Friday 30 April 2010

Dragons in Paradise: Part 2

[A model sandfly at Milford Sound, NZ. Be thankful they don't come this big in real life!]

[more musings on things that sting and bite in several different countries]

At the other end of the size scale of "dragons" is the humble New Zealand sandfly. Actually sandfly singular is an oxymoron in two senses. Firstly you never see just one: clouds seems to be the preferred collective. And secondly there are about 13 different species of sandflies. The slightly good news is that only two of those species – and then only the females – actually bite humans. However species and gender identification of sandflies is an arcane business, and few trampers have mastered it. Another possible comfort is that if you climb to 1500 metres, and stay there, you will not be troubled by sandflies.

If lack of altitude or entomological expertise means you do come into contact with these little beasts, locals will assure you that sandflies are not generally lethal. Despite such reassurances, experience will teach you a “once bitten twice shy” kind of lesson. Despite being visible, sandflies are very small, and usually silent, unless one happens to fly right into your ear. If they evade your attention they will typically land on a nice piece of exposed skin, say around your wrist, ankles, neck or face.

Their bite is scarcely noticeable – at first – and they are usually long gone with their load of blood before you know about it. But they will have left their little chemical calling card: an anti-coagulant that helps your blood to flow. That in turn will set up an irritation that means the bite swells slightly, your immune system’s automatic response to the chemical invasion. Your slightly more conscious reaction will be to scratch the itch: not a good move, but one that is hard to resist. In my case the tiniest of bites on my wrist became so itchy that I scratched it in my sleep.

The bite then became infected, probably from bacteria that were already present on my skin. The infected bite then swelled more, reddened further, then darkened to an ugly blotch. Over the next few days it became even more maddeningly itchy. Eventually – maybe two weeks later – my (mere Aussie) immune system got the better of the bite. The fearful thing is that this was ONE bite. It is far more usual to receive multiple bites. In the poor German tramper’s case (see "Dragons in Paradise: Part 1"), his immune system had a long and hard struggle to overcome the dozens of bites, and permanent skin scars may well result.

By now you may well be wondering how you can avoid this hell-on-wings. For instance have the ever-inventive Kiwis come up with a bear bell equivalent: perhaps a sandfly siren? Well no, so far they’ve not, although they do offer a plethora of sage advice. A good start is to starve the buggers of exposed skin by wearing long sleeved shirts and trousers and a hat. Next you can put insect repellent on any exposed skin and on your hat. One I didn’t try, but which locals swear by, is to take vitamin B tablets. Apparently sandflies don’t like this, and as those great Australasian delicacies Marmite or Vegemite are full of it, some recommend large doses of this. If sandflies don’t like vitamin B, they DO like dark colours, so it’s best to avoid wearing black, navy and similar coloured clothing.

There’s a kind of “my father’s tougher than your father” debate between New Zealand’s sandfly fanciers and Scotland’s midge admirers. In Scotland there are around 30 different species of midge, but only one that is a real bother to humans. Culicoides impunctatus failed to make an impact during my couple of weeks in the Scottish highlands a few summers back. I was almost disappointed, given that I’d purchased some special insect repellent and a rather fetching khaki midge net that looked like an oversized gauze condom.

Scots tried to soothe me by saying things like “och, if ye’d only come last week …”, a phrase they usually saved for the weather. As with weather, you can now get a summer midge forecast in Scotland. It’s totally serious, and is based on a combination of counts from midge traps and expected weather conditions. You’d have to imagine that’s one up on the Kiwis.
I imagine a play-off between these two fearsome critters. The sandflies would do a haka, of course, and the midges would be piped onto the field by a band playing “Flyers of Scotland” (a special Diptera version of that Scottish national song).

If it wasn’t for our leeches, jack jumpers, march flies and mosquitoes, I might almost feel as though Tasmania was left out of this invertebrate face-off.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Dragons in Paradise: Part 1

[A stuffed Alaskan Brown Bear in the Juneau Museum. In the rest of the USA they're known as Grizzly Bears. You'd be grizzly too if you'd been stuffed!]

[I'm amazed and intrigued by our perceptions of things that bite, sting and sometimes devour ...]

Every Garden of Eden has its serpent, every paradise its dragons. So there will always be hazards in the wild. Few walkers on their home patch give these more than a respectful thought or two. They’re like the local road rules: you’re so accustomed to following them you do it almost automatically. In contrast the first time I drove in North America, there was nothing automatic about driving on the right side of the road.

So too when I first walk in a new area, I tend to pay the unfamiliar hazards a lot more heed. If you wanted to be heavily analytical about it, or if OH&S training was deeply ingrained, you could create a score-card of such hazards for your walking destinations, and assiduously eschew all hazards. In practice such an approach is a little more anal than most of us tend to be. Rather we listen to locals – sometimes filtering their words for blarney – and/or we read the guidebooks. We then take appropriate precautions.

But common sense doesn’t always prevail. I’ve found a certain tabloid-fuelled fear, especially among Europeans, of all biting and stinging things in Australia. Sometimes this fearfulness can not only rob you of enjoyment, it can even backfire. One poor German we heard about in New Zealand had avoided walking in Australia for fear of poisonous spiders (something I’ve never encountered while walking). He chose to tramp in New Zealand, because it had no snakes and few spiders. But on his first day in Fiordland he was besieged by sandflies. The bites, many on his face, became infected and he ended up almost incapacitated.

Of course even the most rigorous hazard chart will never tell the full story. As much as I like to think of Tasmania as a “green and pleasant land”, there are times when I’ve paused to wonder why the scrub has to be quite so spiteful. One Easter we came off the Traveller Range near Lake St Clair by means of a traditional off-track “scrub bash”. The term is the same in New Zealand, even if, in my opinion, the scrub is marginally less fearsome. In Alaska, where the bush has the added seasonal bonus of bearing deliciously edible fruit, they call it bushwhacking. Despite its apparent meaning, the phrase actually means getting from point A to point B without a track, and hopefully with the least possible damage from or to the vegetation.

As we dropped from the Travellers through thick scrub, the theory was that descending would be so much easier than ascending, whatever amount of knee wobbling it may induce. But knees proved to be the least of our worries. At regular intervals our progress was blocked by cutting grass (Gahnia grandis) ready to slice our grasping hands if we sought to use it to slow our inelegant stumbling. As we spiralled off that hazard we plummeted into a wall of scoparia. This stuff alone is enough to keep me from wearing shorts in the Tasmanian bush. That it bears flowers of great beauty and with an edible nectar every summer is, at the time, small compensation for the shredded skin and clothes that a serious exposure to its teak-tough, razor-sharp foliage produces. Add encounters with hakea (needle bush), banksia, and bauera and the theme of tough inflexibility is seared into your brain.

Yet as you level out this resistance army gives way to a smiling guard of honour, as a beautifully benign myrtle beech forest welcomes you back to the Overland Track near the so-called Bowling Green. It was probably named for its lawn-like appearance, at least from afar. It’s kept that way by a combination of browsing wombats and waterlogging.

… While the natural instinct might be to do a St George, most of these dragons actually have a rightful and useful place in the ecology of the areas we choose to visit. Rather than slaying them willy-nilly, we can learn to live with dragons, and can even develop a grudging admiration for their biting, stinging or blood-sucking genius. Failing that we can at least adapt our walking styles to their presence.

Walking with an awareness of “dragons” doesn’t always have to be as extreme as when we hiked in bear country in Alaska. There we took some early advice to wear bear bells on the trail. We felt more than slightly crazy wearing these “jingle bells” and clapping and singing to forewarn bears that we were around. But given that we did see our statutory 3 bears (a mother and her two cubs) we felt justified in our lunacy.

Afterwards some more savvy locals told us that bears refer to the bells as dinner bells. They then shared lots of not-very comforting bear mauling stories. They topped it off with the standard bear bell joke, which goes. Q: How do you know when a bear has eaten a tourist? A: From the bells in their droppings. When we went bushwhacking with locals on Baranof Island, and they saw our bells, they quietly offered us cans of pepper spray instead. They prefer to carry it as a last ditch weapon against an attacking bear. Some dragons have to be taken pretty seriously, especially 3 metre tall carnivorous ones.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Another Side of ANZAC

[Pandani surrounded by fagus that's begun to turn: Crater Lake, Tasmania]

[Some sideways thoughts on ANZAC Day, with a natural twist, of course]

It last happened in the year 2000, and it’s going to happen again next year: two “sacred” times for Australians will coalesce. I’m talking about Easter occurring around the same date as ANZAC Day.

While both occasions mean many different things to different people, for obsessive bushwalkers it’s a ripe time for extended bushwalking. So back in autumn 2000 I grabbed the chance for a long ramble in Tasmania’s Central Plateau. The area has been dubbed, without exaggeration, the land of a thousand lakes. I have written before about this part of Tassie at

What is less well-known about the Central Plateau is that it also contains vast stands of Tasmania’s only winter-deciduous tree, Nothofagus gunnii, better known as fagus. On that April walk we found this wonderland at the peak of the fagus’s autumn colouring. We were in a heaven of gently undulating rocky slopes dotted with lakes and covered with golden fagus. It was like a vast deciduous forest in bonsai form.

I couldn’t help wondering how many Tasmanians, let alone other Australians, knew we’d had this marvel on display here for the last 50 million autumns. Here in Dorothea Mackellar’s  wide brown land, clothed mostly in evergreen eucalypts, Tasmania had hidden this lingering connection with old Gondwana. On that long dismembered super-continent, deciduousness once ruled. Now only this faint seldom-seen echo remains.

It felt like finding a fragment of our connectedness with the northern hemisphere “main stream”. Had a lifetime of enculturation into the beauty myth of fall/autumn in that hemisphere led me to seek out a worthy expression of it here in the highlands of Tasmania? I wondered whether it was the same kind of desire to be recognised as part of the “club” that took young Australians and New Zealanders to Gallipoli in 1915. A disastrous battle on a Turkish Peninsula, as far from home as most Aussies and Kiwis had ever been, was to become a symbol of adulthood for the two young nations. And ANZAC Day – April 25th – has been celebrated by Australians and New Zealanders ever since.

As I thought about this desire to be part of the northern hemisphere action, it occurred to me that Gondwana and its forerunner, Pangaea, actually turned some of that thinking on its head. There was a time when all of the world’s now-most-populous continents were together here in the southern hemisphere. It is Europe and North America who have moved northwards, not we who have drifted south.

But regardless of the origins of my response to it, no amount of peak-bagging could compare with that Easter’s transcendent tramp through the fagus. And an ANZAC Day will rarely go by without me wanting to visit and pay homage to a botanical marvel that long pre-dates our recent attempts to show our worth to the world.

Friday 23 April 2010

Some Visuals For a Change

Here's a slide show of some of my images from walks and bush trips in Tasmania over the last few years.

If you click on the small image below you'll be taken to Picasa, where a full size set of images, with captions, should be accessible. Enjoy!

Sunday 18 April 2010

Feral Peril

[a stoat trap along NZ's Kepler Track. Click on the image and see if you can see the deceased stoat inside!]

[A cautionary tale from across the Tasman Sea]

It is not an altogether pleasant experience to be woken by mice scurrying over your face. The unpleasantness increases when the wider implications of a mouse plague in remote New Zealand are understood.

It’s spring 2006, and we are on our first serious tramp in the South Island of New Zealand. Our overnight stay in Aspiring Hut is very early in the season, just days after the hut has been fully opened.

2006 is a beech mast year – meaning that the various species of southern beech that dominate the forests of New Zealand are seeding prolifically. That’s good for the future of these beautiful forests, so reminiscent of Tasmania’s myrtle forests (to which they are related). But it’s also good for anything that will eat the seeds, and this year that’s conjured up a vast multitude of mice.

In, under and around Aspiring Hut hordes of mice have seen out the winter. With the thaw and the longer days they’re breeding and feeding at a frantic rate. Hence the early morning tip-toeing across my beard. Later, when we walk the Routeburn Track, the forest floor is alive with mice. In my peripheral vision the forest floor seems to undulate as mice scurry to hide from the passing bipedal “giants”. Afterwards they will return to the beech feast.

I used to count Australia the world champion in the field of introduced pest species. Eric Rolls’ 1969 classic book They All Ran Wild examines the lamentable record of our inadvertant rape and pillage of the environment via introduced furry, hard-hoofed, leafy and prickly living things.

“Inadvertant” may be too kind, given that Australia had acclimatisation societies in the 19th century that aimed specifically and deliberately to introduce and establish plants and animals in this country. Their goal was partly economic, but they were also trying to make this “new world” look and feel more like the old. The founder of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society, Edward Wilson, went so far as to state “if it lives, we want it”.

But after my 2006 experience, and bearing in mind the spirit of trans-Tasman rivalry, I have to concede that New Zealand may be even more over-run by feral species than we are. And not just by mice. The food chain doesn’t end with the small rodents. Rats eat mice, and when mice are scarce then birds and bird eggs will do fine. In turn well-fed rats are fine food for mustelid predators such as stoats.

And when stoats can’t get rat? Well, while walking the Kepler Track in the mountains west of Te Anau, I found the sad answer. At the time I was struggling to find my walking rhythm. At such times I resort to tricks that help distract my mind and body. On the Kepler I used a series of pink triangles nailed at intervals along the track as both a distraction and a crude tally of my progress.

Of course the tags also piqued my curiosity. Hitler had sewn pink triangles onto the clothes of male homosexual prisoners. In this case the tags marked the location of stoat traps. And I learned that what stoats turn to when rats become scarce is birds. And what better than the fat and flightless takahe.

So the intensive trapping effort along the Kepler Track was aimed specifically at giving the dwindling population of takahe in the nearby Murchison Mountains a chance at increasing its perilous grip on what was once its stronghold.

The takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) is a large, strikingly-coloured bird believed to be descended from wind-blown Australian birds (similar to swamp-hens). Several million years in isolation has left them flightless and large - they weigh around 3kg. That’s fine in an environment virtually free of carnivorous predators, but disastrous when killing machines such as stoats are added to the mix.

By the end of the 19th century, takahe were believed extinct. Then in 1948 a small number was found in the mountains across the lake from where we were walking. After huge breeding and trapping efforts, the total population is currently around 220 individual birds.

By the end of the 3 day walk I had counted over 120 trap markers. The traps themselves were mostly well hidden. However near the end of the walk I wandered off track near a marker to see what a trap looked like. Built to be accessible to mustelids rather than men, getting close to the wood and mesh box was difficult.

I lined my camera up near the cage and shot off a speculative photo – without actually being able to see through the view finder. To my surprise, weeks later, I discovered that I had photographed a dead stoat inside the trap? It was only after zooming in on the image that I made out the twisted and grisled stoat corpse (see image above).

On learning from Department of Conservation (DoC) rangers a little more of the story, my curiosity about stoats soon turned to anger. They were introduced to New Zealand in the 1880s in an attempt to keep rabbit numbers low. At the time there was strong scientific and political opposition, as even then the likely effects on non-target species was predicted. However the powerful farming lobby won the day, and New Zealand’s fauna – and its tax payers – have been paying a high price ever since.

Despite a number of similarly sad New Zealand stories, a Tasmanian like myself steers well clear of the high horse. The extinction of the thylacine here is tragedy enough; the “export” of Tasmanian possums to New Zealand terrible. But the deliberate 21st century introduction of the European fox into the world’s only stronghold of carnivorous marsupials? Take me to the hair shirt and flagellation whip!

Monday 12 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Another Fragment

[Delena cancerides - aka the huntsman spider. This is the spider that inspired the story of Armitage Shanks]

[Shanks rides again - briefly. I found this follow-up fragment hidden on my hard drive. It sets the scene for Bonfire Night, where something (??) is going to happen - when I get to write it!]

Bonfire Night was a special occasion for the whole island. If it commemorated anything or anyone, no one could remember what. It was even at a different time of the year from every other community. Peg’s Pa reckoned it gave the “fire-ies” an excuse to dress up and look official while playing with trucks, hoses and fireworks.

For weeks they’d been preparing a paddock just down the road, mowing it so low it was little more than blondish-brown stubble. Then they’d started gathering branches, logs and other combustibles into a pile in the centre of the clearing. Sometimes they’d wake to find bits of stray building material and shack cast-offs added to the stack. No one seemed to mind as long as it’d burn, although Peg’s Pa couldn’t resist salvaging a broken rocking chair that turned up one night, despite Nan’s protests. “Nup – this’ll come in handy for sure” signalled the end of debate as far as he was concerned.

Barry Burnside, the chief of the volunteer fire brigade, was the only person on the island with a permit to buy, keep and use fireworks. “Makes him mayor-for-a-month” was how Peg’s Pa summed it up. Everyone deferred to Barry’s wishes, and his opinion on everything from footy to politics was suddenly important. Even his sixty-something year old frame seemed to straighten up under the influence of his short-lived high status.

Barry’s impromptu mini-sermons were an unavoidable part of the season. “Bonfire Night may mark the end of the fire season, and the coming of the cooler wetter weather”, he would tell anyone and everyone, “but it was vitally important for everyone to pay respect to fire and fireworks”. The event was a “privilege and not a right”, Peg heard once while waiting in the shop. She was surprised and amused to see her Pa mouthing the words in perfect unison behind the fire chief.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Black and White and Heard All Over

[spot the locust hiding in the correa bush - you may need to click on the image to enlarge it. Photo by Lynne Grant.]

[back to the birds, this time exploring feast and famine in the avian world]

If there aren’t enough things in this world to break your heart, try paying close attention to the call of the Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen). Perhaps because they are only occasional visitors to my bushland, I can never get enough of their superbly yearning voice. Bird authorities variously describe it as flute-like, warbling, piping, carolling and chorusing. Their species name tibicen reflects this, being Latin for piper or flute-player.

Different subspecies of magpie are found in every state and territory, making them one of our most widely recognised birds – both visually and aurally. Magpies were also introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s and now, despite concerns about their ecological effects, they have become established in the popular imagination over there. Murray Ball’s hugely successful Kiwi cartoon series Footrot Flats has an Australian magpie character named Pew. Also famous across the Tasman is NZ poet Denis Glover’s widely known poem The Magpies. Its chorus captures some of the bird’s melodic dexterity.

And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle/The magpies said

An Easter visit to Bendigo in central Victoria reacquainted me with the glories of the magpie’s call. After a good spring and summer, with drought-breaking rains and milder temperatures, everything in the iron-bark country seemed to be sighing contentedly, including the magpies. Their morning and evening calling was one of the highlights of the early part of Easter.

Less happily the spring and summer conditions had also encouraged the proliferation of plague locusts (Chortoicetes terminifera). A wave of locusts hit central Victoria over Easter. Our daily walks soon took on a strangely percussive character, as masses of locusts clicked and flicked and fluttered around us as we strolled by. Cars had less chance of avoiding this invertebrate Mexican wave, and the roads – and car grills – were spattered with locust gore.

But where there’s a surplus of food there will be diners. We once lived through a locust plague in central-western NSW, and found that our chickens were very happy to free-range on the hoppers. We learned the hard way that locusts taint eggs, making them extremely unappealing. But around Bendigo the job was done just as effectively – and with no culinary after-effects – by squadrons of magpies.

Actually the collective name for them is a tiding of magpies, and for the magpies these were good tidings. Everywhere the locusts hopped and flew, they were followed by magpies, as well as blackbirds, Indian mynahs and many other species, introduced or otherwise. The birds grew visibly fat and wobbly, expending little effort to gain a day’s worth of food in minutes.

By the end of Easter we noticed one strange side effect. There was a distinct reduction in the amount of audible Magpie song. It was as if the maggies had consumed a huge Christmas feast: far too much food and drink to expect them to sing any more carols. It was a wonder some of them could still fly.

Friday 9 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 7 (fragment)

[a Bruny Island cliff-hanger? Sandstone formation near Dennes Point, North Bruny Island]

[an incomplete chapter, the last from my yet-to-be-finished story. If you watch this space expecting more, you're going to need some patience! However comments and suggestions - of a polite and encouraging nature - are most welcome.]

Shanks’ revenge was neither as sweet nor as long lasting as he had expected. When Peg found out about the toilet and the “toe tapping” (as Shanks put it), she had gone so quiet that Shanks took her silence as disapproval. In fact it was closer to stunned shock mixed with a deep indecision about what to do next.

And Terrence had given Shanks little satisfaction either. He’d made himself scarce by day, presumably to go fishing or to take the dog for a walk. And at night he had taken to staying up late with his grandparents in front of the TV – despite their stern commands that he go to bed – even falling asleep in the battered old sofa, and having to be carried into bed by his Pa.

To tell the truth his Nan and Pa were rather touched by this “regression to childhood” (as they saw it). He’d never been what they’d have called a sweet child. But he had been a little more open to the odd hug than the edgy pre-teen he had now become. So despite their stern words they, and especially his Pa, were more than happy to have this close contact with T, albeit that he was a comatose, leggy bundle as he snuggled into his Pa’s shoulder.

* * *

He may have been hard for others to find but, try as he might, Terrence couldn’t avoid Geoffrey Boycat. The cat had an uncanny way of just appearing around whichever corner you next turned. And then, whatever you did, his eyes would hold you, and his feline voice draw you towards him.

So on a wet and windy afternoon Terrence found himself being grilled yet again by a cat who seemed to simmer just beneath the point of anger.

“And this flushing . . . it was your idea?” Terrence began to open his mouth, but Geoffrey continued. “It was NOT a good idea!” …

“The idea BOY… was to wait for Bonfire Night. Remember? ….

* * *

“Does de dame want I should take ‘er out wid me fer a picnic, yeah?” Shanks made a woeful gangster. Despite his hard-boiled looks, something in his facial anatomy prevented him from sounding truly gruff. Husky yes, but dark and threatening? Never.

Still Peg knew he was doing his best to be light-hearted, to cheer her up after a frosty few days of all but avoiding Terrence. Even her Pa had seemed hard to reach, spending more time being awkwardly attentive to T., and leaving her too much in her Nan’s fussy, food-centred company.

So Peg was relieved when they again found themselves out for a stroll, though this time Peg used a small back-pack instead of the doll’s pram. “You gonna put me in dat ting, huh? You really tink so?” he wheezed as Peg unzipped the top pocket for him. She simply held it wide open and made no comment, so he mockingly muttered under his breath and clambered into the pocket.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 6

[Shanks is back with a vengeance in the next exciting episode ...]

After his couple of days of mischief, Terrence went to bed feeling contented. He stretched out in the lumpy bed and stared up at the sagging, discoloured ceiling without really seeing it. He wriggled his toes free of the bed clothes and began to tap them on the wooden bed-end in a military sort of way. Geoffrey Boycat had been almost pleased with the boy's report, and had shown it by not sitting on his lap, and not sharpening his claws on him.

He looked over at his sleeping sister and smiled. It was not a "good-night-sleep-tight-hope-the-mozzies-don't-bite" sort of smile. It was more primitive. The sort that younger children smile just after they've poked their tongues out and said "nyaa nyaa nyaa nyaa nyaa." Terrence secretly wished he was still young enough to do that, but he knew it might look a bit silly. Right now nothing was worse than looking foolish, or at least looking foolish in public. He was aware that talking to a cat, and even more taking orders from a cat, would not have looked too good. But he was content that no-one knew about it. To Terrence that was as good as it not being foolish at all.

But Peg's talking to animals was another story altogether. She'd made the mistake of doing it so someone else knew. Worse still she'd tried to be a smarty pants and pretend it had never happened. And by being smart she meant to make him look dumb like she always did, sticking her nose in books all the time; giggling when he got his words wrong; giving his mum hints about trouble he'd got into at school; and just generally making him feel dumb. These were things Terrence had brooded on for a long time. Today's effort had been a satisfying start to his pay-back plans.

All of this left Terrence wide awake, his mind a slurry of vengeful and happy thoughts. In a drawer next to his bed were some old books his Pa had left for the grandchildren. Though he was not a great reader, he pulled out a couple of large and musty volumes and started looking at them. They might help him sleep. Two cowboy books, and a laughably old-fashioned space adventure were discarded before he finally settled on one called `The Bumper Book for Boys'. It had a picture of a boy about his own age on the cover, cradling a football in his arms and running away from a cluster of other boys. His brow was furrowed and mouth turned down. Perhaps he was supposed to look determined, but to Terrence he just looked sad. Somehow that odd combination of feelings drew Terrence in.

He turned over the thick, stained pages, looking first at the drawings. He chose a story mid-way through the book. It had quite a few drawings, and the intriguing title `The Dormitory 'Tecs'. Above all it was only a few pages long. Terrence wrinkled his nose at the musty smell, but settled back and read: "Huge was a bully, likewise a glutton. Queer, isn't it, how the two things go together; anyway, they did so in old Huge." By the second line Terrence found he was reading in a different accent. It was a very proper English accent such as he'd heard on wildlife documentaries.

But instead of telling him about the mating habits of badgers, this story was full of `chaps', and `chums' who saved up their `prog' from `exeat days'. And how one chap nicknamed Holmes did a bit of `super-'tecking' in the `dorms'. It was a world Terrence could barely find any connection with, but he read on, anxious for some reason to know what would happen to `old Huge'.

It was more than a disappointment to get to the end and find that Matron and Holmes had caught Huge out for stealing `prog'. "Huge got a swishing, and deserved it; next term he was moved to pastures new." Terrence threw the book to the floor. More smarty pantses and pushy females getting the better of people. Irritably he turned on his side and flicked the lamp off.

As the boy lay in his bed, he was watched from the top of the cupboard by a very interested cluster of eyes. The eyes had watched him staring and smiling at the girl asleep in the other bed; had seen him throw his shorts and shirt at the foot of his bed; had observed him pull on his pyjamas and get into bed. The spider had also noticed the wriggling toes that protruded from the end of the bed, tapping a happy tune. Shanks had lifted a couple of his legs involuntarily, as though to do a march of his own. But he stilled them and smiled. A little patience. When the boy finished reading, the light would be turned off, and his breathing would soon match the girl's. Then it might be time to do a little light-footed marching.

* * *

At the end of a long dark tunnel stood a severe bespectacled woman holding a long stick. She tapped one foot impatiently as she waited for the boy to come and get his punishment. The boy tried to look away, hiding a plastic bag full of something that wasn't his. "Come on Boy. Give it here to me!" He looked up, and saw that the woman was now a huge cat, ginger coat flecked with grey, and a pair of rimless glasses perched on her nose. She/it still held a long cane, but now it curved and tapered at the end like a giant claw.

He reached into the bag and took out one item, as if it might appease her. It was a chocolate-coated fish head. The woman/cat began howling angrily. He dropped the bag, turned and tried to run, but suddenly the tunnel filled with water, and he was washed towards the cat. In the dream the boy had forgotten how to swim. The water slapped coldly into his face. He took one, two huge unwanted draughts, before going under completely. Wildly his arms thrashed about for something to pull him up. Almost at the height of his panic he felt something long and spindly and inflexible grip him. He was hauled out of the water by an enormous spider. Though he had no air for it, he screamed violently as the spider softly began to say "You shouldn't have done it. You shouldn't have done it."

Terrence was shaking uncontrollably, his heart beating to bursting point, as he woke out of the nightmare. He frantically looked around the half-familiar room, trying to remember where he was. It took one awful minute for him to convince himself that everything was alright. He was at his Nan and Pa's shack, he'd had a bad dream, but there was nothing to worry about. There was nothing to worry about.

Just as his heart beat was slowing, he heard softly but distinctly in his left ear "you shouldn't have done it to poor old Shanks". Terrence threw his bedclothes off and leapt up, thrashing his arms about his head as if swishing at deadly wasps. He reached for his bedside lamp, but knocked it to the floor, breaking the globe with a thin audible crack. He swung around towards the main light, fumbling for fully thirty seconds before finally turning it on.

In the full light he desperately reached for his slippers, shaking them carefully before putting them on. Then he looked right around the room, all the time breathing quick and shallow. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he did it thoroughly. And he found nothing. He even checked under Peg's pillow. She stayed asleep the whole time, a peaceful blankness on her face.

Terrence finally sat back on his bed. It was time to think a bit more calmly. He'd had a rough couple of days after all. He'd met and fallen in with a very smart cat, and a very ... well, a dog as well. And he'd fought a cunning battle with a nasty spider, having to overcome his fear of creepy things. Of course it wouldn't be unusual to dream about these things, given the circumstances. That's all it was. The darkness plus his fears had made the dream seem more real than most. If he just relaxed for a while, he'd soon be able to sleep again.

Still, Terrence left his light on for another twenty minutes before deciding he'd be okay again. He then gave his bedclothes another thorough check, looked in all the drawers, and even under the bed. When he was sure everything was clear, he crept over and turned off the light. He then jumped back into bed almost without touching the floor and pulled the sheet up around his ears with a shiver. The steady breathing of Peg became a surprising comfort to him, and he decided he was glad she was there. But he was still occasionally shivering when at last he floated off to sleep again.

From the dark peace of this dream-free sleep, Terrence fell suddenly into the waking world of voices. Again, as small and clear as a pimple he heard "shouldn't have done it. He'll haunt you. Shanks'll haunt you." It was all he could do not to scream. He repeated his mad tarantella, then rushed straight for the door, this time without his slippers. He wasn't staying in that room for any money.

So Terrence spent the rest of a very long night huddled up in a wicker chair in the living room. He kept warm under his grandfather's woollen duffle coat, but slept only fitfully. He was in that position when his Pa came out to fill the kettle at 6.30.

Monday 5 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 5

[When Peg gets back to Bruny there's a surprise or two in store]

The 4 o'clock ferry would have left on time had Mrs Flanagan not hove into view, waving, tooting and shouting, just as the crew was raising the ramp. "Silly old duck" said Peg's Pa. "She's always late. And she'll expect them to drive on for her too, you watch." Peg couldn't bear to. She walked to the front of the ferry, kicking at the rounded rivets that mushroomed out of the rusty floor. As she leaned on the chain across the bow, she booted a half-eaten apple over the edge. It plopped satisfyingly into the surging water beneath - a small satisfaction, and all she'd get on the whole trip back.

Though they had been first onto the ferry, their aisle was the third one off. This meant that Mrs Flanagan drove off ahead of them, and stayed in that position for the whole twenty winding kilometres from the ferry terminal to the shack. If Peg's Pa was no speedster, Mrs Flanagan drove like a snail on valium - or so her Pa said. As the old ute puttered up the drive it was well past 5 o'clock.

The trio was greeted by a surprisingly chirpy Terrence, who enquired most politely what sort of day they had had. Peg simply shoved past her brother and ran inside. As he half-listened to his Nan's comparison of morning tea and lunch, Terrence counted in his mind. When he got to twelve, there was a loud scream from the region of the toilet. He smiled, then joined his grandparents as they rushed inside.

By the time they got to her, Peg had stopped screaming. She came out of the toilet so fast that she half-collided with her grandfather. As she spun off him, she dodged deliberately towards her brother and aimed a boot straight into his shin. "You slimy pig's bum!" she shouted, while Terrence hopped up and down holding his leg. "Peg!" both grandparents called after her, but for once Peg ignored them and stomped into her room, slamming the door shut with surprising ferocity.

"Now what's all that about young fella?" His Pa looked upset enough for Terrence's shrug to freeze on his shoulders. "Just a little joke Pa." He shuffled, thrusting his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans. His grandfather waited. "Look all I did was stick a sort of dead spider on the toilet, just to scare 'er a bit, you know . . ." His Pa opened the toilet door and scooped up the spider shell, holding it out for them to see. "She can't take a joke Pa, she's useless. I mean that wouldn't scare anyone, would it." His Pa knew that it didn't deserve the reaction Peg had had, but he felt there was more to it. And he didn't like the way Terrence treated Peg. "Listen T, I want you to just leave her alone for a while. Stay outside until it's dinner time, all right?" Terrence gave a slight nod, and disappeared out the back door. By the time he reached the neighbours' house, he was smiling broadly. He could tell Geoffrey that Part 1 of the plan had gone smoothly. Soon he could try Part 2.

* * *

Terrence crept towards the toilet door. He stopped, looked around, then held his breath the better to listen for any sounds in the house. Hearing none, he stooped to listen at the door. He then gave a soft, low whistle, remarkably like the one he had heard Peg give. In one hand he held an empty margarine tub; in the other a stiff piece of paper. He took great care not to rattle them as he listened hard for any response from the spider. Finally he caught what sounded like a faint humming. It was an old tune he had heard somewhere before, but he couldn't have put a name to it. Still, it was enough. Taking a deep breath, he gripped the door handle hard, then burst into the spider's home.

Shanks was distracted that morning. Peg had only come for a brief visit, and hadn't even arranged another meeting for the day. She had seemed very upset about something, and Shanks was worried. So when he heard the soft whistle, he immediately put aside a piece of roast moth he had been absorbing, and came out from the cornice.

Expecting to see Peg, he was happily humming "God Save the Queen". Instead when the door was flung open, it was the boy who rushed into the room with a whoosh of wind that almost knocked the spider over. Before Shanks could recover, his world had gone dark and echo-ey. Then it had turned upside down and all around. He tumbled in helpless orbit, his feet giving him no grip on the plastic of the tub. He didn't even know which way was up.

When he next saw light, he had almost no chance to use it. The tub was being thumped violently, and he was falling, then landing upside down in water. Barely a second later it was dark again, and a thunderous rush of water was spinning him over and over, propelling him between dark walls, as helpless as a flea in a flood. Despite all this, Shanks did have the faintest idea where he was. In his tumbling fall he had glimpsed some words, and they were not just any words. He had seen in plain black on white, and very close up, the words ARMITAGE SHANKS.

So as Shanks was tossed helplessly through the water, he at least knew where he was. He had been put down his own white throne and flushed away. Though close to panic, he managed to think one calm thought. It was something he'd picked up from the box, though he'd never had occasion to use it - until now. As he turned over for the ninth time, with the water rushing him mercilessly towards he knew-not-what, Shanks half smiled as he said to himself "I think he would've wanted to go that way."

* * *
It was not to be. During his twelfth tumble, a couple of Shanks' legs touched on something rough enough to give grip. Instinctively he caught hold and dragged himself out of the water, and up onto some kind of narrow shelf. Shanks gulped the air gratefully, then sang faintly "Long to Ray Noverus" as a kind of prayer. It was still totally dark, but the flood of water was slowing. He guessed that the level was dropping too. As his senses slowly returned, he pieced together where he was, and why. A slow, wet anger smouldered against Terrence. "That collargrime of a boy will pay! Oh in a thousand ways he'll pay." But meanwhile Shanks had to think about the less pleasant task of getting back home. Though he felt he'd done enough swimming for a lifetime, he soon came to the gloomy conclusion that the only way back was the way he had come. He would have to unflush himself!

The return journey was much slower than his outward journey. And just as dangerous. If the boy or anyone else pushed the silver button again, he would be lost forever. That wasn't his only worry. There would be a long section of underwater travel, and he wasn't sure how good he was at holding his breath.

In the end however, he found that the upper surface of the pipe gave enough grip to let him hold it all the way back. Even in the panicky underwater sections, the solidity of the wall gave him the confidence to go on. So after a very long three minutes, Shanks surfaced into the darkness at the bottom of the toilet bowl. A faint chink of light showed where the ill-fitting seat met the rim of the bowl. After a tricky slippery ascent, he squeezed himself under the seat, and out into the light-flooded room.

Once back under the cover of the cornice, he began to dry out. As his fear left him, it was replaced by anger. Just as quickly, the perfect plan suggested itself to Shanks. A plain and simple plan; a plan with poetic justice. He smiled briefly, then went off in search of food. He would need his strength.

* * *

Sunday 4 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 4

[Some of the action happens off the island in the next exciting episode ...]

"Are you sure you'll be alright Terrence?" The old car bubbled and burbled as his grandfather tried to get it revving smoothly. It was the second Thursday of the month - pension day - and time for their regular trip to the main island. "Don't fuss Nan, I'll be right. Do a bit of fishin' off the wharf." "Now you won't go out ..." "... in the boat. No Nan, I won't go out in the boat. If they're not bitin', I'll come back here and keep an eye on ... things." As he said this his eyes flitted to Peg's, and he gave her a broad insincere smile.

Peg had decided to go with her grandparents when she heard that her Pa would be going to the library. She needed to know more about Huntsmen, and about `benign'. But Terrence's malignant look chilled her. She wanted to get out of the car there and then, and rush to the toilet to warn Shanks. She'd warned him in a general way to keep away from Terrence, but this threat was more immediate. She was about to open her mouth when Pa revved and let the clutch out. With a noisy scrape of gravel, the station wagon circled the rough driveway. It was chased by a hoarsely yapping Pekinese. Car and dog both scraped down the hill, brakes full on. Terrence waved once, then walked off before they'd even made it to the bitumen. As the dog trotted back up the driveway, Peg stared helplessly out the back window.


If Terrence had had a moustache he would have been twirling it as he walked back onto the veranda. He was feeling so pleased with himself. They wouldn't be back for hours ... "on the 4 o'clock ferry" his nan had said. Plenty of time to find out what his crawly little sister was up to with this spider - this talking spider, he added with a grin. He sat down on the banana lounge to plan his next move, but had barely got his mind into its nasty rut when he was disturbed.

The ginger tomcat from next door half-miaowed as he heaved himself up onto the veranda and began rubbing up against the lounge. He made a noise that might have been purring, though it had a slight bubbling snarl to it. Terrence was about to stroke the cat when a dog of similar size scrabbled across the wooden floor and shoved his head under the boy's hand. The cat bumped it aside and jumped onto the boy's lap, still making that strange purr-like noise, and working its paws up and down on its host's thighs.

Terrence was wincing as he tried to work out how to get the cat off without being further scratched. The cat turned to him. "Relax boy ... sit back. We'd like to get to know a nice lad like you, wouldn't we Lump." In shock Terrence tried to stand up, but a claw began to bite into the flesh of his right leg. He sat down. "Tell him Lump." The boy tried to relax as the cat kept up its thorny massage. "O yeth, my word ... hruhh hrumm," and Lump Sum launched into a slobbering speech which left an astonished Terrence as ignorant as before.

Geoffrey Boycat sighed, stopped his clawing movement, and looked disgustedly down at the dog. "You'll have to excuse Lump, he can't think and talk at the same time. Disappear will you Lump, I think I hear Mumsy calling." Lump's face opened out into a beaming frothy smile, and he trotted off. Geoffrey followed with his eyes, then turned casually back to the boy. "Look ... the situation is this. You have a problem with a certain spider. We can help you out. Bring me a nice bit of fish, and we'll talk further."

Terrence felt top-heavy with strange thoughts and promising possibilties. He shuffled in his seat. Geoffrey looked carefully into the boy's eyes. Seeing there what he wanted to see, he slowly slipped off the lap, and took a sitting position beside the lounge, waiting. Terrence began to brush the fur from his pants, but was stopped by a swift insulted look from the cat. Instead the boy swung his legs over the side of the lounge and went to get some left-over gurnard. He placed it neatly on a cracked china saucer in front of the cat, who raised one brow before turning to eat.

As he finished, the cat began licking himself almost vigorously with his raspy tongue. When the ablutions were finally over, he looked up at the boy with the passionless smile of someone who knows they've got you where they want you. Terrence too knew he was cornered, but somehow he didn't care. It may have been simple curiosity about a talking cat. Or perhaps it was the thought that here at last he had an ally against his vile sister. Whatever it was, he eventually smiled back and said "Right-eo Wonder Cat, talk away."

* * *

After ten minutes of searching through the shelves marked "Vertebrates", Peg finally realised that spiders didn't fit into that category. She was flustered, too flustered to ask for help. But she also knew that her Pa would be back in less than half an hour. And anyway what good was all this if Terrence had got to Shanks? She miserably plopped down in the middle of the row, fighting hard against tears. One or two loud sniffs escaped before she took out one of her Nan's lacy hankies and noisily blew her nose. By now red-eyed, she looked around hoping to find the aisle still empty. Instead she was looking straight into the eyes of a boy. He was about her own age, and wore gold-rimmed glasses, and a gentle enquiring look.

Though embarrassed, Peg didn't turn away. The gentle boy smiled and tried to squeeze past. "Sorry . . . `S'cuse me." As he tucked a bundle of books under his arm, one fell onto Peg. "Oh, I'm sorry . . . Sorry. Are you okay?" Peg picked up the book and handed it back to the boy. "Sorright, I'm fine." As the boy took the book, Peg noticed the title - "Moths and Butterflies". The boy was still smiling an apologetic smile. "Sorry . . . Thanks." Seeing the girl's eyes obviously brighten, he pointed to the book and began to chat. "It's for a project on insect metamorphosis." When the girl's look faded into confusion, he stumbled on. "Um . . . on how they can change, you know, their skins and all that." Peg suddenly saw her chance. She wiped her nose swiftly on her sleeve, and struggled back to her feet, talking rapidly the whole time. "That's funny, `cause I've got a project like that too, only on spiders. You wouldn't know any good books on spiders would ya?" The boy pushed his glasses up on his nose and smiled enthusiastically. "You bet. Look, just over here."

Within minutes Peg was surrounded by a pile of books on spiders. The boy had given her some other helpful information too, like that a spider isn't actually an insect; that it has eight legs (not six like an insect); and that it isn't strictly right to call any Australian spider a Tarantula. ("They're from Europe actually.") In fact for a brain - which he obviously was - he was a pretty good bloke. She even managed not to laugh when he told her his name was Willoughby Chambers ("but my friends call me Will.") Nearly nine years with a name like Peg Priddle had to teach you something.

Though she only spent 5 minutes with him, Peg very nearly told him about Shanks. It was hard having a friend you couldn't tell anyone about. And Will seemed to have a gentleness about him that made her forget he was a stranger . . . and a boy. But in the end a well-dressed woman had peered around the end of the aisle and called out daintily "Come along Willoughby dear." Peg had stared wide-eyed at the tall woman. She seemed to send ripples of perfume and calm around her. But when Peg turned back to Will she was sure he rolled his eyes behind his glasses. All the same he obediently turned and followed his mother, waving a wordless farewell to Peg.

When her grandfather came to collect her he found Peg ready to borrow a bundle of reference and picture books. Surprised that most of them were about spiders, he didn't say anything. She seemed a lot happier than she had been in the morning, and that was good enough for him. He smiled at the squat figure who waddled jauntily down the library steps in front of him, bundle of books tucked under her arm. The purposeful look on her broad face reminded him very much of her mother - once just as innocent and keen.

The happy mood lasted only until the end of lunch. Talk of getting back to Terrence put Peg off her cream cake. She pushed the plate away from her, and flopped her head down on folded arms. She saw again her books on the floor. What use would any of that stuff be if he'd found Shanks? The thought was cold water on her soul. Without any warning Peg pushed her chair back and began to leave. Her grandmother, who hadn't noticed the sudden change, simply asked Peg whether she wanted the rest of her cake. Peg shook her head testily.

Mumbling "waste not want not", her Nan scooped up the cream cake and began demolishing it. Pa looked up at Peg. "Come on Peg, there's no big hurry. Come and sit down until Nan's finished and then we can all go." Peg squatted back on the edge of the chair, arms folded, face scarlet. Her grandfather, trying not to look at her, got up to pay the bill, then came back and tapped his wife on the shoulder. "Come on Moother, time we were gone." She glanced at her watch, then gave him a contrary look. But he had timed it well. Her mouth was still full, and she would no more speak with her mouth full than swear at the queen. With both Peg and her Pa already leaving, she had no choice but to follow.

* * *

Terrence kicked hard at an over-ripe plum, covering his shoes and legs with pulp. Even more disgusted, he picked up another and flung it at the garden shed. Two hours of looking, and not one sign of the big spider. The cat and dog had proved useless so far. "I've got it all worked out," the cat had said. "You just deliver the spider, and Lump and I will do the rest." "What rest?" he now asked himself. He wondered whether the cat had hypnotised him or something.
It was in this frame of mind that he went over to confront Geoffrey, who was usually to be found on the veranda next door. He knew "Mumsy" and "Dadsy" were out. Pension day saw half the population leave the island. "The island rises ten feet on pension day", his Pa was always saying. Terrence found Lump Sum first, and impatiently fended off his affectionate snuffles. Geoffrey, half-woken by the noise, looked up from his basket expectantly. The boy's lack of progress was soon obvious, so much so that the cat was quickly irritated by his complaints.

"Shut it, boy!" Terrence meekly obeyed. Lump Sum broke the silence with a fart. "And you too Lump!" The cat was almost becoming worked up. He sat up, looked from one to the other, boy to dog, with a stern expression on his face. When they were attentive again, he painstakingly went back over the whole plan. At the end, when the boy only nodded half-heartedly, Geoffrey stood up and walked over to him, a growling purr again clearly audible.

"I can see the boy needs some convincing that we're right with him Lump." Terrence took a step back, but the cat only stretched out casually, and lay down again on the floor boards. "Go and get the token, Lump. The skin . . . there's a good fellow." The Pekinese jumped up, and waddled off. "Yeah, thkin, I fetch the thkin."

Eventually the dog returned carrying a dirty piece of cloth in its mouth. He dropped it at the boy's feet. Terrence looked at the bundle dubiously, but then at a motion from Geoffrey, picked it up. Carefully he unwrapped it, to find what looked like a dead Huntsman. He spun around to Geoffrey. "Is it . . .?" The cat shook its head slightly. "No, look at it closely." Terrence had the creeps about all things crawly, but he obeyed the cat. Picking it up, he saw that it was in fact an empty spider shell. "But how?"

Geoffrey made a tutting sound. "They shed their skins, boy - as they get older and grow bigger. Slip out of one skin when the new one's ready. Disgusting really. Don't know why they can't just moult a bit at a time like any decent animal." Terrence was turning the shell around in his hand, a small grin dawning on his face. "Ah, I see you're starting to grasp the possibilities, boy. You scratch our back, and we . . . " He let the words hang for a while, then laughed in an odd way. Terrence was too far gone to hear any threat in it. Quickly Geoffrey gave him a revised set of instructions. Terrence nodded absently, all the while twirling the spider skin by one leg. Geoffrey had to give him a sharp tap with his claw to be sure that the boy had heard, and would comply. Finally the boy was allowed to leave, small cloth bundle in one hand.

* * *

Friday 2 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 3

[photo: sunset across the D'Entrecasteaux Channel from Bruny Island, Tasmania]

[Everyone loves a picnic, even Armitage Shanks ... and especially on beautiful Bruny Island.]

Whatever plans Terrence had, he kept quiet about them for the next few days. Apart from giving Peg the occasional baleful look, he carried on as though nothing had happened. Though she knew better, Peg began to hope that the incident would be forgotten that perhaps he hadn't even seen Shanks. Besides, the weather had been so good that Terrence spent most of his time out in the dinghy. He enjoyed fishing, especially cutting and gutting the catch.

At the same time Peg had become absorbed in the business of getting to know her new friend. Of course that meant spending a great deal of time in Shanks' room. Twice Peg had to assure her Nan that she wasn't ill. "Just got a tinny bladder Nan" she'd quickly explained. When her Pa said something about not using too much tank water, Peg realised she'd need another meeting place.

The front veranda was a perfect alternative. The soft whistle would always be their signal. Peg would lie down on the old banana lounge beneath the rusty veranda awning, cover her face with a hat, and talk quietly in the direction of the low ceiling. She still had to take care, so this was mostly done when Terrence and her Pa were out fishing, and her Nan was in the back garden or the kitchen. Sometimes she used the radio to help cover the noise of conversation. But this often made Shanks sing, which even tone-deaf Peg found remarkably unattractive.

One afternoon Peg thought of something altogether more suitable. A picnic! To keep Terrence from coming, she disguised it as an outing for her teddy and doll. This also allowed her to smuggle Shanks out under cover of the doll's stroller. The spider almost gave it away when he was tucked down next to the doll. Peg had said the doll's name, Hamble, and Shanks, who was in a very buoyant mood, had started saying "Hamble-amble-amble" to himself. He'd finally burst into full-scale spider laughter. Peg had to cough loudly for some time to cover up the odd noise of a laughing spider making sounds that rhymed with Hamble. Then she had to convince her Nan that she really was well enough for an outing.

Even so Shanks hadn't shut up until they reached the beach, blurting out things like "scramble-shamble-handbill-anvil" all the way down the track. But by this time Peg was able to join in, and the two laughed themselves helpless as they made up a riotously unsingable ditty about their "ramble with Hamble in our ample p'ramble-ator". Even knowing that all this fun was at the doll's expense didn't really bother Peg. She felt she had grown out of dolls by now. Perhaps if Terrence had been laughing at Hamble it would have been different, but he hadn't so it wasn't.

It was a magical afternoon in every way. The late summer sun shone down hard on the deserted beach, but a soft sea breeze kept them cool. Peg showed Shanks his first beach, let him try the water, pointed out the delights of the rocky shore. Here she lifted rocks to reveal dozens of hermit crabs. Each time she would crouch down, look up at Shanks perched on the edge of the stroller, then with a great flourish would lift the rock, calling out "Meet Cousin Crab". Then they'd both laugh out loud as the crabs - sometimes twenty or more - scrambled to find cover. "Shanks knows what that's like", he said once, coming down onto the sand to ape the crazy scuttling of the crabs. As he ran in mad wonky circles, he shouted "Oooo ... I's been espied! Oooo ... don't panic! Ooo ...abandon ship! Ooooh ..." Peg crumpled up in helpless laughter.

Then in the grove of casuarinas at the end of the beach, Shanks did party tricks with the crusty bark of the needle-leaved trees. "Now you see me . . . now you don't", as he disappeared into the merest crack in the bark, reappearing to run up her bare arm when she least expected it. After ten goes of that game, Peg suggested they stop for afternoon tea. Out of a bag slung over the arms of the stroller she took a couple of Iced Vo-Vo biscuits for herself, and a wasp and a blowfly for Shanks.

For a time he became all chivalrous, and prattled about his "great gratitude to M'lady". He grew quieter once the serious wasp-sucking began, by which time Peg had started on an apple. Their dining was accompanied by the gentle plap of wavelets, and the shushing of wind in the casuarinas. Once squabbling gulls made a low pass over the pair, carefully eyeing their prospects, but Peg made sure they didn't add spider to the menu.

The lowering sun lay a sheet of glare over the Channel. Peg had to shade her eyes to follow the progress of a small fleet of sailing boats. As they edged out of sight, Peg turned back to Shanks, suddenly feeling serious. "You're gonna have to be careful of my brother." The last word was said as though it tasted unpleasant. "He doesn't like insects or that type of thing." Shanks would have objected, but he was mid-way through the blowie. "He got bitten by an ant once. Shoulda heard him scream! When he got over it he went out and poured turps down five anthills, then chucked a match." Shanks listened as attentively as his dining would allow. Peg went on. "An' he pulls wings off flies, and legs off beetles, and stuff like that." Shanks wondered what was wrong with the removal of inedible parts, but said nothing.

Peg grunted as she got back on her feet. "Anyway, just be careful of him. He doesn't like me, so he reckons anything I like is rotten." Shanks quietly rolled the fly carcass onto the ground, and crawled up to the edge of the stroller. "I will take heed o' thy warning M'lady." After a pause he added "Shanks cranks his thanks till it ranks high as planks on banks, and spanks any rank & cranky wanker who sank . ." and so he went on, ruining the serious mood. But although he succeeded in making Peg do the thing he most loved, her laughter was not as carefree as it had been. Her brother, or the thought of him, cast a faint shadow over the rest of an otherwise perfect afternoon.

* * *

There were other chances for Peg to find out about Shanks, but none quite so wonderful as that picnic day. Still, she took the chances that came along. Peg soon discovered that Shanks had a couple of favoured topics of conversation. Apart from food, on which they agreed to differ, Peg found Shanks often asking one particular question. He would grandly introduce these sessions by calling them "Question Time", and asking for honourable members to "come to order". He'd then clear his throat noisily, and Peg would know that the question was following. He would ask it in different ways, but it all came down to the same thing. "What does benign mean?"

At first Peg thought this was a simple game. She just told him it meant "good", (though she was guessing.) For a time that seemed to satisfy him, but sooner or later the question would come back. "And after this important message, our next story looks at benign. What does it really mean?" Peg, who was getting used to his televisionese, finally went and found a dictionary. After a deal of searching she stumblingly read out - "Benign: gracious, gentle; fortunate, salutary". Shanks, who had crept down the wall to be nearer to his dear, gave a peculiar growl. Surprised at this unfamiliar sound, Peg sat up to look at Shanks. "Order! Order! The honourable member must answer the question," he called, almost angrily. "But I have . . . er . . . at least I've told you what the book says."

"Well the book's wrong! O Woddafeeling! Fortunate and salutary ... tell me what's fortunate and salutary about a spittling trip inside a rolly-up newspaper? And what's gracious and gentle about being screamed at by old Sausage-face?" Suddenly he started running in erratic circles, muttering things like "Long to Ray Noverus" and "so help me Gard!" Peg had never seen Shanks so wound up. She had no idea what had caused this sudden mood change. She thought of trying to rhyme a few words with benign, to see if he might laugh his way out of the mood. But she could see that he was genuinely upset, so she stayed silent. It seemed it all had something to do with the word "benign", but that particular afternoon she could get no more out of Shanks.

When he finally stopped running in circles, he was only interested in food. And then when Peg gave him two juicy specimens, he almost forgot his manners. Grabbing the insects, he disappeared under the awning, only to appear again briefly to call out a full-mouthed "much obliged".

As it turned out, his exit was well-timed. Just at that moment Terrence and his grandfather appeared at the bottom of the hill, jack-and-jilling a fish-bucket between them. Peg quickly picked up her book, and lay down on the sunny lounge again. When the two stepped onto the veranda, she looked so relaxed that not even Terrence would have known how churned up she felt. Besides, he had thoughts of his own. When she asked about their catch, he reached into his bucket, pulled out the severed head of a gurnard and plopped it onto Peg's stomach. "Ask it yourself!" he whispered sharply, before running off laughing. Yet even this couldn't stop her from thinking about Shanks. And about his problem with being benign. She would have to get to the bottom of this soon, or the loopy spider might give himself away in a moment of thoughtless rage.


Thursday 1 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 2

[an Armitage Shanks toilet, newer than the one at the Bruny Island shack. Photo courtesy]

[the plot thickens ... with some more action in the toilet]

Shanks had some difficulty understanding what happened next. From the T.V. he had learned what a male needed in order to be popular with females. He could check himself off against the list. Handsome? Yes. Slim? Yes. Tall? Yes. Tanned? Yes. He was all these things and more.

So it was something of a blow when Peg's first reaction to him was to stifle a scream, haul up her pants, and reach for the door. Fortunately Shanks did two things to save the situation. Firstly, he did nothing. That is he stayed perfectly still. Then, and he had no good reason for doing so, he began humming "God Save The Queen." Perhaps his royalist streak came out under pressure. Whatever the reason, it had the desired effect.

Peg's hand froze on the doorknob. She stood there gawping. A tinsel-thin tuneful rattle was coming from the direction of a spider on the toilet wall! It crossed her mind that Terrence had put a trick spider there - one of those things with a computerised tune inside it. But the sound was too random, too "animal", to be electronic. It wasn't even in tune. And the creature she was staring at looked far too realistic. Then, as she stood there open-mouthed, the sound changed. The spider was speaking. She swallowed hard to clear her ears, but it altered nothing. The spider was speaking to her.

In his mind Shanks had gone through all kinds of clever opening lines. Perhaps he'd try "Do you come here often?", or "We must stop meeting like this", or even "Hello, this is Armitage Shanks. First the headlines." There was no shortage of patter he'd picked up. Yet somehow when it came to it, he fell back on old spider habits. "Like a bit of cockroach?" was all he could manage.

Peg closed her mouth, and appeared to swallow, before she replied. "I ... err... thanks. I mean no thanks. I ..?" She seemed just as lost for words as her host. Suddenly Shanks remembered his manners. "Oh ... please sit down." With that he gave a broad friendly smile. What Peg thought of it was unclear, but she accepted his invitation and sat back on the toilet seat (this time its cover was down.) She adjusted her clothing, all the while keeping her eyes fixed on the spider.

"Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm Armitage Shanks, Benign Huntsman, Lord Of All That You Survey." He bowed and flourished one of his front legs as he said this. All the chivalry he'd learned from a recent television series was being recalled. Peg strained forward, unable to hear clearly the wispy speech coming from her host. But she picked up the name. Armitage Shanks. Where had she heard that before? She had no time to think now. The spider was rocking gently up and down on his feet, obviously waiting for a returned introduction from the squatting figure.


"Oh.. um, I'm Peg Priddle. But everyone calls me Square Peg ... 'cause I don't fit in." She gave a little laugh, but she didn't really look amused. Shanks wasn't either. Peg began to blush, but quickly covered it up by blurting out "Anyhow, how come you can talk?" Shanks hadn't expected that question. It crossed his mind that being benign might mean you could talk to humans. But Aunty Scuttle was benign too, and she'd never said a word to a person as far as he knew.

"I watch the old box" he replied, slipping into Televisionese. Peg just looked puzzled. "You what?" "I learned it from the telly. You know, Play School, Sesame Street, Neighbours, Eastenders.." He would have gone on to list his Top Forty programs, but Peg interrupted. "You mean you learned how to speak by watching television?" "Correct. Please wait till I say your name." Shanks was still quite nervous. It was only with a conscious effort that he didn't break into "God Save The Queen" again.

"But I thought all spiders were .." Peg stopped herself from insulting her host. "Were what?" Shanks asked innocently. Before she had a chance to think up a good reply, they both heard footsteps followed by a voice calling out. "PAIRG...Peggy". They recognised Peg's Grandfather. "Coming Pa," she bellowed, then turned to Shanks as she got up to leave. "Look I'm gonna have to go. Can I meet you here again? After lunch?" He nodded. "Sure thing. Adios till then." With a quick if still bewildered grin, Peg left his room.

Shanks sat there stunned. Then he slowly began to feel warm all over. He'd actually got to meet the girl of his dreams. And what's more, he had a date to see her again. In near ecstasy he bounded off towards the ceiling. "Oh bloated blowfly, what did Shanks do to deserve this. Ah moldy mosquito, my numbers have come up! Oh curdled cockroach..." Which reminded him. He slipped off into the ceiling to have one of these delights. No, blow it all, he might have all three!

As Peg came out of the toilet, her Pa gave her a queer look. "Who were you talking to in there?" With a perfectly straight face Peg said simply "Oh, I was talking to a spider." "Not another bloomin' Huntsman? I oughta spray the whole place." Peg opened her mouth in horror, but her grandfather was continuing. "But I s'pose they'd soon be back. And they say Huntsmen are benign enough. Matter of fact, I parcelled one up in paper and took him out to the garden last night. Don't reckon they bite, but I weren't takin' chances." Then, almost as an afterthought he added, "Besides they give mum the creeps." He'd never met a woman who wasn't scared of spiders, and he wondered at Peg casually talking to one in the confines of the toilet.


As Peg walked furtively along the hallway to the toilet, she was sure she was alone. It was three days now since she'd met her extraordinary new friend, but she was still being careful. She had the feeling no-one else was quite ready for him yet. Yet in her own mind she felt she'd always known him. He was so interesting; so little like a spider, or what she had imagined spiders to be like. Other girls could have their dumb rabbits and kittens. She would have her talking Huntsman any day. Cute and cuddly wasn't all there was to look for in an animal friend. Still, just at present he would be her secret friend.

Outside the toilet she gave her special whistle to let Shanks know she was coming. She looked quickly around to see if she had been noticed. Nothing. She turned the wobbly doorknob and went in, looking up to see if Shanks was in his usual spot. Catching sight of him she smiled, greeted him, and turned to latch the door. At the same moment there was a creak and a thump, and the door was suddenly flung open straight into Peg's forehead. She shouted in pain and slumped to the floor, holding her head.

Ignoring her, Terrence pushed his way into the room. "Who do you think you're talking to?" Peg lay moaning on the floor, but as Terrence tried to get past her, she knew she had to stop him. Just as he saw the large brown spider, she started screaming at him. He gave her one hard look; did the same to the spider, then calmly left the room before his grandparents arrived. There'd be plenty of time to get her back, and find out all about this grotesque thing she'd been talking to.


The large tom-cat stretched, head low, tail high, a bumpy, gingery slippery dip. Geoffrey had had a hard morning following the sunshine around the veranda. It would still be two more moves before the sun reached his basket. Till then he would have to make do with hard floorboards. Such was the lot of Geoffrey Boycat, retired mouser, ratter, birder and blue-tonguer extraordinaire. Venerable though he was, he felt hard done by. Surely a retired champion should be treated with more respect. Why, for instance, wasn't his basket moved around for him? As he settled back down on the floor-boards, he vaguely wondered whether the sun might be asked to move for him.

As Geoffrey contemplated this, he was disturbed by the one bane of his life. A yap, a shuffle of paws, and a disgusting snuffling sound told him he had a visitor. Lump Sum, the Pekinese dog, had come to see him. Geoffrey should have been impressed. Lump Sum was a profoundly aristocratic dog. He had a long pedigree to prove it. He had blue ribbons from the Electrona and Snug District Dog Show. And he had a venerable Pekinese name, even if he was too stupid or lazy to remember it. (Was it Lap Sang Sou Chong? Or was that the type of tea Mumsy liked?)

Regardless, Geoffrey most definitely did not venerate this pathetic excuse for a dog. The thing would make a better floor mop. Geoffrey turned his face away from the wheezing wimp, and pretended to be asleep. He could not help twitching his ears and wrinkling his nose at the awful smell that hovered around Lump Sum. The dirty thing had been rolling in rotting fish again.

Lump Sum was too thick to notice any of this. He waddled up to Geoffrey and nudged him with a dribbly muzzle. When this brought no response, he barked loudly in the cat's ear. With a slow, measured movement of the head, Geoffrey turned to face the dog. At the same time, he aimed a lightning-fast pawful of claws at the rumpled face. Dumb or not, Lump Sum was also quick. He effortlessly dodged the paw, yapped once more, then launched into excited chatter.

"Guess what ... guess what ... hruhh hruhhh!" He slobbered sibilantly. "Spider can talk! Talk 's good as me! Over nek door. Hruhh hruhh ... Spider talk ... 's good as me!" Geoffrey raised one sarcastic eyebrow, but didn't comment. Despite himself he was interested in what this gibbering idiot was saying. Lump Sum went on. "The girl, the boy, the visders ... hruhh hruhhh ... you know, nek door. Over nek door." He pointed his mangled muzzle in the general direction. ("You're not a pointer old thing", thought Geoffrey with a scornful sneer. "More of a panter, really.") Lump Sum continued to wheeze and waddle as he told more of his news.

The cat lay there waiting. Economy of movement was one of his creeds. He knew the Lump would get to the point eventually. There were several agonising minutes while the dog put the English language through torture. Eventually Geoffrey worked out that something genuinely unique was happening "nek door". Something he could use to add to his already considerable fame and prestige. He might need help, someone to do the dirty work. But he could see that the capture and execution of a notorious spider would set him up for life. He knew how much They (the Feeder and the Adorer) loathed spiders. Especially the Adorer. Please her and you pleased the Feeder. Please the Feeder and ... ahhh ... Food, Fame and Fortune.

As he lay there the wheezing background of Lump Sum's chatter became waves lapping on a tropical shore. As Geoffrey slipped off into a delicious dream, one pearl was washed up on the shore. Among the dog's rabbitings he distinctly heard "... but the boy he hate the spider. The visder, the boy ...oooh my words, he hate the spider." Now that could be useful. Soon. Meanwhile sleep took priority, even over food, fame and fortune. There would be time for those soon enough.

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