Grand Prix: anniversary for a meaningless death


Everyone knew Dennis. It was his dogs: waist height, deep chests, slobbering jowls, docked tails and testicles. Old Max and Wally. Dennis loved those dogs. He would stride through the neighbourhood, calling cheerily to all, while Max and Wally ranged far and wide in search of cats and scraps.

Dennis was the neighbourhood character. Full of good humour, he had an indefatigable capacity for quipping his way through life, always at our expense. No one out-quipped Dennis.

Dennis may well have been a character, but beyond all that there was a problem. You see, we do small dogs; those that would be defined as hand luggage. And there's a lot of them. Small, mainly white and fluffy, and most with attitude that far outweighs their stature.

What's more we've established something of a local territory. Small dog owners cluster on the school oval most afternoons, with plastic bags a-pocket, just to pass the time in congenial company while waiting for our dogs to run themselves ragged. I've seen parents of small children do much the same, albeit without the plastic bag!

On Friday evenings an even stronger claim is made. We retrieve a folding table from a neighbour's front verandah and set it on the oval. One of our group is deputed to bring a 'plate' and wine and, with dogs swirling at our feet, we have a jolly good time as the sun sets over suburbia.

Big dogs go to the park; we go to the school oval. It's always been that way.

But not for Dennis. On Friday night, of all nights, he'd appear along the path with trademark grin and dogs unleashed and bowl right up to our table, helping himself to a generous glass of red and whatever was left on the plate. Meanwhile our lot would go berserk. A barking blur of fluff and fur, while the short-haired pointers stood, aloof and motionless.

Dennis loved to cause a stir. In our more generous moments we'd consider him a loveable larrikin, courtesy no doubt of his Irish Catholic farming family background on the swamp at Bunyip.

He'd left the farm, married Cathy and fathered three fine children. He took hold of our little community in so many ways: from running the river tracks in early morning, coaching kids' basketball, life and soul of the street party, and willing hand at anything from blocked drains to chook raffles. He was in the prime of life ...

... and then he died.

All we know is this: Dennis went to the Grand Prix. That evening he did not come home as expected. The dark closed in and still no word. Anxiety gave way to choking panic. The police knew nothing. That longest night was spent in aching silence and muffled, agonising cries.

Saturday passed, and wild explanations forced themselves on unwilling minds: amnesia, accident, mugging, suicide, just ... disappeared. Nothing but wild explanations. On Sunday the body of a man in the prime of life was found against a reedy river bank.

I stood at the back of the church, with 500 others in stunned disbelief, while Dennis' friends and Dennis' family rose and spoke or played a song and tried to make sense of it all. But there was no sense to be made. None at all. We wept hot tears of despair and longed for an explanation.

There is no doubt that the living of this man enriched our lives as people do who laugh a lot and take great pleasure in the joy of others. And there is no doubt that the dying of this man took part of all our lives, as does every death that comes too soon, whether in war or accident or illness, or by the merest stroke of misfortune.

As I grow old I'm sure it is awareness of the death that comes unfairly and too soon to others that forms in me what Inga Clendinnen calls 'the melancholy of ageing'.

We occasionally still see Dennis's dogs in the distance, and call our fluffies to the Friday table, just in case. Young Tom is with them now, in his father's footsteps. He knows what goes down and gives us a wide berth. We wave our thanks. Dennis would stir him for that, but also would be mighty proud of his boy.


It's five years on and the Grand Prix again. All hype and noise and excitement — and another sorrowing anniversary. Time helps, but life is just not long enough to forget the loss of a good man.

Roger TrowbridgeRoger Trowbridge has explored 'the social condition' through positions in community organisations, government departments, and the Social Science Department of RMIT. His writing has been published in Griffith Review, Australian Quarterly, Thirst and New Matilda.

Topic tags: Roger Trowbridge, grand prix, dennis, meaningless death, river bank



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Existing comments

Roger - a great tribute to a great man whose memories are still very fresh for those who knew him. In my case, his exploits in running, the marathon specifically, were a terrific inspiration.He was a good mentor to other runners.

The Melbourne Marathon was another Melbourne event that Dennis celebrated through annual participation. Very inspiring was this unique achievement: Dennis and his mother, Mary, won the fastest mother-son combination four years in a row between 1994 and 1997 over the full marathon distance of 42.2 kilometres.
Vin Martin | 25 March 2009

Thanks for this article. I have just lost a close friend suddenly, in middle age. Your article resonates with me.
Carlos | 08 July 2009


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