Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Just call Ma

Seymour Drive is the other SPCA house. No one has been living there since the last vet left so Deb and I were given the keys to check the place out, see if we might want to move in there. With Deb away on a vet clinic I set out alone one Sunday morning to case the joint.

The bure family (caretakers who live in an attached house) waved as I walked up the drive and greeted me like an old friend. They invited me in for a cup of tea and five hours later I was still there, talking. That’s what happens when you sit on a straw mat in Fiji.

Ma made boiled egg and potato curry while her husband Manu, a policeman, told me all the stories of his life. Ma’s cousins dropped by with fresh bread and invited Deb and me to feast with their family one Sunday. Ma told me to call her whenever I didn’t feel like cooking. “Just call me and say, ‘Ma, I’m coming for dinner,’” she said. “And then you come. Even if we only have tea that day, we will drink it with you.”

The sheet metal prophet

He was hovering by the SPCA van as I struggled to loosen a sheet of tin metal from a junkyard pile. I wanted it for the roof of our chook pen and I didn’t care much if taking it meant stealing. All that scrap metal just sitting beside the car park, surely it couldn’t belong to anyone or they’d see me looking and come running up to tell me how much to pay.

I finally got it free and lugged the metal sheet back to the van. Deb opened the back and we tried fitting it in at different angles. “Nah, too long” (me) “And if we put it over the top of the cage it’ll slice our heads off while we’re driving” (Deb). Well, we tried.

He was still there, that man. Watching us. He came closer, took a long drag on his cigarette and said, “bend it.”
“Bend it?” we asked. It was a thick sheet of metal, heavy to lift.
“Like this,” he said. He placed the sheet flat on the ground and gestured for Deb and me to stand in the middle while he pushed one side up. Soon enough we had an L shape that could fit easily in the van.
“Anything is possible,” said the man. A sheet metal prophet.

What would you be doing?

“What would you be doing if you weren’t in Fiji? You’d be selling your pussy on the street, do you hear me?” This was spat at me by a street cleaner as I passed him on the footpath one afternoon. Was it my unmade face, loose-fitting t-shirt or my below-the-knee skirt that gave him the wrong idea? Oh but of course, it was my fair skin: that’s all it takes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Next time you come can you bring a mongoose?

No, we don’t keep mongoose at the animal shelter. That much I could answer. But some of the other questions really tested me. Like, ‘do you think it’s possible that my dog’s spirit could be transferred to my son’s body? I think this is what has happened. What about the blood? Could animal blood be in a human body?’...

I was speaking to patients at the psychiatric hospital. Just down the road from the shelter, up a hill, looking over the prison. One of the other volunteers invited me, to see where she worked and talk about how animals are good for our mental health.

We’d brought a puppy with us. Raffa, four months old with honey-coloured fur. He was a bit nervous and his limbs went all floppy when we let him out of the cage. Ioane cradled him, walked round to let the patients pat him while I spoke.

My notes curled up unread in the palm of my hand as I did my best to respond to a barrage of patients’ comments...

‘I think people rights are much more important than animal rights. I know a family who feed their dogs well but don’t look after their children.’
‘How often should I bathe my dog?’
‘We have kittens here, two of them’
‘Excuse me, but I know everything you are telling us, I saw it on the Get Set program on TV’
‘How much is this puppy? Can we buy this puppy?’
‘What about when I call the shelter and they don’t come?’
‘He likes it when you pat him’
‘Do you have mongoose? We have mongoose here’
‘Where are you from?’
‘The dog bit my son and now my son has the dog’s spirit in him. Do you believe me?’

This is the house that Lars built

Imthurn (a street name – we refer to housemates collectively by the name of the street in which they live) wanted to eat their chickens because they weren’t laying. They gave the chooks till the end of the feed bag to produce some eggs or they would get the chop.

Deb, being a vet, and me, having no idea whatsoever about keeping chickens but being very excited by the prospect, decided we would have better luck with these hens. We would make these chooks lay eggs! So we started to build a chook pen. Lars helped us, lured by the promise of fresh eggs (and we agreed to name the pen after him – we’ll even make a sign).

The house that Lars built is a 3 x 2 x 1.5m castle made of some old cross-wire pieces we found in our garage attic, once used as bars for the house windows. Irava at the shelter gave us a roll of chicken wire she had lying in her yard – ‘you need chicken wire or the mongoose will get in.’ Now we just need a roof and some straw and we’ll be 'set' (the Fijian word for 'cool').

It's a Fiji Special

Asata laughing like the wicked witch of the west, if the wicked witch of the west was good. The van door rolling shut. The click of the padlock on the main gate. And dogs barking. They’re the sounds of the animal shelter.

I sit upstairs, in a little office above the reception building. Every morning ‘the cake man is here’ with a box of baked goods to sell. We chat. And he asks me to go to church with him.

I make notes and pin them to the board. Small scraps of paper with all my hopes and dreams for the shelter. Some may come true, if we can find the money. Adi and Ioane will come and check in with me, complain about the heat, pull books out of the resource cupboard, ask what we should do next.

Our computers are slow, the internet unpredictable. The air-conditioning is broken. Downstairs there is a mess of paperwork. The filing will get done, but the dogs need feeding first. We have broken dogs, learning to walk with one leg in a cast, and dogs with surgical wounds covered in purple antiseptic spray. We have euthanised dogs in the freezer.

Old pop songs play in the clinic, three CDs all day on repeat. Deb will have her hands in a dog’s stomach, pulling out the reproductive bits. Or maybe she’ll be bandaging a bloody paw or sealing the side of a cat with a needle and thread. No gloves, we ran out.

In the kennels, rows of plates are filled with meat dust and rice. For the dogs. What kind of dogs are they? ‘Fiji Special’ - a mix of some kind, but no one knows what.

Cars pull up at the gate, their wheels crunching on the gravel. People climb out clutching cardboard boxes and laundry baskets with little puppy and kitten heads poking out. On plastic garden chairs they wait. Next to the dog chained in the corner with a tumour on its face.

The phone will ring with another complaint. Irava will call out ‘SUPAAA’ and he will back the ambulance out to drive to the next house call.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I think someone has set it on fire

At 2am, my mobile rang. ‘Thea? I just got home and there’s a dog on my doorstep... I think someone has set it on fire. Nearly all its fur is gone and it has open cuts all over its body, there’s blood and pus coming out. Is Deb home? Can someone from the SPCA come pick it up? I’ll try and get it to drink some water. It’s really...it’s... I’ve never seen a dog before and wanted it to die.’

Colorado. Didn't ask.

The crowd parted as she made her way down the stairs. She wore a baseball cap to one side and a grey crop top and board shorts sandwiched her ample stomach. She strummed a guitar, tunelessly, while calling out ‘aloha, aloha, aloha’ – to us. We had no idea who she was or even where she’d come from. She just appeared at the top of the stairs in the middle of the Colo-i-Suva rainforest.
She walked straight towards us – we were sitting by the waterhole with the big rope swing – and she asked ‘where are you from?’.
We said: ‘Australia.’ And there was silence.
Another splash in the waterhole as someone let go of the rope.
‘Colorado,’ she said.
‘Didn’t ask,’ we thought.
After she briefly explained how she had lived in Hawaii and the States (still, we hadn’t asked) she put down the guitar and dived into the water. As though her presence needed no further explanation. She swam quickly to the other side and waved back at us.
It was the most random encounter I’ve ever had with a human being. We laughed out loud. ‘Colorado’, we thought. We didn’t ask.

I need some old man rub

An hour and a half of aerobics at the Suva YMCA and I hurt for a week. We did step-ups on little wooden boxes to songs like ‘jump (for my love)’ and all sorts of bends and stretches and lunges. In pairs one person made an A-frame with their legs and the other crawled between them. We ran laps of the gym. Over and over. Half way through the class I heard a woman begging her partner to let her leave: ‘Please, I promise I’ll stay till the end next week but I just can’t do anymore tonight.’ Our laps became slower and slower. Our clothes were heavy with sweat, our barefeet slipping on the wooden floor. First we ran from end to end, hurdling over the step-up boxes. Then we could only run half a lap. Toward the end we just walked in a circle around our step-up box. It was all we could do not to collapse.