Mrs Dogwether’s bird moment

MRS DOGWETHER'S FRONT door is open but I don't go in because it smells like chops and cat poo in there. I stand on the doormat and sing out helloo-oo like a tremulous old Mavis.

It's dark inside. I can't hear anything. Maybe she's sitting dead in her yellow chair with the cat clawing at her lap.

I call again. The toilet clanks and hisses. Here she comes. Scrape, clomp, scrape, clomp. I can hear her muttering away to the cat.

Hoy, she says.

Hoy, I say back.

It must be Tuesday, she says. Yes, I say, and I tell her I'm going up the street later on and it's no trouble to grab a few things if she needs anything. A punkin, she tells me. Powdered milk. She's run out of cat food. And one of them tins of ham with the pink label. Custard powder. She leads me through to the back veranda. I hold my breath as I follow her, so I don't have to smell the rooms.

She serves me tea in a teacup and a crumbly slice of last week's Swiss roll. The cat lies on its back on the table between us with its legs spread. We listen to the whit-woo, to-whit-woo coming from Birdwoman's doves over the back fence. There's a big old mango tree in Mrs Dogwether's backyard. There's no fruit on it, even though it's January. It was the hail, she says, knocked all the buds off. Last week she told me it was the fruit bats.

I look at the Swiss roll with its red spiral of jam. I'll have to eat it. She thinks I like it, but all that sticky sugar brings me out in a sweat.

When I ask her how her leg is, she pulls her dress up and shows me the shining ulcer. Her leg looks like the trunk of an old fig tree, all gnarled and whorled, with the veins snaking down like strangler roots. It's looking a bit better. She's wearing the new pink slippers.

She says she's got something for me. She shuffles out and I hear her rummaging around in the next room. She brings out a tiny jar with a pink label. Her granddaughter in Adelaide sent it to her. I read out the label:Nourishing Organic Rose Moisturising Cream. I open the jar. It smells really nice, just like roses, and I dab some under my nostrils so I can breathe it in. I hold the jar out to her.

We sit there sipping our tea, white-moustachioed, stroking the cat's belly.

When I stand to leave she brings out her green purse and gives me a ten-dollar note. Then she hands me the rest of the Swiss roll wrapped in a page of the Daily Examiner, tied up with a wisp of string.

She stands on the front porch gripping the handrail like a captain on a pitching ship, all stern knuckles and face to the wind. You'll cut those feet, she calls down. She always says this.

They're tough, I say, like always.

I go back next door and up the stairs to the Environment Centre. I work here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with Jess. Other days other volunteers are there. We have a roster. I normally bring my sleeping bag and stay there at the centre on Tuesday nights so I don't have to drive all the way home to Gilletts Ridge and then back on the Wednesday. There's nobody at home to miss me except the chooks since my ex moved out.

The Environment Centre used to be in the main street but when the rent went up we had to move around here to Oliver Street. It's cheaper. There's a pub and a few rundown double-storey shops like this one, but most of the street is peeling weatherboard houses on stilts like Mrs Dogwether's.

The big thing for us at the Environment Centre just now is the bridge plan. The Roads Authority wants to build a new bridge over the Clarence River – the old kinked bridge is too narrow for semitrailers. This is a serious engineering extravaganza they're talking about. They want the bridge to start at Eggerts Landing just out of town, run over Supplejack Island and across to the west bank. Using the island would avoid having to build a massive span across the wide Clarence, so the engineers love it. But the Environment Centre is fighting it because Supplejack Island has the last subtropical rainforest remnant in the valley.

Most people in Grafton don't care much about that. They just want a new bridge. Some people think it's okay because they might get a job out of it. Mrs Dogwether says she doesn't want the new bridge, but I think she's just taking our side because I help with her shopping.

Jess and I sit on the back steps of the Environment Centre and smoke a joint. We prop the door open so we can see if anyone comes in. Jess reads aloud to me from a fat document with a shiny blue cover. It's the consultant's report on the fauna and flora of Supplejack Island. It only arrived today.

Although individual rainforest trees are present, this remnant stand is so small as to be of negligible ecological value. Vegetation communities in the precinct are not known to support endangered ecological communities or floral threatened species.

We howl our disgust. We know there are threatened species there. We've been over there by canoe three times with our bird books. Once we camped there, listening for owls. We've seen a Wompoo Fruit-Dove there. They're big, with a yellow belly and a chest the colour of a ripe plum. And we heard something calling whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop, which Jess said was for sure a Superb Fruit-Dove.

Of course the consultant would say there'd be no impact. That's what they're paid to say.

We decide to go back to the island tomorrow and take photos. Jess goes inside to find the camera. I stretch my legs out in the sun and keep reading the report, stabbing my pen at all the half-truths. This whole valley used to be rainforest. Now there's only Supplejack Island. It's the only food source for the fruit-eating doves. I start making notes for a press release to send to the local paper.

There's a rattle and a bang from over the back. It's Birdwoman, limping off to the shops like a decrepit old canary. The Environment Centre and Mrs Dogwether's place both back onto Birdwoman's yard. I can see her head over the fence from where I'm sitting at the top of the steps. From Mrs Dogwether's back veranda you can see right into Birdwoman's terrible backyard, because the fence is falling down. It's a bird slum. She's got finches and parrots and budgies and sad doves all crowded into dark tumbledown cages. The bits of rusty roofing iron are held on with anything she's chucked up there – a lump of concrete, bits of four-by-two, a milk crate. Every time it's windy she throws something else up there. The birds stand lined up on the perches with no room to open their wings. The doves are the first sound in the morning and the last at night. They'll start up in the middle of the night if there's a disturbance in the street. Birdwoman's nailed a ragged square of tin to her front fence. She's scrawled in black paint BUDGYS $15. Last month there was one that said HAND RAZED BLUEBONET $10.

Jess and I reported her to the council last year but they told us she's legal. There's nothing we can do. Bill Purcell from the birdwatchers' club told me that birds raised in captivity couldn't survive in the wild. They'd be attacked and killed before the day was over. They don't know how to look after themselves.

Mrs Dogwether and Birdwoman don't like each other. One day I watched them both hanging out their washing. They had their backs turned to each other. Mrs Dogwether had a mouth like a prune as she flapped out her pillowslip. On the other side of the busted fence Birdwoman, surly faced, pegged up her things while in the cages the little birds sang and sang.

Birdwoman comes back carrying a loaf of bread. I go back inside and get my shopping bags together. Jess is trying to un-jam the printer. I take the Environment Centre bike and ride to the supermarket. Mrs Dogwether loves her tinned peaches but I get her some fresh grapes as well. I find her a handsome little ironbark pumpkin.

I stand in Mrs Dogwether's kitchen again with the shopping. I don't want to stay: I need to get back and finish my press release.

She looks at the floor. What's that? she says. There are red prints on the lino. I pick up my foot with my hand and see a long red smile of a cut on my heel. I hadn't noticed. She doesn't smile very often but now she has a little smirk. She brings out a rag. It's an old pair of man's underpants, soft and grey. I squat down to wipe the lino but she sends me into the bathroom and tells me to put metho on my foot. The metho's in a cabinet behind a speckled mirror. Packets of pills are all stacked up neatly. The towel on the rail is so threadbare it's almost transparent.

I knew you'd do that, she calls out from the kitchen. I pretend I didn't hear.

We sit on the back veranda again. The cat's kneading her lap with its claws. I've got the underpants wrapped around my foot and the cut's stinging from the metho.

I tell Mrs Dogwether I'm upset about the report that ignores the rainforest doves of Supplejack Island. She tells me she's seen doves over on Supplejack when she was a girl. I didn't know she'd ever been there. Then she tells me she used to work behind the counter in Pincombe's Produce Store before the war. I know Pincombe's – it's in River Street. I buy my chook food there. They sell hay and saddles and fencing wire, seeds, axes and boots. Anyway, she says, that's where she met Jack Bloomfield. He was off a dairy farm. He used to ride all the way into town on a bicycle and pick her up. She'd sit on the crossbar of his bike and they'd ride out to Eggerts Landing, and they'd hide the bike in the prickly cockspur on the river's edge and swim out to Supplejack. It was a long way, she says: two hundred yards.

She tells me that when she became tired she'd float on her back and he'd hold her to him, swimming with one arm while she lay against him.

The sun's shining on the table. In the dusty light her arms look like some ravaged land, all rutted and gullied. Her hands lie next to her cup like naked things. I wait but she's not saying anything else.

Then she asks me if I think all them doves over there on Supplejack will be driven away if the bridge goes ahead.

Yes, I say.


BACK AT THE Environment Centre, Jess is getting ready to go home. I go back to my press release. I try to write something that will make people care. Just the names of the trees are beautiful: White Booyong, Supplejack, Pepperberry. Turnipwood. Pothos Vine. In the dawn-lit forest of Supplejack Island, the Superb Fruit-Dove feeds quietly on soft figs, innocent of the plan to destroy its only food source.

Just before sunset I ride the bicycle out to Eggerts Landing. Supplejack Island lies long and low in the water with the dark mass of trees pluming out of its back. The underbellies of clouds are mirrored in the water. I can hear frogs in the reeds clopping and squeaking and making little splashes. It smells like the sea. In the distance I can see the old Grafton Bridge squatting on its fat piers. The pink falls out of the sky fast. By the time I get back to the Environment Centre I'm relying on a buttery full moon to see where I'm going.

Before I go to bed I look again at the route plan. The bridge and link road are drawn onto an aerial photo. The thick black line goes sliding across the paddocks and down to the river. It catches Supplejack Island, roping it tightly to the riverbanks east and west, then snakes away to the Summerland Way.

Something wakes me up. I've always been a light sleeper. If a possum so much as sneezes I wake up. It's twenty to twelve. I've been dreaming about water.

There's something scraping around in the backyard. The doves start up a lopsided whit-woo, whit-woo. It could be just a drunk. But it could be someone breaking in. It wouldn't be the first time. I slide out of my sleeping bag and creep towards the back door in the dark, trying to keep my feet quiet on the floorboards. I open the back door slowly, my fingertips on the latch. I stand at the top of the steps and lean out over the railing, listening.

The doves have stopped. Every sound is perfectly clear. A dog is barking a few streets away. I can hear the trucks grinding softly along the highway on the other side of the river. I can't hear the scraping noise anymore.

Everything is bright and sharpened. The moon is directly overhead, cold and small and far away. But even though it looks small, it lights everything up. It's shining on the top of the mango tree and on the mulberry tree and on the roofs of Birdwoman's cages over the back fence. There are no shadows; everything's in relief, like at midday when the sun's overhead. I can see every leaf on the mulberry tree.

It's nothing.

I'm just about to go back inside when I see Mrs Dogwether standing at her back fence. I can see her face. She's in her dressing gown. I'm sure she's looking right up at me, but neither of us makes a sign.

She's standing at a hole in the fence where the palings have fallen off. She turns and pushes very slowly through the gap, into Birdwoman's yard. I can see her hand gripping the square fence post.

The doves start up again with their beat-up whit-woo. Mrs Dogwether is at their cage. She's got her back to me.

She turns and looks at me. I don't move. We stare at each other. Then she swings the cage door open and I hear the wet flap of wings.

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