The doubtful guest announced itself on a bleak Winter’s morning, the unflinching bite of foretold snow hanging heavy in the air. Amelia had wrapped herself warmly in a leather coat that had once been her grandfather’s, lined with wool, and wrestled into a pair of boots a little too small but industrious all the same, leaving the sheltered confines of the log cabin for the shed to retrieve wood. She had brought with her a dog-eared copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, hoping it might inspire her writing. One she was anxious to get reading by the blaze of a fire. But for all her aspirations for the days ahead, on this day, of all days, neither here nor there, there it sat, undeniably present, casually cleaning a front paw on the porch.
As if mornings had always been this way.
Two round, quizzical eyes gazed up at her. Amelia may even have laughed, had she been so inclined. But instead, she could only conjure one adjective to mind: Flabbergasted. The next word, like one foot feebly in front of the other: Lost...? Whether the cat, or her, or both, she couldn’t be sure. It was here. That much was plain.
“But what do you want?” she asked aloud, suddenly feeling foolish. No sooner had she spoken when the creature marched past her indoors, a confident spring in each step, to a worn Persian rug whereupon it collapsed in coy submission. A new word came to Amelia. Quite simply: Speechless.
It wasn’t that she disliked cats, per se. She’d just never had a pet. Beyond Goldie the goldfish.
“Life is too transient for pets,” her mother had told her. “Besides that, it’s unnatural.”
The kids at school all had pets. But then, Amelia had never had a dad either. Pets and fathers. Simply two of the many things her mother dismissed effortlessly with a careless wave of the hand as little more than “Social Constructs.” When Goldie had been found one morning belly up in the fishbowl, it was only to further confirm her mother’s misgivings. Later that day, Goldie had been returned to the water nymphs and river gods unceremoniously in the toilet bowl as it “should be” and the subject of pets was never mentioned again in the Young household. Nor fathers, for that matter.
But she had to do something, given the circumstances. She scanned the pantry cupboard of tinned staples until she found some pilchards, about to expire anyway. Fishing out a chipped china bowl from another cupboard, Amelia opened the tin and spilled its contents out. Gingerly, she approached the self-assured visitor with the makeshift peace-offering. So far, so good.
What would her mother have made of all of this? Amelia could only guess for her mother had died years ago, in a car accident. But Georgina Young still lived on, in many ways, a larger than life figure forever looming over what Amelia felt would’ve been a grave disappointment of how her daughter had turned out, when left to her own ineffectual devices.
Larger than life. That had been the Young women for you. Until Amelia. Nothing like her mother had wished for her in the Latin origin of her name, neither ‘industrious’ nor ‘striving.’ Otherwise Teutonic for ‘defender’. Industrious? Hardly. Striving in nothing. Defender of nothing. The unfortunate broken link in the chain.
Her grandmother, meanwhile, a trained ballet dancer in her youth, and in her older years an amateur thespian, though small in physique, could fill a room like no other, and remained the most glamorous woman Amelia had ever known. Even in her last dying days of the breast cancer that had begun to spread and slowly ravage her already petite frame. Not even Death itself could disrobe her. She “put on her face” each morning, regardless, whether at her throne – a spectacular Art Deco vanity table – or on her bad days, in bed with the help of a compact mirror gold rimmed and embedded with mother of pearl inlay. Part of a matching set with a cigarette case for her once so chic skinny Vogues that likewise blew smoke rings in the face of her illness.
If Amelia’s grandmother, the once marvellous Portia Young in full blossoming health, had been an incurable sprite, almost elfish, and the delight of all circles, Amelia’s mother, Georgina, made up for in her own brand of mischievousness and those same quicksilver eyes what she lacked in theatrical guile and a tiny dancer’s svelte frame. Not nearly one to be called ‘a delight’ – in fact she’d have balked at it – Georgina would follow in her mother’s footsteps to be an equally coveted presence for her no less flamboyant reputation at the dinner parties of those who liked to think themselves among the creative and intellectual elite. Amelia’s mother had seemed almost mythical to her.
“If you’re lucky,” her mother had said to her once, “you live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” Stolen words. But then Georgina Young had always had a way of making everything she said sound all her own. Death by motor accident. Tragically young enough and still stunning. Yes, her mother would’ve liked it that way.
Amelia’s stomach suddenly growled, bringing her back to the dreary, sparse sprawl of the cabin. She glanced up at the rudimentary clock. It was already midday. It had tick, tocked, ticked, tocked away the morning. A reliably soothing sound that usually brought Amelia solace but now, in the middle passage between reminiscing and being brought back to reality, the sound of the clock seemed momentarily alien. Secret chambers, prised open, at least enough to let a little light in, had all but stolen the start to her day.
A ruby grapefruit, halved and neatly segmented, sat on the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee cold and all but untouched. How strange time sometimes seemed, out here, in the middle of nowhere, only the birdsong to mark the dawn of a new day.
It was then that Amelia remembered one of her mother’s many mythical bedtime stories, of how, long, long ago, when the world was born, the Chinese gods had left the fate of their new creation to the superior race of cats. However, upon their return to check in on things, three times over, they had discovered, sadly, that chaos reigned. So little did the cats care for the demands of the task. The all-knowing but inherently lazy custodians, as it turned out, were instead naturally inclined to long hours sleeping in the dappled sunlight, or playing with fallen cherry blossoms, or grooming their illustrious coats and raking their impressive claws on the nearest tree. It was then that man and woman were left to be their own agents of destiny. The gods decreed that from that day onwards the matter of keeping time would be left to the cats, hoping for all that it would be a better fit for the greater good on earth.
Time. There it was again. Another of her mother’s many “Social Constructs,” of which she was constantly reminded, as if forever drummed into her. Whether Amelia cared or not anymore.
“Not linear and straightforward at all, sweetheart, no matter what those teachers tell you!” Her mother’s words came back to her.
Maybe the Chinese gods were right. Maybe cats were better arbiters of time. Knowing how to stretch time, curl it back on itself for repair, or loop it around like a figure 8 for eternity. Anything’s possible, she supposed.
She turned her attention back to her own feline conundrum. She noted the bowl of pilchards licked clean. Success. She felt a new sensation creeping up on her, though she could not quite place it. She turned again to the clean bowl. Then to the stray of motley colours tucked ever so snugly into itself like the Nautilus shell she’d once found as a child, combing the shoreline with her mother. It seemed already so very at home, nestled into the arm of the beige threadbare sofa by the barren fireplace. Once more, she struggled to name the feeling, the weird sensation that had come over her. It seemed to sit so uncomfortably, yet there it was again as a small unwilling smile turned the corners of her mouth. Happiness, she thought at last. Was that it? She wondered. Here to stay for now or not, much as the cat, only time would tell.
Tick tock. Tick tock. She thought back on the black cat wall clock in her grandmother’s kitchen, a tail for a swinging pendulum. She had cared not if her house would’ve been thought kitsch by some. Babushka dolls. Nutcracker Princes. Miniature animals cut from Russian crystal that when turned, ever so gently in the light, reflected magical broken shards of colour like some inside-out kaleidoscope. Bespoke glassware with ice-cream swirls of all shapes and sizes. Vases sprouting bunch upon bunch of bright silk flowers, almost life-like if you didn’t know any better. A jukebox in one corner. A fun-house mirror in another. It was like going to the carnival every day.
“What do you make of our new friend?” she had asked the young Amelia, serving up her famous pink and white coconut ice squares with one hand and gesturing to the new wall clock with the other.
“I like it a lot, Nana,” she had attempted, watching its upside down black question mark swing back and forth in perfect time, with a mouthful of coconut shavings and sugar and red food colouring.
“Do you know, they worshipped a cat god in Egypt,” her grandmother went on. “Bast. Or in Ancient Greece, known as Ailuros, meaning the tail that waves. Isn’t that clever?” A good memory.
Before it all.
“So?” Amelia regarded the now slumbering, softly purring creature. “How about Ailuros, eh? That’s a fine name.” But the cat dozed on, unstirring.
Amelia reached for her box of Malboroughs on the kitchen table. She had threatened many times over to quit, but who was she kidding. She tapped on the box of cigarettes, silver foil torn off the end, and drew one out, lighting it with one hand while reaching far back under the kitchen sink with the other for the ashtray’s shameful hiding place. She took a swig of her cold coffee. Best she get going on that fire. Should snow fall.
The cat suddenly woke, jolted by the crackling of the fire, springing deftly from the sofa. It began to mark its territory, rubbing itself up against any and every available surface, appraising all at its disposal with an equal semblance of proprietorship and disdain and for a moment, this sole intruder’s mere presence made her feel ill at ease and self-conscious, at once judge, jury and defender of this place she now called home.
There was little to it at all really, than the perfunctory indicators of day-to-day living. The kettle and small gas stove and even smaller gas refrigerator in the kitchen. One wall clock, the beige threadbare sofa, the faded rug, coffee and kitchen tables and small bookshelf. Had she been mad, moving so impulsively? It was true she was no stranger to solitude. At least that would serve her well.
She stubbed out her cigarette and took another from the box, lighting it up without pause, in a sigh of resignation. She hated that she could be so bloody fatalistic. She cursed herself. So unlike her mother, a woman who took destiny into her own hands like it was nothing. This was no life for a thirty six year old woman. And Georgina Young, Amelia was absolutely certain, would have told her as much. But could she make a fresh start?
She sat down and leaned back into the sofa, closing her eyes, feeling a moist touch against her cheek. The cat stood astride the arm of the sofa softly purring and rubbing its warm, whiskered face and cold nose up against Amelia’s own face, which she now realised was wet with tears.
“I must seem so very dismal to you,” Amelia turned and, for the first time since the cat’s arrival, reached out a hopeful hand to stroke the creature as it arched to her touch. But she couldn’t dwell in a heap on the sofa forever.
Amelia got to her feet and went to the bedroom, though still daydreaming.
She retrieved the few precious keepsakes of her grandmother that she hid from sight, beneath her socks and stockings, in the side left drawer of the chest. The matching set of compact mirror and cigarette case of mother of pearl inlay rimmed with gold. Her grandmother’s signature perfume, an almost empty bottle of Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée. A framed black and white of Portia Young as the Fairy Queen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And a single cream, beaded silk glove.
Amelia held the palm of the silk glove to her cheek. Next she removed the lid of the perfume bottle, inhaling and exhaling in rhythmic, steady breaths, nose close to the fragrance, growing intoxicated on the delicate notes of orange blossom, violet and spicy star anise, welcoming the caress of the soothing and inviting base of iris and soft vanilla. Finally she opened the cigarette case and drew a final long deep breath, exhaling ever so slowly into the frosty air, catching still oh so faintly her Nana’s other signature scent, the homesick embrace of that long-lingering whiff of her Vogues. Amelia gave in to nostalgia completely. Maybe it was life in the outback. Maybe the mysterious cat. Like some Dickensian ghost of days past.
She returned to the lounge and stared out the window in rapt contemplation, the world beyond all silvers and greys and muted tones. The sky moody and brooding. Like a long lost forgotten land in a fairytale. How she loved the winter, she mused as she cosied up into the corner of the sofa with her book to see that the fire was still merrily ablaze. Another small triumph for the day. She could grow accustomed to this life. And she would. And she would write. She would write, and write, and write. Like her very life depended upon it. A solemn pact was made. With the uncompromising stillness to fortify her.
“The very least anyone can ever do is try. Isn’t that right, cat?”
But Amelia had lost her audience altogether as the cat was curled up yet again on the sofa beside her, sleeping soundly and utterly oblivious to its new master.
And there it was again. However fleeting and strangely unfamiliar at first. Happiness.