The other week I met a wombat. I sometimes go to a fenced dog park in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It’s a big and bushy park and the dogs run riot. Outside the fence, is the Yarra River and a walking path. I was walking behind my dog when I spied a large grey furry thing waddling along the adjacent path. This thing, it turned out, was a wombat. I watched for a minute and then called out to a fellow dog walker, ‘Look at this.’ Together we kept pace with the wombat for a few more meters until it realised we were there and ambled off into the undergrowth. The stranger and I looked and each other and grinned. ‘How about that eh?’ It was only later that I remembered that we both had been so engrossed with the wombat that neither of us thought to take a photo on our mobile phones. The buzz of seeing a wombat so close to home on just a regular weekday morning. It made me think again about the joy of the unexpected, sharing things with strangers and how it can take a little thing to make your day. I was told later that there are quite a few wombats living in this part of Melbourne; that’s why the dog park is securely fenced.
A day later I walk into my panel beaters. My car has a small issue and I want a quote. Our relationship with these panel beaters goes back over two decades to the cursed car, the Mitsubishi Lancer ( 3 visits in as many years) and the expensive European car which has escaped any damage at all.
After the 3rd visit with the Mitsubishi, Keith the panel beater said to me, ‘Look at it this way. It was only a car and no one was hurt.’ I’ve repeated his words a lot over the years – it became a sort of mantra.
This visit, I’m greeted by one of the staff, sweeping the front entrance. ‘I’ll have a look at it for you,’ he says. I am hesitant – surely the apprentice should call over someone more senior. On closer inspection, I see it’s Paul, the boss. He looks at the loose car panel, grunts and says, ‘Yeah, needs a staple and maybe some glue.’
Paul disappears into the back of the building and comes back followed by a tortoiseshell cat. The cat wraps itself around his ankles and he bends down to give it a pat. I approach and the cat glares and turns away.
I see you have a cat,’ I say to Paul . ‘She doesn’t like me.’
He laughs. ‘She can be picky. We’ve had cats hanging around for years. Had one in our other premises as well. One of them just had kittens a couple of months ago.’
I tell him about the Instagram account Bodega Cats and that maybe there should be one for Panelbeater Cats. I can visualise it now, hottest Instagram account around. Paul looks nonplussed.
He kneels down by my car, glues the panel back into place and adds some industrial tape to secure it. ‘Take the tape off in a couple of days,’ he advises. ‘Should be as right as rain after that.”
I ask how much and he smiles and said. ‘Naa. it’s fine.’
‘Can I see the kittens, if that’s convenient?’ I ask.
He hesitates. ‘Don’t want to disturb them, the mother cat gets worried. But I can show you photos.’ He whips out his phone and shows me dozens of kitten photos. His grease spattered thumb moves across the screen as he finds his favorites.
‘If you want one, let me know, They’re about ready to find homes. Just need to get their first round of shots. We had a whip around so they could.’
I pause. I have come to get my car fixed not adopt a stray cat. ‘I can’t at the moment but maybe the next litter of kittens,’ I say, thinking of our grumpy eighteen-year-old matriarch cat and our boisterous puppy. Let alone the extra work for me looking after it as I have no illusions – it would be me.
I look back into the workshop. It’s an ordinary suburban panel beater with Top 40 radio blaring, girlie calendars on the walls and awash with testosterone. Yet, here is a group of blokes who look after generations of cats, chip in money for vet bills and make sure their kittens go to good homes.
‘Let me know if you change your mind,’ he says. ‘There’ll always be other litters.’
On the drive home, I hum a bit and think of the two things; of a panel beating shop which gives sanctuary to stray cats and a wombat colony in the heart of Melbourne suburbia. I live in a wonderful city, but I tend to forget this until little adventures like this remind me.