The restaurant was small and busy. Two little Italian guys zipped back and forth between the kitchen and the customers. The tables were rustic and handmade; each one a different size and style than the next but all with red and white checked tablecloths, a lamp, and vase of fresh flowers on each. The place was small and homely like something you would read about it in an Italian travel guide. The far wall had bookcases filled with cook books and paintings of Roman landmarks.
My date was called Jessica. She was a friend of my sisters. She worked at a museum in the city. She was tall and blonde with shampoo advert styled hair that gave her the look of a Fox news anchor.
Jessica and I chatted back and forth until the waiter took our orders. I had carpaccio to start and lasagne for dinner. Jessica had the breaded mushrooms followed by spinach ravioli. She told me was a vegetarian and despised cruelty to animals. The waiter recommended a Rioja so I ordered a bottle. A few minutes later he bought it back and poured two glasses.
‘So what do you like?’ I said. ‘You got any hobbies?
‘Not really,’ she said. ‘My cats take up most of my time.’
‘I like cats,’ I said. ‘More of a dog man though.’
There was a look of genuine concern in her eyes.
‘Just kidding,’ I said. ‘I’m all about the cats.’
She laughed a little. ‘Are you teasing me?’
I held up my hand. ‘Scouts honour.’
‘Hmmm, I hope not. It’s really important that anyone I bring into my life likes cats.’
I raised my glass. ‘Here’s to cats.’
She went on to tell me everything about her cats, Rocky and Jemima. She told me where they were born, their lineage, their temperament, even down to the difference between tomcats and females. The waiter must have thought she was nuts because every time he came to our table she was talking about cats.
Eventually the waiter arrived with our starters.
‘I guess your cats are important to you huh?’
‘They’re everything to me.’
She spent the main course telling me how she nursed her youngest cat for two weeks when it came down with cat-flu. I listened and nodded but all I was thinking about was going home. It had been a long day and any thought of getting it on with Jessica had died. By the time dessert arrived I was answering with two to three words only.
‘I really believe in reincarnation,’ she said. ‘Do you?’
‘Well I do. I’ve definitely been here before.’
‘Not the restaurant,’ she said. ‘I mean here, on Earth.’
‘What were you in your previous life?’ I asked knowing her answer before she said it.
After the meal we caught a taxi back to her house. I planned on dropping her off and heading home. I’d had enough of cats and reincarnations to last this lifetime and several others, but when we got to her place she pinched my thigh and invited me inside. Her expression said the night was not over yet. I paid the driver and we walked up her driveway.
Standing outside her door I shivered as she rummaged through her handbag looking for her keys. The wall-mounted security light bathed her garden in amber light. It was a nice garden with neat bushes and a small pond and a fountain. The sky was clear and cold with a full moon hanging low.
‘They’re in here somewhere,’ she said, rummaging through the bag and smiling apologetically.
I smiled back.
Eventually she found her keys and opened the door, but only enough to poke her head inside.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘Looking for my cats.’
‘I don’t want them to get out.’
‘Are they sick?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘They are house cats.’
She nodded, opened the door and gestured me urgently indoors. Once inside she closed the door quickly. She turned on the hallway light and took off her high-heels. I took off my shoes and placed them on a bamboo shoe rack by the front door. The beige carpet felt thick and spongy under my feet. There were cartoon pictures of cats dressed as famous people on the hallway wall: Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, and one that I did not recognise. Jessica took my coat and hung it on the back of the door and then shouted up the stairs, ‘Jemima… Rocky?’
Seconds later a cat appeared at the top of the stairs. It did not look pleased to see us.
‘Rocky,’ she said. ‘That’s Rocky…my best boy.’
Rocky stared at me. ‘So what’s the deal?’ I said. ‘They stay inside the house?’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘It’s been proven that house cats live longer and if you care for them correctly they can lead normal and happy lives.’
‘Except they can’t go out?’
‘They get everything they need here.’
‘Yeah, but surely cats are born to be outdoors? I can’t imagine someone keeping a lion inside.’
‘Rocky and Jemima are not lions.’
Before I got chance to say something else, another cat appeared next to Rocky. Jess clapped her hands and the cat ran down the stairs. It rubbed its back against her legs. She picked the cat up and stroked behind its ears. I looked up the stairs to the other cat. It sat there watching us like some unimpressed King.
‘So how about that drink?’ Jess said.
In the living-room, Jessica fixed us both a gin and tonic. We sat on the couch and chatted more about her cats. I stifled yawn after yawn and reminded myself that the cat-talk might lead to the bedroom. I emptied the last of the wine from my glass.
‘You want another glass?’ she said. ‘Or something stronger?’
‘What you got?’
She reached under the couch and pulled out a tray that was covered in weed and Rizla papers.
‘You’re a regular Pablo Escobar,’ I said.
She laughed. ‘Purely medicinal.’
Within five minutes she had rolled a spliff and after taking a couple of tokes she passed it to me. I took a couple of tokes. It felt good. The last time I had smoked weed I listened to Johnny Cash over and over until I had mastered the words to a A Boy Named Sue. I told Jess that and she laughed.
‘I love that song,’ she said. ‘Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.’ She made her voice as deep as she could get it.
She was no Johnny Cash but her voice was pretty nice. I saw the shape of her breasts through her blouse. I thought about how to make my move and decided the best way would be a straight forward pass at her. No tricks or cons, just an honest as you like lean-in. I was just about to do it when her Jemima bounded into the living room and jumped up onto Jessica’s lap. I leant over and stroked the cat. It rubbed its head against my hand and I think Jess liked that I was making the effort.
‘She likes you,’ Jess said.
‘She’s cute,’ I said. ‘Like her owner.’
Jess smiled at me. ‘You hear that Miss Jemima? The nice man thinks you are cute, and you know what he is right!’
I felt the weed taking effect on me. The lights became softer and the background music became louder and clearer. The bass separated from the mid and treble ranges and moved horizontally like a person on one of those airport walkways. I slumped into the chair and let the weed buzz come over me while Jess stroked the cat.
The weed had loosened her up. She leant back and told me about a holiday in Budapest where she’d met some famous violinist. She laughed as she told me the story, but all I could think about was the fact that she kept her cats locked inside like some prison-warden.
‘So then he invited me up to his flat which was just out of the city so me and my friends hopped into a cab and we went to his house and partied all —,’
‘ — Don’t they ever go out?’ I said, unable to not talk about her cats anymore.
‘They’re house cats.’
‘Seems a little cruel to me.’
‘And what do you know about cats?’
‘Not much really,’ I said. ‘I loved Top Cat as a kid and then Thundercats.’
Thundercats made me laugh. I thought how terrible that show would have been if the Thundercats had been housecats.
I was stoned.
She didn’t appreciate my Thundercats reference, but rather than change the subject I pushed it a little further and sang an ad-libbed version of the theme tune about them being house cats instead of Thundercats.
‘Thundercats are not on the move, Thundercats are trapped…’
She laughed politely but I could tell she thought I was being weird.
‘Sorry,’ I said. I felt my feet tingle as the weed really took hold. I needed to take a break and regain my composure. ‘Can I use the toilet?’
‘Top of the stairs, first door on the left.’
It took twenty second to work out how to stand up without falling over. And what felt like an eternity to climb the stairs.
In the toilet I sat down to pee and slapped my face a few times to sober up. The weed had taken full effect now. After peeing, I stood up and stared at myself in the cabinet mirror. The cabinet was shaped like a beach hut and was painted in blue and white stripes.
‘Stop being fucking weird,’ I told my reflection. ‘Stop being w-e-i-r-d…w-e-i-r-d.’ I said the word weird over and over until it lost its meaning completely. As I stared at my reflection all sorts of thoughts went through my head. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters, snooker balls, cheese-graters, wine bottles, Muhammed Ali, Thundercats again, aliens, an old French teacher who kept kestrels. I thought about the word kestrel for a few moments and said it to my reflection, putting emphasis on the final syllable. ‘KestREL…kestREL!…kestREL.’ I laughed at the absurdity that was me. I made faces, silly faces, scary faces, funny faces, sad faces, and faces without meaning. I splashed my face with water and wiped my hands on the hand towel that hung next to the sink.
When I opened the bathroom door I was greeted by a pair of glowing green eyes. Rocky the cat stared at me like a gunslinger.
‘Hello boy. Rocky isn’t it?’ I said like some old boy who flew Spitfires in the war.
The cat stared at me so I knelt down and made some psss pass sounds, but it stayed still, staring, unblinking, eyes green.
‘Come here boy,’ I said. ‘Come here Rocky. Come on Rock…you lazy bum!’
It stayed still, head cocked slightly so I left it alone and made my way downstairs.
When I returned to the living room I saw that Jessica was asleep. The simpleton cat slept on her chest pawing gently at her bosoms. I poked her arm. No response. She was flat out. The joint was only half-smoked so I took it from the ashtray and lit it, taking in a large puff of weed. I closed my eyes and danced around the living room for a while. When I finished the spliff I stubbed it in the ashtray and then sat down. I strained my eyes to focus on the wall clock. It was just after three am. I thought about calling a taxi but decided instead on a stoned few hours on Jessica’s arm chair listening to bongo drums, crashing waves, and whale song. As nights go I have had better but it could have been worse.
I put my feet on the poof and closed my eyes. Images drifted in and out of my mind. Cartoons, films, religious figures, shapes, old memories, sharks, oranges, St.Paul’s cathedral… I thought of the Shawshank Redemption but instead of humans the characters were all cats. Byron Hadley was a huge Black tomcat and the character Red was a small ginger tom. Jess’s cat Rocky played the Andy Dufrane character. Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch were replaced by fluffy looking show cats with diamond studded collars. Instead of being brought bottles of Bohemian style beer after tarring the rooftop, the Shawshank cats drank ice cold milk like free cats courtesy of the hardest cat-screw that ever walked the turn at Shawshank State Prison. The cats sat and drank with the sun on their shoulders and even felt like free cats. Hell they could have been tarring the roof on one of their own houses.
I don’t know how long I closed my eyes for, but when I woke up the CD had ended and I had been joined on the chair by Rocky. Jessica was stretched out now with the simpleton cat wrapped around her neck like a scarf. Rocky sat on the arm and stared at me. I blinked a few times to clear my eyes.
‘Hello boy,’ I said.
This cat looked miserable. I don’t know if cats suffer with depression but if they do then this cat was seriously depressed. It’s eyes sagged and when it meowed it felt as if it was saying, ‘just kill me please.’
I stroked its head.
The cat jumped off the chair and walked to the door where it stopped and looked back at me. I stood up and followed it through the hallway to the front door where it stopped and meowed.
‘You want me to let you out?’
The cat purred and rubbed itself against my legs.
‘I can’t let you out,’ I said.
It rubbed itself against my legs, arching its back and meowing.
‘I can’t let you out.’
I felt sorry for the cat and wondered if it had ever been outside. Jessica had told me it was four-years old. I tried to calculate what that would be in cat years but could not remember the exchange rate. The cat rubbed itself more and its meowing became more desperate. Almost as if it was saying, ‘There’s not much time. She’s going to wake up soon….’ I couldn’t help but feel this cat was like Paul Sheldon in Misery.
‘Ok, ok,’ I said. ‘How about I take you out for a look around?’ I picked the cat up and cradled it.
The cat meowed and purred. I opened the door and stepped outside. It was cold and quiet. No traffic, no nothing. Just the Moon, stars, the cat, and me. I walked onto the driveway and the cat became rigid. I patted its head and reassured it.
I looked up at the sky, taking in the stars. The weed connected me to the Universe in a way that I had never experienced before. Each star bore a possibility of extra-terrestrial life. I felt an overwhelming sense of my place in the cosmos and I wanted the cat to share that with me. I felt pretty certain that this must have been how John Denver felt when he wrote the Colorado Rocky Mountain High.
I pointed to the stars. ‘You see how small we are? You see Rocky?’
The cat wriggled so I tightened my grip. I walked towards the fountain, wondering if there were fish in the pond. I wanted the cat to see a real fish just once in its life. Guided by a weed-induced desire to expand this cat’s experience I walked towards the fountain through knee deep grass over uneven ground. The cat wriggled and so I tightened my grip. It was during this split-second lapse of concentration that I tripped. A flash of yellow, then white, then black.
When I woke up I was in a hospital bed with a bandage wrapped around my head. Moments later a nurse walked into the room.
‘Oh well good morning,’ she said. She was African I think. ‘You have had a good sleep.’
‘Where am I?’
‘Saint James’s hospital.’
‘You were brought in last night with a terrible wound to your head,’ she said. ‘You were out for the count!’
‘Who brought me?’
‘An ambulance crew.’ She let go of my wrist. She picked up a folder from a small table next to a window and scanned through it. ‘A lady called Jessica found you unconscious next to her water fountain.’
‘I should call her.’
The nurse shook her head. ‘She said that under no circumstance are you to contact her. Did you two have a row or something?’
I shook my head, hoping the guilt had not made it to my face. What had happened to Rocky? Had he ran back inside the house or was he roaming the streets. I felt sad for Jessica. But then I smiled as I thought of Rocky the cat exploring the world. I reminded myself that cats aren’t meant to be caged. He could live a real life now, away from locked windows and doors day in day out.
‘You should be able to leave this evening,’ the nurse said. ‘The doctor will want to examine you first to make sure there is no concussion.’
I smiled and asked for my phone.
The nurse opened the bedside cupboard door. From it she took out my phone. ‘Please do not use it inside.’
When she left I got up and put on my hospital issue blue dressing-gown. I walked to the main entrance. Outside, people smoked. One man had a cigarette in one hand and a portable drip in the other.
I took out my phone and turned it on. Half a minute later it came to life and began bleeping. In total I had twenty-seven missed calls all from Jessica. She had not left any voice messages but had left three text messages.
The first one was sent at 03.27h. It said, ‘where are you?’ The next message was sent a few minutes later. It said, ‘where the hell are you? The front door is wide open and I can’t find Rocky!’ The final text was sent at 08.37 that morning. It said, ‘I hope you are happy you bastard. I have just scooped up what’s left of Rocky from the road outside my house.’