There was a stink around. A pong. Mum had that sour look on her face she got when she hadn’t decided how mad she would get about something yet. Sort of angry and confused but like she might just decide to have a laugh instead. Imagine biting into an orange then realising it’s a lemon, that’s what her face looked like. Mum said the septic tank was on the fritz. That might sound funny but it didn’t smell funny. Not funny ha-ha anyway. The septic tank was one of Dad’s sometimes jobs, which also included changing light bulbs and putting lizards outside. He couldn’t fix the septic tank because he was at his all-the-time job and so we’d have to wait until he came home. I was off school for the holidays but I didn’t know how to fix the septic tank.

Mum was staring. Sometimes when she thought nobody was looking she would just stare for a while. One day Dad saw her staring and asked where she’d gone and she said she was miles away. It sounded like the start of a joke but I didn’t get it. Mum was born in England so maybe she was thinking about going back there. I’d like to go to England. We learned about the Queen at school.

I think Mum liked missing Dad. Before I was old enough for school, before Vi was born, Mum and me would watch the clock all day while Dad was at work. Everything seemed to be in his honour. I’d help Mum wash Dad’s clothes, we’d go to the shop to get the things for Dad’s dinner, we’d dust Dad’s chair and set his paper alongside it. Mum would talk about Dad and make out like it was for my benefit. ‘Your father will be having his lunch, your father will be in his meeting, your father will be home soon.’ It was fun to see Mum make such a fuss and it let me know Dad was an important man and worthy of our devotion. Then, just when it seemed like we’d both expire from grief, he’d come through the door and we’d run to him like a couple of desperate dogs.

But before long Mum would be banging pots in the kitchen and pretending she couldn’t hear when Dad offered one of his useful observations about the world. I’d be sitting in my room or playing in the yard, having answered his questions about my day. I once asked Dad what he did at work all day and he said ‘make money.’ I imagined him hitting at coins with a hammer and cutting banknotes from large sheets of paper and couldn’t think of any other questions about his job. Don’t get me wrong. It was nice when Dad was around. It was. He was quiet like me but he was good at making jokes and always brought home a treat for me and Vi (once she was born). A bag of licorice, a chocolate éclair. Then he’d sit in the chair we’d dusted and read the paper we’d set, and eat the dinner we’d bought and the next day he’d wear the clothes we’d washed and he’d go make money. Then we’d miss him all over again. Mum called it a routine and said it was close to Godliness. I think Mum was happiest when nothing unexpected happened. The time I broke my arm I almost wished I hadn’t told her, she was that put out about it. Which is why I felt a bit nervous that morning. It was like Mum was expecting the unexpected.

Anyway she sent me and Vi outside. She said there was already enough of a stench in the house without us hanging around. I took the bell with me in case Ostrich was around. Ostrich had been gone five days by then. I knew Mum was worried because she wouldn’t say anything about him. For a couple of days Vi and me made a search party and investigated the neighbouring areas, being the backyard and the scrub beyond it.

We never got as far as the creek because Ostrich hated water and I used my powers of deduction to rule it out as a possible hideaway. It was hard going when your search party was only two people and one of them was a five year old girl. Vi was alright but she got distracted. I’d be in my usual position, under the coolibah where Ostrich would spend his afternoons, purring and mewing and generally making it obvious it was still a perfect place for him to return to, then I’d look around and see Vi poking at some earthworms or watching a dragonfly, instead of looking out for Ostrich. So it was hard going.

Tom Devaney came round on the second afternoon but he wasn’t much help either. As I saw it, if we wanted to bring Ostrich back we needed to think like a cat. Unfortunately, Tom was sorely lacking in feline qualities. His arms and legs had grown and his body hadn’t caught up yet, so he sort of loped around like a skinny gorilla. He made more noise standing still than the average person would make running blindfolded through a tea shop. Still, it was good to have a bit of extra help, so I didn’t complain. Tom went home with a bee sting after a couple of hours so I didn’t have to do the dirty business of discharging him myself.

It’s better to stay on good terms with people even if they are a bit useless. I believe that and try to live by it when I can. Tom was a couple of years older than me but he was always coming round. He lived across the street with his parents. He was their only child so it became established early on that I should be his brother. Which of us was the older brother changed depending on the game. If we were playing a strategy game, like trying to lure a cat by pretending to be cats, I was in charge. If it was something more muscular, like building a rope bridge between the trees for crossing the creek, Tom was the boss. That second type of game is how I ended up with a broken arm. Vi was always the little sister regardless of the game. That’s not to say Vi was bad company. We played lots of games together, just the two of us, and she was pretty good at all of them.

One of our best games was Burke and Wills, who I learnt about at school. We’d usually only do the death scene, as this was the most dramatic part and had the best picture in the workbook. I’d play Burke and Vi would play John King. She’d sit quietly and wait until I died, which took quite a while. Sometimes I’d have to break character and give her some direction if she was lacking solemnity, though generally the sounds of the creek and the late afternoon light kept us in the right mood. I never played Wills because he died alone and there didn’t seem to be much point in that as a game.

After a couple of days we got bored looking for Ostrich, so when Mum sent us out that morning I rang the bell and called for him but my heart wasn’t in it. Vi wandered off. After a bit I stopped calling: I didn’t think Ostrich knew his name was Ostrich. I stood next to one of the big old trees Tom and me sometimes scratched messages into and watched a trail of ants get trapped in sap. Should I help them? It was no use. The ants probably knew what they were getting themselves into anyway.

Then Vi was alongside me and I nearly jumped out of my bones. She was very good at sneaking even when she didn’t mean to sneak. Dad used to call her ‘little ghost,’ which made us laugh and turned into a game we’d play, where Vi haunted us while we were discussing world events or cutting our toenails, with the point being that the haunting happened right when we least expected it. Mum wouldn’t play the game. She’d normally go quiet or leave the room. I think she’s scared of ghosts, even pretend ones. One time Vi scared her so much while she was cleaning the curtains that she told us we couldn’t play anymore.

I was about to say ‘shoo Vi, don’t bother me’, which was my favourite thing to say to her if I wanted to be mean but not really mean, then I stopped because she looked so serious. Mostly she was very silly and got overexcited about things that weren’t even exciting. So, when I saw her being truly serious I got serious right back. She held my hand and told me Ostrich was in the hidey hole and I should come look. I didn’t say anything and we walked to the hidey hole together. I watched the kitchen window as we crossed the yard to see if Mum was in there but the sun made the glass all glarey.

The hidey hole was under the laundry. Tom and me would play in there sometimes but we weren’t supposed to. It was usually for a dare since it wasn’t much fun. It was dark with a dirt floor and all the pipes from the house came out of the roof and went down into the ground. There were piles of timber and tiles that were left over from when the house was built, which was before I was born and before Mum and Dad even lived here. There were also plenty of spider webs around. I’m not a coward but one of my least favourite things is spiders. Vi didn’t mind them and she sometimes went into the hidey hole when she needed to be alone. Vi went in and I crawled after her (Vi could still stand up in there but I had to crawl these days) and I immediately noticed how bad the smell was. I thought the septic tank must be in the hidey hole but then Vi pointed to where Ostrich was and I realised the smell was him. I told Vi not to tell Mum.

Mum gets different sometimes. Like she’s gone away though she’s still there. She’ll stop singing around the house and she’ll stare a lot and when she has the choice of getting mad or having a laugh she’ll get mad more often than not. Like last year I was being a horse in the kitchen one afternoon, just trotting around and whinnying, when I knocked a bowl of almonds off the table. Mum screamed and gave me a smack and told me to clean up the mess. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem but Mum looked so cross and she’d given me such a big smack that I sort of forgot how to use the broom. I don’t know how to explain it. After a while Mum knelt down next to me and hugged me, and I was a bit wary at first but then I felt that she was crying, and I’d been crying since the smack so I just hugged her back, and we stayed like that for a long time. Then she told me I was really a good boy and sent me outside to play. All that over some almonds.

Maybe a week later Dad came home with Ostrich. He said he’d gone past the vet and saw they were selling kittens and thought why not. Since this was quite unexpected and we’d never had a pet Mum pretended to be cross but really she was delighted. Me and Vi were delighted too. Ostrich was very small, with fluffy brown and grey fur. His tail had a white tip which made him unique, Dad said. We all loved and spoilt him, and for a cat he was very affectionate and generous with his attention, though we all understood he was really Mum’s cat. Even Ostrich understood. Like any cat he’d go off on his own and spend a lot of time asleep but the rest of the time he’d spend near Mum. She’d talk to him while she hung out the washing or brush his fur with an old brush Vi and me used when we played hairdressers. We didn’t mind because we’d stopped playing hairdressers. Sometimes Ostrich would even go into the toilet with Mum. Vi and me would stand outside and meow and scratch at the door and we’d hear Mum giggling. Mum giggling on the toilet! So things were pretty good once we had Ostrich.

Which is why it was not good Ostrich was dead. I could tell that even without the smell. It was dark in the hidey hole but we could see him alright because the sun came in a bit in the afternoon. He was lying on his side with his legs spread out and his tail stuck out straight behind him. He had his eyes closed and his mouth open. Vi said it looked like he was sneezing. I said it looked like his fur was moving but Vi said that was just ants and I saw she was right. Actually he was covered in ants. There were only a couple of flies on him which I was surprised by since he smelt so bad. I couldn’t tell what had happened to him but he was only one year old and I knew even for a cat that was very young to die.

When Dad got home he put a towel over Ostrich and took him out of the hidey hole. Mum said she was glad it wasn’t the septic tank but she was crying and she went to bed before dinner. Dad had told Mum about him being dead even though I asked him not to. Dad got an old shoebox and put Ostrich in it, after he’d gotten all the ants off. Then he dug a little hole under the coolibah and put the shoebox in the hole. Me and Vi helped. We said goodbye to Ostrich but it felt strange. We were saying goodbye to a dead cat in a box. I told Dad the dead cat wasn’t the same as Ostrich and he said that was an astute observation. He said death is an undiscovered country. I know he didn’t mean an actual country because we have a world map at school and they’ve all been discovered already, even the ones where nobody lives. But it was nice to think Ostrich was just on holiday. He could meet an actual ostrich!

Where did Ostrich go?

I asked Dad if his soul had gone to God like baby Oliver but he didn’t say anything. Oliver was the baby Mum and Dad had before I was born. Maybe Dad didn’t know. It would be alright if he didn’t know. Maybe Ostrich had decided not to go to God and he’d gone on an adventure to Antarctica instead. Though that would be far too cold for a cat even if the cat was a ghost. Wherever Ostrich was I knew he was far away. He wasn’t the same as the dead cat under the tree but it was nice to have a place to remember him. Later on, Vi made a cross for the grave out of some sticks. We put flowers there when it felt like Ostrich’s birthday, or whenever we felt like it really.

Mum still stares sometimes. Usually she’ll be looking out the kitchen window but I can tell she’s not really looking. She’ll just stand there with a quiet look on her face. She looks like Vi those times. Sometimes Dad will come up behind her and put his arms around her and they’ll look out the window together. Then after a while Mum will sigh and sort of laugh and say she’s fine. She’ll say she was miles away.

Where does she go?

 

 

Robert Johnson

Rob Johnson is a writer and actor based in Sydney. He is a winner of the Hal Porter Short Story Prize and the Best of Times Short Story Competition, and has previously been shortlisted for the Hachette Australia and John Marsden Prize for Young Writers. He was the lead writer of live sketch comedy shows Fat On Purpose (Giant Dwarf) and The Recidivists (Red Line). As an actor, Rob's recent credits include The Torrents (Sydney Theatre Company), Calamity Jane (Belvoir) and Spamalot (One Eyed Man).

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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