In the morning, the news came through about the little cat. The girl’s phone rung so obtrusively next to her pillow and so early, that she woke sharply holding her head in her hands.
‘Claraaaa?’ came her
mum’s voice. ‘Hmm, what?’ said Clara. ‘Darling, it’s Fyodore. You better get up and come home. She’s dying.’
Clara threw the bed sheets off. ‘Rubbish. She was playing last week, she’s fine.’
Gabriel lay at his girlfriend’s back in a daze. He watched the blinds move in and out of focus. He looked like a leopard in the bed sheets, brown skinned and thick and she like a ghost sucked from coma. They discussed arrangements for the vet and Clara got irritable, as she always did.
‘That isn’t how it works’ she snapped. ‘You stand with her. You hold her. That is how it’s done.’ She emphasized ‘done’, wondering how it was possible to get to the age of 55, having had so many pets, without knowing the right way put one down.
She hung up and lay back for a while. After some time Gabriel plunked a kiss on her back to let her know he was there but all Clara could think was: why hasn’t he said anything? Doesn’t he know it’s appropriate to speak?
The vet reached in and dragged the crumpled cat out onto the stainless steel and it flopped down like a bag of sand.
‘It’s hard to say,’ said the vet, ‘chronic immune deficiencies often lead to growths for obvious reasons, but then of course it may have been the steroids, these things are hard to place.’ Clara studied the vet’s face for anything untoward. He had little growths too, skin coloured moles elevated on his face. There were probably more under his beard. ‘Can you show me where the cancer is?’
Clara’s mum was wet faced. She stood next to Gabriel, who seemed unsure of how to be in the room. ‘She’s been a gorgeous thing – a real good girl,’ said Mum. Clara kept quiet. She felt exhausted. She’d been watching the cat push and pull against this feeble life like a weed in the desert forever.
‘Would you like a clipping of her hair?’ said the vet.
On the way out, Clara pulled Gabriel in close and blurted out: ‘Let’s go to the beach. Dad’s in one of those races. I always miss his races and he gets shitty. We should go; it’s the right thing to do, yeah?’
They drove the new highway. Clara wanted to drive.
‘Fuck I feel guilty,’ she said, getting onto the Frankston bypass. ‘I feel guilty for keeping her alive on all those steroids. No wonder she was so depressed all the time.’
Gabriel watched the ugly paddocks blur past. He thought about his childhood.
‘When I was little I wanted to die too for a while, but couldn’t seem to get there.’
Clara shot him a glance.
‘My father died and I didn’t like my mother. I jumped out of her bedroom window two stories up once, but it backfired and I landed on her car.’
‘Jesus.’ said Clara, ‘Were you hurt?’
‘Nah.’ Gabriel turned the radio on. Clara turned it down again. They went under the east-link toll sensors and something in the car beeped.
‘It’s good we’re going to this thing,’ she said. Then she told him the story of Garry the compere and how each year dad would ask him to mind his car keys while he swam the race because he never had any family members with him. Garry would get frustrated because it was always the most inopportune moment, when he had his hands full with 400 swimmers swamping the shoreline, trying to force them into some sort of assembly. How each year dad would repeat the same line: ‘Sorry Gaz, next year I’ll bring someone.’
On the beach two hundred or so swimmers scattered the sand. They looked like green-backed spiders; their slippery bodies covered in black wetsuits, green caps atop their heads. The sun barked down from the roof of the sky and Clara worried about her fair skin and the fact she had no sunscreen on.
She felt happy there with Gabriel, pushing through the wet spiders looking for her dad. But didn’t find him in time and then the gun fired. She stood knee deep in the water, hand shading her eyes, searching, disappointed he wouldn’t even know she had come. Off they swam like little lemmings, a swarm of arms flailing in the surf.
At the finish line, was a blow up red pergola saying ‘FINISH LINE’. Tents had been assembled with families standing in their shade. Sausages and onions were being fried and big blue crates with hundreds of bananas and bottles of water stood waiting to be consumed.
A few elderly citizens dressed in kilts and tartan stood in a circle playing the bagpipes on the dunes. Gabriel felt this was a real Australian affair, having come from neighbourhoods far away where fatherless children never learnt to swim, in fact, never saw the water at all.
Clara led Gabriel by the hand to the finish line and they squished in amongst the bodies and felt the shallow waves splash against their shins. On the horizon the first of the jutting elbows showed. Garry, the compere yelled: ‘Hey folks! Can we step back from the line, give the swimmers some space thanks?’
Slowly the green-backs began to make it into shore, shaking and panting like wet dogs. They’d run through the clapping crowd and then someone would yell out ‘Dan!’ or ‘Robbo!’ or ‘Trish!’ and slap them on the back, saying things like ‘Well done’, and ‘Onya, mate.’ The quicker their time, the more lean and young they were. But to Clara the younger they were the more strained they looked. They’d hold their waists and bend over, so serious. Dad would probably be different; limping, laughing; slow and slight.
As more tumbled in, tripping on the sand, they got older and more withered.
‘They look relieved!’ laughed Gabriel, above the splatter and din.
‘S’pose they’re happy they’ve arrived at all,’ said Clara.
‘Where is he?’ Did he come in already?’
‘Nah. I didn’t see him. I’ve watched everyone.’ She stood stiff, looking hard out to the horizon, camera in hand, ready to take a snap shot.
There were less people by the finish line now. The trickle of swimmers had slowed. She looked down at the waves cascading around her feet and thought about Fyodore. What if dad too wasn’t coming back, she thought. And she felt a slow cancer grow in her stomach and her face began to burn in the light.
‘There he is!’ yelled Gabriel, and Clara watched the old man wobble out of the waves, his face ghostly with too much sunscreen.
That night Clara and Gabriel lay on the beach. Dad had gone home. It was five o’clock and the sun was still heavy in the sky. They looked at each other, both lying on their sides, heads turned in. She liked the dark colour of his skin and the way it looked against hers. ‘What colour are my eyes?’ she said. Then after a while, ‘Will you go and get my bathers from the car?’ She liked to test him like that. See what she could get away with and how easily. But he said no and she was glad.
In the water they held each other and the waters ballooned between their skins and they said one, two, three and dropped under together. And for a split second in the dead of the sea Fyodore came to her, swimming frantically against the rip, and she realised how blessed she’d been, to have not one body but two to hold on to.