Marietta killed Will’s cat while he was out. She was supposed to have been writing; 1000 words a night, that was the goal. After dinner, when Will had finally left for his CFA meeting, she’d sat down at the computer and sighed.
The cat arrived while she was fiddling with fonts. He demanded to be let out through the window. When Marietta ignored him he jumped onto her desk and laid a warning paw on her hand. She shook it off.
‘Bugger off, cat,’ she said waving the hand at it. He flattened his ears.
They glared at each other and Marietta felt a certain relief – battle had been declared, the cold war was over. For a few silent seconds Marietta acknowledged his prior ownership of Will but counter argued her own efforts to ingratiate herself through toy mice and unexpected cat treats. Then she shook her head at him.
‘I’m going to win, you know,’ she said.
The cat looked away, but only to lick its flank. Marietta made to pick him up and found herself holding a limp furry sack. Holding it out in front of her, she made her way to the kitchen. She wedged him against her hip and opened the door.
When the cat scratched her, a long calculated gash down her forearm, she dropped him in surprise. Wild with fury and pain, she screamed and kicked him. Even as her foot swung back she knew she’d regret it. The cat streaked off yowling over the fence into the neighbour’s garden.
‘No!’ she yelled, ‘Come back!’
At first there was no sound, and she sent up a silent plea: let Buster the Foxy be chained up, or baring his tiny shark’s teeth impotently through the kitchen window. Then the snarling came, and the yelling,
‘Buster! Leave! LEAVE!’
They brought the cat round half an hour later, thankfully before Will got back. She took him, concealed in his Coles carrier bag, and buried him at the bottom of the compost heap, under a summer’s worth of tomato plants and overripe bananas. She washed her hands over and over but she couldn’t shift the smell.
The cat, his first wife’s treasure, had been the sentinel, guarding the door to Will’s house from the very first day she moved in. She’d stepped round the cat, gingerly, respectfully at first, then with increasing resentment at his assumption of seniority in the household. ‘I get fed first,’ he would declare, causing Will to leave her tea bag stewing in the cup.
And the smell of his food turned her stomach, with its almost appetisingness. As did the noise the cat made as he crouched before the bowl and worked his way methodically through the claggy mound. It was the sticky clicky sound of lovers kissing on the television. After that she tried to kiss Will silently and he turned from her, hurt at her lack of passion.
Will wanted them to be friends and told her the cat was taking to her. He never normally does that, he’d say, over and over, as the cat brushed an indolent haunch against her leg in passing, or sprawled along the back of the coach, so she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. Once the cat had sat for a whole evening on her lap, flexing his claws through the fabric of her skirt just a millimetre short of pain. When she undressed that night she’d seen the morse code on her thighs and got the message. Will never wondered if she was taking to the cat.
At night the marble eyes drilled into her from the chair on Will’s side of the bed. She feigned asthma, the cat feigned friendship, finding her clothes and nesting in them, reaching a paw into open drawers and hooking out jumpers. She told herself that this way led to paranoia, never an attractive thing in a new wife. A new old wife, one who should be past foolish fantasies. But still she shut the bedroom door against Will’s objections and almost felt her heart soften at the pathetic siren song that kept Will awake and fretful.
She would never share with Will her fear that his first wife, dead and therefore unimpeachable, was watching her through those cold eyes, judging and finding her lacking.
Will’s first wife had had the cat from infancy. He was an orphan kitten, his mother flattened by a garbage truck. Fed on egg yolk and sunflower seeds from birth, he had a coat that gleamed like a conker. He’d pined when she, his second mother died, also at the hands of a hasty driver. In the weeks that followed her death his coat had dulled and stared, and only careful handling had brought him back to health. What else could I do? asked Will, as if Marietta had queried, I couldn’t let him die.
She wondered at the restricted options Will gave himself and wondered, too, if the same limited range had led to his proposal, one afternoon in the botanic gardens beneath her favourite gingko tree, just when she had begun to despair of their relationship going anywhere. But it wasn’t a question you could ask.
When Will got back she told him. Straight away. It was the best way with things like this, she’d learned. Get it all out in the open, expose it thoroughly to the air and let the cooling down process begin. But instead, Will cried.
‘I’m sorry,’ was all she could think of to say, rather than ‘Why aren’t you mad at me?’ which was what she wanted to say.
‘It’s not your fault,’ he said, when he was able to get the words out.
Having her guilt taken away made things worse but how could she say, ‘Well, it was my fault, actually’? And this made her want to lash out, rather like the cat had done.
‘He hated me, you know, he always had it in for me,’ she said.
Will looked down at his wet hands lying in his lap and said nothing.
‘For God’s sake, Will! It was only a cat!’
Why not tell him to get a life while you’re at it, she thought. What a bitch!
They both studied his hands for a bit longer.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said again, and heard how she’d devalued the word.
After Will went to bed she sat at the computer. The 1000 words wrote themselves.
Louise D’Arcy won The Age newspaper’s 2010 Short Story Competition, out of 1436 entries, with her story Flat Daddy (which you can read here) and has been published in numerous short story anthologies.
The Australian Literature Review