The Trainer

The ambulance swerved around the first few corners as they reached the outer suburbs. It had been virtually all straight roads through the countryside and because their rescue mission had begun after midnight the traffic on the roads had been zero. This last dash past the airport was back lit by a hint of dawn as the sun spiked above the silky calm of the Pacific Ocean turning sky and sea a pale pink above the third runway.

A few delivery trucks were beginning their early morning runs causing the paramedics to alter their speed, hesitating slightly before rushing through the intersections. At first it didn’t register as a voice at all but after a moment the doctor looked down at his son and to his shock found the lips moving again.

‘Siren on?’ he rasped

‘Turn on the siren please Matt. I think our patient wants to play with the equipment.’

He had never before been so pleased to flick the switch. They hurtled in an uproar through the quiet city streets for a few minutes before pulling into the ambulance bay outside Emergency. There they were met immediately by the team of chest and orthopaedic specialists who had been assembled to make an attempt at putting the little body back together.

As they wheeled Connor along the corridor Dr Pascoe held a plastic tube in place where the makeshift tracheostomy, an opening through the neck into the windpipe, had miraculously been created when the pointed end of a tree branch had pieced the boy’s throat as he landed at the base of a cliff in a densely vegetated gully in the Kosciuszko high country about eighteen hours before.

*

Thredbo village is nestled at the foot of Crackenback Mountain and from the hub of the commercial centre a chairlift cable climbs vertically to the summit called Eagle’s Nest. After their ride up to the top and a short trudge up the makeshift path around the housing of the lift’s mechanical workings, the cub scouts halted to receive directions from the leader.

“Just keep to the basin area above that line of trees, and stick with your buddy, never lose sight of him or this building behind us here. That way when it’s time to head back you will all be able to see my signal. I’ll wave this red anorak around and shout a few ‘cooee s’ to get your attention. And don’t be too rough with those toboggans, remember its hired equipment.  We want to get that deposit back so we can buy the hot chocolates later on.”

Two of the eight year old boys decided to use the slick icey T-Bar track as their runway, there wasn’t enough snow at this time of year for skiers to be using the mountain. The plastic sled picked up speed quickly and by the time they reached the abandoned loading zone they were out of control. Their flimsy platform flew under the safety ropes which then caught the rear passenger’s shoulder and ripped his body from its position, throwing him to the ground. Now with a lighter load the vehicle rocketed past an old pylon and was launched into mid-air by a random pile of snow. Miraculously the remaining lone pilot stayed gripped to its frame as it disappeared over the cliff. The whole event took seconds but the scout master had not missed a moment, he was frozen to the spot watching in horror from the rocky track above the tiny valley.

He rushed back to the Top Station to get the help he anticipated needing, wisely using a few crucial minutes to alert them of the terrible accident he had just witnessed. Then the group which included ski patrollers with first aid packs rushed helter skelter, alternately sliding and running towards the base of the old lift. They gathered on the edge of the precipice to peer down into the thick scrub of snow gums and ancient glacial moraine  to see the immobile body submerged between rocks, branches and scraps of snow which had not quite melted in the protective shade and dark shelter of the cliff face.

Jerry was a novice patroller but being a local boy he was a natural mountaineer and knew he could scale the cliff quicker than anyone to reach the figure he could see at the base. What he hadn’t expected was the complex medical problem weirdly treated by the intervention of such a simply unbelievable stroke of luck. The boy’s legs were obviously broken, their contorted position gave that much away immediately. But worse still, the impact of landing on an uneven roughly hewn boulder screamed broken ribs and from the look of that compression at the neck Jerry assumed a crushed windpipe would be halting the flow of oxygen. He would have to act quickly and begin resuscitation. As he gently turned the unconscious face toward him he was horrified to see that the thin strong spike of a branch from the straggly snow gum, which grew out of the crevice between the rocks below the body, had lanced the throat at the base of the neck just below the larynx blocking the airway.  A trickle of warm blood was beginning to form a rivulet of bright red which would pool in the scarf just above its leather woggle. Jerry was paralysed.

At that moment a very experienced medic finished his descent and knelt beside him. In a second the grim situation was assessed and with an inspired move the new guy on the scene did something which shocked Jerry to the core. He pulled out the branch with one swift movement and opening the first aid kit located the plastic tube around which some bandage was wound in storage. He removed that cloth and carefully inserted the hollow stent into the small incision through to the trachea. The elasticity of the cartilage gripped the life-saving improvisation. Immediately the chest inflated and gently rose and fell rhythmically. By now more patrollers had arrived on the scene with a rescue toboggan, inflatable splints and lightweight backboard to transport the patient to the bottom of the mountain where hopefully the ambulance would be there to meet them for the transfer to Cooma Hospital.

*

Clive and his wife Gwen prided themselves on their parenting, children who took part in everything from sport to classical music and foreign language learning. It was a refined household with formal furnishings, firmly organised routines and respect for education in all its forms. Dr Pascoe had a surgery which took up three rooms in one wing of the house and his wife Gwen had relinquished her teaching career to care for the children. When the Hospital rang through late on that Sunday afternoon their schedule was thrown into chaos but with typically cool heads they had Clive at Sydney Airport and on a Dash 8 aircraft to Cooma within twenty minutes of the call. He was not going to let a regional facility treat his child and accordingly on arrival at the ER he took charge of the situation with swift commands. It took a few hours to prep the patient for safe transportation but then appropriating an ambulance and teeing up a team at the premium intensive care unit back in the city was quickly organised. The team travelled through the night and they were there at the first light of the new day with a stable but critical patient.

The next few days were tense but always the condition of the boy was improving. Finally he was conscious for long enough to wish to communicate. It is usually difficult to speak after having a tracheostomy. Normally, speech is generated when air passes over the vocal cords at the back of the throat. After a tracheostomy, most of the air breathed out passes through the tracheostomy tube rather than over the vocal cords, which means speech is impossible. Gwen at his bedside held the magic slate for him to scratch out his requests: “water”, “ice-cream” … and then shockingly: “give up piano lessons”. He had always thought of these as torture, the arduous hours of practice and tedious lessons with the strict humourless old spinster. As a pragmatic but shrewd young fellow Connor took advantage of his new situation. He had quickly assessed his mother’s concern and relief at his attempts to embrace recovery and cooperate with the sometimes painful treatment for his broken bones and weakened chest. Buoyed by her acquiescence Connor aimed high; what did he have to lose? “Labrador Puppy” he etched and then gave a weak plaintive smile.

On his triumphant homecoming Connor was wheeled into his fashionably decorated bedroom, with polished teak floor and star-wars wall-paper to be carefully bedded down in a supportive nest of pillows with the sleepy yellow puppy. Bosun seemed angelic as he snuggled up, both boys feeling a mutual comfort: one because he had just left his mother and litter, the other because he had just come back to his.

*

The recovery rate of young bones is always surprisingly quick and in this case even more spectacular as some intangible magic was woven strongly, mirroring the reconnection of muscles and tissues with the emotional links strengthening between the boy and his puppy. The pair shared every waking and sleeping moment, each meal a communal picnic, all tasks performed in partnership. As Connor learned to manage the crutches and eventually limp without them; Bosun was always at his side, fascinated by his master’s croaky voice and carefully planned body movements. The puppy seemed to read these physical motions like a sign language and anticipate the turns, twists and stumbles over the twelve week recovery period. Finally they were ready to go out into the wider world.

Gwen, in line with her established respect for correct scholarship in regard to the acquisition of learning, wanted to make arrangements for the puppy and his young handler to be tutored by the best animal wrangler available and after proper research she decided to contact Eve Tivon. Eve and her husband Rick trained all kinds of dogs for jobs, literally work of any sort including television, Canine Search and Rescue, Detection in Quarantine, Guide and Assistance Dogs, and they trained the trainers. They bred Labrador Retrievers on acreage just north-west of the city but their property had an astonishing feel of being an isolated country retreat, its long tree lined driveway even had a little wooden bridge over a small creek that meandered its way to a dam at the far corner of the land. The facilities for working with the dogs included yards filled with adventure play equipment, just like a kindergarten but with a few big differences, for example recordings of gun-fire, helicopters and chain saws were often broadcast to the classes as a background to their activities.

Eve suggested a group puppy class to socialise Bosun would be a good first step on his pathway to obedience so Connor and his dog arrived at their first class feeling very enthusiastic. Four puppies were enrolled in the indoor lesson: a Maltese, a cross Kelpie/Border Collie, a Staffordshire Bullterrier and the Labrador. All were only a few months old. Bosun sat like a statue on his own mat for the first ten minutes watching the trainer’s presentation and his fellow audience members with fascination. Then he fell into a deep sleep. Meanwhile for the next half hour all the other puppies were given instruction on recognising their names and how to sit on command. Bosun had slept on undisturbed by the action. Suddenly however some switch was flipped and he exploded into action just in time for the next activity: “does your dog know the command COME” suggested the trainer innocently. Connor volunteered that Bosun did respond to that and the trainer looked suitably cynical. She held up a small morsel of offal and said clearly “Bosun COME” – well it was like the disco scene from “Saturday Night Fever” as Bosun channelled John Travolta, rushing headlong at the trainer skidding along the polished linoleum to a screeching halt in sitting position at her feet and looking up proudly. He continued to entertain with wonderful dance routines each time he was offered any food reward: crouching, placing one cheek on the floor, head down and bum in the air with his tail wagging furiously, pouncing like a kitten several times in succession at the source of any stimulus. He was finally given a small kong filled with chicken and requested to leave centre stage and sit quietly in the corner – luckily this was not interpreted as an insult. He was exhausted and ready to retire.

The fact was that while Connor had been immobilised by his injuries he had spent hours ‘one on one’ with the puppy teaching it to do the tricks he was watching the clicker trainers perform with their dogs on ‘you tube’ and the television shows based on various ‘wildlife whisperers’ using this technique to get all sorts of animals to do amazing stunts at zoos. Connor had watched the seal and sea lion show and the native bird display at Taronga Park Zoo and like everyone else he was entranced, just as the animals were, by the wranglers who used body language, whistles and food treats to positively reinforce the correct behaviour immediately as the performer did the requested action. Even Bosun knew from his short life experience that if he paid attention to Connor he would be rewarded, so that is what he did best. Connor went every week to the dog training classes and excelled in his teamwork with Bosun to such an extent that Eve suggested they enter the show ring in an obedience trial for junior handlers. The young pair had such a close bond that they rarely had a lapse in understanding of what the task entailed, but occasionally boundaries were tested and the pup would stretch the limits just as any intelligent being does in order to learn more about a situation.

Near the close of the session at his first trial, the judge ordered the dogs to lie in a single row. They formed a perfect line, each placed beside a small white plastic pyramid resplendid with numeric label to identify the contestant. Connor walked with the handlers who all stepped off confidently and strode out to the required twelve metres distance before turning to face their canine partners. The two minute stay period had commenced. These were young dogs and this being the final exercise they were either tired or in some cases slightly fidgety as a result of having just performed their strict routine of obedience tricks. Bosun at the end of the row shifted his hips in a relaxed manner and almost unobtrusively licked the plastic shape while glancing up fleetingly at his owner to gage the reaction … none. This was obviously given his doggy interpretation of a ‘go ahead’ and he then gently encased the object within his jaws, increased the pressure and looked up without guilt as the clear sound of cracking polycarbonate resonated strongly enough to make all the participants jerk their heads with a sharp twist in his direction. Connor was not sure if the rules would force the judge to disqualify Bosun for breaking the ring equipment.

By the time Bosun was eighteen months old he had gained his first obedience title and Connor was having his tenth birthday. They were regarded as quite an exceptional pair for such success. They continued to progress up the training ladder and occasionally had innocent mishaps in the execution of the exercises as they became more complex. Connor sometimes found it quite cute when Bosun reinterpreted the procedures. Once when doing a retrieval Bosun sat obediently attentive, the white plastic dumbbell was thrown over the low jump, the dog leapt on command and all seemed on track as he retrieved the object as anticipated. Connor’s breath released in pleasure at the perfect execution of the exercise, smiling in expectation that Bosun would deliver the toy straight to him however the dog veered to the judge and sat proudly at her feet offering the token with a look of sublime confidence that this was surely the correct recipient.

*

At thirteen years, Connor was now a confident dog handler and Bosun had become a champion at four. Eve suggested a new job for both to consider. She had looked carefully into the bloodlines of Bosun’s pedigree and decided that genetically he was perfectly suited to sire a litter of puppies with the female she had imported from Canada. Breeders are always wanting to refresh the characteristics of their kennel with dogs that have proven they can pass on the looks and abilities treasured by lovers of the breed and in this case there were brains and beauty which would be injected into generations of Labradors who later could be trained to perform roles in society that are unique and so valuable in many situations.

Connor was fascinated by the results of breeding all the possible colours of Labradors, mixing the pairing to achieve not a multi-coloured mosaic coated puppy but a litter of mixed solid pigments in various ratios. The standard litter size was six to eight puppies and the possibility of a group which showcased all three colours would be the ultimate goal, two yellow, two black and two chocolate puppies. With DNA testing, the dominant and recessive ratios could be worked out in a Punnett Square which put the chromosomes of the sire and the dam into a grid and this provided a map of the interplay between multiple genetic effects on a single trait like colour. Through this scientific method an hypothesis could be established but until the whelping day came you could not know for certain, there would be anticipation right up to the moment when the last pup came into the world.

The two year old bitch, Lara, with a quality Canadian pedigree was confirmed as the choice for his bride. She was a black carrying chocolate, an epistasis identified scientifically as Bb, therefore the perfect inheritance should be passed on with a litter of possibly all three colours. Connor could hardly contain his excitement for the eight weeks gestation. But there was plenty to do in preparing for the great day. There is a theory that puppies can be influenced by neuro-stimulus of various descriptions in the days and weeks just prior to and immediately after their birth. Playing recordings of sounds can desensitise their reactions to thunder, bangs and crashes, engine noise, screaming and even gun-fire. Holding the puppies at various angles for short periods of time and gently exposing their delicate paws to a range of temperatures and textures. Connor had a lot of reading and research to do if he was going to provide his canine family with such advantages as they started out in life.

Bosun was an exceptionally friendly dog and his approach to an off-leash dog zone was to apply the social rules of speed dating; from the moment he arrived at the park he literally was on a mission to sniff, lick and greet every dog on the scene. All his potential playmates were met initially with a submissive bow or a complete prostrate pose with tummy exposed and all legs in the air as if this was certainly the most attractive and appealing look. It seemed to be one hundred per cent successful because he was always tolerated and mostly accepted as if he were a great long lost buddy. When it came to mating in a breeding sense he would have to learn to stand up for himself.

Connor spent every weekend at Eve’s kennels making the mother Labrador feel relaxed in his company so that she would hopefully allow him to be present in the room when labour began. Female dogs can be very private during the birthing process but generally a dog will trust the humans within their family to be close and reassuring, even permit the handlers to pick up the puppies and quickly check their health minutes after they take their first breath. Very early one morning, luckily during the October school holiday break, the phone rang and Connor rushed into the hallway to grab the phone before it woke the rest of the family. He nodded in excitement, almost unable to speak until Bosun by his side began barking and Connor hushed him.

The bicycle skidded to a halt outside Eve’s wire fence just as the sun began to play on the horizon. Bosun’s paws were muddy from splashing through puddles as he had dashed alongside the bike on the final gravel path approach to the outhouses where the whelping room was located. Connor left him outside the door and crept quietly into the corner of the dimly lit area. He sat on the carpeted floor next to Eve and they whispered soothingly to Lara, whose frame expanded or contracted with an accompanying muted groan. It was almost too quick to know how it all happened, suddenly a small shiny yellow parcel lay on the newspaper beneath Lara and she began to lick at the inert form. Within seconds the baby wriggled until a tiny snout appeared, breaking through a clear plastic-like film which split wider to reveal the perfect wet sleek body of the puppy. Lara continued to lick it energetically and rolled it into position under her hip where it found a teat to suck on and immediately seemed content. The process repeated five times until there were three yellow and three black puppies lying neatly against their mother’s underside. Eve and Connor were relieved but a little disappointed at the lack of the chocolate puppy they had hoped would complete the trifecta of colours possible and almost guaranteed by the genetic prediction.

Lara lay quietly and Eve went to phone the vet, asking Connor to hold the fort. He sat watching the peaceful scene, wondering at the marvel of nature that all this could occur with little intervention. The mother and babies all knew what to do just by instinct alone, no vet, no text book. Suddenly Lara moaned and rolled to one side, she struggled to rise but seemed in pain or perhaps just exhausted. Connor knelt beside her and held her hips, supporting her body as it heaved yet again. He felt the tiny lump slip by his hand and looked down to see a muddy looking body, motionless. It felt limp in the palm of his hand as he scooped it up and tried to get Lara interested but she was completely spent and collapsed next to the rest of her brood who all wiggled back into position, each on a teat.

Connor looked down at the chocolate baby and wondered if he could help it to survive. He grabbed a dry towel from the table and began to massage the body, still nothing. He blew gently into its face, and with his fingers tried to mimic the mother’s tongue that he had just watched lick the tiny torsos of the other puppies. Miraculously there was suddenly a flutter beneath his finger tip just near the neck, then the small legs seemed to stretch out. Connor gave another brisk rub with the warm towel and could now feel the rhythmic movement in the chest, it was breathing well so he lay it near the nipple and prised its jaws open slightly to encourage the pup to suck.

Eve and the vet came into the room chatting with pleasure about the six healthy new arrivals.

“It’s seven, and she’s given us a chocolate” Connor exclaimed!

 

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About clareseligman

A flash fiction/short story writer with an interest in the themes of cultural studies, travel, music, teaching, sailing and snow skiing.
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