by Nod Ghosh
Tony Biscotti found a cat in a box. He’d prised the crate open with a metal bar, splintering wooden slats once held together by thick staples.
Cushioned by synthetic straw in a corner was a cat with fur the colour of onions. The creature nestled against metal parts and a clump of its own faeces. Not quite a kitten, it hopped out of the box and stalked the workshop floor.
Tony caught the animal and shut himself into the office with it. He punched the Auckland depot’s number into the phone. The cat leapt from the crook of Tony’s arm onto the concrete floor and dove under the desk. It licked itself clean.
Pauline answered in Auckland, asked if she could help.
‘Know anything about a cat?’
‘Cat? Who’s asking?’ Pauline’s voice lay halfway between sales patter and flirtation. Was it possible she hadn’t recognised his voice?
‘Tony. In Woolston.’ He cleared his throat.
The cat circumnavigated a table leg and peed against it like a dog.
‘Small ginger thing,’ he continued. ‘Came in with order PR9029.’
‘In your delivery? Is it alive?’ Her computer clicks were a Ping-Pong pat of long nails against plastic.
Tony had an inventory to take, and seven deliveries due before five. He wished he could leave them all to talk to Pauline. Her voice made him think of scissors cutting through wet hair. Crisp, like mint sugar in chocolate.
‘Alive. In the box,’ he said. ‘Tucked against machine parts.’ He grabbed paper towels from the dispenser. ‘Know anyone who’s lost one?’
‘Poor thing. Would’ve been cold in cargo.’
‘Seems all right to me.’ The urine wasn’t cold as it seeped through to Tony’s fingers.
‘I’ll ask around.’ Pauline’s vowels, round and inviting, suggested something more. Something unsaid.
‘You could take it to the SPCA. Give them our number. Let them know we’re trying to locate the owner.’
‘Might keep it here until you’ve asked around,’ he said. Anything to keep the conversation from ending.
‘Okay.’ Click. She was gone. The cat rubbed against his leg and howled. Tony tipped dregs out of a coffee mug and filled it with water. The cat drank lustily. Then he pulled the meat from his lunch sandwich and pushed it into the animal’s eager mouth.
He left a note on the door warning Bevin and Steve to keep the cat in the office. Then he loaded the van.
After the first deliveries, Tony stopped at Pak’n’Save. He bought a pie for himself, and sachets of food for the cat.
In the office, he tipped Whiskas Meaty Selections onto a saucer. The cat pushed against his hand in desperation. There was something primal about the uncontrolled way it ate. Tony found a note from Bevin complaining about cat crap. He filled a cardboard carton with shredded pages from The Press, hoped the cat would use it instead of the floor.
Eating most of the pie, he fed a crust to the cat-with-no-name.
‘Mabel,’ he said. ‘Mabel, under the table.’ The cat rubbed its head against Tony’s fingers. ‘Mabel, Mabel, with your nose of sable. I’ll call you Mabel, if I am able.’ Tony curled and uncurled his fingers in the cat’s fur. ‘I don’t know if you’re a dude, but you’re stuck with Mabel, Mabel.’ He smiled. ‘Don’t chew that cable, Mabel!’ He chuckled at his own wit and shut Mabel into the office and went to load the next consignment.
Driving out to Rolleston, Tony remembered Pauline’s fingers on his skin and her perfume, rose with undertones of want and longing. He re-lived touching her hair in his Otara flat, stolen kisses at the depot, the fire of suspicion in Lou’s eyes when he said he was re-locating Tony to Christchurch.
He hadn’t argued. It’s never a good move to fuck the boss’s wife.
Stuck at the lights at Prebbleton, he recalled Pauline’s indifference once Lou had shown his strength. They’d talked about accounts and orders, nothing else, until his leaving drinks, the night before he left Auckland.
Tony had followed Pauline into the unisex toilets of the Harlequin Bar. There had been tears, accusations and recriminations. She’d told him to forget her. Tony had followed Pauline out of the bathroom and walked into Lou.
The couple left minutes later.
That was the last time he saw her.
Tony talked to Pauline from time to time, but only about deliveries, missed or duplicated orders. She’d sent a group e-mail a few weeks earlier to say someone called Nat would cover her parental leave the following month.
The lights changed, and Tony drove on, wondering how Mabel was doing in the workshop.
Tony hadn’t heard from Pauline by five, so he taped Mabel into a cardboard box and took her home.
‘You can sleep here,’ Tony said, tickling the cat under her jaw. He poured food into one bowl, water into another. He’d bought a litter tray and cat treats on the way home, like a proud father buying things for a new baby.
A new baby.
For the thousandth time, Tony recalculated dates and concluded Pauline’s baby had to be Lou’s. For the thousandth time, he told himself he might be wrong.
The cat crawled onto Tony’s bed and nuzzled into the crook of his elbow. He liked her being there. He pushed his nose into her fur and loved her.
‘You need to ring Nat,’ Bevin said the next morning.
‘At the Auckland depot.’
Tony punched in the number to talk to Pauline’s replacement. Mabel climbed around his legs like a question mark. The cat hadn’t wanted to get back into the cardboard box that morning. There was a new scratch on Tony’s hand.
‘That cat you found?’ A languid voice, more raw potato than sugar.
‘There’s an anxious lady here, wants him back.’
‘Him?’ Mabel was a guy?
‘He escaped from the vet’s two doors down.’
‘And climbed into one our crates?’
‘She’ll pay to have him shipped back to Auckland. We just need − ’ Nat reeled off the logistics of returning the animal. Tony reassured her he’d sort it.
‘Thanks. What was your name again? I need to put it on the form.’
‘Tony. Tony Biscotti.’ He paused a second. ‘And you’re Nat?’
‘Yeah, Nat Davis. Covering for Pauline.’
‘Is she all right? Thought she wasn’t due until January.’
‘She had the baby last night. Six weeks early.’
‘They’re doing well.’
‘Baby was early, but a good weight. Six pound seven. Mabel Louise.’
‘They called her Mabel Louise.’
‘Pretty name. I always liked the name Mabel.’
‘Lovely isn’t it? Thanks for helping with the cat, er, Tony.’
‘Thank you for—for helping too—Nat.’
The scratch on his hand stung.
And so did everything else.
Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Publications include a novella-in-flash ‘The Crazed Wind’ (Truth Serum Press July 2018), inclusion in anthologies Sleep is A Beautiful Colour (U.K. 2017 NFFD), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press) and various online or print journals.
Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/