The red ink was running dry. As each sheet came out of the printer and piled itself on top the last, Pickles the cat looked greener, his eyes taking on a zombie-like hue. Leanne had already resigned herself to never finding Pickles, figured he probably did look more like a zombie cat – mashed by car tyres – than the blurry cat in the photo taken when he was a kitten. But Madeleine was determined that her pet would return, if only they tried, so Leanne printed off twenty-five copies of the poster.
She’d added the last part, about a reward, at her daughter’s insistence. Madeleine had offered the contents of her piggy bank and her Bratz doll collection. As worthless as they were, Leanne knew she was trying. She also knew there was no harm in offering a reward that would never be collected. Her bank account was in overdraft until payday and she’d been paying for chocolate bars and chewing gum – confectionary aisle consolations – with her credit card.
They sat at the dinner table, Leanne and Madeleine, and slotted half of the posters into the clear plastic sleeves they’d bought for Madeleine’s school projects. It had been raining in the afternoons, and they didn’t want the posters to become sodden and unreadable. Madeleine swung her legs under her chair and sang to herself as she put the posters in the plastic, the rhythmic nature of the task distracting her, momentarily, from her missing cat. Leanne watched her daughter. She was, objectively speaking, a sweet-looking child – Leanne had been told so – cute, with a flossy brown hair and with the sort of quick smile sought out by casting agents for cereal ads. But when Leanne looked at her daughter, she was mostly struck by how much she looked like her, when she was a child, and sometimes when her daughter was hugging her leg, looking up at her, Leanne felt the same frisson of discomfort that she’d feel when someone noticed her catching her own reflection in a store window or an elevator mirror.
Pickles had never gone missing before. He was not an adventurous cat – after Leanne first brought him home as a kitten, she had tried to show him how to use the newly installed cat flap to go outside. Leanne first opened the flap with her hand and held it open, calling Pickles, but the cat wouldn’t come. So then she tried to sticking her head through the flap, showing Pickles how it worked, and that it was nothing to be afraid of – but after several minutes of this, Pickles showed himself to be far more interested in licking himself clean, while Leanne wasn’t entirely sure the neighbours weren’t watching through their first-floor window.
Nevertheless Leanne set out to convince her daughter that Pickles had now acquired an adventure-seeking streak. It was a temporary plan; she would figure out what to say to her daughter once a little time had passed, when things weren’t so immediate. For now, she made up bedtime stories about Pickles, imagining that he had set off like a student on a gap year. ‘Pickles is in France at the moment,’ she told Madeleine as she lay in bed that night, smelling of shampoo and toothpaste, ‘climbing the Eiffel Tower. They’ve turned it into the biggest scratching post in the world. He was doing some modelling, in the ads for cat food, but now he’s been recruited by the government as a spy cat. He’s good at it because he’s sneaky. He types messages in code with his little paws. I heard he’s going to get a medal for bravery, and then he’ll come back home.’ Leanne smiled, knowing these were the best stories she’d ever invented.
‘Make sure she does her homework but don’t be too hard on her.’ Two days later Leanne stood in the doorway of her ex-husband’s new house, dropping Madeleine off after school. ‘She’s still pretty upset about the cat.’
‘I told you, you shouldn’t let the cat outside.’
‘You said he’d kill the native birds, David. You didn’t say he’d go missing.’ When they were in love he’d been Dave, but now she only ever called him David, each use of his name an opportunity to scold.
He hadn’t been a bad husband, but over time she had found his once-endearing qualities pathetic. When they had met, his house had been decorated ‘ironically’ – a hamburger phone, a fishtank TV. In her early 20s she had found it whimsical, amusing. Now she thought it had been defensive, the battlements of a man who had no taste.
She had expected, when she left him, that he would fall apart for a while. She had been the person who would find his keys when he lost them. She was still surprised that he was doing so well, looking so well, his eyes clear and bright; his house, from what she could see from the doorway, free of novelty appliances.
‘Don’t forget, netball practice on Wednesday afternoon.’
‘I know, I know,’ he said.
Leanne didn’t like the drop-offs, didn’t like sharing Madeleine with him – but that had been the problem when they were married, too, her unwillingness to share. When they met she had loved carelessly. She was always reaching out, arms open, eyes closed; like a vine that had outgrown its post, tendrils blindly searching for something else to hold onto. Invariably her love would prove too intense for her partners, even her friends. She had never been anyone’s entire world before – every person came with a past, a first kiss, an ex. Unless that person is your daughter – but even then, a daughter came with a father. Leanne discouraged Madeleine from mentioning David so that on the days they spent together she could be convinced she was her daughter’s everything. The drop-offs broke the illusion.
At times she felt her daughter’s feelings, by proxy, and they were stronger than her own. The most vivid and immutable were her daughter’s humiliations. Her fears she could dismiss as childish; her joys – these were felt but only in passing. The time she hugged the leg of a stranger she mistook for her mother in the supermarket; period blood on her school uniform; her brother catching her with one of his dirty magazines – Leanne’s own embarrassments were formative and when she summoned her memory they felt as new and offensive as the day they had happened, even those that were 30 years old. She tried hard, then, to prevent embarrassment of her daughter – not by assuring her daughter that these things were unimportant and nothing to be embarrassed by, but by trying to pre-empt any humiliations and avoid them. The latest toys and clothes would be hers, she would never know the embarrassment of being the last to join a trend.
And when her daughter inevitably became embarrassed by this or that, Leanne’s second-hand embarrassment was amplified by the shame she felt as an inadequate parent.
What Madeleine had really wanted, that Autumn two years ago when the separation was more like an experiment, a trial, was a puppy.
‘Who’s going to train him?’ Leanne asked. ‘I don’t have the time, honey.’
‘I will, I will!’ her daughter said.
She had said she’d think about it but she didn’t, not once, until the day two weeks later when she came to pick Madeleine up from Dave-David’s house, and her daughter had kicked out, screamed, pounded, sticky-faced with tears, saying between sobs that no, she didn’t want to go to Mummy’s, she wanted to stay. It had later become apparent that the tantrum was nothing but the result of low blood sugar, a comedown from all the convenience-store donuts and pastries he’d been feeding her. Leanne knew her ex-husband wasn’t trying to win her daughter over by feeding her junk – in her absence, David had returned to eating like a bachelor. His body could bear it – he’d even lost weight, the sugar and carbohydrates fuelling his rediscovery of night-time indoor soccer, and she suspected he had been involved in other indoor activities – bachelor exercises – with some of the spectators. Leanne couldn’t help but feel a competitive impulse. She would not ply her daughter with sugary treats. But a pet was a possibility.
Dogs were needy: she didn’t want all of Madeleine’s love doled out to a dog. A cat was more independent. Later, after seeing Pickles walk out of Madeleine’s room with a bow around his neck, ears back and eyes narrowed, quite aware of the indignity of it all, she realised she’d been wrong, that it didn’t matter what the animal’s capacity for love was, her daughter would love it just the same, completely.
Leanne took the back streets home, avoiding the traffic, manoeuvring the four-wheel drive through the grid of streets to bypass the stop signs. She could see that the posters in the plastic covers had not withstood the rain as planned; the condensation trapped between the sleeves soaked the paper into a grey sludge. Those left exposed had fared better. The black ink clung to the paper, but the blue ran off, leaving only a yellow wash where Pickle’s photo had been.
As she wondered absently whether she’d be expected to remove the posters after a certain period of time – whether it was a civic duty, her name and number, after all, were right there on the paper – she pulled into the driveway and there he was, not green or yellow but a full-colour Pickles. He sat at the front door, unmoved by Leanne’s arrival, languorously licking himself. He had slipped his collar but otherwise gave the impression that he hadn’t been lost at all. He had simply been having some time to himself. He didn’t even follow Leanne inside.
She poured the last of a bottle of white wine into a glass. The man at the bottle shop had placed it in a paper bag and she’d left it in it when she brought it home last night, so no-one would know how much she’d drunk. Not that anyone was keeping an eye on her drinking anymore. The dinner party invitations had dropped off over the past few months, after she’d given up on phoning in apologies for her behaviour – ‘Sorry for acting like such a crazy person last night!’ she’d say in her voicemail messages. ‘Someone must have slipped something in my wine – I only drank a bottle!’ She’d admonish herself for singing too loudly at the dinner table, before realising that it was the fact that she sang at all that had so offended her hosts. Perhaps her friends were getting boring, though. They’d joined the Parents and Citizens Association, after all.
She’d been working on those problems. She’d been reading a couple of self-help books and had written a list of goals. Leanne wanted to be more patient with her daughter, to let Madeleine sit on her lap regardless of whether her legs were falling asleep, to watch her perform the dances she and her friends made up in the playground. Leanne folded Madeleine’s clothing, and felt a sudden rush of affection for her daughter, the kind that quickly came upon her from time to time. In times like these she thought back to Madeleine’s birth, how her world had narrowed and expanded all at once. She had thought, at the time, that she would like to have more children, to chase that high – but she had never gotten around to it. Her love for Madeleine had proved such a distraction that she didn’t see that her husband was leaving.
She went into Madeleine’s room to put away her things, and found five sheets of printer paper with near-identical crayon drawings of a ginger cat, PICKLES written on each of them. Leanne took the pictures into the kitchen and put them in the bin. See, she thought. All sorts of things can be dispensed with.
Leanne found Pickles at the door, waiting to be let inside. Madeleine would often say to Leanne, ‘He’s so happy!’ when he purred as she patted him. Leanne knew Pickles’ emotions were far more complex than that. In the inner life she assigned to him, Pickles was waiting at the door, refusing the cat flap, demanding Leanne’s assistance, in order to make a point.
Pickles circled Leanne’s legs as she spooned food into his bowl, but she wasn’t fooled – his attention turned to the meal before it even hit the floor. He was too distracted to notice Leanne had taken his carrier down from the cupboard.
Pickles had always meowed on car rides. Leanne used to talk to him on the way to the vet to reassure him. ‘I know, Pickles. It won’t be long.’ This time she just turned up the radio.
Leanne drove two hours, from a place where the buildings pushed further apart to where they pushed back together again. For a time she forgot Pickles was there, in his carrier in the back seat. In the driver’s seat and somewhat tipsy she reclaimed the feeling of freedom she felt when she got her first car, driving these same roads but in the opposite direction.
She pulled up at what might have looked to others like an empty lot, but she knew to be a park. It was an unembellished square of dead grass, but as a child it was where she played house when her own home became inhospitable. She opened the carrier and urged Pickles out. He gingerly put one paw out, then another, before running off into some dark corner. She picked the carrier up and closed its door, stopping to look around. She wondered if anyone would take him in. In the darkness across the park Leanne saw Pickles’ eyes catch the light briefly, reflecting something of herself back. She did not think herself cruel. Her survival instinct had kicked in. She hoped Pickles’ would too.
On the way home Leanne listened to Love Song Dedications. She tried to call one in for her daughter, but the line was busy. She sang along to all the songs regardless, her head clear and her petrol tank half-full.