Sardines and sprats – that’s what they liked. The smell was irresistible. They’d approach and retreat. Eventually, one would pad in, too hungry for sense. Even then, once they were lured, it didn’t snap shut. They had to walk right through and put their full weight on the plate.
Watching from the car, I’d dread it, wanting it over. Setting up the trap, my breath would snag somewhere in my neck. I’d assure myself I was doing the right thing, that none could become friendly pussycats, curled up by the fire. That this was a job that had to be done.
All the while, I’d be wishing I’d never seen the little bastards at all.
It started the way most things start, the way it started with Glen and the dope and every other thing in my life. Pure bloody accident. Five feline heads watching as I parked in the Safeway car park, between the crappy garden and the road. They bobbed up from behind a low wall, cute as a button, charming as gangrene. One black, a brown and white, a grey and two tabbies. As soon as I saw them, I knew I shouldn’t have looked.
I’d gone shopping for dinner – carrot, potatoes and pumpkin for a curry, keeping the organic, vegetarian diet they’d made us eat at the detox. Coming back to the car, a small feline face peeped up, then another and another.
Not again, I thought. Go home! Must have escaped on the way to the vet’s. Some klutz opened their car door and they’ve all leapt out.
Except no-one was there. The kittens watched me; as one bobbed down, another couple bobbed up. Like meerkats, with their jerky movements and kinetic watchfulness. I started the car and they scattered.
That night, I went to sleep and dreamt about needles. I was having a taste. Before the pick was out, the warmth suffused my body, dense softness oozing down my veins. But it turned cool, then freezing cold. I bolted upright, with numb fingers and toes. A bead of sweat fell in my eyes. I felt like I was in a fridge, detoxing again.
I was brittle and flimsy, put a finger to my chest and I would’ve fallen over. Five years I’d spent, jolted around by an idiot wind, a tsunami of stupidity. Heroin, mostly, and black market opium. God bless those Tassie farmers, growers of the poppies.
I don’t know why I did it. It was me who asked Glen, he never offered. I had an arts degree and a nice family and no skeletons in my closet. I guess you could say I was just looking for new sensations, unstoppably curious like those bloody cats.
The novelty soon wore off. Life became a grind, from one hit to the next. I was down to stealing from my friends. Instead of highways and streets, my city map comprised places we’d scored and deals that had gone sour.
I was human sea wrack washed up on a beach. I was so, so tired. I had to change, shed my old skin, expose the cowering softness within. I needed somewhere quiet, without colour or shade. Somewhere I could whittle away at a new life, minute-by-minute, day by slow day.
My brother had the solution, as he always did. They needed someone at the city hospital where he worked. I became a dictation typist for three medical specialists. I met them and we shook hands politely; they had palms like soft butter. I never saw them again.
The job wasn’t bad. I sat at a desk in a quiet corner with no phone. I took breaks when I wanted. I went to the cafeteria and had the casserole for lunch. I never saw my brother. He knew I was grateful and we left it at that.
Every day I turned on the computer and threaded headphones into my ears. Pressing the foot pedal, I listened to the dictaphone and entered details about each patient. 14 April 2005. Mrs Luba Rubinstein. Date of birth: 4/11/1925. Medicare number: 3038-54328-1. Inpatient: 2/4/05 to 12/4/05. History. Diagnosis. Prognosis. With kind regards.
Admitted with a seropositive polyarthritis requiring treatment with steroids and immuno-suppression complicated by unstable diabetes. Past history of Alzheimer’s disease, aortic stenosis, osteoporosis. A widow living alone.
The language was clinical. An old bag kicking up a fuss was soothed to ongoing difficulties with verbal aggression at times.
One day at the caf, I bought a coffee and took out my book. Rachel from Five East wandered over and gestured to the empty chair.
‘Mind if I join you?’
I’d been there three months and knew Rachel’s story. She had three dogs, five tattoos, a boyfriend and a lover. She lived with her half-sister. Their mother was some kind of animal rights freak who went on ‘missions’, breaking into egg farms and bringing home sick chooks that died within the week.
‘Sure. How’s your mum?’
‘Oh. Bit snowed under. There’s a couple of actions at Craigieburn this weekend she’s gotta lead but she’s still trying to catch feral cats down near some football ground.’
‘Really? Which football ground?’ I don’t know why I bothered.
‘Oh, the Douglas McSomething ground. Over in North Melbourne. About 20 feral cats.’
‘You’re kidding. Twenty? That’s a lot.’
‘Yeah, well, they’re like rabbits. Pregnant twice a year. Then the kittens can have more kittens at only four months. Plus some idiot woman’s been trapping them, desexing, then letting them go.’
‘How the hell d’you know that?’
Rachel sighed. ‘Because Mum caught her one night. The dumb bitch feeds them as well.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ I was getting drawn in.
‘Christ, you don’t know much, do you? Feeding cats keeps them strong and healthy. It helps them reproduce.’
‘But what about the wildlife? Wouldn’t cats kill more birds if you didn’t give them food?’ Fuck knows how but I’d heard of this stuff.
‘Listen. A cat’s got instincts. Even well-fed kitties will hunt birds or possums. For fun. That’s their nature.’ She grabbed her bag and fished out her cigarettes. ‘Let’s go outside. I need a smoke.’
Something beckoned, like a dark corridor in front of me.
Rachel lit up and we lounged against a tree. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘Mum’s pretty pissed off. She doesn’t know which are desexed and which aren’t. She reckons she’s just gotta bite the bullet and get rid of them all.’
‘Couldn’t you take them to a vet and get him to check?’
‘Are you kidding? These babies won’t let you touch them.’ She sighed then spoke slowly. ‘They’re wild. They’ll climb a wall and hang on three metres off the ground. They’re like lizards. No way. I’ve seen ’em.’ She ground out her cigarette and threw the butt in a pot plant.
Walking to the lift, she brightened up. ‘Did I tell you I’m getting a new tattoo? I’m gonna get an eagle.’
They were there again that night. I got out to have a closer look. Three came out of the scrappy agapanthus and sat down. The black one had draped itself in a tree, a lion in Africa. The grey one, bigger and furrier, had pretty white paws. ‘That is the mother’ chimed in my head. Why did people get pets? Suddenly I knew. It was the way they made you think you had something in common.
Next day at work, I got Rachel’s mother’s number. Her name was Ruth and she had plenty of traps. ‘You’re doing the right thing, you know.’ She was kindly but brutal. ‘Look, if you know about this, you have to act. Either you’re part of the problem or you organise the solution.’
The first one was the worst. The thrashing nearly did me in. In an instant, it was furious, bashing its body against the steel bars. Like a firecracker, it ricocheted madly off the sides. At that moment, it was nothing but its animal frenzy. I longed not to have trapped it. But it was too late for that. The cats were like a legal process that begins with arrest for parking fines and ends in Kafkaesque nightmare. I was bent on it. I couldn’t stop.
It’s not that I mind cats. We had one when I was a kid. It came from a farm – used to claw you in the night when it slept on your bed. Climbed into wardrobes and spread hair on your clothes. One time it almost died – someone shut the door and forgot. Stupid cat didn’t make a sound.
Sometimes I wonder: if I’d known about the smell of sardines and how it would linger in my car, how it would become the stink of death, would I have gone through with it? I was so piss-weak. I did it, and kept on doing it, every couple of nights. Weak with adrenaline, I’d draw a rug over the trap and the creature would calm down.
The first night, I went home and stashed the trap in the garage. I lifted the rug and peered in at the cat. It crouched in the middle, the tin of fish nearby not even touched.
Everything sounded louder, like a prison – the hollow clang of the slammed car door, the clank of my footsteps receding on the concrete. I rang the council and asked for the animal officer.
I climbed back in the car. The fishy smell was overpowering, like a wooden jetty in summer strewn with dead toadies no one bothers to pitch back.
When I got to his house, Glen was sitting on his faded velvet couch. His shoulders and chest looked broader. I wanted to dissolve in his bulk. Was he off the gear too? Suddenly, I didn’t care. There was nothing I liked about him except what we used each other for.
‘Busy day?’ he asked without interest. He put down his stubbie and draped his arm around my shoulders. I wiggled close and pulled down his fly.
When I met him, Glen was splendid – a lanky, wasted guy with a Valiant sedan. We bonded after a housing commission score, cooking up like slapdash chemists on the red vinyl bench seat. He drove to the cemetery where we sat on the grass, a spotted gum above us and the summer sun like an obstruction. In our stoned reverie, I’d never felt closer to another human being.
His hair hung down his back. When he slid off the rubber band, he groomed himself slowly, fingering away each snarl. His eyes glided shut and his chin dropped on his chest. I felt trapped by desire.
We were like comic book sidekicks, outlaws together. Doing laps of Russell Street, dripping with savoir faire. Were we really in it together? I wonder sometimes. I kept bursting into laughter instead of being cool. There were undercovers everywhere and it was Glen who sussed them out. It was Glen who raised his eyebrows when a gook asked sidelong, ‘Chasing?’
I began getting sick every day and Glen changed, demanding more than his share. He’d introduce me to hard-looking women I’d find sitting on his couch. He forged cheques in his father’s name. He dropped, regularly, in the toilets at pubs.
About then, I got out.
At work, people clocked in and out of our ward, patched, mollified, relieved of a burden. Mr Raj Khadra. On Donepizil and Memantidine. Familial fronto-temporal dementing process. Miss Mary Gallagher. Chest infection. Walking independently.
I was glad to be distracted from the cats. But at night, scenes returned like horror movies.
Their tails would swish as they went to inspect it. In minutes, one would enter, sniff, edge forward. When its body touched the plate, a metallic snap brought up the door. My heartbeat would double as I struggled with the trap, heavy with its tenant.
I wasn’t an avenger, a warrior for the wild. What was I doing? I was just an old junkie. The things I did for the money. The people that I hurt.
What’s vermin anyway? Animals that interfere with our ordering of life, the way we’d like nature to be? Was I atoning for bad behaviour? Righting the sadness, the wasted, wretched years? God, I was clueless. I believed that I was.
On the last night, Glen brought out some mull. His fingers scrabbled as if he was blind. As he finally lit up and took a greedy, long pull, I thought about his greasy hair and filthy socks, the fact that I’d never seen him straight.
‘Fuck this. I’ve had it. All you’ve ever want to do is get off your face. You don’t care about anything else.’
‘Where’re you going? Don’t you want a drag of this?’
‘I’m off. That stuff smells like burnt meat.’
‘It’s the cat thing, isn’t it?’
‘What the fuck would you know?’
The garage was damp and echoed like a well. I grabbed the trap and carried it to the double doors. It pitched back and forth as the cat staggered around. Sliding the metal hasp up and over the locking poles, I let the door gape. It was gone in a flash of fur.
I went to another meeting. When they asked me to share, I hesitated then stood up. My name is Donna. I kill feral cats. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
‘My name is Donna. I am an addict. I’m clean today. It’s been six months and five days and things have been hard. My sponsor tells me everything gets better. I dunno. Maybe it does. Last Saturday I went for a walk. In the park, I suddenly realised I was free. I hadn’t thought about money or scoring or being stoned. Not for hours.’
(Wild cat image on previous page via Shutterstock.)