R. L. Nash

The Porcelain Cat of Bordertown

“I leave Adelaide and drive four hours in a straight line.”

“Think of all the kangaroos you’ll see,” my wife replies.

“And I’ll be by myself for the whole build.”

“Well, Chris—that’s good. You’ll be your own boss.”

I don’t answer. This is a game we play each time I leave, the framing of all challenges in the positive. I am not winning. I pile my high-vis site clothes into the suitcase, leaving out my steel-cap boots to wear on the plane.

“Bordertown,” she mutters, throwing an extra pair of socks my way. “It has a certain dusty glamour, don’t you think?”

“No.”

She won’t believe me when I tell her in 300ks I didn’t see a single thing that jumped—just gum tree after bloody gum tree, so different from the fresh damp greenness of home.  Now, my two week stay has turned into four. We’ve got a one year old eucalyptus at the bottom of our garden. I’m going to pull it out when I get back. 

Not long to go. I smile as I park the ute on Bordertown’s main street, outside the shop I saw my first week but haven’t had the chance to visit. Before I leave my oldest daughter has given me a job: “Don’t buy me something from the airport, Dad. I want something from where you are. Where you go.” 

“It’ll be slim pickings, girl,” I’d said. But I won’t complain—in a few years she’ll be asking for duty-free Bacardi. 

I open the glass door, almost colliding with a middle-aged woman who’s calling over her shoulder: “See you at seven, Hayley! Oops!”

“Sorry.”

“Bye,” she tells me.

“OK. Bye.”

This is something of a menswear store with a sprinkle of gifts, cards and what look to be rejects from an antique shop flanking the walls. There’s a blonde woman at the counter with a pile of receipts. She’s frowning at a surprisingly modern cash register, gives a start when she sees me. “Can I help you?” she calls, her voice isn’t unfriendly but she does seem very intent.

“Nah, all good. Just having a look.”

I rule out the jewellery, hats, magnets and jigsaws but there’s a rainbow pencil case that might be promising. It’s not very exciting though. I scrub at my eyes and yawn. Hell, does she even need a pencil case?

“You’re one of those guys from up the road, aren’t ya?”

“Me?”

She—I assume Hayley—waves her hands in the air at the empty shop and shoots me a look like I’m an idiot. “You’re one of the Kiwi boys who keep turning up.”

“Yeah, I’ve been here once before but it’s just me this time. I’m leaving though. Today.”  I hold the pencil case up to the light. 

“Did you get finished this time?”

I put down the pencil case. I can’t tell her that actually being here and not offending anyone was half my job done. Apparently, I’ve got a sincere open face—which means I can lie very convincingly to customers when required. “I expect we’ll be back.” I stop myself from adding unfortunately.

“I didn’t see you in town much,” Hayley says.

“Well, it’s easier to go out for a meal in a group—besides I worked late a lot. All I wanted was to get to bed and crash each night.”

“Fair enough. Were you at the Sovereign or the Duke Motorcourt?”

“Sovereign.”

“That’s a dive—don’t go there.”

“It’s alright, at least I don’t get glared at when I traipse concrete dust through the lobby.  I’m not fussy, if I can have a shower and not be bitten by bed bugs I’m happy.”

“You’ve high standards,” Hayley says with a grin.

I can’t help smiling at her. She must be bored out of her tree being here all day. “I have to get my daughters presents,” I add.

“How old?”

“Sally’s five … ”

“Get her a koala.”

“She has a koala, a kangaroo, echidna, kookaburra, platypus—”

“Platypus? Nice.”

“Yeah, I pick one up each trip but I’m starting to run out of native animals. Actually, I’m not meant to get her any more soft toys.”

“Did Sally say that?”

“What do you think?” 

Hayley laughs and I find myself staring at her, enjoying the sound, seeing her slim body shake gently. “So you have to travel a fair bit then,” she says. “That must be good.”

“Well, there’s good that’s come from it—extra money on the mortgage … and two holidays. But … ” I can’t expect her to understand. How can I explain that me being away isn’t written in my contract but it may as well be? These days they’re already booking my tickets as they ask: “Can you go?” 

Hayley won’t get it. How each time I announce I’m off my wife and girls act like I actually want to go, as if lugging heavy gear around airports to be the go-to-guy who’s expected to have answers for everything but is told nothing is a fun use of a 14 hour work day, being exhausted each night and having to hunt for food like a flipping caveman while navigating the grimiest parts of unfamiliar cities and towns, then finally getting to where I’m sleeping and the time difference meaning I’ve already missed my daughters’ bedtimes so no chat tonight, or the next.

“But hey—it’s an adventure, as my wife says.” Though perhaps if she worked full-time, I needn’t be away so much. Yet she’s never mentioned that.

Hayley is out from the counter now, her blue eyes sweeping over me as she touches my arm and gives me a little push towards the antique reject pile. I’m looking at her and at my arm in surprise. “It’s turning me into a tired, grumpy jerk,” I tell Hayley, instantly regretting it as she withdraws her hand.

Green staring eyes in a sharp porcelain face. Tail tucked just so. Shining with glaze.  Hideous and perfect. Hayley’s holding up the ornament to me: “Do your kids like cats?”

“Yes!” I say in relief. “She’ll love it. That’s one down, the difficult one.”

“Great, I don’t mean to hurry you but I’ve got to get my son from school soon … ”

“Oh! All good, that’ll do.”

We go to the counter. Hayley carefully wraps the little cat in thin tissue, rolling it several times into a protective crisp white ball before taping it inside its blue paper bag. “I’ve done my best but I’d recommend you take it on board as carry-on.”

“Will do.” Behind her a row of T-shirts hang from a rail, each emblazoned with Bordertown in bright yellow and sporting a blurry print of a faintly arrogant looking white kangaroo. “Wow, albino kangaroos, don’t they get sunburnt?”

Hayley looks over her shoulder. “We make them little hats,” she says, then grins at my shocked face. “No, no they’re just regular roos who happen to be white. Haven’t you seen them yet?”

At my head shake Hayley gives me a look verging on pity. “There’s a reserve—go see them. I’ll draw you a map.”

“Can you? That’d be good, really good.”

I watch her scrawl quick lines, scruffy labelling, until she finishes up with a big wonky ‘x’ marking the shop. “It’s good the owners don’t mind you going to get your kid,” I say as she hands me the paper.

“Well, this is mine,” Hayley replies. “And no, I don’t mind.”

I think for a moment. “You know, since I’m going to see white roos, I’ll get two of the T-shirts—one for a five-year-old and one for a woman—a woman your size.”

We don’t speak as she expertly folds the shirts into neat squares, sliding them into a handled carry bag. As I get to the door she calls out: “Happy flying!”

“Always,” I say with a wave.

I jump back into the ute, put the shopping bag on the passenger seat and take the next left out of town. I’m busy squinting at the map, trying to steer through the afternoon glare, when I hear the awful retro ringtone of my work cell phone. It can ring dementedly for now.  I know it’s the project manager and he won’t be calling to thank me or to wish me bon voyage. Anyway, there are safety campaigns back home discouraging talking on the phone while driving. Well—that’ll be what I’ll tell him when he calls back in 10 minutes asking why I didn’t answer. I will tell this lie with full commitment in the same way I tell strangers why I do this job—that the money from working nowhere near anyone I love is handy, and nice, and good for the mortgage—not to mention the two holidays. Sometimes I even wink when I add that. They’re not in on the joke though.

I am good at lying. My sisters and I always have been. We made tomato sauce from plum jam with vinegar, fried Belgian luncheon for a treat then called it bacon, and when our parents were gone it wasn’t because they were out of town working.

Every two years, when it’s time to order new steel-caps, my foreman writes down my size and always mutters: Bloody Chris and his dainty feet. He doesn’t know why I have ballet dancer arches and curled toes. If I’d grown up in the north I’d have gone barefoot but you can’t do that in a southern winter so you wear your too-small school shoes year after year. But at least you have them.

My wife knows all this, but it will never truly permeate. Her upbringing was a far more genteel poverty than mine—a type of make-do that saw her mother cut up a prized wedding veil for the bassinet, lop off the end of the double-bed blanket for the cot. No one had to stare at an empty fridge.

The phone starts up its renewed racket. I was wrong, it’s only a five minute wait this time.

“Hey, Simon—just leaving now. Driving though, so better be quick, eh?”

“Thank God, I caught you in time!” he replies. Simon is a man who marks 5 out of 10 emails as urgent and he’s thoroughly lived up to my expectations all through this build.

“You haven’t. I’m not in Bordertown anymore.”

He swears. “You can turn back though? They’ll only need you for a few more days.”

“I was meant to be here a fortnight—it’s a month now. My poor kids will forget what I look like—”

“That’s what Skype’s for.”

“Oh? Is that what you’d do, if you were here?” I’ve pulled over too fast, my shopping bag has fallen off the seat.

“Well,” and I hear his deep intake of breath before he says: “I’m sure I could ask the company to fly someone else over … of course it’ll take more time and at such short notice the airfares won’t be cheap—but they won’t care too much about that, will they … ”

Later tonight, when I’m at my motel—and it’ll be the Duke Motorcourt this time, I’ll insist—I’ll tell my wife about this comment and she will call Simon a snake. I will feel her rage twisting through the fibres underneath the Tasman. I shake my head as I dump the phone on the seat and pull back onto the asphalt. I had better have something else to talk about, something else to entertain. Perhaps some funny photos I can email ahead of my call? Luckily, snow-white roos should do nicely. 

I balance Hayley’s map on the dashboard and follow her directions north.





R. L. Nash

R. L. Nash is a Dunedin writer. Her short stories featured in Takahē magazine while she was studying speech and language therapy. She has a novel manuscript looking for a home and is drafting another.  In between bouts of writing, she’s kept busy mothering, working in unglamorous admin, and sewing wonky seams.