"Dad, two dogs just took down a roo."
My daughter is straddling her bike, pointing towards the paddock across from our house.
Through the haze and sagging wire fence, we watch it unfold like something from a Warners Bros. cartoon. A thuggish brindle bitsa keeps a paw on a supine grey kangaroo as its white, fluffball companion runs in circles, yapping incessantly, as if giving orders.
The bantamweight jumps to its feet and throws a few punch-drunk jabs before flopping again, the big dog clamped to its chest, the little one giddy with febrile approval.
My eldest child has met me at the gate after her morning ride. It's to be her very last day of primary school, the fires putting an early and anticlimactic end to all those wonderful years.
She's just done the "tip block", a short, sharp lap to get the blood pumping and shake off another fitful sleep.
The tip block is the easiest of our walk/rides; there are plenty of others, each varying in degrees of challenge and reward. They include the big pub block, the small pub block (we have only one pub), the cemetery, the waterfall (its dicier extension, the rock pools), the bridge and the forest road. The escarpment goat track has its own segments - the lookout, the powerlines, the hairpin and the gate. Any of these rubrics detail, to the second, when someone should return. Things only go wrong when a new trek is in the testing phase, like the time my wife took our middle child for a crepuscular stroll to a freshly cleared fire trail. They returned in darkness (and close to tears) just as I was warming up the ute and trying to get Violent Femmes' Country Death Song out of my head.
I tell my girl to fetch the blockbuster from the shed (I don't own a gun ... they're bad, of course ... but ... well ... anyway) and I take it into the paddock. My arrival causes the dogs to flee north and east, suggesting their work opportunistic - more the alloyed result of three components forged in the furnace of cosmic coincidence than anything premeditated - but this just adds to the sense of iniquity and, as I approach the crime scene, dead grass crunching beneath my feet, the jaunty exploits of Spike and Chester from Looney Tunes are crowded out by flashbacks of the James Bulger killing.
They returned in darkness (and close to tears) just as I was warming up the ute and trying to get Violent Femmes' Country Death Song out of my head.
The roo is a defeat of shallow breaths and nip-sized divots of lurid purple flesh, as if its fur is covered in winking eyes. Add those to the hazel pair from across the paddock and I can't bring myself to take a swing, so I drop the maul and scoop the animal into my arms, its awkward body folding against mine and its long lashes batting with such drama and unhinged supplication, I feel as though I'm cradling Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois ("I have always depended on the kindness of strangers") or, because it's male, Terry Jones' Prince Herbert ("You've come to rescue me!").
Back home, I place it in the shade of the house. My wife calls our local wildlife volunteers and our daughter runs off to fill a Tupperware container with water, the kind of futile gesture which brings to mind a scene from 40 years ago when her aunty fed prawns to bream and whiting hauled onto the banks of the Hastings by our own father, his tanned, hairy legs sprouting from a pair of footy shorts and swallowed to the ankles by the river's quicksand.
Alone with the exhausted victim, I witness the moment it dies, but not, I'm sure, from its injuries, rather from terror. A hoon with a barking pig dog in the back of a ute flies past and the roo, thinking its tormentors have returned, clinches in apparent cardiac arrest.
That's it, lights out. Blanche is gone.
We call off the fauna folk and I do the tip block myself to add some blood and bone to the green waste.
I return in time to watch the kids get on the bus and I dwell on how my daughter had flintily relayed the incident; how the dogs "took down" the roo, as if she were an assassin rather than our first-born who, as far as I'm concerned, should still be goo-gooing something like: "Dadda! Two puppies are playing with a kangawoozie!".
Weeks pass, high school arrives and, naturally enough, she begins to slip away from us; incrementally and tenderly.
We issue our new year 7 student a requisite laptop (and allow her a bloody phone) and I wince when I read about someone called an e-safety commissioner releasing a booklet on how to keep children shielded from internet predators. I think how the equivalent in my day was when the state government issued booklets on bike awareness - booklets which, before rolling them out, they had astutely commissioned Spike (the bipolar comedian, not the animated terrier) to deface with impunity.
MORE B. R. DOHERTY:
Later, as the pandemic begins sending the kids home, swarming their devices like Christmas beetles on a screen door, the police, again, advise parental vigilance because the extra time online exposes minors to the "nefarious actions" of stalkers and groomers.
This is all upsetting (not least because the only "nefarious actions" to which our three minors should be exposed are my own) but, soon enough, part of me becomes quite happy to be under house arrest with the family. In this era of digitally enhanced early onset adulthood, it's as though the universe gave us the opportunity to hit the pause button and prolong the kids' childhoods.
And it has been good.
Now, however, as the distant (and garbled) school bell signals a staggered migration back to the classroom, I find myself relieved. For all my romanticising about us functioning blissfully and indefinitely under the one roof, reality - and niggle - is setting in.
My heart may yearn for something akin to the Swiss Family Robinson, but my mind knows it'll end up more like The Mosquito Coast. In fact, in my darker moments, as I pass my desultory, pyjamaed offspring in the hall, I even find myself wishing increasingly unpleasant chores upon them ("I said a mountain of kindling!").
I snap out of it - of course - realising this gift of time is fleeting and I should make an effort to do something extra special with my lazy Gen-Zers before we're torn apart and thrown back into the rat race.
I hear the fire trail is nice this time of year.
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