Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: A.S. Tiefholz
When I was a student nurse-midwife, my cousin Sian arrived back from the United States and moved in with me in Thornbury. I was renting a dinky little weatherboard joint in those days. Two bedrooms, large living-dining area with a gas heater, and godawful swirly brown carpet throughout. The hideousness of the carpet was not without its advantages, though. You could spill Milo, hommus and a slice of custard tart with extra nutmeg, and no-one would be any the wiser. That carpet seemed to soak it all up and ask for seconds. By way of apology for the flooring, there were some rather pretty leadlight effects in the windows, and the seventies-style amber glass light fitting had an ornate curlicue at its base. The kitchen, however, was a shambles. It was poorly lit, badly laid out, and had faux-wood vinyl panelling from floor to shoulder height along the walls. The vintage plumbing had been installed circa 1930, and there was about a sixty percent chance on any given attempt at filling the sink that the tap would spring right off the wall and thump you in the gut. Literally and figuratively. The stove was gas, and relatively modern, which is more than could be said for the brown geometric lino that peeled from all corners and undulated with the vicissitudes of the foundation stumps. In the three years that I lived there, the cracks round the back door and pipes under the sink gradually sagged further open, beaten into submission by a series of springtime storms, hot summers, and the mould that withstood all attempts at its eradication. I’m glad that I was only renting, because while the block of land was quite large and well situated, the house itself was just waiting for the wrecking ball, followed by the inevitable construction of one townhouse too many on the site.
Tacked onto the back was what the agent had described in the leaflet as a possible third bedroom or “sleepout”. It was not a term with which I was familiar, other than the Winter Sleepout, an annual fundraiser to help the homeless. The homeless probably would have been none too impressed with the prospect of sheltering in this edifice. It would more accurately have been described as a “shed” or, if you were inclined towards embellishment, a “storage facility”. Messrs Real Estate Pty Ltd clearly had much more fertile imaginations than I. It was a jerrybuilt lean-to, with cracked glass panel windows and a leaky roof. I believe it was erected over the course of a weekend by the landlord’s father, Johnny, with scant regard for council permits and other such impediments of legality and safety. Bugger that. Johnny had also turned his versatile hand to a pair of companion pieces in the backyard, namely a garage and a bungalow. What that man couldn’t do with a stack of asbestos and a nail gun wasn’t worth doing. To give credit where it’s due, though, there was a rather charming plum tree in the centre of the yard, which was home to a golden orb spider, which was quite stunning for an evening’s entertainment round the barbecue. There was also a fecund lemon tree next to the bungalow, which yielded a pretty impressive crop each year. Between the garage and bungalow was a vegetable patch. I took to this weed-infested plot with a great deal of Charlie Carp-fuelled enthusiasm, installing tomatoes, basil, broccoli, lettuce, strawberries and, in a fit of inspiration, pumpkins. This was before I learned that my thumbs were about as green as the vinyl panelling in the kitchen. The snails were extremely grateful for my efforts, and everything else succumbed to the elements. No amount of compost, water, weeding and encouraging conversations would get the plants to come up with the goods. Except the pumpkins, which damn near took over the entire street.
The mice were already longterm tenants of the address when I moved in. Accordingly, they thumbed their whiskered noses at any and all efforts I made to persuade them to move. I enclosed foodstuffs in hermetically sealed containers. I kept a clean house, such as it was. I resorted to traps, poison, sonar, you name it. The little bastards barely paused from their favourite activities of eating through noodle packets (although, oddly, declining the actual noodles), shredding newspaper and noisily engaging in rampant sexual activity at midnight. Whoever coined the term “quiet as a mouse” clearly never lived in a house where they were so firmly entrenched. They reproduced with alacrity and left unsavoury evidence of their existence all over the place.
So when Sian moved in, and tabled the suggestion of adopting a cat, it seemed a fine idea. A fierce mouse destroyer and faithful feline companion rolled into one. To top it off, by making our altruistic way out to the Greensborough Cats’ Home, we would be saving a poor stray from a savage fate. Moral brownie points. Sian thought it best to get a cat that was a year or two old, as it would have developed a bit more sense than a brandspanking kitten, and would be more inclined to settle in and chill out.
At ten o’clock the next morning, we drove to the benevolent cages to allow an orphaned cat to choose us as his / her adoptive family. More accurately, we were after an “it”. We didn’t have many prerequisites, but a surgically altered set of gonads was one of them. Sian also fancied a ginger cat. I believe it had something to do with a story that held a particular childhood fondness for her. I was more than happy to have a ginger, because they say that pets and their owners start to look like each other, so I figured this cat and I would be off to a flying start. After a great deal of browsing and trying on for size – “Does having this cat on my lap make my bum look big?” – we finally settled on a de-nutted tom, ginger as per the game plan. Sian had a burning desire to name him Tinker, which seemed reasonable enough to me. She invested in a feed tray, pet bed, and a collar with bell, for the benefit of the local birdlife. She also shelled out to have Tinker microchipped, to ensure his safe return to us in the event of his wandering into the unfamiliar terrains of Northcote or Preston. She nominated herself as the official guardian, with me as the emergency contact. I imagine this was lest both Sian and Tinker were in a terrible accident, her being unable to give consent for Tinker’s life-saving surgery, although my chief concern would have been with Sian’s wellbeing. There was no doubt that while I would be a kindly step-parent, the real nuts and bolts of Tinker’s intellectual and moral education would be Sian’s domain.
With the formalities out of the way, I was running late for lectures, so Sian dropped me off at the university, and continued home to acquaint Tinker with his new abode.
A couple of hours later, my phone beeped in a text message. The lecturer looked in my direction, glaring daggers. I surreptitiously read the blue glow in my lap.
“If u wer a cat, where wd u hide?”
“Undr bed/couch. S/where warm. Lndry? Windos opn?”
I switched the phone to meeting mode and returned my attention to the finer details of administering a blood transfusion. A few minutes later, my pocket vibrated.
“Windos & doors shut. Vanishd. WTF?”
“Will b home @ 4. Will look thn.”
When I arrived home, Sian was in a state of mild agitation.
“I’ve looked everywhere. I don’t know where he could’ve gotten to.”
As you do in these situations, the clear course of action is to look in all the same places as the previous person. Because you never know. At least in looking for a cat, there is a small amount of justification in this. A cat can, after all, move about at will. When looking for keys or spectacles, this is a far less likely possibility. But there is a human urge to go and “have another look, just in case”. This invariably annoys the first seeker, because if the keys had slipped down the back of the couch, they’d have found them when they looked there, dammit, and your having a look is hardly going to make them bloody materialise out of nowhere, is it? However, Sian took my efforts with the good grace in which they were offered.
We looked in bedrooms, bathroom, toilet, kitchen, round the back of the fridge, on top of shelves, in cupboards. No Tinker, but a distasteful quantity of mouse droppings. We tried laundry baskets and even inside the washing machine. This occurred to me because before I was born, our family had had a cat, imaginatively named Blackie, who had climbed into the clothes dryer, post-cycle, for the warmth. While Sian and I did not have a dryer, we did have a barely functional toploader which might conceivably be regarded as a hiding place for an adventurous tom. But Tinker was nowhere to be found.
We decided to put the search on hold and have dinner. Sian optimistically thought the smell of cooking might lure Tinker from his hiding place. But no dice. After dinner, we went into the loungeroom to watch a bit of telly. As I retrieved the fallen remote from down the back of the credenza, I heard a soft, but definite, mew. There was Tinker, crouched tremulously inside the casing of a stereo speaker. I gently reached in and pulled him out, stroking the top of his head.
“Look who I found,” I told Sian.
She was delighted, and set about preparing him a welcome home banquet fit for a king. If the king happened to be fond of pilchards. I’m not, personally, but I’m not a king, and I hear that Royalty are known for their eclectic culinary tastes. I’m pretty sure they don’t extend as far as the Home Brand section of the pet food aisle at Coles, but who the hell am I to judge? Tinker seemed well pleased with them, so that was all that mattered.
Even at ten PM, the evening was warm, so I opened the window, ensuring that the fly screen frame was secure. I turned to the kitchen sink, and filled it up. With my back turned as I washed the dishes, I failed to notice something that the eagle-eyed Tinker had clearly seen: there was a tear in the flyscreen. One just large enough to accommodate the soaring form of a ginger cat as he leapt through and out into the freedom beyond. Too late, I saw his eyes flashing in the darkness of the backyard as he disappeared behind the bungalow. Sian raced outside, calling him back in. But Tinker was clearly a free spirit, who had no use for our soul-destroying domesticity, with its tinned pilchards and kitty litter trays. Tinker had other fish to fry and rubbish bins to scavenge.
For the next week, Sian maintained the watch for Tinker. She faithfully put food out, morning and evening. She even put his bed on the back porch, fashioning a tent over it for his shelter. I didn’t want to cloud her hope, but given he’d spent a grand total of twelve hours in our company, about seven of those in hiding, I wasn’t the least bit convinced that he regarded our house as any home that he had a duty to return to. And the mice seemed to echo my opinion. Tinker did not come back.
In due course, Sian returned to Hobart. It had nothing to do with Tinker’s disappearance. I wouldn’t want you to think she was the sort of person who would get so heartbroken about a runaway cat that she would pack her bags and rush to her mother’s home to deal with the grief. No, she had a degree to finish at UTas. A year or so later, I bought a house not far away, with no cracks and no mice. I was qualified and midwifing, and all was going well. Then, three and a half years after Tinker’s brief role in our lives, my mobile rang.
“Good afternoon, is that Sigh-Anne Devine?”
“No, it’s Astrid. Sian’s cousin. Can I help you?”
“Is Sigh-Anne available, please?”
“I’m afraid she’s moved to Tasmania. Can I help you with anything?” Clearly, this woman was unaware that mobile phones are typically in the employ of one person only.
“This is Lorraine, from the North Melbourne Cats’ Home. We’ve got your cat.”
“We’ve got your cat. He was handed in on Tuesday. When can you come and pick him up?”
“I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen hide nor hair of that cat in years,” I replied incredulously.
“Will you or Sigh-Anne be collecting the cat?” Lorraine enquired again.
“It’s not my cat, and I’m afraid Sian can’t pick him up. She’s in Tasmania,” I repeated, rather pointlessly.
“Well, you’ll need to pick him up before 4PM on Friday,” Lorraine continued.
“I’m not really in a position to have him,” I answered. I felt like Aunt Polly, in Pollyanna, refusing to take in her orphan niece. “I can talk to Sian if you like,” I added, wondering what the hell Sian was going to do about it. “She’s got a new phone number now. If you give me your number, Lorraine, I’ll have her call you.”
After I got off the phone with Lorraine, I called Sian.
“You’re never going to believe this,” I told her.
“Bugger me,” she said, when I told her. “Maybe I could have him shipped over. I’ll talk to my housemates.”
“Are you serious?” I enquired. “I thought there would be quarantine restrictions or something. You know how strict they are about bringing fruit and veg into Tasmania. How are they going to like a cat that’s fresh out of the home for strays?”
“Well, it would depend on my housemates, whether they’re happy to have him.”
“Whatever. Just give Lorraine a bell, okay? She’s expecting to hear from you in the next few days.”
With my part in the saga done, I left the matter in Sian’s hands.
The following week, I knocked off work and got my gear from my locker. I had missed four calls during the course of the day. All of them from the North Melbourne Cats’ Home. I had a series of increasingly stern voicemail messages, the first couple from Lorraine, the latter from her superior, Beryl. Apparently, Lorraine thought I was blowing her off and not taking Tinker’s wellbeing seriously enough, so she’d referred the issue up the chain and insisted that Beryl deal with my bloodymindedness. Yes, I was a deeply unpopular individual at the NMCH, the sort of heartless person who should never be entrusted with the care of a feline companion. I rang Beryl back and tried to explain that it wasn’t my cat, and that I wasn’t going to be adopting it. Beryl’s disapproval radiated down the phone line like a sonic boom.
“That’s entirely up to you, Miss Thai-ef-holes, but unless the cat is claimed by 4PM on Friday, he’ll be destroyed.”
I felt like bloody Pontius Pilate, being called upon to issue the stay of execution. I rang Sian.
“You have got to sort this out, before those Catwomen start sticking pins into a voodoo doll of me,” I told her.
“Oh yeah, sorry, I was going to give them a call this week,” she replied.
The next day, Beryl called me again.
“It seems Sigh-Anne won’t be collecting the cat, so what do you want us to do with it?” she asked point-blank.
I felt just awful about the whole mess, so I agreed to come by on Friday, to adopt this damned cat that I really didn’t want. And who, judging by our previous meeting, didn’t seem terribly keen on setting up house with me either. I mean, where the hell had he been for the last three and a half years? Wandering across Melbourne, hanging out in backyards from here to Errol Street, without so much as a phone call! And now he’d gotten himself into a serious situation and expected me to bail him out. The cheek!
So I drove over to North Melbourne on the Friday at the allotted time. Lorraine was on reception duty. I knew it was Lorraine, because she had on a name tag shaped like a Siamese, with “Lorraine” printed on it.
“Hi, I’m Astrid Tiefholz. I’m here to pick up a cat.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. Her tone was not very inviting. I figured she must really be hating me. “I’m afraid I’ve got some rather bad news for you.”
Oh shit, I thought. I’m too late. They’ve already given him the lethal injection..
“The ginger tom escaped earlier this morning as one of the handlers was transferring him. I’m terribly sorry.”
My jaw dropped. She must have thought I was awfully disappointed, because she hurried on.
“He’ll probably turn up, he is microchipped after all. And we’ll be sure to give you a call if he is handed in.”
I thanked her and left.
Tinker had done his Houdini thing again. I have a feeling I won’t be hearing from him in a hurry. Wherever he is, may his adventures be many.