Monday, 8 June 2009
TWICE REMOVED - by C.K. Andrew
A warm welcome to 'CEKA' from Writers' News Talkback...
The reply was in the Personal column of the Chronicle one Thursday, a couple of weeks after the incident in London. To Cat Burglar: thank you, thank you for stealing Birman Boy. His life now never safe here again, please consider him yours. Name Radnor. Will always be remembered and beloved. Josie smiled, put her hand down to her new pet and felt his purring response.
It had all started on the day of Mamma Pearl’s funeral. It had been a cold, grey drizzling day in London. Josie had come up specially from her new home in the West Country. She didn’t know any of Mamma Pearl’s family except for the daughter who had found her number in Pearl’s effects and rung her to let her know of the old Jamaican woman’s death.
“Thank you for coming, girl,” Gloria had said. “Pearl loved you. She always said you’d make good, get away from this place. You were the only white girl she ever really called a friend.”
“I owe her my freedom. If she hadn’t straightened me out, I’d still be with Wayne, selling myself, going down to hell.”
“And now you’re an honest woman with an honest job, in a clean part of the country.” Gloria hugged Josie, almost squashing her. “No more stealin’ or sellin’. Pearl would be proud.”
Josie returned to the flat she’d once shared with Wayne, in the East End, intending to pick up her overnight bag and get back to Cornwall as quickly as possible. She sometimes did stop with him overnight, on her trips back to Town to visit Mamma Pearl in her nursing home. He didn’t mind, since she always brought him food and some money but he’d never shown any real interest in where she lived now or what she was doing. Mostly he seemed to be in a haze of drugs or alcohol.
Josie pulled her packed bag into the hallway, grimacing at the sight of the peeling dampness on the walls. Her smart shoes scuffed on the bare floorboards and she kicked aside a pair of filthy jeans and a couple of cigarette butts. God, that man was a dirty lout! The place stank of cigarette smoke and stale burgers, of urine and unwashed feet. This last visit to London was goodbye in more ways than one and Josie was glad she wouldn’t be coming back.
Wayne, shaven-headed and with a ring through his left nostril, was in the lounge, watching football on a massive flat screen television. He sprawled out on a sagging sofa of indeterminate colour, empty beer cans by his elbow.
“Yes!” He punched the air as someone scored.
Josie shook her head. She went to the bathroom to wash her hands and face. There was no towel to dry herself on, but she remembered Wayne boasting about some new ones he’d picked up.
“Where are those M and S towels you were on about?”
“In the box room. Don’t let the cat out.”
“I’m just looking after it for someone.”
Josie went through to the box room. A plaintive miaow came from under the curtain-less window. In the fading winter daylight, a shadow crouched in a square wire-meshed cage. Two huge, wide pupils stared back at her.
“Hello, puss. What’s your name then?” Josie knelt quietly down on the bare floor and put her hand out to the bars. The cat moved forward and rubbed its face on the metal, purring now, begging to be picked up and cuddled. Its beige fur was thick and plush and it had chocolate tips to its ears and mask and paws. The tail was chocolate too, long and very fluffy and Josie poked her fingers through the bars to touch it.
“You’re beautiful, darling. What a lovely purr. Shall I get you some milk?” She got up again and reached out for one of the new towels on the table. She ripped open the packet and dried her hands properly on the Egyptian cotton, breathing in the glorious smell of something fresh and new. The cat was talking to her again, purring and pushing up at the lid of the cage. It was an expensive looking animal albeit in an old rusting cage. Who’d be mad enough to let Wayne Jackson look after a creature like this?
“So whose cat is it? She shouted through from the kitchen, where she scraped dried baked beans off a chipped plate and ran it under the tap to clean it. There was milk in the fridge, but it was on the turn. Still, it was better than nothing.
“Never you mind.” His voice was slurred with alcohol. “What’s for tea?”
“Nothing unless you’ve done some shopping.”
“Just get me something to eat, Josie, I’m starving.”
“So’s the cat. Did you bring its food with you?”
“Oh, get real!”
Josie sighed. She took the saucer of milk through to the cat and hunkered down beside the cage. She shoved the door shut quietly so as not to frighten the animal and gingerly pulled off the metal rod that threaded through the loops and held the lid shut. Her heart swelled as she leaned in and lifted the ten-pound ball of fluff into her arms. She spent a few minutes gentling and cuddling it, listening to the dynamo purring, and then she set it down beside the milk and watched it cautiously start to lap.
“Somebody loves you very much, for you to be so tame with strangers. Or are you a show cat, used to being handled?” She put her hand out and the cat gave a tiny chirrup as her palm made contact. It finished the milk and licked its lips.
“You idiot! I told you not to let it out!” Wayne was standing in the doorway and his shouting sent the cat flying to the far side of the room under a pile of broken furniture. “Get it back in that cage! Go on, Josie, or you’ll bloody know about it!” His fists were bunched, but she ignored them. The days when he could intimidate her were long gone. She had grown up and moved on, and he had not: it was as simple as that.
“You’ve scared it, idiot yourself.” she returned coldly. “Who asked you to look after a cat, for God’s sake? You hate animals!”
“None of your business.” He shut the door and swayed towards the broken chairs. “Here, kitty! Come on out!”
“Have you nicked it?” Josie stared at Wayne in disgust. How could she ever have got involved with him? She’d never come back to this place and would regret nothing once she left it behind.
“Here, kitty!” Wayne shovelled about in the recesses of the wood, pushing his hand further and further in. “Ah, got you. Out you come, you stupid cat – Aaargh!” He swore and stood up abruptly, kicking out at the pile of furniture, snatching his hand back up to his chest. Blood dripped onto the floor. He shrieked profanities at Josie for letting the cat out, alcohol very strong on his breath. She stepped back from it, hating the smell.
“You’ve stolen this cat haven’t you?”
“No! I never!’ But his eyes had slid away from her. She knew that shifty look of old. He never could look at her directly when he was lying. “Hell, Josie, get me a bandage or something.” His tone became wheedling. “This is really bad. I might bleed to death.”
“No loss to the world,” Josie snapped and handed him the towel she had herself used. A mobile phone rang in the lounge and Wayne hurried to answer it, wrapping his arm as he went. Josie hunted through the kitchen cupboards and found a tin of tuna. She opened it and took a mouthful herself before carrying it through to the spare room and placing it on the floor near the metal cage.
“That was for the cat,” Wayne called. “He’s to go to the Red Lion. Mr Maynard’s boys are waiting for him.”
“Is he holding it to ransom or something?” Maynard was part of the East End underworld for which Wayne had been running errands for years.
“Or something.” Wayne was swaying in the hallway. “You’ll have to take the bloody thing. I feel ill.” He reached out to lean on her. His skin was clammy. His voice quavered. “Look, Josie, just get that animal to the boys, or I’ll be for it.”
She looked at his face but didn’t soften. She could only think of the huge frightened eyes of the beautiful cat.
“What’s he going to do with it - or to it, more like?”
“How should I know?” His face, always pale, had gone whiter and Josie recognised the signs. Wayne never could stand the sight of blood.
“What’s he going to do to it?” Pinching him, she hissed the words, feeling him buckle at the knees.
Faintly he whispered, “The owner won’t co-operate. So now Maynard’s sending him a warning, like in ‘The Godfather’. Man’s got to be taught to show respect.” And he slithered through her arms until he was out cold on the floor.
Josie stared down at him, but the icy fear soaking down her spine was for the cat. She’d never had a pet, but could imagine what someone would feel like if their beloved cat were stolen and then...like in The Godfather...its head...all that blood...
She felt her empty stomach retch. She went back to the box room. There was no light bulb so she had to wait until her eyes were accustomed to the dimness before she could make out the cat, finishing its supper under the window. She tiptoed over and heard the purr and the tiny chirrup as her hand touched the glorious fur.
“Oh, God, I’ve got to get you away.” She lifted the cat and gently deposited it back into the wire basket and pushed the metal rod home. She was sweating cold. Just get out and take it with you.
“I’m off now,” she said loudly to Wayne’s inert body. She swung her bag over her shoulder and stepped over him. She thought hard. He had no idea where she lived, only that it was ‘in the west.’ She could simply take away – steal! - the already-kidnapped cat and vanish. Without looking back, she picked up the basket and left.
She walked along the concrete gangway and down through the unlit stairwell that stank of urine to the car park. Several loitering teenagers made miaowing noises as she passed, but didn’t try to hinder her. She put the cat in the boot of her aged Astra, out of sight.
She slung her bag on the back seat, got it and fumbled with the ignition. She was tight-chested and trembling, expecting someone to stop her at any second. She stalled the car at the main road junction and wished there was another route she could take that didn’t’ go right past The Red Lion. She was forced to stop right beside it because of traffic lights. She sank lower into her seat, heart thumping, turning her head away from the pub’s brightness. Wayne could have come round by now, could have telephoned Mr Maynard.
The lights changed. She breathed again and drove on, away from the hateful city. On the outskirts, she stopped and brought the cage into the car beside her, securing the seat belt round it. The cat nudged and purred and Josie felt her heart would burst with love.
In Cornwall the next day, she had a veterinary surgeon friend check the cat over and they discovered he’d been microchipped. They traced the owner, sent him an anonymous note and the advertising address of a big West Country newspaper. The note ran: Very special Birman Boy taken by loving Cat Burglar from original London thief intent on murder. Cat OK and safe now. But what do next? Please Reply Personal column one Thursday soon.
C K Andrew lives on Exmoor and has published many short stories in various womens' magazines.