The envelope merely stated: ‘To the young lady who lives in the basement flat’.
There was a single sheet of paper inside, upon which was written a poem, in firm black ink. Catriona read it quickly, unable to take in the words.
‘To “The Lady‑with‑the‑Sky‑in‑her‑Hair”
Your black hair, glossy,
And entwines the blue sky,
In shining fingers
And pulls it down
Around your head,
Like a blue, silk shawl.
You are a celestial pillar,
In beautiful, fierce anger.
And even the cat
There was no signature. She read it again, and now she knew who had written it. She saw herself, raised high above the viewer’s head, enhanced through his vision, and she was moved and excited. But she was also fearful, that he should interpret her in this way, and thus ensnare her.
As she folded the piece of paper, she saw another line of writing, on the back: ‘What you need is a Tom!’ Even as she read this suggestion (or was it a proposition?), she thought she knew what was in the black plastic sack, upon which the envelope had been propped: and she was disgusted.
There was another dead cat in the lane behind the terrace. Catriona could just make out its shape, where it lay stiffly in the mud. She hung her tights on the washing‑line, then leaned over the railings to stare down. The lane was a dark, rutted gorge, its cobbles long since displaced by heavy lorries and an endless sequence of men with road‑drills, spades and inappropriate tarmac. It was bounded by stone walls that were pierced by wooden doors, some strong and locked, like Catriona’s, others broken and hanging. Behind the walls and their backgardens and dustbins rose even higher walls, four storeys high, of stern Victorian terraces. The cat, once so large and vivid orange, was diminished and darkened by the surrounding stone. Would this corpse, too, suddenly vanish overnight?
The terrace in which Catriona lived curved around the top of the hill, so that the windows and back‑door of her basement flat opened onto a steeply‑sloping lawn. Her garden was small ‑ the grass ragged, the few shrubs alive but stunted, and the patch of soil that nourished nasturtiums and daffodils was adequate but sooty ‑ but she was happy to use it as an extension to her tiny flat. Yet it was a constant irritation that the neighbourhood cats used it, too. It was not only their noise that irritated (and sometimes, in the night, frightened) her: it was their casual acceptance that any patch of sunlight was theirs, that the dustbin and shrubs were parish boundaries to be sprayed with pungent stink, and that the powdery soil had been provided as a public cats’ convenience. The cats clawed open dustbin sacks, then sat and chewed, heads tilted, at stringy offal and kitchen towel soaked in miscellaneous juices; they formed small gangs that paced, with twitching tails, glaring at the opposition; and they hunted for newly‑parked cars, searching out the warmest engine, and stamped their muddy feet in triumph on the bonnet.
Catriona hated them. She rapped on the window or she opened the door and threw things. Once, she threw her shoe and, so powerful was her anger, the shoe sped the length of the garden and dropped over the railings, out of sight. When she went to fetch it, treading cautiously down the steep, slimy steps towards the wooden door, the cat (amused and undeterred) peered down at her descending head, and purred.
There was so much food: not merely carelessly thrown junk, but purposely‑placed food, offered by cat‑owners and by cat‑less people who felt sorry for the strays. There were little bowls and dishes, and opened tins. When Catriona walked down the street, past the rows of doorbells and empty milk‑bottles, there was even the occasional saucer left on a top step, the surface of the milk crusty with floating dust. There was also the man who put out meat. She had seen him in the back lane; he looked about sixty, and wore a suit, and he came out of the green back gate, the one with peeling, scabby paint, the house that had sixteen door‑bells at the front. She wouldn’t have paid him much attention except that he held out a bowl and called for the cats in a strangely high, thin voice. The cats clearly recognised the call: furry heads lifted and turned, backs were arched and stretched, and cats of all colours leapt lightly off resting places, slunk around corners, and bounded towards the bowl. The man’s feet were lost in a multicoloured snarl of fur, and within seconds the bowl was empty. A few of the lucky ones ran off to sit and crunch at bones, little delicate bones that splintered like chicken. Catriona hoped they’d choke.
There was a lunchtime in early spring when Catriona escaped from her office to sit in the unexpected sunshine in the park. The trees were still bare, but blue and white crocuses were piled like carpets on the lawns. She chose a bench in the sun, and sat with eyes closed, head tilted towards the imagined heat. But soon a shudder indicated that someone had joined her on the bench. She opened her eyes slightly and saw a man, and tried to suppress her annoyance that she could not be permitted to sit alone. But then it seemed that the man was familiar, and she peeped again, and puzzled. She was almost sure it was the cat‑man from down the lane, but he wore an unfamiliar tweed jacket and a matching cap, and he was a little older than she had thought. It was annoying, the way he fidgeted and muttered, and she was just making up her mind to move when he said:
‘Excuse me … I wonder if you could help me. What is the name of the spice that one obtains from crocuses? Or croci, I wonder if one should say?’
‘Oh! I’m sorry … I don’t ‑ ‘
‘You see, I’ve temporarily forgotten ‑ wretched memory!’ His voice was gentle, self‑deprecating. ‘It’s from the stamens ‑ you know, the yellow rods, inside.’
‘Yes, I know which are the stamens.’ Catriona was offended. ‘Saffron.’
‘Ah yes. Saffron.’
‘Why? Are you thinking of collecting some?’ She was prepared to be judgmental.
‘Oh no! I merely needed the word. Thank you.’
The man turned away, and watched the squirrel that had been stopping and starting among the flowers. His lips were moving, though, and occasionally his hands twitched impatiently.
The squirrel reared on its hind legs, then dropped down and scuttled towards a tree. The man gave a pleased little snort.
‘Did you see?’ he asked. ‘That’s what I find hard to capture. The skeleton itself must flow, and loop and turn.’ He was trying to explain with his freckled, bony hands, as well as with his words. ‘But the words must flesh it out, do you see ‑ almost disguise the structure. That’s what I can’t get right.’
Catriona was embarrassed; she was prepared to dismiss him, possibly as a victim of some sort of dementia. Yet he seemed harmless, and one didn’t often meet interesting people in the park.
‘You don’t see what I’m getting at, do you? Listen!
through saffron ‑
you see there, that’s why I needed your help ‑
That suddenly curls,
grey among blue and yellow
uncoiling and stretching
its bristling, prickling
whiskered tail …
I haven’t got any further, yet.’
‘Yes. I do see. I think.’ Catriona wasn’t sure whether to be impressed, or wary of the old man’s pretensions. ‘Have you done poems for other animals?’ She tried to think of a suitable example. ‘How about a cheetah? Or an ordinary cat? You’re fond of cats aren’t you?’
Catriona was sure it was the same man; but his face closed and his expression was blank.
‘Fond of cats? No. No, I’m not fond of cats. There is no fondness in them, they do not reciprocate ‑ they can only take . Good heavens, look at the time!’ (He didn’t even consult his watch.) ‘I must be going. Goodbye!’
And he was gone, moving surprisingly briskly through the lunchtime strollers.
It was a few weeks before Catriona saw him again. She hid behind the damply‑hanging towels and watched as he called the cats. This time, he held the bowl high, out of reach, and he pushed the cats aside with his foot so that one, and only one, could receive his gift. He walked backwards, encouraging the brown Burmese to follow, enticing it in through the garden door. The graceful animal stepped daintily out of sight.
He didn’t notice Catriona that time, but he saw her, a few days later, when the scarred grey cat leapt over the railings.
Catriona had flung open the door and chased the cat down the lawn. The animal bundled itself together, then unfolded like a flying fox and hurled itself at the far wall. It scrabbled and bunched its body against the stone, then pulled itself up, to sit, panting and glaring at its pursuer. She burst out laughing at its anger and then realised the cat‑man was below her in the lane. He held a plastic bin‑bag that hung heavily as the wind rattled rubbish on the stones.
‘No, I’m not fond of them,’ he said, ‘and nor, it seems, are you!’
‘It was ‑ defaecating ‑ on my lawn.’
The elderly man continued staring up at her, wordlessly, until she became uncomfortable.
‘Mmmm …. a lion rampant, gold on green.’
‘It looked more like a suction pad with claws,’ Catriona said, puzzled, but trying to be helpful.
He looked at the angry cat, and smiled. ‘Yes. Oh yes. That’s a nice idea. Thank you so much.’
Catriona smiled back, and then went inside.
She poked the black bag with her foot, but it was ungiving and hard. She patted it cautiously with her hand and its contents were curved and tall, so, since the bag was not heavy, she took it, and the letter, downstairs to her flat. She read again the poem ‑ and was no longer frightened. She cut the string and rolled back the neck of the bag, and stared into the unblinking glass eyes of the ginger tom. His broad face glared at her, his back was arched, his hair bristled stiffly round his neck, and every part of his body signalled ‘Keep off!’ Catriona stroked him gently; so cold and dead, yet skilfully reincarnated to such heat and fury. His legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. She expected him to raise his tail and spray the cupboards, marking the kitchen as his territory.
The ginger tom, captured, then recaptured in such rampant gold perfection. As she, too, had been immortalised in words, and petrified, azure‑tipped.
It was not until the weekend that Catriona felt confident enough to respond. The poem had been unsigned, there had been no address, but the gift had laid a burden of uncertainty upon her that must be cleared. In her handbag she carried a small replica of a fossil fish that she had purchased at the Museum gift shop and had wrapped in blue metallic foil. The bones of the fish, compressed and preserved by aeons of hardening sediment, were starkly drawn as though by an engineer’s pen.
Catriona’s feet crunched on the poet’s basement step and, thoughtfully, she pushed aside the small, crushed shoulder‑blade with her shoe. She rang the bell, but there was no answer, and the curtains were closed. A girl, going up the front steps, saw her and told her that he had gone.
‘Three days ago. He’s flitted ‑ he was way behind with the rent.’
‘Do you know where?’
‘No, he didn’t tell anyone, just skipped. I hope he’s got somewhere to go, though, he left loads of stuff behind. He must’ve been a bit weird, though ‑ do you know what they found in there?’
‘No.’ But she could guess.
‘Cats! The place was full of dead cats, all stuffed and mounted. Gross!’
Catriona shook her head in amazement, laughing with the girl, and walked away. She wondered if there had been a stuffed squirrel, too.
This story was published in Chapman, Scotland’s Quality Literary Magazine‘, volume 81, in 1995.