Idiot Geoffrey had a rough childhood. A traumatic youth isn’t always an impediment in life – not if you are, say, a prize-fighter, or a poet, where a bottomless well of fury to tap becomes an asset. You can wear it as a badge of authenticity if you go into social work, or as a talisman against reproach if you become a bloodthirsty oligarch or politician.
Of course, Geoffrey had no literary talent, nor the temperament for cage fighting. Idiot Geoffrey was a dog, a beagledore, a dark chocolate cocktail combining all the worst traits of the beagle (gasping anxiety, a supernatural ability to smell distressing things from three blocks away, a genetic inability to learn) with those of the labrador (uncontrollable strength, an inescapable need to be loved, a distressingly low level of intelligence) into one animal. He was extraordinarily kind-hearted and almost too dumb to breathe. Some perfect storm of a neglectful puppyhood spent cowering in a bare concrete yard from an abusive owner, then an adolescence spent with an overly affectionate adoptive family, meant that Geoffrey only had two modes: frantic cuddling and screaming.
He came into our lives through a Facebook post, when my girlfriend and I were on the couch one night, each idly thumbing through the socials. ‘Oh, look,’ one of us said. ‘Someone is giving away a puppy.’
A friend of a friend of a stranger who was moving abroad for work had put a call out for someone to look after her puppy for a year. The post popped up in our respective feeds, more or less simultaneously. Somewhere out there a Facebook algorithm had deduced that we were lonely and ready to bring a dog into the family.
PULL QUOTE: We weren’t sure what an Oxfam couple was, but it was a clue that we should have heeded.
We wrote to the address supplied, volunteered to foster puppy Geoffrey and started to prepare for his arrival; puppy-proofing the fence around our rental house, propping our hearts up on the sink to thaw. We were disappointed, though: our friend wrote back letting us know that Geoffrey had gone to ‘an Oxfam couple’. We weren’t sure what an Oxfam couple was, but it was a clue that we should have heeded.
The second clue came a month later, when Geoffrey’s owner emailed to tell us that the Oxfam couple couldn’t keep Geoffrey after all. Although they loved him very much, they were disturbed by his ‘hunting noises’.
I’d seen enough of the world to be suspicious of those who are ostentatiously vocal about their capacity for love and benevolence, especially in the rarefied world of not-for-profit workers, and, while I still didn’t know exactly what an Oxfam couple was, I surmised it involved Tibetan prayer flags and a beatific tone-deafness to reality. They must be, we agreed, negligent soft-shell hippies, and whatever ‘hunting noises’ were, we could probably handle them. So we volunteered to adopt the dog, foibles and all.
Idiot Geoffrey’s owner sent us a PDF guide to looking after him, which included a picture of a handsome brown dog standing on his hind legs, with his paws on a woman’s shoulders, tongue raking the side of her face.
‘He looks huge,’ I said.
‘Everyone looks huge to you,’ said my girlfriend.
‘He’s a giant.’
‘He’s a puppy.’
When Geoffrey’s owner dropped him off, she clumped around the property checking all was suitable for the dog, then nodded approvingly and brought the puppy in.
Geoffrey, it turned out, was not a puppy, and hadn’t been for some time. He was a beast. I could have ridden him into battle against a goblin army. He came racing down the hallway at full pelt, leapt up and put his paws on my shoulders, licked my face as I staggered back and fell, ate a loaf of bread he stole from the bench in three gulps, then sprinted through the rest of the house to get the lay of the land. After dragging in a barrel of food, and another of toys, Geoffrey’s mum patted him goodbye and left. He stood staring after the door for a minute, then ran at it and threw himself at it desperately, making what, we were quick to learn, were his hunting noises.
Each time Geoffrey had a panic attack, which was every few minutes, he would scream, an unholy, sustained, tortured noise: something between whale song and a baby being sawed in half with a violin string. He would scream when he was hungry. He would scream when he’d had too much to eat. He would scream if he saw another dog and was excited to say hello.
PULL QUOTE: He was a handsome, lovely dog, but, like a Korean sports car, below his gleaming brown chassis he was a poorly built unit.
The hunting noise, an indescribable, unearthly, distressing, banshee wail, was a legacy of his scent-hound heritage. Whenever he caught a scent on the wind of, say, a cat who lived four blocks away, it would trigger his hunting instinct, which would fire up his equally powerful and conflicting labrador desire to protect his pack, which was, in his reduced suburban existence, just us, sitting on the couch. We never failed to be disturbed every time Geoffrey’s over-clocked olfactory system short-circuited his tiny brain, and started him screaming. He was a handsome, lovely dog, but, like a Korean sports car, below his gleaming brown chassis he was a poorly built unit.
Out on a walk he would, without warning, notice something of interest across the road – a rubbish bin, perhaps, in which he could smell a dead possum – and suddenly veer off the footpath into oncoming traffic to get at it. According to his owner, he’d been hit by cars on no less than three occasions, and hadn’t really seemed to mind, or notice. If he couldn’t make it to the thing he’d smelled because you were hanging desperately onto his leash while it bit and twisted into your pink, baby-flesh hands, he would scream. If you ignored the screaming, he would start looking around for help, usually from the person closest to him in height, which was invariably either a toddler or a little old lady. He’d run up, launch at them, place a paw on either shoulder, stare into their eyes from a distance of three inches away, and start to shriek in horror.
If he was let off the leash for even a second he would take off sprinting after some distant scent his primordial programming told him to find. He would run for hours and hours, forgetting the thing he was chasing, where his home was, what he was, and only stop when the scent was gone, suddenly lost and frightened somewhere in the city.
Even at his most present, he seemed to have only the barest understanding of his surroundings. One day, walking through the park, he slipped his lead and dashed across the footy oval where he dragged a baby out of a pram to get at a packet of biscuits stashed in the blanketry. In the time it took to dust off the baby and apologise to his mother, I lost Geoffrey. Night fell as I was searching for him, then the frost, and then a bitter rain. In the end I found him in a stranger’s backyard several streets away, where he had broken down a fence and chewed through the wood of a rabbit hutch, inside the smoking ruins of which I found him affectionately licking a terrified rabbit and moaning in pleasure.
PULL QUOTE: Bred to hunt, raised to cuddle, Geoffrey was a neat refutation of the laws of Darwinism.
Bred to hunt, raised to cuddle, Geoffrey was a neat refutation of the laws of Darwinism. He was too stupid to acquit his programming or avoid the most basic hazards. The first time he ate a bar of chocolate we woke our stoned housemate to see which of the empty wrappers strewn around the house could have been caused by Geoffrey, then rushed him to the vet and had his stomach pumped. The second time we fed him some charcoal and watched anxiously over him through the night. The third time we shrugged and put on a DVD.
We got lax. One day we left out a packet of strawberry-scented Bic razors, and then came back from the movies to find he’d eaten the whole packet. We called the vet, who listened, and sighed, and said that there probably wasn’t much they could do. For a few days Geoffrey produced stool with bright fragments of chewed-up plastic and steel, but showed no apparent discomfort. It dawned on us that perhaps he was immortal. I also wondered if he was suicidal; if, despite the lack of fire behind his gentle brown eyes, his skull housed some keen, broken-down intellect that had been torn apart by his conflicted nature.
The domestic dog is, of course, an abomination, a thing inbred by generations of patient weirdos who’ve mated sibling with sibling to make dogs for specific purposes: guarding Roman camps, hunting rats on cargo ships, herding sheep. The most adorable lapdog is a hideous freak of nature, a murky soup of recessive genes and favourable traits. The joy you get from owning a snuffling squish-faced pug will never quite make up for the misery that breathing will cause the poor animal.
PULL QUOTE: The most adorable lapdog is a hideous freak of nature, a murky soup of recessive genes and favourable traits.
Of course, there are surprises, like Idiot Geoffrey, the autistic angel dog, who was so unpredictably strange that we began to reshape our lives around him. I quickly learned to barricade myself behind the couch after coming home, so that Geoffrey didn’t dismember me in his rush to hug hello. We stopped having friends around because Geoffrey would get too excited, then stopped going out at night because he had seen something upsetting on TV and needed attention.
Meals became quick hit-and-run affairs – whatever I could get out of the fridge and onto the table before Geoffrey set himself on fire trying to upend a wok. Finally I stopped cooking altogether, which is a shame, because I’m a magnificent cook.
It’s rare that much time passes and I don’t regret walking away from a career in food to pursue writing. As a cook, I never did much damage – cooking is a lovely, useful thing to do, a service with the means to makes someone’s day brighter. Writing, at least the way I’ve done it, is quite the opposite: vampiric, not nourishing.
I was taught to cook by a taciturn chef who hired me as a dish pig, then bumped me up to sous-chef.
At first we didn’t get along; he wasn’t much for gasbagging, and the only time he ever smiled was when he nailed a soufflé. He would stoop over the cooktops sweating and swearing, every few minutes throwing a hot pan at me, which would sink sizzling into the murky water.
The first real conversation we had was after the radio announced that the Howard government was sending the army into remote Indigenous communities to remove children from their families in response to a report that sexual abuse was rife. Years later the report would turn out to have been falsified by a government minister, but by then the uranium mine in Kakadu the intervention enabled was underway, and a new generation of black kids had been taken from their parents.
‘What do you think of the intervention?’ Chef asked me.
I shrugged, craven – my politics had never been welcomed in any kitchen I’d worked in. ‘What about you, Chef?’
He shrugged too. ‘It’s so fucking disrespectful. I don’t see how this country lives with itself.’
He was a good man, and a better cook. He took great pleasure in salvaging cuisine from scraps: congee, ragout, bread-and-butter pudding. While every cook in Australian was fucking about with molecular gastronomy, Chef was peeling mushrooms and wrestling a side of beef into stroganoff. He understood soul food, and despised trends.
PULL QUOTE: He told me about the cockentrice, the Victorian stunt-food made by stitching different animals together.
He told me about the cockentrice, the Victorian stunt-food made by stitching different animals together, to be brought out at the culmination of a meal. The weirder the Frankenstein roast was, the more points you got: a turkey stitched to a pig; a crab trailing octopus tentacles.
The trend coincided with the age of exploration, and dodgy botanists looking to make their name would try to sell preserved cockentrices to zoological societies, presenting them as real, previously undiscovered animals. The Fiji mermaid took the world by storm, until it was found on closer inspection to be the torso of a monkey sewn onto the bottom half of a fish. When Australia was settled, twice-bitten British biologists refused to believe that Australian fauna was real. They took particular exception to the platypus, which they were sure was the head of a duck sewn onto a rat, although that would make a better symbol for this country than those we are stuck with: the kangaroo and the emu, chosen to hold up the crest because they can’t move backwards.
Geoffrey, poor, sweet mutt, was an abomination in his own way, but we thought we could make his life better by sewing him – cockentrice-style – into our little family.
A few years before adopting Geoffrey, though, I’d learned that selfless affection wasn’t really in my wheelhouse when I started seeing a woman with a three-year-old daughter. What began as a series of one-night stands turned into a relationship, and, all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I was spending time with a child, a prospect I wasn’t thrilled about.
‘Trust me,’ a friend told me. ‘In a month you’re going to like the kid more than her mum.’
I did. Left alone to babysit the daughter, I learned that a three year old and a barely recovered sociopath have a surprising amount in common.
‘I know where Mum hides the ice-cream,’ she once whispered to me conspiratorially, ‘but I can’t reach it.’
‘Oh, yeah? So . . ?’
‘So if you lift me up we can have ice-cream!’
‘And … so?’
‘So! Ice-cream is yum!’ she screamed in delight, and then we high-fived, boosted the ice-cream and partied.
PULL QUOTE: I learned that a three year old and a barely recovered sociopath have a surprising amount in common.
My relationship with her mother deteriorated quickly: soon she was threatening to go back to her husband, which I responded to by cheating on her at every opportunity. It ended with her punching me unconscious at a Leonard Cohen concert, but, before that, me and her daughter got some playtime in. She taught me how to make villages of tiny misshapen Play-Doh men, and I taught her how to dump a box of Lego out onto a blanket to make it easier to clean. Watching her carefully gather the corners and scoop it up to dump it into a giant Tupperware container, my heart swelled. The last time I’d done the blanket trick was twenty years earlier with my older brother, now a box of ashes stored in Tupperware in the roof of my family home. As we played, crawling about to pick up the pieces that had gone awry, something in me started to thaw.
One day, the day before our relationship ended, the little girl leaned over the Lego and whispered conspiratorially again.
‘You’re handsome! Like a prince!’
‘Thank you! I am handsome like a prince.’
‘Do you love my mum?’
‘Do you love me?’
I froze and glanced at her mum, who stared back, horrified. Long experience had told me what to do when a woman asked me about love, which was to lie, but I had no idea how to respond when a toddler did. I reached out and ruffled her hair. ‘You are my favourite little girl in the whole world! Let’s have some ice-cream.’
When her mum beat me up on a picnic blanket surrounded by alarmed baby boomers a couple of weeks later, she screamed the most hurtful things she could think of at me. ‘You’re an awful person,’ she spat. ‘And a mediocre fucking writer.’ She was only half right. At times, when I work very hard at it, I’m a very good writer, but I’ll never be more than a lacklustre person: flesh of a monkey, heart of a rat, looking for someone to sew me up.
Towards the end of our year with Geoffrey, his owner sent us an email. She would not be returning to retrieve Geoffrey as she felt she could not give him the security he needed, and asked us to consider giving him his ‘forever love home’. We looked about the ruin of our house, strewn with dog hair and chewed bones, and decided to get rid of the fucking dog.
We palmed him off to a friend of a friend with a property a little larger than ours. Geoffrey dashed into the yard screaming joyfully, his little nose quivering in pleasure, rapt with the new scents, and he didn’t notice us sneak out. ‘We’ll come and visit!’ we promised the new owner, and each other, lying through our teeth in both instances, as we grinned stupidly, flooded with relief. We picked up a pizza on the way home and left it unmolested on the kitchen bench for twenty minutes, just because we could.
Of course we never visited. Instead we got a cat, one that fit better as a member of our family.
PULL QUOTE: A housecat isn’t a pet, it’s a roommate.
Fun fact: the cat meows for the benefit of humans. If a cat is never exposed to humans it will never meow; it’s something only domestic cats do to manipulate their human companions. Another: a domestic cat meows with the same frequency with which a newborn human baby cries – they do this deliberately to provoke an instinctive nurturing instinct in us. Best fact: there is no such thing as a domesticated cat. Unlike other companion animals that have been selectively bred over time to serve human ends – goats, horses, Idiot Geoffrey – cats have refused all efforts at domestication. They remain wild at heart; you can drop the most coddled housecat in the middle of the jungle and it’ll be just fine, thank you. A housecat isn’t a pet, it’s a roommate.
If ever there was a spirit animal for the writer, it is the cat: vain, spoiled, disloyal, lazy but predatory; forever discontented, even if it looks to be purring; endlessly fascinating, to itself at least, and to those who go for that sort of thing.
They spend two-thirds of the day asleep, and half of their waking hours neurotically licking themselves, which is also an accurate, if reductionist, description of my career.
Days bleed into weeks into years into a lifetime, ambition into disappointment, into regret, into compassion, into ambition to be better. It’s easier to be sorry than brave, and makes better copy to regret the bad things you’ve done than the times you tried to be good and kind and failed. Much better to write about something than feel it. Far finer to search for metaphors to explain life than to live it.
‘Oh, come look!’ one of us would squeal as the cat curled up on her side. ‘She thinks she’s a croissant!’ The burbling, cooing noises we made would make the cat stretch and curl into a tight little bundle, paws tucked under her torso, which would make us even more excited. ‘Now she thinks she’s a loaf of bread! Look! She think’s she’s bread!’
She was the right child for us, one who could sleep the day away as we worked at our laptops, writing books and columns and editorials against the darkness; tapping away at the injustices of the world, while somewhere outside the window, Idiot Geoffrey raised his chocolate snout to the sky and screamed and screamed and screamed, in joy, or in fear, or in anger, or for another reason altogether. At what, exactly, I’ll never know.
Liam Pieper is a freelance writer whose recent credits include The Monthly, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and The Sleepers Almanac. His first book, The Feel Good Hit of the Year, was published by Penguin last year. You can find him on Twitter at @liampieper.