OK, time for another tale. A simple story this one, but I hope it resonates in some way. As always, all comments welcome. Here we go…
Christian first saw the cat as he stepped into the garden, carrying a cup of coffee. The sky was turning light grey as dawn approached, tentative smudges of pink appearing from behind the clouds. He sat at the patio table, lifted the cup to his lips and blew on the liquid before taking a sip. Over the rim of the mug, his eyes wandered to the back fence. There, partly camouflaged in the gloom, lay the cat. From this distance all he could see were flashes of white fur as it washed a front paw.
He had never had a pet growing up. Being one of four siblings had been more than enough for his mother, who saw animals as an unnecessary burden on the household. There had been a stage when he had pined for a dog after seeing Lassie for the first time, but despite constant begging, his pleas had fallen upon deaf ears. ‘I have more than enough trouble looking after you lot,’ his mother would say, and that would be that. She had probably been right, for after a while, the yearning faded as he moved onto the next craze. A bike, most likely.
When the cup was half empty, Christian saw the cat had moved closer. As the light improved he could see more of its features – a mainly black body with white patches on the face and belly, and the purest white whiskers. Judging from its size, the cat was a fully grown adult. It took a couple more steps and rubbed against the leg of the table, looking up at Christian with big green eyes.
‘What do you want?’ he murmured. The cat twined itself around the table leg, long tail stiff in the morning air. It had no collar or identification that he could see. Probably one of the neighbours cats, lost on its early stroll.
Ignoring the cat, Christian sat back and watched the sun rise over the rooftops. It was his favourite part of the day. He had been working nights for years, running a hotel reception through the small hours, and always looked forward to his solitary coffee before retiring to bed. There was something almost reckless about going to sleep when the rest of the world were starting their day. As if he was living an alternative life, one of a select few toiling while everyone was asleep. The pay was good, too, which helped. He had never imagined going on this long, but the routine was fine, and allowed moments of peace to savour, moments like this, without intrusion.
Apart from the cat, of course.
Artificial light spilled from an upstairs window, which meant Ellie was up. Christian sighed and picked up his cup, now deathly tired. He slid the patio door open and stepped inside, taking a last look at the day as he did so. The cat was nowhere to be seen.
Ellie had never imagined her relationship going like this. Currently, her time with Christian consisted of a few minutes every morning and evening, when both were at opposite ends of their day – her winding down, him getting up. They had weekends, shifts permitting, on occasion. But even then it took a while for his bodyclock to adjust, so she often spent time with friends whilst he slept. Even when he was up and about there was a vague slurriness about him. Poor concentration. Unable to get really invested in a conversation. It affected their sex life, too. She looked back in envy on those heady weekends in the early days, when they barely left the bedroom. That was the honeymoon period, she knew that. It never lasted for anyone. But she still missed it. Missed him, more than anything.
It wasn’t as if she was unhappy, as such. He worked hard and was good at his job, and she was proud of him for that. They hadn’t stood still since living together, and with combined salaries and a bit of help from family, now had a place of their own. She loved the feeling of security this gave her, like they were proper adults now. They’d made sacrifices to get where they were, and she was OK with that. But since then, they had got into a holding pattern. The days and months accumulated and she felt their load on her back, weighing her down.
These thoughts were nagging at her as she stood at the kitchen sink, hands deep in soapy water. Christian had left half an hour earlier, taking a few bites of dinner (or was it breakfast? She could never work that out) before heading off. They had had the perfunctory chat, the how was your day stuff, and that would be all for another twenty-four hours. She finished the washing up and dried her hands on a tea towel. The evening was warm and she stepped into the garden for her daily cigarette, placing packet and lighter on the patio table. She lit up and blew smoke, folding her arms across her chest. She looked down, and in front of her was a cat.
She smiled and crouched down. The cat leaned forward and nuzzled her open palm. She scratched behind its ears and the cat began to purr, its white whiskers glinting in the last of the sun.
‘You’re a cute one, aren’t you?’ Ellie whispered. The cats purr increased in volume. She continued to scratch, noticing as Christian had that there was no collar. It didn’t seem to be a stray, with a sleek coat and no noticeable scars or marks. Curious.
She stood up and finished her cigarette, the cat rubbing itself up against her legs. ‘Sorry pal,’ she said. ‘Gotta go.’
As she opened the patio door the cat shot past her into the kitchen. It ran round the tiles a couple of times, then sat in front of the fridge.
‘Hey,’ she said, a little annoyed but smiling, ‘what are you doing? Hungry, I take it.’
She opened the fridge and took out a few slices of roast beef. Why not, she thought. What harm can it do?
Mind made up, she took a plate and placed the food down by the fridge. The cat set upon the meat with a calm intent. She watched him, laughing. Before moving in with Christian her family owned a cat, but it had been hit by a car when only a kitten. The memory of that moment, being told as a nine year old that her beloved Theo had gone to kitty heaven, had stayed with her forever. The tears. The makeshift grave they had built in the garden. Her Mum had vowed not to get another cat, beset by guilt for the pain its death had caused, and in the end, the sorrow dwindled. She never forgot, though.
The plate was clean in minutes. The cat licked its mouth and whiskers and sat with a nonchalant ease.
‘All good?’ Ellie said. ‘Had your fill?’ She took the cat into her arms and opened the back door. ‘Come on, out you go.’ She put the cat down and shut the door quickly before it could get past her again.
She watched TV for an hour or so, then decided on a cup of tea before bed. The cat was sitting at the back door when she passed. She stopped and stared. ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ she muttered. The cat placed its front paws on the glass and stretched, as if this movement would somehow force its way inside. Ellie shook her head. As the kettle boiled, faint meows could be heard over the noise. She couldn’t help but grin, her mind flooded with memories of Theo, what a companion he had been. Her first real friend.
The meows stopped as she approached the back door. Her hand hovered on the handle. Just for now, she thought. It’ll be fine.
She opened the door and the cat came in. It explored the kitchen, then strolled through to the lounge, jumping up onto the couch, digging claws into the fabric. Ellie shooed him off (she had decided it was a he) and, unfazed, he found his way upstairs. She followed, smiling. He found their bedroom of his own accord and sat in the corner beside her dressing table, as if waiting for something. She placed her tea down and took a blanket from the linen closet, spreading it out on the carpet. She patted the material and the cat walked over, sniffed the blanket and lay down, curling up. Ellie sat for a while stroking its chest and tail, awash with a happiness she hadn’t felt for a long time. It wasn’t her cat, but in those brief moments, she had already made a connection. And if it was a stray, then maybe…
Getting ahead of yourself a bit, she thought as she brushed her teeth. We’ll probably get a knock at the door tomorrow, wondering where he is. Best not to get too attached.
She got into bed and before turning out the light, looked at the cat again. Fast asleep, a paw over its face. She suddenly thought of Christian. What would he say? She could talk him round, she knew that. If it came down to it. Whatever happened, it was something different. And for now, that was good.
It had been one of those interminable nights where the hours dragged by like treacle. Usually, Christian stayed to supervise the changeover to the day shift, but today the duty manager had been punctual and he had gotten away on time. A small mercy, and his first real break of the night.
He opened the door and saw the cat sitting at the bottom of the stairs, bathed in the warm glow of the lounge lamp. He blinked once, twice, wondering if this was a sleep-deprived hallucination. The cat moved forward and rubbed against his leg, shattering the illusion. What the fuck was going on?
He heard footsteps on the landing, then Ellie came into the kitchen, tying a dressing gown round her waist.
‘I thought I heard you,’ she said. ‘How was your night?’
He poured milk into his cup. The cat had moved into the kitchen and sat by the fridge door.
‘Oh, you know. Pretty quiet.’ He debated saying something about the cat, but wanted to hear it from her first. ‘You’re up early.’
Ellie shrugged. ‘Couldn’t sleep, I guess.’ She lapsed into silence.
He nodded, stirred his coffee. ‘OK, I’ll bite,’ he said. ‘What’s the cat doing here?’
She bent down and stroked the cat’s ears. ‘He was hanging around in the garden last night, making a racket. I took pity on him. And uh, he ended up sleeping here. Upstairs. Didn’t you?’
The cat’s mouth curled upward, as if smiling.
Christian shook his head. ‘He’s not our cat, you realise.’
‘Well, we don’t know who he belongs to. There’s no collar or anything.’
‘I know that. I saw him out there yesterday morning. He was hiding by the fence when I got home from the hotel.’
A smile played on Ellie’s lips. ‘Right. So you’ve seen him. He must like it here, if he’s been back.’
Christian pointed at the cat. ‘Look at the size of him, Elle. Not a kitten. He must have got lost, somehow. We need to get him back to his owners.’
She knew he was right. It was the correct thing to do. But she couldn’t find it in her to agree.
Before she could respond, Christian picked up the cat and strode to the back door. ‘Sorry, big fella,’ he said. ‘Out you go.’
The cat growled and thrashed in his arms. There was a shout, and the cat jumped to the floor and ran through to the lounge. Christian stood, blood welling from a scratch on his index finger.
‘Little bastard,’ he said. ‘The fucker scratched me.’
She didn’t mean to, but couldn’t help it. Ellie laughed.
‘Glad you find it funny,’ Christian said, sucking on his finger. ‘Good job I’ve had a tetanus jab.’
‘It’s what cat’s do,’ she replied. ‘You shouldn’t have scared him like that.’
Christian took a deep breath. ‘Whatever,’ he said. ‘I’m going to bed. I don’t want the cat to be here when I wake up.’
Ellie stepped in front of him, grabbed at the lapels of his jacket. ‘I’m sorry, OK? I shouldn’t have laughed. But he’s adorable, really. I know you’ll grow to love him.’
‘Elle. He isn’t ours. Whoever owns him is probably frantic with worry right now.’
‘But don’t you think it would be fun? Having a pet of our own? We can both look after him. It’ll be great.’
Christian looked over her shoulder. The cat raised a paw as if in salute. He rolled his eyes.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘You need to find out who the cat belongs to. Ask the neighbours. Put some posters up, or an ad in the paper. If we don’t get any response, then we’ll go from there. But I’m leaving it to you. I don’t want to deal with any of it.’
Ellie smiled and clapped her hands. ‘I will,’ she said. She leant in and kissed him. ‘I love you, you know.’
He smiled. ‘You too,’ he said. ‘Now, I need sleep before I drop. I’ll see you tonight.’ He got his coffee and made for the stairs. The cat watched him all the way.
‘But I don’t love you,’ he said, feeling the pain in his injured finger. ‘Little terror.’
Ellie watched him go. Not yet, she thought. But you will.
For the next few weeks, Ellie was in a state of mild anxiety. She had taken Christian’s advice and made an effort to locate the cat’s owners. She doorknocked all the neighbours, secretly hoping that no-one knew anything, and feeling a small flutter of pleasure every time she received a quizzical look. Posters went up on every lamppost, a picture of the cat with her contact details below. From then on she jumped a little every time her phone rang, wondering if this would be the call. She posted a message on Facebook and spent her working hours with a tab open on her computer, constantly flicking to check her feed for any news.
But as the days went by her worry started to dissipate. Surely by now they would have heard something. The cat had made himself comfortable in the house, although he avoided Christian like the plague. The feeling was mutual there. Christian made little effort in making the cat feel welcome. He fed him only under duress, and rarely showed any affection towards him. Ellie was exasperated. She had come to see the cat as being the next step on their journey together, almost a dress rehearsal for more important things. They had never really talked of children, having been engrossed with working hard and saving for the house. But that bridge had been crossed, and she felt the natural progression of their relationship would end with a kid. That was a little way down the line, but having a cat was the opportunity to get out of the rut they found themselves in, to think about something other than work and money and pensions and the sensible stuff.
Trouble was, Christian had never expressed his feelings with any certainty. She had assumed that his thoughts were the same as hers – he had never come out and said he didn’t want to have kids. Maybe all he needed was a gentle push to come round to the idea. Get used to having something to care for. First, he needed to accept the cat. She was still working on it.
Once the posters had weathered and Facebook moved on to the next big story, she pestered Christian to take the cat to the vet. He grumbled and mumbled but eventually reneged. So they drove out one Saturday morning, and returned knowing the cat had a clean bill of health. He had been neutered and microchipped and generally well cared for. A middle-aged male in excellent condition. When they got home Ellie let him from his basket and he curled up triumphantly on the sofa. Christian skulked off upstairs, muttering under his breath. Whatever happened, he was theirs now. She called him Monty, and life went on.
Christian’s problem with Monty was that he was always there. It seemed that every moment, whenever he turned around, those eyes would be upon him, staring. Gone was the peace and quiet he always loved when returning home from a shift – Monty had an endless appetite and would be sitting by the fridge, waiting for his breakfast. On the odd nights they had to themselves Monty would nestle on Ellie’s lap while they watched a movie, and she would spend more time stroking the cat than concentrating on the film. Bedtime was worse. Monty’s basket lay in the corner of the bedroom, and sometimes, he spent the night there. Christian would often awake to find Monty’s slumbering form wedged in a small patch of duvet by his side, forming a barrier between himself and Ellie. On the odd occasion when they wanted some private time, having to remove Monty from the room took all the passion out of it. The damn cat was encroaching on all aspects of his life.
It was ridiculous, being jealous of a cat. But he had stopped arguing with Ellie over his presence. She nurtured and pampered and praised Monty. Sometimes Christian walked in on her whispering to him and stood in the doorway unnoticed, listening. Her voice was kind as she spoke, and he started to see how good she was at caring for him. And this gradually softened his feelings towards Monty, too. As the months passed he saw her mothering nature start to blossom, and he was not intimidated by it. He’d had fleeting thoughts of being a father but they had always been impossible pipe-dreams. Worrying that he would never be grown-up enough to take on the responsibility of a child. But looking at Ellie now, maybe it was time to discuss it seriously. He knew a baby would make her happy, and that was all he ever wanted.
Then, Monty went missing. Although he went outside regularly, he always stayed within the confines of the garden. One morning, Christian came home to find Ellie already up and dressed, smoking a cigarette on the patio. In a breathless rush she explained that Monty hadn’t come in last night. He expressed the usual platitudes, it was natural for cats to stay out all hours, but this did nothing to calm her. Christian felt a rush then, seeing her scared and worried like this, and a pang of unease settled within him, too.
Ellie phoned work and asked to come in late, and they set about searching for Monty. They scoured the garden and surrounding parkland, calling his name in frantic voices. After an hour or two Christian wanted to stop, in desperate need of sleep, but Ellie insisted they keep looking. In the end he had to nearly drag her home, promising that he would continue the hunt before leaving that evening. After she finally left he fell into bed and had jumbled dreams, ending up oversleeping by half an hour. He did a quick sweep of the garden before jumping in the car and speeding to the hotel. The unease had multiplied and spread. It was time to admit it – maybe he did miss Monty’s presence after all.
By shift’s end Christian could barely keep his eyes open. He hated taking the car to work, and could feel his eyelids drooping as he headed for home. Thoughts of Monty flickered in his brain and he promised to have another quick search before bed, despite his fatigue.
He drove on autopilot, barely registering the road or the traffic. A fine trail of mist wound through the halo of the streetlights and he slowed the car as the visibility worsened. As the car turned into the driveway, there was a thud beneath the front right tyre. Christian’s heart leapt into his mouth. He slammed on the brakes and the force sent his head into the steering wheel, activating the horn. He frantically removed the seatbelt and got out of the car. In the gloom he could just make out artificial light spilling from the front door.
Then, a meow. One he would recognise anywhere. He took a deep breath.
Ellie stood in the hallway, cradling Monty in her arms, tears streaming down her face. ‘Oh Monty,’ she said, over and over. ‘We were so worried. Where have you been?’ She scratched under his ears. When Christian reached them he could see Monty’s eyes were enormously wide, the hair sticking up on his back.
‘Jesus Christ,’ he said, a tremor in his voice. ‘I thought I’d run him over. There was a sound under the car. I couldn’t see anything, in the fog. Fucking hell.’
‘We really thought you’d gone,’ Ellie said to Monty. ‘Don’t ever run off like that again.’ She only now seemed to notice the terror etched on his face. ‘Oh, look at him. You frightened him half to death.’
‘He frightened me and all. Silly thing.’
Ellie sniffed. ‘Well, best get him inside. Been out in the cold for God knows how long, haven’t you?’ She moved her arms so Monty lay against her shoulder. She smiled at Christian.
‘I’m so glad that he’s home,’ she said. ‘Thank you for finding him.’
‘More by luck than judgement.’ He followed her inside. She placed Monty down and he stood stock still, fear prevalent in his eyes.
‘He looks so scared,’ she said, chewing on a fingernail.
‘In shock, I guess. Don’t blame him.’
‘But he’ll be all right, though?’
Christian nodded. ‘Sure. Once he’s back in a normal routine, he’ll be fine.’
She gathered Monty into her arms again. ‘See? You’ll be fine very soon. We missed you very much, didn’t we?’
Christian smiled. ‘Course we did.’ And a growing part of him really did mean it.
The near-miss had a lasting effect on Monty. The decline was glacial and gradual, like a rock slowly eroded by the elements. Two portions of food a day became one. He took extra, plodding steps to negotiate the stairs, often pausing for breath at the halfway point. Sleep formed most of his day, going hours without leaving the comfort of his basket. The changes took place over weeks and months, and it was only if you put them all together that it was noticeable. Old age was coming on in a fast march.
The biggest change was that Monty now refused to leave the house. After the car accident, the fear in his eyes never really went away. To start with they just ignored it, hoping that as time passed he would go outside of his own accord. They waited and waited, but no joy. Christian would try to coax him out, crouched by the back door holding a biscuit. Monty would come, sniff the biscuit, and retreat. Once he became aware of the ruse, he sat with an air of disdain for the whole idea. Sometimes Christian got angry and almost threw Monty out of the back door, only to find him whirl past in a flash of fur to the sanctuary of the kitchen.
Next, Ellie suggested they install a cat flap. Monty gave this idea similarly short shrift. First time, he approached the flap and pushed a paw at it, watching the pendulum swing to and fro. Christian stood behind him and nudged with his foot. Monty hissed, something he did rarely, and sped off. Ellie had a try, going outside and placing her hand through the flap. Again, ignored. It was no use. They went back to watching, placating, falling back into that familiar pattern of silence. They had to make a decision. In the end he sat Ellie down and they talked it through. The next day, Monty was off to the vets.
The dam had broken. Ellie didn’t think she could stop crying. From the back seat, Monty made mournful cries of his own.
‘One day,’ Ellie cried, her eyes brimming over. ‘One day left.’
Christian couldn’t bring himself to talk. His stomach had a hollow, scooped-out feeling. He swallowed and nodded.
‘I mean,’ Ellie said, wiping her nose with a tissue, ‘there was a part of me that knew something was wrong. He hasn’t been himself since – ‘
She hesitated. There was no need to say it. They both knew.
‘Anyway,’ she continued. ‘You just don’t expect it, do you? Even though…’ She burst into fresh tears.
Spots of rain hit the windshield. Christian turned on the wipers. It all was so definite, so matter-of-fact. In less than a day, they would take Monty back to the vets to be put down. Kidney failure, they said. He felt that they were doing something illegal, snuffing out the life of an animal he had grown fond of. Monty’s judge, jury and executioner. He could name that hollow feeling now – it was loss, plain and simple. After all his initial doubts and fights with Ellie, they had settled into looking after Monty, had given him their affection and a whole mountain of food. And they had shared it together. It was a horrible cliché, but Monty had brought them closer. He knew that now. As the rain increased a small but subtle change came over him. He leaned back and took a deep breath.
‘Well, aren’t you going to say something?’ Ellie said. ‘You’ve been quiet all the way home.’
He put on a weak smile. ‘Sorry. Was thinking about something. I still can’t quite believe it, you know. And part of me thinks maybe we should have done it there and then. I can’t stand the thought of waiting until tomorrow.’
Ellie turned her head around. Monty had fallen silent. ‘Every moment is precious,’ she said firmly.
Christian nodded. ‘I guess.’ He had worked himself up to speak his mind, but somehow the moment had passed. The remainder of the journey passed in silence.
As did most of the night. Oddly, Monty had a renewed sense of energy, and spent part of the evening leaping from one to another as they lay on the sofa, allowing himself to be patted and preened. Ellie couldn’t imagine another evening without having him around, and the thought bought tears to her eyes over and over. She noticed that Christian seemed nervous, jumpy. She knew he felt some guilt for his role in the accident, even though she had reassured him that he wasn’t at fault. There was something else though. Something pent-up. He just had that look.
Monty eventually retired to his basket and they went to bed. Over the years the basket had moved and now lay at the foot of the stairs. Ellie turned out the lights and gave Monty a final stroke.
Upstairs, Christian was in bed reading when she got in beside him. He placed the book flat on its spine and turned to her. She had a sudden flutter in her stomach.
‘I can’t believe how much this has affected me,’ he said, twisting his fingers together. ‘I mean, I never even liked him to start with. But he kind of grows on you.’
‘You always were a slow learner,’ she said, and smiled. ‘We can always get another cat, you know. If you wanted to.’
He took a deep breath. ‘I guess so. But, um, I was thinking, maybe we should move on from a cat. To a baby.’
Even though she was half lying down, all the strength went from Ellie’s legs.
‘Because,’ Christian was saying, ‘I’ve enjoyed it, having him. I know I didn’t at first. You’re right, I probably am slow. But I think we can do it. You and me. Sure, it’d be a struggle to start with. I’d have to change shifts at work, but I’ve been meaning to do that for months anyway. I’m sick of dealing with the crazies. And, seeing you with Monty, I know he’s only a cat, but it brings out something in you. And – ‘
She stopped his mouth with a kiss. Her heart was thumping, a warm glow spreading through her veins. She had much to say, but couldn’t find the words.
She placed a hand on either side of his face. ‘You really mean it?’
He nodded. ‘I think so. At least I’m beginning to. That’s a start, isn’t it?’
She laughed. ‘It is. After tomorrow, we’ve a lot to discuss.’
He fell asleep quickly after that. She remained awake, sorrow in her heart for Monty, but with a quickening state of promise and excitement. Look what you’ve done, Monty, she thought. You really have changed our lives.
Christian woke first and for an instant, the events of the previous day were forgotten. Then everything swam back in, little hits of hurt mixed up with thoughts of the future. The subject had been breached, and he already felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. The why’s and wherefore’s, all that was to come. But the journey had begun.
Ellie stirred as he got out of bed. Her eyes looked puffy from crying.
‘I’m going to make a coffee. Do you want one?’
She nodded. There was a calmness between them now, a certainty that comes with resolution. ‘Please. I’m going to jump in the shower.’
Christian headed downstairs. Monty stretched and yawned, arching his back as he did so. Christian put the kettle on and opened the blinds. Warm sunlight streamed through the window. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Monty sat at the fridge like he always did. Christian filled his bowl with food. The condemned cat having his last supper. As he turned back to the fridge to get the milk a sob overcame him and he silently wept, leaning on the door for support. He could feel the sun on his neck. Monty would never feel that sun again.
Christian made the coffee as Monty finished his meal. The cat licked his lips, washed his whiskers and moved from the kitchen. Christian watched, sipping his coffee. A minute later he was bounding up the stairs, calling Ellie’s name. He could hear the hairdryer going in the bathroom.
‘Hey, Elle. You’re not going to believe this.’
She stuck her head round the bathroom door, rubbing her hair with a towel.
‘You’d better come see.’
‘If this is one of your jokes – ‘
‘It isn’t. Come quick.’
He took the stairs two at a time, skidding to a halt by the back door. Ellie was close behind.
‘So, what is it? My hair isn’t dry – ‘
Christian pointed. ‘Take a look.’
Ellie looked beyond him and her breath caught. Her bottom lip started to wobble.
‘Oh my God,’ she said.
Christian smiled. Monty was standing with his front paws through the cat flap. His head rested on the flap, back legs still inside the house. He turned and looked at them, face backlit by the sun, eyes dark whirlpools.
‘Go on, go on,’ Christian whispered. Beside him, Ellie made no sound, tears glistening on her cheeks, unable to take a breath.
Monty held their gaze interminably. Christian stared back, willing him on with every ounce of his being. Finally, finally, Monty turned, lifted his front paws, and leapt forward. His bottom hit the flap as it swung behind him, the noise reverberating inside the house.
‘Yes,’ Ellie cried, a torrent of tears and laughter exploding from within. ‘Oh, Monty. You little star.’
Christian wiped his eyes. He put his arm around Ellie and she placed her head on his shoulder. They were going to be OK. He looked at her and smiled. Outside, Monty had found a patch of sunlight by the patio chairs. They watched as he lay on his back, paws in the air, basking in the warmth one final time.