The Cat

Samuel Stephenson

I am getting rid of my cat. The decision has been made, the cat must go, and it’s fallen to me to negotiate her disposal. One hundred years ago the cat would have been drowned in a barrel of rainwater somewhere in the back garden. This was before we learned to love them like we do regular people. It doesn’t make much sense, I like the cat and yet here I am searching for a new home for it.

We got the cat as a kitten two years ago. She’s a tortoiseshell, relatively small but old in spirit. She looks as though she should be wearing spectacles. There are those middle-aged men who were born and have lived their lives with a pair of spectacles resting atop their nose. The presence of those spectacles on the face is as essential as a mouth or a chin. And on the rarest occasions when you witness them temporarily removed you can barely resist the urge to reach out and place them back on their face, just so their identity might be restored. Sometimes when I look at my cat she reminds me of those men in those moments.
I pinned up an advert in our local cafe with a photograph of the cat looking into the camera. I posted it online too. My cat has two expressions: sad and inquisitive. Inquisitive is what she looks like when I think about her wearing spectacles. Sad is what she looks like in the photograph. She can sense she is being relocated is the thing. Cats can sense change. Whenever I go away on work trips, she curls up amongst the socks in my half-filled suitcase. I’ll be picking out t-shirts, turn around and there she’ll be, pathetic as anything. She’s been pulling the same trick with the boxes of stuff I have stacked in the living room, sitting on top of them as though that’ll stop me from leaving her.

Cats can sense tension too, and sadness and frustration and all sorts of horrible things. They are thought of as indifferent creatures, which most of the time they are, but that’s not to say they aren’t capable of compassion. In my experience, they save their empathy for the times when it’s needed most. These past few months, for instance, my cat has put so much effort into acting kindly I can’t help but think she’s getting tired of it. And yet again this morning when I woke up, there she was at the end of the sofa, buried between my legs like a hot water bottle that never gets cold. It was almost as though she could sense my gloomy dreams, my fear of waking up alone.

A man called me first, said he already had a Maine Coon and thought she could do with some company. From the way he spoke, I got the impression he lived alone. I pictured one of those miserable terraced houses with urine-stained newspaper all over the floor and old issues of The Evening Standard stacked up in the corner. He spoke like there was a web of phlegm lodged at the back of his throat. The whole time he was speaking I wanted to butt in and ask him to cough or take a drink just to clear it. I don’t think I’m being unfair on him, either. He referred to the Maine Coon as his “pussy”, for instance. Plus what was a single man doing calling up about a second-hand cat? I told him I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be getting rid of her yet and that I’d call him back once I’d decided. The moment I hung up, I scrolled through my phone and deleted the number from my call history. His name was Keith.
I didn’t even want the cat, not initially. I would have liked a dog or no pet at all. We got a cat because I started travelling a lot for work. She said a house doesn’t feel so empty when you’ve got a cat inside of it. Plus cats don’t need so much attention as dogs, they’re low maintenance. At least that’s what we thought. My cat can be an attention seeker, you can barely sit down without her jumping up onto your lap. If I hadn’t been leaving so often for work, perhaps she wouldn’t have become so needy. Perhaps it was all the coming and going and the stress associated with that that made her so dependent. One thing this has taught me is some people prefer to be on their own, to live independently, keep to themselves, spend time with other people only when they want to. Others prefer stability, consistency, comfort. I suppose pets are the same. Who knows.

After the call from the man with the phlegm, a woman replied to the advert I posted on the internet. Yesterday she visited with her two daughters to decide whether they want her or not. The woman is a friend of ours. I don’t know her so well, at least I never liked her much. I offered them all something to drink when they arrived. One of the girls wanted juice but the woman said no. It’s only a short visit, she said, just to see the cat. My cat is the kind to get frightened by new people but she took to them well, especially the girls. A friend of ours bought a fluffy mouse on a piece of string for the cat as a gift last Christmas. The girls ran around the living room with the toy mouse and the cat in tow while the woman and me stood in the doorway watching. I tried making chit-chat, the woman not so much. Pretty quickly I sensed she wasn’t interested and I didn’t bother after that, I was happy enough standing there in silence if that was what she wanted.

After a minute, though, that silence started to annoy me. I started asking myself why I should let this woman have the cat when she’s not willing to say even two words to me. I can’t blame her for not liking me, what with me leaving and all, but when you’ve come around to a person’s house you should show them some respect. Am I wrong about that? Maybe I am. But if she didn’t want to speak to me, she could have come when it wasn’t just me in the house, or after I’ve moved out. It made me wonder whether she had come at this time specifically, just so she could treat me like that.
So I started to make up stuff about the cat. Part of it was to put the woman off adopting her. The main thing, though, was so the woman could see that the cat’s not perfect, that it isn’t just me being selfish or heartless or whatever, that there are actual reasons I’m getting rid of her. So I told her the cat refuses to eat unless the food is from this one particular brand. I said that not only does the brand cost the earth, it also gives her terrible gas that hangs around the house for hours afterwards. She waited a moment before looking at me and said, ‘the poor thing.’ She was talking about the cat, but I knew what she was trying to say. It was pretty obvious from the way she said it.

That’s when I told her the cat has problems with her bowels too. I gave details about frequency and quantity and colour, used the same sympathetic voice she had used. They left pretty soon after that.

I shouldn’t have tried to put her off taking the cat. It wouldn’t matter so much if there wasn’t a time pressure but I move into my new flat next week and she really has to be gone by then. She can’t stay here, apparently. The problem is, cats, like all objects, have associations. They remind us of people we’ve known and the ways we felt about those people. It’s difficult to stand something that has so many memories attached to it, I can understand that. When people die, for instance, especially a child, they encourage you to get rid of all their belongings to help with the grief process. I’m not sure if there is proven therapeutic benefit in that but you see it enough in films. Anyway, that’s the reason she can’t stay here: memories. And she’s not coming with me, for the reasons I’ve already given. I’ll be travelling still and who’s going to look after her when I’m gone.
Cats only remember for two weeks, I read it somewhere, but I still get upset when I think about her missing one of us. She will be frightened at first. Like I said, she’s not the best around new people and in new places. The new owners might let me visit, although that’d only make it harder for her. Plus all those associations I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure it would be a good idea for either of us. Best we say goodbye and be done with it.

I’m like the cat, in a way. Although, no, not really. Not at all in fact. I just wish I was like the cat.

When I think about her in a new home I feel profoundly jealous. I want her to be loved and everything, I just don’t like the thought of other people acting as if she belongs to them. It’s stupid really, all of this is my fault anyway, it’s me getting rid of her. What I’ve realised, though, is just because doing a certain thing makes someone else feel awful doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. It’s difficult because I want her to know I still love her, but why the hell would she believe me when I’m here getting ready to leave? It’s not like I want to leave. Although, obviously I do otherwise I wouldn’t be doing all this.

The trouble is, I keep forgetting all of the bad stuff. Like when I got back from a trip last week and spent the whole evening wondering why the hell she was ignoring me. I said to her, ‘have I done something wrong?’ and she just left the room. It’s clever really, the way she can make me feel sorry without having to actually think up something that I’ve done.
The more I think about it, going on about diarrhoea to the woman with her children stood around was downright stupid. Anyway, we’ll find out tomorrow if they’re taking her. I mean the cat, of course.

When I was flapping out the blankets this morning, the cat was jumping up, trying to cling on to them. She likes the material. It’s funny how we know that cats don’t experience emotions and thoughts like we do and yet we attribute emotions and thoughts to them anyway. We think we know what they’re thinking all the time, like me saying she’s going to miss us in her new home. When I was putting the blankets back in the box she was clawing at them, trying to pull them back out. It reminded me of when she used to lie in my suitcase and would look up at me with those sad eyes, as if to say, Don’t pack up, things are so nice as they are, why change things when they’re so nice? I have to remind her that change isn’t always a bad thing. It was nice waking up with her on top of me this morning, for instance, but it got awfully hot after a few minutes, I had no choice but to nudge her off. I’m one of those people who likes things in theory but when it comes to practice I get fed up too quickly.
That’s the problem, I guess.

Sam Stephenson is studying for a Masters in Professional Writing at Falmouth University, UK. As well as writing short stories, he is also working on a novel which he hopes to be ready for submission by the end of 2018.

previous reviews & comments:

'This is beautifully and cleverly written with great descriptive detail. I love how the cat and the ghost of a woman gradually fuse into one in a sad ,yet realistic, tale.'
Rachel Schulz, 2018

'I really liked this story. The details - the cat like a hot water bottle that never gets cold - and the phlegmy man with the Maine Coon cat and the sadness that seeped everywhere - the cat melting into a shadowy person. Concise and full of atmosphere. Lovely.'
Jill Murphy,2018

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