When I was very little I would always pretend that car journeys were river boat trips, whether on the sluggish waters that criss-crossed my neighbourhood, every morning on the leisurely brook to school, or on the raging, wide torrent of the motorway. My parents laugh when they tell people about the times they had to stop me improvising a fishing rod out of the car window when we were stuck in traffic, and how I cried because I would never catch the wonderful fish beneath the wheels. It was a quirk of my childhood, but I never really thought much about it until I returned to my grandparents’ farm on Oppenheims road.
Still heavy with the news of grandma’s death, mum fell asleep on the drive out from town, and I was left with my thoughts for company. I remember my mind drifting with the currents of the plain, black tarmac - the tarmac that twisted and wound through the featureless, tan fields and somehow managed to run endlessly downhill. The farm is on a bend in the road, so when you reach it you feel like you’ve hit an eddy and been cast up as flotsam alongside the dead trunks and pale wooden outhouse. It was then that I realised where my rivers had sprung from.
I had visited the farm three times before, once when I was less than two years old, again when I was nine, and then for the last time when I was fourteen. They seem such rare reunions at first glance, but you need to know that my grandparents lived in Tasmania. How my mother drifted across the world and married a geography teacher in Leeds is too long a story to tell here, but it is one that resulted in me announcing happily on the first day of primary school that I was half Tasmanian devil.
Throughout school I loved boasting about it, and I made so many stories up about my adventures in Tasmania that my classmates must’ve wondered how I managed to spend any time at all in England. Like other boys, I developed a fascination with monsters. Some of my friends loved dragons or werewolves, and one boy swore that his mum had bought him a life-size T-Rex (which was always being borrowed by his cousins when we went round to his house), but my monsters were different. My monsters weren’t fiction or ancient bones; my monsters were real, and, best of all, my granddad could remember them.
The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was a carnivorous marsupial which managed to cling to Tasmania for two thousand years after it died out on mainland Australia. They had an unfair reputation as killers among Tasmanian farmers, and the government began to pay a bounty for each animal taken, so that by the mid-thirties the last thylacine had died a lonely death in Beaumaris zoo. They were shy, and about as big as a dog, but in my stories they took on full tiger size and ferocity and chased me up trees.
My obsession with them didn’t start in Australia, but instead with a little book of extinct creatures that I got for my fifth birthday; the tiger from my Tasmania leapt out from among the mammoths and dodos. I began to draw them in all my pictures and keep imaginary tiger pets. Happy with a chance to teach me about my heritage, my mum mentioned my interest to my grandparents, and many weeks later a bundled parcel arrived. All kinds of sweets and toys tumbled out of the earth-brown paper, but there was one thing I could not take my eyes off. There was a photo. It was black and white and fraying at the edges, and had that strange sense of blinding white light that you sometimes get in old photographs, but it was easy enough to see what it showed. There was a man, wiry and sun-leathered, crouching down with his rifle; there was a small boy, about my age, with his neat, white socks and buckle-fastened shoes; and, stretched out in death on the dirt in front of them, there was the tiger.
I found the picture again recently as I looked through a box of my old things, and I had that strange melancholy feeling you often get as an adult looking back to the false grandeur of childhood memories. In truth, I find the image quite sad. The animal is scrawny and half starved, and the black blood around the bullet hole in its side all but removes the beauty of its stripes. There is a note written in scratchy handwriting on the back, which is how I know the picture shows my granddad and his uncle. The date is given as October 1927, so this would have been one of the last in the wild. Mum must have read it to me at the time, but I don’t remember paying much attention, for on the back of the photograph my granddad had also taped a jagged tooth.
The tooth remained the pride of my collection as childish obsession with the monster evolved into genuine fascination with the animal. From the scraps I could find in natural history books I learned that there were people who still claimed to be spotting them out in the bush, and I sat on the plane to Australia as the nine year old who would rediscover the lost tiger. I had gathered hundreds of questions for my granddad, and tried to squeeze them all into a small, faux leather-bound notebook which had cost me several weeks’ pocket money, but which I felt would mean adults couldn’t help but take me seriously.
We arrived at Oppenheims road near midnight, and I had been sleeping in the car. We were late. I remember my grandma standing by the door as we pulled up; she had been sat nervously outside since darkness fell, and came running over the crunching gravel drive as the engine stopped. I was so tired that everything became hazy and dreamlike, and the only thing I cared about was the heavy weight which I could feel dragging me to my bed. My first memory of my granddad was of a dark silhouette in the red light of the fireplace. It shifted slightly as I was led past the open living room door.
I woke up in a strange room. The morning was cold and the blankets were thin. The bed was low to the ground, so that all I could focus on was the dirty beige of the tattered carpet. It had been my mum’s bedroom, and had that inexplicable brown colour scheme that I will forever associate with the previous generation’s childhood. Even the vase my grandma had put on the windowsill did little to brighten the place up; for lack of flowers she had resorted to filling it with long stalks of dry grass, which somehow made the jolly red and white pottery seem rather sad.
My mum and dad went to visit friends across the island, and they had left early that morning, so I was left alone with my grandparents for the first time. I remember walking nervously into the kitchen for breakfast, trying to look dignified and officious with my notebook, but forgetting I was still wearing cartoon pyjamas. My grandma was a happy woman, but the smile she was holding was too big to be completely genuine, even for her.
“How did you sleep, dear?”
She pulled a heavy chair away from the table for me and I rubbed my eyes.
“Okay, thank you.”
“Do you remember your granddad?”
I didn’t. He was sat in the seat opposite me. I nodded but stared fixedly at the wooden table-top.
Granddad cleared his throat,
“How’s it going, son?”
“I’m okay, thank you.”
It was awkward. My grandma knew it was awkward and tried her best to fill the air with conversation, the type of conversation where you get the impression that even the person speaking isn’t really listening to what’s being said. Eventually, she remembered one way she knew she could get me to talk.
“Your mum told me you’ve been reading about the Tassie tigers? Did you know that granddad was here when they were still alive?”
He put down his spoon and I remember feeling like his eyes were burning into me. I nodded.
“Well didn’t you have any questions?” She added.
I looked up nervously at him, for the first time noticing the ice-grey eyes, the white hair, and the wrinkled skin which still had a sense of strength. He was one of those men who become old steadily and without fuss, like an ancient tree resisting the wind.
I had forgotten all about my little book, which lay neatly by my bowl.
“Ermm… What did they like to eat?”
He picked up his spoon again.
“They liked to eat sheep.”
I bit my lip.
“Are you sure?”
“I saw my uncle’s dead sheep. The tigers used to knock them over and tear the guts out of their bellies,”
“John, not at the table!”
My grandma was mortified, but granddad just shrugged.
“He asked,” he said quietly.
At this point I couldn’t help it. I said, with all the smugness of a nine year old boy who has read something in a book:
he looked at me again,
“I read that the thylacines preferred to hunt emus and kangaroos and wombats,”
I could clearly see the page I’d memorised this from in my mind,
“But some people think their mouths were too weak to kill anything big!”
There was a dreadful pause as he studied me, and it felt so tense that I thought for a moment he would explode out of it. But he didn’t have a temper.
“Maybe.” He said, “But my uncle shot the ones that were killing his sheep.”
Grandma started talking busily again, and it was decided that I would spend the day around the farm with granddad, who had to check on some of the fences anyway. I was worried he was angry with me, but I remember thinking that at least I would have a chance to look for the tiger. I wouldn’t catch one of course (for my first try that seemed a little silly), but maybe I’d find a footprint, and I could probably get a photo with the little disposable camera that I’d brought with me.
Clouds had rolled in overnight, but they broke to give a hot and shimmering day. I was uncomfortable and I had to squint in the sunlight, deciding in my mind which places looked more tigery than others. The only animals I can remember seeing were the few dusty little sheep my grandparents had left, which gathered gratefully around us as we walked the perimeter of their field. For a long time my granddad didn’t say anything, but every now and then he would turn and look at me as though he wanted to.
Eventually we found ourselves returning along the dry, dirt trail to the house, and were probably about halfway back when I hesitated. He stopped too since he could no longer hear the scuff of my sandals in the dust. I saw him put his hands on his hips.
“Didn’t you ever find footprints on the path? They would have run along here I bet.”
Granddad didn’t turn round.
“No.” He said, and started along the path again.
I paused and thought for a moment, nodded to myself, then hurried after him to catch up,
“Did you have lots of tigers here?”
“I don’t know. We should hurry back for lunch,”
“Were they scary?”
“I don’t know. I guess so. I think grandma’s making ham sandwiches. Do you like ham?”
“I think they weren’t scary. I bet they would run away if you chased one.”
“I guess so.”
We made it back quickly for lunch, and I do remember the ham sandwiches; thick slices of salty pork with butter in voluptuous white rolls, so big that I had to hold each one with two hands. Grandma suggested we go out by the pond to eat them.
The pond was a small lake on the opposite side of Oppenheims road to the farm. From a distance it had an unnatural rectangular shape and dark water, but up close it was clear and fresh, and you could see little fish swimming among the little rocks. We sat and ate in silence; with the gentle lapping of the waves and the bird calls caught on the breeze grandma obviously didn’t feel the need to talk. I remember granddad’s eyes seemed miles away. After a while he stirred,
“I found some good tracks in the wood yesterday, do you want to see?”
Discovery flashed before my eyes,
“Grandma?” he asked, turning his broad smile to her.
“Oh, no thank you! My book’s just getting good! But you boys go; I’m sure I saw a tiger up there once.”
She winked at me. I didn’t appreciate the joke.
The wood, I found out, was a crowd of eucalyptus at the top of a hill further up the road from the farm, and it took about twenty minutes of heavy breathing before we could stop under their silver arms. The trees stood on uneven ground, and there was still a bit of scrambling to be done, granddad said, so we should have break. I picked up a long twig and began snapping it at intervals.
“Did the tigers like to swim in the lake?”
“I don’t know.”
“But did they like to drink there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you know?” I asked indignantly. He looked at me.
“You haven’t told me anything!”
I could feel myself beginning to choke up.
“Look, I’ve not spent my whole life on this bloody farm you know!” His voice was raised, but he wasn’t shouting. “And besides, the last time I saw one of those things I was younger than you! I can barely bloody remember the stripes.”
I stood stock still and tried to sniffle back the tears. He softened like a man dropping a weight, and looked guilty.
“Look,” he said quietly, “These tracks are really something. You can see where the potoroo went to eat and then you can see where something got at it.” He smiled, and pointed up the hill, “Look, it’s just up there.”
“No.” I said
“Come on, it’s not that far…”
“No, I don’t want to go.”
He sat down in the dust with a crunch of dry leaves.
“Fine. Just make sure you go slowly on the way down so you don’t hurt yourself. And tell your grandma I’ll be mending the chicken coop.”
Grandma was as surprised to see me back as she was cross at granddad for letting me come home alone. She wanted to talk to me, but I managed to wriggle quickly through her questions: nothing was wrong, I just felt like reading in my room, if that was okay with her.
By the time I came out of the bedroom and felt bad for sulking my parents had come back from their trip. Everyone was in the living room, my parents on the sofa, my grandparent’s in the ancient armchairs that they’d occupied, mum said, as long as she could remember. They looked up at me as I entered, and dad spoke:
“I heard you got a bit tired this afternoon,”
He patted the space between him and mum, and rubbed my hair as I sat down,
“Better get some sleep tonight; granddad’s taking us fishing tomorrow!”
Granddad was whittling a still shapeless block of wood with slow, deliberate strokes. He didn’t look up, just paused for a moment and then carried on. My parents and grandma continued talking chirpily, about the day, about the big, new house the Coopers had built for their daughter, but granddad just carried on. I watched him nervously for a while, trying to decipher any trace of anger from earlier, but instead I ended up lost in the developing contours and form that his knife caressed into the wood. We were both surprised by the passage of time that appeared when grandma announced that dinner was ready.
Throughout the next two weeks I did spend a lot of time with my granddad, but I was never alone with him again. He didn’t say much on the fishing trip, but from the way my dad talked to him I could tell that he liked him. I remember thinking that he must not have seen how mean he could be.
One night granddad asked me awkwardly if I would like to come and sit with him on the porch while he smoked, which was his evening ritual. His cigarettes were made of rich, stinking tobacco, and mum said she didn’t like me breathing in the smoke, but I knew he could see from my eyes that I didn’t want to anyway. If memory serves me correctly, he ended up giving his ritual a miss that night.
As it turned out, that would be my last chance to sit with him and talk. After two weeks we said our goodbyes, promised to visit again sooner, much sooner than the seven years we’d left it before, and set off to finish our holiday with a colourful trip on the mainland. By time the time we did get round to coming back, about five years later, my granddad had died of lung cancer.
I remember the phone call we got from grandma just after it happened, “He’d been coughing for a couple of months,” she said between gasping sobs, “but we didn’t think…” Mum explained to me later that his affair with those aromatic cigarettes had once been much more vigorous; he cut down when he heard that she’d became pregnant with me, she said, so he could live to see his grandchildren. We were short of money at that point, so only mum could fly out to the funeral.
My grandma was tough and religious, and she seemed to get through the loss well enough, apparently guided by her network of close friends and the resolute belief that granddad was always with her. Only once, on my next visit, did I see just how heavily it weighed down upon her.
We returned when I was fourteen, and Grandma was as happy and chatty as I remembered her. Once again mum and dad decided to visit their old friends, but this time, since I was older, they would stay away for three days. We had already been at the farm for a week at that point, and I can’t recall having mentioned granddad at all, or indeed showing any sign of being sad at his passing; it must have broken grandma’s heart. At her suggestion I had made friends with some of the teenagers who lived in the town nearby, and I had been out with them all day when I came back to find her sat crying in granddad’s chair. She saw me standing in the doorway, and turned awkwardly towards me,
“He really loved you, you know. Don’t think that he didn’t.”
I didn’t know what to say. She turned back round.
“How could he not love his Lucy’s little boy?”
She added quietly, as if to herself. I walked slowly and sat down on the sofa, and then I could see she was holding a photograph. Noticing me looking, she stretched forward to hand it to me, old bones almost creaking with the effort. It had been taken on my first visit; I was the chubby toddler in my granddad’s arms, held high against his shoulder and looking obliviously in the wrong direction while he beamed into the lens. I felt like crying then too.
“Tell me about him” I said softly. She looked at me for a moment, gave a small smile, and began.
She told me about how she had met him after the war, while she was still in the air force and he had just come back from fighting in the jungle. How she had fallen in love with this quiet but loving man, who sometimes seemed so sad because he couldn’t quite express what he meant, or how he felt. She told me how she had left her family in Perth, and about the adventure down to Tasmania to build a farm and a family. How she didn’t regret any of it. After she finished she seemed somehow brighter. The pain was still there, but now it was the clean pain you get when you wash out a deep wound. The pain that will heal.
It was strange how I had to reshuffle my memories about Granddad after that; before it had almost been as though he and my other granddad, my dad’s dad, had represented the dos and don’ts of grandparenting, where one was as warm and comforting as his cosy Yorkshire cottage, and the other was nothing but disappointing and distant.
It wasn’t until my eighteenth birthday, however, that I really began to feel guilty about my relationship with him. My mum had rediscovered and gift-wrapped some of the hand-made toys which had been forgotten alongside the photograph when I was five. Most striking were three wooden thylacine, two parents and a baby, with one of the adults yawning magnificently. They were intricately carved, and clumsily hand-painted, but in a way that made them a hundred times more beautiful than the precision plastic toys that I had preferred to play with. I realised that the guilt I felt looking at them wasn’t because I had forgotten about them over time, but because I literally had no memory of them at all. I pictured the concentration on my granddad’s face as he whittled away in his chair; days, maybe weeks, of work, and I hadn’t even noticed.
I began to wonder what he was thinking about in those silences we had together. I thought about what he must have wanted to say to his only grandchild, and how I could only think about the beloved tigers that he seemingly didn’t want me to find.
My granddad won a medal of bravery for his actions in New Guinea. I can’t believe I never asked him about that.