The girls’ father went to jelly over all of this. One morning, Maddie found him napping on her bed. He heard her enter the room and opened one reptilian eye.
‘On my bed!’
The other eye opened, fixing Maddie with a tan iris flecked with green.
‘Your mother has happily welcomed that dog onto my side of the bed, leaving no room for me,’ he informed Maddie in that tone which was working itself up. Poor me, his final peevish glance conveyed before his eyes closed, ending the conversation.
The days stretched on during that hot summer in the islands. Their mother gardened; Possum lazed on the cool cement of the veranda keeping his eye on her; Father kept away, donning bright Hawaiian shirts and French cologne to work in town; and the girls were always bored and bothered in the stagnant tropical heat. There was never anything to do on the island except swim in the blue lagoons of the ocean out in front of the house then rinse off in the hidden waterholes in the bush. Then perhaps drive with their mother into the one-horse town to buy ice cream or a fizzy from the twenty or so Chinese stores, all selling exactly the same, dated things. The girls would trail the dusty shops, Jules wishing she could meet a cute guy in this boring place and Maddie trying to figure out how to weasel one more ice cream out of her mother. But nothing ever happened, and when their mother was finished with the grocery shopping they would return to the plantation.
As the summer holidays were coming to an end and the girls prepared to fly back to boarding school in New Zealand, Possum began to rot. A smell began to linger. Each morning, as the girls lay on the couches, reading, wafts of rotting flesh intermingled with ripening papaya would alert them to the creature’s approach. The girls would shoo him back out towards their mother in the garden and Possum happily went to his beloved.
Their father was oblivious. He would noisily consume a large papaya each morning as part of his new health regime while watching their mother march through the lush garden that shrouded the large tall ceilinged house. Arthritic by now, Possum could only wobble after her, his tail wagging. Their father would rub the remnants of the fruit on his face, and thunder around the thick-cemented floors with an orange face for an hour.
‘The enzymes are good for your skin, you know,’ he told the girls. They rolled their eyes.
One evening when the tropical night was particularly airtight, Father stayed out all night. He did not return the next night nor the one after that. During those three still evenings, their mother and Possum did not join the girls for dinner. The girls ate dripping strawberry jam smeared on baguettes and listened to the sound of bluegrass wafting from behind the closed bedroom door.
When their father finally returned, a change had come over him. He no longer went into town for work. Instead he lurked about the house, watching and waiting for something. One morning, seated high at his desk overlooking the sea, he saw Possum tremble by. The dog stopped and sniffed the air expectantly, as if he located something amiss. Father sprang into action.
‘Girls, girls – look at poor Possum.’
The girls glanced up from their books, still groggy with sleep. Their father leaped over the veranda steps in his long legs and crouched in front of the dog. Alerted to this sudden movement and realising that it was not his beloved, Possum stood as erect as he could, drooling into the grass. Their father began to pat the dog vigorously. The girls looked at each other with surprise.
Possum received this without much fuss.
‘Go on, give him a little scratch. He just needs a bit of affection,’ their father implored them with a wave. He stopped, gazed at the dog with a smile and sniffed his hands.
‘Jesus, he stinks!’ he announced with such triumph that the girls sunk back further into the couch.
All at once their father’s legs were in motion, the very same legs that they’d clung onto as small children, and his hand extended towards them.
In a flurry, their mother entered the room and Possum wobbled and growled to his beloved. The girls flew from the couch to their room, noses wrinkling, and their father remembered his desk; the smelly hand was forgotten.
In the following days the dog began to soil himself and a cloudy look came over his eyes. Being the first up in the mornings, their father would happen upon Possum sitting in his own mess.
‘Oh nooooo!’ The girls heard him from where they lay in their room. ‘Mother? Girls? Bessie! Possum has shat himself. Quick!’
Nobody moved in the house. Then they heard shuffling.
‘We better go and see what’s happening,’ Maddie prodded her sister.
They emerged to their father cradling Possum in his arms, thin legs buckled under the old dog’s weight, cooing into his slimy face. They quickly rushed back into their bedroom. Peeking back out, they saw their father deposit Possum on a new clean spot then grab a towel hanging on the back of a chair and throw it over his mess. He sniffed his hands, then heaved his thin shoulders up in a deep sigh, and resumed his position at the desk. This happened the next morning and the next.
The girls went to their mother in the kitchen.
‘Mum, something is seriously wrong with Possum. We have to call the vet,’ said Maddie.
‘Ah – hello?! Something is seriously wrong with Dad too!’ Jules almost yelled.
‘Calm down, Jules. And don’t be dramatic. Possum is just getting old. Just like your father.’ Their mother emphasised this last point as if the girls ought to know what she meant. She then watered her plants in the sink, where they’d begun to grow over the bench, creeping towards the light from the netted windows. The girls exchanged skeptical glances.
Then Possum began to throw up his food. The girls couldn’t understand why their parents wouldn’t do anything. They conspired to do something about it themselves. The week before the girls were due to fly out they called Peter the vet, and readied themselves for what they presumed would be a kind death in the face of the dog’s fast deteriorating health. Surely.
The girls also noticed that for some reason, Father no longer seemed to see Possum as a rival. Instead, he pranced around the large house recounting Possum tales to anybody who would listen.
Their father cornered the housegirl one afternoon. ‘I tell you, Bessie, the smell was out of this world and shit was everywhere. I knew I had to do something about it. These people —,” he waved his hand in the direction of Mother and the girls, ‘— they won’t do a thing!”
Bessie hesitates, her eyes darting out into the garden where the girls’ mother was working then returned to Father. ’Mister, you did good work.’
‘Come, Bessie. Look at him – he just wants company.’ With that Father bounded over to Possum’s side and began petting the blind and drooling creature, whose large mouth opened a little further in an appreciative pant.
Bessie’s face contorted.
‘Mister, I finish my work…’ she backed away, catching Maddie’s eye who mouthed ‘run’ to her. Their father didn’t even notice her slipping off as Possum messed himself again.
At last, the vet was due to come to the house. Mother was in the garden and Father was writing at his desk, while Maddie pretended to read. Jules nervously buzzed around, checking the driveway, checking the dog, checking Maddie. The afternoon laboured on and the girls got a sinking feeling, imagining that their secret appointment with the vet had somehow been found out. When the clock struck two, Jules couldn’t stand it any longer.
‘If he doesn’t arrive soon we will have to do something about it,’ she whispered fiercely to Maddie, who shook her head vigorously.
‘No. I couldn’t.’
‘Maddie, look at him!’
The dog struggled to stand on the yellowed cement floor in an even yellower puddle. His nails scratched and slipped in the wet. Their father looked over. The girls froze.
‘Oh Possum. Girls, help him!’
The girls recoiled. Their father sighed, scraped his chair back and legged it over to the dog. As he tsk tsked in a fuss around the mutt, Bessie announced that the vet had arrived. The girls bolted for the door. They ran out and along the path, past the hibiscus, to where a tall silver-haired man was hanging out of his car door at an odd angle, looking very red in the face.
‘Hi Peter, quickly – in here,’ Jules called out to him. He did not move. The girls went closer. He had a glazed look in his eyes and was frothing a little at the corners of his mouth.
‘Eh eh eh.’ That was all he said. The girls exchanged looks.
Before he could reply, they heard a loud thud.
‘Jules! Maddie! Come quick!’ their father called.
The girls swept the vet and his bag of tricks through the gate, past the hibiscuses, in the door, through the house and all the way to the grassy spot outside the veranda where their father had just deposited Possum and stood admiring his handiwork.
‘Go and get Mum,’ Jules told Maddie gravely, ‘this will have to be a family decision.’
As Maddie ran off, their father noticed the vet.
‘Hi Peter! You’ve come for the dog I suppose.’
He struck his dripping hand out to shake. The vet sloped past him, flopped down and pulled Possum onto his lap. The mutt immediately began dripping onto the vet and licking his frothy face.
‘Good good dog.’ The vet was delighted.
Their father’s mouth twisted to say something, but settled into a pursing of the lips instead.
‘There there. What a good dog,’ the man kept repeating and laughing.
‘What do you think?’ Jules pleaded. ‘He’s not looking good don’t you think? I mean – he smells really bad! And he’s been throwing up!’
Peter ignored her, his eyes fixed on Possum. ‘There there good dog.’
Jules took a step towards them, peering closely. Man and dog were beginning to resemble the other in a grinning and drooling sort of way.
‘Peter? Are you ok?’ she asked.
Their father eyed the pair suspiciously. ’There’s something very wrong with that man,’ he declared.
Mother appeared from behind the bright bougainvillea on the other side of the garden.
‘Hello there! Peter!’ she called to man and dog, smiling.
When Possum heard her he scrambled to get off Peter’s lap but the vet clung to him.
‘I-I think he wants you to let him go to Mum,’ Jules said. She tried to pull the dog off the man but came away with slime and what smelt like urine.
‘Oh yuck! Mum!’
Their mother took in the scene, her gaze settling on Peter for a long moment before turning sharply to her daughter.
‘Maddie, don’t just stand there gaping!’ she snapped to the girls, whom stood squirming to one side. ‘Get the poor man a sugary drink. He has low blood sugar levels for heaven’s sake!’
Maddie rushed inside. Jules came and stood by their mother, dripping. When Maddie returned with a sweetened lime juice, the vet grabbed at it with trembling fingers, and Possum finally managed to escape to his beloved. The vet drained the glass in one go. He looked exhausted, and so the decision about Possum was delayed for another day.
The day before they left, the girls spent all day swimming with Bessie and her children at the fresh water holes. They returned to the house as the sun was setting over the ocean and found their mother alone in the kitchen. The room was already dark, the dying sun cutting up her figure in glowing orange. They stopped at the door.
Jules spoke. ‘Mum, what are you—‘
‘Your father and Possum have gone for a walk,’ their mother said, as if that’s what they asked.
‘Oh.’ Jules glanced at her sister, who shrugged.
Their mother looked out the window and the orange light warmed up her dark skin and shone through her afro. The girls held their breath. She looked like a goddess.
‘Yes. Your father wants a divorce,’ their mother said quietly.
In the distance a dog barked.