Chapter 2: The Urban Border Collie
Canals to riverbanks – A bustling sandbar – The warped world under Canterbury Road – A frayed green sock – Kippers for lunch – Three Chihuahuas and a tin-opener.
I’d pedalled about five miles, my buttocks started aching in the saddle, my sinuses still whistled on and off. But my penny farthing seemed nonplussed about the goings-on and to my surprise plodded along like a well-oiled machine – I’d given it a major service and rebuild just for this very outing.
Somewhere past Coxs Creek and Georges River Road Bridge, the graffitied concrete canal became a riverbank lined with mangroves and sheoaks. I stopped to take rest at a sandbar islet exposed at low tide. On the boggy mass shared among the umpteen seagulls squawking in the breeze I counted thirty-one cormorants airing their wings, seven pelicans preening themselves, one lone heron posing to no one in particular, and a dumped shopping trolley. My appetite started to build but after catching my breath I thought ‘Best not be a sluggard old fellow!’ So I remounted my penny farthing and pushed on in search of somewhere nice to eat lunch.
Beyond Canterbury Racecourse spanned another bridge, under Canterbury Road, which I sensed might pose a challenge.
There were several issues at play for a penny farthing rider. Firstly, the bridge was rather low overhead, particularly on a penny farthing which seats the rider higher than on a conventional bicycle – one might bump his noggin if not careful, so I had to hunch down between the handlebars. Then, travelling down-river, the concrete wall on the left, and the railing on the right – over which was the muddy bank and river – formed two vertical planes which converged gradually inwards under the bridge from the width of about an arm span to my handlebars plus one inch. With my head and elbows tucked in, my knees had nowhere to go. Add to this my eyes adjusting to the darkness, along with the half exposed terracotta drainpipes under-wheel, and you can imagine the whole disorientating affair.
I was flummoxed and already wobbling on approach to the bridge. Once engulfed by darkness and with the walls closing in, I rode over a crack in the concrete and swore an obscenity which startled all the pigeons under the bridge into flight. Then I lost balance, tipped left and scraped my elbow on the wall before overcompensating and wedging my right handle-grip in the wire mesh of the railing. My penny farthing stalled abruptly in its tracks thrusting me forward and I kneed myself in the head. With all the birds flapping about, in my doddering predicament I felt like a clown in a Hitchcock film.
After unfolding myself off the penny farthing and untangling it from the railing, I walked it and me out from under Canterbury Road. The pigeons went back to their roosts leaving me with my own discomfiture as I returned into the glary light of the day.
Once I’d gathered my senses I really felt like stopping for lunch but again chose to push on a little further. I should have probably applied some ointment to the graze on my elbow, but not to worry…
As it was I had another dog experience awaiting me on the trail.
A border collie’s prime instinct is to herd. I found this out first hand near the dog-off-leash area at Canterbury Bowls & Sydney Pétanque Club where against my wishes I was taken into pursuit. My penny farthing is built to free-wheel, which makes for a lovely rest from pedalling while coasting down hills. Its single one-to-one gearing while riding on flat roads, however, propels the thing not much faster than a jogging human. Clearly in the collie’s eyes I was a roaming animal which needed herding, and clearly I was an easy target. My cadence lifted and I accelerated from about five to a blistering eight miles an hour.
But I was no match for the athletic black and white canine which caught me up and was running alongside my right pedal before I knew it. I nervously looked down and with a quivering voice said ‘hello puppy’ but it had work in mind and lunged at my ankle.
It lunged again, then again and struck on the third attempt. My foot was reefed from the pedal as fangs caught the cuff of my sock. The collie only released because my water bottle rattled free from the holder on my handlebars and bounced square off its head.
In those few seconds when you’re waiting and wondering what pain might wash over your body following such an incident, I recalled hearing a ripping noise when the collie latched on. But there was no pain and no blood to speak of; to my surprise all my skin and flesh lay intact.
The collie completed its objective. I took a moment to appreciate this dog breed’s ability to nip and lunge in an intimidating and authoritative manner yet not wound or maim. After retrieving my water bottle I rode on thinking I’d given the mutt an enormous sense of self-satisfaction: the urban border collie could rest easy having herded up the livestock for the morning. While pedalling along the sock’s frayed cuff flapped against my ankle and I could feel dog slobber drying to a crunchy coat on my shin.
In the wake of all this excitement it was definitely time to stop for lunch. So I did.
I sat at a picnic table overlooking a long, sunny reach of the river. Half a dozen ladies flowed in the synchronicity of their late-morning tai-chi to the crackle of Asian music from a small battery powered stereo precariously balanced on a nearby climbing-frame.
I lunched on kippers, tomatoes, a fresh baguette and a nice cup of tea boiled on my Trangia stove. Everything was lovely but the kippers tasted a little like plasticine.
While eating I reflected on an amusing dog experience of my youth, with three Chihuahuas. They were owned by the Ravenscroft family; I knew the dogs by name. There was Nicky, the moody mother, who had old teats clinging like calcified barnacles to her unders; there was Nicky’s daughter, Bessy, the snarly one who returned to the fold for reasons I was unclear; and there was Nicky’s other daughter Tawny, the runt of the litter, the wildest of the three. Tawny perplexed me the most. With her nervous shaking it was like looking at a constantly out of focus object. She was so small and volatile she might have imploded at any moment. She had ‘little little dog’s syndrome’.
The confrontation occurred while returning a tin-opener borrowed earlier that day. I knocked on the Ravenscroft’s caravan door, there was no answer. I pressed on the latch which was unlocked and entered the annex, lights were on but it was quiet inside – I presumed they were out visiting. The kerfuffle erupted when I entered the kitchenette and made for the utensil drawer where I was set upon by the three Chihuahuas.
I wanted to laugh, and I did: I found my predicament quite hilarious. But they were vicious and noisy and relentless. I retreated from the kitchenette and into the annex. They kept coming. I had to act. So I kicked out at one of them only to have the other two attack my stationary ankle; Bessy took hold of my Achilles tendon and nearly brought me to the floor. I kicked out again and I think little Tawny became wedged in the gap between my toes. The four of us danced together in a cacophony of barking, growling and shrieking such that I turned to see the neighbour Uncle Reg at the door, his big belly bouncing below his infectious face and his whole body in convulsions of laughter. I still had the tin-opener in my hand which I promptly used to whack Uncle Reg before placing it on the front step.