The tide of yuppiedom was beginning to rise in Surrey Street, Darlinghurst, in the 1980s when we rented a terrace at number 73, opposite Eric and the Cat Lady we came to know simply as Mary.
Minutes from Kings Cross and just around the corner from the legendary cafes Bar Coluzzi and Tropicana, the Surrey Street of today masquerades as ‘chic’ and ‘quaint’ as the once run-down terraces have been turned into silk purses commanding fancy prices on the eastern suburbs property market.
A nuggetty old man, Eric was a former jockey and he carried in his wallet a greasy clipping recounting a win at Randwick many moons ago.
The pair was old when we moved in but still worked a 12-hour day fishing in Sydney Harbour. The windows of their powder blue Toyota wagon were blacked out as they offloaded blackmarket fish to local clubs and restaurants off the books.
In a narrow street like ours a parking space could be swapped for a right arm yet the black market old dears always found a spot for their truck and station wagon right outside their peeling front door. And woe betide anyone who parked in “their” space.
Their grubby little grey two-storey terrace had convict markings on the sandstone bricks and the front door opened onto the street. A terrible stink would sometimes ooze from their basement as Eric melted down lead for his homemade sinkers. Upstairs the shabby curtain would part an inch or two as Mary kept her beady eyes on the drunks and junkies who were part of everyday life and death on Surrey Street. Mary and Eric believed in mistrusting everyone – it saved them time.
She had lank, iron-grey hair, parted in the middle, apple red cheeks and the body of a German frau fattened on pork and cabbage and strudel.
She had eyes like a stingray, flat and grey and it would be years before I saw the soft light that glowed within turning them a twinkly hazel when she talked about her favourite long dead dog, Nigger!
They patrolled the street like the Berlin Wall.
“Get outta here ya mongrel. What the fuck do ya think you’re doing!” she’d scream at a junkie robbing cars at 3am. Did she ever sleep? She’d hang out the top window cursing the thief while Eric backed her up with a handgun.
When I went to America in ‘88 he kindly offered me a loan and when our Herald was stolen Eric lay in wait for the newspaper thief and from the branches of the old peach tree in our front yard threatened to shoot him dead.
Like clockwork, at dawn and dusk, Mary would lovingly place plates of fish under the truck’s axle and step back and watch as a cloud of wild cats materialized to share the food. Her face softened as her red, chapped work-worn hands hovered ever closer to Jody, her favourite. They all had names but at this stage of our acquaintance we were only on nodding terms and Mary’s world was still off-limits.
I knew only she’d once worked at the Violet Crumble factory. “We’d cut it up with chainsaws,” she once told me, running a red raw hand down her shapeless blue frock. “Bits of honeycomb would stick to me legs and as I walked home from work in summer the bloody flies’d be stuck all over me.” Then she’d laugh, a tinkly young girl’s laugh, and it would transform her face. I rightly guessed she was originally a plain but good-humoured girl from country New South Wales come to the city for work during the Depression.
The illegal fishing caper wound up about the same time my brother Chris settled into a sprawling old home in the inner west of Sydney. No longer the residence of the Station Master it nevertheless boasted a disused tunnel believed to have gone from their backyard under the road to the Newtown Railway Station. It was to be a house of studies for young religious only one of whom dared venture past the cobwebby mouth of the old ruined tunnel where two unlikely creatures cohabited. One was a magnificent green-eyed silver tabby tomcat, lithe and powerful with four snowy paws. The other was a large white rabbit. Yoani, the young man who alone dared set foot inside the gloomy tunnel, is today a Priest in Fiji where his courage is no doubt well known.
The cage arrived at Surrey Street with a huge angry tomcat scowling and spitting after my brother and the trainee priests quit their Newtown digs. Afraid for the creature’s welfare after they left they had trapped it and delivered it to our door. The green kohl-ringed eyes flashed with hatred and I knew this marvellous wild creature would never sit on my lap purring in front of the cosy gas fire.
In fact Oscar Wilde, as we called the silver tabby, was incarcerated for only a few hours before escaping through the open window and disappearing into the Frangipani-scented Darlinghurst night.
Some months later our neighbours, a houseful of party poofs and dykes, locked themselves out after a particularly ecstatic Friday night.
“Could I just come through your yard and into ours?” asked the Scottish lass ever so sweetly.
Of course she could.
She was the size of an ink bottle, a little black and white ball of fluff, one eye gummed up with the infection that was rattling in her chest. Near death she nevertheless opened a tiny pink mouth and hissed at everyone who came near, everyone except Frances who scooped up the poor wee mite. Still wary of us Mary denied knowing anything about the little wild kitten so we rushed her to Janet, a vet we knew in Newtown. Next day another two little kittens were found abandoned in the neighbour’s backyard. One of them was a scrap of a thing, a silver tabby. Janet was doubtful they’d pull through. Just a couple of weeks old they’d been out in icy rainstorms. They were wormy, scouring, terrified and maybe even suffering from deadly cat flu. Unable to care for them herself, the young mother cat had given them to us as a last resort.
Hand fed day and night they survived for a week when we brought two of them home from the vet and into our lives.
Fluffy and Tiggy, Frances called them. Her first kittens!
Mary melted when she saw them and decided we were good people after all. From time to time she waved, not smiling, waving. Then one day she pulled me aside for a chat and remarked how much Tigs looked like her father, a big silver tabby Mary had christened Darcy Dugan: “Never touched by human hand,” Mary said admiringly and I realized ‘our’ Oscar Wilde had become ‘her’ Darcy Dugan, the notorious bank robber and escape artist of legend.
Mary could tell you the pedigree of all the wild cats of Surrey Street. The calico mother, ‘Miss Kitty Kat’, was dumped aged about three months. She had a second litter after Tiggy, Fluffy and Bindi and Mary was raising them in her nursery under Eric’s truck. There were Tiny, Jody and Cheeky. She was also looking after the cats in the nearby old men’s boarding house and keeping an eye on the elderly ‘Grandad’ – an old warhorse with torn ears, a limping gait and cracked pads.
The cats would daily dodge the cold-hearted, the cruel, the council, traffic, dogs and traps and bask in the sunlight atop walls in creeper vines or squeeze themselves through holes in the sandstone foundations and watch the world go by safe under the terrace houses.
When the truck was sold and the family had nowhere to eat we offered Mary the use of our front porch. Despite her bad hips and dicky heart she would climb the steep stairs morning and night and with a small sigh of satisfaction place the dinners down and watch her little brood appear like magic.
Ours was a rented terrace and a transient life and the day came when we decided to move to our own place down the south coast. Leaving Sydney was easy enough. Leaving Mary and the ferals was going to be tough. How would she manage?
Before we said our goodbyes we were fortunate enough to have a visit from my brother-in-law to be. Aaron was a strapping kiwi farm boy who soon set about trapping cats by day and drinking in the Cross at night. The Cat Defence van would whisk away the cage and return the indignant ferals one by one. Each was de-sexed and checked by a vet for the first and last time in their lives before being released. Kitty-Kat had had her last litter and Surrey Street had a nice little family of spayed cats to keep down the vermin and add the soul that wild cats bestow on cities everywhere. With a twinkle in his eye Aaron always reckoned he couldn’t catch Cheeky, the only male cat, but we reckoned it was a bloke thing and he wanted the big brown tabby moggy to continue his line.
Years have passed and Fluffy and Tiggy settled into their coastal idyll without a backwards glance. One day we called in to see Mary with free range eggs. Fluffy and Tiggy were 11 years old, and Elf, a rescue cat, had come into our lives.
Mary was frail and for the first time ever invited us inside her terrace. Eric was crook too. We had a cuppa upstairs and Mary told us how first Tiny then Jody had disappeared. Kitty Kat was trapped and killed by a yuppie. Put out with the rubbish. Mary was stoic until it came to Cheeky. Just a few months before he’d become skin and bone and so sick he let them take him inside for the night. He died next day. Cancer, the vet said.
Hers is the only unrenovated terrace left in swishy Surrey Street, rotten on the outside, but on the inside lives an old lady whose kindness has nurtured dozens and dozens of little furry street urchins over the decades. She never missed a morning or a night putting out a feast paid for out of a meagre aged pension.
Eric went soon after Cheeky. Cancer.
Another few years have gone and I remembered Mary when Fluffy and Tiggy celebrated their 15th birthday in October. Was she still alive?
Then came a Christmas card written in a shaky hand: “To Francis, Barbara and 3 children. Mary xxx.”