Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Hey thoughtless, don't ruin the park for me!

The only place I can really get to on my own, with twins and a toddler, without someone meeting me at the other end is the park up the road. It’s literally across the street. I can time it to avoid breastfeeding and nappy changes and still get maximum time outside. The babies nap in the pram and the bigger one can have her morning tea and play for at least a couple of hours. I feel safe there. I’m not anxious about taking heaps of time to pack and unpack the car or fulfil the kids’ needs away from home and I know if anything happens I don’t have far to go to be back in the comfort and security of home.

Sometimes though, I come home feeling disappointed and cranky that I even bothered and it’s not because of anything my kids have done. It’s other people. Don’t get me wrong. The majority of the time I meet absolutely beautiful strangers. Mums, sometimes with twins themselves or children close together who understand the chaos my life entails, often connect with me in the moment. We don’t even get each other’s names. We just learn the ages of our children and chat quickly about what we are experiencing most recently. We share a little bit of the anguish we feel, but by instinctively trying to buoy each other’s spirits, end up finding the positivity and humour in our own situations. It’s what keeps me going back to the park. That and watching my toddler roll around in the sand, run in the grass and sunshine, climb, swing and try to befriend other children. She forages for leaves and sticks and collects rocks. She watches insects and points out birds; she lights up when she sees dogs. She giggles at the wonder of smaller children and idolises the older ones; following them around and copying their bravery. 

The disappointment and frustration I feel escapes her. She isn’t aware of what I am aware of. She doesn’t see the flaws and dysfunction like I do. I myself know that these moments are insignificant in the scheme of things and won’t prevent me from going out, but they are important enough for me to think them through and dwell on them. Probably more than I should, but I feel they deserve enough attention to be addressed and to extract some sort of learning from them. At the very least I need to make sense of these incidents within myself so that they don’t bother me next time, because I know I will come across the same stuff again and again.

Some mothers are not friendly. They don’t make eye contact. They don’t return your smiles or acknowledgment. Their children are the same. When my child approaches them, they turn her away or turn away from her. It’s no big deal. You never know what someone is going through or how they are feeling. Their hostility is just my interpretation and for all I know they could be in a world of fatigue, pain, depression, fear, anxiety that I know nothing about. They don’t owe me anything. They don’t have to say hello or smile. They’re not there for me. It would be nice if we could all put aside our personal feelings and experiences when we are out in public so as to connect with other human beings and allow that human interaction to soothe us and to temporarily fulfil us, give us joy and maybe heal our ills, but there is no obligation. It’s an unwritten social contract that a nice community, a civilised society is reliant on people being courteous to each other. 

I can handle being ignored or watching my child being ignored, what irks me is actual hostility. The adults are subtle. They’ll just ignore you, maybe scowl imperceptibly or do inconsiderate things like litter, park their cars selfishly, bump into you, get in your way and pretend they don’t see you, but generally they don’t tell you to fuck off even if they’re thinking it – sometimes they do though. But kids do, they innocently verbalise their discontent. 

The other day my daughter approached two older boys at the park smiling and giggling. She has no fear or shyness about other children. She’s a bit of a busy body. She spends a lot of time alone with just me and her baby sisters because she doesn’t go to kindy yet. She’s only two and she’s quite content at home at this age and while I’m home looking after her, there is no rush to institutionalise her too early, there’ll be plenty of time for her to be out in the world. In my experience, children that do attend day care or some sort of formal establishment with other children, don’t necessarily socialise any better at that age. I’ve found they’re sometimes less willing to engage with others because they get enough of it and want to be left alone at every opportunity. Neither is any more or less right or beneficial in my opinion. She’s the opposite. She wants to know what other kids are up to, what they have and if she can join in. I’m trying to guide her to know how to do this with respect and without being a pest, but she’s two and all she knows is that if there are other kids around, she wants to play with them. As soon as she approached, one of the boys stood up to her, he was taller, bigger and said “No. We don’t want to play with you because you’re a girl.”

My heart skipped a beat. She didn’t flinch. She probably didn’t even understand what he was saying, but to me it was the start of a social script that she was going to internalise. Over and over again, if she hears it enough and feels it enough, she is going to think that she can’t because she is a girl. My feminist brain exploded, but I kept my distance (she was in the sand and I was on the path with the twins in the pram) and didn’t get involved. I watched them continuously turning away from her, walking away, taking their toys and her innocently thinking it was a game and following them. I intervened only by trying to get her attention and diverting it to something else. I led her to another area next to children and a lovely mum who were willing to play with her. It’s not the boys’ fault. They’re babies themselves. Wanting to play uninterrupted, not wanting to share their bikes and having no obligation to do so, but they were unkind and incidentally, there was no one around to correct them and encourage them to be nicer. Their mums were sitting away from them, not paying any attention to them whatsoever, deep in their own conversations. Again, they have every right to….sort of. Maybe they really needed a deep and meaningful. Us mothers rely on our connection with other mothers, but perspective, priorities. Make time and space for those connections to happen, but if you take your kids to the park, maybe supervise their behaviour. Not only for their own safety, but so we can all as parents, encourage our children to play nice. To practice kindness to one another without compromising their own needs or being martyrs. They don’t have to play with each other, they don’t have to share their toys if they don’t want to or if they are busy playing with them. They don’t always have to be inclusive, especially if they are deep in a game and some stranger expects to be included. But be kind. Say kind words. Be conscientious of other people’s feelings. Children need help to do this and if the adults don’t know how or can’t be bothered to negotiate civilised human interaction, what hope do the kids have.

You don’t have to be a helicopter parent to observe children in their play, leave them to their own devices, but at the same time know when to intervene to guide them to be kind and prevent and avoid conflict. It is also ok to make sure your children are safe at the park or out in public generally. It’s ok to demand a safe and secure space for children to play and mothers to occupy without having to compromise that experience to share the space with people who don’t belong there or don’t know how to behave appropriately there. 

I hate it when older kids from the high school up the road come to hang out on the play equipment at the park. They run up the stairs, run down the slide, swing roughly, throw sand or rocks, shout. I know they have a right to go wherever they want, but how about knowing your place. How about showing some respect and maturity and understanding that if there are small children and babies around, it’s not the place to be boisterous and behave like lunatics. You might not only injure a child, you’re being a shitty example and a nuisance.

I also hate it when some adults invade that space inappropriately. I recently confronted an incident and was shot down by most people and while I totally saw their point and knew the risk I was taking, I didn’t give a shit and felt I did the right thing and was happy to look like a bloody idiot, but take the precaution.

I was at the park with a friend. The twins were in the pram and she and I were swinging our toddlers. A man with tripods and camera equipment turned up to the park and asked us, (rhetorically, he wasn’t anticipating us to say no and I wish I had), if we minded if he took some photos of the area. He said he wouldn’t photograph our children directly, but we may be in some of the photos. He was middle aged and well dressed; he looked like an intelligent person. He knew full well that it was something that could be misconstrued or that it may make us uncomfortable, but he didn’t give a shit and he didn’t approach anyone else at the park for permission, just us, tokenistically. I didn’t immediately say yes. I asked him what it was for. He said it was for real estate purposes around the area. I didn’t make a big thing. He didn’t show me any identification and I didn’t quiz him further. I acquiesced. I didn’t have much choice without making a scene. And that’s exactly what he knew would happen. He didn’t give a shit how uncomfortable it made us or how suspicious it looked; he had zero respect for our feelings or the security of that space where mums and kids come to play with some level of privacy and safety. He carried on fulfilling his own needs. 

I gave him the benefit of the doubt and we ignored him. I did openly take my phone out and photographed him just in case and he didn’t seem to care. Later that afternoon I went home to read about a recent incident nearby where a man was caught photographing children suspiciously at a local school. Alarm bells rang and I panicked a bit. So I went to social media where I think you can be as open and expressive as you want and get messages and information out quickly. I knew the risk I was taking, that I was potentially unnecessarily vilifying someone, but I thought it through. My intentions were good. I wanted to put it out there just in case and used closed community groups to do it in. I wasn’t accusing him of anything, I just wanted people to know what happened, to see his picture and maybe identify him and speak for him (nobody that knew him personally did) and to eliminate the possibility that the two incidents were connected and that there was anything sinister going on.

That didn’t happen. What I feared would happen happened. People lost their fucking minds and accused me of being a stalker, a monster, out to destroy an innocent man’s reputation. I argued weakly that it wasn’t what I was trying to do at all and that I just wanted to make sure it was ok. That if he felt ok to photograph us and use the pictures for whatever purpose he wanted that he didn’t mind being identified and discussed by the community. I genuinely did it without any malice at all. I just wanted to make sure. The posts were removed from social media. I was called names. Some people suggested I report it to the police. So I did. 

When I rang the police it was like the woman that answered was expecting my call. If she was a local who was on social media, she probably was. She said they’d send someone around and about half an hour later two cops turned up. One was a hostile looking young woman. She came in thinking I was a trouble maker. She left with a little more sympathy and understanding I think. It was obvious I wasn’t a psychopath. I told her and her partner, a giant of a young man who was very serious, as he should have been, that they would have to follow me around and we couldn’t sit down to talk because I was on a schedule and had two babies I had to get down for their nap. We discussed what happened. I told them to excuse my nervousness, but I was genuinely breathless with anxiety that I had two fully armed police officers in my home and how my toddler would interpret this. Like with most things I fret about affecting her, she was oblivious.

I told them what happened and that I hoped I was making a total idiot of myself and was completely wrong and that I felt that being personally attacked and placing myself in the position of a fool if I was wrong was worth it if I was circulating information that was useful if my suspicions were founded. The male officer said a couple of things to me that made me think that not only was he very young and a little bit socially unaware, he was also a bit naïve. He asked me if the man was bothered when I photographed him back and when I said no, he implied that that was enough to show he wasn’t up to anything. He also said to me that if he was well dressed, he must have been ok too. These two things annoyed me. Just because he didn’t care if I took a photo of him and that he was well dressed didn’t mean a thing. I argued that he knew he was making us uncomfortable. He knew that enough to half heartedly ask for our permission. I mean what did he think it would look like?  A middle aged man, turning up to a playground taking photos of the area around children. If he was doing it for work, why not wait until the playground was empty or cordon off an area. If he needed photos showing high traffic or people frequenting the park, provide those people or by all means use us, but show us some information. Introduce yourself properly, give us your card, make us feel at ease that you aren’t up to anything. Don’t mothers and their kids deserve at least that courtesy? At the very least it’s lazy and unethical, just to save a buck and some time.
When I expressed all this to the cops in between wrapping and tucking in my babies and ushering my toddler out to the lounge room I think they saw that it was clear that I didn’t have time for this bullshit. I wasn’t some bored sociopath wanting to start drama or out to get someone. I was genuinely concerned that something untoward had happened. It made me uncomfortable and had I not read about the other incident I would have just lived with my discomfort and carried on.

I don’t regret it and I’d do it again. This time I’d go straight to the cops first, but there is nothing legally to stop me from utilising social media and despite placing myself at the mercy of other people’s indiscriminate abuse, I’d post his photo up again.

It’s hard being a positive and kind person and parent when you are socially aware of the risks society can pose to your children and at the same time knowing the potential there is to raise kind and strong individuals who see the world as a safe and enriching place full of people genuinely wanting to do good things and have positive connections. I know I fret more than I should and that bringing this stuff to my children’s attention risks creating a problem in the first place, one that if I just let things slide they’ll not really notice exists and can just go on being blissfully unaware, but prevention is better than cure and I’m getting involved. I can’t help myself. We should all be engaging. It’s a fine line between naivety and resilience.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Bridge Parties

The snow had only just started to fall, but it had been cold for weeks. It was a preview of what was to come. At least it gave everyone a chance to prepare. To stock up on fire wood and heaters, gloves, hats and scarves, thermals. The snow sales were a bust. You were lucky to score a pair of pants in the correct size. Some people lined up or sent generous friends to buy up everything and divvy it up later. Some stuff sold out fast and later showed up on the classified pages online. Kym had her stuff from the snow trip three years ago. It was daggy and second hand, but it still fit and she wasn’t prepared to replace it yet. Had it not been for Naya’s premature exit, she would have been rugged up on the couch in front of the tele with the air con blaring drinking port. Not at the bridge crying her heart out, icy tears and snot burning her face.

Naya was a skinny, shy little girl, standing by herself, waiting excruciatingly for the classroom door to finally open on her first day at her new school in 4th grade, when Kym spotted her and thinking her completely pathetic, approached her, lest her mother’s voice in her head suffocated her with guilt. Naya barely spoke above a whisper she was so crippled with insecurity and Kym being the boisterous, jolly soul she was, easily diverted all the attention on to herself. They became immediate friends. Naya would have spent the rest of her school days alone if Kym hadn’t befriended her. Kym was too much to bear for anyone else. Their connection was the perfect symmetry and it was to last a lifetime, one that ended prematurely for Naya. Her illness finally claimed her a fortnight short of her 37th birthday and although Kym had months of cold preparation, she still wasn’t prepared for the winter that was about to descend on her.

After high school they went their separate ways. Naya was always going places academically and ended up doing a college exchange in the US for a few years, while Kym stayed behind and worked in her mother’s shop, making a measly income and waiting around for whoever was going to father her children. That’s the way she saw it. She wasn’t a romantic. She didn’t dream about the cliché of a fairytale romance. She just wanted someone who had the guts to put up with her and was at least willing to stick around. All she wanted was babies. She didn’t really think about the details. She never left her home suburb. She lived with her mother until Mr Bland came along; who by the way was a sweet, strong and reliable man that loved her deeply. She was lucky in that regard. They bought a humble home and raised three kids while they were still young, while Naya globe trotted her way around the world earning diplomas and degrees effortlessly. When she finally did come home they were both in their late twenties and while not much had changed in Kym’s world (except the mammoth changes that no one gives enough credit to becoming a mother brings), Naya was a completely different person; worldly and sophisticated; educated, experienced. She wanted a baby, but wasn’t really prepared to drop everything and settle down to have a traditional family, especially if it meant giving up her independence and her three figured salary. She was working as a lecturer at the university she’d attended; she was writing and teaching and loving life. She was able to buy real estate in the city and while Kym was happy to have stayed put, Naya saw that world as her past. Somehow their identities had drifted apart, but the love they had for each other, their friendship, their connection still mirrored those two 4th grade girls in the playground; giggling at nothing, looking up dirty words in the dictionary in the library, making fun of the bullies and swapping their lunch. The only problem they had now was geography.

Neither one of them enjoyed going to where the other one lived. Kym hated the city. She drove only locally and wasn’t confident on public transport. The kids were all at school now and she spent her days looking after the family home and helping her elderly mother manage her shop. She liked her closed little world and didn’t venture far from her comfort zone very often. Naya dreaded returning home. It reminded her of the intimidated, miserable little girl she had been and the trapped teenager she shed when she escaped to university abroad. She never learned to drive. She didn’t have to. She was a born traveller and always found a way to get to where she wanted to go. She loved public transport – she’d sampled systems all over the world. She cycled or walked where she could, but all three of those options were useless to get her to the suburbs. Public transport was a possibility, but it would take her literally hours and many connecting trips and it would just be easier to pay for a taxi.

The city and the suburbs were separated by a lake. Both could relatively easily get to the lake; Kym could drive, Naya could cycle. It was crossing that lake that was the obstacle. A ferry operated twice a day – early in the morning and late in the evening. It mainly catered for the workers commuting to the city. A huge bridge was constructed to cross the lake. It was easy enough to travel across, but it was long and traffic was a nightmare. Kym was terrified to drive across it and do battle with the trucks and taxis, Naya didn’t dare cycle it; she swore she’d pass out from the fumes. There was a third arterial road that lead to the coast in the middle of the bridge, almost exactly half way and just before the exit a rest stop and pier were established to give people the opportunity to split their journey in half. 

Once, Kym was driving the kids to a show in the city. The first and only time she dared and only because her mother bought the tickets and was traveling with her. The entire trip was an ordeal and her eldest James then 4, decided he needed to use the bathroom as soon as they’d got on the bridge. It’s 25 minutes on a good run to the rest stop and it’s not the most accommodating place. The rest stop isn’t a family picnic spot; it was intended for truck drivers and cabbies. The toilet is over a giant hole in the ground; festering, stinking – especially in the summer, surrounded by a corrugated iron shed. The pier is often frequented by lone fishermen and the whole place is just unseemly, not welcoming at all to a young mum with kids. People literally stopped there if they were desperate. Other than the toilet and the pier there was nothing else there. No tables or benches, no bins, no running water, barely a gravel road to park the car. Kym’s only choice that day was to utilise those facilities or risk an accident in the car. 

James whined until they stopped, the other two children bickered. Kym and her mother ranted at each other and fretted about finding parking in town and missing the start of the show. When they got there Kym whisked James out of the car, ordered him to hold his breath the moment the stench hit her and had his pants unbuttoned before he knew what was happening. At the exact moment that they opened the corrugated door to leave, practically gasping for air, Kym swung the door open knocking someone on the other side flat. It was Naya. The shock to both of them rendered them mute and frozen momentarily before they both erupted in astounded laughter. James ran to his grandmother in the car; proclaiming loudly to his siblings how there was a giant pit of stinking shit right under the toilet. 

Naya had been cycling over the bridge to the coast and planned to take the exit, but realised mid ride that she’d got her period and needed to stop desperately. It didn’t matter how sophisticated and worldly she thought she was, if she forgot to check her calendar or the bloody friend showed up unexpectedly, she was just like every other woman, she thought to herself. 

They chatted briefly, the years of absence melting away with each anecdote. Kym had to cut it short, her mother and the kids were agitating to get going to the show. Naya vowed to stay in touch. It was easier now with social media, but neither could deny how thrilling it was to catch up with each other in the flesh. They read each other’s minds. This was it. This was going to be their place. They looked about them and silently acknowledged how deserted the place was; how possible it was that they would be taking a risk and that if they were ever confronted with foul play they may be putting themselves in danger, but they both silently shrugged and dismissed that possibility. Why should they compromise? Why should they be afraid? In all the years they met at the bridge, they never once felt that they were in harm’s way. They’d seen all sorts of burly, scary looking blokes there, but most just wanted to take a piss or a nap and left them alone. Kym secretly carried a pocket size can of hair spray just in case; Naya carried a knife. Neither thought that it would ever save their lives if they were really threatened, but it was something. They always made sure someone knew where they were going and were contactable at all times. Kym’s husband worried himself sick every time she went, but that didn’t stop her. Both refused to live in fear; to change their behaviour because of some stupid societal script that told them they were to blame for potential violence against them.

They met at the bridge for the next few years. At any opportunity, whenever they could co ordinate their lives they dedicated a day to spend together alone. The meetings evolved into elaborate picnics, with gourmet food offerings, champagne and the odd joint for old time’s sake. They found a fairly secluded spot under a tree closer to the pier and the water. Kym would park her car and Naya would put her bike in the boot. They took chairs, blankets and music. On warm days they swam. They told people about the spot, but it never really caught on. Over the years it became their little paradise. They celebrated birthdays together, met up on public holidays; they supported each other through life’s disappointments and reveled in their triumphs. They even rang in the new year together once; fearlessly meeting just before midnight – abandoning their families and friends, all the people in their lives to give their friendship the attention and priority it deserved. They both had separate and all consuming lives that they loved and worked hard to maintain, but the importance of their friendship was something neither one of them was willing to compromise, especially as they got older. That connection and its importance only grew.

So it was only natural that Naya told Kym about her illness at one of the bridge get togethers. It was a lazy, warm autumn Friday afternoon. Kym made her husband leave work early to do the school pick ups and organise dinner for the kids. She was going to be home late. Naya left work early and they agreed to meet around 4ish to start cocktail hour. Kym baked a lasagne and made a salad and bought a chocolate cake from the local bakery. She always volunteered to bring the bulk of the food because it was easier to transport by car. Naya always took care of the booze. They set up their stuff at the usual spot and tucked into the meal; catching up with each other’s lives while they ate and drank. They hadn’t seen each other in months. Naya had rehearsed what she was going to say a million times over, but it didn’t come out that way. She just blurted it out.

“Kym I’m dying.”

It didn’t immediately register with Kym, she initially thought Naya was metaphorically dying – to tell her some office gossip, to confide in her about a new relationship, to bitch about her colleagues. Not for a moment did she think that Naya was actually dying. But she was. She’d had the illness dormant in her body most of her life. It had taken her mother when she was a child and her grandmother before that. She’d kept an eye on it, convinced it had spared her, but it hadn’t and it had invaded her body vengefully and violently. She was stage four. She didn’t look ill. She certainly didn’t behave sick – she’d cycled from the city for heaven’s sake. Kym argued it all with her. It just wasn’t possible, the doctors were mistaken. She was having her on. It wasn’t even April, but if she thought this prank was in good taste she was bloody mistaken. It took a few hours of convincing and many questions and Kym wanting every miniscule detail in an attempt to catch her out joking, lying, but it wasn’t so. Naya was dying and she didn’t have long.

The bridge parties subsided after that. They had a couple more get togethers, literally a handful, but Naya’s treatment and rapid deterioration put an end to them. They say, about lots of things, you just never know when the last time will be. The last time was 3 weeks before Naya died. She couldn’t cycle to the bridge, she had a friend drive her. He was someone she’d met abroad and she’d mentioned him to Kym a few times. They had a passionate affair in Europe and travelled together. They ended up in San Francisco for a few months, where he was from, until Naya found herself falling in love and wanting to make the relationship permanent. He was willing, but Naya knew she couldn’t live there. They talked about doing a few years living there and a few years back home for Naya, but they both knew it was never going to work. They really were in love and maintained a strong friendship, but Naya wanted more. She wanted a family, she just didn’t know how to have both that and hold onto her traveling and career. Other women did it. She knew them. She worked and travelled with them. They had babies and still lived that life, but she just never reconciled both – and in the end she got neither. Her illness took over and she had to put everything on hold for treatment. The only thing she sustained through it all was her friendships. It was just so quick. A matter of months really, from diagnosis til the end.

That day, Peter dropped her off and picked her up a few hours later. Kym and Naya didn’t say much that day. They set up their picnic and rugged up against the cold. It was the beginning of the cold snap. Kym had arrived earlier and got a fire going. She warmed up the billy and prepared the scones and cakes, busying herself to avoid thinking too much and bursting into tears. When Naya arrived she looked frail and very bald. She’d warned Kym in her email so she was prepared, but nothing was preparation enough to see her friend so ill. She avoided eye contact throughout the meal. They talked about nothing. They’d never really done that. They always delved so deeply into each conversation, exploring their deepest thoughts and feelings, but unbeknownst to them today was different. It was the last time and they talked about nothing real. They laughed a lot, they reminisced and gossiped. They talked about a pretend future neither of them truly believed would come. 

By the time Peter returned to pick Naya up and they’d cleaned up their picnic there was not much else to say. He waited patiently in the car while they sat in silence, huddled together under a blanket, watching the last of the embers die and the sun descend behind the bush. When it got dark and Peter’s head lights were the only thing illuminating them, they stood up and embraced.

“Thanks for making the effort to come Nay, go home and rest hun.”

“I’m ok. I’m so full. I’ll sleep in the car.”

Kym cried all the way home.

That was the last time. The last time she saw her alive. The last time they met at the bridge. The last embrace. The last laugh. They stayed in touch superficially online. Naya went in for her last surgery two weeks later and never came home. Kym and her family went to the funeral. There were a few familiar faces from school and the old days. She did what she could to help out at the wake, which had been organised by Naya’s colleagues and friends. Her dad was old and just sat there looking glum most of the day.

The very next day Kym was up at the crack of dawn. The kids were still in bed and her husband knew exactly where she was going. He reassured her that he’d sort out the kids and to take all the time she needed. She didn’t have the strength or foresight to prepare food, she simply bought some fish and chips and a coffee at the last kiosk before the bridge. She lit a fire and threw the blanket around herself and cried. She took in every inch of her surroundings. After today she never wanted to return to this place because it was sacred and it was empty without Naya. She never did.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Donna and her Pets


She owned four dogs and two cats; one of the cats had a live litter of three and the other had a dead litter of four. She also had an albino budgie. 

73 year old Donna lived in a small government housing dwelling that she now owned. It was filled with knick knacks and junk that she had collected over the years. Bought at school fetes, found on the footpath during big rubbish, given to her by silly neighbours and made out of bottle tops, spare yarn, empty bottles and craft paint. Donna lived alone most of her adult life, except for her on going adoption of stray animals and unwanted, dumped little urchins. She preferred the company of fauna.

Currently she was living with ten animals. As mentioned she had four dogs. Stella the black kelpie and her son Patch the bull mastiff cross. Stella was accidentally impregnated one day at the park and had a litter of three huge pups. She struggled through the labour and birth, but with Donna’s kind hand and gentle words of encouragement, managed to birth all of them over the course of 17 hours and they all came out happy and healthy; stumbling about with closed gooey eyes, sniffing hard as their mum licked them clean from snout to tail until they found her teats and latched on for dear life, sucking calmly while poor Stella slept away her fatigue; satisfied, blissful. Two of the pups were given away ‘free to good home’ through the local paper. Donna wasn’t about to turn them in to the pound if she could help it and wasn’t prepared to take them to a pet shop. They both went to good homes; one to a 20ish year old boy, a student who wanted a companion and the other a family with two young children, living in a house with a huge yard in the mountains. The third Donna couldn’t part with. He was the baby and Stella was so fond of him that she never let him out of her sight. He was a little smaller than the other two and unlike Stella who was jet black almost all over, Patch was just that; an elaborate patch work of black and white. Donna knew that this mother and son would be a part of her life for a long time; they weren’t just passing through like many of the animals that she cared for.

The other two dogs weren’t as interesting or intelligent. Bob was a bitsa. She honestly had no idea what breeds had made such an ugly little mutt. He was the colour of peanut butter and about the size of a Jack Russell, but he was a fat little bugger with stubby legs and a long thin tail that had a fluffy bit on the end. His ears were floppy, but if he was agitated, which was most of the time, he could stand them up on his head like a Doberman. He did not respond to his own name, he dug up or chewed up anything he could get a hold of and he was impossible to house train, he shat everywhere. She tried newspaper, but he just shredded it; she tried walks, but he waited til he was home; she tried reward, but he gladly accepted them and defecated where he sat. His eyes never seemed to focus on anything for too long and he certainly didn’t make eye contact like Stella and Patch did, who Donna felt could understand every word she uttered to them. Bob was nuts. Sometimes he ran around and bumped into things to the point where Donna seriously believed he had either psychological problems or a brain tumour. The vet laughed at both assertions and surmised that he was just a unique breed that was not going to be tamed easily and needed some special attention. That’s all Donna needed to hear to fall in love with the little guy.

Finally, the last dog in Donna’s permanent pet family was Cory, another bitsa that resembled a dingo in colour and appearance, but had German shepherd in him and liked to think of himself as pack leader. Stella and Patch often reminded him that they disagreed with that pecking order and Donna had to remind all of them that they were all wrong. Bob was often too busy licking his testicles to notice the power struggle at play. Cory was the only dog Donna had obtained as a full grown. He wandered into her street and after discovering that he was not micro chipped and nobody was going to claim him in response to the flyers she put up or the ad in the local paper, she realised that she was stuck with him. By then she was attached to him anyway and loved his bravado, especially if she felt like going for a walk late at night and anybody was around that could have posed a threat to her. Donna felt the safest with Cory. He was her protector and although Stella was a mother and would tear anyone to bits had they come near her Patch or her owner, Stella had a soft side and was more nurturing than protective. Cory had a dark side; he was loyal and obedient and mostly placid; but he had the potential to be vicious with strangers and had a temper on him that he sometimes found hard to control around the other animals and around some people, especially men. Donna had to keep a close eye on him and although she refused to isolate him, she made sure he was preoccupied, fed to a stupor and aware that Donna would have her hands on his kryptonite at a moment’s notice; her whistle. He hated that bloody dog whistle and it rendered him incapacitated anytime Donna even raised it to her lips. The other dogs’ ears pricked up if she blew it, but they weren’t as offended by it as Cory was. Donna’s dogs were as close to relationships as she ever got. She loved her dogs more than she had loved any people in her life and they adored her back. She talked to them as though they were human and respected them more. She didn’t go far, maybe to the shops or for local walks and she never took them with her all at once, choosing instead to give them turns based on their behaviour, where she was going and the time of day it was and which one or two of them were up for it. More often than not she took Cory out at night. She took Stella and Patch together and always to the shops because Stella could look after Patch when they were tied up anywhere, like the good mum that she was. Bob was taken out for special excursions when she had no other errands to run. She took him to the park (not the dog park, he was terrible with other dogs), but just this huge field not far from home, or the beach to let him play in the surf away from the other swimmers, down by the rocks where the surfers and families avoided going. That way he wouldn’t be a bother to anyone except Donna, who was always exhausted when she took Bob out. He was impossible to watch because he was so erratic! Sometimes Donna just closed her eyes and drifted off hoping that he didn’t get into too much trouble because there was no point trying to prevent it.

Donna had five cats, two adults and three kittens. The kittens were in the process of being given away. Shelly was a black and white, nasty little snob. She was only ever affectionate at breakfast or dinner time and kept mostly to herself. Shelly was a kitten when Donna found her at the shops in a box that said in black texta, ‘please take, it’s free’. She was a gorgeous little kitten that slept for the majority of the day, but as she got older she became more and more fiercely independent and a little aggressive. She didn’t want to be stroked or held, she rarely purred. She loved to sit in the sun and clean herself as most cats do, but she never chased anything, she didn’t explore, she wasn’t interested in the other animals and as soon as she was approached she calmly got up, gave an irritated snort, raised her nose and tail in the air and walked away to another spot of solitude. Eventually the other animals knew to ignore her back. She became impregnated not long after Donna brought her home, just a few days before she was going to take her to the vet to be de sexed and micro chipped. Donna thought she was still too young and was locking her up at night, but she did the deed in the day and before Donna knew it, Shelly was pregnant. In the end, she was pleased that she could allow her to have at least one litter before closing her factory down, but it ended in disaster. Shelly went into labour prematurely and Donna found her cleaning and trying to rouse four dead kittens. It was a sight Donna doesn’t care to reflect on. She hadn’t seen Shelly for a couple of days when she’d gone to bring her inside for the night and was worried she had been hit by a car or stolen by someone who had noticed she was pregnant and planned to sell her kittens for a profit. The last thing Donna assumed was that Shelly had already found a place to birth and had gone into labour. It was early one Wednesday morning when Donna spotted a shadow moving in the shrubs at the back fence. She thought maybe it was an injured bandicoot or a fallen magpie, but as she got closer she saw Shelly’s unmistakable black and white paws. She moved a few branches away and saw that Shelly had a kitten in her mouth; grasped in her teeth by the crook of its neck, wet, limp, lifeless. Then she saw the other three, one near her mother’s bum, the other two curled up together near her feet; all three of them still as well. Donna’s heart broke for Shelly who appeared to be cleaning them and nudging them to move. They didn’t. They were barely formed and were tiny, but had fur and limbs and bumps where their eyes would be. Donna wasn’t sure if she should remove the kittens or attempt to pick up and comfort Shelly first, so she did neither. She just sat on the ground beside her and watched and waited until she knew for sure that Shelly understood what had happened. It only took about 20 minutes or so, but eventually Shelly just got up and walked away from her dead babies, found a spot in the sun and proceeded to clean herself, leaving her litter where they were born for the birds or the possums to take them. Donna did instead. She got a pair of gloves from the shed and picked up each tiny little kitten and placed them in a large plastic ice cream container, they all fit. She replaced the lid because she couldn’t bear to look at them, poor little pets. She found a spot near the jacaranda and began to dig with a small spade. When the hole was deep enough she gently placed each one of the kittens in the hole side by side, absent mindedly sprinkled a handful of fallen purple jacaranda flowers over them and covered the grave up with dirt. Then she sat in sad silence for a little while; out of respect, but also trying to think of a way to prevent the dogs from digging up the grave, or any other visiting animal for that matter. She remembered there were some old bricks under the house and thought she would cover the grave with them later that day. She ended up making an improvised brick seat over the grave, which she cemented together and she would go and sit on it with a cup of tea when she felt contemplative. That woeful day, before she got up to go, she looked up to see Shelly had paused mid paw lick and was looking straight at her. She could have sworn she saw her blink slowly in acknowledgement before going back to grooming herself. 

Donna’s other cat was Ruby. She was orange and black and literally had half a black face and half an orange face; a line went right down the centre of her face to separate the colours like someone had painted her. She was such a beautiful cat. Ruby was a gift from the lady that worked at the supermarket, probably one of the only people that Donna regularly had a human conversation with and although polite, even pleasant, Donna only ever spoke to her because it was necessary to buy groceries. Once they had spoken a handful of times, Donna continued to go to her check out so she wouldn’t have to become acquainted with anyone else. This woman had given Ruby to Donna as a birthday present, even though it wasn’t Donna’s birthday. Her daughter’s cat had a litter and she was the last kitten left. The woman brought it in to work every day for a week until Donna showed up to buy her groceries and presented it to her enthusiastically. She explained that she didn’t know when her birthday was, but she knew she loved animals and this kitten was the most beautiful she had ever seen and belonged with someone who would truly appreciate her. Donna was flabbergasted at such kindness and fell in love with Ruby in an instant.

Ruby too became pregnant before Donna had a chance to de sex her and once again she thought maybe it was a good thing for her to have at least one litter. This time everything went as well as when Stella had given birth to Patch and his siblings. Ruby had become big and cumbersome towards the end of her pregnancy and waddled about with some difficulty. Donna made sure the other animals were out of her way, especially Cory who liked to nip at the cats when his bullying antics were reciprocated angrily or ignored by the other dogs. Donna decided to isolate Ruby at one end of the house, the good end with the nice living room and Donna’s own bedroom; a place she never let the animals enter. She made Ruby a little birthing suite so she wouldn’t stay out overnight and find her own place, possibly in danger like Shelly had. Donna also wanted this scenario to be as removed from Shelly’s traumatic experience as possible. She washed Ruby’s usual bed and lined it with a soft blanket; she placed this in a dark corner at the end of the lounge on top of a huge old bath sheet, which was on top of a large plastic bag, ripped open and laid out like a drop sheet. She set her food and water dishes nearby and made sure the water dish was always filled and the dry food fresh. Then she just left Ruby to her own devices and checked on her as often as she could. The day of the birth Donna was woken by Ruby meowing low in between purrs in the middle of the night and she knew immediately that the time had come. She didn’t want to disturb Ruby, but didn’t want to miss anything either, so she crept silently in the dark holding a small lit candle in a glass jar for light, along the dark corridor from her bedroom to the good lounge room. There was Ruby on her bed, almost sitting up, legs open and licking at her bum. Donna didn’t have to wait long for the first kitten to emerge, covered in placenta and already wriggling. Ruby tore the sack open gently with her teeth and began to clean the kitten. Soon after a second kitten slid out and the sack tore open in the process. Ruby licked both kittens alternatively and gently nudged them side by side. The final kitten emerged slowly and Ruby seemed to be panting with exhaustion. She bent over herself and gently pulled the last little baby out with her teeth, tearing open the sack and vigorously licking the kitten’s face. It was all over in a moment and Ruby didn’t stop licking and eating and cleaning until there was not a trace of the birth. Each tiny offspring blindly flailed around, shoved here and there with its mother’s tongue lashing it, knocking it over. Donna giggled with pure happiness, tears joyously streaming down her face. Ruby gathered her babies with her paws towards her middle and guided them to her teats where they latched on and drank for the next few days with barely a breath. Thomas was the first born kitten, a male with a big beautiful head; he was the colour of milky tea. The other two were black and white females; one was a fluffy little thing, it looked almost Persian, the other a shorter haired one. Donna worried that Shelly would think they were hers, but she ignored them like she did all the other animals the short time they were there before Donna gave them away. Donna named the fluffy one Sheebah and the short haired one Penny. The kittens thrived and Ruby lavished them with attention and mostly, tongue baths. Penny and Thomas were playful and energetic, but Sheebah was mummy’s little runt. She was the last one born, the one Ruby had pulled out with her teeth and she was always to be found under her mother’s belly drinking away or curled up and napping. Donna let them stay in their sanctuary for a good six weeks until Ruby was strong again and the kittens robust enough to eat independently and maybe even be separated from their mum. It is now 11 weeks since they were born and Donna hasn’t given any of them away yet. She’s worried about the girls because they haven’t been de sexed and is contemplating letting them have at least one litter of their own, but is worried that the cats are multiplying way too quickly.

Donna’s last companion is her albino budgie Casper. Casper lives in a cage hanging above the kitchen bench; out of reach of the kittens who seem to be fascinated by this talking, singing little creature. Ruby and Shelly spend the majority of the day outside in the sun and sleep as soon as they’ve been let in and have had their dinner so they show little interest in Casper, but the kittens use the cat flap like a rotating door and are in and out of the house all day long when Donna is home and hasn’t locked the screen door over the flap.

Casper is incredibly intelligent and talkative. Once, not long after Donna brought him home from the vet where she’d taken Bob to have a tick seen to (she rescued the albino from being put down as a dud that was dumped at the vet’s door), she discovered that he was tangling up his bell ball with his swing. The ball hung from a shiny silver chain alongside his green plastic swing and had a bell inside it and hanging from it. Somehow Casper was winding the chain around the side of the swing tightly. Donna kept having to unwind it and thought the bird rather stupid because it happened every other day. Then one day Donna had her back turned and heard the distinct sound of the bell that hung from the ball ringing rhythmically. She turned to see Casper holding onto the swing with his claw like a handle. He had wound the ball’s chain around the swing tightly so that when his claw grasped the swing he was able to ring the bell. It was amazing, such intelligence for such a small creature.

Donna knew she was old, she wasn’t well most days and it took every ounce of her strength and the entire day to tend to her animals. To feed them, clean up after them, wash the dogs and entertain them. She knew she wasn’t going to live forever, but for now they were all she had and she was everything to all ten of them. The only thing Donna hoped for was that the day she died, she died at home and her friends didn’t eat her.