The doubtful guest announced itself on a warm Autumnal morning. April Fool’s. Amelia had made her way to the small wooden deck, still yawning and stretching, in anticipation of the daily Herald’s prankish headline awaiting her and a cup of freshly percolated coffee. A silly day, though secretly she loved it. All the better for the unseasonal and blustery hot air that marked a satisfactory beginning to the celebration of the unexpected, she mused, even though she knew better. In truth, Amelia had until now lived out the least surprising adult life she could imagine, when she even took the trouble to dare think on it at all.
But on this day, of all days, neither here nor there, there it sat, undeniably present, casually cleaning a front paw beside the neatly rolled, plastic-wrapped newspaper. As if mornings had always been this way. If she’d never been subject to a practical joke before, as much as she might have wished, there was no clear or concise return policy on this particular occasion. Two round, quizzical eyes gazed up at her. Amelia may even have laughed, had she been so inclined. But instead, she could only conjure one adjective to mind: Flabbergasted. The next word, like one foot feebly in front of the other: Lost…? Whether the cat, or her, or both, she couldn’t be sure. It was here. That much was plain. “But what do you want?” she asked aloud, suddenly feeling foolish. No sooner had she spoken when the creature marched past her indoors, a confident spring in each step, to a worn Persian rug whereupon it collapsed in coy submission. A new word came to Amelia. Quite simply: Speechless.
It wasn’t that she disliked cats, per se. She’d just never had a pet. Beyond Goldie the goldfish. “Life is too transient for pets,” her mother had told her. “Besides that, it’s unnatural.” The kids at school all had pets. But then, Amelia had never had a dad either. Pets and fathers. Simply two of the many things her mother dismissed effortlessly with a careless wave of her hand as little more than “Social Constructs.” When Goldie had been found one morning belly up in the fishbowl, it was only to further confirm her mother’s misgivings. Later that day, Goldie had been returned to the water nymphs and river gods as it “should be” and the subject of pets was never mentioned again in the Young household. Nor fathers, for that matter.
But she had to do something, given the circumstances. She scanned her pantry cupboard until she found some pilchards, about to expire anyway. Fishing out a chipped china bowl from another cupboard, Amelia opened the tin and spilled its contents out. Gingerly, she approached the self-assured visitor with the makeshift peace-offering. So far, so good. What would her mother have made of all of this? Amelia could only guess for her mother had died years ago, in a car accident. The vehicle had rolled. A flaw in design it was later brought to light. It had made massive headlines the world over and there had been a total recall for those lucky enough to still be alive to tell the tale themselves. But Georgina Young still lived on, in many ways, a larger than life figure forever looming over what Amelia felt would’ve been a grave disappointment of how her daughter had turned out, when left to her own ineffectual devices.
Larger than life. That had been the Young women for you. Until Amelia. Nothing like her mother had wished for her in the Latin origin of her name, neither ‘industrious’ nor ‘striving.’ Otherwise Teutonic for ‘defender’. Industrious? Hardly. Striving in nothing. Defender of nothing. The unfortunate broken link in the chain.
Her Nana, meanwhile, a trained ballet dancer in her youth and in her older years an amateur thespian, though small in physique, could fill a room like no other, and remained the most glamorous woman Amelia had ever known. Hollywood eat your heart out. Even in her last dying days of the breast cancer that had begun to spread and slowly ravage her already petite frame. Not even Death itself could unrobe her. She “put on her face” each morning, regardless, whether at her throne – a spectacular Art Deco vanity table – or on her bad days, in bed with the help of a compact mirror gold rimmed and embedded with mother of pearl inlay. Part of a matching set with a cigarette case for her once so chic skinny Vogues that likewise blew smoke rings in the face of her illness. Next came “adornment.”
Decorously flung over the oriental divider or the chaise longue, her Nana would methodically choose, often between exasperated sighs of frustration, from a myriad of silk stockings of such luxurious hues and colours the young Amelia could only dream of in her wildest fantasies for the heroines of the farfetched tales of her own secret making. Then, stockings donned, the mood had been set for the daily “accoutrement” of choice, and now her Nana would really set herself to task, finally, with the “pièce de résistance.” These were sometimes one, other times three “statement pieces,” as her Nana insisted every woman should possess, deliberately selected from her bountiful supply of costume jewellery, elaborately patterned and bright silk scarves, feathered headpieces and bejewelled turbans collected over her many years in theatre and dance. It had to be one or three, earrings counting a pair (“But of course!”)… And oh the earrings she had. “Two is no statement at all, and four is just gauche,” her Nana would say solemnly, then betray herself with her mischievous, quicksilver eyes and a wink of solidarity at their secret little joke.
If Amelia’s Nana, the once marvellous Portia Young in full blossoming health, had been an incurable sprite, almost elfish, and the delight of all circles, Amelia’s mother, Georgina, made up for in her own brand of mischievousness and those same quicksilver eyes what she lacked in theatrical guile and a tiny dancer’s svelte frame. Not nearly one to be called ‘a delight’ – in fact she’d have gawked at it – Georgina would follow in her mother’s footsteps to be an equally coveted presence for her no less flamboyant reputation at the dinner parties of those who liked to think themselves among the creative and intellectual elite. Amelia’s mother had seemed almost mythical to her. “If you’re lucky,” her mother once told her, “you live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” Stolen words. But then Georgina Young had always had a way of making everything she said sound all her own. Death by motor accident. Tragically young enough and still stunning. Yes, her mother would’ve liked it that way.
Amelia had once looked up a word from a book she was reading. “Ebullient,” she’d read aloud to herself from the screen. “A person who bubbles over irrepressibly like an uncorked bottle of fine champagne.” Her mother would’ve liked that too. She was ebullience made flesh, even when sitting perfectly still. Unlike Amelia’s Nana, there was nothing petite about Georgina. An ample bosom and equally ample hips with long, strong limbs tapering to musical, corpulent fingers, all ascending towards a full and robust face, framed by wild, auburn curls. The kind of face one imagined in the stories of Irish farm girls, ruddy-cheeked and sturdy and made to endure poverty only to find love and a happy ending. But these were not the sort of stories her mother would have read. Not as Amelia had known her anyway. Maybe once upon a time. But she doubted as much. Though of a merry and by all accounts relatively normal upbringing, her mother’s own ideas of “The Future” were determined to run a different course.
Her mother held firm in the belief of what she called “the Feminine Mystique.” “Be wary of men. They fear and resent us in equal measure,” she would often say to Amelia once she considered her at “that dangerous age.” Not that it mattered much besides. A shy girl, Amelia had never so much as received a single anonymous Valentine in the school’s annual tradition, while all the other girls tittered and giggled and batted their eyelids as their names were called out. Not that she had minded much, given the common show of affection of a spitball in the back of the neck. “History too!” her mother would add if struck by one of her moods on just about any other given day. “Nothing but grandiose fibs told by old men with phallic quills, served on hand and foot in high places by pretty little boys they’d like to fuck. Obsessed with fellatio! Because they remember, you see, and now lament the loss of their mother’s breast that once gave them life itself. As if fellatio could fill the void… Impotent. Big. Boring. Self-aggrandising. Fucking. Babies. You’ll find out soon enough, and mark my words, you’ll rue the day!”
As suspicious as she was of history, her mother had abhorred the very notion of a government regulated school curriculum, a set of silly assessments she thought made dull and blunt instruments of otherwise young and supple young minds. As such, she often took it upon herself to dole out supplementary lessons to Amelia, whether in the form of bedtime stories that took on the shade of one cautionary fairytale after another (“For there, in folklore and fairytale, round warm fires of kindling, in hearth and home, and knitting circles, is to be found centuries of women’s wisdom!”), or in one of the many diatribes set on rotation. Georgina wanted to leave nothing to chance.
Expletives, fellatio, and all.
She balked at small talk and convention.
And how they all loved her for it. That endless supply of curlicued handwritten invitations that amassed on the half-moon table in their long hallway. And all at the mercy of those deft artist’s fingertips as she would flip through them nonchalantly. “Yes. No. Yes. Definitely not!” she would drawl, deciding each their inevitable end, whether for the waste paper basket or drinks trolley. As for RSVPing that was yet another definite no, another one of life’s unnecessary chores for the ordinary, dim-witted and uninspired. She would make her grand entrance, like all the Young women before her, fashionably late and gleefully received by her hosts and hostesses in one or another outlandishly stylish get-up, or simply not at all.
Amelia’s stomach suddenly growled, bringing her back to her dreary, sparse sprawl of a home. She glanced up at the clock. It was already midday. It had tick, tocked, ticked, tocked away the morning. A reliably soothing sound that usually brought Amelia comfort but now, in the middle passage between reminiscing and being brought back to reality the sound of the clock seemed momentarily alien. Secret chambers, prised open, at least enough to let a little light in, had all but stolen the start to her day.
The newspaper still lay on the front patio, wrapped in its protective plastic sheath. A ruby grapefruit, halved and neatly segmented, sat on the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee cold and all but untouched. It was then that Amelia remembered one of her mother’s many mythical bedtime stories, of how, long, long ago, when the world was born, the Chinese gods had left the fate of their new creation to the superior race of cats. However, upon their return to check in on things, three times over, they had discovered, sadly, that chaos reigned, so little did the cats care for the demands of the task. The all-knowing but inherently lazy custodians, as it turned out, were instead naturally inclined to long hours sleeping in the warm sunlight, playing with fallen cherry blossoms or grooming their illustrious coats and raking their impressive claws on the nearest tree. It was then that man and woman were left to be their own agents of destiny. The gods decreed that from that day onwards the matter of keeping time would be left to the cats, hoping for all that it would be a better fit for the greater good on earth.
Time. There it was again. Another of her mother’s many “Social Constructs,” of which she was constantly reminded, as if forever drummed into her. Whether Amelia cared or not anymore. “Not linear and straightforward at all, sweetheart, no matter what those teachers tell you!” Maybe the Chinese gods were right. Maybe cats were better arbiters of time. Knowing how to stretch time, curl it back on itself for repair, or loop it around like a figure 8 for eternity. Anything’s possible, she supposed. She turned her attention once more to her own feline conundrum. She noted the bowl of pilchards licked clean. And felt a new sensation creeping up on her, though she could not quite place it. She turned again to the clean bowl. Then to the stray of motley colours tucked ever so snugly into itself like the Nautilus shell she’d once found as a child, combing the shoreline with her mother. It seemed already so very at home, nestled into the arm of her beige threadbare sofa. Once more, she struggled to name the feeling, the strange sensation that had come over her. It seemed to sit so uncomfortably, yet there it was again as a small unwilling smile turned the corners of her mouth. Happy, she thought at last. Was that it? She wondered. Here to stay or not, much as the cat, only time would tell.
Tick tock. Tick tock. She thought back on the black cat wall clock in her Nana’s kitchen, a tail for a swinging pendulum. Her Nana cared not if her house would’ve been thought kitsch by some. Babushka dolls. Nutcracker Princes. Miniature animals cut from Russian crystal that when turned, ever so gently in the light, reflected magical broken shards of colour like some inside-out kaleidoscope. Bespoke glassware with ice-cream swirls of all shapes and sizes. Vases sprouting bunch upon bunch of bright silk flowers, almost life-like if you didn’t know any better. A jukebox in one corner. A fun-house mirror in another. It was like going to the carnival every day. Her Nana crammed every crevice and filled every blank space with the whimsical, the wonderful, the beautiful, the bizarre and often the just plain crazy wherever she could and in equal measure. “So, what do you think of our new friend?” she had asked the young Amelia, serving up her famous pink and white coconut ice squares with one hand and gesturing to the new wall clock with the other. “I like it a lot, Nana,” she had attempted, watching its upside down black question mark swing back and forth in perfect time, with a mouthful of coconut shavings and sugar and red food colouring. “Do you know, they worshipped a cat god in Egypt,” her Nana went on. “Bast. Or in Ancient Greece, known as Ailuros, meaning the tail that waves. Isn’t that clever?” A good memory. Before it all.
“So?” Amelia turned to the now slumbering, softly purring creature. “How about it, Ailuros?”
Featured image: Marc Chagall – La Poeté