Looking back, Brodie and I were happy and we could have stayed that way. We would still be happy now. It was a successful relationship in the opinion of everyone who knew us, friends and relatives. We never married, because Brodie didn’t believe in it, and never had children, because the world is overrun with human beings and doesn’t need any more, so said Brodie, and over time I came to agree with him. Babies were never a burning desire for me, anyway, not like they are for most women.
You might remember our names from around 2016? We had a moment of fame, with our blog and spin-off podcast about how we lived Zero Waste. We kept hundreds of tonnes out of the landfills, not only by our own strenuous efforts but through the advice we gave to thousands of people, possibly millions. Plastic-free, vegan, and everything recycled from shoes to tin cans to buttons to fallen hair. We lost a lot of weight, not only because of the foodstuffs prohibited by our way of life, but the effort it took to do it. The garden, the composting, the bicycles and walking, the absence of a car, the mending and making do – and all of this while working fulltime. Brodie was an educator for the Royal Albatross Centre out at Taiaroa Head and I was a fixture at the box office for the Fortune Theatre in town, which unfortunately is no more. It closed its doors in 2018, lost forever, and that was the turning point for Brodie and me, not that I knew it at the time.
First, I struggled to find a job. No one wanted me, I was unrecyclable, on the scrapheap, and Brodie’s wages only just enough to keep us. I managed to pick up some data entry work, which I did from the kitchen table. It was stultifyingly boring. No actors to chat to, no free shows, no members of the public responding to my cheerful service with indifference, complaint or satisfaction. Boredom wasn’t the worst of it. Far harder was the loneliness. Brodie was gone all day from our cottage in Anderson’s Bay, an hour’s hard ride each way, and sometimes staying overnight if security needed swelling to prevent people breaking in and disturbing the nesting colony. I would lie in bed and picture him out on the Otago Peninsula, creeping around in the dark without a torch. He couldn’t have a torch because it would alarm the birds. Taiaroa is very steep and sometimes I worried he would fall. I pictured his tall, skinny body and outflung arms twisting through the high, cold air above the sleeping birds, turning headfirst to plummet towards the jaws of the rocks and moonlit surf.
As comfort, I started to imagine a small companion. Not a baby, God forbid, but a small furry companion. A cat fed on chickpeas and oatmilk. A ginger cat, sometimes. Or a tortoiseshell, or pure black, or with white bib and paws. I didn’t mind.
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s completely against my principles. Cats are killing machines.”
“Don’t be so patriarchal. You can’t tell me what to do. This is my house, too.”
In fact, though I didn’t point this out to him, I’d paid off more of the mortgage than he had, working full time while he was studying.
“Equal shares, always,” condoned my partner, who believed in consensus. “But no cats, ever.”
He was fairly adamant and disproportionately broke my heart. There followed a couple of weeks of too much wine and weeping, until my sister knocked on the door and thrust into my arms a young brindled tabby cat, rescued from the SPCA.
“He’s called Gareth Morgan,” she said, laughing, kissing my tear-stained cheek. “He’s a present for you. Brodie can mind his manners.”
You might recall that around this time millionaire businessman Gareth Morgan had been calling for cats to be exterminated. Brodie whole-heartedly agreed with him: “They should never have been brought to Aotearoa in the first place. It’s shameful, disgraceful and appalling.”
After my sister left, I made a little bed for Gareth in the washhouse and tried to keep him out of sight.
“What’s that noise?” Brodie asked of the piteous wailing beyond three closed doors.
“Washing line squeaking,” I told him. “The wind is blowing it round and round.”
“What’s that smell?” he asked a few days later, because even though we were no longer Zero Waste we still tried to stick to the principle and I was finding it hard to keep the washhouse clean and dispose of Gareth’s vegan droppings. When Brodie was at work I buried them in a far corner of our garden, behind a tree, but there was more of it than I had anticipated. Gareth would prowl around the house and garden while Brodie was out and I would put him back in the laundry whenever I expected Brodie home.
Eventually, of course, my partner found out and in the worse possible way. Gareth got out and overnight left us a dead tauhou on the front porch, a tiny silvereye, minus a head. Brodie may never have put two and two together if Gareth hadn’t been proudly sitting beside his kill, waiting for praise. He thought he was feeding us, you see. He thought he was saying thank you for giving him a loving home. He was saying fuck you, I don’t want to be vegan.
Brodie was furious when I confessed. He ranted and raved about betrayal and duplicity and dishonesty and environmental vandalism. He chased Gareth away up a tree. He wouldn’t speak to me for a week, during which Gareth brought us a tui, a blackbird, a mouse and a fat young pigeon.
Eventually, through consensus, we came to an agreement. Now that this story has gone viral, this is the bit that seems to upset most people. We had Gareth’s teeth removed. The vet that did the job was a mate of Brodie’s, who disliked cats as much as he did. Why not just his claws, people have asked. Well – he needed his claws for grooming and climbing, more than he needed his teeth. I would puree up his chickpeas and use a syringe to get it into him, keep him alive. Gareth hated it. I would wrap him in a towel and struggle with him every meal. He would try to bite me with his blunt gums, which didn’t hurt, and scratch with his furious claws, which did.
Gareth’s health began to fail. His fur was dull and patchy, his eyes milky, his mien dolorous. I could not bear it. I would not be responsible for an animal’s suffering. I had an idea of a way to save him.
“Ludicrous,” said Brodie. “It would be more humane to have him put down. He has no right to be here in the first place.”
But I started hunting around on the internet for someone to help me. A company in Malaysia agreed to try, another in Brisbane, another in L.A. Each required a moulding of the inside of Gareth’s mouth, to get the fit exactly right. Once again, Brodie’s vet friend obliged, and I began to suspect that he hadn’t taken his Hippocratic oath very seriously. Do vets even take the oath?
All this, as you would imagine, was expensive. But it was worth it. The dentures from Malaysia fitted perfectly. Gareth and I got into a routine, which neither of us enjoyed. We dispensed with the syringe. I would catch him, fit the dentures, and feed him. Secretly, to restore his health, I served him gravy beef and fish, lamb cut fresh from the bone and tender venison strips. After each meal I would grab him again, remove the dentures, and put them in a glass of water on the windowsill. I hoped, for months, that he would learn that the dentures were his friend, that they enabled him to lead a normal life, more or less, minus the hunting. I wished he wouldn’t fight me so hard while I tried to insert them. Mostly, though, he seemed content, snoozing in the sun, watching unviolated birds flutter in the trees and allowing mice to scamper across his path. We let him come and go as he liked.
The change came in the spring. One morning, after Brodie had left for work, Gareth leapt onto the kitchen bench and patted at the glass containing his false teeth. When I didn’t respond immediately – I was doing the dishes – he scratched me lightly on my arm to get my attention. I wished later I had taken a photograph. His mouth was open to its fullest extent, in a rictus grin, displaying his purple-pink gums. He was asking me, placidly, without resistance, to insert his teeth. It was horrific but at the same time satisfying. He was a sentient being and he had worked it out.
“Good boy!” I told him, scarcely able to believe it. While I ran the dentures under the tap I cooed and cossetted him – what a good beautiful boy, what a clever clever cat. I popped them into his mouth, then turned to the fridge to retrieve his secret meat from an opaque container. So far, Brodie hadn’t investigated the contents.
When I turned back to the cat, he had vanished. All that day I would take breaks from data inputting to go and look for him, calling around the house, the garden, up and down the street. There was no sign of him.
The following morning, when Brodie wheeled his bike to the front porch, he found three tui, a korimako, a greenfinch and four sparrows. The next morning there was a juvenile rat, a wood pigeon, a thrush and two piwakawaka. I know this because I wrote it down. I kept a record. For three months, all through that spring, we found dead half-eaten birds and rodents on our doorstep and knew without a doubt who had put them there. Every day I would go searching for him, calling and calling, carrying tempting morsels. The carnage wasn’t his fault – he was obeying his instincts as an obligate carnivore. That’s what Brodie said he was. It means that Gareth had to have meat, that he couldn’t survive off vegetables. All cats need meat for a particular enzyme, and that was the problem with them. Brodie said we would catch him eventually and have him put down. He said we had given him a chance and he had blown it.
I kept quiet, worrying. I worried about the health of his gums. How would he know to take his dentures out and wash them? I worried that the Department of Conservation would get wind of this wild animal that was working its way through the birdlife of Andy Bay and come after us. I felt tricked and used and stupid. Gareth was a clever cat, but not a good one.
That summer in Dunedin was the hottest on record, which was why Brodie and I had got into the habit of sleeping with our window wide open onto the garden. On that last evening we had done our usual rounds of the neighbourhood, calling for Gareth, as we had done for three months. The casualties on the porch had lately diminished in number, possibly because it was so hot and Gareth couldn’t be bothered, or because he had already killed most of the available prey. But still, we wanted to find him, for different reasons. I wanted to restore him to the sweet, affectionate animal I had known. Brodie wanted to destroy him.
“Gaaa-reth!” we called, “here puss puss puss. Puss cat! Gaaa-reth!”
There was no sign, not then.
In the early hours of the morning I woke to a sudden movement and the sound of choking. A man was screaming. Brodie. Beside me, Brodie was screaming. A large cat – larger than I remembered – was astride him. Bizarrely, my first thought on waking was that Gareth was kissing him, as a woman would do. As I learned later, he had his dentures sunk into Brodie’s tongue. Brodie was gurgling, struggling to fight him off, unable to breathe. He would have been snoring, as always, flat on his back, mouth open, and it was quick work for Gareth to haul out Brodie’s tongue and bite it off. It was only seconds, but by the time I chased him off it was too late.
If you’ve followed this story online and in the media, you will know the dismal, tragic end. Bacteria in Gareth’s saliva caused infections and abscesses in Brodie’s mouth that no antibiotic in the world could cure. He had a long, slow, painful and wordless death that was unnecessary and unjustified. He was a good man, a man who loved birds, especially albatross.
What has never been made public is this. I did see Gareth, once, after he ran away that first time. Only a few days afterwards he was down on the beach by a rock, tilting his head this way and that, his mouth open on the boulder. He was sharpening his dentures. He took off before I could get to him.
Neither do I let it be known that quite often, on hot summer nights when I leave the window open, I wake to a gentle compression of the mattress. Gareth curls up beside me, purring as loud as the filthiest internal combustion engine. Bad boy that he is, he’s always gone by dawn.
This concludes our series of four short stories about cats. Next week’s short story, which has a dog in it, is by Majella Cullinane.