There will always be dysfunctional people. Just as there will always be those who skate elegantly across the pond of life, so there will be those for whom life is a gauntlet of thin ice. I remember once, in discussion with a colleague about a stroke of misfortune that had visited a then-girlfriend, George remarking that ‘bad luck seemed to follow her around’.
This is a truth newly awakened in me each time (and there are many times) I find myself witnessing a disintegration in progress, and the absolute helplessness I feel before the relentless juggernaut of human nature. I can only watch as, in apparent slow motion, two irresistible forces match up to each other. I can do nothing to stop the explosion of destructive energy which follows.
From the shallows of old age, there is a morbid attraction for the tumult that forms about the thinner and cracking ice. To watch the inevitable and not to turn and walk away up the riverbank is dangerously close to schadenfreude, and I neither like myself nor respect my own history when I yield to that temptation. After all, these are scenes from my own past: I genuinely want to step between the protagonists and keep them apart. But I have no wisdom in this arena; and even if I had, wisdom has no part to play.
White Goods counselling
This was a few years ago. Tony was a generous man of nearly my own age, not in the bloom of health perhaps, but still walking in the sun when he found a partner younger than he, slim and apparently self-confident with a willing smile; a paragon of something not quite within the powers of description but mother to two adolescent children, a girl and a boy.
Within three months they found a house – a modest semi-detached with a garden – and moved in together; a course of action which might have seemed sudden, but the days grow short as you reach November, and it would be hard to criticize them for reaching out to grasp at happiness. To all appearances, this was the sort of consolation prize relationship many dream about but few attain, and all seemed well with Tony and Marian, his new-found friend.
Barely six months had passed before the first cracks showed. According to Tony, Marian’s expensive tastes did not match his modest income: she kept two horses, insisted upon her own car, and had a penchant for retail therapy. Two months later, again according to Tony, Marian drank heavily; Marian was bi-polar, Marian was ‘troubled by her nerves’. Marian suffered those slings and arrows stoically and made no accusations in return, but the outcome was inevitable.
Friends gathered around the two camps; battle lines were drawn. It was noticeable that of the two armies, Tony’s was much the smaller. They entered into skirmishes on his behalf with less enthusiasm and were conspicuously absent at key points in the fight. Like Custer at Little Bighorn, Tony stood tall; like Custer, Tony was too stubborn to realize he was hopelessly outnumbered.
No-one mentioned counselling.
Then, one Saturday morning as she hung out washing on their garden line, Marian announced calmly that she and Tony were not ‘getting on together very well’ and she was moving out. She had procured a new house locally, she told me, and would be gone ‘within the week’.
True to her word, as day seven dawned she and her children were to be seen loading boxes of possessions into her little car. They drove off and peace descended over the little house. A disconsolate Tony watched the remnants of his defeated army disappearing over the horizon. He stood alone.
For one day.
On the Monday morning at nine o’clock Tony went off to work. At nine-thirty Marian’s car drew up outside his house, where she stayed for the rest of the morning because her new accommodation had no washing machine and no garden. By midday she could be seen pegging out her washing on what now had to be regarded as Tony’s washing line. It was a temporary arrangement, she explained. It would be rectified as soon as she could procure the necessary equipment.
By Tony’s return in the evening Marian and her washing had vanished and the matter should have rested there – would have done, if Marian had fulfilled her intention to purchase her own washing machine and drier. Perhaps the temptation was too great, the answer too simple; or maybe with all her other commitments now she was single again new white goods were beyond her financial reach: whatever the reason, Marian kept coming back. Three times a week, her washing adorned Tony’s washing line, even to a point on one occasion when Tony’s own washing had to be deposed to make room.
Now Tony’s ear for bush telegraph was less than acute, but eventually this state of affairs had to come to light. You do not need to catch a rabbit red-handed to know it has trespassed in your cabbage patch. The evidence is provided by the cabbages. My choice of metaphor, by the way, is not accidental.
Marian had retained possession of a key. Her daughter knew its whereabouts. It was so available that one afternoon, in the grip of coital fever and desperately in need of privacy, she and her boyfriend let themselves into Tony’s house and thence into Tony’s spare bedroom. They were still there, deep in satisfied sleep, when Tony returned that evening.
I am unsure exactly what agreements the ensuing row produced, though a whiff of blackmail hangs in the air to this day. Suffice to say both Marian’s children spent the following weekend grudgingly treating Tony’s garden to a rather inexpert but well-intended makeover, and Marian’s washing forays no longer retained their clandestine nature. In fact, she often arrived with the basket before Tony had left, and on increasingly frequent occasions did not leave on the same day, or the next.
These events took place, as I have said, a few years ago. Tony is older now by double those years, and poorer by several more: but Marian, though she has still a house of her own, spends little time in it, and a lot of time in Tony’s, if only because of the volume of her washing. As far as I know, she never bought her own machine, and if she did, she never uses it.
The moral of this story? If there is one, it might point out there are many versions of ‘happily ever after’ which even within one partnership may not coincide. And a further point: as a bachelor in need of a life partner, your first consideration should probably be the purchase of a good washing machine.
I don’t really recall what my expectations were when I left Rossiter’s Hotel that July evening, coaxing Carlo’s elderly scooter back into town with a large folder protruding from under my jacket. All at once the game I had supposed could never be more than an absorbing pastime threatened to consume my whole life. Yes, I had dreamed of being a professional footballer, but now the dream was about to become reality, I probably felt terrified.
Nel Kershaw frowned at me over her spectacles. She reminded me curtly that she specialized in criminal, not civil law, however…
“However this seems all right.” She leafed through the pages of Allen Ranton’s contract a fourth time, scanning the solid-looking paragraphs. “His credentials are certainly good. Frankly, I doubt if you’ll do better, so the question is, do you want to be tied to one agent for five years, Charles? There is a get-out clause but you would incur a penalty if you used it.”
Other than Nel, I told no-one of my good fortune. Ranton had suggested I say nothing until he ‘closed the deal’, as he put it. “It’s important, Chas. Don’t even tell your mother, all right?”
For reasons I didn’t understand then (I do now), Ranton wanted to handle any press himself. Needing a reason for my barely contained agitation I told my mother Trevor Bull was picking on me again. I hoped she would swallow it without pursuing our Trev and beating my lie out of him.
By the time I next met Angela I felt calm, sure that I had my emotions under control.
“What’s the matter, Chas?”
“Yeah. You’re quivering, man!” Angela grinned. “I’m not saying it isn’t sexy, like!”
“I’ll tell you everything soon. In a few days. I promise.”
She gave me a sly look. “I think I know.” She said.
“Oh, right! What is it then?”
“Don’t worry, man, I’ll not tell.” She drew close and whispered in my ear. “Do you think you’ll get the number nine shirt?”
Once again, Angela had surprised me. When I demanded to know how she found out, she simply said: “You’s. You’re on fire tonight and only your bloody football can do that to you. You give yoursen’ away, Chas Haggerty!”
Carlo voiced his suspicions.
“So, who’s this Ranton fella, then, Chas? Why’d he want to keep the’? He didn’t start getting fresh or owt, did he?”
Jack Masters knew, of course. He stood outside the loop, ready to see my signature on the contract. When I delivered it to him at our midweek practice session he simply said “Well done.” Then he told me to get on with training.
“Start doing a bit of running, lad. A couple of miles each morning, to begin. You need to sharpen up.”
That Wednesday, I planned to visit John Hargreave. Carlo gave me two evenings’ release from pizza delivery duty each week to provide some part-time employment for his son, so, with Angie occupied ‘washing her hair’, and my friend desperately in need of an opponent to play his new Nintendo game I downed a sausage with batter and chips from ‘The Golden Chip’, before making my way to his house. John lived a mile from the town, in one of those little satellite villages huddling around a blocked shaft that had been a coal mine, once.
John’s home was of a lesser vintage than the smoky red brick terraced houses, many of whose doors shielded retired miners, a silent community that harboured pneumoconiosis, industrial deafness and diminished hope. A thin drape of smoke hung overhead and lurked in the breathing air. I could never quite get used to walking amid the stultifying silence of that strange street; to one side the cramped hovels of two-up-two-down brick, with their belching chimneys, their expressionless windows, their urgency as they strove to break the narrow chain of pavement and be free; to the other a green acre, a benignly patronizing rank of four bedroomed detached new builds rising from immaculate grass. Dividing them, the road might as well have been an ocean in depth, a battlefront in hostility.
Once in argument with John I had pointed out his own street as a metaphor for the implacable class war, evidenced by a complete absence of social interaction between those who lived on the left side of the street and those on the right. He admitted it was true.
“I agree, but I don’t think of it as a line of battle. I don’t know anyone from the other side but I do know you, and you live in a house a lot like those. And if it’s symbolism you’re after, come up on a Sunday. You’ll find our green and pleasant acre being used by kids from the other side, playing football.”
“Yeah, is that why every lamp post has a ‘No Ball Games’ sign on it?”
“They ignore it, much to my Dad’s annoyance. But kids from our side of the road could join in if they wanted.”
“Nah. They’d just want to play rugby.”
At so early an evening hour the street was quiet, which must have been the reason I noticed a midnight blue BMW purring toward me. It was travelling fast, giving me little time to catch a view of its driver, – a man in his thirties, with a close haircut and a sharp aquiline nose. He was not alone. A woman in a short red dress reclined in the passenger seat, one foot on the dashboard, her legs carelessly displayed. It was no more than a split second glimpse of someone whose face was hidden, yet it froze in my mind because – because of what? Could I know a person like that? If so, how; when, where?
John joked about it when I told him. “You’ve seen those legs before! Or was it the position that’s niggling at you? Think now, and if you remember, give me her address, man. She sounds perfect to me!”
“I know her from somewhere. Daft, I’m sure, but I do. I wish I could have seen more of her…”
“Doesn’t sound like there was much more to see.”
“I mean her face, yeah? Never mind.” I was anxious to change the subject. “What’s ‘Super Mario’ like?”
“Special, very special. Man, you should try it!”
The game was addictive. We played long into the evening, and it was dark before I made my way home. My mother had told me she would be at work, so I used my latchkey, took a Coke from the fridge, and went straight to bed. Hours of screen watching had taken their toll on my eyes. I slept like a bear in winter.
Ranton’s letter confirming Casterley Town’s interest came through our door a week later. There was to be an official signing at Rossiter’s, it told me. ‘This time you needn’t bring a pizza’. Our meeting was set for 3:00pm on a Thursday. For me, that was the day the world stood still – the space between the starter’s warning cry of ‘set’ and the snap of the gun.
As such meetings go the gathering at Rossiter’s would probably have looked unimpressive to those experienced in such things; to me it was immense. Allen Ranton greeted me in the hotel foyer, prepared me with a few brief comments, then propelled me through a heavy door into a room that proclaimed itself the ‘Dickens Lounge’. My feet were instantly silenced by deep pile. There were comfortable chairs upholstered in dark red leather, a huge marble fireplace in which burned a small, apologetic and completely unnecessary log fire, and a faux antique table, where rested an array of coffee pots, milk jugs and cups. These had already been extensively pillaged.
Of the figures who gathered around me there were one or two I recognized, many more I did not. Martin Berry cut a familiar figure in the crowd at Casterley’s home fixtures, if only because he owned the club. A compact powerhouse of a man, his highly pitched voice lent a descant to the baritone song of male conversation which paused only briefly when I entered. The source of his wealth was undetermined, although subject to a number of unflattering rumours among the fans. His ear was clearly being bent by a voice I knew emanating from a face I knew; that of Joe Pascoe, Casterley team manager, a squat warthog figure with a paucity of teeth. Of the few whose heads turned when I entered, Pascoe’s remained fixed in my direction the longest, long enough for me to detect a dark lake of hostility splashing the shores behind his grey eyes.
My encounter with these people lasted all of thirty minutes. I floated through it on my own happy cloud, because I had daydreamed about it for so long, oblivious to a reality that was quite squalid. My participation comprised a five-minute sideshow in a quagmire of networking, the substance of which had no meaning to me. I might as well have attended in my underpants for all the notice I attracted. Ranton, though, he navigated our way through the process with all the skill of a practised helmsman.
“The paperwork’s done, Chas. All you have to do is sign it. It’s for twelve months, okay? Don’t let anyone suggest a voluntary extension. They’re paying you a bit more than they normally pay at £15000 plus bonuses, so don’t discuss money with anyone. I’ll just get us through the pictures and the questions, then the rest is up to you.”
There were a couple of press reporters present. I was photographed next to a Casterley shirt, which Pascoe, wearing his best plastic smile, held up beside me. The cameraman asked: “What’s the number on the shirt, Joe?” Pascoe refused to display the back of the garment. “Is it true Chas is replacing Guy Harrison at number nine?”
“Guy’s position in the team is secure.” Pascoe rasped, still smiling.
“What position are you playin’ then, Chas?”
Ranton cut in. “Chas’s position hasn’t been finalized yet.”
“Can’t he answer for himself?”
The room fell silent. All eyes turned to me. I could feel my colour rising.
“Yeah, that’s right.” I muttered. “Like Allen says.”
I shook hands with Martin Berry and one or two other people I had never met before and was unlikely to meet again. Joe Pascoe manoeuvred his way to my side.
“I hope you’re worth what they’re investing in you, you little bastard. I want you down the ground Friday, eight o’clock. Gottit?”
Then, suddenly, it was all over. The contents of the ‘Dickens Lounge’ drifted out of its door like snow on a breeze, leaving Allen and me among the cups of half-finished coffee.
“I wonder if they want us to clear up,” Allen remarked. He took me by the shoulders. “See here, Chas, the next season is going to be tough, d’you understand? When a club’s in as bad a position as this one, results-wise and everything else wise, there are always reasons why.”
“Pascoe?” I volunteered.
“Maybe. That’s what the crowd thinks. You’ll find out as you go along and a lot depends on how you deal with it. I’ll only say, be positive, right? And in your darkest moments, lad, and there will be some, just keep in mind this is the worst club you’ll ever play for, alright?”
The worst club – the club I had followed and adored since I first learned to walk! Somewhere in the back of my head, I distinctly heard the crack of the starter’s gun.
“Took me a while to find this place.” Matthew Poultney says, “Should I take my shoes off, or something?”
“We don’t advertise it.” I tell him. “Keep them on, it’s no problem.”
“What made you choose the rural idyll?” The journalist’s eyes take in his surroundings, walls in warm colours, bright windows inviting the sun. “I always had you down as a city boy, myself.”
“Our training ground’s two miles along the road. The airport’s ten miles more, and I’ve a boat on the river. I like it here, well enough. Do you still drink whiskey? I’ve a nice peat-cured malt I think you’d like.”
He nods. “Never refuse. I don’t think I’ve ever smelt this much leather. You’ve come a long way, Chas.”
“Feet of clay,” I tell him, setting his eyes instantly alight.
“Do I smell an exclusive? Something cooking in the transfer window?”
“Nothing definite. As I said, I like it here.” I pass him a glass.
He holds it up to the afternoon sun, casting an amber reflection through the fluid. “Good colour. So why did you want to see me – I mean, it’s always nice to catch up, but…”
“You remember our first meeting?”
“Do I! You were green as the grass then. Just signed with Casterley of all places…”
“Accident of birth…”
“And you were all for diving in, a happy little coffee bean eager for the blender!”
I nod. “Consider me duly blended, yeah? I had no idea what I was up against. Pascoe, the manager, clearly hated me for reasons I didn’t understand, and that number nine, Harrison – bloody Harrison tried to injure me in training! They ignored me in the dressing room and they ignored me on the pitch. I was on the bench match after match, waiting for Pascoe to bring me on in the last ten minutes if he felt like it. By that time we’d be two, maybe three goals down and I couldn’t get a pass from anyone. No-one would feed me – they just froze me out. We were knocked out of The Cup in the first round, the team kept losing and the supporters started picking on me. It was as bad as Allen predicted and worse. Were you following us then?”
“Not match for match. I followed the scores, of course, I always do, but apart from The Cup the nationals only want copy on superstars. It was Ranton pushed me to do our interview. He was a good agent, was Allen. Retired though, last I heard.”
“He passed away last year,” I tell him.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Poultney walks closer to the window. “It’s a grand view of the river from here. What changed it for you?”
“It was Pops – Tommy Travers, the groundsman. He opened my eyes to it all. I was sitting on the terraces one day, and I’ll be honest, I was already contemplating giving up football when Tommy sat down beside me, and that was major for him because his bones were that stiff he couldn’t get back up again sometimes. He explained how neither the manager nor the team wanted me there because I threatened their little apple cart. They were old players and part-timers with some unofficial stuff on the side, doing just enough to stay in the league. The last thing most of them wanted was a goal-scorer who might bring more money into the club.”
“More money would mean fresh legs, stale legs being forced out. It’s an old story.” He nods. “I take it this Pops character was of a different opinion?”
“He wanted his new pitch, didn’t he? He was astute enough to see that mud baths like the Casterley ground had had their day. It needed a new surface – better drainage, part artificial turf, and so on. There wasn’t money in the pot to do it or any investment in the offing and he was afraid if Casterley dropped out of the League, there’d be nothing left for anyone. He told me to go over Pascoe’s head and talk to Martin.”
“The owner? Martin Berry?”
“What a memory! Although you’ll have done some homework on the way over here, won’t you? I forget these things. Anyway, He’s a nice bloke, is Martin. I took an instant liking to that guy. I went to see him and I found him on the floor of his warehouse with his sleeves rolled up, shifting crates into a panel van. I told him my problem, and he said he left the team selections to his manager, soI said maybe he shouldn’t. I also suggested he should get the team to work with me a little. He listened, but said that bit was up to me. I remember the way he put it: ‘Be Roy of the Rovers for a game. I know you can, I’ve seen you do it’. So I did.
“The very next fixture Pascoe came in spitting fire, and a lot less than pleased, but he started me at centre-forward against Parnington. He gave the captain’s band to Walters at centre-half and tried to put me upfield where I’d be starved of the ball, but I kept myself close to the halfway line. I picked out the first decent ball and ran with it. It wasn’t copybook, it was scrappy because there was no understanding between us, but we pulled out a result for the first time in the season. Four – one. The fans liked me better after that.”
“I remember that first goal of yours. It was a fantastic solo effort.”
“One of three that afternoon. My first league hat-trick. You were there?”
“I saw the footage.” He cocks an eyebrow at me and tosses his whiskey down his throat. “When are you going to tell me why I’m here?”
I pick up the whiskey bottle. “Have another?” I say.
Wait! Let’s go back a bit. I’ve told you the story of how my career began that afternoon in Rossiter’s Hotel. Without disguising anything, I’ve told you how hard it was for me to survive in those first weeks as a professional footballer, but I haven’t said anything about the effect my turn of fortune had on my friends or my home life, and I shouldn’t let that slip by.
Casterley began climbing up the league table, I hit goal-scoring form, and friends and enemies gravitated to me in equal measure; not the kind of friends I could count upon to guide me through a crisis, though, nor the kind of enemies who could see any further than their last drink. I liked pubs; I am tempted to suggest that at eighteen-nineteen years old most males of my species like pubs, yet I found it wiser to avoid them. After a good game my back could be exposed to slaps of appreciation from the moment I entered a bar, followed inevitably by an expectation that I would buy everybody a ‘round’. Following a bad game a week later I could enter the same booze palace under a thundercloud of muted criticism, knowing that someone would voice their disappointment out loud, complete with obscenities, before the evening ended.
Abstinence then: not a difficult choice for me. I was assiduous in my training and an evening beer didn’t help a morning run. But my real friends liked to go out drinking, they liked the pubs in our little town and trouble tended to erupt when I came along, so I was not always welcome. Jonna ceased to feel comfortable with me the day I started playing for the juniors, but we found some common ground for a season. When he learned I had a contract with the senior team his jealousy turned from green to black. He and Sarah very soon came to prefer each other’s company to mine.
By and large, I didn’t mind. I lamented it a little perhaps, but I accepted. The wedge between us was driven deeper with every match I played. Meanwhile, John Hargreave – Greavesie – who did not drink, had replaced Jonna as my staunchest ally, while I was spending more and more of my free time with Angela, who was not fond of drinking either. She made a disgraceful drunk when she tried to conform, obliging me to end many a date keeping her long hair out of the way as she wretched.
Angie and I were in our own world that winter; if not truly lovers then at least close friends, living in each other’s pockets, reading each other’s minds, generally setting about biblical issues according to the best teenage traditions.
There was a night in the depths of winter in that very special year when snow was falling, and we sought shelter as we often did in the warmth of my home. The house was silent, as it would usually be when my mother was at work, so we undressed each other and slipped into my bed, confident in the knowledge that she would be working for hours yet. Sex with Angie was a thing of secrets, of laughter that was muffled and filled with mystery, words whispered that could not be said aloud. Oneness might be minutes or an hour, a reverie ruptured by a raucous joke, or protracted in warm union for a dangerous time. Such it was that night; we were together in the bed’s embrace, and a cold wind against the window bade us stay.
At last I disentangled myself because I must, and made naked for the bathroom, leaving Angie half asleep. I opened the door onto the landing, groping for the light. I switched it on, at which precise moment the door to my mother’s bedroom also swung open. Framed within it, wearing as little or as much as I, stood a large male figure.
Mackenzie Crabtree’s face froze in horror, then he emitted the nearest thing I have ever heard to a male scream.
This, the man decided, as his eyes took in the comfortably chintzy living room with its gentle colours and mysterious nooks and crannies, was the most unbelievable stroke of luck! Not an hour since, the lady who owned this house had been a total stranger; a far-off star of loveliness way beyond his reach.
Since he first met this woman he had been besotted. He had (there was no other word he could honestly use) lusted after her, watching her through her windows from his shop across the street and dreaming. Only In the silent watches of the night, alone in his room, had he found the words he sought to seduce her and cried them aloud, knowing she would never hear them. A purity, an innocence defended her, so he could never speak plainly. His innermost desires, his private yearning, remained a sad and rather squalid secret.
Now? Now he was sitting in her living room. Suddenly it was all possible! Somehow, her cat had turned up in his bookshop, the cat he had seen on her windowsill; the cat she brought into his shop once on one of the occasions when she came to buy a book and her radiance had, as ever, rendered him tongue-tied and stupid. It had made a home for itself upon his bookshelves and refused to leave. In the end he had no choice other than to carry it across to its proper home.
She had answered the door. Her face had lit up with pleasure; no, with joy, when she saw he had brought the cat. And now he was sitting on her sofa in her front room, drinking her tea.
“I must just leave you for a moment. I won’t be long.”
Another opportunity was slipping by. He was alone with the cat, which sat upon the armchair, watching him.
“Oh, Kitty, what a night I could spend with your mistress!” He enthused. This was man-talk, of course, but then it was deeply felt; and after all, this was only a cat. Who was it going to tell?
“Just a night?” The cat responded.
“Well, alright, two or three nights I suppose. We’d probably get bored with each other after that.” He checked himself. “Wait! I shouldn’t be telling you this! I should be telling your mistress.”
“I wouldn’t advise it.” Said the cat. “Do you usually conduct your amours at such a noble pitch?”
“Too direct? A little unsubtle, I concede.” Something felt odd. “Just a moment! Why am I talking to a cat?”
“I am a pretty creature, am I not? Or so my mistress describes me, after she has called me Furis, which is my given name. I do not answer to ‘Kitty’, generally.“ The cat stretched, anchoring its claws into the fabric of the armchair.
“You are certainly a very fine cat.” The man agreed. “But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should engage in conversation”
“Why not? All humans talk to their animals, don’t they? They see their own image in our eyes and they talk to that. They even persuade themselves we understand them, a little.”
“And do you?”
“All too well.” The cat flowed from chair to window sill with liquid grace. “Sometimes I can see myself as if I were another cat, here in this glass, in the dark time. We might play with one another and hone our skills for a while, my pretty other self and I, but I know my reflection: I am not a fool.”
“This is different. I think you do understand me and I can hear you, quite clearly. Your mouth does not speak the words, yet your meaning is distinct. I’ve not experienced this before.”
“Does it make you uneasy?”
“Then stop talking.” Said the cat, licking a protruding paw with an air of distaste.
The man tucked his legs beside him on the sofa, and lapsed into an edgy, impatient silence, but it was clear to the cat this restraint could not last long. “Very well;” it said. “Let us test your assertion. Ask me something, and try not to make your question too boorish.”
The man stared, for the cat had formed these words without interrupting its wash. It had draped itself before the window, relishing the light of a bright spring morning. Taken aback, he groped for something to say. “Is that your favourite window?” He muttered nervously.
“Oh, do speak up!” Snapped the cat, brusquely. “ Is this my favourite window sill? I cannot answer that. There are two you see –two windows, two sills, two worlds. With the morning sun upon it this is my choice. At night the window at the back of the house is where I sit, making my plans for the gardens and fences and waste bins outside the glass that are my world – my night-time world. There I can chase down the little creatures, to play with them a while before I kill, or sit with my brothers upon the copings, telling tales or serenading the moon.
Now, though the street beyond this window is not of my world the sun is warm: all the little ones sleep; while here I stretch myself on the warm paint, do the combing and washing so necessary to my body’s machine, and some sleeping too. There! Was my little speech sufficient to prove your point; or mine?”
“Well, you certainly weren’t speaking in the normal sense;” acknowledged the man, frowning. “It could be that my mind is inventing words for you; lending articulation to things I would expect a cat to say.”
“Could it? I gather you have the monopoly of what is normal?”
“Ten minutes ago I would have presumed so. Not now.”
“Nevertheless, I am just a ‘normal’ cat, aren’t I? Look at me – you can stroke me if you wish! Admire my claws. See how I hide them, so my feet are soft and silent? I can pat you – thus – and you will barely feel my touch. Now see how sharp are my claws when these outstretched limbs reveal them? They are my secret. When my mistress cuddles and plays with me I pat and dab and keep them to myself. But they are weapons, and the little creatures have reason to fear them.”
Somewhat hesitantly, the man reached out to run his fingers over the soft fur of the cat’s warm flank. “You must want to sleep, if the night is your time.”
“ I feel tired – I do! Such luxury!” The cat yawned. “So easy to sleep, here in the sun, on the safe side of the glass. You have questions to ask, though, don’t you? I promise I will stay awake. What would make you feel at ease? Should you have brought one of those repulsive books you keep beneath your bed to help you pass the time?”
“So you know of those, too. What do you not know? Explain to me. Why are you so harsh with me?”
“Because you richly deserve every barb you draw, dear man. Yet I see there is a sweeter, finer side to your nature and so I would teach you, if I could.”
“Really?” The man managed to dredge up some dismal sarcasm. “Perhaps we could concentrate upon my finer points?”
“You carried me here, didn’t you, across that frightening street. The world which is not mine. Your hands are gentle. Just as my mistress was carrying me, out there, when first I saw you; as you stroked my side a moment since. You may not purr, but you are not all the leprous creature you pretend. Your hands betray you: you are capable of love.
“Come and join me, look down to the street that is a good jump below us, watch as I watch: humans blundering about, vile smelling cars and lorries and vans dashing by. Oh, I can mingle down there – sun myself upon the step, or collect plaudits from passers-by; and It is amazing what I can achieve by simply purring, or rubbing myself against an ankle – mutual grooming; favours, even food. But the street is a place of horrors. I have seen friends taken to Forever Stillness by the stroke of a car wheel, or crushed to meat beneath a lorry’s tyre. To make a crossing there is fraught with peril, so my mistress carries me across, when there is the need.”
Mollified by the cat’s altered tone, the man rose to his feet, carefully balancing the cup of tea the cat’s lovely mistress had brought him. His eyes followed the gaze of the cat, across the thoroughfare to the bookshop where he worked. “She brought you to see me the other day. I think she wanted to show you off. She dotes on you, you know.”
“As I dote on her.” The cat said.
“I still don’t quite understand, then, how she managed to leave you behind in my shop.”
“My mistress has bought a lot of books from you in recent weeks.”
“True.” The man frowned. “Should I deduce something from that?”
“If you wish. What better contrivance than to let me hide among the shelves for a while, knowing you would discover me? Then you would have cause to return me to my owner, wouldn’t you?”
“Just so I could have an excuse to come here?” The man found himself wondering if the object of his desires shared his feelings and needs: but no – this was, after all, no more than an imagined conversation. “Surely your mistress missed you. She could have come to the bookshop. She must have known where you would be.”
It was important to me to bring you to our home. My mistress is beautiful, is she not? Her raven hair, her dark eyes, her warm smile?”
“Yes. Yes, she is. Wait a moment! Important to you? You make it sound as though you plotted this.”
“Do I? Is she not grateful? She will return in a moment. Meantime, you sip her warm tea and seem as though you belong here. Was I wrong?”
“Yes….no…I don’t know. I’ve no precedent. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been invited to tea by a cat, especially one with critical faculties as sophisticated as yours.” He thought of the cat’s owner, of the bottomless lake that seemed to exist behind her eyes and the intoxicating scent she wore. And he realised that although it was a month since he had first encountered her, he had been too shy even to ask her name.
The cat was watching him intently: “Well, then, will you stay?”
“Stay?” Had the question been framed by a person the man would have been shocked. But when a cat asked it, it was amusing. His lips curved in a smile. “What, you mean – actually stay? The night, and so on?”
“And so on. Yes.” The gaze of the cat was suddenly focussed on his face, keen, almost harsh. The intent look of a predator ready to spring. “You must agree to stay. Willingly agree.”
“Well, perhaps with time, if your mistress and I got to know each other better…” What made him wary? Why did he suddenly want to run?
“No. Not ‘with time’. Now.” The cat rose to its feet, back arched. “Feel in your pocket. The left one.”
The man decided to remain silent. This was becoming ridiculous.
“Check your pocket.” The cat insisted.
“Where is your mistress?” He countered. But his hand explored his left jacket pocket, nonetheless.
“She is near. She will be waiting.”
The man’s fingers encountered something roughly rectangular, which he withdrew. “How did this get in here?”
The small rectangle of paper that now lay in the palm of his hand was wrapped, curiously, in hair – human hair. When he pulled the hair away the rich perfume of the cat’s mistress assailed his senses, and when he examined the paper inside he saw it was a photograph of himself.
“My mistress, or I, we put it there.” The cat replied. “It does not matter which of us – we are one and the same. It is a spell that binds you, and now you must fulfil your promise. The promise you made in the night, when you believed you were alone. But you were not alone. I was watching. I am always watching.”
Feeling his anger grow, the man rounded upon the cat: “What if I choose not to? You presume a great deal, for a cat!”
“Or a woman.” Said the woman, who had transmuted from the cat before his incredulous eyes, standing with her back to the window so he could no longer see the street. “For I am both. My name is Ellandra, by the way.”
Although his heart pounded in his chest the man’s anger melted, because Ellandra was every bit as beautiful as he had thought her the first time they met. “I don’t know what’s happening to me!” He protested. “This isn’t real. It can’t – you can’t be real!”
Ellandra smiled a bewitching smile, and said simply: “Stay.”
“But I can’t. I mean if this was real I couldn’t. I have a business…”
“You have no choice, I’m afraid. You are bound by my spell, and if you try to leave, I shall simply have to turn you into a mouse.”
“And” she said, suddenly a cat again; “I would hunt you down and kill you.”
Aghast, the man collapsed into the sofa. Breathing in storms, he could find no words. The cat immediately slipped onto his lap and curled up, and there, after a few seconds, no more, it began to purr.