The Peacock Mosaic

The Tortoiseshell Cat


Roger kisses me good-bye on the doorstep and heads off to his car. I pause before I close the door. It’s still early morning and the harsh cries of black cockatoos fill the air with conflict. I go back to my computer to start the day’s marking – the last seven essays on a case study I grew weary of with the first student’s callow misinterpretations and blanket condemnations. It’s likely there will not be a great deal of difference with this lot. I bring up the first one and sigh.

I hear the key in the front door. Roger’s forgotten something. But he comes in ashen faced to say he thinks one of our cats, Leah, has been killed by a car. I rush out in bare feet leaving the front door open and hit the cold pavement running. Roger follows behind me. He’s already told me where to find her. Cat killer corner. Where cars speed up from scooting around the bus stop two hundred metres further back. It’s where our young silver tabby Isis died a few months ago, and exactly a week before that, where her twin brother Ziggy was knocked flying by some hoon.

I see her flattened form lying on the other side of the road and we cross, watching the traffic. The damage is dreadful. Her intestines spill out of her abdomen, her head is squashed flat on one side, broken bones protrude from a hind- and foreleg. An eye lies on the ground next to the head, still attached to a shred of membrane. It looks blindly at the sky. Her fur is dull and life is long gone. She looks as though she is already melting into the sandy verge, the earth reclaiming her, unlike the crushed plastic rubbish that perpetually blows along the gutters.

But it’s not Leah. This cat is a tortoiseshell, not a gold-and-black tabby, though both share long fur. I recognize the cat from the neighbourhood, and wonder whether I can door knock so early. Roger is relieved it’s not Leah and he’s now late for work. He rushes off to his car, parked a little further down the road.

I consider briefly whether to take the remains to a vet to be scanned for a microchip. I decide the body is too shattered, and the likelihood of her being chipped too slim. I go back home to get shoes and a shovel.

I start to dig under a flowering dark red oleander bush by the side of the road, near the crumpled body. The ground is sandy and stony, and I’ve dug a biggish hole when I see a neighbour I don’t know about to move his car out from the row of vehicles parked at the kerb. It’s a huge black shiny SUV. I lean the shovel against a tree and go over, gesturing to him to open his car window. After a second’s hesitation, he does.

‘Excuse me,’ I begin politely. ‘Do you know anyone who owns a tortoiseshell cat?’

He looks startled and shakes his head. ‘No,’ he says, shortly. I’ve annoyed him somehow.

‘Okay,’ I bite my lip. ‘There’s a dead cat over there been hit by a car,’ I look back in the direction of the little bundle of fur. ‘I’m just about to bury it.’

He frowns, ‘We have a cat. I suppose it’s a tabby.’

‘Oh right,’ I say. I realize there are people who don’t know how to describe cats by their markings. The picture he is sending me is not a tabby. It’s this cat. I wait a beat.

‘What’s a tortoiseshell?’ he asks.

‘Gingery, black and brown in splotches. This one has long fur.’ I can feel unease begin in him.

‘D’you mind if I take a look?’ he says. There’s a mixture of gruesome interest and something else, heavy blame, I think, in him now. I’m feeling his chronic level is anger, quick to stir.

‘Of course not,’ I walk back to the body while he presses the button to close his car window and gets out. He’s medium to tall in height, solidly built, his grey hair close cropped and balding. I notice he locks the car, though he will be only feet away.

When he gets close, his voice has regret in it. ‘That’s our cat.’ He sees the dreadful injuries. ‘Oh, that’s horrible,’ he says, but he’s grinning in fascination and his shiver seems more like a thrill. I’m getting the feeling he’s a man with a head full of violent images, sometimes acted on, mostly tightly held in.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, from long habit following what is communicated out loud and not the unconscious communication. I’m remembering the times the little tortoiseshell came over the back fence to sun herself on the roof of our garden shed. A friendly, sweet cat who liked to be stroked. I am sorry.

‘My son, my daughters, they’ll be devastated,’ he says. Now his words pour out of him. The pictures that come with them sometimes don’t match, a jumble of family conflicts, the turmoil of his household. ‘Y’know, we’ve been here eleven years, and the day we arrived, this little thing came runnin’ straight in and up the stairs!’ His mouth and eyes are open in wonder. ‘She adopted us! A stray from the neighbourhood, she musta been. I told my son then, youse look after it, I’m not having a bar of it! They can be a lot of trouble, cats. Don’t know what to do with ‘em when you go on holidays. Fleas an’ all that. I told my son when we went away, gave him some money to buy flea stuff for the cat. An’ when we came back I ars’ed him ‘f’e’d done it, y’ know, and ‘e said, Ah no, I forgot! An’ I said, so you spent that money on somethin’ else! I told ‘im off, no way I’m payin’ for more flea stuff, and that cat in his bedroom an’ all the fleas everywhere, jumpin’ up at you from the carpet and the bedding!’

He pauses to draw breath, our eyes fall down to the limp body. Bizarrely I look for evidence of fleas. None are visible.

He continues, ‘I dunno why she was out here on the road.’

I mention that this was the exact spot where Isis and Ziggy died. They too, rarely crossed this part of the road, but there are birds and possums on this bushy side of the road, in the gums and conifers.

He shakes his head. ‘It was the coldest night we’ve had last night. She musta stayed out ‘cause of the fleas. I wondered where she was.

‘Course, I get all the cats from this big corner house, y’ know, the ones that keep havin’ litter after litter,’ and I nod, because I know the family.

They’re a huge sprawling family of islanders who hold frequent loud parties. There’s an indeterminate number of feral kids and cats, none of whom ever seem to have enough to eat. Over a year ago, after two of the litters of kittens migrated across to our house two doors down, I persuaded them to let me get all their cats desexed.

He goes on, as though he rarely has the experience of someone listening and now he can’t stop talking. It’s something I find frequently in my profession.

‘So I get all these cats jumping from the fence down onto the roof of my pergola,’ he says, and I realize he’s the man who lives directly behind our back fence. His town house is on a lower level along the backs of three houses from the corner. His upstairs bathroom window overlooks our garden. The buildings are close, the council having agreed to squeeze in a skinny block of town houses where there might have been one bungalow before redevelopment.

As the man talks about the cats jumping on the corrugated plastic roof of his pergola and the noise they make and the vines that grow aggressively over the fence onto the same structure, I get a sense of his feeling squeezed in and encroached on by all of his high-side neighbours. His irritation is pouring out, and I flash back to what happened with Micah, soon after we moved in eight years ago.

Micah was our seven-year old red heeler. It was a mistake to keep him in our small suburban back yard, despite long twice-daily walks and lots of toys. Micah barked noisily, persistently, penetratingly, creating a weariness of spirit that frustrated everyone, day and night. We’d got him from the RSPCA as a temporary fosterling pup and fallen in love with him before we moved to this house with its much smaller garden. I’d never met the man who yelled furiously whenever Micah barked, hidden below the fence in his pergola. But his shouting voice soon became familiar.

‘Shut that fuckin’ dog up! Shut ‘im up or I’ll shut ‘im up for yer!’ His enraged yells had progressed rapidly from an aggrieved tone to dangerous desperation, full of threats. I kept Micah inside from that point while I tried to find him another home. It was difficult. As my vet helpfully pointed out, no-one wanted a barking ratbag red heeler, who should’ve been a working cattle dog but was now too old to train. Kept inside, the poor dog nearly went insane, tearing up anything he could get his teeth into. Between walks down to the park, I’d let him out briefly into the garden and bring him in again as soon as he started barking.

One day he came back in limping, his paw badly cut and bleeding. After removing the glass embedded in his paw and treating him, I went out to investigate. Along the back fence were shards of a newly shattered beer bottle. Smears of Micah’s blood coloured the grass. I grew very still as I contemplated the mind that would do this to a dog. I looked for access points and saw the vine-covered pergola roof hard up against the fence below. I didn’t think it would bear anyone’s weight. I was puzzled. Then the neighbour’s frosted bathroom window above slid closed with a slam.

A few days after that, we rushed Micah to the vet after he began convulsing and frothing at the mouth. It was poison, though we never found out how he had eaten whatever it was. Looking at his shivering, rigid form, gasping for breath and wild eyed, we conferred with the vet and he was put instantly, mercifully to sleep.

The man who owns the tortoiseshell cat is still talking. I blink and pay attention.

‘My older daughter’s just moved down to Melbourne. She’s 22. She’ll be really upset about this. She’s difficult, very touchy, always fightin’ with me ‘n ‘er mother. Has to ‘ave ‘er own way all the time, never listens!’ I see the images of flying crockery, the yelling and slammed doors he is sending me. I listen calmly, well trained to hear empathically the distress and bewilderment he has about his daughter, his complete unawareness of the effect his own anger has on members of his family.

‘My son is eighteen, lazy good-for-nothin’, stoppin’ at home an’ no job.’ He looks back at his house for a moment. ‘Look, if yer don’t mind, I think I’ll go get my camera, my phone, take a picture for the kids, email it to my daughter in Melbourne,’ he indicates the dead cat with a wave of his arm.

He notices I’m startled, and explains, ‘See, my younger daughter had this bunny rabbit. I think she was about six then. Anyway, it kept pooping all over the house and everything, a real nuisance it was. So I took it to the vet and got it put to sleep.’ The image he sends me is not of a vet’s surgery, however. It’s of a small white furry body, warm and lifeless in his hands. The feeling of gruesome pleasure comes from him again. He goes on, ‘So I’ll take a picture so they know the cat died of natural causes!’ He seems pleased as he walks back to his house.

I’m thinking about that, the need to prove such a thing to his kids, the effect on the daughter when she gets the emailed picture, on the son and small daughter still at home. The pleasure he is anticipating from their reactions.

I pick up the shovel from against the tree and without haste dig the hole a little deeper and wider. He’s away a few minutes and comes back with his phone.

‘My son was asleep. He’s stayin’ in bed,’ he says. His eyes look critically at camera angles and light. ‘My younger daughter, I told her to stay over there.’ He stops about five feet from the cat, on the side that shows all the gory spillage and obscenely eviscerated intestines. ‘I guess it’s a bit cruel,’ he says, his phone at his eye level. He’s smiling, or grimacing at the light.

‘Perhaps it wouldn’t be so gory from this side?’ I suggest, calmly.

He says, ‘She’ll be right, got a good shot from here. Now they’ll know.’

He takes the shovel from my hand and now he grimaces as he eases the shovel blade under the limp body. He carries it over to the hole I’ve dug under the oleander, dumps the body in there and shovels in the loose sand I’ve piled to the side. As he smooths it over, he dislodges some oleander blooms and they fall, dark red as pooled blood, onto the grave.

But he’s still talking. ‘My little girl keeps on at me to get a dog, y’know? I said to her no way! Too much trouble, too noisy! Nah, that’s the end of a chapter in our lives, that is.’

I murmur something inconsequential and he straightens, handing back the shovel. ‘So which house are you?’ he asks. I tell him, and see the vague memory from eight years ago connecting dog and noise and back fence forming in his mind, before it’s swallowed in a jumble of self-justification.

‘That was kind of you,’ he points in the direction of the new grave but I shake my head. He’s waving the phone now. ‘I’m glad I got the photo, natural causes, see!’

As he walks jauntily over to his house I see the glossy black head of a young child hanging over the gate, waiting for daddy.

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