Big Cat's Requiem

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When I was 14 my parents took my sister on a holiday to Western Australia and left me to fend for myself for a week. I wasn’t a very exciting 14-year-old. Given that I didn’t like to drink alcohol or bash people yet there wasn’t much I could get up to in Glenorchy. I spent the week hanging around the house trying on all my Adidas sportswear and jerking off. Viva la teenager.

We lived in an old weatherboard rental with a shonky addition that had a corrugated plastic roof. Every time you took a shit, muted Tasmanian sunlight filtered through the plastic and illuminated the procedure. Almost like camping out, but every day.

The house was on a busy road across the street from my grandparents’. Inevitably, one of the cats got hit by a car while my parents were away. ‘Big Cat’ had been a member of the family for some years. We inherited her from Dad’s sister, who had responsibility issues. Though she wasn’t huge, she was bigger than the other cat my aunt had, ‘Little Cat’. In Tasmania it’s all relative.

She was a neurotic tabby, skittish and aloof. High volume traffic was a new thing for her. That’s how she wound up dead in the gutter on Elwick Road. With Mum and Dad away, Grandpa was tasked with the burial. Grandpa was a gruff man who liked liquor and slurred his words. Like me, he was often seen in a brown cardigan. Unlike me, he had no lips.

It was decided that she would go in the back corner of their yard. I went to assist Grandpa, carrying along the body in a green plastic bag. Grandpa carried the pitchfork.

Grandpa was busy building a wooden horse float at the time and was reluctant to allocate minutes to any other task. When he dug the hole it was shallow. He took the bag from me, turned it upside down and dropped the cat into the ground. She landed on her back, and he began to shovel the wet dirt onto her body.

After the hole was filled I noticed Big Cat’s feet still protruded from the earth.

‘Um, Grandpa,’ I said.

He saw this too and set out to fix it by thrusting the pitchfork into the buried cat’s body. He managed to fling some soil about, but rigor mortis had set in. Big Cat’s limbs were as rigid as a frozen chicken.

‘Fucken’ thing,’ Grandpa growled, as he threw the full force of his ageing frame into thrusting the pitchfork. He continued to berate the cat as if this might encourage her involuntary submersion into the ground. I looked on, shell-shocked at the indignity of the burial. The logic circuit in Grandpa’s head that should have equated ‘dead pet’ with ‘traumatised kid’ had shorted out. I guess he was just anxious to get back to his horse float.

Peeling Back

‘But, I was there when you made the decision to start buying brown onions again.’ ‘I know.’

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‘Remember we were saying they smell nicer than red?’

‘I remember, but –’

‘And they taste better raw.’

‘I don't even eat onions raw. Please.’

‘They’re easier to peel.’

‘That's true.’

‘So why are you doing this?’

‘I need to make decisions.’

‘You can make –’

‘Alone.’

‘Oh. I’ll stop.’

‘It's not entirely your fault.’

‘So what should ­–’

‘I care too much about what you think.’

‘I care about what you think. That's perfectly normal when you're in a relationship.’

‘I know but we’re becoming this one thing. Who am I? It’s like … I feel like I’d be able to grow, or something, I –’

‘We don't have to do this right now.’

‘I need to.’

‘Okay, but how much better are brown onions in Mexican food?’

‘That is not the point.’

‘That's the whole point. We're having burritos.’

‘Red onions look nicer.’

‘They don't cook nicer.’

‘They cook fine.’

‘But brown onions caramelise so perfectly. Think about sausage sizzle sandwiches.’

‘I love sausage sizzle sandwiches.’

‘And those omelettes I made on Saturday. You said –’

‘– the onion tasted delicious!’

‘Yes!’

‘I know, and I guess I agree.’

‘Good, you know and you –’

‘But I'd already made the decision. Now I'm just –’

‘You're allowed to change your mind.’

‘I'm always compromising.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yeah. You're so dominating, I just don't think you realise it.’

‘I'm dominating? About vegetables?’

‘You make me edgy. About everything. And yeah, vegetables too. ‘

‘You're joking, right? Why do you take things so –’

‘It might seem trivial, but it's important to me.’

‘Onions are important to you?’

‘Onion decisions are important to me.’

‘Okay let's get the red onion then.’

‘Thank you.’

‘So even though –’

‘Please.’

‘No, let me finish. Even though you acknowledge that brown is better than red in every way,’

‘Not every way.’

‘… you still want to get the red?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘I don't understand what you're doing.’

‘That's okay.’

‘Can you ex –’

‘Fuck. Don't worry, just get the brown.’

‘Can you explain this to me?’

‘Okay. Listen: I decided red before we spoke and then – now – we’re speaking and ­­– now – we’re getting brown.’

‘Okay?’

‘It doesn’t feel good.’

‘It will.’

‘Sometimes I wish …’

‘What?’

‘Doesn't matter.’

‘Anyway, it's my dinner too. Get that netted kilo bag, ends up being cheaper.’

‘Yeah.’

‘What were you going to say? Sometimes you wish what?’

‘Sometimes I wish you’d die so I wouldn’t have to leave you.’

The Insider

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When we were in our teens, my identical twin brother took up surfing. He was always the sporty one – the brave one as well – so when he started I didn’t join him but would sometimes tag along and watch.

One day, after he'd been doing it for a few years, he borrowed a friend's camera and asked if I'd come down and take photos. Because I had nothing better to do, and because I secretly admired the way he made everything look so easy, I agreed. I followed him to the break wall at the mouth of the river and, after a quick lesson on how to use the camera, I stood on the rocks and did my best to snap pictures of him as he moved across the waves. Most of the photos I took turned out blurry and poorly framed, as we found out later when we went through them in his bedroom, but there was one that was clear and bright and sharp. In it he was standing slightly crouched with the lip of the wave pitching out over his head, so that he was actually standing inside the wave. I'd heard him refer to this as a barrel and he told me he was stoked I'd got the shot. I remember sitting on the end of his bed and staring at the picture for a long time. It was like seeing myself do something I knew I could never do.

'What's it like?' I asked finally. 'I mean, standing inside a wave?'

He looked at me and shrugged. 'It's kinda like time is standing still, but at the same time it's rushing past. That sounds weird but I dunno how else to explain it. You have to experience it. It's the only way.'

Two days later, my brother had the photograph framed and put up on his wall, and it stayed there until he was twenty-one and he was killed in a car accident on the bends north of town.

Nowadays I live in the city. The beach is no longer around the corner and I've still never surfed, but living here does have its benefits. I like the anonymity. I like the thrum of traffic and the hundreds of nameless faces passing by at any one time. Sometimes when I have visitors (somebody from work or a real estate agent doing the quarterly inspection), they'll see the photograph hanging on the wall and ask if it's me. Usually I nod. When they ask what it feels like, I tell them it's kinda like time is standing still but at the same time it's rushing past. I tell them it sounds weird but I dunno how else to explain it. I keep my voice steady and act like I'm speaking from the experience of someone I could never be.

Forest

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The door was ajar and our clothes were on the floor. Her housemates were elsewhere.

On the bed she counted the sunspots on my skin, out loud, updating me with a tally, progressing toward dismay – there were nearly a hundred.

‘Have you had these checked?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘You really should.’

Caroline got off the bed, foraged the carpet for her clothes and dressed. She sat next to me and kissed my mouth. I combed her long black hair with my fingers. I got dressed too. Our conversation revolved around the idea of gourmet sandwiches. It was after noon, Saturday, and we were hungry.

I stepped into a deli and Caroline followed. We ordered our sandwiches. Music was playing from a radio above the counter. Caroline started to sing along. The man assembling our sandwiches told Caroline to shut her mouth.  

‘Somewhere with shade,’ Caroline said, and directed us over the grass with urgency. I looked up and saw rain clouds.

Beyond the park was a wooded area. It had a path etched in the ground that ran for about a kilometre. It was a popular track for couples and bird-watchers. I knew for certain that a yellow-faced honeyeater was in the trees. I was ready to point it out to Caroline if we were to go for a hike. I knew useless shit like that to make her cheery.

My sandwich was dry. Caroline was thirsty. I ran to a corner store, bought a cold bottle of lemonade, but when I returned to our spot on the grass, Caroline wasn’t there. I twisted open the lemonade, had a sip, walked over to the path where the “forest” started, and attempted to scan through the thin trees for Caroline. I rang her mobile, but the call went to voicemail. I shouted her name, but this aggravated a man with binoculars who was bird-watching nearby. I waved sorry to the man. Ten, fifteen minutes went by.

‘My favourite game is hide and seek,’ she said, behind me, in a matter-of-fact tone.

‘Where did you go?’

‘Guess,’ she said.

‘The bathroom?’

‘No.’

‘Poland?’

‘No.’

‘Where then?’

‘Guess,’ she was grinning.

‘The boot of a car? A hotel room?’

She stopped grinning. ‘We should head back home. I need to do some work.’

She was in her room gathering together her sheet music. Caroline was a member of an amateur choir that performed monthly at St. Paul’s church. Her housemates were still absent. I was sunk in an armchair watching some movie on my laptop. Caroline entered the living room and leaned against a chair.

‘Why did you say hotel room?’

I hit the space bar, paused the movie.

‘Sorry?’

‘Hotel room. You guessed in the boot of a car and a hotel room. The deli. I went back there,’ she said.

The way home was under construction, scaffolding everywhere. As I waded alone through the people and through the rain, I saw Caroline appear and disappear with every passer-by.

Dawn

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We wait in the pre-dawn winter darkness, lit only by the distant lights of the island and a lonely fluoro that buzzes with insect life. The ferry, silent for the moment, bobs in the inky water. Even our voices are subdued. I stand apart from the others and look not towards the ferry as they do, but towards the east, trying to capture that point when the sun will break the edge of the world. I must avoid blinking at that crucial instant.

Phil, a hopeless, toothless addict from the cleaning staff, sidles my way. He’s as unwelcome among the ranks of high-vis as gonorrhoea. He somehow always ends up next to me, fag in hand; two oddities drifting to the outer edges together. I wish I was cruel enough to cast him off as the others do.

‘Bootiful morning, eh Ian?’ he says as he scratches at his jock line. I avoid glancing at the rogue hand and maintain my observation of the horizon. Phil doesn’t seem to mind. My eyes burn and I blink. In that moment the sun comes up. I swear under my breath. Again, Phil doesn’t seem to mind.

‘Should be out in the tinny, not bustin’ our guts on that shithole island.’ Despite his sentiment he smiles fondly as he gazes out over the water. His teeth are stained and protruding; he only smiles in bad light. Perhaps he’s remembering the time spent there before the gas companies moved in, smoking grass and playing bad guitar.

I nod in the supervisor’s direction and Phil drops his smoke into the water. I sigh.

‘What?’ he says, and scratches at his jock line again. Maybe it’s a nervous habit. Maybe I make Phil nervous.  It seems everyone’s like that around me these days.

The crowd falls silent as Skipper climbs on board. A phone rings. It is a piercing alarm of a sound. Who gets a phone call this hour of the morning?

My phone call came at 2 am. I’m often awake at 2 am these days, after I stopped taking the sleeping tablets. Stopped seeing the psych. It didn’t work anyway; she’s still dead.

I watch one of the high-vis brigade fish in his pocket for his phone. I realise I’m holding my breath, but I can’t seem to let it out. My breath in the cold air is too much like smoke.

But this phone call’s different from mine. I can tell before he answers it. There’s no hesitation, no nervous glance around. Blokes start slapping him on the back. Some good news. Perhaps a baby coming.

He’s walking towards the car park before I can turn my burning eyes away.

Sharp Objects

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Beth didn't stop at the junction to look for oncoming cars, but dipped her head and pedalled harder. There was nobody around anyway.

Beyond the breeze on her ears she could hear a faint tune. She felt she knew it, vaguely, but not in this tinkling, monophonic form. As she rounded a corner she spotted a rubbish truck with the words Clean Tokyo painted on its side. Now the music made sense; it heralded the morning light. Here, garbage trucks behaved like they sold ice-cream, spreading shrill classical melodies into the waking neighbourhood.

Beth used to go to work on rubbish days full of anxiety, then sweat on the train all the way home hoping her attempt had been successful. She had visions of returning home to her bags still on the doorstep, stapled with a lurid purple note from the collectors. Rubbish not separated. Separate properly and try again. This was the height of public shame.

As she passed the green truck, she heard three familiar, repeated notes: it was Keisuke's tune. The music lulled her pedalling into a slower triple metre, and she pulled up beside one of the men who was hauling bags from the ground. She wanted to ask him about the name of the song – it was the one she had been searching for – but all she said was, ‘Waste not want not, eh?’

The collector bowed.

‘It is with great honour that I pick up the rubbish.’

In a way that ice-cream delivery could never be, rubbish collection was painstaking and complicated. Lipstick went into burnables, but lipstick tubes – after all the contents were used up – went into small metals or plastics. Umbrellas less than fifty centimetres long needed to be skinned, with the synthetic material put into one bag and the metal skeleton in another marked ‘sharp object’. One lonely sock was burnable, and a pair qualified as ‘used cloth’, but only if the socks weren’t torn and the right and left sock matched.

She thought about the umbrella skeletons, tangled and prickly like sea urchins; she thought about all the lonely socks, burning together in a pile.

Russian Goats

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Anna would not have worried if Elizabeth had been curvy, like the neighbour whose fake breasts swelled over her low-cut dresses.

But Elizabeth was beautiful and slim and everything that Vladimir found attractive. She was something to be corrupted.

The goats had been in the street and innocently she’d followed them to their home.

‘That is Creole. She likes the drink. You know, alcohol,’ Vlad said, looking at Elizabeth's legs in her tennis shorts. The goat lapped at the spilt beer on the table. ‘The other one is Sasha. She is the affectionate one. Yes, she is a nice goat.’

Sasha nuzzled Anna's arm. The goats stayed close to her, knowing that they were safe there.  Anna hugged her beer.

Elizabeth laughed nervously. She glanced up and down the street. Vlad sat back in his chair, taking a sip of his beer without taking his eyes off her.

‘You live near here?’

‘Yes, just down the road. I wanted to make sure the goats got home safely. Anyway, I better go.’

Vlad jumped up. ‘Would you like a beer? Stay for a drink with us.’

‘Oh no, thank you, thank you.’

‘Stay for one drink,’ begged Vlad, but Elizabeth was already walking away, waving nervously back at them.

‘She doesn't want a beer,’ Anna said, in Russian.

‘Yeah? And how do you know what she wants?’ Vlad snarled, sinking into his chair.

Anna felt the bodies of the goats press closer and said nothing.

Spillage

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Fallow, russet hillsides and spiny chunks of flora garnish the aggro cityscape. The taxi merges without indicating, a dodge-em car at a country fair. Aunty Nathalie speaks Mauritian-Creole to the driver – the jauntiest linguistics, a bristling melody that I crave as a cure for Western ills. The entire culture adjourns in my brain, as it often does – another well-kept secret.

Nathalie’s phone shrieks. She doesn’t answer. If she does, she’ll have to find a bank and fork out money for our relatives. None of our relos want to hear about first-world problems. Or especially the term first-world. I hate it too, usually reaching for the developing world placation – unfinished, not entrenched. My undeniable Anglo heritage, my education, is at once irrelevant yet vital, shattering old conveniences and schoolyard jeers of ‘Racist!’ The first world is the problem. Nathalie is Australian. She must share her wealth. She is family.

‘Catholic guilt, Third-World-style.’ says Matilda, my sister, ignoring Nathalie’s pointed glare.

Nathalie doesn’t know if her VISA card is operational. Uncle Clement still hasn’t phoned to advise. Time zone? Exorbitant rates? Nathalie shrugs. We’ve only got enough cash to last the day. She is alien in another land, her home country, on her return thirty-five years later.

The driver’s road-raging matches his oration as we head inland. His body odour is thick, oppressive, but comforting. Human. I strain to hear his English. Apartheid South Africa. Blood spilled? His father’s blood? His blood? Johannesburg? Daughter, very sick. No…Well, yes, but it is unconnected. Cannot hold food, spilling her innards. House, two-bedroom. Stink of vomit. He take us all museums and factories. He know people.

The driver stalks us at a polite distance from the heat of the taxi downstairs, sans air-conditioning and sea breeze, ignoring our preferred arrangement – leaving with another driver. The restaurant’s ceiling fan cools our sweat. Aunty Nathalie cries into her ginger ale and knocks it over, staining the white tablecloth a healthy brown. Matilda and I ask the waitstaff for serviettes or tissues. Our request is met with fluent English and stacks of both serviettes and tissues. The driver reminds Nathalie of my mother and grandfather working multiple jobs: fisherman; seamstress; factory-hand; shop-assistant; housekeeper; teacher. Spine-warping labour. That’s the upsetting part, she recalls: feigning distance from the present, from the driver.

Nathalie flinches as her phone rings. She dabs her nose and answers. It’s Marie-Louise, our great-aunty, Papa’s little sister. Matilda and I grin at each other, just for a moment. She is one of three siblings still alive on the island. Three out of nine ain’t bad. The six in Australia found wealth but long since halted return flow.

Hotel? Does she need the address? Do we have it? Not necessary. They’ve found us. They are on their way. Nathalie is exposed already. Papa’s Australian affairs, debts of love and money, are no secret either. Family stories, even those not imparted or understood in completion, always seem to spread as swift and as fluid as spillage.