Burrs and Thistles

You can’t figure out what’s wrong with a marriage by pulling it apart and looking at all the pieces. You’ll never get it back together again. Kate and I spent an entire summer deconstructing our relationship. The third day of spring found us standing on opposite sides of the kitchen, two strangers with nothing in common, except perhaps a shared knowledge of how straightforward falling out of love can be if you’re methodical about it.

That’s how it ended.

The division of assets was amicable enough. She didn’t like my books. I never used the blender. And so it went on like this. The only thing we couldn’t divide was the dog. Kate wasn’t prepared to give it up, and I had to concede that technically it was hers. It was my present to her on our first Christmas after we got married. Her introduction to it was as a writhing ball of fur and teeth, tumbling out of a shoe box I’d hastily shoved it into sixty seconds earlier. She got such a surprise she picked it up of the bed, kissed it on the head awkwardly, then burst into tears. I think she was expecting a pair of runners.

Kate emptied the house of herself over several days. The dog, which came to be known as Nash for reasons I can no longer remember, was part of that final exodus. Nash barrelled into the car before he was invited. In his haste, he managed to pop the lens out of Kate’s sunglasses with one paw and puncture a carton of chocolate milk with the other. Kate tried to drag him out but he was having none of it, hell-bent on drinking from the milky river now coursing its way through the valleys of vinyl upholstery. Not sure what to do, I went inside to get a cloth. By the time I came out, they were gone.

The next day, I found Nash sunbathing on the front lawn. I called Kate. He’d been missing all day but she guessed he might show. I sat with him on the kitchen floor, and picked burrs and thistles of some unknown shortcut from his fur, building a neat pile of plant matter on the linoleum. He leaned up against me and I stroked his ears, until I heard Kate’s car in the driveway.

It took three more times for this to happen before Kate said you know what, don’t worry about it, keep the fucking dog, in the matter-of-fact way that she had. I didn’t complain; the house was too big for one. I think Nash knew it, too.

If you dropped by unannounced that summer, you probably would have found us lounging around the house approximately under the ceiling fan in the main room. Nash would be fast asleep on the beanbag, his head the epicentre of a widening drool stain darkening the fabric. I’d be lying along the length of the couch reading Steinbeck or Salinger. My fiction collection consisted wholly of books they forced us to read in high school.

In our free time, we tried to figure out what to do with the rest our lives.


Populations shift faster than the city can keep up. Spacious school yards can suddenly fill up with portable classrooms, a microcosm of urban sprawl. Our favourite walk took us along the back edge of one of these schools. A clear memory is of Nash as a puppy, running relays up and down the length of the fence-line, and gobbling up the crusts of sandwiches children poke through the fence. Kate used to think this was hilarious.

Nowadays it’s an imposing row of makeshift classrooms forming a kind of psychological Berlin Wall – a narrow, no-mans-land against the fence. Walking here makes Nash whine. Does he remember better times, when generous little hands offered lunchbox hors d’oeuvres through the gaps in the wire?

On this particular day we continue on to the edge of the world, or the edge of our world at least. Six-foot fences of urban Australia juxtapose awkwardly against paddocks of knee-high grass. The dog becomes wild again for a time, darting low in amongst it, chasing the scent of invisible monsters. I’m content just to stand on the edge of it all, letting the wind brush grassy tips against my palms.


The first morning Nash is gone I nurse a coffee on the front step and simply wait for him to appear. Eventually I wander up and down the street, loitering on the corners for a time. In the afternoon, I phone Kate to say Nash is missing. Maybe he retraced his steps back across the city to her house. He hasn’t. Look, I’ve gotta go, she says. I’ll call you if I see him, okay? At dusk I hurry past the Berlin Wall of portables finding nothing but grass and wind and loneliness at the end of the world.

The next day I call Kate again. Her voice says no luck but she’ll call me if he turns up. Her tone says she’s a busy person and please don’t call again. I sit on the kitchen floor and wait a while. The phone doesn’t ring.


Early in the spring, a noise wakes me just before dawn. I listen for a while but I hear nothing further. Now I can’t sleep. On a whim, I dress quickly, stuff Nash’s leash into my pocket, and head out into the crisp air. Walking past the school I notice a gap has opened up in the row of temporary classrooms. In the breach, the building has left a dark footprint, its edges made indistinct by a dewy, green stubble.

I’m not surprised by what I see next, but I’m unprepared. Untamed grasses have given way to exposed dirt, criss-crossed with the tyre tracks of large vehicles. The dawn light picks out yellow machinery and luminous piles of PVC. What I can’t discern in this light is the newest edge of the subdivision. The place further on where the grass begins. It’s perhaps a short walk, but I don’t feel like making any more discoveries alone.

Opening the kitchen curtain throws a beam of light across the linoleum, highlighting the dints and scratches that life has bestowed upon it. Taking Nash’s leash out of my pocket, I head for the bedroom. Under the bed, behind cobwebs and lost socks, I find what I’ve come for. A dusty cardboard box, that for one brief moment held a confused puppy. On top there’s a photo of Kate I took on our honeymoon. She’s taken the short straws from cocktails and has them poking from her mouth like vampire teeth. Underneath that, I’ll make room for a tightly rolled dog’s leash, next to a small bag of burrs and thistles.

Burrs and Thistles


Geelong, Australia

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