Feline threnody

The day I was born was the proper occasion for settling the matter of my orientation: was I to be feline or canine? For it must be obvious that one can’t be both.  (To those who think it’s possible for a human being to be something else, a polar bear perhaps or a pangolin, I have nothing to say.)

I have tried to consort with cats and dogs, not in any queer way, you understand, but merely with companionship in mind and . . . well, look at what happened.

Things began badly when I woke up that day to find that the cat had died. He had crept from his place next to the gas fire and, as always, had jumped up on to my narrow bed. There he had lain down and there he had died. I found this out by nudging him. Normally he would sleep in the angle of my bent legs and, as the night wore on, would press harder and harder against me until I would wake up to find myself on the edge of the bed. Then I would kick at the lump in the bed until, grudgingly, it moved. But on that particular morning, when I kicked there was no movement.

I got up, endured a purgatorial breakfast and then thought of the cat.

“Stupid,” I called. No answer. I had named the cat Stupid because of its intellectual deficiencies. It was a desexed tom, which meant that it had no function in the world except to listen to my monologues, and this it did with considerable success. I would talk to it about my work, or the lack of it, about my absent wife and her disapproving family, about life in general and my rebellion against destiny. It was less fatiguing than writing letters to the papers.

The cat never seemed to get bored. He would sit or squat on the floor or on a cushion, gravely regarding me as I spoke. From time to time he would move his head in a way that suggested agreement. But I was not always in the right. There were times when the cat would ceremoniously rise to its full height, turn and sit facing away from me. At such times I would revise my opinions.

In all other matters, this cat was a complete fool. It could go for a whole week without performing a sensible action. I won’t catalogue its idiocies. Take my word for it: this cat could not have survived in the wild. It would have put its head inside a rottweiler’s mouth just to see what the weather was like in there.

When it was time to bring the cat in for the night, I would open the back door and call it. Once or twice I caught sight of one of my neighbours looking up and then staring at me with some animosity. But as the cat’s name was Stupid, what other name could I have called?

So, on that morning, I rattled its carton of cat pellets and called its name again. Still no answer.

I went to my bedroom and prodded the black lump on the rumpled blanket. It was no longer a yielding feline mass. It had become quite rigid. I lifted it and found that it was completely stiff. I understood immediately that the cat had ceased to function, so I returned to the kitchen, made myself a cup of tea and pondered my next action.

I’d had no experience of bereavement. Certainly there were relatives who had died, but I hadn’t been close to them. They would never have sat and listened as I spoke of my concerns. Now I was facing not only the problem of interment but an absence of audience.

I could not bring myself to bury the cat in the back yard. If I had done that, then I’d have known that the body was lying under the soil with mattresses, bicycle parts, dismantled stoves and other hard rubbish that I had got rid of by simply digging it in. The cat would have disapproved.

So I decided to take to the streets in search of a proper repository.

I took an ordinary supermarket bag and put the cat in it. Then, because you could see just what was in the bag, I encased it in two others. Then I went out, carrying the bag, looking for inspiration.

As there wasn’t enough food in the house, I needed to do some shopping. The nearest supermarket was a short walk away, so there I went. I shopped, buying my few simple needs, and feeling a slight pang of regret at not needing to buy cat food. But I was calm enough until I reached the rapid checkout. My basket of purchases was examined, totted up and bagged, which was normal enough, but then the woman on the checkout said, “May I see what’s in that bag?”

No, I thought, you may not, and I said so.

This was a small supermarket. There was only one rapid checkout. People behind me started to shuffle and mumble as I stood my ground. The woman called the manager, but still I refused to open the bag. Then a man who stood behind me, breathing heavily and emitting theatrical sighs of impatience, shouldered me aside, tore the triplet of bags open, thrust it towards the manager and said, “There, that’s what’s in the bloody bag. Now, can we get through?”

I don’t know why the checkout woman screamed. Hadn’t she ever seen dead cat before? The manager, a florid young man of about thirty, flushed, turned pale, and flushed again. I saw that I was not going to be able to complete my transaction. With as much dignity as I could summon up, I left the supermarket and returned to my wanderings.

I searched the streets. I wasn’t looking for a place to leave the cat. I was looking for ideas. I had often found that problems could be solved by exposing my mind to the streets, the teeming life in them, even the buildings that lined them. But no solutions presented themselves.

I called at a small coffee-and-sandwiches shop which was fitted with a bench and high stools, and there I had lunch, a meat pie smothered with tomato sauce. Whenever I had eaten a pie at home, I had always offered the cat a spoonful of the meat. Now, without thinking, I did the same, opening the bag and using a fork to tip some meat into it. A man sitting at the bench turned to look at me, frowning. Then he looked away. I felt foolish. I finished my meal as quickly as possible and hurried away.

Perhaps it was time to take a tram. Perhaps my legs were tired and the fatigue was reaching my brain, wiping out my imagination. I stood at the tram stop and waited. I was quite devoid of ideas. The cat needed a seemly interment and I was failing it.

As the tram lumbered along, as trams do, I looked through the window, idly, still unvisited by ideas. And then I saw it, the thing my mind had been seeking all along.

“That’s it!” I said aloud, causing some heads to turn. Now I had my solution. I had only to take the cat and ….

I looked from side to side. I looked up. I felt between my feet. No matter where I looked, there was no cat.

At the next stop I leapt from the tram. I looked down the street in the hope of finding a tram going in the opposite direction. Nothing. I ran back to where I had been when the tram stopped. Still nothing. Then I cast my mind back, viewing my recent actions. I had been carrying the cat when I left the supermarket. Perhaps I had not been carrying it when I left the pie shop. I had to return there and find my cat.

It took me half an hour to get back to the pie shop. Sweaty and breathing heavily, I walked through the door, my eyes everywhere. And I was immediately attacked. The shop owner came out from behind his counter and thrust his face into mine. I could see that he was having trouble keeping his hands to himself.

“You dirty bastard!” he said.

“No,” I said. “You’ve got me confused with someone else. I’m just looking for my cat.”

“Your cat,” he said. “Your bloody cat. You left a dead cat in my shop. What do you think I am a garbage dump?”

“It was an accident,” I said.

“Yes, of course it was. You ever come into this shop again, you’re going to have an accident, a big one.”

Then he told me things about myself that I did not believe. I was going to argue with him but his face was growing redder and redder. I was afraid he’d have a seizure, so I backed away from him.

“Just a minute,” he said. “You brought that cat in here and the garbage won’t be collected till tomorrow, so you can take it with you.”

“You’ve still got it?” I said.

“Out the back.”

He made me walk ahead of him. I could tell that he wanted to push me, but somehow he managed to control himself. In the lane at the back of the shop was a large steel skip with a counterbalanced lid. The shop owner manipulated a handle. The lid swung up. I recognised my parcel and swept it up.

“Now get out of here,” said the man, which I did.

Now I had to find another tram and travel again back to the place where I’d had my inspiration. I was very agitated, couldn’t wait for the moment of arrival. I left the tram a stop too early and hurried on foot to my destination.

There are cemeteries within the boundaries of our city that are full. Some of them have been neglected. The graves are all old and their occupants seem to have been forgotten. Such was the cemetery that I’d seen from the tram. There were no more than 100 graves, most of them in poor condition. The one I chose was the last resting place of Samuel Merihew, who had expired in 1900. The headstone was canted slightly, but had not yet fallen over. The grave was overgrown, but not beyond renovation. This, I reasoned, was hallowed ground. Therefore this was where my cat would lie.

I had to come back when it was dark. I carried a shovel and the bagged cat. I dug a hole sufficiently deep, laid the cat in it and filled it in. Then I smoothed the disturbed soil and sat down on the stone edging of the grave.

“You’re probably wondering what’s been happening,” I said to the cat, and I carefully narrated the day’s events. Then, promising to return, I went home.

The grave of Thomas Merihew underwent a considerable amount of tidying-up after that day. I would visit it at night, rake dead leaves from it and place flowers under the headstone. Then I would speak to the cat, telling it all my troubles, confessing all my fears.

But it wasn’t the same. The grave did not respond as the cat had. I was beginning to think the enterprise had failed. Then, one night, six months after the cat’s death, I heard a mewling at my back door.

Ah, I thought, he’s come back. But when I opened the door all I saw was a kitten, one that must have strayed from its home and was now hungry.

I looked at the kitten. It looked at me. I made a decision. Opening the door wide, I said, “Come in.”

The kitten did not move.

Then I said, “Come in, Stupid”, and the kitten came in.

But it wasn’t only the cats who were out to get me.

Continue to The second-best friend