My father finishes his rant and pulls out whatever he was chewing on and tries to snap it in half. It was supposed to be some big gesture. But this little piece of wood soaked with his saliva doesn’t yield. So my father throws it at me in anger. It gets stuck to my shirt. I flick it away with my hand and it lands in the middle of the room. From somewhere a black cat appears and gives it a sniff and then shakes its whiskers, leaps onto the sofa, plants itself in the corner and starts licking its privates. Where did this cat come from?
Two days ago, I told my father I’d bring Emma for dinner, so that he could meet my new wife. Wife-to-be, I mean. That never happened. Emma ran away from me. On a horse. On a bloody horse! Who would have thought something as fragile like Emma could ride a huge horse so well? She used no saddle or stirrups! Nothing. I admit it, she looked good on that horse.
Finally, my father goes quiet and I’m ready to tell him this, but he says something that pisses me off. He knew it would piss me off.
“Salty,” he says. “When are you going to learn?” He slaps my face. Not a real slap, but a slap nevertheless. He sits next to the cat on the sofa.
My name is Saul Salmon but no one calls me Saul. When I was younger I was called Fish. I was also called Solly. I didn’t like being called Fish and I hated being called Solly. Kids in school and in the street where I lived would yell chants after me.
“Solly, Solly, his pants are soiled.”
“Solly, Solly, he’s a roly-poly.”
And all this in the loudest voice their vicious lungs could produce.
The name that stuck with me to this day was Salty. I don’t like that one either but it’s better than Fish or Solly. It’s got a bit of grit. Our neighbour’s little daughter gave it to me. She thought it was funny. She was too little to be unkind. Later I found out that Saul, or sol really, means salt in Russian. She was Russian.
Shortly after this little Russian girl renamed me Salty, my parents divorced. My mother moved away, remarried and had two more children. I stayed with my father in our house. He struggled to pay the mortgage and we moved into a two bedroom flat in Northcote, just off St Georges Road. That was fifteen years ago.
Over the years I got big. Really big. Tall and wide. Occasionally my size has advantages. Like getting a job, for instance. At least my last job. The guy who manages trolley collectors at the shopping centre took one long look at me — it always takes a long look to scan my whole length — and said I had the job. That was half a minute after I asked him if there were any jobs going.
A customer asked me once what the trick was to pushing so many trolleys together as they slithered on the concrete like a metal snake. I touched my belly and answered, “gut.” I worked with my gut. I would lie on the trolleys and reach as far as I could with my right hand. When fully warmed up I could grab the handle of the twentieth trolley in a row. With my left hand I would grab the handle of the first and then I’d push with my stomach. Of course, I used all the muscles in my body too, but it was the gut that took the brunt of the load. My father told me once that I should use my legs more. He lives in a block of flats across the road from the shopping centre and he could see me pushing the trolleys from his balcony. I knew that. He has a nice view from up there. I used to wave at him but I stopped because he never waved back.
Next to the flats is a large park, which borders onto a property where sometimes you can see horses and a few goats munching on grass. It’s quite nice. He hates it of course. Never goes to the park. Nothing to do there, he says. He only goes out to get groceries, once a fortnight or so. When he retired two years ago, he retired from life. He doesn’t have a television and spends all day listening to the radio.
“Why do I have to look at dickheads all day long?” he said once when I told him I’d buy him a television. “I’d rather imagine how they look, especially the ladies.” He winked at me.
This afternoon when he opens the door of his flat he isn’t exactly happy to see me. I don’t take it personally. I never do. He is always like that. You can’t tell whether he’s happy or sad.
After about half an hour of ranting and calling me Salty my father finally gets quiet, this time for real. He sits on the sofa next to the cat and starts petting its belly. Under the dim light — the lights are always dimmed in his flat — there is this expression on his face. I’ve seen it many times. The first time was the day my mother left us. It’s serene and it’s wild. I never know which one it is.
Finally, I tell him how Emma and I went to dinner. How I said that I’d take her to an Indian restaurant and how she came dressed in this white dress that hugged her curves and how seeing her like that, like an angel, I realised how much I loved her. While I talk my father keeps petting this cat. I don’t know if the cat is his. I’ve never seen the cat before, but they look like they’ve been mates for a long time. I talk but I can’t take my eyes off this cat. The cat has grown its fluffy coat for the cold winter. It has chubby cheeks and a nice round belly. There is a lot of fat stored in there for the cold days that are coming. This cat looks fat but prepared. There is nothing awkward about this fat cat. In fact, it looks graceful.
I rub my eyes and get the cat out of my head. I keep talking and I tell him that after dinner we walked out and I saw one of those horse drawn carriages that take tourists around the city and charge an arm and a leg for the pleasure. I said to Emma lets have a ride. And she said she always wanted to travel in a carriage, like a queen.
She asked the carriage guy if she could pat the horses. Carriage guy said of course. She really got into petting the horses. The carriage guy kept looking at his watch and whispered to me that we were on the clock. I asked Emma if we could go. Emma said she loved the horses. She put her blonde head on the horse’s neck and her face got lost in the mane. She kissed the horse between the eyes and the horse made happy noises with his nostrils.
We sat in the carriage and I could see these bags attached to horses’ behinds. The smell was pretty bad, but eventually I got used to it.
After riding in the carriage for some time, we stopped at Fitzroy Gardens. One of the horses was fidgety, something wasn’t right. The coachman, I think that’s what they’re called, apologised and got off to check on the horse. Emma followed him. And then this thing happened. While the coachman was on the phone calling his base, Emma unhitched and unbridled the horse that was a bit restless. And then she told me “This horse needs help.” I looked at her in amazement.
Emma, all in white, jumped on this white unsaddled horse and jabbed her heels into his ribs. The horse neighed wildly and reared up. She grabbed onto his mane and her body leaned against his long neck. The horse dropped back to the ground and leaped into a gallop. His hooves thundered on the asphalt. Effortlessly, like the wind carries a paper plane, the night took them away.
And that was the last time I saw her. Two days ago.
After my telling, my father lifts his expressionless face away from his fat cat and says, “You can really pick ‘em, Salty. You really can.”
He then waves his hand dismissively and says, “Don’t worry. It’s the best thing that’s happened to you in a long time. You didn’t go after her, now did you?”
I did go after her. I ran and I yelled, but even if I were an Olympic sprinter there was no way I could catch up to a galloping horse.
So I say to my father, “No, I didn’t.”
“Good, just forget about her,” he says.
I want him to say, this new girl of yours, she will come back, I promise. Instead he says, “Have you told your mother?”
“Not yet,” I answer. I was dreading the trip to my mum’s. When they divorced she moved as far as possible from us, all the way to Pakenham. Now I had to travel across the city and back just to tell her I wasn’t getting married. Plus I hadn’t visited her in ages.
“It figures,” my father snorts, “just you wait, she’ll smack you silly.”
He was right. She just might, so I was reconsidering the trip.
“What did you have for dinner?” my father asks.
I look incredulously at him.
“Rogan Josh,” my mouth opens involuntarily.
“It was all right. Naan bread was bit old.”
“Yeah, I bet it was few days old and they just warmed it up. Where did you go?”
I tell him the name of the place.
“What’s wrong with you? You don’t go into an Indian restaurant where there are no Indians cooking.”
I don’t know how he knows this about the restaurant, but it was true. He gets up and pours some dry food into a bowl for the cat. The cat elegantly jumps off the sofa and starts eating.
“I didn’t know you had a cat,” I say.
“He’s not mine.”
“The neighbour’s?” I point at the hallway.
He brings out some biscuits, puts the kettle to boil and turns on the radio. I get up and start to leave. I say, “Later, dad.”
I walk out and the cat sneaks out after me. I head for my car parked on the street when I hear a whistle coming from above.
“Get the cat for me, will you? It’s getting dark. His name is Roscoe,” my father yells after me.
The cat bolts across the street. He doesn’t check for cars. They all do that. They just make up their mind and go. That’s how they get hit. He disappears in the bushes on the other side. I move my big frame and start running after the cat.
I trudge through the bushes. I call after the cat. Who knows where he is now?
I hear something behind the thick bottlebrush trees. The branches are shaking and it doesn’t sound like a cat. It sounds bigger. I get a little worried. Anyone could be in there. I think about turning around and going back to my father’s flat. But I don’t. I go deeper into the woods and keep looking.