Ricky - Dog Day Afternoon

10 January 2019 Ricky French

Ricky - Dog Day Afternoon

Scrubby and Ricky

IT WAS LAST summer that we found the box labelled “Tapes and Shit” under the bunk bed in my uncle’s portable shipping container, which happened to be our sleeping quarters during a holiday back in New Zealand.

We took the videotapes home to Melbourne, converted them to digital and pressed play, not sure what we would find, but quite sure to make sure all children were out of the room first. There was a lot of shit on those tapes. For a period in the late 90s my uncle walked around with a Sony Handycam permanently a fixed to his eye. The archival footage is something to behold. Some might argue both nouns written on the box were accurate, but I prefer a simpler title for my favourite short film: Summer.

Pukerua Bay is a sheltered cove north of Wellington, with white sand that drops sharply into the sea, and a tide that pulls the sheets back on gnarled, black rocks. They rear like the nearby Tararua Ranges out of the water. Kids on boogie boards cruise the fjords and a barefoot summit party launches a foolish assault on the highest peak. Wake up, everyone, it’s summer and for a split second New Zealand is hot as sweet hell.

You could say the footage is documentary style. The subjects are interviewed to camera. There are sweeping pans across the bay and out to Kapiti Island, lying flat on its back. Its sensual, hilly mounds seem to rise and fall like lungs. The island wasn’t a common thread in my childhood; it was sewn much more deeply than that, a constant fixture. How strange to see my family cast back in time on our favourite beach, with Kapiti Island as an ageless backdrop.

There’s Mum, impossibly skinny, and I think I remember those ridiculous togs she wore. I definitely remember – look, there he is! – my dog Scrubby, looking even more ridiculous than my mum’s togs, with his German shepherd head plonked on a corgi’s body. In the video he never stays still, following people to the water, swimming out to make sure they’re okay then turning his tail like a tiller and motoring back to land to shake his wiry golden coat dry.

The most astounding and magical thing about seeing Scrubby in the film is he’s demonstrably not dead. I wanted so badly to climb into that TV screen, to run down that hot sand and scoop Scrubby up in my arms and feel his tongue lick my face, then put him down and watch him bark like a mad thing and run off after a tennis ball.

But I shouldn’t complain. At least none of the humans featured are dead. Not even my grandma, known to everyone as Oma, who sits in her beach chair and hands out buns wrapped in white paper and confirms the much speculated rumour that she’s been old for a very, very long time.

“What were you doing this morning, Mum?” my aunty asks.

“Oh, you know...moaning and groaning,” replies Oma. “I took two painkillers.”

The beach cheered her up. She walks to the water – the entire film is a parade of people walking to and from that intoxicating blue ocean – and lowers herself in. She looks entranced, at peace. My sister picks up a towel and shakes off the sand. She has a child’s voice because inside this wonderful time machine she is a child.

The film was shot two days after Christmas, in that golden window between one year and the next, the Neverland week of holidays and hedonism. Twenty years on and we still gather at Pukerua Bay, arriving mid-afternoon and always the last to leave. No other place to be.

We were never much for expensive thrills; the beach was the height of indulgence. The film should win an Oscar. A study of a family rich in each other’s company. A family splashing out.

» Life’s a beach for writer and musician Ricky French (@frenchricky).

From The Big Issue Edition #578