My mum always said “the cats find us”. More and more, I’ve come to the conclusion Mum was right.
Table of Contents
Warning: descriptions of pregnancy loss and medical horror
Part 1: They Find Us
We’re “cat people”. It was the joke of the family, laughed about over dinners when we drowned our cheesecake slices in cream, or teased when you indulged in a midday nap in the sun. When I was kid, cracking open a can of tuna was a group activity: mum, dad, and grandma would be lured by the sight to open their own, whichever assortment of cats we had at the time crying and winding around our ankles, ready for their portions.
Grandma passed a long time ago, but mum, dad, and I continued the funny little family tradition. When we did my mum would always tell Bethie, the newest calico addition to the feline troupe, that she could have “mum’s portion” as she doled it out into a bowl. As a kid, growing up with Bethie always wanting to sleep on my bed and finding something comforting in her smell, I’d let myself think Bethie was like an “I miss you” sent to me by my Granny after she’d died.
The family jokes about cats took a backseat when first my dad, then my mum, and then Bethie passed, all within twelve months of each other. It’d been a devastating year, my wife and I just getting used to nursing one, before they were gone, and we were nursing the next. There was no one left to nurse after my twenty-one year old Bethie just didn’t wake up one morning. It was only my wife and I, left rattling about in my parents’ home, and no one but ourselves to look after – something we’d really needed to do after that year.
I owe a great deal to my wife for getting me through that year, but she was hardly unaffected herself. Ellie became an immigrant on her own at eighteen, all of her family in China and her relationship with her own parents complicated. She’d known and been close to my parents for over a decade, us the only family she has in Australia.
We put that year behind us, left in our hearts but not, as much as we could avoid it, in our heads. It’s hard to deny caring for another is a distraction, one I spent a year focusing solely on until there was no caring left to do. Ellie and I had decided against getting another cat, at least for a time. Partly because the memories of death were just too raw, and cats never live as long as you’d love them to. Partly because we were trying for a baby, and it wasn’t always easy to tell how a cat would get along with an infant. And partly because going out and finding a cat was just not how my family had ever done it. “The cats find us,” my mum had always said. Dad had chuckled that mum used that as justification for why, for a time when I was little, we’d had four of them.
So when I came home from night shift at the hospital to find a bandy-legged tabby tomcat standing on my kitchen benchtop, my first reaction was to think of my parents. My mum would already be there, at the cat’s side, seeing if it was hungry or needed a trip to the vet. My dad would be chuckling and shaking his head, tacitly accepting the addition of a new cat.
For me, I noticed the kitchen window had been left up, its fly screen pushed open in one corner. I watched the tabby sit on the nice clean benchtop. I checked the cat hadn’t torn through the packaging of the chicken Ellie had set out to defrost before she’d headed to work.
And then I met its green eyes.
‘Is it something about this house?’ I asked, gesturing to the home I’d lived in all my life. ‘Is it on some kind of feline ley line?’
The cat didn’t respond. It just watched me. Perhaps it was the morning light falling across the side of its face, but it looked like it was giving me a smile. It blinked slowly at me, benign, then just went back to its genial smiling.
I gave in and scratched the cat’s head. It’d been three years, by then, since my Bethie had died. But my hands remembered how to give a good kitty head scratching. The cat’s purr was quiet – stoic. I only heard it when I leant right in. The biggest sign of enjoyment the cat gave was that contented smile. And that reminded me of an old warmth I’d tried to forget: the simple comfort of a furry buddy.
By the end of the day, I’d started calling him “Chief”, simply because he’d gotten in through a window that wasn’t too near the ground outside. I’d climbed through that window once before when I’d been a skinny twelve year old and we’d gotten ourselves locked out. To achieve it then, I’d received a boost from my dad. “Chief-window-climber!” Dad had called me after that.
Ellie’s return home that evening had been to the sight of me sat on the floor with a tin of tuna, Chief waiting patiently next to me for the morsels I forked into his bowl.
‘Of course, Luke! Of course!’ she’d laughed at me, calling it back as she headed up the stairs to get changed.
‘I didn’t choose him!’ I called after her. ‘He chose me!’
Ellie just laughed harder. For all we’d decided against getting a new cat, she wasn’t about to turf out one who’d found us. Her only stipulations were “I’m not having two of them!” and “He’s got to go to the vet!”.
According to the vet, Chief was quite young, only a few years old, and not microchipped or desexed.
The second cat, a gorgeous tortoiseshell Ellie had found snoozing on our front porch six months later, was. But, as we discovered, the details for her owner were out of date, and though we did contact them, it seemed they were now out of state in New South Wales and didn’t want to drive all the way back to Victoria to get her.
‘I’m thinking Martha,’ Ellie said, eyeing the cat we’d avoided naming for fear of having to say goodbye.
The tortoiseshell was snoozing in her favourite spot: atop a faded velvet armchair in the lounge.
‘Her microchip said she was “Dolly”,’ I responded.
Ellie pulled a face and cast me a look that indicated her disdain of the name “Dolly”.
‘You honestly think “Martha” is better than “Dolly”?’ I said.
Ellie wiggled her head. She smiled, then laughed.
‘It’s an older woman’s name,’ she said. ‘And that, Luke, is the “Old Lady Chair”,’ she pointed to the velvet armchair.
The joke had been started by my mum, when getting out of chairs had become difficult for her. The velvet armchair had been higher than the others, so it was the one she’d found easiest to rise from. It’d earned the armchair the name Old Lady Chair, and in her last couple years, my mum had used it exclusively when she’d watched the news or sat to do her cross-stitch.
It seemed a little cruel to call a cat as young as two an old lady name, but when we tried it on Martha, giving her pats on her Old Lady Chair, she just purred and rolled over to sun her belly. So “Martha” stuck fast.
‘And you don’t mind having two cats?’ I asked. It wasn’t a particularly serious question. Ellie’d grown fond of both Chief and Martha. It was a more of a tease.
But rather than laugh, Ellie sighed.
‘Fertility drugs,’ she said, glancing at me, ‘one failed IVF treatment, and we’re running out of years.’ She pulled a sad smile. ‘Maybe we’re just a cat family.’
That didn’t mean Ellie wanted to give up, I checked. But it got harder every year to have hope we’d conceive.
It became my ritual, after night shifts as an emergency department nurse, to wind down with breakfast and TV in the lounge. Chief would join me sometimes, lying on the couch or stood on the back of it to stare longingly out the window. Martha, though, was always my TV companion.
‘Only took them a bunch of years,’ I grumbled at the news, before taking my next bite of cereal.
Chewing, I looked over at Martha. On occasion, the cat actually appeared to watch the news. She was doing it then, eying it in that way cats did that made you wonder how much they were actually seeing what they were looking at. I glanced back at the TV, where Gladys Berejiklian was talking earnestly to the press.
‘This,’ I told Martha, ‘is what the previous owner of your chair would have cared about. My mum was an OG women’s rights activist – you know, banners and marches in the ‘60s. Victoria banned shaming women outside abortion services years ago. New South Wales has finally caught up.’
Martha’s response was to settle herself more comfortably on the armchair, tuck her paws in, and close her eyes when I reached over to scratch her head. She looked content, though I doubted it was because of the news. Martha normally looked content.
That it had taken any state so long to create Safe Access Zones around abortion centres would have had my mum raving despite the good news. But she’d have gained some satisfaction from the fact Gladys, the NSW premier who’d passed the ban, was a member of the conservative party.
The news program had moved on and my focus drifted. Ellie had taken up my mum’s hobby of cross stitch as a way to remember her. Ellie had only made one thing, but we’d hung it up on the wall behind the TV. On a simple white sheet, embroidered in cursive, were the words “The loved lost never really leave you – Julia Torres”. Whether or not it’d been previously said by anyone else, Ellie had attributed the quote to my mother.
It’d been my mum’s key spiritual belief. Mum had a staunch certainty you should never push your spiritual beliefs on others – her own son included. So she’d rarely said more about her beliefs beyond that one line. When my grandmother died, I’d asked, and mum had expanded on her views. “Some way, some how,” mum had told me, “you’ll see gran again. Likely not in a form you expect. But I believe souls circle each other through century after century. And they always find each other again.”
I’d told mum then that I wasn’t sure I believed that, and she’d never brought it up again without being asked. Just maybe, though, it’d contributed to my own ideas about Bethie being a gift from my grandma. And while I still didn’t quite believe even that, the thought had long given me comfort. That simple line “The loved lost never really leave you”, however it could be interpreted, had comforted both me and Ellie when we’d hung the embroidered banner up.
I petted a purring Martha, and finished my cereal.
Our first IVF attempt had failed, but our second one took. For the nineteen weeks after the positive pregnancy test, we ran on a cloud of elation, decorating a nursery, picking out a bassinette for our room, Ellie shifting her cases to other anaesthetists and me devising the best way to add my long service leave to my paternity leave so I could be around as much as possible.
Ellie had a short cervix, we learned. And the baby was smaller than he should be. Ellie took progesterone to try to prevent a preterm birth. Her obstetrician kept an eye out for cervical insufficiency; monitored for signs of any life-limiting abnormalities in the foetus.
We didn’t expect an infection of the membranes. I’d been on shift at the hospital I worked at. Ellie had woken up with aches, abdominal cramps, a fever, and all three cats on the bed with her. The cats had seemed worried, but we’d reassured ourselves it was “just a bug”. One that had Ellie start vomiting by ten in the morning, then call herself an ambulance at eleven. The paramedics had to wheel her out, and Ellie’s memory of it was hazy.
She was taken to a different ED than the one I was working in. I got there only hours later – after an abrupt onset of labour had her giving birth to a stillborn boy in a general ED bed. Twenty two weeks. Just tickling the cusp of viability. But that wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Chances were our baby had died at least hours before. If not, possibly, longer than that. Ellie wasn’t too sure exactly when last she’d felt the baby move. She hadn’t had a good sense of the baby’s movements before then. We should have seen it as a sign of poor viability, Ellie said.
She’d been moved to her own room in the ED when I finally got there. And the look on her face was blank – emotionless. Until I held her, and then she howled, gripping her abdomen and sobbing into my arms.
‘I’m not doing this again!’ she railed at the bare hospital walls around her, shoving away the tears on her face even as more fell to replace them. ‘I c-can’t do it!’
Right then, I didn’t think I could either. It wasn’t only horrible to see Ellie like that. The whole thing was devastating. And scary. IV antibiotics and fluids trailed in clear tubing to a cannula in her arm, more holes bandaged over where the ED staff had tried and failed to find a viable vein while Ellie’s body had been shutting down. The ECG recorded a constant rapid beep of Ellie’s fast heartbeat, her blood pressure only now recovering. That infection, while I’d been away sticking IVs in and blood pressure cuffs on other people, could have taken her from me too, had she not had enough clarity in the middle of a septic miasma to ring an ambulance.
But, resting and feeling calmer hours later, Ellie clarified what she meant.
‘Next time,’ she said, staring listlessly at me, ‘I’m keeping a closer eye on it. I’m not having another stillbirth. If there’s doubt the next baby’s viable, I’m not letting it get that far.’
I wasn’t sure I even wanted to try again, but my thumb stroked the back of her hand, and I nodded. That, at least, I could agree to. It’s still one of my regrets, that I wasn’t there experiencing it with her when she had to deliver a dead child. But whether I was there for it or not, I’d pick termination over Ellie having to do that again.
The raw pain of that day dulled with time, neither Ellie nor I wanting to jump back into fertility treatments too soon. And then Coco found us.
We’d tried to keep Chief and Martha indoor cats. Martha typically accepted that. Chief didn’t. He was hell bent on sneaking past fly screens or dashing around your feet when you opened a door. That Chief appeared to stick to pottering about the garden made us slowly grow used to the idea. One morning where we couldn’t find Martha anywhere, though, had us searching high and low for her. Including outside the house.
‘She doesn’t normally go out much,’ Ellie said, fretting, as we did another circle of the neighbourhood. ‘She just lies on the deck if she does go out…’
It was why we were worried. We’d finished our circle, returning to the house and the sight of Chief, who appeared supremely unconcerned, sitting on the front step. He eyed us as, deciding to search the house once again, we headed for the door. His look up at us was calm, accepting the pats I provided in passing with his usual quiet smile.
‘Oh!’ Ellie exclaimed, staring over my shoulder.
Still petting Chief, I glanced up at her. Ellie was already hurrying around me, running back down the front stairs.
‘No!’ she cried. ‘No – Martha! You haven’t –‘
But Ellie didn’t finish her sentence. In a rush, spotting Martha, I understood. We had a hard line on not wanting any of the cats to hunt. And Martha, though I was glad to see her trotting back to the house, had a furry white thing in her jaws.
But it wasn’t prey. Martha dodged Ellie and deposited, there on the front porch before us, a fuzzy white kitten. She hunkered down, even as we rushed to prevent any killing, and showed us we were stupid to worry: extending a pink tongue, Martha started grooming the kitten’s head.
The kitten wasn’t too young to be without a mother, and, for all our posters and trips to the vet, no one claimed her. Ellie named the kitten “Coco”, because as the little girl grew she developed darker and darker brown points on her paws, tail, and face, giving her the colouring of a coconut. And “coconut” became appropriate. The kitten was dumb, grew fluffier every day, and toddled about determinedly with round kitten tummy on stubby legs.
She was Ellie’s baby. I hadn’t been raised to snuggle, kiss, and coddle cats. For me, the friendships of mutual respect and head scratches I had with Chief and Martha were fulfilling. Coco, unlike the other two, wanted snuggles, kisses, and coddles. She was content to be carried about by Ellie or lie on Ellie’s chest and play with a lock of her long black hair.
When sleepy, Coco was an adorable angel. When wide awake and left to her own devices, Coco was a hellion keen on gleeful destruction. We got her toy after toy, and found them dumped in the toilet or snuck into the dishwasher. She ran up fly screens and curtains, razor-sharp claws putting holes and runnels through them. She tried to steal food from the frying pan, was once retrieved from the fridge where she’d punctured a hole through the milk, and managed to get all manner of everything stuck to her cotton wool fur.
I’ve never spent more time grooming a cat, nor previously had to test the warmth of the water in a prepared bathtub, then try to hold Coco in it and wash Ellie’s makeup off her, the kitten having made a disaster out of cosmetic bottles and tubes.
But for all Coco’s madness, I can’t deny she helped put joy back into the house.
‘Coco!’ Ellie called. ‘Come Coco! See your box fort!’
It was something Ellie and I had spent the past hour building. Having collected the boxes Coco loved to play in over the past weeks, we sat within the ring of cardboard bits, scissors, and masking tape, the finished box fort cut and taped together between us. It was an architectural feat we prided ourselves on: two storeys tall, and consisting of a maze of box rooms.
Whether Coco knew her name or just understood being called to things she usually liked, the kitten came bounding down the stairs and pattered towards us, her fluffy middle wobbling like a lamb in need of a shear. It took tossing one of her toys into the box fort to get her to scuttle in, but she did, with glee. Coaxing her to investigate new chambers in her box fort became a game, Ellie and me laughing together whenever Coco, eyes huge and crazed with play, came springing out to tackle the toy we’d tempted her with.
‘Coco – no – you’ll break it!’ Ellie laughed, but she was too late. Coco had leapt out of a skylight in the fort and landed on top of it. The section wasn’t strong enough, the cardboard bending under her and Coco toppling. With a scuffle and slide, Coco fell, two claws catching the cardboard, hanging head-down beside the fort, her bushy tail over her face.
Big blue eyes stared, confounded, up at us. Coco’s tail started to flick. It smacked her face, then again, and Coco’s mouth opened, little fangs snapping to catch her own tail. She didn’t right herself. She sunk claws into the side of the fort and took great pleasure in a mad shredding of it, hind feet kicking at cardboard, fangs gnashing. Because doing that upside-down, sinuous tail flailing around her, was the best way to kill a cardboard box, according to Coco.
She was like our little baby, and that we’d so recently lost one did make me wary about it at times. The worst of those times was walking upstairs to find Ellie in the abandoned nursery. I could see Coco in the crib, and pushed the door wider open with a pit sinking in my stomach.
‘Ellie…’ I said softly – cautiously.
Ellie looked over her shoulder at me. It was the first time I’d seen her in the nursery since the miscarriage. But she pulled a smile that didn’t look too sad.
‘Hey – look, Luke,’ she said, and tinkled the mobile above the crib.
I spotted Coco’s eyes widening with playful joy. Saw her wiggle her fluffy bum, lining up for the launch. And found relief when Ellie chuckled, Coco leaping and failing to catch the birds in the mobile. The kitten landed back in the crib, and spun around, seeking a better angle to launch at the birds.
Ellie doted on Coco, that was true. But I hadn’t seen it reach problematic levels of babying before. A little ashamed I’d assumed it would, I joined them at the crib, just glad we could be in this room again without tears. I helped Coco reach the mobile, and chuckled myself at her playful fun.
Part 2: A Cat Family
It took us a few months more to feel up to scheduling an appointment with Ellie’s obstetrician. We went together, parking and walking to the main entrance of the private hospital. Two women out the front were holding placards in pink and blue, and we weren’t the first to notice them. Hospital security were standing before them, merely serving as a barrier, and the police were approaching from the other direction, two cop cars parked right before the hospital.
‘Stop the killing!’ one woman was yelling, staring defiantly at the police. ‘For the women and the babies!’
‘Born alive!’ shrieked the other. ‘Chopping their spines up to kill them!’
‘Leaving babies to die on shelves!’ the first continued. ‘Refusing them medical care! They call themselves doctors! They’re butchers!’
Ellie’s teeth clenched inside her mouth. We’d slowed, not wanting to get too near or involved. We’d both heard it all before. As an anaesthetist, Ellie was a doctor. As an ED nurse, I’d had exactly that yelled at me a few times. Not once had either of us chopped up spines, refused babies medical care, or left a child to die on a shelf. But telling these people that never made a difference.
‘Born viable!’ the one woman shouted louder. ‘Murdered! That’s what you want? Hear me: that’s what Victoria’s policy is! To kill babies born healthy!’
Like fuck it was. My anger was bubbling, but I kept my mouth shut, trying to match Ellie’s ability to look angry and not say anything. Victoria’s policy was abortion on request up to twenty four weeks, and only after that if two doctors agreed the abortion was necessary. The proportion of late-term abortions performed for reasons other than maternal safety or life-limiting foetal conditions was tiny. And those babies were euthanized prior to abortion. Ellie and I would know: it was what we’d do if this IVF took and headed the way the last had.
But the women continued their yelling, shrieking over the attempts of the police to get them to move off. A man having a smoke out the front of the hospital pulled the cigarette from between his lips.
‘Fuck off ya cunts!’ he shouted at the women. ‘This isn’t America!’
‘Baby killer!’ one of the protesters screeched at him. ‘They’re all baby killers!’ she yelled on, shaking her sign at the hospital entrance. On it was a picture of an infant, chub-cheeked and sweet. Around the child’s face were the words “Love me … Don’t kill me!”.
‘Pretty sure the people here have done more to save babies than you ever have,’ remarked one police officer. She looked particularly unimpressed.
The cop next to her ignored the remark. His thumbs tucked into his bullet-proof vest, he tried to speak reason: ‘Ma’am, they don’t even perform abortions here.’
But the protestors weren’t listening. “All the people who want to kill babies are already born!” read the sign the other woman was holding. She shoved it in his face. He stepped back and stared her down.
‘It is an offence,’ he said flatly, ‘to protest within a hundred and fifty metres of a service that provides abortions. I suggest you find one that does, and I’ll see you later.’
‘Jeremiah 1:4-5!’ the second woman shouted at him. ‘Then the word of the Lord came to me saying “Before you were born I knew–”’
‘Oi!’ yelled an elderly patient. She was gripping the hand of the patient transport officer helping her out of a NPT van. Parked in the ambulance spot before the hospital, she wasn’t far off the protestors. ‘Tell me,’ she went on, pausing on the van’s step to stare at the protestors, ‘if you repeatedly shove your bible up my arse…’ She squinted myopically at the two placard-bearing women. ‘… Is that sodomy?’
The patient transport officer ducked away, smothering a surprised laugh. It offered the levity I needed to grip Ellie’s hand and edge around the situation toward the hospital doors.
The elderly woman’s question had sparked a row with one of the protestors. The other had noticed us. I kept my eyes on the hospital doors, hoping she’d leave us alone.
But it wasn’t to be.
‘Please don’t do it!’ the protester cried, as though I was holding a knife to the neck of my own child. ‘Your baby has a life, and a lot of love to give! Abortion is murder!’
It was what finally got to Ellie. Her face a cold stone mask, she stopped, turned on her heel, and glared at the woman.
‘And you,’ she bit out, ‘haven’t a fucking clue what you’re doing!’
The woman really didn’t. That we were there for IVF was only part of it. Ellie was far from happy about the idea of ever needing to have an abortion. She was the last person anyone should ever tell about having “a lot of love to give”. But we might choose to terminate, depending on how this went, and I didn’t want Ellie any more hurt than she’d already be by that.
My blood boiling, I wasn’t able to keep my mouth shut.
‘And denying your sister your kidney when she needs it to live will kill your sister!’ I yelled back. ‘But there’s a lot of reasons why you might need to say no, and the government recognises that! You don’t get to say what another person must do with their body, because you don’t have a fucking clue what’s going on in their lives! You’re just assuming whatever the fuck you want to!’
It was my mother’s long-held views, melded with my own. But I did manage to shut up and walk away at Ellie’s pulling after that. I’d be blue in the face before I was done, and no closer to getting those women to realise how sheltered and blatantly inconsiderate they were.
My mother’s view had been that no human had the right to use another’s body, not even to save their own lives. An embryo and a foetus were the same as any other human: they had no greater right to use another’s body without their consent. The government had no authority to mandate a person give of their body for another. Not for blood donation, not for organ donation, and not for pregnancy. To ban refusal of pregnancy was to give women less rights than any other human.
I didn’t need sitting next to Ellie as she tried not to cry in the obstetrics waiting room to inform my own opinion, though it did a lot to fuel my conviction to it. If you want to hear stories of lives lived that weren’t yours, be an ED nurse. A woman who’d been told she was pregnant by the same blood test that led to a diagnosis of lymphoma, grappling with a decision between putting off treatment to keep the baby, or aborting to look after her own health. Another presenting to the ED because she’d come off her mental health meds when she’d learned she was pregnant, and was now both suicidal and sure the month she’d been on the meds had already affected the embryo. Yet another who was in university, had yet to realise the relationship she was in was toxic, and asked me hopefully whether her fall down the stairs had caused her to miscarry.
And those were only three stories. I’d heard enough to know I had no clue how to judge these people’s choices, and no right to do so.
Sitting in that waiting room with an arm around Ellie, stewing in my own thoughts, I doubted I’d gotten either of those viewpoints through to the women protesting outside the door. I had so much more I wanted to shout at them. So much more I wanted them to understand. But as Ellie sniffled quietly, I had to concede there was no point. It’d be nice, though, for those protestors to be the ones to feel Ellie’s pain, rather than Ellie.
‘I wonder what the cats are up to,’ Ellie whispered to me.
It was her trying to think of something different, and I respected that. I needed it too.
‘Martha will be content,’ I responded. ‘Chief will be staring longingly out the window. And hopefully Coco hasn’t decided she wants to dump her toys in the toilet again.’
It made Ellie snicker.
Our third IVF attempt also took, producing one viable embryo. Rather than dance on a cloud of elation, Ellie and I met this pregnancy with caution and fear. Neither of us had said so specifically, but it certainly felt like this would be our final attempt. We weren’t getting any younger, and there was a limit to how much pain we wanted to take.
This time, the pregnancy symptoms hit Ellie hard. Even at eighteen weeks, nausea and fatigue dogged her footsteps. For weeks it’d made her worry and fear over this pregnancy worse. But we’d had the eighteen week scan just yesterday, and though a short cervix was still something to keep an eye on, the baby, a little girl, was a good size, no concerns as yet noted. Choosing to have a lie in, Ellie’s worry this morning had shifted to hopeful superstition: maybe feeling rubbish this time was a good sign. Maybe the fates were giving her that hardship because this time they wouldn’t give us a worse one.
For me, nearing that twenty two week benchmark had me both antsy and cautiously hopeful. All through the worst of pandemic lockdowns I’d seen person after person taking their outdoor exercise time in walks or jogs out the window. I’d thought often I should probably join them. Now I figured to finally do it. It’d help my restless nerves. And I had a growing commitment, with the hope of a baby on the way, to living as long and as healthily as possible.
Chief was at the door when I reached it in joggers and shorts, staring up at me with the request to be let out. He sauntered out before me, hopping down to the front lawn, while I was still trying to work out how much I wanted to test an old knee injury with a jog. Best not to, I figured. A sore knee wouldn’t help me play on the floor with my baby. If she did come.
I reached the footpath and decided on a direction for my walk. Coming, trotting up behind me, was Chief. I slowed, then stopped, as he caught up with me.
‘I’m going for a walk mate,’ I said, bending to scratch his back. ‘I’ll see you when I get back.’
Chief looked up at me, then started up again when I did, plodding along on bandy legs by my feet. Uncertain, I carried on up the street a ways, then stopped again. Chief drew to a stop with me. I glanced back toward the house.
‘Chief… I don’t want you to get lost…’
Chief had sat. He looked completely unconcerned. I figured this cat, who was evidently not a dog, wouldn’t keep following me. I set off again. Chief, picking his bum off the sidewalk, trotted on with me.
‘Righto,’ I said, and picked a different route to walk. One that would avoid crossing any major roads or go anywhere where the cat could get spooked and dash off to hide. Chief stuck by me, trotting along happily.
But he was a cat, and cats weren’t made for ranging long distances at a ceaseless trot. Chief did well though. It was a solid fifteen minutes into my walk before he began lagging behind. In cat distances, we were a long way from home. I paused, looking behind me, when Chief stopped to flump over a third time.
‘My mate,’ I said, going back to pet him, ‘you’re not going to make it. Am I going to have to carry you home?’
It wasn’t a very hot morning, but Chief’s mouth had opened, the cat panting on the concrete path. He managed to pull himself up and trot on a few more metres, before flumping over again. It reminded me of going for walks with my dad when his health was failing. Robust all his life, my dad had been determined not to give up his morning walks despite pancreatic cancer. I’d started going with him to make sure he made it home, and, more and more, my dad had done just what Chief was: needing to stop for breaks, then later – his decline steep – sit on his four wheel walker. It was one of those things that had really gotten to dad: feeling weak as he hunkered forward, hands on his knees, to replenish his breath.
I scooped Chief up, slung him over my shoulder, and found a public water fountain by the shade of a tree. Setting the cat down on cool grass, I fetched him a handful of water. Chief didn’t want it, but he did sprawl himself out on the grass.
‘Chief, my man,’ I said, sitting down next to him, ‘walks just aren’t cat things.’
The cat stretched out an arm, and smiled up at me, the curve in his tabby cheek making him look entirely at peace. And, after his break in the shade, he did a decent job trotting beside me on the way home. I only needed to carry him the last hundred metres.
But despite not being made for distance trots, Chief was set on joining me for every walk. On the third occasion, I fetched a shoulder bag from the house before setting off, a water bottle and plastic container stashed inside it in case Chief ever decided he was thirsty. Primarily, the bag was used to store Chief so he could take breaks while I walked on. He didn’t mind that, and I became the local Melbourne man who went for walks with his off-leash cat.
Two Saturdays later, Chief trotting dutifully beside me, I returned from my walk on a sunny day. Coco and Martha were taking in the rays on the porch. Coco was trying to groom her shoulder, but the ruff of fur around her neck was too long. Her head pulling back, she sought to unstick the ruff from her tongue. Looking disgruntled, she tried again, to the same effect.
Chief and I coming up the front walk, I watched Martha haul herself up and go to help Coco. Though she was no longer a kitten, Coco was still the littlest and silliest in the house, and even Martha treated her like the baby. Hunkering down, Martha got in there with grooming assistance, Coco’s eyes slipping luxuriantly shut as Martha made sure to clean behind her ears.
I chuckled. “Remember to wash behind your ears!” was something my grandma had always said. My mum had had a great many questions about that common reminder, from why it was the part of the body considered so important to wash, to why it was a necessary reminder at all when washing your hair would do it naturally. Watching Martha reach that spot for Coco, I thought it the one occasion where Mum would have seen a point to the reminder: it wasn’t like Coco could reach it herself, and her fur did tend to clump behind her ears.
Twenty one weeks, the benchmark getting close. But every test, every scan, had said the baby was still on the right track. Leaving the cats on the sunny porch and feeling today was a good day, I headed up to shower.
Ellie was still snoozing in bed. Too warm for covers, she’d shoved most of them off, sleeping on her side with them bundled against the small bulge of her belly. I drew to a stop, frowning at the unfamiliar cat lying on the bed next to her.
His fur a dark grey, from head to tail, the cat was staring at Ellie. Of the three we already had, only Coco normally slept on the bed with us. This cat had made himself comfortable right beside Ellie. It glanced at me for only a second before returning staring eyes to Ellie.
Not wanting to wake Ellie, I left the cat to it. Ellie was awake when I got out of the shower, sitting up drowsily and frowning, like I had, at the cat beside her.
She turned that frown on me as I came out.
‘Four cats Luke?’ she said, amused.
‘Again,’ I retorted, ‘it wasn’t me. I just came home to it there.’
Ellie shook her head and reached out to pet the cat. It drew back as her hand approached, but it wasn’t to sniff her hand as the others might. The cat stood up, avoided her hand, and walked off, its grey tail disappearing around the doorframe. Ellie and I shared a bemused look.
‘What’re you wanting for breakfast?’ I asked her.
She thought about it, starting to smile. She rubbed her belly.
‘This baby’s another cat person,’ she said.
I knew the answer, then. Tuna. What Ellie had been craving often over the past weeks.
‘New cat’s gonna learn how good he has it here!’ I laughed.
The fourth cat, like Chief had been, was about three and neither neutered nor microchipped. Unlike Chief, however, he didn’t fit in.
‘I’m thinking “Garfield”,’ I suggested, Ellie and I standing in the kitchen. The four cats were waiting nearby for any sign they were about to get dinner.
‘Garfield?’ said Ellie, frowning at me. ‘Because of those creepy “I’m Sorry Jon” cartoons?’
It took me a second to remember what she was talking about. I’d seen the strange horror-Garfield images on the internet, the cat depicted as a nightmare monster. I shook my head.
‘Just because he’s grumpy,’ I said.
‘What?’ laughed Ellie. ‘He’s not even orange!’
Her laughter turned to a shout in the next second, her rushing forward to defend Coco from Garfield’s bullying claws. Chief got there first. Martha yowling like a poked jaguar from a chair, Chief walloped Garfield right across the cops, the grey cat backing off with a furious glare.
Coco safe in Ellie’s arms, Ellie turned a significant look on me.
‘I don’t know if this is going to work, Luke. He’s really mean to Coco.’
Garfield was probably just vying for his place in the household, but Ellie wasn’t wrong. Martha and Chief could hold their own when Garfield got it into his head to stalk and pick fights with them. Coco was still the none-too-bright fluffkins who didn’t recognise danger immediately. And, more and more, Garfield was taking advantage of that, picking on her.
But we gave Garf a shot, trying all the internet’s tricks for encouraging less hostile behaviour out of the cat. Garf, however, wasn’t like the others. For all he appeared decided on staying with us, Garf seemed to see the three other cats like a personal affront, and, though he stared at us a lot, he didn’t seem to enjoy our company either.
An evening, right on that benchmark of twenty two weeks, had Ellie lying across the couch, Coco snuggled in just above the bump, enjoying her cuddle in Ellie’s arms. Martha was on her Old Lady Chair; Chief like a sentry hunkered on the back of the couch, alternating looks out the window with watching us. And Garf was sat on the TV console, staring at us.
‘You know,’ Ellie said as I flicked through Netflix for something we both wanted to watch, ‘I wish your mum was right.’ She stroked Coco’s purring head and glanced up at me. ‘About souls coming back to each other through the generations. I like to think Coco’s the baby we lost – like to think if I lose this one, I’ll see her again. Even if she’s a different creature.’
I muted the TV to shut up the preview and considered Ellie. Though she’d long identified herself atheist, it wasn’t the first time she’d said something approaching that. Over the years since I’d told her mum’s spiritual beliefs, Ellie had flirted with the idea more and more.
Ellie gave me a small smile, and nodded first to Martha, then Chief.
‘And it’d be nice to think your parents will be able to see their grandkid, in some way. They’d have loved that.’
That was the bit Ellie had touched on before. It’d been more a humorous notion, though, when before she’d pointed out the similarities between Martha and my mum, and Chief and my dad. My dad liking to potter about the garden… How dad had been a man of few words and many smiles… My mum being generally placid when not pissed off by something. Ellie had even said, before, that she was sure if my mum ever came back as a cat, she’d find great contentment in just being able to enjoy family without getting bogged down by all the “human bullshit”.
‘Martha and Chief do keep an eye out for Coco,’ Ellie added.
That was true, in the way it could be for cats.
It would be nice if mum’s beliefs were right, I agreed with that. I pointed to Garf.
‘What about him, then?’ I said. ‘Who is he?’
Ellie looked over at Garf, her face drawing into a perturbed frown. Garf stared straight back at her.
‘He’s doing his chewing thing again…’ Ellie muttered.
Garf was. It was something I’d seen him do, though, weirdly, he more often did it while staring at Ellie. There was nothing in the cat’s mouth, but he was chewing. Again and again and again, his teeth grating against each other; his face like he was working hard on a stick of chewing gum, one eye narrowing as he chewed on that side.
‘That’s really creepy, Garf,’ Ellie said, and pulled her eyes away.
‘He’s probably just got a taste in his mouth,’ I said. I didn’t consider it as creepy as Ellie did, but it was something I’d never seen a cat do before.
If Ellie ended up sharing my mum’s spiritual beliefs… It had another benefit.
“Life begins at conception!” I remembered an angry young man ranting at my mother years before when she’d marched for Safe Access Zones. “Abortion is murder!”
“I believe no soul is lost when the body dies,” my mum had retorted. “They come back to you later, hopefully in a form you find comforting. So I’m not as concerned by that.”
The man hadn’t taken that well. Essentially, he thought her beliefs wrong, shouting “God’s word” back at mum. Composed, my mum had shrugged.
“I thought we were just sharing religious views,” she’d shot back, sardonic. “Seems you’re more interested in denying me my freedom to believe what I do. Pity. Thing is, though: your religion isn’t superior, and you don’t get to make law with it. Isn’t that nice?”
If we did lose this pregnancy, or chose to terminate, I hoped mum’s beliefs would comfort Ellie. Maybe they’d comfort me too.
‘Oh, Coco,’ Ellie murmured, ‘I love how your toes still curl!’
Coco had rolled over onto her back, her fluffy hind feet curling in like they had when she’d been a small kitten. Chances were, if souls did come back to us, they’d come as cats. And cats were easily distinct from humans. Chief, for the first time that morning, had given up on joining my walk, disinclined to go out in the rain – something that wouldn’t have stopped my dad. Even if Ellie really did start to believe Coco was the reincarnated soul of our lost baby, you just had to see a cat as a cat. Perhaps that was the “form you find comforting” my mother had been thinking of when she’d said it.
Part 3: The Grey Cloud
I saw Garf as a cantankerous bugger, and was concerned about the tensions he was creating with the other cats. Ellie became more and more convinced he was “creepy”.
Showing me two long scratches on her arm, she gave me an emphatic look.
‘I was just trying to pet him!’ she said, incredulous. ‘And he did this!’
How that equated to “creepy” was that Ellie had tried to pet Garf after he’d sat, stared, and chewed at her for near an hour straight.
‘He just doesn’t feel like the other cats,’ Ellie insisted. ‘There’s something… dark in him.’
I was sorry Ellie had been scratched, and the scratches were bad. Deep, they were ones we saw a point to cleaning thoroughly. But I didn’t see how a cat could be “dark”.
‘He’s just a cat,’ I said. ‘He’s a grumpy bastard, but he probably just didn’t want to be petted. There’s not many ways a cat can communicate that.’
Ellie sighed and scraped her hair out of her face.
‘I don’t know, Luke,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure about having him here.’
I was getting more and more that way myself, but neither of us quite had the heart to kick Garf out.
Week twenty two turned into week twenty six without any issues identified. I couldn’t feel our little girl yet, but Ellie could, and she kept close track of every wiggle and kick. Our hope for this child had risen a little more and a little more over the days the baby tip-toed towards increasing viability.
So, us wanting to make space for toys in the living room, I cracked open the door to my parents’ study for the first time in I didn’t know how long. I doubted I’d want to move my computer into the study, but Ellie didn’t mind moving hers to free up space in the living room.
My parents’ ancient computer still sat on the desk, books and trinkets arranged on the shelves around the walls. By my ankles, Martha padded curiously into the room, going to sniff at this or that.
Slowly, I took stock. I was happy to just remove the computer. The rest could stay. Except… My eyes landed on my mother’s copy of The Joy of Sex.
‘Yeah, that’s going,’ I muttered to myself.
Martha had hopped onto the desk. She gave me a look that reminded me of my mother questioning me on why I was so grossed out by the idea of my parents having sex.
‘Because it’s not something I should know about,’ I told Martha.
Cats couldn’t shrug, but Martha did lift an unaffected paw and started to groom it. I sank into the old office chair at the desk and swept at the dust covering it. That, as I sneezed, was the biggest thing that needed to be removed: the dust.
Curious, I pulled out the top drawer. Stapler, scissors, printer cartridges…
‘Those would have been useful when we still had that printer,’ I commented, then shut the top drawer and went for the second.
My mother had never liked reading things on a computer screen. Everything she wanted to read she’d print out. And, it seemed, she would stick some of those printouts in the second drawer of the desk.
I pulled a huge wad of papers out and set them on the table. On the top was a Wikipedia article. Picking it up, I frowned at it.
“Anthony Torres” it began, “(born 1946) is a deregistered former Australian physician, convicted of medical malpractice, murder, and further medical crimes related to his disgraced abortion clinic in northern Victoria”.
That it’d been my mum who’d printed this out I was certain. It wasn’t just that it was my mum’s area of interest and how she’d read articles. Torres was her surname. Mine was a hyphenated combination of that and my dad’s.
But mum had never said anything about this. Anthony Torres was someone I’d never heard of before. And I did wonder if he was a relation. But as I read, the less and less I wished to be related to this man. Even distantly.
Anthony Torres’s practise in far north regional Victoria extended back to the early ‘90s. His first offences were for illegal import and distribution to patients of abortifacients then banned in Australia. I’d be ready to think Torres was just a doctor providing a service otherwise unsupplied, were it not for where Torres’s story went.
The first death he was suspected of causing was that of a sixteen year old Indigenous girl, who’d come to him in her late second trimester for an abortion. Torres’s methods were barbaric, and he made an utter mess of it. The girl had died nine days later of septic shock. That too, I could think may be the tale of a rural doctor trying to provide a service he was evidently unqualified for.
But, for the pregnant patients who’d gone to him, between the years 2002 and 2010 Torres had been convicted of two counts of murder, and three more of involuntary manslaughter resulting from criminal negligence. And those were just the ones they’d managed to convict him of. He’d been accused of far more than that. Though women of all races and backgrounds had sought his services, all deaths and injuries caused by him were individuals of Indigenous descent or non-White immigrants. He left a trail of horror in his wake: perforated organs, incomplete and unrequested hysterectomies, surgeries performed without anaesthetic, unsterile environments – performing abortions on his home dining room table, and then leaving the women there in agony with no nursing care.
It seemed there was a procedure he used for White women, and a procedure he used for anyone who wasn’t White. The first followed clinical guidelines. The second was utter butchery. But there will always be desperate people seeking abortions, and Torres preyed on that.
Anthony Torres charged steeply for his services, his surgery private and illegal. Even when abortion law changed in 2008, it was to him desperate women went for late-term abortions. Among his less serious charges, he was found guilty of not following the stipulation that the approval of two physicians was required for abortions post 24 weeks gestation. And Torres was known to spin stories to his patients, putting off their terminations until the time had passed when medical abortions were possible, ensuring the women had to undergo surgical procedures he was the only person who, for a fee, would provide way out in the sticks.
Torres’s physician registration was put under condition twice, and his clinic investigated three times. But that didn’t stop him, and, over time, it seemed he became more twisted about it. Not only delaying abortions to make women pay for the more expensive surgical variety, but delaying them longer and longer, past viability. Whether very late terminations were of his cause or not, it appeared Torres got a particular joy out of those ones.
“Cutting their spinal cords” … “leaving babies to die on shelves”… “baby killer” …
It was what the protestors outside the private hospital had been shouting. It still certainly wasn’t Victoria’s policy: Torres had been convicted on seven counts of doing just that, including for abortions he performed after abortion became legal in 2008. But this, I thought, was where the women had got it from.
Torres did induce infants that were perfectly viable and he had cut their spinal cords with whatever he had to hand. He did leave them lying on tables to just die of dehydration or cold. And those convictions were a solid chunk of why he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Under a “See also” that listed “Butcher of Bega” Graeme Reeves, Kermit Gosnell, and Peter Knight, was the date the article had been printed: 2014. Below that, in my mother’s handwriting, were the words “Keep an eye out for this one”.
I’d stuck those pieces of paper back into the desk drawer, and shut it. Just sharing a surname shouldn’t make me think this Anthony Torres was a family member, but that mum had printed it out and written that message on the bottom.. somehow, I knew he was. And I didn’t want to think about it – any of it.
Garf, the weird little bastard, was waiting outside the study when I exited it. He eyed me, his yellow eyes looking, in that moment, strangely cold. Then he started chewing. Nothing in his mouth, just his teeth scraping together, as he chewed while staring straight at me. Martha, trotting out after me, was startled by Garf. She hissed, yowled, then swiped for his face. Garf, more inclined to attack those who weren’t attacking back, hopped away, glared, and trotted off.
Garf was becoming an increasing problem. Twenty six weeks ticked over to twenty nine, then thirty. Running down the stairs one day to answer a call from her parents in China, Ellie had tripped over Garf and very nearly gone tumbling down the stairs. I’d rushed to see what the commotion was, my heart pounding in my ears – and my eyes actually sunk shut with utter relief to see Ellie still standing on the stairs, a death grip on the handrail, her feet having only stumbled her down two steps.
‘He ran out in front of my feet!’ Ellie relayed, pacing off the fright down on level ground in the living room. ‘It wasn’t like he was on the stairs before – he came from behind me and ran in front of my feet!’
Cats did that, though. The others, not so much, I had to admit. But cats definitely had a reputation for being death traps on the stairs. Ellie said that herself, once she’d calmed down, and she too tried to check Garf hadn’t been hurt. He just glared at her and ran off.
‘He’s weird, and grumpy,’ I agreed as Ellie sighed, staring after the departing cat. ‘But… he’s just a cat.’
Yet Garf did it again a couple weeks later, and that was twice when he’d never done it before. Ellie started taking the stairs at not just a waddle with recurrent backache, but in a cautious handrail-gripping step-by-step.
‘Oh, I do feel like I’m being mean to him…’ Ellie said, eyeing the grey cat skulking just outside the lounge room door. ‘He’s just a cat,’ she said, repeating the same notion we’d both decided on more than once. ‘And I worry he’s getting more grouchy because the others keep fighting him – I keep tripping on him. I’m sure it hurts him.’
Perhaps she had a point. All the same, I’d started really noticing the creepiness too. Sexual intimacy when your wife was in her third trimester, with a short cervix and now constant back pain, was… an Ellie-led, creative, and very cautious affair. Butt naked, knelt on the bed, and halfway through ensuring there was a pillow under the right side of Ellie’s back, I noticed Garf staring at us from the top of the dresser. He was hunkered down, his yellow eyes fixed on Ellie.
But for the one occasion Coco had been a curious kitten, the other cats stayed away any time we got raunchy. This was the first time Ellie had wanted anything sexual since Garf had arrived. And considering what I’d just been doing to Ellie, the thought Garf had been there, staring at us…
It very rapidly put the brakes on my ardour.
And then, as Ellie caught my arm and questioned me with a frown, her knees spread around mine, Garf started chewing. Just hunkered on our dresser, staring at us, and chewing at nothing. I actually shuddered, and wanted to cover Ellie up, disturbed by how vulnerable and exposed she was in front of Garf.
That one time Coco had come to investigate the weird horizontal tango the humans were doing, we’d just laughed, stuck her out the bedroom door, and shut it. We’d joked we’d scarred the innocent little cat for life.
But Garf was different. There were no jokes about scarring him. There wasn’t even any recitation of the mantra “he’s just a cat”. We covered our nakedness, Ellie growing more disturbed than I was when she noticed Garf, very quickly shutting her legs and getting up.
‘There’s just… something about him that makes me not want to be like that around him,’ Ellie muttered, tying a dressing gown securely over the bump. ‘It’s like… getting a gynaecological exam from a creepy guy.’
It took a while for “he’s just a cat” to work on us again that day, and when Ellie had woken up the following morning to Garf standing on her chest and staring down at her, she’d shrieked and clambered away from him.
I’d hesitated long and hard to mention Anthony Torres to Ellie. I’d told myself my reluctance was not wanting to put that information, unnecessarily, on a woman who was both pregnant, fearing miscarriage, and an immigrant from a non-White background. I’d tried not to think about it, but it’d stuck in my head. A good few times, I’d found my thoughts trekking back over the story.
There was one woman from that Wikipedia article who had lodged hardest in my brain. She was young, born in Australia of Chinese descent, and had sought an abortion for a pregnancy she didn’t want, but her abusive partner did. She’d died of blood loss on Torres’s kitchen table. And she’d been the third woman of Asian background who’d been harmed by Anthony Torres.
That was too close to home for me. Likely close to home for Ellie too. Yet Ellie, as I well knew, was resilient as hell. Quietly, I could admit it was me I was really trying to protect from the information. Still, I put off bringing it up.
Then the overturning of Roe v. Wade reached us as international news, and abortion was back in the papers. It was a topic of conversation at work, and anywhere else. It sparked anti-abortion sentiment in South Australian politics being shared nation-wide, annoying a country that largely rejected abortion as a political talking point and widely accepted it as, at least, something unwanted but necessary to have medically available and decriminalised.
‘That’s your real “baby killer”,’ was Ellie’s first response when I told her about Anthony Torres. Propped up with pillows on the couch, she gave me a wry look. ‘What’s the chances those anti-abortion protestors outside the hospital knew they were talking about an incarcerated doctor, and just pretended ignorance when they accused us all of the same?’
It was a rhetorical question, as, having taken a sip and put her glass of water back down on the side table, Ellie went on.
‘I remember this Anthony. Haven’t seen him in the news for ages, but I remember a story on him about ten years ago.’
That surprised me. I hadn’t heard of Torres before finding mum’s printout. I told Ellie so.
‘Not surprising,’ Ellie said, shrugging. ‘I’m going to be bitter here, but when was the last time you saw that Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory scheme reported in the news? You said a lot of Anthony Torres’s victims were Indigenous?’
I got what Ellie meant. It was something Ellie was very vocal on. The Stronger Futures scheme had taken over from the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act, enacted in 2007. Both were laws that would have, were I Indigenous and living in targeted lands in the Northern Territory, put me in prison for the six-pack of beer in my fridge and the countless DVDs we possessed that had sexually explicit or violent material. That was all banned for Indigenous people in NT, police able to break into your house to find that beer. And those six cans of beer and mature DVDs would risk having any children I had taken away from me. That was law. But the majority of Australians didn’t know it, because it happened in the NT, and the news never covered it.
‘I saw the news Torres had been charged, and that was it for mainstream papers,’ Ellie said. ‘I’m sure local papers would have covered it more, and certain groups would have taken an interest. But for the mainstream stuff… They were crimes against marginalised minorities.’
In her more bitter moments, Ellie would say what she wasn’t now: “so people didn’t really care”.
‘Symptom of a larger problem,’ she went on, retrieving her phone from the side table. ‘Howard and Tony Abbott – the federal government blocked abortifacient medications in Australia, making them by Health Minister approval – which wasn’t given. RU-486 wasn’t approved for use in Australia until 2012, after abortion was legal in this state. Even now, abortions are really only accessible in private hospitals, and rural access is near non-existent. If you can’t pay or have to find a way to travel seven hours to the nearest abortion service… you’re going to find it hard. I’m not surprised this Torres was able to continue even after abortion was decriminalised.’
Ellie knew more about it than I did. I hadn’t heard half of that. It wasn’t surprising Ellie knew more. What was surprising, for all I’d been raised by the mother I’d had, was how little I’d realised abortion access had been and still was a problem. On both Torres’s crimes on marginalised individuals being ignored, and the easy pickings he’d found in rural Australia, Ellie had put what I’d thought reading the article on Torres in clearer perspective.
Ellie was scrolling on her phone. She stopped and clicked through to a page. Glancing up at me, she asked, ‘How old was that article printout?’
‘A good few years old,’ I answered. ‘Before mum died.’
Ellie nodded and showed me her phone. The Wikipedia article on Anthony Torres had been updated. It now listed his date of death: “born 1946, died 2017” – in prison, I was happy to see.
‘The situation is always a lot more complicated than you may want it to be,’ Ellie said, sticking her phone back on the side table. ‘Whether you want to think all doctors are chopping up babies spines, all women seeking abortions are just sluts who should face responsibility for their actions, or all people who need one can access abortions. It’s never that simple.’
She’d said it with irritation, and I agreed with her. Not knowing what to say, it was a nod I gave her in response. Rather than saddened by my mention of a man who’d targeted non-White women with horrific abortions, it seemed the story had reminded Ellie of a lot she was angry about.
Her eyes trailed to Garf, the cat sitting in the doorway to the lounge. He was doing his staring thing again, cold yellow eyes fixed on Ellie. Thankfully, though, he wasn’t chewing. Pulling a discomforted face, Ellie stood up, pushing herself against the armrest to manage it. Right on the cusp of her due date, she caught under her belly, trying to do something effective to lift the weight from her lower back so she could pace restlessly. She paced the lounge twice, shaking out irritable legs, before stopping and crossing both arms over the fireplace mantelpiece. She dumped her head on her arms, moaning as she tried to get the weight off her back.
I got up. It wasn’t always easy to tell whether Ellie was too uncomfortable to be held, but an offer of holding her belly for her was usually greeted with relief. My hands lacing under her belly, I heard Ellie’s relieved sigh as I lifted.
‘Oh… that’s good Luke,’ she murmured appreciatively. ‘Thank you.’
Just above one of my hands, I felt a movement. The baby was mercifully head-down. It felt like an elbow, as irritated by confinement as Ellie was by everything else, jabbing against my hand.
Hey bubba, I thought to my daughter. Just a bit longer!
Part 4: The Lost and the Loved
Though we had private health cover and could choose an optional C-section, Ellie had opted for a vaginal birth, wanting a happy experience to replace the devastating stillbirth she’d had with our son. A day passed, and labour didn’t come. Then another.
Beyond pacing irritably and frequent trips to pee, Ellie lost interest in leaving the pillows she could prop herself against in bed. Late at night, both of us already on our parental leave, we were still awake. And Ellie had thought ice cream the one thing that might make her feel better.
The bowl of ice cream in my hand, I switched out the kitchen light, navigating by the light from upstairs to the steps.
A noise stopped me dead right before them. It wasn’t the cackle of a child in a horror film, but it was equally creepy. Like a high-pitched chirruping laugh, the noise had me revolving slowly on the spot, horrible chills racing up my spine.
The empty downstairs corridor was all around me, dark at one in the morning. The front door was shut and locked. On the ground floor, the house felt abandoned. Coco was on our bed, Martha and Chief snoozing together on a cat tree we’d stuck in a corner of the landing upstairs…
The creepy chirrup sounded again. I stared through the dark into the living room. The sound lasted a solid thirty seconds, though it felt longer. It seemed to reverberate against the floor and walls of the living room.
A pair of orbs glinted, then disappeared.
My hand flying out, I found the hallway light and flicked it on. Through the doorway, inside the dark living room, Garf was sitting. His eyes caught the light again, reflecting weirdly like the shine on the side of cook pot. He stared at me, then, without looking, lifted a paw and smacked it down atop a fluffy thing.
The chirruping laugh sounded again, ringing through the otherwise empty ground floor.
It took me two missed beats of my heart to work it out. My brain recognised the toy even as my mouth sunk further open and jittery fear ran up my spine. It was one of Coco’s toys, made to look like a hedgehog and given a voice, I supposed, to match. Coco had barely played with the toy, preferring tin foil balls, feathers, and boxes.
Garf’s paw landed down on the hedgehog toy again, the cat staring coldly at me as the sound rang out. It would be absurd enough a thing to witness to make me laugh, were I not so freaked out. There was something very malevolent about the action.
And then Garf started chewing. His teeth ground against each other, audible in the silence and dark, as, once again, he stamped a paw on the toy, making it laugh.
I snatched the toy away from him, and threw it out right then and there, shutting the lid on the rubbish bin and closing the kitchen cupboard door – making doubly sure Garf couldn’t retrieve the creepy toy. Then I switched off the light again, and returned, at a fast clip, to the warm and friendly upstairs occupied by Ellie, Martha, Chief, and Coco; leaving Garf to the dark and empty ground floor.
The baby didn’t come that night either. Expecting contractions any second, I went running the next morning at the sound of Ellie’s scream from the bathroom.
It wasn’t me who got there first. The bathroom door was open a crack, and Martha was behind it, yowling and swiping at Garf. Garf hopped away, and turned his claws on little Coco.
‘No!’ I admonished him angrily, snatching up poor Coco to keep her safe. ‘You are a bad cat!’
‘He scratched me again!’ Ellie cried from inside the bathroom.
Ignoring Garf’s staring, I pushed through into the bathroom. Ellie had been taking a warm bath to sooth her back. Martha standing at the defensive by the tub, Ellie was washing off the deep gouges Garf had left in her shoulder and across the top of her breast. She looked up at me, and shuddered, the water trailing down her front stained red with blood.
It was a bad scene: the bathwater going pink, Martha’s renewed yowling making Ellie jump and look around to defend herself.
Ellie had left the bathroom door swung shut, but not closed. She hadn’t noticed Garf until he’d attacked her, leaving a solid four slashes each across her chest and shoulder. There were more over her back, Ellie having hunched forward to protect herself. She started to sniffle as she let me see. Bubbling up blood, the cuts were deep and numerous.
‘I didn’t do anything to provoke it!’ Ellie cried – running on no sleep and in permanent pain, she was jittery and upset. She brushed a tear away with fingers that left blood on her cheek. ‘I couldn’t get him to stop!’
She showed me her hands. She’d used them to try to shove Garf away. He’d sunk his teeth deep into one, and his claws into both. Nine months pregnant and small, Ellie struggled to get off the couch these days. She hadn’t even been able to stand up to avoid Garf. She needed me to help pull her out of the tub.
That, being trapped in the bathtub as Garf attacked her, had shocked Ellie badly. I tried to catch Garf so I could shut him in a spare room – just to put him somewhere where we didn’t have to deal with him. But he was too quick for me. I saw him later, once we’d calmed down. And, from the top of the stairs, he’d chewed at me, one eye narrowed.
Attacking those who couldn’t fight back: it’d been Garf’s MO before now. And now, I was angry not just for Coco’s sake, but Ellie’s too. I glared coldly back at him, wishing more than ever that his dark presence had never found our house.
Ellie’s due date came, then it was the next day, and still no baby. I had started shutting Garf in a room whenever we wanted to relax, a litter box, water, and food in it. It was hard to stand leaving him closed in that room. He scratched at the door, his claws sounding to score deep gouges in the wood.
But… So close to birth wasn’t a fun time to go on antibiotics. Still, the cuts and bites he’d left in Ellie necessitated it.
‘Luke…’ Ellie said, warily, from the bed. She’d positioned the pillows in the best arrangement for comfort, and wasn’t about to move from it. I stepped over to look as she turned the tablet to show me something.
On its screen was the face of man in his sixties, sitting in a conference room. I frowned from it to Ellie. She swallowed, discomforted, and said, ‘Watch how he chews.’
Turning my gaze back to the man on the screen, I considered him. I didn’t recognise the man at all, but I did focus on his chewing. He had gum in his mouth, I assumed, and, someone asking him a question, he worked harder at it, one of his eyes squinching.
‘It’s like Garf,’ Ellie said. ‘Don’t you see it?’
Bewildered, I frowned at her as she lowered the tablet.
‘And it’s not the only moment where he’s chewing gum,’ Ellie said, staring at me. ‘His patients who survived said he did it constantly. He was always chewing gum. There’s a video in this documentary, from an interview he did in the ‘90s, and he’s chewing gum there too.’
‘”He”?’ I said.
Perhaps I was being obtuse. I wasn’t wholly surprised when Ellie, meeting my eyes again, named him.
‘Anthony Torres,’ she said significantly. ‘He was always chewing.’
I had about three seconds to try to process that before, her hands adorned with scabbed-over slashes, Ellie clutched at her belly and her face pinched.
It was after midnight that the endless hours of contractions reached the point where they were coming at regular intervals. With past complications and Ellie’s age making it riskier, we waited only until then before climbing into the car and taking off for the hospital.
Twelve past nine in the morning. That was when, after eighteen hours of labour, our little girl was finally born. It wasn’t the first birth I’d ever witnessed, but I did go lightheaded and have to sit down when, after hours of Ellie moaning and crying, my baby’s head emerged into the world amidst a gush of blood and fluid. But I stared on, like a glittering world of beauty had landed on my shoulders, as the midwife lay little baby Jane on Ellie’s chest.
Comments about how birth looked like a newt regurgitating a fuzzy rock fled my mind. I’d been hoping to make Ellie laugh with them, but seeing her wrap both arms around the slimy and vernix-covered little girl… I forgot all about it. Honestly, my face just scrunched up, and I cried. I was still sniffling and trying to blink away tears when I took the scissors the midwife offered me and fought with that rubbery umbilical cord.
Seeing me swear at it, Ellie met my eyes. She chuckled, little Jane belting her tiny lungs against Ellie’s chest.
‘Just give it a good hack,’ she advised me.
I gripped the slippery umbilical cord, and did.
We were able to take Jane home the next day. Cradled against my shoulder, the newborn’s head was rested sweetly in the crook of my neck. Ellie was still wincing, but she made it through the door, into the lounge, and sat down cautiously on the couch. It was in her arms that first Martha, then Chief, then tottery little Coco investigated the new addition to the family.
‘If you were Luke’s mum,’ Ellie said, petting Martha’s head, ‘then… meet your granddaughter!’
Ellie had said it with a laugh. She laughed again as Chief planted his front paws on her shoulder to peer down at Jane – then, yet again, when Martha, having stared and sniffed at the baby for a solid three minutes, began to groom Jane’s cheek.
Coco had us both sniggering harder. She’d hopped onto the couch next to Ellie and Jane, and barely hesitated before sidling into a spare section of space on Ellie’s lap and lying down, her fluff right up against Jane’s face. Jane’s tiny mouth pursed, one of her curled hands rising by her cheek and her head turning toward Coco’s soft warmth.
As though jealous for attention, Coco mewled, gazing up at Ellie.
‘Oh I still love you too,’ Ellie assured her, and Coco purred instantly when Ellie stoked her fluff.
It was Ellie that first noticed Garf. I saw the smile fall from her face, and followed her eyeline. Spotting the grey cat staring from the doorway, it was like darkness fell over our joyful family. Garf didn’t take his eyes off Ellie and Jane. And he started chewing.
The evening was a struggle in getting nursing, then swaddling right. Ellie falling exhaustedly asleep in the bed behind me, I lowered Jane into her bassinette. The baby’s lips pursed like she was remembering suckling, her eyes contentedly shut.
Martha and Chief hadn’t left the room. Chief had sprawled himself across the floor by the bassinette. Martha had become a loaf on the dresser, her gaze returning to Jane as the baby made a snuffling noise. And Coco had gotten herself comfortable curled in behind Ellie’s knees.
I sunk onto the bed, then lay down, pulling the covers over me. I hadn’t switched off the bedside lamps, wanting another moment, even as I rested against my pillow, to see Jane’s face. The baby was sleeping peacefully, and in that moment before finding sleep myself, I could let myself believe Jane had two loving grandparents to watch over her.
I woke to the warning sound of Martha’s yowl. In a discombobulating whirl, I noticed fuzzy Coco’s pounce over me; the leap of a cat from the floor – Ellie’s cry and covers being shoved away –
And I spotted Garf, his claws out and sunk into Jane’s soft skin, the horrible cat lying right on top of her face.
I was yelling, scrambling out of bed. But Chief’s teeth were in the scruff of Garf’s neck – Coco’s pearly fangs ripping at Garf’s paws – Martha screaming –
Garf was being tackled away from Jane, Chief going to town on the evil cat – Coco tumbling after them. Ellie was shoving at furry forms, checking Jane was still breathing – and I just grabbed Garf.
Chief, his face a dreadful snarl, got a last lash in, slashing Garf right across his face. Then, Garf snarling and writhing in my grip, I stalked to the spare bedroom, dumped Garf on the floor, and shut the door in his face.
I could hear Jane’s gasping cries. It filled me with a sinking billow of relief. I returned to our bedroom to the sight of Ellie holding Jane tight to her shoulder, the baby filling her tiny lungs deeply before yelling out again in squawky sobs. And Chief was standing sentry before Ellie, staring out through the door at the spare room. Martha was pacing one way than the other on the dresser. And Coco was sat in the bassinette, gazing up at Ellie and Jane with big blue eyes.
‘How much I believe it, Luke,’ Ellie said seriously, her eyes filling with tears as Jane screamed into her ear, ‘I want that cat gone. Whether he was Anthony Torres or what – I don’t care. He has to go.’
Jane hadn’t been smothered long enough to affect her, but the two day old baby had bleeding holes in her cheek, neck, and shoulder. Ellie was still on antibiotics, us keeping a close eye on the wounds Garf had left across her chest, hands, and back. One of the gashes on her hand had split open in the midnight tussle, a bead of blood slipping down her hand as she tried to soothe Jane by patting her back.
‘He’s going,’ I agreed, and scooped up Coco, just to have something sweet to hold. The fluffkins purred instantly in my arms. Chief rubbed up against my leg as he paced back to check the closed door to the spare room. And Martha had hunkered down on the edge of the dresser, casting wary looks out the door in the same direction Chief was eyeing.
Ellie swallowed hard, and nodded. She sniffled, then pressed her lips to the side of Janes head, voicing reassuring shushes to the baby.
Garf scratched at the spare room door. I heard his claws hook into it, and drag down. My teeth grit as, from the sounds of it, he took on an insane clawing fit at the doorframe. It got the hackles rising on Chief’s back; made Martha’s tail puff up. Ellie was staring in the same direction they were: toward the spare room and the imprisoned Garf behind the door.
‘What if he learns how to turn the door handle?’ she breathed at me.
The question sent a shudder down my spine. That did it for me. Leaving Coco on the bed, I hauled a dining room chair up from downstairs, and stuck it under the spare room door handle. Then I taped the handle to the chair back.
Chief and Coco both needed a couple wounds cleaned, as did Jane. And Garf went to the animal shelter the moment they opened in the morning. I dropped him off with little more than a few words about how they could keep the carrier.
It wasn’t what I’d ever wanted to do with a cat who found us. We were a cat family, and we kept those cats. But even as I placed Garf’s carrier on the front desk of the shelter, I could hear his chewing from within it: his teeth grinding together without gum.
I made a donation to the shelter, and left, not once looking at Garf.
It was a far rosier home I returned to. I hadn’t realised how dark creepy Garf had made it, but walking up the sunny front steps, passing into a home that looked bright and airy… It was like a huge weight was off my shoulders. Ellie was lying on the couch with both Jane and Coco snoozing on her. Behind her was Chief, resting like a guardian on the top of the backrest. And Martha was on her Old Lady Chair.
They all looked up at me as I entered the room, and I noticed how relaxed they all looked. Ellie smiled, lifting her hand from Jane’s back to stroke Coco’s head.
‘It’s happy here now,’ she whispered, not wanting to wake Jane.
It was only a week later, me finally feeling up to the task of sorting through my mum’s printouts, that I saw she’d written on the back of the Wikipedia article for Anthony Torres.
“My brother is a bastard,” mum had written. “If you see him, Luke, kill him. And if he comes back again, and it’s not in a form you can get a police order against, lock him in a cage, and don’t let him out.”
It was a message that had me gazing unseeingly at it for a long moment. Then, pulling my phone from my jeans, I looked up the shelter I’d left Garf with. They were no-kill. Knowing how hard it could be to adopt out a grouchy adult cat, I hoped he’d stay there, far away from anyone he could hurt.
Despite that hope… I picked the email option to contact the shelter and sent to them the message: “Do not ever let anyone pregnant or with babies adopt this cat. Ever.” along with the amount I was donating them if they kept Garf at the shelter.
They wouldn’t understand. But I couldn’t bring myself to see Garf again, even if I did want to shut him in a prison cell of my own construction. Leave him stuck there, just to keep him away from others for as long as possible.
“The loved lost never really leave you” still hangs in a banner behind the TV, smiling down on a loving cat family. It’s the nice portion of the message. It had taken an evil soul to do more to convince Ellie and me, but the message wasn’t quite correct.
“The lost never really leave you” is the less comforting line.
I’ll pay to keep Garf at the shelter for as long as possible. And then, like my mother had written on the bottom of that Wikipedia article, I’ll keep an eye out for Garf. In whatever form he returns in.