She won’t remember any of this.
It was a bright and breezy April morning. Afternoon. Morning or Afternoon.
And the car seat won’t fit in the back. Only the front. Which isn’t recommended.
And we drive very slowly. He checks the mirrors. He checks the mirrors. Mirrors. Check.
We talk about something. We don’t talk. Maybe it’s silent. Or maybe we’re talking.
He drives. He has to. It’s always difficult to get a parking space. There’s talk of a resident’s only herringbone car parking layout for our road. But we won’t be here long enough to see it.
We have to mount the kerb.
The kerbs are high here.
The passengers are fragile.
The kerbs are too high for the fragile passengers.
Our basement flat is down a set of steep stairs. We haven’t lived here long. In the living room there is a manhole cover under the carpet. Once a day the drain under the manhole cover lets out a smell of sewage. On occasion the living room floods with other peoples’ shit. We move out for a few days, while the carpets are replaced.
The door to the basement flat sticks. You need to give it a good kick.
We take her inside.
I worry how we are going to look after her, now we are alone. Just the three of us.
We feed the fish. The fish is hungry, we’ve been gone for two days.
Yesterday we brought our daughter Home for the first time.
And yesterday Home felt like a very different place.
We are woken one morning with a knock at the door. A neighbour says “last night a group of men turned your car upside down. I watched them from the window.” “Why?” we ask? “For fun” he says. “Luckily the police came along and turned it back the right way.” We go and look at the car, it’s in the same spot but the windows are smashed, and the roof is wonky. The car is a write off. “It’s a new craze,” they say. I look at the car seat in the back covered in glass, at the baby on board sticker. The car is dead.
Years earlier my great grandfather slips on some ice getting into the car and dies. He dies, just like that.
We’ve move out of the basement flat. There are mushrooms growing in the bedroom. We get a new second hand car. We strap the baby in, put the fish in a bag of water and I hold it on my lap. We drive slowly. We realise later after buying the car that the seals on the windows and sunroof aren’t fitted properly. So when it rains, it rains on the inside, there are mushrooms growing inside the car. Something happens whilst putting the fish back in the tank, there’s water everywhere and the fish is on the floor. I scoop him up and put him back in the tank. He’s ok. We go to pets at home and buy the fish a little castle to put in the tank. He starts to swim circles around it, all the time. Circles, circles. He looks like he’s going mad. I worry about the fish. I think of all the pets we had growing up.
Years earlier it’s Christmas Eve and my mum sends my older sister across the road to the pet shop to buy the cat a last minute Christmas present, my sister doesn’t come back. Someone knocks on the front door. A neighbour. “She’s been run over.” She say’s. My sister, not the cat.
Years later my mum’s been rushed to hospital. Appendix. In the panic the cats are locked in the living room with the budgies. We haven’t had the birds long. When we return from hospital, the living room is filled of feathers. Like a crime scene. We bury the birds in the garden along with the dead terrapin, the dead rabbits, the dead duck, the love sick duck, the other dead duck, the dead goldfish fresh home from the fair, the tank full of dead tropical fish fed goldfish food, the dead hamsters, the new budgie named Lucky, dead Lucky, the hamster not dead biting dad’s finger, drawing blood, dad shaking his hand repeatedly, the not dead yet hamster flying across the room, the not dead yet hamster hitting the door, the hamster not dead yet. The hamster two days later dead. The rabbit that lived indoors till we put it out one night. You can’t have rabbits inside. The dead rabbit outside. The dead pets, the loved pets, the pets that over the years have been buried in the garden. And now the other cat’s run away. The cat’s been giving away, you can’t throw cats down stairs. We’ll take the cat. We take the cat from the girl next door and the girl down the road. We love the cats.
The fish dies. It was the circles I guess. We’ve had him a very long time. My daughter doesn’t notice. I hide the tank away.
We move house again, move city, and have another baby all within two weeks, we don’t know anyone. Everything’s upside down. Before we leave I fail my driving test for the second time. Both times I’ve been pregnant. Once at the very end of the pregnancy, the other before I’ve even had the first scan. My theory runs out for the third time. I feel like a big-bellied failure. I walk everywhere with my two children, in the rain, with the broken rain cover, cursing everyone who ever says to me, ‘so when are you going to learn to drive then’. I tell my daughter she should be happy, it’s good for the environment that you have a mother who can’t drive.
I buy my daughter a new fish for the new house. We plan it for weeks. We set the tank up and let the water settle. Her dad drives us to the shop, the two children strapped in their car seats between the mould and the mushrooms. The staff at Pets At Home won’t let us have a fish, they say we don’t have the proper tank. My daughter is crying. Sobbing. REALLY SOBBING. It’s forty pounds to get all the bits, but we only want the fish I say. ‘You have to come back in a few weeks once the new tank is set up and the water’s settled’. ‘But she wants the fish now’ I say. We buy the empty tank and head home to the empty house and the other empty tank.
Mum rings and tells me the family cat has died. She’s been around for years. Mum’s found her outside on the floor. I’m on a train somewhere and I can’t hear her properly. She’s crying and I think she’s telling me a human member of our family is dead. I wait for ages until I can get a signal on the train, waiting in terrified panic to call her back. It’s the cat, it’s definitely the cat. I sit on the train crying. I’m sobbing.
My daughter comes home from school and tells me they are raising money for a boy who has died. He’s in year three at another school. ‘He died before his parents’ she says. Matter of fact. Her friend gets confused and thinks if they raise enough money he will come back to life, like Jesus… I’m eating my pasta, I can’t talk to her about death, I just can’t do it. Not yet. Not now between mouthfuls. Not about real death. I’m not prepared. I go and see the Head teacher and tell her I think my daughter’s too young to know about small children dying of cancer or that at least I’d like to be prepared so I’m not fielding existential questions whilst tucking into my pasta. “She’s 4” I say. “It’s part of life, we have a pebble jar, a special tree,” the Head says.
I think of my own Nan lying on the sofa sipping through a straw, cancer spreading, telling me she’s going to go to that pink cloud up in the sky soon.
I lay in bed terrified by my own mortality, never wanting to be away from my children.
My son becomes obsessed with the fish tank; he climbs on anything he can to get to it. Arms wading in. “Goldie, din din, now” he says, taking clumps of fish food and shoving it through the small hole. I scoop foil and other things out of the tank. I hide the fish food.
The fish is happy. The fish is still going. When he’s gone, we’ll give him a good send off, we’ll bury him in the garden.
3 Responses to “PETS, DEATH & DRIVING”
I loved reading this, so rich and full of life in its reflections on death. Thanks so much x
Reminded me of the journey home with my newborns, fumbling with car seats and tiny bodies, my childhood pets and their unfortunate endings and the fragility of life.
My pet cat died when I was 6 months pregnant. We did look suspicious me my eldest son a large box containing beautiful Zelda’s corpse (the cat that liked to stalk geese) and a spade at 6.30am in the morning. Our funeral site began by a waterfall- romantic but a no go too many rocks. I cried all the way to work after we buried her in a box on the hillside. Her sister-Frida is still is with us, mainly because she doesn’t stray far from home or cross the main road.
You are just brilliant.
The quality of your writing is substantial and I would love to read more. There are so many home truths here, I don’t know where to start… still taking in your words.
My sister had a scrape with death, when we were crossing a road with the dogs. She was about eleven. A car screeched to a halt and swerved dramatically. My mother turned away and hid her face, which for some reason made me furious.
I think, for what it is worth, your small daughter is ok where she is, with this brush with the knowledge of death. She will gradually assimilate what it is. Some parents hate the brutality of Grimm’s fairytales, and such, tales, which are about the multiple layers of knowledge of danger and death. Once, I accidentally devastated my daughter by telling her a story of a mother and daughter dragon, the story went on and on and I was on a roll. But I got to the part where the mother flew higher and higher into the mountain tops, where clouds and mountains where one, and she was leaving her young one forever. We both cried for ages, and I felt I had made a mistake. But there it is. Death is among us. My body is failing me, and in every way, I am sad that I had my daughter so late in life.
The first time I saw a dead body, I was forty. It was my dead dad, and it amazed me… so strange and terrible. His mouth was stuck wide. It struck me it was unusual, in terms of my race, to get through so much life without seeing this. Historically, anthropologically, most of us will have seen death as much more of a presence. Death, life and spiritual belief was much more present. We are amnesiac about it, these days. It is curtained off.
I have a much earlier memory of my mother’s dad, dying on a bed and my aunt Frances changing his nappy. Just old enough to be shocked by this. But this is all a part of life.
When I was pregnant, I attended a yoga class, and the teacher told us how wonderful her mother’s death had been, with all her children and grandchildren around her bed in those last days and hours. They cracked jokes, told stories, remembering together. She was so sad, yet so happy her small children had been a part of this.