Photographs and Narrative by Meredith Stephens
Alex and I sailed into the marina in the township of Wé, on Lifou Island, the largest of the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia. We walked along the main street and took in the houses painted in bright orange and green, alongside traditional huts with conical grass roofs. Smiling children called out Bonjour! Women donned generous calf-length floral frocks in pinks, purple and orange, with bibs in white lace. There were roadside stands offering bunches of green bananas, and pastries. Dogs were not restrained behind fences, nor did they wear collars. Rather they trotted along the footpaths freely, occasionally crossing the road after checking for oncoming traffic. I was fearful of untethered dogs after having once been threatened by an assertive lurcher, over twenty-five years ago. Despite my fears, one dog in this main street insisted on accompanying us all the way back to the marina.
Perhaps the dog was hungry? Alex prepared a bowl of leftover rice, drizzled with olive oil and an egg. Rather than devouring it greedily, the dog took his time gingerly licking up the rice first and finally the egg. I gradually tried to overcome my fear and stretched out my hand to pat him.
Alex and I had been on a ten kilometre walk up the main street of Wé, and back along the adjacent beach. The white sands were soft and fine grained and the water a clear turquoise. After resting back at the boat Alex suggested we walk back to the beach to have a swim. We donned our swimsuits under our clothes and walked back along the road to the beach. The dog trotted alongside us all the way. Once at the beach we took off our clothes and shoes and entered the gently lapping waves. We called for the dog to come and swim with us but he hesitated. Instead, he waited for us on the shore next to our possessions, guarding them.
“What shall we call him Alex?” I asked.
Alex wanted to call him Buddy, but I wanted to call him Lifou, after the island.
After our brief swim we walked back along the footpath to the marina, all the while accompanied by Buddy, or was it Lifou? I crooned to him and he crooned back. He had probably never heard English before but he understood the music of the human voice. Once back at the marina we poked our head into the Capitainerie and asked the manager about the owner.
“I think he belongs to the local electrician,” he informed us.
We retreated to the boat, and Lifou sat just outside the gate. When we emerged later that evening to walk to the restaurant Lifou was still there. We decided to dine at the Thai restaurant a few hundred metres away. Lifou followed us and we chose a table outside. Lifou sat respectfully near the table. A female sausage dog appeared under the table and Lifou was unperturbed. A male black dog appeared and bared his teeth at Lifou. The dogs were about to start fighting but Alex reprimanded them in a forceful tone and they abandoned their fight. After the meal, we put the leftover rice into a plastic bag and took it back to the boat. Lifou trotted back alongside us. Once back at the boat, we upturned the rice into a bowl and fed Lifou a second dinner.
We spent the night on the boat and I half expected Lifou to still be there in the morning. My expectations were confirmed. Lifou was waiting just outside the gate for us to appear. Every time fellow inhabitants of the marina went to the shower block, he accompanied them back and forth. When I had my shower, he waited for me outside the shower block. When I went to complete some paperwork at the Capitainerie, Lifou lay down on the grass just outside the door.
“I want to take him on the boat back to Australia,” I quipped to the officer.
“You should do that!” he affirmed.
‘It’s just that quarantine is so strict in Australia.”
We were ready to leave the marina for our onward travels. I squatted down and hugged Lifou. By now I had learnt to trust him, and I rubbed his neck. When he rolled over, I rubbed his tummy. He offered me a doggie smile.
We returned to the boat ready to untie the ropes from the cleats and throw the fenders aboard ready for departure. Lifou was no longer with us. He had followed our tracks everywhere during the previous twenty-four hours, but now he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it was better this way. Maybe he sensed that we were leaving. I had grown attached to Lifou and was reluctant to bid him farewell. Our boat left the marina and as we looked back to the Capitainerie receding behind us we could see the officer waving both hands above his head in a farewell gesture. I think I spotted Lifou next to him.
Once we had left the marina, I sent my daughter Annlie photos of Lifou.
“Is he okay?” she messaged me, worried that I had abandoned a creature who had become dependent upon me.
I wish I could answer that question. Lifou looked healthy and had trotted happily alongside us for kilometres. He was not scrawny and hadn’t eaten our offerings too quickly. Even though he had adopted us for twenty-four hours, I sensed his real home was a happy and content one with the electrician.
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.
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