I’m delighted to announce that my short story “Dandelion Clocks” has won the 2021 NZSA Graeme Lay Short Story competition. In his announcement on Facebook today, Graeme said:
Themes of childhood loss and the possibility of renewal make this beautifully observed and sensitively written story difficult to forget.
Thank you, Graeme, and congratulations to the other winners and highly commended writers.
Last year one person broke my daughter and another helped put her back together.
It’s not what you might think. It’s about the tiniest of moments; the spectacular smallness of things.
My daughter is eleven. When she was ten I bought her a cat. It was a dandelion clock, this cat; snow-white and fragile, it took only a child’s breath to make her flee. She had a wet pink nose that gleamed like a licked marshmallow, or a cherry blossom in a spring shower. My daughter named her Pinky Pig, because she had wanted a pig but I had said no.
I opened the garage door one Monday morning and Pinky Pig shot out like an arrow, all fur and heat and terror. Something had spooked her, and she ripped down the driveway, a streak of electric snow. We were just leaving for school so we followed her down, thinking she would stop at the bottom by the tipped-over mailbox where the postman with the crooked back posted letters sideways.
We reached the end of the driveway just in time to see Pinky Pig spear across the road straight into the path of a white Land Rover. For a suspended second she was a smudge between the wheels, and I thought for another stupid half-second that the Land Rover might recognise a kindred colour and spare her, leaving her crouched and steamy in the wake of its arrogant exhaust. But then the back wheel clipped her, and Pinky Pig was tumbled and lifted for a hideous moment before thumping back to earth.
My daughter opened her mouth and let out one very small Oh. Then, without looking to her left or right, she ran to the centre of the road and stood over Pinky Pig, her arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
I plunged after her. I think I was screaming. I glimpsed a neighbour leaping over our tipped-over mailbox, and there was pink everywhere and I could hear the bell at the school calling the children. People were gathering to stare. Mothers with ponytails, children full of Weetbix, fathers with ties and deadlines. The builders from two doors up appeared, tools hanging from interrupted hands. Later I heard that they had thought a child had been run over. When they saw it was a cat, they watched for a few moments then headed back to tap and nail and smoke.
The blossoms were flying, clogging the drains, polka-dotting the trampolines, matching Pinky Pig’s dying nose. Spring confetti.
Pinky Pig was scrabbling against the asphalt, her mouth opening and closing in a terrible grimace, slower and slower, and then there was one exquisite gasp of breath, and then she was dead.
No no NO NO NO Mummy Mummy no no no screamed my daughter and she fell on her knees and her head fell on Pinky Pig and a tiny drop of blood, too red to be true, pinched out of the cat’s mouth.
I tumbled down towards her. I touched my daughter’s back with one hand. She was electric with shock; the down on her arms, grown so long lately, was bristling. I did not hug her. I was afraid. I was afraid of her and the wild power of her.
Cars continued to swish and scrape and tiptoe around us. None of them stopped. It was 8:50 and people had more important things to do than stop for a screaming girl and her terrified mother and a dead cat. I felt an arm around my shoulder and somebody talking, but I couldn’t make out the words. A stranger bundled the three of us, our shattered little family, into her car and drove us the 200 metres around the corner to our vet. We were shown into a room with no instruments and no medicines, and the stranger stayed with us as I rubbed my daughter’s back as she sobbed into her dead cat’s fur.
No school today. No school today. I said it over and over. The stranger, her workday mascara a festival of smudges, hugged me, touched my daughter’s shoulder, and left. I still don’t know who she was.
There was no blood now. A vet nurse had gently wiped Pinky Pig’s mouth and it was obvious her injuries were all internal, because she looked perfect. Half an hour later we would take her home and hold her until she became too stiff to cradle and her bowels were leaking a little and I would think but not say to my daughter, How dare death be smelly.
The nurse laid Pinky Pig in a cage, covered her with a towel, and placed a single flower on top. She lifted the cage, pushing it forward with a disinfected arm. Pinky Pig flew towards us in her magic flower coffin.
I called a taxi, watching for it out the lobby window as my daughter sat in a white plastic chair and stared at laminated advertisements for dog food and flea treatments. When the taxi pulled up I lifted the cage and put my other hand out to my daughter. She shook her head, took the cage from my hand, and headed to the door, tilted to the right by the weight of her dead cat. I walked behind and the vet nurse followed; a tiny funeral procession.
As I opened the clinic’s front door for my daughter, ushering her through before me, her face red and raw, snot peeking from one nostril, a teenage boy was approaching. He was wrestling a tiny Pomeranian on a lead, pulling it up the stone steps towards the door. With each tug it coughed out a tiny choking noise and its eyes bugged.
Come on you little shit, he said, then he looked up and his eyes widened as he took in my daughter’s face.
Don’t do that to your dog, said my daughter. It’s cruel. Her voice came from a faraway place.
The teenager stopped yanking for a second. I was still inside, tucked behind the door, so perhaps he thought she was alone. Yeah, piss off with your judgements, OK? It’s not even mine. He yanked the Pomeranian away from the cage. It’s a daffodil, you dipshit dog.
The front door of the taxi opened and a smiling man stretched and unfolded long legs. Taxi for two?
The teenager gave a final heave and the tiny dog flew over the threshold. He didn’t look at me as I stepped past him, and I didn’t say anything because I was afraid again. Afraid that the rage inside me was too wild, and that if I let it go I would never be able to rein it in. The door slammed behind us. I was shaking, about to say something to my daughter, something to make ten years old feel all right again, when I registered a woman with a cat in a cage, coming up the ramp to the left of the steps.
The cat was black and designer, and its eyes ate its face. I didn’t want to look at it so I looked at the woman instead. She was elderly and precise and she wore a pink silk scarf. She looked at me and at my daughter and then down at the daffodil on its towelling grave. Then she set her cage down and put her arms around us both. I’m so very sorry, she said. I reached my arm around the stranger’s waist. We held on to each other as the taxi idled and the woman’s cat issued a single elegant yowl.
We separated and stood for a moment, awkward in the wake of unexpected intimacy. The woman then untied her scarf, which slid with a whisper of Dior away from her neck and, a second later, around my daughter’s. It’s spring. Life will come again. Then she picked up her cat, opened the clinic door, and went inside. Before approaching the counter she put her cage down, turned, and through the glass blew a kiss to my daughter, who raised the hand not carrying her dead cat, and caught it.
Twelve months later and it’s now spring again, and the trees are the colour of the scarf draped over my daughter’s bedhead, and yesterday I bought her a dog. She called him Brown Pig; Brownie for short. Because she still wanted her cat, but she only had the courage to half-remember her, and to half-remember the vastness of words and of miniature moments and how they can break you and then build you again, and how all the happiness and pain in the universe can be blown away with just one breath.