"Ugh, Paul, what on Earth shall we do with it?" the woman's voice shrieked, "We can't possibly keep it."
"It's all right darling, I'll think of something. I'm sure there's a place we can take it," replied the male.
From his hiding place underneath the bed, Oscar the tabby cat listened to the exchange. He was the 'it' in question. Until a few days ago, he had lived comfortably with Cecily, pampered and cherished. His world had collapsed when his beloved Cecily was taken into hospital after suffering a heart attack. He had sniffed her as she lay on the floor and known that she wouldn't be coming back. Yesterday, and the day before, the home help had come to feed him and pet him a little, and then today Ruth and Paul had arrived and started to pack Cecily's belongings into boxes.
"It must go today, it's making my asthma worse," shrilled Ruth, wheezing for dramatic effect.
"Okay, okay," soothed her boyfriend in placatory tones, "Let's find a box to put the little bastard in and I'll get him away from here."
"You will take him to a shelter or something won't you?" asked the female, suddenly unsure of herself.
"Yes dear," he replied, but Oscar's ears quivered at the insincerity in the voice.
He crept to the back of the bed, as far as he could get as they stomped around calling out "Here kitty-kitty, come on, good boy Oscar," and rattled his box of crunchies. Eventually a sharp-nosed female face peered under the bed.
"He's here, Paul."
"Right. Come on, out you come."
Oscar protested. Paul couldn't quite reach him as he stretched an arm under the bed. When the tips of the cigarette-fouled fingers got too close, Oscar bit them. Finally they pulled the bed away from the wall and grabbed him by the scruff. Dangling unceremoniously, he was dumped flailing into a cardboard box and the top was sealed down with tape.
"Just so he doesn't get lose in the car, dear," Paul said.
The box was carried downstairs and outdoors. Oscar heard the thunk of a car boot as it opened and then as it closed down behind him. The engine started and the car jolted away with him mewing pitifully in the boot. Finally the car stopped and the boot was opened. Oscar smelt grass and cow-dung and the tang of river water.
"This'll get rid of you. Teach you to bite me," growled Paul in a menacing voice.
Suddenly the box was spinning through the air, turning end over end and rattling Oscar like a pea in a drum before it splashed into deep sluggish water. Cold wetness seeped into the box as it sank, soaking Oscar's fur and drowning out noise and smell until all that he knew was the sharp taste of it in his mouth and the underwater muffling of sounds.
The day was bright and sunny, but the sun didn't seem as warm as it should have been on a late summer day. Yawning, Oscar uncurled himself from the river bank, smoothed down the fur on his chest and set off for home. He knew the cow pasture well, in his more active days he had caught mice and voles along the riverbank and watched dragonflies darting and hovering. He felt refreshed and fitter than he had done for years. Of late he had become far too lazy, preferring to doze on the sofa when he should have been chasing butterflies.
He padded steadfastly up the hill, through drifts of buttercups and between the legs of grazing cattle who eyed him with mild bovine curiosity. How fortuitous that the box had drifted this far downstream, he thought. He hopped onto the back fence and tightrope-walked his way along to the back door. The catflap failed to respond to his insistent nudging at first, but finally he squeezed through, like a toothpaste squeezing through a nozzle.
Paul and Ruth had rearranged the furniture to their liking and were sitting watching TV and drinking Heineken. Perhaps he should remind them it was nearly his teatime, thought Oscar. Curiously he didn't feel terribly hungry, even after his long walk. Maybe they'd forgotten that they didn't like him.
"Of course I took it to the shelter," Paul was saying.
"Maybe I ought to phone them and ask if he's okay," Ruth whined, "They did say he wasn't too old to get a new home, didn't they?"
It was clear she was having second thoughts, decided Oscar, maybe they will be glad to see me.
"I'm sure he will," lied Paul, "They said not to worry about phoning though, they're run off their feet so it's best not to hassle them."
Oscar breezed into the living room, tail held high with just a little kink of uncertainty at its tip. Neither Ruth nor Paul noticed him. He went right up to Ruth's leg and patted it to assure her that he was fine.
"Ooh, there's a bit of a draught round here, I can feel it right round my legs. Are you sure you sealed the cat flap up properly?" she asked.
"Yes dear," he replied absentmindedly.
Draught, thought Oscar, scowling. He brushed against her tights.
"Well there's a draught from somewhere and it's absolutely freezing! Can you go and check?"
Paul groaned and stood up. Oscar trotted after him into the kitchen.
"It's completely sealed!" Paul shouted, "So the draught can't be coming from here."
Oscar nosed forwards to have a closer look, brushing against Paul's legs. The cat flap was taped shut with parcel tape. Odd, he thought, I just came in this way.
"There is a draught," groaned Paul, "It must be coming from somewhere," and he brushed a hand against his trouserleg where Oscar was leaning. With a shudder, Oscar realised that Paul's hand was passing through him. The bastard! thought Oscar, realising at last what had happened to him. Then, an expression of malicious glee crossed his invisible features. Ruth and Paul hated cats - let's see how they like having me around for a while. Of course, he badly wanted to join Cecily, but he knew there was plenty of time for reunions later on.
"Are you sure you got rid of that cat?" shrieked Ruth, "There are pawprints on my pastry."
"I absolutely, definitely, certainly got rid of him," Paul shouted back at her.
Oscar began to enjoy his changed status. Doors no longer presented any problem to him. He turned over the cupboards and spilled sugar so that the ants turned up in their hordes. He messed up Ruth's make up and smashed her perfume bottle so that the bedroom reeked, as Paul put it, like a French whorehouse. He knocked over pot plants and scattered dirt around the house. Wineglasses fell to the floor and were smashed, ornaments and vases overturned and broken. He would dearly loved to have peed in their shoes, but ghosts didn't pee as he soon discovered.
"Well we've got a flipping poltergeist then," yelled Ruth during their now frequent rows, "even Oscar would have been less trouble!"
"Well you can't have him back," Paul said sulkily.
There was a long silence, before Ruth suddenly said, "You didn't take him to the shelter did you Paul? What did you do to him?" Another long pause, "Oh my God, you didn't!?"
"Didn't flaming what?"
"That cat the RSPCA were on about in the papers, the one that had been drowned in a cardboard box. That's it - just get your things and get out!"
"What do you mean get out, I live here!" he protested.
"Not anymore you don't. It was MY mother's house and Oscar was her cat. Even if I don't like cats they don't deserve that. Get out you callous bastard," her voice was cold with determination.
With Paul gone, Oscar decided to play a waiting game. Without Paul, Ruth was beginning to sound reasonable and he wondered if it was worth mooching around for a while. However, with her boyfriend gone Ruth discovered that she couldn't afford the house. Without a car she was miles from the supermarket and without Paul's income she couldn't afford the rates, the electricity, the water and the phone bill as well as the weekly shopping. The house went up for sale, and Oscar watched in a smug-but-sad way as Ruth finally moved out. A pity, he thought, without that rotten boyfriend she might even have been a nice person.
A nice family moved into his house with their two children and assorted cats, dog, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamster and goldfish. The cats and dog eyed him curiously before deciding that he was a phenomenon undeserving of further attention. Ah well, decided Oscar, it's about time I went to join Cecily. For a panicky moment he realised he didn't know how to find her.
"Oscar, come here," said a woman's voice, "Now you've been quite a naughty boy over the past few months. Not that I blame you of course, I never understood what Ruth saw in that rotten man of hers. He was a bad influence on her. This family deserves to enjoy the house in peace, so I think it's time you left them to it. It's about time you met my late husband, Horace."
Cecily looked radiant. The careworn wrinkles of her skin had eased and she looked rosy and pink instead of grey and tired. Her hair looked more ash-blonde than white and there was a jauntiness about her manner that oscar had never seen before. She picked him up and cradled him in her arms. For the first time in ages Oscar felt something truly solid and substantial, not the squishy feel of the material world as it appears to phantoms. Cecily was becoming more substantial and the house less so. Finally the sounds of the material world dissolved into a muted whisper and all that either of them could hear was Oscar's deep throbbing purr, the purr of a cat who had finally come home.
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