Part 1: Alberto Drops In To Save The World.
Alberto existed somewhere, and now he’s back in lutruwita. Apart from the quantum jump having made him terribly hungry, he just might have to save humankind.
A chink of light crept through the curtains. Zach could hear some kind of bird bouncing in the metal gutters outside the window. At least he hoped it was just a bird. A really nice, normal one. Not like in that dream last night, when-
Zach rolled over and saw Alberto’s head still poking out from under the chequered blanket.
“Oh help,” he thought to himself.
Then the stench hit him.
“Oh help!” he yelled. “That’s disgusting!”
Alberto looked up a little sleepily. “Yeah, pretty sure we weren’t built to digest that hommus stuff,” he said. “Must be some decent cats around here? Not the fluffy ones though, you spend forever picking that shit out of your teeth.”
“You can’t just go around eating cats,” Zach said. “It’s…be…wrong.”
“Wrong? Feral pests. Predators of us natives. Disease carriers. Doing youse all a favour.”
Zach thought for a moment.
“Well, maybe you have a point there. But…but if all the cats in this street disappeared, people would notice.”
Alberto scowled and rolled over.
“Anyway, I have to get ready for work.”
“What do you do?”
“Uh, I’m an accountant.”
The thylacine nodded vaguely, as if recognising in the middle distance a person he didn’t much care about.
“Have to go into an office?”
“That’s the thing,” said Zach. “Everyone’s working from home. Nearly everyone. Because of coronavirus.”
* * * * *
Over breakfast Zach filled Alberto in on the virus crisis. At least over Zach’s breakfast, with Alberto turning his nose up at an almond-milk chia pudding with mango pieces. Instead he lapped up what seemed like litres and litres of water and contented himself with a large burp.
The numbers. The lockdown. The panic. The crazy montages of exhausted hospital workers in far countries. The endless rows of shops shut. The sparse funerals. The accusations held just under the breath, waiting for the right moment to let rip.
“Wow, so humans are being wiped out in massive numbers. Unreal. Can’t say it should surprise anyone the way you mob have carried on throughout history.”
Zach looked a tad uneasy, history not being his best subject. Only the number bits.
“Yep, being dead a while gives you some time to appreciate history. You’ve become it. And you gotta know who you are, right?” he asked rhetorically.
Zachary retired to his home office in the back room, sat down at his computer and started work. He has some spreadsheets from yesterday to continue fudging whoops ‘articulating’ for a company client who specialised in staged business shutdowns. They were very busy.
Alberto wandered around the house. He didn’t admit it, but he hadn’t ever been properly inside a human house before. A cage, a boat, another boat, the bush. Everything was new and mysterious to him.
He thought more about what he was doing here. It was all very interesting, in a way, but not what he did. And if he left, where would he go? Back to his home range, to live another…how many years? How old was he? As old as when he died? Or now immortal, and destined to drop half-digested chickpea farts for eternity?
After a few hours he came to back to Zach and pawed at his leg.
“Hey dude, I like the colour-changing stuff on the floor in the lounge. Trez cool.”
“Indeed,” said Zach absently, still punching numbers into a big calculator. Suddenly he wheeled around. “Wait, what colour changing stuff?”
“It’s like soft grass made out of wool,” said Alberto. “Goes a dark colour when I pee on it.”
* * * * *
After some stern words Zach said Alberto should just like on the couch or something.
“Sometimes I wish I had opposable thumbs,” he said grumpily.
“Why’s that?” asked Zach.
“So I could grab a big-arse texta and write on my forehead I AM NOT A DOG.”
“Har, har, har,” said Zach. “But speaking of that, it’s not a bad idea. When I’ve finished work I can nip down to Doggy Style and get you a dog coat. And a lead. If we cover your stripes, and put you on a leash, we can go out for a walk and you can see the neighbourhood.”
Alberto looked doubtful, even a little hurt. But being half-Italian, he could hardly resisted some fine apparel.
“A nice plaid one, maybe tartan,” Alberto said. “With black trim. And buttons not zips. And-”
“Look, I’ll get something and it’ll be okay but no promises,” said Zach. “It’ll be a start, but what’s important is how you behave.”
“I don’t know much about being a dog. Never even had a role in a school play.”
“Can’t be that hard,” cajoled Zach. “Doesn’t look it. I mean, you should just walk along a bit jauntily, then stop and sniff everything: plants, fences, bits of dirt, dog, umm, doo doo.”
“Show me,” said Alberto.
Zach got down on all fours and walked around the office, sniffing low things, then being jaunty again just as he said. Alberto watched on with great curiosity. Zach seemed to get bolder as his impersonation found a willing audience.
“Is that all there is to it?” he asked.
“Should should probably keep some pee in reserve,” Zach said through gritted teeth, “so you can pee on things too. Most things. It’s what dogs do.”
“You’ll have to show me, I can’t remember,” said Alberto.
“Righto!” said Zach obligingly. He got down on all fours and did another circuit of the room, this time lifting his hind leg to do a fake spray on the swivel chair, the filing cabinet, a stack of boxes, and an old fax machine that was no longer plugged in.
He looked up and Alberto was rolling on the floor, clutching his stomach with laughter.
“Aarrghh, of course I fuckin’ remember, I just wanted to see you do that!” he roared. “You’d be a heaps better dog than me ya fuckin’ biscuit tin!”
* * * * *
Late in the day it was cool enough for a dog to have a coat on, considering the occasional wafts of cold drizzle that drifted off kunanyi and spun down the sloping suburbs toward the river. The twilight was slow and even however, and with the lockdown still in place there were plenty of people out and about.
Some were walking dogs.
A man in hunched in a long grey coat with a hood was walking a thylacine dressed as a dog. As you do.
Alberto did fairly well. He ignored an oncoming poodle that tried to jump over him, and sniffed expertly. When no-one else was looking he told Zach the names of all the native plants. He frowned at the foreign ones and chose them as the ones to pee on. He giggled every time he did so, and as Zach sighed and urged him on they almost seemed like a real human-dog couple.
Until they passed number 27, where Mrs Tweddle was out checking the mail box.
“This is a turn up, Zachary,” she exclaimed. “I thought you hated dogs.”
A glurgling sound was all that came out as he decided not to look down at Alberto.
“You were the one who said, if one remembers correctly, ‘that it wasn’t that you disliked dogs. More that you hated them with the fire of a thousand suns.’”
“Fuckin’ poetry that,” Alberto muttered under his breath.
“Umgle,” said Zach. “Urgha. Ah, a friend, yes, a friend had to quarantine so he asked me to look after his mutt.”
“Well that’s lovely of you. Maybe you’ll learn a bit about…what kind of breed is he? Is it a he?”
“It’s a…he’s a he. He’s a…terrier…cross…din-go…din go into detail with the friend. My friend. About it. Him. The dog. See a man about a dog. This dog. Definitely dog um.”
“I’m not sure I believe you,” said Mrs Tweddle firmly, folding her arms defiantly.
The light faded a little. Zach felt like he needed to cough but you just couldn’t do that in public these days.
“I think he’s some kind of weimaraner-labrador. Not a great specimen, mind you, but there it is.”
Alberto lunged at Mrs Tweddle’s fat ankle with his and Zach pulled him back just in time.
“I’ve heard they’re unpredictable so best be going then!” he waved over his shoulder as he dragged Alberto towards home.
* * * * *
And so they passed their isolation, walks a little earlier each day as the daylight shrank a little with the increasing cold.
One night Zach tried to get Alberto interested in some vegetable dal and rice. The thylacine ate enough to be polite, which Zach thought was a positive sign, but secretly he was hankering for something more.
If Zach were honest with himself, he could see that Alberto was thinner than when he had first arrived. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if those lines around the belly were dark stripes or the shadows of his ribs.
Afterwards they sat in the lounge. Zach showed him the latest coronavirus news on his phone. Bodies were piling up around the globe, and in Tasmania there was a nasty-looking outbreak at one of the regional hospitals.
“Looks bad,” said Alberto eventually. “But I don’t know what I can do. Or how long I’ll be here. Or even if I want to be here. Not to offend you…you might be a billy goose but you’re also a pretty nice bloke, compared to all the other humans I ever met. It wasn’t great being dead, but at least I was used to it. Here…everything’s weird. I eat strange food, do mediocre dog impersonations, hide. I came from the Land of the Shimmering back to the land of the living, and I’m not even bloody living.”
Zachary thought for a while. This was not, he concluded, a number problem.
“Anyway, I’m off to bed,” said Alberto, with a big yawn. “Fuck this.”
As he walked past Zach there was a moment when the light was just so, when the outlines of the past mingled with the dimness of the present, when uncertainty took a wobbly path home in the late night, when the writs were sullenly stamped nihil, when … Alberto completely disappeared.
“Wait, come back!” Zach cried.
Alberto paced back down the hallway and into the lounge doorway. “Yeah what?”
“Do that again.”
“Bit late for turning tricks, innit?” He saw however that Zach had a look of complete amazement on his face. “Never seen anyone yawn before?” He yawned again. “Fuck this.” He looked at Zach. “Ok?”
“No, not that bit. When you walked out of the room and through the doorway.”
Alberto was tired, but he obliged. Even wearily, even resentfully, he could still slip between the very rays of light themselves. Zach imagined him there, dancing for a potted eternity.
“I say, that is a trick.”
There was a small delay until light almost finished finding its way around the house, and suddenly Alberto was there again.
“Oh, that,” he said. “Not the yawning, then. The waarklena. Yeah, we do that. Barred bandicoots too. You know how many of them there are? Heaps. You know how many humans ever seem them? Hardly any. That’s how they do it. We do it too. It’s easy to do when you’re on top of your game. When a hunter is after you with a gun, and slobbering dogs, and you’re stressed and terrified, it’s much harder. Only the best could. And in the end there were too many hunters and dogs. As for me…I didn’t think I was much good at it. Didn’t have anyone to teach me the finer points.”
Zach, too, was still catching up.
“I think I’ve got it! I know what you can do. You can appear in public, then disappear. A thylacine sighting.”
Alberto looked skeptical. “A sighting? Humans hate us. People will spit and throw cigarettes like they used to do to my mum at the zoo.”
“I hate to break you good news, well sort of good news, but since you went extinct we started to like you. Everyone loves thylacines. There are clothing brands named after you, sports teams, your face on car number plates and beer labels, you’re everywhere.”
The light was stable now. A single ray from eighty years ago struck Alberto’s profile and highlighted a tear.
Extinction is not much of a conversation starter.
Zach gave him a hug.
“You can do it. You can appear in public, out and proud. To remind us of what we’ve lost. And then disappear, to remind everyone to…well I’ll work that bit out soon. But the first part of the plan is tops. Everyone will talk about it. That’s the start of everything. We’ll go from there. It needs to be good, but not entirely believable. Good equals attention. Too believable and everyone will leave quarantine to try to find you. We need to get the balance right.”
Alberto was not convinced. Yet.
“I’ve been hauled around in more drag than Barry Humphries and now you want me to just be seen?” he asked incredulously. “And where will this sighting be? And who?”
Zach shook his head. “Don’t know yet.”
Now it really was getting late.
“I think I do,” Alberto replied after a while. “Someone everyone has heard of. Someone everyone has to bloody well listen to. But no-one really believes.”
Everything – light, sound and ‘action!’ – caught up with an almost audible pop that echoed around the room.
“A fucking politician,” they chorused.
Part 3: Alberto Drops In To Save The World.