Emily wants to try and find a cat. I take her to our usual spot, a garden tucked away behind a derelict apartment building. There’s a square of stone benches in the center of a paved courtyard, soaking in the heat of the sun. It’s surrounded by fig trees that loom over a mess of undergrowth, sprays of burgundy fountain grass and soft, green maidenhair ferns. The trees are swollen with birds, colorful flashes of rosella wings among the leaves. I let out a low groan as I sit on a bench, leaning forward with both hands on the pommel of my cane, watching Emily as she peers into the undergrowth. Her blue dress is frilled, her straw hat rimmed by satin ribbon. Her small hands part the long grass, her eyes wide. The birds warble and chirp and shift in the branches.
‘Come here,’ I whisper.
She smiles and skips over. ‘Do you think we’ll see a cat today, Grandad?’
I smile at her and reach into my pocket, take out a silver tin of sardines. ‘I hope so.’
She rests her elbows on my knee and watches as I flex the stiffness from my hand. I hook a finger into the ring-pull on the can. It opens with a soft screech of metal and a smell of fishy oil. Emily wrinkles her nose.
‘When was the last time you saw a cat, Grandad?’
A memory of a tail, marmalade tiger striped, swaying. Reaching out a hand to take a hold of it. The tail slipping through my tiny fist, swaying away from me. ‘I was even younger than you, my love.’
I hand her the tin of sardines and tell her to be careful. She doesn’t take her eyes off the can as she slowly walks halfway to the tree line. She stops and gingerly places the tin on the warm stone floor. Then she runs back to the stone bench and climbs up next to me.
‘Where did all the cats go, Grandad?’
I take a handkerchief from the pocket of my linen jacket and wipe the sweat from my brow. ‘No one knows. One day we woke up and poof! They were all gone. It was like every cat in the world had attended a special meeting and together they had all decided to hide from us.’
She frowns and chews her lips. ‘Did we make them mad?’
‘Maybe we did,’ I say, and tickle her side. ‘Maybe we should have fed them more fish. Or bought them more balls of yarn.’
Emily giggles and my heart clenches. I watch her watching the undergrowth. The birds squawk and flutter in the fig trees. She tries to make a cat sound but it comes out wrong, sort of a muw muw. She’s never really heard the proper sound before, never felt the vibration of a purr travelling up her arm, never seen eyes flashing in the darkness.
‘Do you think there’s any cats anywhere anymore, Grandad?’
I hesitate, looking up at the trees where the birds preen each other, bold and lazy. Do I tell her that twenty years ago I found a possum on my back doorstep, gutted open, fur speckled with dried blood, black eyes staring out? Do I tell her how I searched the garden for paw prints? How I put out a saucer of milk on that doorstep every night for a week?
I tell her, ‘I hope there are, my love.’
And then the birds in the trees are suddenly still. The silence is shocking. I can feel all the dark, empty windows in the face of the crumbling apartment block looking down at us. We can hear the wind moving through the fountain grass, the tall stalks waving back and forth. I hold Emily’s hand.
The birds burst into the air, a fury of wings beating into the clear blue sky.
In the undergrowth something sways towards us.