This happened when Holly was six.
We had these neighbours — Olivia and Mark. Olivia was an English teacher, and forever quoting unknown poets. Mark was a lawyer, very high-flying, hardly ever home until late in the evening. They were old fashioned people. Nice.
They had a daughter called Pleasance, who was lovely. Hated her name of course, but I suspect she grew to love it when she was older and wanted to be different. I used to wish sometimes that I had been brave enough to call Holly something different, something more special. Anemone perhaps. Or Peony — my favourite flower.
They had a son too, although I don’t really remember him. By the time of this story he was down south, at university. When he came up for holidays, he would come over and say hello, Mrs. O’Brien. He would smile and pretend not to see Holly. Then after fifteen minutes he would leave, mission accomplished. I don’t remember his name.
More important than anything else — they had a cat. The cat was called Rosie. A grey cat, with tabby like stripes in her fur, which was thicker on her belly. And large grape green eyes, with uneven black slits.
It was what the cat did to Holly. She had this favourite chair, which she would sit in all day, with soft blue arms, and a rest for her head. And when Rosie came over Holly would grow quiet, would sit still in her chair, and follow her around the room with her eyes. Sometimes Holly would hold bits of food in her hand, usually biscuits, or some left over cuts from last night’s dinner. She would hold them flat in her hand and watch Rosie come to her. Then Rosie would eat, and she would settle, each time in a different place. Usually it would be on Holly’s lap, head tucked into her stomach so that she could feel it when Rosie purred. Sometimes, when it was colder, Rosie would wrap herself all round Holly’s feet — they were always cold, no matter how many pairs of socks we gave her.
When Rosie was over Holly was different. She was gentle, she was — soft. She used to sing to Rosie — mixed up lullabies and fairytales, and snatches of songs from the radio. And Rosie would purr — she was good at that. It would sound like an engine starting loud inside the house, and if you weren’t expecting it, it could make you jump. That always made Holly laugh.
And then Mark and Olivia moved away. To a smaller house, nearer the city. The house was going to Mark’s cousin, who had one son and a dog. It was Mark’s idea, to save money, keep it in the family. Olivia came over a few days before they left to say that they would be sad to go and that they would miss us — and Holly. Dear Holly. She brought Pleasance and half chocolate Florentines that she said she had made. She told us that he would love Mark’s cousin and his wife. That they would love us. And Holly. Dear Holly.
Of course Rosie went with them.
When we tried to explain this to Holly she understood immediately. Just said yes in a small voice and curled her fingers up over the treats in her palm. Yes Mum. And when the dog barked for the first time, she looked out the window at the dividing hedge and cried just a little bit, making a noise low in the her mouth like a whale calling.
When I woke up that night I thought for a second that I was on holiday. The world was quieter than normal, Dan’s breath not heaving and no cars on the road outside. And beneath the stillness there was a humming, a low decibel calling, as if we were at the bach and small sea birds were nesting on the shore.
My brain added in rolling sea, and I could hear it crash and drag against the sand. I thought maybe it was water-starved, because I grew up beside the sea, and now I was so far away in a house with no horizons.
I opened my eyes, and the sea disappeared, leaving only the fading squeaks of the birds, nesting and calling out to each other. They did not go away. I waited till Dan’s alarm went off. I opened my eyes and watched his shoulder move as he picked up the clock from his table and swore gently.
‘How far away from the sea are we?’
‘Good three kilometres,’ Dan said, one hand draped across his eyes, and groaning at the prospect of another day of work. ‘More. Why?’
‘I thought I heard the sea,’ I said. ‘And birds. Sea birds.’
He didn’t lift his hand. ‘You’re mad, Lily.’
I sat up and turned on the lights.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I know I am.’
When he had left, mug of thick black coffee still in his hand, I went to get Holly up, because her breakfast was ready. It was a special breakfast, French toast with brown sugar, because she was often worse on Wednesdays, and because I no longer had anything to hold up for her, nothing to say — if you’re good, maybe.
When I went into her room she was awake, lying on the floor, head pressed against the wooden boards of the floor. When she saw me she smiled. ‘Mao,’ she said, and pointed to her ear. ‘Mao.’
‘No,’ I said, lifting her by her arms till she was standing. ‘No Mao today, sorry Holly.’
She said nothing during breakfast, just smiled and ate her toast quickly. When I wiped the crumbs of sugar off her face, she followed my hand with hers. Then she licked the back of her hand, and wiped it along her cheek out towards her ears. She was making noise, a rumbling that started deep in her throat.
‘Mao!’ she said. ‘Mao! Yes, mum, yes.’
She took a handful of biscuits, picking out the little blue-grey fish because they were Rosie’s favourite. Then she sat in her chair all day, not moving, just singing snatches of songs under her breath and watching the window nearest the hedge which we still left slightly open.
When Dan came home she did not laugh, and jump out of her seat like she normally did, too impatient to wait for him to put down his case before wanting to hear his day in detail. She sank even lower, head disappearing down her spine so that her head curled around itself and onto her face, held out her blue stained hand to where he stood in the doorway and cried.
‘No Mao,’ she said. ‘No Mao.’
And Dan took the crumpled biscuits out of her hand and threw them away out the window. He looked at me and shook his head before turning back and letting her undo his tie with her staining hands.
‘No Mao,’ he said. ‘No Mao. Good girl.’
That night I had a dream about rats scurrying insides the walls. There were twenty of them all white with pink eyes. Then they grew large red feather-plumed hats and hands, each right one holding a sword and they talked to each other in high rising squeaks, which were soft, and faded.
I opened my eyes, and in the other room I could hear Holly, speaking to herself in snatches. She was early, at least for a weekend, and I knew that soon she would get tired of herself and call out for me or for Dan to come and just be with her. I closed my eyes, wishing that we had gone to bed earlier and it wasn’t so dark. Still the noises were there — no longer squeaks but chirrups and gurgles, as if last night’s small sea birds were still nesting nearby.
I slept again, and dreamed of going illegally to the tennis court cliffs beside Piha. In my dreams the sounds were the blue penguins that nested there, among the tussock. Dan and Holly were there too. They were holding hands at the edge of the cliff, against the sun and as I watched they lifted their hands and jumped. They did not sink though, just stood on air above the water and laughed.
I woke up.
‘I’m going mad,’ I said to Dan’s back, still rising and falling. Dan laughed.
‘You and me both.’ He rolled over to face me, and groaned. In my left ear I heard another two squeaks, high and quick and fading. With my right hand I pointed through the mattress to the floor.
‘Dan,’ I said. ‘Dan — I can hear — ‘
He sighed, bringing his palms up to met the underside of his cheek. ‘Lily — Lily when we want something — sometimes our mind can play’
I knew this talk. I could say it backwards. I turned over, pulling the blankets hard so they unravelled around him.
‘Shut up,’ I said. Almost into my pillow. ‘Oh shut up, Dan.’
Dan made breakfast. He pulled Holly’s chair up to the table so we could eat together.
‘Well,’ he said, looking at the two of us. ‘Well, I must say this is very pleasant. Here with my two lovely women.’
Holly liked to be called that. Woman. Dad’s woman. So she was still laughing, snorting bits of milk out of the side of her mouth, when the window against the hedge shuddered slightly, as if in a tiny wind. And in walked Rosie.
‘Rosie,’ Holly said, for the first time, and we stared at her. Through the corner of my eye I could see Rosie pick her way through the books and bowls on the table, and jump lightly into Holly’s lap.
‘Rosie,’ Holly said again. ‘Rosie. Good Mao.’
Dan poured too many biscuits into Holly’s hand, and they overflowed and sank into the chairs cushions. Some of them fell onto the floor and Rosie followed them. Then she jumped back up onto Holly and ate out of her hands, tongue licking and smudging the biscuit colour into her palms.
‘It’s a long way to come,’ I said. ‘Rosie, I mean.’
‘Only four k.’ Dan shrugged. ‘Cats are meant to travel four times that in the wild. More.’
He walked over to the bench, pulled a plastic plate from the drawer and filled it with biscuits. He picked out the brown ones, and put them on the table beside the bowl. Poured again.
‘They come,’ Dan said, ‘they do, when they’ve got something to come back for.’
Again he picked out the brown biscuits, so the bowl was stacked high with blue-grey fish.
‘Something special,’ he said.
‘Rosie,’ I heard Holly say, behind me. ‘Rosie.’
‘Yes,’ I said, over my shoulder, smile big in my voice. ‘Yes, Rosie. Good girl Holly.’
‘No,’ Holly said, voice tearing, and I turned around. ‘No. No Mao. No Rosie.’
Rosie was gone, leaving a rounded dent and fur in Holly’s lap. Dan was there, he was stroking Holly’s hair back from her face.
‘No,’ he agreed. ‘No, Rosie’s gone, Holly. Yes. Right. Good girl.‘
‘She’ll be back,’ I said. ‘I’m sure she will. Back soon, Holly.’
‘Yes. Dan said and smiled at me.
But Holly moaned, low and long and scratching at the back of her throat. Started banging her head against the soft round rest on the top of her chair.
‘Stop it Holly,’ I said. ‘Please.’
But she didn’t. She hit the rest so hard that her arms shuddered. Dan picked her up so her legs drooped over his left arm and he had to walk sideways through the doors. He put her on her bed, on top of the blankets — still shaking. He covered her with a blue night-sky blanket, and stepped back, holding it down softly so that she could not shake it off.
‘I’ll buy you a kitten,’ he said. This was desperation — Dan did not believe in bribes. ‘Please, Holly. A little Mao. Please.’
This made her close her eyes. She stopped moaning, started saying Mao my Mao over and over again, faster and slower. Water leaked from the edges of her eyes.
And of course the phone rang. It always seemed to, when Holly was like this, and I shouldn’t leave her. It was Olivia, asking about Rosie.
‘She’s disappeared. By any chance?’
‘Yes.’ I closed the door, so Holly couldn’t hear us. ‘Yes Rosie came here. Turned up this morning.’
‘Oh,’ Olivia laughed. ‘Well. What a relief. Not dead. Just in Mount Albert.’ She repeated these two phrases to someone behind her, who laughed. ‘We’ll come and pick her up, shall we?’
‘She’s not here any more.’
The laughter on the other end stopped.
‘Where is she?’
‘No idea.’ I paused. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh.’ Olivia laughed again. ‘She won’t be far — if she’s come all that way, she’s hardly likely to make a return journey, is she Lily?’
‘No,’ I said.
And then in the other room Holly said, ‘Help. Mum.’
‘Good bye,’ I said, ‘Goodbye Olivia.’
Holly was repeating my name, the sounds running in on each other — mamamamamama. And then behind them, beneath them there was that tiny seabird moan, soft on the air — close.
My hands were sweaty, sticking on the door handle, turning it the wrong way. ‘Coming Holly,’ I said, loud so she could hear it.
And then I opened the door and her voice stopped.
Holly was on the floor, on her stomach. Deep in the corner of her room there was a kitten, small and brightly ginger. Its eyes were still closed, and it was standing, head pointing away from Holly, and calling in sharply rising squeaks.
‘Mum.’ Holly slithered forward on her stomach. Held out her arms so they were circled like a wall around the kitten. ‘Mum. Mao.’
‘Yes.’ I said. I pulled her right hand so it was on the kitten’s body, rubbed it softly down the small space of its back. ‘Yes. Gentle with the Mao, Holly.’
Holly nodded. She sang to the kitten, small and under her breath. A lullaby.
I left the two of them, went outside. There was Rosie, a little black body in her mouth. Rosie’s tail was up and she was stalking through the grass, wet blades sticking to her legs. At the door she waited, patiently staring at me until I retraced my steps, and opened it for her. I left the door open. Followed the small rounded prints around the house to where Dan was lying in the grass, head just under the house.
‘Lily,’ he said, bringing his eyes out. ‘Lily, look.’
Just inside the hole there was a nest, made of bits of wood and the mattress cover from our old bed. And in the nest were four kittens, all on their feet towards us, eyes closed and calling. They still sounded like seabirds, like far-off mutton birds or quietened gannets. When Dan reached out and touched one, it turned into his hand, running its little tongue over his thumb.
‘I said it was something special.’
So Rosie stayed.
When I called Pleasance answered, and said yes straight away.
‘Yes, for Holly. Dear Holly. She’ll like the kittens, won’t she?’
‘Thank you Pleasance.’
We called them all after sea birds — gannet and albatross and cormorant and tern. All but the little ginger, the first one. He was a little boy, but Holly called him Peony. The birds all went to good homes, friends of Dan’s from work who had small children, or who came to our house for afternoon coffee and fell in love. All except Peony. He was Holly’s. We kept him.