#49 A Night Alone
This week, our protagonist cat-sits for her best friend, Emma. But after an eventless evening, she’s woken in the night by the cat who brings a challenging message.
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#49 A Night Alone
It started with Emma asking me if I’d cat-sit for her while she went to Paris for the weekend. She was going to watch her cousin in a tennis match on the cusp of becoming seeded. I got to her flat late this afternoon, a sub-section of a small brutalist structure with 70s wood panelling everywhere and grey concrete to compliment. Emma had departed a few hours earlier, and left instructions scrawled on a notepad with a Hello Kitty logo in the corner in the kitchen:
SHE LIKES TO BE FED ONCE AT NIGHT AND ONCE IN THE MORNING (SEE FOOD NEXT TO NOTE)
MAYBE GIVE HER ONE OR TWO TREATS AT SOME POINT, THAT’LL MAKE HER LIKE YOU
SHE’S VERY SHY WITH NEW PEOPLE SO DON’T BE OFFENDED IF YOU DON’T REALLY SEE HER
THE CAT FLAP IS OPEN SO SHE MIGHT COME AND GO AS SHE PLEASES, IF SHE’S GONE A LONG TIME, SHE’LL COME BACK DON’T WORRY
CHECK HER LITTER TRAY IN THE MORNING, YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO IF SHE’S POOPED IN IT
I dump my bags in my room, and inspect the pictures on the wall. There’s one of us in San Francisco, from seven years ago. We both look so young, like we should be wearing braces, our hair back-combed in a way I wouldn’t be caught dead doing now. All we ever did was laugh, all the time. Now we work, we go for dinners, we talk about serious things like jobs, how our salaries aren’t enough, flat hunting (for me), boyfriends. We gossip about people the other doesn’t know. And we text more than we actually see each other.
In the next picture is her boyfriend, Jonny, a tall boy with dark eyebrows, bright blue eyes and a tan that never goes. They look happy together but looking happy in a picture doesn’t mean anything.
All of a sudden, there’s a pitter-patter from somewhere in the flat, and I leave my trail of thought and turn my head to look out into the corridor. Penny, Emma’s English shorthair, black as they come, is staring at me from the top of the stairs and I feel like a robber who - despite me being as quiet as possible - has caught me clutching their prized jewels. Her eyes are wide and her expression ungiving. We each wait for the other to move and an eternity passes until I give way, nothing more than straightening my arched back. As soon as I do, Penny turns and darts down the stairs and I hear her feet skidding across the wood-panel floor and then there’s silence.
Downstairs, I re-read Emma’s note in the kitchen, and peruse the menu of the Indian restaurant, which she’d left pinned on the fridge. I order it online, and it says it’ll be 45 minutes. I go through to the living room, turn on the tellie and scroll through the options until I see a movie I want to watch. Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. Can’t go wrong.
Hours pass and I watch my movie and eat my curry without interruption. Penny is nowhere to be seen. I assume she’s out somewhere catching mice or staring at other cats through windows. I look out the window and the evening light has receded so only the faint silhouette of the building behind and the trees is visible. I close my eyes and hear the sound of plates clattering into a sink from the neighbours, the rumbling of distant train carriages, birds trilling in the eaves. I sigh, check the time, and decide to go on up to bed, where I tuck myself in and read my book until I turn out the light and fall asleep.
I wake to the humming sound of a distant helicopter, but when I open my eyes all I see are the great big eyes of Penny, staring deep into my soul. It gives me a jump but I can’t move, because Penny is sitting squarely on my chest, her paws straight, reaching up to my collarbone, her bum down on my belly. She’s sitting on me like a bench. And there is no helicopter, that damn sound is her purring! I can feel the vibrations through my core. My eyes are glued together with sleep. I reach over to check the time on my phone but as I move, Penny’s right paw reaches up and sits on my arm, as though to say: Don’t move you lowly human!
She looks me square between the eyes, and purrs even louder. My head drops back onto the pillow and I stare into the darkness. I haven’t seen her at all. She’s absolutely terrified of me all night, but at 4am or whatever time it is, she’s treating me like her bed!
We sit like this for a long time. I don’t want to disturb Penny or upset her, so I just let her sit there while I do nothing. I’m wide awake. There’s some strange adrenaline that comes with being sat on by a purring cat.
After a while, my mind starts to drift and I think of Emma and her boyfriend Jonny. When Jonny enters my mind, Penny lifts up her bum and stretches her legs, before sending her tongue flailing across her lips and then a fully-stretched feline yawn. When she settles, her expression is one of quiet judgement.
‘What?’ I ask. ‘What are you judging me for?’
‘You need to tell her what you did,’ Penny returns. Oh my God, is the cat talking to me?
‘What are you talking about?’ I say, very aware that I am alone in the flat and talking out loud to the cat.
‘You know what I’m talking about…’ her brow furrows. ‘What you did with Jonny.’
‘Why? It was so long ago. Before they got together.’
‘But she needs to know. Wouldn’t you want to know if you were in her shoes.’
‘No. I wouldn’t want to know. That would torture me.’
‘I don’t believe you.’ Penny’s tail flicks slowly from side to side behind her. ‘Don’t you value your friendship with her? Don’t you want it to be one of honesty? Of trust? What kind of friend are you if you don’t tell her this?’
‘I’ll be a good one!’
‘Hm! I don’t think you really believe that. I think you’re just scared.’
‘Get off me.’
‘Why did you do it, anyway? You knew she liked him. A lot.’
‘Because I was drunk… and careless.’
‘You’re such a bad liar.’
‘Well, so what? Maybe I was bitter, maybe I was pissed off with her for being so self-centred. For talking about him nonstop. She talked about him every day for months. And she stopped hanging out with me. So then we were at a party and he was there, and I was drunk, and we ended up alone. So…’
‘Maybe I am.’
‘You are.’ Penny starts to laugh and I shove her off of me. She hops off the bed onto the floor, circles back around and looks up at me.
‘Go away,’ I tell her. ‘Go away!’
I lie back and stare at the ceiling and think about Emma, that trip we took to San Francisco and how amazed she was by the Golden Gate Bridge: this sight she’d seen every day for years on her computer screensaver - real life, in the flesh. I picture our two smiling faces, one beside the other. I remember she was telling me about him then, how he’d told her how beautiful she was, and how she couldn’t stop thinking about him. She told me about how our teacher, Ms Villiera, caught her graffitiing their initials into her workbook and quizzed her about it in front of the whole class, and how embarrassed she was that Ms Villiera actually apologised after the bell had gone.
Almost immediately, for whatever reason, I start to cry. Not just any cry but a deep, inconsolable cry. I feel like I’ve murdered someone, or robbed a charity shop or pulled the plug on a dying relative. I really hate myself. All these years of friendship and I ruined it with one act of bitterness. But it’s not just one act with implications that come from one act - it’s a lifetime of regret. I’ll never look at her the same, I’ll never answer a single question from her the same as I would’ve otherwise. I’ll never think of her the way I used to. Our relationship, whether she knows it or not, is completely changed.
All of a sudden, Penny jumps up on the bed beside me and stands over my face, staring down at me. Her presence silences me, and then she meows repeatedly and brushes her tail up my arm, and I’m grateful for her companionship in this moment.
I stroke her head and she tucks her cheek into my palm to rub her glands.
She starts to purr again - her deep, satisfied purr.