediately labelled them Blonde Mel and Rosie.
I gave them the grand tour of the hut, or what there was of it. Corrugated iron, one bedroom that I was using – they would have to bunk down on the floor of the main room – and a tiny kitchen and bathroom; but it had an indoor toilet, hot water and a wood stove for the cold nights. I warned them about the penguins that had made their burrows under the hut. That was only fair. The noise that an angry penguin makes in the middle of the night when it’s having a domestic is enough to freak you out if you don’t know what it is. I didn’t mention the wind, they’d find out soon enough.
None of it put them off, and before the evening closed in, they had unpacked their equipment and laid fifty traps in the regenerated patch of eucalypt forest that ran along the coast. I’d first spotted signs of Eastern bettongs there a year earlier. It had created some waves as they’re extinct on the mainland and most of the ones left in Tasmania are on privately owned land. Somewhere in an office in town someone got excited enough to devise a project, and the two Mels were the result. They were looking at population numbers and genetics and if the project was successful and they found a healthy population then there was money in the offing. A bequest, through a nature foundation, to create a wildlife corridor. The idea was to join up the isolated coastal strip with another section of forest further inland, by buying one of eight possible properties. That would be my job, chat to the landowners, plant the idea of the wildlife corridor. Hope that one of them took the bait.
The next morning the Mels were up at 4.30. They woke me with a cup of tea in bed, a first for me, although I acted as if I was used to such five-star treatment. We were at the beginning of the trap line at daybreak. I was there ostensibly to help, but really to make sure the girls weren’t doing anything silly – there are ethics about trapping and handling native animals.
The first few traps were a disappointment, a couple of bush rats and a possum, but then both girls started to coo. ‘Ooh you little sweetie, look at you, aren’t you beautiful. What a lovely girl you are.’ Their first bettong. Not the sort of behaviour I would’ve expected from science students, but still, even I was excited. You’d have to be pretty hard-nosed not to be with these two for company, and I have to say that despite the baby talk they were very professional. The bettong was weighed, measured, sampled and microchipped with a minimum of fuss. But just as Rosie was about to let it go, she held it aloft for a second, looked it in the eye and said, ‘I christen you Elizabeth.’ I must have stared at her like she was mad, because Blonde Mel lent over and whispered, ‘She’s crazy about P. and P. You know, Elizabeth Bennet.’
I hate to admit it, but I didn’t know. Hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. I just sort of grinned and let it slip away. But by the end of the morning, we had Lydia and Mr Darcy as well. Three bettongs. Slim pickings, but the girls were ecstatic.
The Mels sampled for two weeks, and in that time they added George Wickham, Bingley, Jane, Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet (who had a joey) and Mr Bennet. Nine bettongs, or if you counted Mrs Bennet’s joey, ten. An impressive haul. It was exhausting and I was pleased
to see the back of the girls. I was too used to my solitary existence. But without my realising it, they had changed the way I thought about the animals. I was sitting at my desk one day with the rain lashing against the window with such force that it was shaking the panes of glass and found myself wondering how Elizabeth was getting on. She’d looked skinny and fragile, weighed less than one kilo. And Mrs Bennet with her baby. I hoped they were surviving the foul weather.
The girls had half a dozen different sampling sites around the North West of Tasmania, so I
didn’t see much of them. In fact, it was six months before we crossed paths again at the hut. I was there trying to sort out a mess that, by rights, belonged to someone else. Old man Buchanan, who owned the property next to the ranger’s hut, was losing his marbles. He was at least ninety and couldn’t manage on his own anymore, but trying to have a rational conversation with him was impossible. He had a shotgun in his cabin and he’d always been a grumpy old bugger. Things had come to a head because his dog, Beefeater, was running wild. So far, he’d eaten several chickens, dug up numerous gardens, bailed up various people and very possibly killed a cat called Smokey. It was the cat owner who was creating hell.
Trouble was, Beefeater was a bulldog, all muscle, huge teeth and a continuous flow of saliva which sailed out of his mouth in all directions, and no one was prepared to front up to the old man while he had the dog and shotgun at his side. Shouldn’t have been my problem, the council and police are responsible for dealing with dangerous dogs, but Jim the policeman had just about gone down on bended knees and begged me to help, because in his more rational days, the old man and I had rubbed along together. Jim was sure that if they tried to take either the dog or the gun it would trigger an OK corral moment, and he’d have to have the Police Tactical Group on standby. He reckoned he had five years before he retired and the last thing he needed to see, was himself on the TV news threatening to shoot a ninety year old.
I was pleased to catch up with the Mels and even though it was the tail end of winter the weather was still bitter with the wind whistling in off the sea searching out every bit of exposed skin. I lit the wood burner in the hut and the three of us huddled around it cradling mugs of hot chocolate like kids at school camp, while the girls bought me up to speed with their results. The most exciting thing was that they’d trapped Mrs Bennet’s baby the month before. She seemed to have made the jump to independent living successfully. The girls had called her Kitty the name of one of Mrs Bennet’s children in the book. The genetic results also gave them the father, Mr Darcy. The girls thought that was hysterical. I didn’t get it even after they tried to explain it to me.
‘I wish you’d read the book, Cath,’ Rosie said. ‘Everyone loves it.’
‘Right. No problem,’ I promised. ‘I’ll get it next time I’m in town.’ I let Rosie write the details in my phone, even though we all knew it wasn’t my thing.
The next morning I went out with the girls at first light to open the traps. The wind was
punching icy needles through our clothes and we ran through the forest from one trap to the next, almost grateful to see empty trap after empty trap. We were just about at the end of the trap line when we came across Kitty. Despite the aching chill, it was exhilarating. Such a tiny thing. The Mels were clucking like new mothers over a baby as they weighed her (she’d put on weight), and measured her (she’d grown). Rosie opened the trap and stood back. I was so intent on watching Kitty as she began to hop away, that I heard him before I caught sight of him. The torturous ragged breathing of a bulldog crashing through the undergrowth. Beefeater. Twenty-five kilos of muscle, hunting for his next meal. I wouldn’t have believed that he still had it in him to move so fast, but before any of us could react he had pounced on Kitty. The girls screamed like banshees.
‘Beefeater,’ I bellowed. My Sergeant Major voice, the one that is an octave lower than my natural voice. The one that can stop a Mac truck in its tracks according to my fellow rangers. ‘Stop,’ I screeched, the palpations of my heart so loud, I could barely hear myself.
It was enough to cause him to falter and twist around towards me. Horrified, I could see he had his teeth clenched around Kitty’s tail, her body dangling helplessly, her front paws spinning, desperate to find solid ground.
‘Sit,’ I commanded. ‘Now!’ He hesitated, and in that moment his grip on Kitty weakened. She tumbled head first to the ground.
The girls, who had been frozen to the spot like statues, suddenly flew at him, a sea of legs and arms, and Beefeater was forced to defend himself against their incandescent fury, giving Kitty time to hop away.
It was a wretched day. The girls were distraught, weighed down with guilt. If they hadn’t trapped Kitty she’d have been safely tucked up in her nest asleep. Even I felt like there was a heavy lump of lead sitting on top of my heart. So much for being level-headed. I banked up the stove, made hot chocolate, rustled up some Tim Tams, and behaved like a mother hen nurturing her injured chicks.
Sometime after lunch the girls devised a plan. They decided to cluster the traps around Kitty’s range in an attempt to catch her. They talked about injecting her with antibiotics if she was injured. I held my tongue and didn’t mention the word ‘shock’ and what it does to animals. I didn’t go with them that afternoon when they rearranged the traps, nor the next morning. I didn’t rate their chances and couldn’t stand to see their disappointment. Besides, I was a ranger. I had other jobs to do. They were subdued when they came back but determined to keep trying. Losing Kitty felt like losing one of the family.
It was mid-morning on that second day after the Kitty disaster, when old man Buchanan barged into the hut.
‘What have you done with my dog?’ He was shouting so loud the words
reverberated off the tin walls. He looked demented. You could smell him a mile away and his filthy trousers were held up with a piece of string. He’d long ago given up shaving, his face a tangled matt of grey and white hair, but it was his eyes that captured you. Held you. Bright blue and mad as hell.
I leapt up to intervene, get in front of the Mels, that mother hen thing I seemed to have developed, but I was too slow.
Blonde Mel got to him first. ‘What do you mean ‘done with your dog’? Her voice was a snarl.
‘Hasn’t been home for a day now. I know you townies, you hate him. Blame him for everything. You’re out to get him.’
‘Why you, you ...’ Rosie shouted. ‘That dog of yours had a go at one of our bettongs!’
‘So? Nothing but bloody big rats! I trained him to go for them. Get rid of the damn things. Filthy vermin.’
From where I was standing near the stove, I saw both the Mels stiffen and close ranks. A barrier of disgust. ‘Now listen here, Granddad.’ It was Blonde Mel. ‘How dare you!
Don’t you know the bettongs have just about been wiped out by fucking dogs and cats?’ Her voice wavered for a moment before she regained her stride. ‘It’s people like you who are ruining everything, leaving our generation to sort the mess out. And you have the gall to accuse us of doing something to that dog?’
‘Yeah,’ Rosie spat. ‘That bettong killer.’
There was silence, and in a moment of pity I thought about trying to rescue the old man from the onslaught of outrage that tore through the air like bullets. It was a powerful weapon, the indignation of honest believers, and old man Buchanan, sensing he had lost the day, cursed under his breath and stalked off but not before he flung one last bullet of his own.
‘Not letting you get away with this. I know you lot done it. Going to the cop shop now. Get Jim to come after youse. You better watch your back!’
The three of us watched as he stomped along the road into the township. I don’t know about the girls, but I was shaking. For a moment there I’d thought Rosie was going to deck him. Her sleeves were pushed up to her elbows, her hands bunched into fists, the rose tattoo flexing on her forearm. She was rocking back and forth on her toes, her eyes bright.
‘It’s called justice. That disgusting dog deserved everything he got,’ Rosie growled, rubbing her hands together with a satisfied look on her face.
‘Fucking good riddance. I hope the fucking dog is dead!’ Blonde Mel was jumping up and down, her arms flying in all directions. ‘I bet it was that woman who owned the cat. She was totally furious when we met her in town the other day. I’ll tell that to the cop when he comes!’
I stared at her shocked. She’d always appeared so proper. But she was right. The town was buzzing about Smokey, Mrs Lawrence’s cat, and the old man was probably off to have it out with her after he’d harangued poor Jim. She was a female version of him, but tougher. I’d had a few run-ins with her myself about Smokey - he’d been another indulged pet who’d enjoyed a good marsupial meal - and I had a sudden vision of the two them going at it. Zimmer frames at thirty paces. The problem was that both of them might well be packing shotguns.
‘Okay. Enough is enough,’ I said. ‘This is completely crazy. I’m going up to the old man’s house. I’ve got my phone. Ring me if Jim turns up or if you see the old man heading back. I know he’s got a daughter somewhere. Caitlin, I think her name is. She needs to sort this. Now.’
I thought I might have to do a spot of breaking and entering, but he’d left the door to his cabin wide open. Took a while to find what I wanted in the shambles that was the kitchen. Unwashed dishes in the sink, pots stacked on the stove, piles of papers tossed everywhere and mud tracked all over the floor. But there was a number written on the wall above the phone, and when I called it Caitlin answered. I outlined what was going on and was relieved to hear that she’d come pronto. There was hope yet.
I was with the Mels when they trapped Kitty three days later. No one said a word, but I
swear the air around us crackled with excitement. They checked her over while she was still in the trap and decided that, all things considered, she looked in good shape. There were no obvious bite marks on her body, just one gash on her tail, already half healed. But best of all, she seemed alert with no sign of shock or infection. The girls nodded at each other and, in one deft movement, Blonde Mel poured disinfectant over the wound. Kitty reacted like a bucking bronco and when Rosie opened the trap she threw a furious look at both of them before hopping away at a rate of knots. It was only then that we hugged each other. I swear Rosie had tears in her eyes.
We pulled in all the traps and I shouted the girls lunch before they left. I don’t know what the other people in the pub thought of us, we were laughing so much.
‘Won the lottery?’ an old bloke asked, grinning as he passed our table.
‘Better than that,’ Rosie threw back at him, and I believed her. She couldn’t have been happier.
I stayed on at the hut for a few more days. It was nearly the end of winter and there was a pile of work to be done clearing debris off the tracks. Besides, Jim was being driven crazy by the old man and he begged me to help Caitlin cart him off to Hobart. Easily done since Buchanan’s hadn’t been a working farm for years, the paddocks rented to a neighbour. But of course the old man was hanging on, waiting for Beefeater to return. It took the two of us a few days to persuade him he needed ‘a short holiday’, after I promised to call immediately if I found the dog. That left me to do the final clean-up of the old man’s house after Caitlin whisked him away, better than cleaning out the toilets in the park, but not much. Jim cleared out the gun cabinet and was so happy to see the back of the dog, the old man and the shotgun, that he shouted me dinner in the pub and practically laid out the red carpet every time he saw me.
I wasn’t used to being tangled up in other people’s lives and was delighted to be shot of them all. I’d grown fond of the Mels but it had been an emotional roller coaster. As for old man Buchanan, that was a story that could still play out in many different directions. For the next few months I got on with my work and put them all out of my mind.
It was the end of summer, late February, when I got a text from Caitlin. Would I come to
Hobart to see her? She wanted to talk about her father’s farm.
If she wanted to talk about the old man’s property, I figured he must have died, so it
was a surprise to walk into her place in Hobart and see the old fella sunning himself in the garden, with a little terrier asleep on his lap.
‘He’s as happy as Larry,’ Caitlin said smiling.
‘Really?’ I just about choked. In all the time I’d known the old man I’d never seen him smile. It just wasn’t in his nature to be happy.
‘Oh, he was miserable when he arrived, but you saw the state he was in. The smell! Disgusting. I chucked away all his clothes, but it took weeks for the stink to go. The doctor ended up sticking him in hospital for a few days. Dosed him full of antibiotics. But now ... I tell you, he’s as happy as he’s ever been in his life.’
‘Well. That’s a turn up for the books,’ I said, watching as he petted the terrier; the two of them making a perfect picture for a home and garden magazine. An elderly gentleman and his faithful dog dozing on a rich green lawn surrounded by luscious tree ferns.
‘He’s settled here. He’s never going back. It’s time to get rid of that place. I want the Foundation to buy it. Make the animal corridor you were talking about.’
‘What? Wow. Look as much as I’m on the side of the bettongs, he couldn’t stand them. Called them bloody vermin. I feel like ... I don’t know, I feel like I’d be shafting him.’
‘Ah, he was always a cantankerous old bastard. I’m his daughter so I can say that, but his mind’s shot and I’ve got power of attorney. I mean really, let’s face it. That bloody dog ate so many of those bettongs, he’s probably one of the main reasons they’re almost extinct.’
I nodded. I couldn’t argue with that. She was right. ‘A kind of retribution then?’
‘Why not?’ She grinned. ‘Hey, you could call the corridor Buchanan’s Boulevard for Bettongs.’
That was pretty funny considering. The two of us had a good laugh together.
‘Anyway, he won’t know. He never talks about the farm anymore. Mentions Beefeater occasionally. He should have left years ago but point blank refused because of that revolting dog. Praise the Lord he disappeared. My money is definitely on Mrs Lawrence. She was spitting chips about her cat, and she’s a tough old biddy. Did Jim find out anything?’
I shook my head. ‘Nah. Never found hide nor hair of him.’
‘Well, I never expected he’d be able to. But I tell you, it was the best thing that ever happened. It really was.’
I wasn’t used to happy endings and I felt like I was walking on air after I left Caitlin’s.
Decided to treat myself to a slap-up meal of fish and chips in a pub by the water to celebrate. There’s not much of what you can call summer in Hobart, you’ve got to jump in quick smart and make the most of it.
I was halfway through the meal when I got a phone call from the Mels. ‘Guess what?’ Rosie yelled. I could hear Blonde Mel shrieking in the background.
I’m not one for games but I could sense the excitement down the line, so I played along. ‘No idea. Tell me.’
‘Kitty has a joey!’
‘What! Already?’ I was gobsmacked.
‘It’s just a jellybean. We found it this morning. But if it’s a girl we’re going to call it Lady Catherine. For you. After Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the book.
I started to laugh, was still laughing when Blonde Mel came on the line. ‘She was a bit of a dragon, old Lady Catherine!’ She was quiet for a second. ‘Just saying!’ I could hear them giggling. ‘And now that revolting, piece of shit dog is gone, she’s got a chance. They’ve all got a chance!’
I finished the call with a warm fuzzy feeling. A baby bettong named for me. As close as I was going to get to family. I suddenly realised I’d forgotten to mention the corridor when the bloke at the next table leant over and grinned at me. ‘Good news, Catherine?’
I looked at him sharpish. Didn’t much care for conversations with strangers in the pub. ‘Oh, Jim! Sorry, didn’t recognise you out of uniform. What are you doing in Hobart?’
‘Conference.’ His smile faded and he looked glum. ‘Special problems associated with small town policing. I could tell them a thing or two. Write a book more like.’
I nodded. ‘Bet you could.’
‘But I tell you this, it’s been so much easier without Beefeater and old man Buchanan. I had so many bloody nightmares about him with that shotgun. But if I’d tried to take it or the dog, likely I’d have ended up shot. Ah, Cath. I owe you big time for sorting that one out.’ He winked at me. ‘Here let me get you another beer.’
I watched him thread his way to bar, without his uniform just another old man, grey hair with a slight stoop. But whip smart. Up until now I’d thought that no one had twigged but looked like I’d been wrong. Was always going to be hard to get one over Jim. It had been a pretty straightforward decision for me to make, and dead easy to carry out. All it had taken to trap Beefeater was a kilo of chuck steak. If there was one thing he would never do, it was turn down food. And the rest, as they say, is history.
At the time it seemed that all the people who’d been involved in this little saga had lost sight of what a ranger’s job was all about. But I hadn’t. They’d drummed it into us during our training: some animals you have to do everything in your power to protect; others, you have to kill. Being a ranger is a job that needs a tough, level-headed person. Just like me.