It was a Tuesday. The woman never went out on a Tuesday. Her would-be father-in-law came to see the kids in the middle of the day, and her ex came to pick up her eldest at teatime, and the rest of the time she spent trying to catch up with housework, emails, and the never ending laundry.
It was a cool October day, not bright, not raining, not freezing, not mild. A nothing sort of day. The baby was sleeping on the settee, milky spittle and a small dreamy smile on her lips. The eldest was in the garden, lightly coated with mud and playing on the deck with a collection of equally muddy toys and twigs. The woman was standing at the sink behind the kitchen window, looking at the pans which couldn’t go into the dishwasher and thinking about washing them. She stared at them, willing them away. Who cared about pans? She knew she would care in a few hours when she wanted to cook in them, but right NOW who cares, she thought. The washing up sponge was thickly matted with old food and she tossed it into the bin, then opened the cupboard under the sink to get a fresh one. She withdrew and rejected 3 or 4 until she got a colour she liked and then, sighing deeply, put the rest back.
She stood again, looked out at the deck and saw the child standing very still, staring past the house towards the back of the garage. Something about her posture made the woman hold her breath for a second.
She opened the back door and called out, “You ok?” The child looked at her and smiled broadly, mad blonde ringlets falling in a halo round her face.
“Yes Mama. There’s a black tiger on the garage roof looking at me!”
The woman rolled her eyes. The child had an exceptional imagination, even by normal 4-year-old standards, and frequently worked herself into tears or giggles over some story or other she’d told herself.
“Okay, don’t let him eat you” said the woman. She turned to go back inside, and let the door swing, not closing, behind her. She went back to the sink to look at the pans, and turned the hot tap on. She watched the child. She was sitting down again now, but still staring at the garage roof. She had a pretty good attention span, thought the woman, good luck teachers! She felt a twinge of sadness, she’d miss these times when school started, and was glad of the remaining ten or so months before the child would be going off into the world.
She began to wash the first pan. Onion gravy from the night before clung gloopily to the non-stick surface, then peeled away in ribbons and wrapped itself around her fingers. Disgusted, she scrubbed harder, eager to get it over with. She didn’t love this element of her life. A movement in the garden caught her eye and she looked up again. The child was off the deck now, still looking towards the garage, but farther from it, more in the corner of the garden. She looked tense again.
As the woman watched, trying to see what the child was thinking, a large black jaguar appeared far to the right, from where the garage was, and began to creep slowly along the fence.
The blood froze in the woman’s veins and roared in her ears. She walked to the door in an instant of agonizing slowness. Socks and pants, unwashed, littered the kitchen floor, drops of water from her hands shook in glistening slow motion to plop into the gaps between them. Her dirty hot chocolate mug stood on the table, under the foot of the baby’s bouncer which was secured there with a better-safe-than-sorry bungee cord. The baby’s bare feet entered the very periphery of her vision through the open living room door as she reached the back door to the garden.
She opened the door wide and stepped out onto the patio. The child was perhaps 6 or 7 yards away ahead and to her left, towards the end of the lawn, the jaguar was perhaps 3 or 4 yards to her right, against the fence. She faced the jaguar. It was a jaguar. Or was it a black panther? The woman wondered, trying to remember the difference. It was black. It was big. Bigger than the neighbour’s Alsatian. It had very faint mottling of spots around its face, and yellow eyes. It stared at the woman.
The woman stepped forward again and gestured to the child as if offering to hold hands. The child began to come, too fast, stumbling a little. “Walk!” barked the woman. The jaguar, if it was a jaguar, turned slowly to look at the child and the woman felt her heart flip and race, hammering against her ribs. She took another step forwards.
The cat was thin, the woman could see the faint ridging of ribs through the dull black coat. The eyes looked dry and slightly crusty. The cat reminded her of the one she’d seen in the museum, hopelessly ancient and badly stuffed to begin with, with a staring coat and badly set glassy eyes. But this one was moving. It was watching the child. The woman stamped her foot and a hissing noise came from her mouth. The cat looked back at her, the child took another few short steps towards her. The cat wriggled round, keeping the child dead ahead in it’s field of vision.
The woman felt her bowel threaten to void. She considered this fact quite coolly and debated whether to fight it or not. She remembered being told at a how-not-to-be-raped seminar that self-soiling was an effective deterrent. “Be disgusting,” the male coach had instructed, “pee, shit, whatever you can to be disgusting”. The woman, already a mother then, remembered wondering how a little shit could make one more disgusting than a rapist. She also remembered being told to roll under a parked car and scream “Fire!” since people care if they might get burned more than they care if someone else might get raped. Should she scream “fire” now, she wondered.
As quickly as it had threatened the sensation in her sphincter passed. She turned her head side to side, keeping her gaze fixed on the cat, trying to identify a weapon. The child’s magic stick leaned against the wall. It was a stout 3 foot long stick, about as thick as the child’s wrist, with decoration of wool and feathers at one end. One afternoon at a kids activity day the woman had tucked the sleeping baby, then a days-old infant, into a wrap on her chest so she could lovingly wind the wool, help the child thread the beads and tie the feathers, to make this magic stick. The child had been thrilled at the time, and had barely looked at it since. It was a few feet from the woman now, leaning against the wall of the house under the kitchen window, in the opposite direction from the woman than the child.
The cat flattened itself a little lower. It must be hungry, thought the woman. Where did it come from? The woman remembered having read somewhere that if you could turn a city upside down and shake it any number of strange and exotic creatures would fall out. Circus runaways, lost or abandoned ill-advised and/or illegal pets, zoo escapees. Which was this, wondered the woman, in her garden in the suburbs. The cat’s belly skin dangled loosely. From malnutrition or age, who could know. Then the woman saw a glimpse of pink, a short row of dots on the sagging belly fur, and realised, this cat had cubs. She was clearly lactating.
A weird misplaced pang of sympathy arose in the woman, who was also lactating for the sleeping baby indoors. No wonder she’s in my garden, thought the woman, she’s looking for food for her babies. In the same moment she realised that that food was going to be her own babies.
“Come on now,” said the woman to the child. The child was only a few feet away now, and the cat had turned to almost face the woman. It’s ears flattened against its head as she spoke. It fixed its gaze on the child, pricked its ears forwards and sat up, and there was a faint squirming motion about it’s hind legs, one so familiar from watching house-cats stalking toys, and the woman’s heart froze as it readied to pounce on her child.
“HAAAAAAAAAAH!” she screamed, taking one long stride forwards and pulling the child behind her body, facing the cat head on and holding her free arm away from her body, drawing herself up to her full height, making herself as big as possible. It changed its mind, shrinking as if the shout had been a physical blow. Seconds stretched to hours. It glared at her. She watched it and calculated. She was about 7 feet from the back door, about 10 feet from the stick, about 12 feet from the cat. She shifted her weight, keeping the child behind her, keeping her eyes fixed on the cat’s face, could it get between her and the door faster than she could get to the door? It was thin and ill-looking, but it was probably desperate. Did it want to feed its babies more than she wanted to save hers? Could she get at least the child through the door, and could the child hold the door shut if she got her through it? Should she go for the stick or the doorway?
Her breath came in short quiet gasps. She held the child behind her, the fingers of her right hand biting into the flesh of the small upper arm. She felt a little hand on her wrist, and loosened her grip a tiny bit. The cat was waiting for something. She tried a small shuffle sideways towards the door. The cat pricked its ears again, and her guts once again turned liquid. She tensed, readying herself to dash for the door when the unthinkable happened. From inside the house the baby began to cry.
Time unravelled. The cat heard, calculated, turned, bunched and leapt in a fluid arc towards the open door in less than a heartbeat. The woman stepped away from the child and ran for the stick, sensing with every cell the bulk of the cat sailing behind her towards the door and her helpless baby. She began to turn back before she registered the sensation of the stick in her hands and was surprised to see it swinging down at the end of her arm and smashing into the side of the cat’s face. The force of the blow brought the cat down short of the doorway. “GET IN!” the woman screamed at the child, as the stick came up and smashed down again, this time hitting to top of the broad flat head. The child stumbled to the door and tripped through it, sprawling on the kitchen floor, and the woman came after her backwards, jabbing the end of the stick at the cat’s open mouth. Yellow teeth, massive, some broken, bit down on the end of the stick but she wrenched it free to jab again.
As she reached the door step the cat seemed to fully recover its senses and swiped a paw at the stick. The woman saw a flash of impossibly large greyish claws and the stick was snatched from her hand. The child half dragged herself, half crawled towards the living room, and the woman found herself gazing directly into the face of the cat, at the threshold of her home, looking into the bright slits in those narrowed yellow eyes as she fumbled for the edge of the door. As she swung it closed the big black head connected with it and knocked it back against her face, the edge caught her nose, momentarily blinding her with white flashes of pain. She fought back tears and blinking saw a foot, her own foot, she realised, connecting under the cat’s chin, throwing its head up. She tried to slam the door once more and a massive paw came through, clawing at her ankle. She hung grimly to the door and watched in amazement as her leg jerked upwards, speared momentarily on the huge grey claws, until with a faint wet ripping noise her skin tore and the claws held nothing. She jumped into the air and stamped both feet down onto the paw where it crossed the door sill, the paw withdrew and she slammed, latched and locked the door in one motion.
The child stood in the living room doorway. “Mama, the baby really needs you Right Now,” she said. The baby was indeed howling. Wondering at the calm voice and use of this stock-phrase from the child, the woman crawled to it and lifted the baby down from the settee into her arms. Woodenly she undid her bra, pulled up her shirt and silenced the searching mouth with a warm breast. She was shaking hard, and dragged cushions down into her lap to balance the infant on, lest she drop it. “Mama you need a plaster,” said the child, pointing to her foot. The woman pulled her jeans up a few inches and saw two scratches, one deep and liberally oozing dark blood, the other light and barely bleeding. “Fetch me the phone sweetie” she said to the child. Her voice sounded so normal! The child brought the phone from the windowsill. She sat down next to the woman, a favourite teddy in her hand, as the woman dialled. She felt weak with shock or relief, it was a huge strain to keep the phone at her ear.
“Which service do you require?” said the voice.
“There’s a jaguar in my garden” said the woman.
“Is this a traffic incident?” asked the voice, sounding bored.
“No,” said the woman slowly, “A jaguar. A big black cat. In my garden.” There was a sigh on the other end of the line. “Please hold,” said the voice.
While they waited for the police or the ambulance or whoever it was the voice had transferred her to to come, the baby suckled and the child leaned against the woman and sucked a thumb. “Were you scared mama?” asked the child. “Yes. Very. Were you?” asked the woman. The child made a snorting noise through the fist of the thumb she was sucking. “No,” she replied thickly past the thumb, and then taking it out, “everyone knows Mama’s are more scarier than Tigers.