The King of Cats
"What ― Old Tom dead! then I'm the King o' the Cats!"
You saw a dead cat on the way to work this morning.
It lay crumpled in the road by your bus stop, yellow eyes staring accusingly at you. At first you thought it was a fox – then you got close enough to realise that the red in its fur was blood. You stared down at it for a long time, the delicate, tiny curve of its skull, its open mouth, reaching paw. The flattened mess of its body that you tried not to look to closely at. It had been alive, for a time. Now it was not. That was all.
A robin, perched on the red plastic bus-stop bench, met your eye. It ruffled its wings and cocked its head.
“Tom Tildrum is dead,” it said, clear as a church bell. And with a flick of its tail, the robin sprung into the air and disappeared.
You stared at the place it had been for a long time, and then looked round to see if anyone else had heard, but the early morning was crisp and empty. Only you, and something that once was a cat.
You sat on the bench and, when the bus arrived, you got on. As it drove away, you looked out of the window. In the road nine black cats with the white gloves of a pallbearer lifted the body onto their shoulders and carried it away.
You stared at where the body had been until the bus turned a corner, and it was gone.
Work passed as it always did, books passed into the hands of customers, money passed into the cradle of the till. You saw no more cats. During lunch, you walked down to the nearby park and though the ducks quacked angrily for the sandwich crusts you kept out of their reach, none of them spoke.
That evening, when the bus stop dropped you home, the road was empty.
The lift was still broken and the four flights up to your flat were as always so much worse than the four flights down. Your key slid into the lock like butter, and you paused beneath the electric lighting of the hall. Your lock was half rusted. and always put up a fight when you tried to shove your battered key inside. You stood like that for a moment longer and then, with a decisive click, unlocked the door.
It opened into a flat that wasn’t yours.
Or rather, it opened into the flat yours could have been, fifteen years ago. The chipped walls were smooth, the yellowed peels of paint replaced by a clean, warm cream. You favourite sagging sofa still sagged, but its colour was brighter and covered in plump cushions that you had never owned, a soft throw tossed over the back of it. The floor had been polished clean enough that you could eat of it, and a rich, delicious smell filled the whole room.
Stomach rumbling, you followed it.
In the kitchenette a solid oaken table had been set for dinner, two silver plates with domed covers, a crystal decanter filled with wine, there was even silverware, rows of knives and forks and spoons with delicate filigree handles. You recognized it at once. It had been your grandmother’s. She had left them to you when she… Your mother had been forced to sell them when you were ten. You had cried for three days, too inconsolable to recognise her own red eyes. How they had found their way into your kitchen, you had no idea.
You owned two chairs. One was empty. In the other, tail curled carefully around his forepaws, was your cat.
You sat down.
You had found the cat on the worst day of your life. And probably his. Rain had fallen like tears and, with nowhere else to go, you had found yourself wandering. Your plain black dress, the worst colour in the world, had been quickly soaked through, and the first time you heard the cry you thought you imagined it. The second time, you knew.
You had found him half buried beneath a pile of bulging binbags with a cut on his paw and the plastic ring of a six-pack wrapped around his neck. The more he writhed, the tighter the plastic twisted around him. He was young, but his kitten-claws were still sharp enough to draw blood when you reached for him. You still bear the scar, the thin sliver of silver in your palm, beneath the meat of your thumb.
You cut him free and bought him home.
You called him Patches, because you did not feel particularly imaginative in those months, and because he had one. A white discolouration over his heart, when the rest of him was as black as the spots on a die.
He became your reason to wake up, his insistent cries in the morning when he demanded to be fed and, at night, when he curled against your throat and purred and purred… the tears still fell, but their grief left you less hollow.
And now he sat opposite you, on the other side of an impossible meal, in an impossible apartment, and watched you with yellow, yellow eyes.
“Tom Tildrum is dead,” he said, and you were not surprised to hear him speak. “And now I am the king of cats.”
He paused, just for a moment and leant forwards. There was a scar around his neck, where plastic had once dug deep. “Thank you.”
And then, with a flick of his tail, he disappeared.
You ate the dinner. It seemed the thing to do. And then you washed the dishes, put your grandmother’s silverware back into the box that had appeared in your cupboard. There was a folded scrap of paper on the chair where Patch—where the King of Cats had sat. It was a cheque, for more than you make in a year. You cried then, on your knees with a crumbled cheque in your hands, and choked sobs shaking through your chest. When it was done, you put the cheque in your pocket and washed your face in the kitchen sink. Then you tidied away all the things you had bought for your cat. You put them in a box by the front door and would take them the shelter in the morning. He had been yours for a time, and now he was not. That was all.
You sat on the sofa for a long time and, when enough time had passed that it felt like you should, you went to bed. You lay in the dark, door open and waited for the soft pad of footsteps. For the rustle of sheets as something landed on them. For the warmth of a small body purr, purr, purring as it curled against your throat. It didn’t come.
You watched the window as the sky turned from royal, to navy, to dawn. Orange fingers stretched across the sky, white clouds-stained daisy petal pink. You watched dawn break until it felt like you should get up.
The window latch was cold against your fingers as you opened it, the morning air crisp and clear as glass against your face. In the sky, the distant silhouettes of birds cut through gentle pastels of the morning. In the distant motorway, cars rumble past. Beneath you, the world spills brighter.
It is yours, for a time.