Rebecca Clarke

A Lone Wolf

My husband’s fingers rapidly prod at the PlayStation controller behind me and he growls at the TV like a bear. He’s lost the fish he’s been trying to reel in for the last 10 minutes. Bummer, I say to him. He ignores me and jabs at the controller, focused on the screen as he recasts his fishing line. I stroll over to our lounge window which overlooks the road, where I often stand, pensively watching the activity on the street or scrutinizing whoever’s parking outside our house.

The kids who live in the state house opposite us used to play outside on their drive or the footpath. The gutter would be littered with toys and on windy days, when I returned home from work, I was often redirecting the wheeled ones back onto their property from the middle of the road. On a normal day, cars would be coming and going sporadically. Chris, who lives at the end of the cul-de-sac, would occasionally do laps on his latest motorcycle project; not wearing a helmet and revving the fuck out of the engine. Today, like yesterday and the day before that, all is quiet. Outside is motionless but for the wind rippling through the overgrown grass across the road, the clothes flapping on the line the neighbours hung out two weeks ago at the beginning of the lockdown, and my dressing-gowned reflection in the window as I sip on my sugar-free V.  

I spot some movement and see a fluffy silver tabby emerge from behind next door’s pōhutukawa. He strolls across their lawn, the footpath and onto the road, where he sits and looks about assessing the street and houses like a pharaoh admiring his kingdom. The cat is named Wolfie, and he became a resident of number nine six weeks ago. Before then he was our cat, but he decided that we weren’t his people. I resist the urge to open the window and call out his name like I used to. Instead, I watch him lift his leg and begin to groom himself in the middle of the road he has now reclaimed.

My husband, Wolfie, and I moved to this cul-de-sac in the northern suburbs of Wellington in June 2017. An ex-state house situated comfortably 10 minutes north of Wellington, 10 minutes west of Petone and 10 minutes south of Porirua. With two of these locations containing a Kmart – an important landmark to a person like me: an expatriate of Taranaki, where the nearest Kmart is a three-hour drive away – persuading my New Plymouth friends to visit has not been hard.

Kmart access wasn’t at the top of our wish list when we were open-homing three years ago. At the time we were renting a damp, attached flat in Ngaio which bordered native bush below Wellington’s Skyline. We had recently moved back from London, where we had lived for eight years in tiny, gloomy, mouse-infested studio flats. So, of course, we looked for the opposite of what we had endured so far. We wanted a place which wasn’t going to incubate mould; a place where we could get more than two hours of sunlight on our faces if we stood in the backyard; somewhere with enough space to push a lawnmower. Unfortunately, we discovered what would be achievable in our price range in towns like New Plymouth; in Wellington the only homes we could afford were exactly what we didn’t want.

After a year of searching with several rejections gnawing at the scraps of carefully prepared paperwork, a colleague suggested we try Newlands. She described the suburb as full of ‘tradies’, which I suspect was her delicate way of saying more affordable housing, and less of the leafy suburbs like Karori and Khandallah. So, one blustery Sunday, my husband and I headed north on State Highway One. The high-rises of Wellington’s city centre disappeared behind us as we turned towards Ngauranga Gorge. We anxiously watched the needle on the rev counter teeter near maximum as we negotiated the steep three-laned motorway. Cars wove in and out of the traffic to avoid the crawling public buses coming from the city, or the empty stock trucks leaving the meat works located halfway up the gorge. It was after this where we veered towards the far-left lane, to the off-ramp for Newlands, and headed towards our final open home.

At the time, moving here felt like a new beginning. In retrospect, it was more of a transition; its progress gauged by Wolfie’s gradual withdrawal from our lives. He was hardly a year old on moving day. While we unpacked, he entertained himself by pouncing from one box to another, or by sitting on the windowsill watching the birds eat our discarded crusts or the neighbour’s ragdoll spray our hubcaps. He would pace the hallway by the laundry door, meowing loudly, begging to be released. It wasn’t until two weeks after we moved in that he was finally liberated from his incarceration. My husband flicked the latch on the cat door and prodded the flap to show him how to use it. He didn’t bolt at first. He sat on the deck and evaluated this new land of opportunity. He sniffed the air and flicked his tail as the breeze ruffled his fur. Then he bolted. At speed, he climbed the cabbage tree, jumped over the fence, sprinted across next door’s lawn, and disappeared down their driveway. He didn’t return until it was dinner time.

Like me, Wolfie is a Taranaki expat too. He was born in Stratford, in a litter of four to my sister’s cat, Pepper. He was the only silver tabby and the only one who ended up with long hair. At first, when my sister asked if I was interested in adopting him, I declined. We had a rental agreement that specifically said ‘no pets’. But then the 23rd of November 2016 happened. I was 18 weeks pregnant, and then I wasn’t. While the collective mind of the country was focused on restoring normality after the Kaikōura earthquake, I was getting to know grief like I’d never known it before. Suddenly an opening had appeared in my life which a cute silver kitten would fit into perfectly. After many emails using months of unfulfilled promises about fixing a leak as leverage, an alteration to our rental agreement was made. Wolfie was shredding our furniture and digging up our pot plants by the end of the year.

The months following our move into this house, Wolfie began to carve out his territory on the street. He began to brazenly stroll into neighbours’ homes and make himself comfortable. One neighbour found him sleeping on her bed, while another had nicknamed him the ‘White Ghost’ as he only seemed to slink through their cat door at night. Steve, who lives next door, told us Wolfie would scratch on their ranchslider begging to be let in, but they never surrendered to his persistence.

Steve and his partner are in their seventies and they’ve lived at the property next door for over 30 years. According to them, we can thank patched drug dealers for making our property fully fenced. In the days leading up to the lockdown I often saw Steve at the local supermarket or queuing at the pharmacy. When his new deep-freeze arrived, he declared to us he’d be able to isolate for six months once it was full. Pre-COVID-19 we used to chat whenever we were in our garden. Using an old stump, he would give himself a foot up over the agapanthus lining our boundary and pop his head over the fence. Our conversations usually ended up with us borrowing a better garden tool off him or an offer to use his trailer when we next needed to go to the tip. Lately, our conversations have been from a distance, almost shouting towards each other. He’d be on the road walking his dog, and we’d be inside poking our heads out the window. It was in one of these loud exchanges I asked him if he needed anything from the supermarket. He said no, but for heaven’s sake do not ask his partner, as she’d run out of saffron a couple of days ago and he thought it was hardly an essential item.

The first Christmas holidays in our new home marked a year since we adopted Wolfie, we had also been living in Newlands for six months by then and I was seven months into my next pregnancy. Wolfie had become noticeably more absent. He had gone from sleeping at the end of our bed every night to occasionally sleeping on the couch. The halo of snowy grey fluff we found on the cushions the next morning was the clue. Our only sightings of him would be from a distance as we gazed out our lounge window, or when he turned up around 6pm for dinner. He would lurk near his bowl, rub against our legs, eat, then we’d hear the cat flap and watch him from the window scale the cabbage tree and leap over the fence.

One day, not long after returning from Christmas in Taranaki, a woman approached me from the road. I was in the drive sanding a set of drawers destined for the nursery. She held out her phone to me and asked if this was my cat. On her screen was a photo of Wolfie sitting on a man’s lap. Apparently, for the last three months, he’d pretty much moved in with them. In the mornings they’d wake to find him rolling around on the carpet outside their bedroom doors or sleeping in large empty terracotta pots in their backyard. While Wolfie had come to us to replenish an emptiness in our lives, as my pregnancy progressed, the void he filled had shrunk. It’s no wonder he took it upon himself to find a new family where he wouldn’t be a consolation prize. Eventually, we saw so little of him, we handed over his microchip and vaccination papers to his new, chosen family. Now I watch him from a distance, like a stalker, yearning for him to love me.

I hear a staticky “Mama” come from the baby monitor. I turn away from the window and head to the nursery. My son is standing in his cot with a large smile across his face. He squeals when he sees me. I help him out of the cot and we begin to ready ourselves for our daily walk, a new lockdown routine whenever the weather is nice.

Strolling through our lifeless neighbourhood we feel like castaways exploring a deserted island. My son walks ahead of us, the tracker in our hunting party, scanning the houses we pass for any bear activity. He spots a walkway which he knows offers a more adventurous route, so he looks back at us and points towards the entrance. I say no, not that way. It leads to the school where the unused playgrounds are like sugar to this fiend. In response to this rejection he collapses to the ground and begins to serenade the silent street with his echoing wails. Suddenly the houses around us come to life. From behind glass windows people emerge from the shadows like inmates coming to their cell doors; they all want to catch a glimpse of the commotion on the prison floor. We scoop him up and head for home.

As we enter our street, our son, who is now sitting upon his dad’s shoulders, yells “wolf, wolf, wolf!”. Wolfie lays across the footpath ahead of us, my husband and son say hello as they pass, and Wolfie acknowledges them with a head roll. I stay behind for a moment longer and scratch the sweet spot under his chin, then I leave him to enjoy the sun in peace.

Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca Clarke was born and raised in New Plymouth but now lives in Wellington. She is currently studying a Graduate Diploma of Arts in Creative Writing through Massey University.