Sometimes the tiniest member of the community can unite a socially distanced neighbourhood, writes Elizabeth Flux.
Even though I’ve lived here for over a year, I don’t know anyone’s name. But here we all are, standing one-and-a-half metres apart, trying to get a glimpse inside a car engine. I barely have time to feel self-conscious about my daggy pyjamas before there’s a plaintive mew, and then a streak of brown and white as the kitten leaps out and sprints away.
In hindsight, every conversation I’ve had with my neighbours has had something to do with cats. The first weekend after I moved in, a collarless tabby showed up in my backyard. I looked at him. He looked at Asimov, my indoor-only shelter rescue. Asimov looked bored. I took a picture and then headed next door to check if he was a neighbourhood fixture or a stray I’d need to catch. She squinted at my phone and then smiled.
“Ah he’s fine. He’s in our yard a lot too. I think he lives over the road.”
About a month later, there was a knock at the door. It was the neighbour from over the road. She’d spotted what turned out to be Asimov’s doppelganger running around the building site nearby and was just checking that my cat hadn’t gotten out.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, as everything began to shut down and COVID-19 started dominating the news, the wave of fear, for me, had a shape. Specific anxieties about work, about friends watching their plans crumble around them, about the borders slamming shut between me and my scattered family. But as weeks passed, somehow both slowly and quickly, the fear lost its form – there are only so many times you can run a worst-case scenario – and life settled into an odd new normal with a vague, constant hum of dread in the background. The fear is now a soundtrack of sorts – it sets the mood, but is barely noticeable unless you concentrate.
As we settled into isolation, I’ve been seeing my neighbours more and more. As someone who already did a lot of work from home, it’s been strange seeing the changes happen. The cars that are usually absent between eight and six have sat idle in driveways. Foot traffic and the murmur of laughs and conversation have increased as more people have been going for walks or bike rides. I now know that if I pass a certain house at a certain hour I will hear them playing ping-pong.
There’s beauty that pokes through our shared anxiety. A quiet sense of community. More smiles and nods than before. Drawings and teddy bears stuck up in windows. But I guess it’s not surprising that the big breakthrough for our street was a cat.
I didn’t recognise the woman at the door but she lives around the corner. Her small son had heard a cat mewing from a car engine – did the car belong to me? It didn’t, but I put on outdoor shoes for the first time in what felt like ages and joined the growing but socially distanced crowd.
As the doorknocking effort continued we pooled information. The kitten, who had been seen weaving in and out of the building site, who had been spotted in a robust set of hedges, looked pretty young. The car’s owner was quickly found, and she was in such a rush to help she didn’t change out of her dressing gown. Still, as soon as the car hood opened the kitten scurried away.
I left out water and a plate of cat biscuits. The neighbour opposite placed strategic tins of kitten food around. Next-door were keeping an ear out for any rustles in the hedges. Our efforts were separate at first, but, as we realised what we each were doing, we discussed plans for what to do if we actually managed to catch her.
I’ve just finished making dinner when there is a knock at the door, and my meal goes cold as I sit in the laundry playing with the tiny fluffy bundle with engine grease in her ears. My neighbour has brought round a supply of kitten food and anti-flea stuff and it feels wrong that I can’t invite her in for a cup of tea.
The next few days are spent googling how to care for a kitten and ways to stop Asimov from turning into a hissing sulkbeast. Friends offer advice (“Give the kitten a towel to nap on for a few days, then give that to your other cat so they can get used to the kitten smell”). There’s quite a bit of trial and error (Okay, don’t leave coffee unattended because the kitten will sneeze into it and squeak).
It’s when, two weeks later, I walk in on Asimov happily grooming the kitten that I realise the soundtrack of dread, while still present, has dropped a few decibels.
Now I know my neighbours’ names, and our conversations are familiar rather than polite. Now I can’t eat a sandwich without fending off a tiny ravenous pink-nosed critter while her brother watches on unimpressed. Now, the background music is just a tiny bit quieter.
By Elizabeth Flux, an award-winning writer and editor based in Melbourne.
This piece first appeared in Edition #612.