Dandelion Clocks

It’s nearly spring; my favourite time of year. I wrote this story after I had witnessed my precious cat Lucy being run over in front of me. I wanted to commemorate her in some way, and I also wanted to reflect on the immense power that throwaway words and small gestures can have, particularly when we are vulnerable and hurting. The story is 100% fiction, but based loosely around my real experience.

 

Last year one person broke my daughter and another helped put her back together.

It’s not what you think. It’s about the tiniest of moments; the spectacular smallness of things.

My daughter is eleven. When she was ten I bought her a cat. It was like a dandelion clock, this cat; snow-white and fragile, it only took a child’s breath to make her flee. She had a pink little nose that felt like a wart, except when it was wet and it gleamed like a licked marshmallow, or a cherry blossom in a spring shower. My daughter named her Pink Pig, because she had wanted a pig but I had said No.

I opened the garage door one Monday morning and Pink Pig shot out like an arrow, all fur and heat and terror. Something had spooked her. Was it the rain? We were on the way to school, so we followed her down, thinking she would stop at the bottom by the tipped-over mailbox where the postman with the crooked back posted letters sideways. (He asked me out once. He looked apologetic as he did it and grateful when I turned him down. Then he had surprised the bend in his back by thrusting his chest out and my mail into my hands.) A trail of ants, a tiny brave army, antennaed undisturbed up and over the lip of the mailbox slot.

We reached the end of the driveway just in time to see Pink Pig spear across the road straight into the path of a white Land Rover. For a suspended second she was a white smudge between the wheels and I thought for another blind and stupid half-second that the Land Rover might recognise a kindred colour and spare her, leaving her crouched and steamy in the wake of its arrogant exhaust. But then the back wheel clipped her, and Pink Pig was walloped and tumbled and lifted for a hideous pink and white moment before thumping to earth.

My daughter opened her mouth and let out one very small “Oh”, her voice mechanical and far away. Then, without even looking to her left or right, she ran to the centre of the road and stood over Pink Pig, her arms stretched out to the sides like Jesus on the cross. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

I dived after her. I think I was screaming. I glimpsed a neighbour leaping over our tipped-over mailbox, and there was pink confetti everywhere and I could hear the bell at the school calling the children. People were gathering to stare. Mothers with ponytails, children full of Weetbix, fathers with ties and deadlines. The builders from two doors up appeared, tools hanging from interrupted hands. Later I heard that they had thought a child had been run over. When they saw it was just a cat they watched for a few moments then headed back to tap and nail and smoke under the cherry blossoms.

Did I mention it was spring? The blossoms were flying, clogging the drains, polka-dotting the trampolines, matching Pink Pig’s dying nose. Spring confetti.

Pink Pig was scrabbling against the asphalt, her mouth opening and closing in a terrible grimace, slower and slower until just a few seconds later all movement stopped and she was dead.

No no no NO NO NO NO Mummy Mummy no no no screamed my daughter and she fell on her knees and her head fell on Pink Pig and a tiny drop of blood, too red to be true, pinched out of the cat’s mouth.

I tumbled down towards her. I touched my daughter’s back with one hand. She was electric with shock; the down on her arms, grown so long lately, was bristling. I did not hug her. I was afraid. I was afraid of her and the wild power of her.

Cars continued to swish and scrape and tiptoe around us. None of them stopped. It was 8:45 am and people had more important things to do than to stop for a screaming girl and her terrified mother and a dead cat. I felt an arm around my shoulder and somebody talking, but I couldn’t make out the words. I was shaking. I saw my neighbours face swimming, distorting—I was crying now—and next to her a stranger, who was crying too. The stranger bundled the three of us, our shattered little family, into her car and drove us the 200 metres around the corner to our vet. We were shown into a quiet side room with no instruments and no medicines and the stranger stayed with us as I rubbed my daughter’s back as she sobbed into her dead cat’s fur.

No school today. No school today. I said it over and over. The stranger, her workday mascara a festival of smudges, hugged me, touched my daughter’s shoulder, and left. I still don’t know who she was.

There was no blood now. A nurse had gently wiped Pink Pig’s mouth and it was obvious her injuries were all internal, because she looked perfect. Half an hour later we would take her home and hold her for an hour and a half until she became too stiff to cradle and her bowels were leaking a little and I would think but not say to my daughter, How dare death be smelly.

As we waited in another quiet side room with posters advertising dog food and cat flea treatments, the vet nurse placed Pink Pig into a cage, covered her with a towel, and placed a single flower on the towel. She brought the cage through, pushing it through the door first with a disinfected outstretched arm. Pink Pig, flying towards us in her magic flower cage.

I called a taxi. We couldn’t walk home with a dead cat in a cage. I watched for it out the window as my daughter sat in a white plastic chair and stared at the laminated cats on the walls. When the taxi pulled up I lifted the cage and put my other hand out to my daughter. She shook her head, took the cage from my hands, and headed to the door, tilted to the right by the weight of her dead cat. I walked behind and the vet nurse followed; a tiny funeral procession.

As I opened the clinic’s front door for my daughter, ushering her through before me, her face red and raw, snot peeking from one nostril, a teenage boy was approaching. He was wrestling a tiny Pomeranian on a lead, pulling it up the stone steps towards the door. With each tug it coughed out a tiny choking noise and its eyes bugged.

Come on, you little shit, he said, then he looked up and his eyes widened as he took in my daughter’s face and the smell of wildness and sweat and shock.

Don’t do that to your dog, said my daughter. It’s cruel. Her voice came from a faraway place.

The teenager stopped yanking for a second. I was still inside, tucked behind the door, so perhaps he thought she was alone. Yeah, piss off with your judgements, princess. It’s not even my bloody dog. He yanked the Pomeranian away from the cage. It’s a daffodil you little dipshit, not a fucking cat.

I saw it, then. I saw it in the set of my daughter’s glorious little body. The slow exhale, the letting go. The end of something. Please no, I thought. Not yet.

The front door of the taxi opened and a smiling man with a turban stretched and unfolded long legs. Taxi for two? The teenager gave a final heave and the tiny dog flew over the threshold. He didn’t even look at me as I stepped past him, and I didn’t say anything because I was afraid. Afraid that the rage inside me was too wild, and that if I let it go I would never be able to rein it back. The door slammed behind us and we faced the long three steps down towards the taxi. I was shaking, about to say something to my daughter, something to make ten years old feel all right again, when a woman with a cat in a cage approached from my left. Instinctively I put my arm out as if to ward off evil. I put Pink Pig down and reached for my daughter.

The cat in the cage was giant and black and designer, and its eyes ate its face. I didn’t want to look at it anymore so I looked at the woman instead. She was short and dark and she was wearing a pink silk scarf. She looked at me and at my daughter and then down at Pink Pig. Then she set her cage down, stepped around it and put her arms around us both. I’m so sorry, she said. We stood there for a few seconds as the taxi idled and the woman’s cat gave one elegant, elongated yowl. I reached my arm around the stranger’s waist and sobbed, once.

I’m so very sorry. She kissed my tight little daughter on her forehead. Then she reached up and untied her scarf, which slid with a whisper of Dior away from her neck and, a second later, around my daughter’s. It’s spring. Life will come again. Then she picked up her cat and went inside.

It’s now spring again and the trees are the colour of the scarf draped over my daughter’s bedhead, and yesterday I bought her a dog. She called him Brown Pig. Because she still wanted her cat but she only had the courage to half-remember her; to half-remember the power of tiny words and miniature moments and how they can break you and then build you again, and how all the happiness and pain in the universe can be blown away with just one breath.

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