Dyes and Gulls
© 2011 by Walter D. Reimer
July 15, 1938:
George hadn’t waited around.
As soon as the term ended he had all their equipment packed up and waiting. Laura checked it over, and even after setting aside some nonessential items it still looked like an impressive pile of gear. Everything else had already been arranged, and Robbie was at her sister’s house already.
The Qantas Empire Airways DeHavilland biplane circled the port city of Darwin before coming in for a landing at the small town’s airport. Visible in the harbor was their connecting flight, a brand-new Short flying boat that would take them to Singapore.
“Ah! Will you look down there, Laura?” George enthused. “There’s a fine piece of frontier town for ya!”
“Yes, just lovely,” she said. “I’m just thankful we’ll have running water and – maybe – no blowflies in the dunny.”
“Just remember your flyswatter.”
“I’ll give you a swat.” She gave him a gentle slap on the muzzle and the two kissed. It was hard to stay mad at him – she knew that from long experience. Fights and arguments between them were fairly common, which made making up all the sweeter.
Their itinerary was arranged around the flying boat’s schedule, and it wasn’t due to leave until the next morning. They already had a room reserved at the Commonwealth Hotel in the town for the night, and the airline transferred the bulk of their gear to the seaplane in the harbor.
It was just as well that they were spending the night. It started raining shortly after they arrived at the hotel, and showed no sign of letting up.
“Nice place,” George commented that night as they had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. He spoke around a mouthful of food, swallowed it and added, “Ain’t it?”
Laura sipped at her glass of beer. “I suppose so. But there’s no beating Sydney, dear. All the modern conveniences – “
“Ah, but here, Laura! The outback and the raw, pristine wilderness is right here!” George said enthusiastically. “All you have to do is step out and you’re in it up to your neck!”
She nodded, conceding the point.
Shouts and laughter from the hotel’s bar drew their attention, and Laura flagged down the eatery’s only waiter. “What’s going on in there?”
“Oh, I ‘spect it’s only the weekly contest, love,” the waiter said. The wombat hitched up his apron and added, “They’s always in here on a Friday. Pay night, y’see, but it’ll be orright.”
“Well, what are they doing in there?”
The wombat shrugged. “Same things they be doin’ every time,” and went about his business.
George tossed back the last of his beer and said, “I’ll go see. Coming with me, Laura?”
The ‘roo femme nodded. Exploration was all about being curious, and from the noises coming from the bar people were having a good time. They settled the bill and went into the bar.
The hotel bar was crowded with men apparently just done with work in the fields or at the various businesses in Darwin, dressed in faded dungarees and work shirts, a few wearing hats and all with pint glasses in their paws. There was a thick fog of cigarette smoke and musks in the air that gave the scene a slightly misty look.
There seemed to be two centers of attention (three if one counted the bar itself, which was doing brisk business); the dart board, and a small table where a large cluster of men stood, cheering and exchanging punches and wads of crumpled banknotes.
The two kangaroos bought beers at the bar and George walked up to the crowd at the table. He nudged another ‘roo about his size and asked, “What’s going on here, mate?”
The man turned and grinned at him. “Arm wrestlin’, mate. Lil’ Jimmy’s takin’ on all comers.” As if to punctuate his statement there was a sudden “Oof!” and the sound of flesh slapping wood, and the crowd whooped and cheered. “He’s won ten times inna row now.”
“All comers, eh?”
The ‘roo looked George over. “Care to try him out, mate?”
“Sure.” He fished a pound note from a pocket as Laura’s eyes went wide. She shook her head and walked back to the bar.
“Orright.” The ‘roo raised his voice. “’Ere, Jimmy, I got a guy here says he wants a go!”
Heads turned and the crowd parted a bit to revealed a stockily-built crocodile dressed in ragged trousers and a torn undershirt pausing in the act of downing another pint of beer. A stack of notes and coins sat at one corner of the battered table. The man belched and drew a scaly paw across his mouth before saying in a deep gruff voice, “Who is he, mate?”
George raised a paw and made his way through the crowd. “Name’s George Patagarang,” he said, offering a paw.
Jimmy looked at the paw and took it. “Jim.”
The two settled down facing each other, seated at the table. George took his shirt off and flexed a bit as the betting started.
The croc cracked his knuckles. “Ya ain’t from ‘round here, mate.”
“Um, city boy. Promise I won’t hurt ya.” The two clasped paws and settled their elbows amid the puddles of spilled beer on the table. A few onlookers studied the elbows to make sure they were properly placed, and the match was on.
Standing by the bar, Laura was able to watch her husband as his back muscles flexed under his fur from the strain. Despite her doing all of the heavy lifting when they were on expeditions, George really was in excellent shape (which she could attest to, whether under oath or not). He was certainly holding his own against Jimmy, who was apparently unable to budge the kangaroo’s paw.
After several tense seconds of stalemate, George’s arm started to move forward as he bared his teeth. The movement was slow, but it was enough to make the hometown crowd start cheering on their favorite even as more money changed paws. Jimmy put on an extra burst of effort but all he succeeded in doing was bringing their arms back vertical.
Another few seconds and George started bringing his arm down again, fighting against the crocodile’s strength. One fur dropped to his knees and eyed the table, watching for any sign of knuckles striking wood.
A groan went up as the kneeling man signaled that George had taken Jimmy’s arm the rest of the way down. George released his grip and, massaging feeling back into his paw, offered a pawshake to the croc. “Good match, m – “
Jimmy slugged him.
The force of the blow sent the kangaroo staggering backward and through one of the bar’s windows, landing in a heap in the rainswept street amid a litter of broken glass.
Cheers arose as Jimmy walked to the window and said gruffly, “Yer fallen in the water, mate.”
The kangaroo that George had first spoken to said cheerfully, “Forgot to tell ya, mate. Jimmy’s a bit of a sore loser.”
Laura sighed, drained her glass of beer and started to hunt for the bar’s manager to pay the cost of the broken window.
The hotel very thoughtfully provided a strip of beefsteak for George’s eye.
But still charged the full replacement cost for the broken window. Laura paid it, and the next morning cabled for additional funds to be waiting for them when they arrived at the next stop on their journey.
Unfortunately, the weather was still not cooperating, so the Imperial Airways plane had to set down not at its usual destination but at the secondary landing dock at nearby Humapore. The representative for the airline expressed his regret at the delay, but assured the passengers that they would be leaving on time.
“Suits me,” Laura said as they climbed into a pedicab. George spoke to the driver in Malay, and the binturong started pedaling to their hotel. “Ever notice, George, we don’t seem to have much luck in Singapore?”
“Nonsense!” her husband declared. “What about that time I found that artifact in the jungles? Y’know, the one up in the mainland?”
“Yeah, there was that.” The artifact in question was a priceless piece of sculpture from an earlier Malay civilization. George had, as usual, gone after it like a bloodhound on a scent, leaving Laura much to her own devices.
Laura allowed herself a smile, thinking back to a rather humid tropical night and that well-muscled luak.
That, she reflected, had truly been a voyage of discovery.
Manila Bay passed beneath them in a haze of sunshine as the plane banked into its landing pattern. The harbor below was filled with shipping and warships lay at anchor at the naval base at Cavite.
“Looks a right smart place from up here,” George said, face pressed to the plane’s window.
“Looks like it, yeah,” Laura said behind him. Of course, she couldn’t see, not that it mattered. The flying boat had hit turbulence over Indo-China and her stomach still felt a bit woozy. “I’ll feel better when I feel good solid earth under my feet,” she added.
“That’s the spirit, love!” he said. “Always on the lookout for a new adventure!”
“Whatever you say.”
That night, with Laura feeling better, they took a cab south to the outskirts of the city. Not the largely American enclave of Olangapo, but the slightly wealthier suburb of Olangapo-Anfarawei, where (their hotel’s concierge had assured them) there was an excellent American restaurant.
Laura rather doubted that, having eaten in Gnu York City before trekking into the remotest Catskills with George in search of the Lost Mazel of Schlemiel. Items such as ‘hot dogs’ were a poor substitute for proper sausages.
Even with mustard.
Fortunately the menu included other choices like steak, and the restaurant’s amenities sported a full dance floor. While they ate, American and other military officers and their wives either dined or danced to tunes supplied by the Filipino band.
Laura was sipping at her wine when two paws abruptly covered her eyes. “Guess who?”
She put her glass down carefully as George chuckled and ran her paws over the ones covering her eyes. “Hmm, let me see,” she said. “I have it! You can’t be no other than Old Salty, from the Rusty Nail Bar! What are ya doing so far north of Sydney, mate?”
“Hah!” The paws were whisked away and she turned to see a short, stocky canine with black and white fur and wearing a cheap suit and tie. “Ya knew damned well who it was, Missy.” He kissed her cheek before shaking paws with George. “What are you two doing here?”
“Headed to Spontoon, Igor,” George replied. “How about you?”
The Anglo-Russian husky-terrier laughed. “I’m headed up into the mountains here on Luzon,” Igor Blymee said happily. “My guide Culio tells me there’s a village up in the mountains that worship strange gods.” The veteran member of PRICK grinned. “Nothing like the opportunity to expand our knowledge of the bizarre.”
Laura and George exchanged looks. Igor had recently returned from the Soviet Union, where his expertise in finding lost artifacts and civilizations was welcomed, along with his known Communist sympathies. He was, quite simply, black and white and Red all over.
Igor made his farewells and made his way out of the restaurant, edging past a Filipino Navy officer and his wife. The ship’s riband on his uniform announced that the commander was an officer aboard the Commonwealth’s biggest ship, the light cruiser Aguinaldo.
Several Americans, noses in air, signaled for their checks. Others led their wives out onto the dance floor as the bandleader announced a good old-fashioned square dance.
Laura’s ears hiked up as she watched the dancing. George was sipping at his beer. “Um, Skippy, love.”
“You might want to move yer chair, sport.”
“They’re dancin’ mighty close to the – “
She never finished the sentence as one burly U.S. Navy lieutenant, a buffalo, swung his partner, a thin mouse, with enough force to make her feet come off the floor.
Her heels struck George a solid blow to the head, and he flew out of the chair onto the floor.
A small crowd gathered as the dancers moved off to the side and the band played on.
Laura was out of her chair and kneeling beside her husband. “George? George! Speak to me, love,” she urged, patting his cheek.
“Mnngh . . . huh? What? Laura?”
She glanced up at the onlookers. “He’ll be orright. Take more than a mouse to the bonce to knock my husband out cold.” The crowd started to disperse and Laura helped him up to a seated position. “Trust you to lead with your head again, silly darling.”
“Did I at least win the fight?” he asked blearily.