I shivered in the line, my coat in my arms, waiting for a security officer to wave me forward. When they finally did, they gestured at the box I should load my items into and gave me a once up and down.
‘Is there an animal in there?’ They asked, abruptly, gesturing to the pet carrier I had in my hand.
‘No,’ I replied, holding it up and folding it in half. ‘It’s empty.’
They nodded, their narrowed eyebrows relaxing. They even helped me push it into my plastic tray and then along the conveyor belt where I would meet it on the other side.
I rushed through, reaching for my coat as soon as it was free of their x-rays and pulled it on, along with my favourite scarf, which was soft and thick and smelled like Willow.
‘She’s a dream!’ Kate had said. Holding Willow up in her arms, to get a good look at her. Her little grey fluffy body bulged, the vivid pink of her paws just peeking through on her fluffy feet.
She placed her down on her husband, Matt’s, lap. Willow yawned, a tiny kitten yawn that spread out over her round face.
Matt stroked her gently with two fingers as she curled up on him.
‘She’s had a long journey.’ He laughed, and I laughed too, with them.
The journey hadn’t been very long. I had definitely travelled further and for longer to deliver my precious cargo to people all over Europe. Dusseldorf to London wasn’t even two hours on a plane, and all of my cats were expertly socialised, meaning that, even if I had to send them on their own, they were always angelically behaved for their courier. Or their ‘chauffeurs’ I would joke with my sister.
‘Thank you so much Sonja.’ Kate beamed at me again.
‘Thank you,’ I shook my head. ‘You are going to give her a wonderful home here.’
Kate and Matt shared a look at this.
It was a great match. Newly weds in a new house, ready to add another into the mix. And there was no denying how comfortable Willow was on Matt’s lap.
I felt a tinge, in the pit of my stomach. Like someone was tugging a deep thread from my belly to my throat. But I smiled through the discomfort.
When we had gone through the basics, her food and toys and health information, we let Willow take a little tour of the house, stopping short at the stairs. Sitting at the bottom, she just stared up, like a climber assessing their summit. She was just taller than the first step, but hesitant.
‘She’ll be up and down them before you know it.’ I laughed. ‘She’ll get right under your feet when you least expect it.’
She had slept until take off, her little beady eyes tight shut. Then as we reached peak altitude, she began to speak and stretch in the carrier. Her tiny meows travelled up between my legs, but with a few coos and hushes, she was still again.
Kate and Matt had met us at the airport and driven us back to their home in Reading. I hadn’t visited Reading before. London, quite a few times and Scotland. But I’d never been to many of the more rural areas in the UK.
This was one of the reasons I liked them so much. I tried to get to know my potential parents as well as possible and they had been so enthusiastic from the first email. They had fallen in love with Willow on my Instagram and were happy to do whatever it took to have her.
Even so far as to give me Face-Time tours of their house and fly me to London. I could have sent Willow with a service, but they were adamant that they wanted her to be accompanied by someone who would love and protect her the entire way. That was really what I looked for., people who would love the cats as much as I did.
They were open-minded, not afraid to ask silly questions and I put them at the top of the list for Willow right away.
The four of us drove back to the airport that evening.
‘You must be starving!’ Kate had said suddenly, as we made our way out of the door.
‘It’s fine.’ I held up my hands.
‘Shall we get you something?’
‘We can go to Tesco?’ Matt added.
‘Honestly I’m fine.’ I nodded. ‘I ate on the flight.’
In truth I wasn’t hungry at all. As nice as Matt and Kate were, I wanted to be free of them now. Alone. Away from their overwhelming joy that only grew as the afternoon went on.
An emptiness had filled me, stopping me from feeling hunger and much else. Except perhaps, fatigue.
‘I will eat again on the plane.’ I confirmed. Hoping this would ease their worry and need for politeness.
She had been the smallest of her litter. The last one born. Her first little breaths slower and raspier than her siblings. I had stayed up through the night, through her mother’s labours, until they had all arrived. Only when Willow perked up, joined her siblings and her breathing became normal, did I finally let myself fall asleep on the couch beside them.
Matt parked up at the drop off point. Kate and I had both sat in the back, with little Willow between us.
For the last time, I unzipped her carried and pulled her up to me. I pressed her body to my chest, placing kisses all over her head, and inhaling deeply, before handing her over to Kate.
‘Thanks again.’ Kate said. Her heart bursting with so much love it shined through her face.
‘Thank you.’ I replied. ‘Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you ever have any problems.’
They both nodded.
‘Have a safe journey.’ Matt said.
‘It was great to meet you both.’ I said, opening the door and getting out of the car. ‘Bye!’ I called one last time, waving at Willow, before slowly closing the car door and turning away.
Taking a deep inhale of the crisp British air, I pushed my feet forward. Each stride a little further, not looking back, just heading toward the bright signs for Departures.
Just over an hour later, we began to board at my gate.
I hadn’t been waiting there long. After I had all my belongings safely on my body and back, I left security and made my way through the duty-free shops.
I let myself stop and browse in them all. I wasn’t going to buy anything. I just wanted to smell all the perfumes, try on all the sunglasses and distract from the hollowness that had spread out through my chest.
It was a feeling I was so familiar with. A feeling I knew now how to put off… at least until I was back in the privacy of my home. A feeling I would never truly get used to.
It was a gut-wrenching sadness but made lighter by a sheer joy. The concept that I was losing a loved one, but that they were beginning an incredible new life.
As we sat on the runway, I did deep inhales of my scarf. Picturing Willow immediately and her mother curled up together. I remembered her siblings too, that I still felt a devastating loss for. But also, the proud, happy fulfilment, that I had brought so much joy to other people’s lives.
I let a tear escape, before opening my phone and scrolling through Instagram. Amongst the recent likes I had been tagged in a post. It was the photo I had taken of Kate and Matt before leaving: they sat cosy together as they held Willow up between them. Giant, candid smiles gleaming, and little Willow curious and squishy.
‘She’s finally here.’ The caption read.
And she finally was, I thought, letting relief flood through me. I rose back to the sky, the twinkling lights of London fading behind me.