old man & cat

After I’d been living in Stalybridge for a couple of months my cat became ill. It was eating as greedily as ever then vomiting the food up in fits which frightened and disgusted me. It crouched on the living room floor, coughing out fur balls and swallowing them again in great bronchitic heaves, staring warily at me in case I put it outside the door. During the close, thundery afternoons it sidled about under the furniture and was sick by the bookshelves. I was always too late: a rhythmic gulping sound, a croak, a grey puddle spreading on the carpet. Between these fits it purred and watched the flies, much as it had always done. I discovered that the old man who lived downstairs had begun to feed it fishbones from the side of his plate.

I cornered him on the landing outside his flat. It had been a long hot day and a foul smell hung in the air. Over his thin sloping shoulder I could see into his front room. Thick piles of hair-clippings lay on the pocked green lino. He cut his hair himself, and often left it there for days on end. Through his window was a view of the road, where a few children were playing desultorily on bicycles. On the wall opposite, one of them had chalked, “Whoever redes this is a cunt.”

“You must never give it fishbones,” I explained patiently. “It will choke on them.”

“I can’t stop it stealing, can I?” he complained. “Cats eat fish. The poor little thing.”

He licked his lips and watched me. He had on a cotton vest, wrinkled over a pot belly peculiarly swollen and hard. His arms were thin — though they had once been muscular — the skin loose and sore in the creases of his elbow. I noticed that his hands were trembling slightly. Suddenly I had had enough of him.

“You know bloody well it isn’t the cat that’s stealing!” I shouted in his face. I was trembling too. “It’s ill. It’s ill, you stupid old idiot!”

I stepped round him and went quickly through his door. I was practised at this. Every day I had to get my milk back, or look for my letters. I had caught him with my groceries. I had caught him with a dish of Kit-E-Kat Meat & Liver Dinner. “It’s filthy in here,” I said. “Can’t you clean it up a bit ? I can smell it from upstairs when you open the door.” He came in behind me and stood in the twilight biting his lips, his weak eyes sliding sideways to the television screen, which showed a factory, a mechanical process of one sort or another, and then a man driving down a road on a housing estate.

“And another thing,” I said. “You can keep that thing turned down.”

I prodded him in the stomach.

He looked at me and swallowed. “If you do that I’ll shit myself,” he said.

[From Climbers, 1989.]

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