I’m standing in the bathroom looking down at my naked stomach the first time it happens. Four little feet pushing from the inside. My skin is pulled tight like a balloon about to pop. I lean onto the tips of my toes. I don’t float but stumble forwards, an ungraceful ballerina, reaching for an edge. The imprints are the shapes of paws; I think maybe I will give birth to a litter of kittens. Their hair will be slicked and their tiny eyes closed like blinds keeping out the sun.

            I don’t know whether to pass this information on to my mother. She is in the other room being anxious; my best guess is that she is folding something. Cardigans, pants, and tissues are her favourite things to fold. She folds the tissues into tiny origami birds. If she ever runs out of things to fold, I’m sure she will start folding herself. Trying to self-soothe by making herself neat and small.

            The news of my unborn kittens is neither neat nor small, so I’m worried about how she will respond. When I told her I was pregnant, she started obsessively crouching down next to me every night, her ear pressed against my stomach carefully like it’s 1940 war times and I’m an old radio. If she listens hard enough, she might hear Germany invading France, or meowing.

We’ve never had any animals in the house before. Not a goldfish or cricket, stolen from the garden. In this house, nothing has died slowly in a jar on a bedside table. When my mother was little, she had a cat called Sandy d, until it ran away. Over the years the story has become a notoriously dark anecdote of abandonment.

            ‘It just left me in the night!’ is her exact phrasing. No doubt that was the night she developed an unwavering reliance on self-doubt and failure, not to mention a deep hatred for the musical Grease, even though she did not name her cat Sandra Dee after the main character. It was because it had a sandy coloured swirl on its side in the shape of a lower-case d. I feel sad about this on many levels. Being left by an animal that has been bred purely to be needed by a human is unsettling but also the musical Grease is wonderful. I especially love when the song ‘Summer Loving’ is sung loudly at pubs or weddings, towards the end of the night.

By the time I’ve dressed myself in a big plain T-shirt bought from Target for $4.99 and walked from the bathroom to the kitchen, I have decided not to tell her. She has been on edge ever since my cousin Natalie got pregnant at seventeen and gave birth to a Nintendo Gaming Console. Her mother was deeply disappointed but mine was beside herself. Even though it was over ten years ago, and Natalie’s Nintendo was greatly loved, my mother still shakes her head when she recounts it. ‘These silly girls, getting pregnant too young. No idea what you need in life when you’re still a child. You should try to birth what you need, not what you want.’

            I’m not sure I agree with my mother. I look at my seven brothers all sitting in a row eating without chewing and sigh. My oldest brother is being the most disgusting, licking a chip, then double dipping it into the shared tomato sauce.

         ‘It lasts longer,’ he says angrily when I ask him why he eats his food like this.

         I can only tell he’s the oldest because he’s the tallest. My brothers are like babushka dolls, identical apart from their size. I never go into their bedroom but imagine that they stack themselves into a pile before they go to sleep.

I was a mistake, a slight of judgment, a sadly quiet moment. My mother was in the laundry washing a household’s accruement of dirty socks, big filthy socks all bundled together with her own, tiny, cotton anklets, and realised that she could have a little version of herself instead of yet another version of my father. She just had to want it enough. But I’m nothing like my mother, and I have the dirtiest socks of all. When I look into my mother’s eyes, or down at my unruly feet, I can feel my lack of value and see it reflected back at me.

‘Not all potatoes,’ my brother is explaining at the dinner table. I think it’s number four, unless he has changed seats.

            ‘Do you mean not all men?’ I ask.

            ‘No. I mean, not all chippies. They aren’t all bad,’ he replies, reaching for the salt.

It wasn’t just Natalie that disappointed my mother. Mrs Sampson was her best friend until she got pregnant in her late 40s. Already a mother of three useless children, she gave birth to a dishwasher. My mother’s sorrow was as heavy as a wet washcloth left in the bottom of the sink. She refused to get out of bed for Mrs Sampson’s entire pregnancy.

            I didn’t blame Mrs Sampson. She clearly needed more help in the kitchen, and if she had survived the ordeal she would have been thrilled. I’m not entirely sure what happened to the dishwasher. Custody was probably taken by Paul. He wasn’t the greediest of Mrs Sampson’s children, but he owned a Ute with a good-sized tray. No amount of pushing was going to squeeze the 80kg white good into her daughter Margie’s Holden Barina.

When I lie in the dark, I think I can hear the tiny mews. They are confident minor chords, invading the night like church bells, cut loose and rolling down a hill. I cannot sleep, my anxiety wrapped around the kittens, strangling them. I fear they will tumble from my body gnashing sharp snaggle teeth and smoking cigarettes.

A famous Russian tennis player is playing in the Australian Open. He wants to insult the umpire by calling him a ‘pussy!’ but his fury is lost in translation.

         ‘Tiny cat!’ he yells. ‘You are a tiny cat!’

         The umpire looks triumphant and keeps the language faux pas a secret. I think about my tiny cats and wonder if they will be as smug as the umpire.

I used to be quite a still person but now find my eyes darting around the room, unable to settle. I watch my mother knitting with unease and sometimes find myself perched on the edge of my seat like I am ready to pounce. Last week I knocked a fruit bowl off the table for no reason. It felt so good, I knocked every dish off the kitchen table during dinner. It was like it happened in slow motion. Each plate hitting the floor made a SMASH sound and filled my heart with giddy glee. I especially loved it when they skidded a little bit before hitting another object and breaking again.

            My mother didn’t say much about it, something about how tired I looked, her mouth placid her eyes more accusing. My smallest brother mouthed the word ‘psycho’ at me and I wondered if he learned that from one of the others, or if he has a mean streak. The others didn’t seem to notice. Now we eat our dinners on our laps in front of the TV, silently.

The news is playing on the telly. The Prime Minister is pretending to say sorry for something he did. It looks exhausting. Some of my brother’s food rolls off his knees, where he is lazily balancing his plate, and onto the floor. A lady is shouting at the Prime Minister but I can’t concentrate on what she is saying because instead I am watching the pea from my brother’s plate roll across the carpet. It rolls further than I am expecting and disappears underneath a chair. My brother smacks his lips and swallows a large bite of meat without looking at it. I wait for him to choke, but he doesn’t.

I am squatting behind the washing machine. I wanted to get into it, but it’s a front loader and I am an adult person. Also, I am not flexible enough. There are lots of things I regret in this life but in this moment, not training to be a gymnast is on the top of the list. Instead, I have pulled the washing machine out as far as the cord will reach. I could have unplugged it, but in my panic I wonder what it is like to be married to the wall. I am not thinking properly; I worry that the connection is sacred and I do not want to separate them in case I create a void that they cannot overcome. I am scared, so I tap a secret message on the wall with my fingertips. I think I am the only one who knows the language I am using and therefore no one will come.

I only give birth to the one. They look at me and I do not recognise them as anything other than what they are. Themself completely.

My mother is running towards me. Whether she understood my made-up morse code or the noise I made moving the washing machine is unclear.

            She slips on my insides and falls towards us.

            Now they are face-to-face. My mother and her lost cat. Perhaps I didn’t recognise them because the Sandy shaped d was underneath its little body. Perhaps to me it doesn’t matter what shapes are embedded in its fur. But to my mother this is a second chance. It is not looking at me, it is licking my mother’s knee with its raspy tongue. A little dark patch is forming on her jeans. I look at my mother’s beaming face and realise that she would never allow me to create a wet patch on her clothes and nor would I want to.

            I raise my own bloodied hand to my mouth and with tenderness I lick it clean myself.