WWF Short Story Prize

Cat Money by Jane O’Sullivan

Jane O’Sullivan (@sightlined) is a writer based in Sydney. Her nonfiction has been published in Vault, Art Collector, Art Guide and Ocula. Her short fiction has appeared in Island and was recently highly commended in the Newcastle Short Story Award.””Cat Money” is Highly Commended in the 2018 Wollongong Writers Festival Short Story Prize.

 

 

Cat Money

The toddler was still banging on about cat money. “Look,” he demanded, his singsong vowels stretching the word all out of shape. He was up on his toes, clinging to the seat of the kitchen stool, peering right into the cat’s face. “Looklooklooklook.”

And so she looked, just in time to see a paw shoot out and her boy go stiff. Then was a second of shock and then the wailing started, a great klaxon of need. The sound left no room to think about anything else, though she wasn’t too worried, not at first. The cat had a way of firing warning shots, little taps without her claws. But then she saw the blood. “Oh,” she said, in that useless way, with too much shock and not nearly enough comfort. And again. “Oh, honey.”

Then she, too, managed to break the seal of her shock. She dropped the wooden spoon in the pot and knelt, pulling Chester’s body into her chest. He was still rigid with it, the anger and the hurt and the sting of it, but she was stronger. She pulled him in and murmured in his ear, and finally he gave, falling into her like a hot, wet bundle just pulled from the washing machine. She held him tight while the tears rolled down his face and onto her arms.

Slowly, he coughed it out. “Keely…scratch…me.” She nodded, waiting. She was learning to wait. He couldn’t, so she had to. He wasn’t yet big enough to let it sit, to let it all pool until there was enough of it to gather up into a story. It came out as it bubbled up in him. “Keely…me…mummy,” he wailed. She kissed his hair and let him heave it out. She listened to the broken rhythm of his body, the coughs and sobs and hiccups pushing him out of time. “Deep breaths,” she soothed. “Deep breaths.”

But he couldn’t. Of course, he couldn’t. She could only give him her beat to follow, and so she did, rocking and stroking and breathing slow and deep. And she waited, her mind drifting between the sounds of her son and the glub of the oats on the stove.

The cat had come first. They always do.

When they had first come home from the hospital, Ivan had placed the bassinet down on the living room floor with cautious ceremony: There! Home! Straight away, Keely had padded up to investigate. She sniffed it slowly. It was a rented bassinet, and probably came with the smells of countless other people. She worked her way around it and then something had happened—Chester had snuffled in his sleep, or perhaps thrown an arm up—and the cat had flung herself backwards into the air then fled under the couch.

The recrimination lasted for weeks.

Or at least, it had felt like that, when she was up feeding Chester in the middle of the night—all those long, dark hours piling up—and Keely had come to sit on the arm of the couch to watch with reproachful eyes. “What have I done?” she asked the cat one night, her voice breaking under the weight of her exhaustion. What could Keely know about motherhood? She’d been desexed back at the shelter. She’d never seen a kitten. But even then, she seemed to know the answer well enough.

Slowly, Chester’s crying shifted from impulse to habit. She could hear it as she stroked his hair. It was in the suck, she decided. It was in the ragged pull of each new breath into his body. She could tell. He was finding his rhythm again.

The room took on the sepia smell of scalded milk.

She suspected Chester was enjoying his crying now, and the cuddle. He didn’t want to move. She bit her lip. Did she have the heart for it? She did. She stood up, the great mass of him still held to her chest, and tried to set him on his feet. “Let me have a look,” she said.

She took his hand in hers and gently lifted it from his cheek. His face was blotchy and slick and there, travelling along his cheek were two red lines, the blood already hardening into beads. It wasn’t deep. It would be a lesson, wouldn’t it?

How did other people know where these lines were? There were hundreds of them, every day, every kind you could imagine. Some she stepped over, like cracks in the pavement. Others she walked straight into, their spider-silk sticking to her face and catching in her hair like threads of quiet punishment. Oh, what have I done? Did I do it right?

The cat regarded her from the stool, her paws neatly folded back underneath her body and the fur fluffed out over the sides of her collar—that sign of feline disgruntlement. Keely had no time for such questions. What did cats care about consensus?

She gently prised the boy from her legs, just sniffling now, and went to turn off the stove. Because that was what she’d done, wasn’t it? She’d interrupted everything: the porridge, her sleep, her thoughts. Things that she didn’t realise could be broken now lay in pieces around her, and every day was a scramble to gather what she could. Anything she made of herself was an assembly of small moments. It’s possible she’d never been quite whole, but there had been a bulk to her once, a sense of solidity. Now the only thing that seemed to hold was her love.

Chester hung off her legs as she served up the porridge and poured on the milk. It would be too hot for him. She stirred, and the steam rose. On the other side of the kitchen island, Keely tucked her nose down and closed her eyes. Calm settled.

When they’d first got her, they’d let her come and go as she pleased. They’d leave the balcony door open a few inches so she could go sun herself on the rain-blackened square of concrete outside, or even jump down onto the letterbox below and then to cat freedom. And then, when they had to go to work, they locked it, leaving Keely on whichever side she happened to find herself.

Then their neighbour had been robbed. He’d fronted up in his boxer shorts and grabbed a knife from the kitchen sink. He’d ended up in hospital. The burglar, of course, had never been caught. Now their front door had a proper brick of a deadlock, and the sliding door to the balcony had a sawn-off length of broomstick wedged in its track.

Even then, she’d opened it to let Keely out. It seemed important that Keely go be a cat, to prowl and bury her business and eat Indian Mynas. Most nights they locked her in and she circled instead into a comfortable kind of resignation on their doona.

But some evenings she didn’t come back and Keely spent the whole night outside. Chester was still little then. She didn’t have the energy to care. But one night Keely had been attacked and had slid in the next morning dragging a bloody paw and a string of vet bills behind her. It could’ve been any of the dogs. There were enough of them. The block was full of trophy breeds with fat muscled jaws and heavy barks. That was the thing about finding an apartment in Sydney that still accepted pets. It was like stumbling on a rotting carcass in paddock; eventually the smell of it brought out the predators.

Of course, they could have lied to the real estate agents about the cat. Everyone else did. They could have lied and found themselves an apartment where the carpet wasn’t stained, and the lot out front still had grass. But Ivan had a thing about honesty. And work. He was always working so hard. It had seemed sweet to begin with. Now she barely saw him.

Keely’s blood never really came out of the carpet, even though she tried two different kinds of cleaning foam. She’d bought a square of acrylic carpet from the discount shop and put it over the mark by the sliding door. It sat there, a constant reminder of their dwindling bond money, and Keely had become an indoor cat.

Chester took his time with the porridge. She reheated her tea in the microwave and watched him as he spooned it in, his elbows high and wild. When he’d had enough, he stood and picked up his bowl. Leftover milk slopped over the rim and splattered to the floor. He saw it and his little face turned serious. He carried it over to her with such sweet concentration. “Finished,” he said, reaching it out to her. She felt him watching her face and she gave him a grin. “Good job,” she said. “Now you can go and play.” He bounced with the praise, then he swung his little body around and walked straight past the dozing cat on the stool. He stepped over the metal strip that marked the end of the kitchen lino and the start of the living room carpet and she saw him pause to let out a slow, meditative fart. She watched his head roll sideways with the thoughtful pleasure of it, then she went back to the sink. She wiped out the milk-slime and put his bowl on the rack, and turned back to see him settled in the corner, squatting in front of the massive, three-storey toy garage her mother-in-law had bought him. It was a grand gift and an ostentatious gesture: a way of saying move out and buy a proper house. Yes, she understood Ivan’s mother well enough, but it wasn’t that simple.

Over his shoulder, she could see a plastic doll wedged firmly in the middle level of the garage. The sequence of sound effects—the vrooms and crashes and oh no’s—told her how Chester was trying to clear the blockage. She watched his back, then she sighed and gathered up what time she could and turned it into a basket of folded washing and a half a scrubbed toilet.

It was a lot. She’d done well. Her thoughts even had time to float back together and coalesce into something. She sieved the pieces from the morning flowing around her and drifted and worked. It felt good, or as good as it ever could with a bottle of Toilet Duck.

She scrubbed, her hair swinging across her face, until she noticed him standing in the bathroom doorway, watching her. “Cat money,” he said.

She knelt back on her heels, resting the brush on the bowl, and looked at him properly then. “What, honey?”

“Cat money, mummy.” And he held out the little metal disc on Keely’s collar, the leather strap dangling down with a tinkle of the bell.

“Honey, that’s Keely’s,” she said. They weren’t the right words, but they were the only ones she could find. Her hands felt sweaty in the pink gloves.

“Cat money,” he said again.

“Yes,” she said cautiously. They’d had this conversation before. She’d explained it wasn’t real money. She didn’t want to go through it again. Then she felt the line pass under her, the crack of a lie that would no doubt need to be papered over later. “But that’s Keely’s money,” she said. “Where’s Keely, honey?”

He looked at her slowly, then his face crumpled in one of its quicksilver grins. The twin red lines on his face bent and then settled into their curve on his cheek. “My money,” he said. “My money, mummy.”

She cursed herself then. She must have vagued out. She should have been listening. She waited, as though there was still some chance he could explain what was happening. But Chester said nothing. He held the cat’s collar close to his chest and stared at the little brass name plate. Keely, it said, and then gave her mobile number in neat, Italianate numbers. She knew exactly because she was the one who’d had it engraved. What did he even think he could buy with it? Or did he just think it was enough that it was treasure?

Then she remembered Keely. Her unease started to piece itself together. How had he gotten it off her? She peeled the gloves off and stood up, squeezing past her quiet, happy son and into the hall. She felt it immediately: the chill of the spring day reaching out to wind a finger through the curls at the base of her neck. The door was open.

She saw the broomstick lying on the floor.

Oh, she thought. Her same old useless mantra. Oh, oh, oh.

No. She hadn’t realised he could be so clever, or so quick. She saw it then. She saw how he’d lifted the broomstick from its dusty track, flicked the lock and pulled the door open. He’d let the fresh air lure the cat down—the smell of freedom. And then he’d pinned her down.

The two halves of her brain detached then, uncoupling like train carriages in that heinous cartoon Chester liked to watch. They shunted off in different directions—one towards her son and the words she would have to marshal to talk to him about responsibility and pets and not opening that door, okay; the other towards the balcony and its rusted railing. It clattered into the steel and hung there, teetering over the three-metre drop to the letterbox and the dirt and the scrappy little hibiscus bush.

Keely wasn’t there.

She was gone.

She looked up then, into the suburban street she thought she knew so well. It seemed somehow more complicated now. That single straight line broke off into a thousand sudden branches and driveways and dark hollows. No. There was no telling where the cat had gone.

Chester joined her on the balcony then, wrapping his little hands around the powdery, red fretwork. Was it strong enough to hold him? She didn’t know, so her hand found his shoulder and gently eased him back. She looked out into the street and listened to the dogs bark, calling out their dominance over the neighbourhood. It was almost time for his nap.

“Mummy?”

She would come back. Of course. Of course, she would. But the thought wouldn’t settle.

She didn’t want to wait.

She wheeled Chester around and guided him back inside, sliding the door shut and kicking the broomstick back into place. She led him past his bedroom, down to the shoe rack in the hall, and sat him on the floor. She found his shoes, and her own, and the keys. Then she set him back on his feet and reached for his hand again.

She held onto it, warm and wriggling in hers, and she took him with her to look.

 

 

ENDS