Fiction by Lucy Palmer
“The Great Disappearance”
By Lucy Palmer
That was odd, thought Maddy hazily – no cool, whiskered nose against her nose. No paw prodding her cheek, claws more or less retracted. No warm, furry weight climbing onto her chest and kneading it, claws no longer retracted in the slightest, mewing on the beat of every second like a feline alarm clock.
A damp, grey dawn was just lightening the gap below the curtains. Maddy reached for her watch: 5.30. The time was as regular as the mewing, which was probably why she’d woken up anyway. It would be nice, though, to get a bit of a lie-in for once, even if it was a weekday. With no more than a vague curiosity about what the cat could be up to, she rolled over and went back to sleep.
Maddy, who never set a real alarm, dreamed about getting ready for work and woke up flustered at 7.40, twenty minutes before she needed to leave. There was still no Pickle. More alert now, and more concerned, Maddy rattled his food bowl, which, most unusually, hadn’t been touched. She called out his name in the back garden, in the car park, and up and down the street (at least there was no sign of him being run over – or not on her street, anyway), but still he didn’t come. It had been a wet night, Maddy reasoned with herself, trying not to let panic take hold – maybe he’d found a dry spot in someone’s garden and stayed there, not wanting to come back in the rain, or maybe he’d accidentally got locked in someone’s garage and couldn’t get out until they left for work. There was nothing for it – she was just going to have to go to work herself and hope that Pickle would be at home when she got back.
Maddy grabbed her bike from the bike shed and cycled to the trading estate full tilt. Fortunately, there seemed to be fewer cars on the road than usual, and she arrived only a couple of minutes late, at 8.32. To her surprise, she was the first staff member to arrive at Petworld – only her boss was there before her.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ she blurted out as she hurtled through the sliding doors, ‘but I couldn’t find Pickle.’
Dave, her boss, looked at her oddly.
‘Haven’t you heard the news?’
Maddy obviously hadn’t.
‘It isn’t just your cat – it’s everyone’s cats and dogs. Everywhere. All over the world.’
‘All just vanished, overnight.’
‘Vanished? What, dead?’
‘No – vanished. Gone. Just disappeared without a trace. Nothing left except litter trays, and water bowls, and leads.’
Dave had a reputation as a bit of a joker, and his own beloved dog had died a few months back. Perhaps this was his grief coming to the surface in some very weird form. Maddy stared at him, hurt and baffled.
‘Is this a joke?’ she asked at last. ‘It’s just that Pickle really is missing, and I’m really worried about him.’
‘I’m very sorry about your cat, Maddy,’ said Dave, ‘but I kid you not. Here, look at this.’
He took out his phone and simply googled ‘cat’. Every search result, from every time zone that had already woken to the news, was about the animals’ sudden and inexplicable disappearance. Schoolgirls could be seen crying in huddles and creating shrines in squares and parks, owners of catteries and kennels were lamenting the empty enclosures and the loss of their livelihoods, and pet food manufacturers had ceased production and were already discussing redundancies. Theories to explain the disappearance included a sudden pandemic (but that didn’t account for the lack of bodies), divine retribution (which could, conveniently, account for anything), a global government conspiracy (for reasons the conspiracy theorist didn’t go into), a coordinated campaign by animal rights activists (vehemently denied by all the major pet charities), and alien abduction (for reasons best known to aliens). And the oddest thing about it was that not just the bodies but all traces of the animals had, quite literally, vanished. Litter trays around the world were pristine; bags of forgotten dog poo had disappeared from bushes; dog waste bins were empty; pavements, parks, and gardens were excrement-free; cat hairs no longer clung to clothes and furniture – only the claw marks remained; and a man in China who had knitted a jumper from the hair of his deceased chow chow was now bereft of his handcrafted garment as well as his dog.
‘Well,’ said Dave eventually to Maddy and the other staff members, who had, by now, turned up, ‘we’d better get this shop open. People will be wanting to buy gerbils, and rabbits, and goldfish before they vanish too.’
‘Um, Dave,’ said Karen, the deputy store manager, ‘should we maybe put up some kind of notice in the cats and dogs sections saying something like “In sympathy with those who have lost their pets today”?’
‘Oh, yes – great idea! Very good PR. Oh, and Maddy, could you put up a notice by the tills saying “Unfortunately, we cannot offer any refunds, exchanges or credit notes for cat- or dog-related items?”’
‘Actually, on second thoughts,’ he added, as he saw the look on Karen’s face, ‘we probably aren’t allowed to change the conditions after purchase, so scrap that idea. Maddy and Tom, you’ll just have to be really strict about what you take back. You know the policy – no refunds, exchanges or credit notes for any used items. Make sure the labels are still on, and don’t forget to ask for the receipt.’
Thus began the oddest day of Maddy’s whole existence. A few people did come to buy rabbits and hamsters to console their children, and many came to try to return nearly new dog beds and only slightly chewed cat toys, but mostly the day was spent watching news reports and YouTube videos and exchanging tearful stories about beloved companions, now lost.
When Maddy got home, there was, indeed, no sign of Pickle. The food in his bowl was still untouched, the litter tray was unspoilt, and not a single cat hair could be found on Maddy’s clothes or sofa or bed. Without the cat to talk to or play with, Maddy didn’t know how she’d pass the evening. The flat seemed so empty without him that she couldn’t bear to be in it. The weather was a little drier and brighter now, and although it was chilly, she went to sit on the steps in the garden, her head in her hands.
She hadn’t been sitting there very long when she heard a fluttering by her head, followed by a lyrical chirrup. A robin had come to perch on the rose bush beside her. Maddy had never seen a robin in the garden before. She smiled wanly at the cheery little bird. It tilted its head on one side and studied her from one angle then hopped about and studied her from a different angle, its eyes round and bright, as if it were puzzled and amused.
After several minutes of observation, it flew off, and Maddy went inside to heat up a lasagne. She was surprised, in her grief-stricken state, how much of it she managed to eat, but she saved a forkful of beef, which she left on the step for the robin (if robins ate beef) or for Pickle, just in case he came home.
When Maddy looked out the next morning, the cat still hadn’t returned, but the little mound of beef had gone, so at work she asked what robins ate and bought a bird feeder with some suet balls (enjoying her 20% staff discount, the generosity of which Dave was at pains to point out), and hung it from a branch of the rose bush. Sure enough, the robin came back and began pecking at the suet with gusto, even though it was only a few feet from where Maddy was sitting, and Maddy felt strangely honoured by this little wild bird’s appreciation of the food she’d offered it.
The news channels that evening talked about little except ‘The Great Disappearance’, as it had now been dubbed. The murder of a teenager in Ohio, the NATO summit in the Hague and even the latest celebrity wedding were covered in ‘other news’. Social media sites were flooded with cat and dog videos, and any vaguely cute clip went viral, causing servers to crash. Japanese schoolgirls held candlelit vigils in former cat cafés, and several people in the US were maimed or killed trying to pet lions and tigers in zoos, while the few Korean restaurants that still had dog on the menu swiftly changed it to ‘duck’ and claimed that was what it had always said.
On the third morning, there was not only the robin on the bird feeder, but around half a dozen other little birds, most of which Maddy couldn’t identify. When she got back from work, she went online and bought A Pocket Guide to the Birds of Britain, which arrived at work the following day. The tiny bird with the yellow belly turned out to be a blue tit and the slightly bigger one with the black head a great tit, and there were two different kinds of sparrow. The colours and patterns were really striking, she realised, even in such ordinary birds. She’d just never really looked at them properly before – or seen any close to when she’d had Pickle. Browsing through the book, Maddy noted that many of them liked to eat seeds, so she went home with a second bird feeder and a kilo bag of seed.
As the week of The Great Disappearance wore on, speculation grew as to what would happen next. Optimists pointed out that the animals might return as suddenly as they had left, while pessimists were convinced that other pets would shortly be lost – maybe in order of popularity (in which case global rankings indicated that fish were the most at risk) or perhaps in order of size (in which case rabbits and large reptiles were top of the list). As threatened earlier in the week, pet food manufacturers from Acanine to Whizzkat were working with the unions over redundancy packages for their staff, while the unlucky dog walkers, cat café owners, and canine grooming specialists had no golden handshakes to hope for. Even vets were feeling the pinch, and Maddy wondered whether all three staff members could be kept on at Petworld for much longer.
On marketplace websites, adverts for unneeded cat and dog accessories abounded, with little chance of finding a buyer, while on social media fake news postings multiplied, with claimed sightings of a husky in Finnish Lapland (it turned out to be a wolf), a huge tabby in Michigan (it was a bobcat), and an Australian Shepherd on Vancouver Island (in reality, a juvenile black bear). An elderly lady in Beijing was even sold an animal that she was assured was a Pekingese, but that was later revealed to be a large guinea pig with very long hair.
On the fourth day of The Great Disappearance, Maddy woke at 5.30, thinking of Pickle and wondering what would become of her job. This time she couldn’t get back to sleep, so she got up and peeped through the gap between the curtains at the chilly grey dawn. She was about to go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea when a small, darting shape caught her eye – a tiny brown mouse was nibbling on the fallen crumbs of suet beneath the bird table. She saw plenty of mice in their little glass cages at Petworld, but there was something special – oddly moving, actually – about seeing a wild one in her very own garden. Maddy stood and watched it, transfixed, until it trotted off into the bushes. It occurred to her that, without Pickle around, mice might like a bit of cat food, so that evening she cleaned Pickle’s bowl and put out a fresh sachet of Cleopatra select chicken slices in gravy beneath the bird table, scattering a flock of goldfinches that had been feeding on the seeds. The next morning the entire contents had gone. It must have been a very hungry mouse, thought Maddy, or one with a family to feed, so each evening she continued to put out a pouch of food, which continued to disappear by the following morning. Harbouring the faint hope that Pickle might be out there and coming back in secret to eat, Maddy determined to stay up at the weekend and see what was emptying the food bowl. Wrapped in a duvet, and with a bottle of wine beside her, Maddy sat with the bedroom window open and the lights off, waiting and listening. At least half the bottle had gone, and she was about to give up and go to bed, when she heard a faint rustling from the garden. Peering into the darkness, she could just make out in the light from her upstairs neighbour’s window a rounded, shuffling shape at the base of the bird table – a rather ungainly, ball-like shape with spines. Could it really be a hedgehog? Maddy hadn’t seen a hedgehog since she was a child, and she held her breath in delight and astonishment as the little creature emptied the food bowl then trundled away into the bushes. Researching hedgehogs online, Maddy determined to buy or even make a house where her newfound friend could hibernate.
The following week, when the cats and dogs had still not returned, talk on the media and in government shifted to what might be done to bring them back. Various ageing celebrities offered millions of dollars for scientists to research modifying the DNA of wild species to recreate the domestic strains. The scientists responded that people pining for malamutes and Norwegian forest cats might not have to wait too long, but that former owners of Chihuahuas or basset hounds were unlikely to be so lucky. Meanwhile, sales of cat and dog soft toys, and of digital pocket pets, boomed, and the price of Hi Kitten merchandise went through the roof. A major video streaming platform bought the rights to Lassie, Scooby Doo, and Tom and Jerry, while one of the main free-to-air TV channels showed The Incredible Journey, Aristocats, and 101 Dalmations (both versions) in a continuous loop.
The days grew colder, the nights grew longer, and still the cats and dogs did not come back. Maddy would hear rustling in the bushes in the evening and hoped that the hedgehog was preparing to overwinter in its house. Long-tailed tits and coal tits came for the peanuts she’d put out, and Maddy spent many a happy half-hour just gazing out of the window watching the birds. At work, one of her colleagues had quit to retrain as a bereavement counsellor, leaving Maddy’s post secure for the time being, and although she might not have admitted as much to any other former pet owners, she was feeling remarkably contented.
Christmas arrived, and scientists still hadn’t reproduced any varieties of cat or dog that could easily be domesticated, and in the meantime the popularity of previously more unusual pets soared. Raccoons and monkeys topped the rankings in the Americas, and koalas and wallabies won out in Australia, while rats, ferrets, and caged birds saw a European resurgence. Trails of chicken carcasses were laid to lure wild foxes into people’s homes, and the sole US importer of domesticated foxes was making a metaphorical killing. Poaching of orangutans and chimps increased tenfold, with unscrupulous millionaires prepared to offer hundreds of thousands of dollars for a baby chimp as a pet, and the authorities in Kinshasa seized a lorryload of baby gorillas, many of which subsequently died of dehydration. Several escaped monkeys and lemurs joined the parakeets in Hyde Park, which was starting to feel quite tropical, aside from the drizzle and sleet. All over the Western world, the obesity epidemic worsened as – in combination with festive overindulgence – people who previously used to drag themselves to the park to walk the dog could no longer drag themselves off the sofa to do anything at all, and sat in a depression-induced stupor, mindlessly scoffing comfort food and watching LOLCats memes.
Warnings from doctors about the dangers of inactivity, and admonishments from vegan charities and environmental pressure groups about the immorality of exploiting animals, went largely unheeded, and surprisingly soon it was a whole year since The Great Disappearance. A weekend of memorial events was organised around the globe, and a two-minute silence was held at 11am on the Sunday. In New York there was a parade of floats, Thanksgiving-style, with performers dressed as well-loved cat and dog characters, and with vendors selling matching balloons. In London a celebrity chef baked two giant cakes, shaped like a black and white cat and a shaggy-haired terrier, with proceeds from the slices going to pet charities and research into recreating pet DNA, though some especially sensitive souls complained in a not terribly sensitive way on social media that it was cruel to cut the cakes open. In Tokyo they held a display of fireworks that exploded to reveal Hi Kitten faces in their centres, prompting hysteria in the crowd, and in Beijing the authorities had a statue erected in Tiananmen Square of a cat and a dog gazing up devotedly at the Chinese flag.
The following spring, Maddy bought a nest box, and in June there were baby blue tits in the garden, followed by a litter of hoglets born in the hedgehog house. The pots of herbs that in previous years she had often felt she was growing purely for the benefit of slugs and snails were now hole-free and bushy thanks to her family of prickled friends. Maddy joined a bird protection charity and spent her weekends at workshops and on wildlife walks. On one of them, she met and started dating Jon, a gentle giant of a man who worked at a wholefood shop. Influenced by his views on animal exploitation, Maddy became vegan, and she even started to feel a bit broody herself.
By the second anniversary of The Great Disappearance, scientists had successfully recreated domestic tabbies and a strain of dog that was similar to a malamute (but also, thought Maddy, unnervingly similar to a wolf – though, to be fair, she’d never really been a dog person), and the ageing film stars and singers who’d funded the research were feted as heroes on social media. So far, the prices were prohibitive for anyone except the film stars and singers themselves, but the scientists assured the public that, thanks to an extensive breeding programme, the animals would soon be affordable for everyone. Owl cafés and bunny bars were the latest craze in Japan and Korea, while in China the elderly lady from Beijing, and others like her, had concluded that long-haired guinea pigs were just as endearing as lapdogs, without the canine inconvenience of walkies. A new cartoon rabbit film was released, and sales of the books and merchandise were booming, outstripping even those of Hi Kitten. The second memorial celebrations were much shorter and lower key than the first. Animal lovers hoping for cat- or dog-shaped cake had to bake and ice their own, and political activists had sprayed tags and rabbit faces on the Tiananmen Square statues.
Almost three years on from The Great Disappearance, other colours of domestic cat became available, husky and akika lookalikes had been recreated, and tabbies and neo-malamutes were affordable for the average household. The scientists who’d developed and patented the DNA were raking in fortunes, and the stars who’d funded them were suing for a share of the profits.
On the anniversary of the event itself, which that year happened to be a Saturday, Maddy slept in, and Jon was already up and about in the kitchen, listening to the radio, when she emerged.
‘Morning, Sweetheart,’ she said sleepily. ‘Did you…?’
Jon interrupted her with his finger to his lips and pointed to the radio.
‘… shops have been instructed not to allow bulk purchases,’ the news reporter was saying, ‘and the government is considering introducing spot checks, with fines for the purchase or possession of more than 5 kg of meat per person. The prime minister will meet the French president later today to discuss the possible legalisation of the sale of horse meat for human consumption in the UK, and an international scientific convention is to be held later this month to co-ordinate research into the production of meat by tissue culture. In the meantime, goat, rabbit, fish, and seafood are recommended as tasty and nutritious alternatives.’
- Ever since she was a child, Lucy Palmer has been passionate about nature and environmental issues. Her partner is a committed vegan, and she tries to follow his example, though she does not always succeed. She normally works as a proofreader but is currently doing voluntary work in an organic market garden.
Copyright©2020 by Lucy Palmer. All Rights Reserved.