Not Our Cat by Paul Shacksmyth

I paint the shed a gun metal blue and fix the rotten wooden panels at the base where damp has eaten them. Its dry inside now, and warm. The swing seat my mum wanted assembled, to catch those last few surprising days of sunshine that litter September and October, is stowed away in there for the winter. I sometimes stand in there and breathe in the linseed and sawdust smells. I like the way I can heat it just by breathing. I first see the cat through the shed window.

It spies on Dad as he smokes a cigarette behind the old coal bunker. The last time he smoked he ended up in hospital and ruined everyone’s Christmas. I know about his smoking and have told him if he lands in hospital this time I won’t visit. I don’t tell my mum.  He makes me smell his clothes when he comes in the house, especially on cold days. He smokes e-cigs inside to fool her. His cough has gotten worse, less dry, it reminds me of a damp cave. I can hear him hacking through the walls at night.

The cat gets into the house in all sorts of ways. I’ve seen him scale a sheer brick wall to get to an open window on the first floor. He visits all the houses in the area. His collar says Benji, and that if is he found he must be returned to a house a few doors down. I keep finding him, but I haven’t returned him yet. I call him, ‘Not Our Cat,’ Dad can’t remember his name. He welcomes him with, “Hello mate!”, and insists that cat food is bought even though it is not our cat. Benji usually leaves the food. The kitchen stinks of it and we get flies even in November.

Benji explores the rooms as they are being decluttered. They are rarely used now.  I go in only to sort the accumulation of decades into manageable piles, ready for either the tip or the charity shop.  There’s a set of encyclopaedias from 1973. I It has gold leaf.Not even the YMCA will take it. Its knowledge is out of date and takes up too much space, I am told. My mum asks me to put the whole set in the loft out of the way. The cat mooches around the base of the steps but does not try to climb the ladder. Each week I will take a couple of volumes and hide them under rubbish bags in the bin to be collected until the attic is empty, save for a few flitting bats.

I occasionally see Benji running across the main road in front of the house, weaving between moving traffic like he has a death wish. I guess he is going to the sheltered accommodation where the really old people live. There, he is given trimmed off bacon fat and fresh white fish softened by milk, but I think they can’t let him stay overnight.

I sleep in my childhood bedroom in a double bed I have bought. The warmth next to me is fading. You leave to go to our home, eight miles away, because of an argument about my birthday.

“I don’t want anyone to make a big deal,” I say.

You tell me that I always need to be in control of everything and know how to spoil everyone’s fun. Why can’t I just relax and let people do nice things for me?

The argument spills over from the swing seat in the back garden, where we eat our brie, pate and crackers, and into my parent’s kitchen, so we don’t wash the plates or tidy up. It stalks us silently through toothpaste and pyjamas and whispers to us in the dark as we spoon in bed.

You leave after midnight, thinking I was asleep. Softly closing the bedroom door, nimbly avoiding the creaks on the stairs, but slamming the front door. You text later that you don’t know what you are thinking, and you don’t like it much. Then you text saying you hate the nights I stay at my parent’s house. Then just sorry. You don’t sleep over again.

Benji snuck in when you left and curls up where you laid.

In my old bed, Dad once stretched the duvet over me so that my arms were pinned underneath, then pushed his face close to mine. His acrid beer breath was more articulate than either his tongue or fist.

“This is my house,” he said.

As Christmas draws nearer, Benji tries to secrete himself around the house in the evening to avoid being pushed out into the cold night. I think his owners have abandoned him. Or has he abandoned them? His collar and ‘please return to message’ are gone. He looks gaunt and much older. He appears silently each morning to stare at me through the kitchen window. His bell has disappeared too, so he manages to catch more field mice and young birds. Sometimes all that’s left is a beak or a talon, occasionally a whole mouse head. He used to bring only leaves and twigs. Dad says Benji has adopted us. I’m not sure he has made the right choice; all his usual points of entry are closed, and now it’s only Dad who lets him in when he remembers.

I make slow cooked meals for Dad, the meat tenderising through the daylight hours, fibres losing their elasticity, to be easily tackled by false teeth. The flavours of each stew, rich and earthy, flood through the house in the day. Benji will spend a couple of hours watching the pot hopefully. He never seems angry when he gets nothing from Dad’s plate, but he never seems impressed when I sneak titbits of my meal from the fridge for him.

Dad eats alone, watching the same episodes of an American sitcom from twenty years ago. The TV volume is so loud that it is impossible to have a conversation, but I hear Dad laughing with his mouth full. He’s convinced that this was my favourite programme when I was growing up, but I pretend it wasn’t every time he says so. I decline his invitation to sit down with him, tapping my ears while placing the food on his lap.

The home will sort out the ambulance for Dad. I wonder if the cat will miss him when he leaves, or if Dad will remember the cat.

All the floors are now covered in laminate apart from in the front room.  Dad always holds his oversized cup of tea at an angle and it slops out every time he changes direction.  He now has six sugars in his tea. More if he sees you are distracted. The puddles need to be wiped up straight away or the floor gets so sticky it removes your slipper when you walk on it. Mum cries whenever she sees the stains, but she cries a lot now.

Dad has not gone to bed again and sleeps in the front room on his reclining chair in front of a huge TV. The sound is muted and he wears wireless headphones. There are two sofas, but no one ever sits on them. Normally, nobody else goes in. But Benji is there, curled up on Dad’s lap. His hand is resting lightly, even in sleep, on the cat’s ribcage as though he were caressing something so delicate it could break apart into fine dust with the slightest increase in pressure. Both, with eyes closed, are breathing shallowly in tandem. Benji’s paws gently massage Dad’s thigh as though he were, again, a kitten at his mother’s teat, blind and helpless. Dad’s face is relaxed, free of the taut fault lines caused by his constant tics. His urgent fearful look is gone. In the still dark morning, bathed in the TV’s steel blue light, they both seem much younger than they are.

I watch them for a while and think of you and the kids and then I call the home and cancel the ambulance. I gently remove Dad’s headphones and place them next to him. I leave the door open letting both Dad and Benji sleep, and, even though it’s still very early, I call you.

Paul Shacksmyth is a writer and occasional poet. His latest story, ‘In Belmont’ is included in Tales of Her Past edited by Rodge Glass.