On Friday morning she pays money she can scarcely afford to have the cat killed. In a small room with her face turned to the window, she looks through the wet glass down at the empty car-park — old tarmac, a Rorschach of jagged puddles shining like mercury beneath the low morning sky, his warm body under her hands, his fur and his familiar heartbeat pulsating rapidly from somewhere inside his small body. The smell of disinfectant. His claws have bunched up the towel and are making a rasping sound on the melamine table surface, he wants to get down but he is being held in place by four heavy human arms. Sedated, old, he soon gives up. The final seconds are ticking away.
Take your time, the vet says and she looks at his thick forearms, dark hair smoothed in one direction as if combed, ugly chrome dive watch on his wrist. In the room with them is a watchful veterinary nurse, a computer on a wooden desk, a plastic unit of cupboards and drawers. She watches the screensaver on the computer, Windows logo bouncing back and forth. I always advise people to be in the room for the procedure, the vet had said. Cats and dogs will often look around for their person at the end. They need us.
I’m about to realise I can’t do this, she thinks, and she turns to the vet and nods, expelling air from her nose.
The plunger goes down, she clenches her teeth hard and looks down at the cat, who is panting and looking back at her, aware that something is wrong. He has always mistrusted the vet’s table and now twelve years of suspicion are being vindicated in the most horrible way possible, they are holding him down and they are destroying him. She is so unbelievably, overwhelmingly sorry. A final betrayal and nothing else, nothing to follow. In that moment she is sorrier than she has ever been for all the other mistakes she has made and all the bad things she has done in her life. I’m so fucking sorry, she says and she starts to cry because of how true it is, she is sorry for this and for everything else too. How can the cat be dying? How can this part of her life be over? She weeps and strokes the cat as the poison flows around his body. The crying seems to originate from an itch deep in her chest, something she wants to rip out.
Keep stroking him, the vet says. You’re doing really well.
The scraping sound again. I love you so much, she says. You’re such a good boy. I’m so sorry.
And then the cat makes a sound she has never heard him make before, a small cry that almost sounds like someone saying Oh? Like a small person. Oh?
The vet puts a stethoscope to his body and nods at the nurse. The nurse offers her tissues, strokes her arm and squeezes her hand. She allows this for a moment, then she turns and wipes her face. I never saw myself at nearly forty, she says to the room, crying over a stray cat who fucking wrecked my flat.
But the vet doesn’t seem to understand the joke. You must let yourself grieve, he says.
She looks down at the dead cat on the table for the last time. The cat was called Yoghurt. A name for a kitten.
Returning to an empty flat because the children are at his place. The bin smells bad. The only thing she can think to do is gather up all of the cat’s belongings, to have them all lying around the flat seems somehow worse. A litany of toys, treats, his backpack-style pet carrier with the little porthole, expensive walk-in litter tray. These aren’t so much his possessions as they are tools for a cat owner, she thinks. These are just things I won’t need any more, that’s all they are. Food pouches in the cupboard, half a bag of clumping litter. She uses the portable hoover to remove wisps of fur from the corners and the skirting boards, but there’s nothing much to be done about the scratches in some of the furniture.
At about midday she makes herself a peanut-butter sandwich by folding over a single slice of bread. She eats it at the kitchen window, gazing at a rectangle of yellow sunlight on the stucco building opposite. She keeps hearing the sound he made.
It’s good the kids aren’t here. The boy in particular is going through a sentimental phase and she does not feel like comforting him. This is hers, this is between her and her twenty-five-year-old self.
Faint suggestion of movement in one of the neighbour's windows. A young couple live in there. At night she can see into their kitchen as if it were stage-lit.
Yoghurt’s gone, she says to herself.
We got old.
I can’t throw his stuff away yet. I’m going to put it in the attic.
Yeah. Are we ok?
I don’t know. It all happened so quickly. All of it, twelve years. Absolutely everything is different now.
Sometimes I just want to go back.
She cleans the litter tray, carefully dismantles it and places it with all the other cat stuff inside a big blue Ikea bag from under the sink, ties the long fabric handles together in a tight knot. It’ll do. From the big cupboard she drags the stepladder, which she carries down the hall, bumping the walls, to open under the barely person-sized hatch that leads to the attic. The boxes and storage bags in there are packed tight and she is forced to take down a suitcase that she’s been meaning to get rid of anyway; she lowers it to the floor and hoists the Ikea bag, hefting it over her head and grunting softly, pushing it over the edge of the hatch and backwards, at the limit of her reach. It sags, hanging halfway out of the opening, but she is able to push it aside and replace the wooden slat.
Inside the suitcase is a time-capsule of old clothes, barely worn cheap things from nights out, old jeans, tired jumpers. She’s about to zip it up and put it by the door when she notices a man’s wool coat, dark green, herringbone, worn shiny at the cuffs and the elbows. For a moment she entertains the idea that this thing could have been planted here by someone else, because she has no memory of keeping it and the timing seems too perfect. She lifts it to her face and puts her nose in it. My god it still smells like him. How strange that she should find this now rather than say, a year ago. Or any time. She holds it up to examine it, flips it open. Some blue fabric stuffed into the deep interior pocket, peeking out like a ruffled pocket square.
He locks his bike up outside the pub, next to a sapling with spring buds on the waxy young branches. His hair and face are damp and cold, his body warm under his clothes, sweat in his armpits and the dip of his spine. Evening is closing in and the street is unusually quiet, across the narrow road an amber-lit restaurant with tall windowpanes, full of diners and waitstaff brisking to and fro. He takes a moment to cool down, wanting a cigarette. There is a spotlight pointed at this pub that followed her here and he is about to step into it for the first time in three years. His heart doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
At the bar, thinking of his stomach, he intends to order a gin and diet tonic or a whisky soda, but when the barwoman looks at him he finds himself ordering a pint. He watches the glass fill and texts her: I’m here.
She is sitting at one of the outdoor wooden banquettes under the red light of the overhead heater with a pint of Guinness in front of her, smoking a cigarette, eyes down on an open book and as he walks over he is embarrassed by how infatuated he is. His personal demiurge awaiting him in her softly rose-glowing tabernacle. A mirage.
In what seems like no time there are three cigarette butts in the ashtray and rings of foam all the way down their glasses. When he first sat down he was actually trembling slightly and she experienced a little burst of erotic euphoria and anticipation. Now her cheeks feel tight from laughing. They have been sparing with the details of their day to day lives. The wonderful sensation of alcohol softening her thoughts. It could be any time from then to now. He stands, asks her what she would like from the bar.
No, she says, shuffling around the far side of the table. Let me go.
And as she picks up the empty glasses she turns her body towards him, smiling. Notice anything? You haven’t noticed yet.
He drains the last of his beer. Your hair is shorter, he says. I was going to say I really like it.
She laughs. You dickhead. No. Thank you, but no. Look.
She tugs at her lapels and moves her shoulders. Wait, he says. My coat?
I found it yesterday.
You found it?
She shrugs. For some reason it was in with some of my old clothes. I have no idea how.
He frowns and touches his mouth.
God when I first saw you in this I thought you were the most beautiful man I had ever seen in person.
He nods, too distracted to enjoy the compliment. It is now clear how much their memories differ regarding this coat and probably a lot of other things. This heavy greatcoat, the rightful possession of someone wealthy and sophisticated and white, that he had half-stolen from a party full of strangers in a basement flat sometime in twenty-eleven. A friend had brought him along and everyone was very nice, rich kids on MDMA. People trying clothes on in one of the large bedrooms, cocaine lined up on a MacBook Pro. Someone had wrapped him in the coat and he could tell from the weight and the smell of it that was expensive, possibly more so than anything he had worn before. Hugo Boss label still half-stitched into the lining. Oh he looks dashing doesn’t he, one of them had called from the bed. A girl with curly blonde hair and winesour breath stroked the lapels. This used to be my grandad’s, she said, and then she was suddenly excited: Keep it! She tapped him rapidly on the forearm. You look great! It’s too big for me, I look stupid in it, you should totally keep it!
And he had pretended to take that on face value, had left wearing it with his bomber jacket stuffed into a stray bag- for-life in the early hours of the morning. It was a beautiful coat. He was twenty-four and it would be a long time before he could afford to buy anything like it — a man’s coat, worth more than two weeks’ worth of shifts. A kid playing dress-up, he walked around that autumn and winter with a roll-up between his fingers, a paperback stuffed into the breast pocket, feeling so good that he was still wearing it deep into the springtime of twenty-twelve, which is when they first met, through mutual friends.
By disposition they were both generally sad and therefore funny people, loud introverts who hid behind diversionary jokes, conducting conversations at all times as if there was a fourth wall to be broken. When they met at a pub gathering they found they were able to carry on a long interaction without either of them feeling embarrassed or bored, which meant that after some alcohol and weed they became very interested in each other. The plan at the time was for her to leave the country that autumn and they spent a lot of time together that summer. Because he betrayed no sexual or romantic expectations she began to like and then want him.
She was a good-looking young woman who had turned good-looking when she was too young to predict or understand the way that adults would treat her for it. Men had transformed overnight, men she knew and men she didn’t. It was quickly obvious how easy it was for her to unwittingly attract the wrong sort of attention from a very unpleasant type of person, but it was not as easy to spot the unpleasant people because they were often performatively nice to her.
Soon enough, she hit upon teasing as a way to demonstrate that she was capable of observing people, a reminder that she was in fact gazing back at them. And people who felt observed would often respond by exposing much more of themselves, even if involuntarily.
It worked especially well with men. If a man had a fragile ego, a quick temper or a silent contempt for women, it would show. These traits were dismayingly common, she found. Many of the men were older, most of them felt very entitled to a sense of intellectual superiority, especially over a black woman. Even the ones who talked with apparent earnestness about feminism and art and leftism. They expected a relatively straightforward transaction to take place and the teasing, however gentle, would quickly make them defensive, even angry. This was how she learned to be funny and also how she accidentally developed a habit of mocking those she loved and admired. It caused problems. You say things that are supposed to be jokes, a friend once said. But they’re not really jokes, are they?
It’s affectionate, she had replied.
The friend had drained her coffee and given a distant headshake. Maybe if I was as pretty as you, I’d be brave enough to be mean too.
God, that had made her cry. She couldn’t even remember what she had said wrong, but she was so sorry. The texts she sent went unanswered.
Anyway. At some point, they were both present at someone- or-other’s birthday picnic, a dozen or so of them lounging in the low sun over a London park, the smell of cut grass and weed smoke, tinny jazz from a Bluetooth speaker. Feeling happy, half-drunk and vaguely aroused, she had put his coat on and caught his eye, silently mimicking a man smoking with a self-serious expression on his face from behind an invisible book. She was in fact asking to be let in, underneath his outdoor clothes. Let’s drop the act. Let’s fuck, maybe.
And when he had crawled over to poke her in the ribs she had giggled with her tongue between her teeth, tried to physically hold him at bay, said something about the coat and the fags and the old books and the long hair and his carefully timed silences. At one point their faces were very close and they could easily have kissed and the course of their lives would probably have been dramatically altered. Among other things, people who exist now would never have existed. Maybe entirely different people would exist. Maybe those people would have parents who still loved each other. It is not possible to know.
But the coat phase ended that day. Unbeknownst to her, he took her opinions very, very seriously and while she had made fun of him before and he had liked it, this time it hit home because she was right — it was not really his coat. He was not good at reading people and was not an optimistic person, so he was far readier to believe she found him endearingly ridiculous rather than attractive. He would learn otherwise, but nevertheless to this day his memory was that he had embarrassed himself with the coat and the beard and the pocket editions and the bullshit. He is also very surprised she does not remember how she came to possess the coat, because it was that very evening, after the park had turned suddenly quite brisk and she, still wearing it, had done up the buttons and wrapped her arms around herself that he, also drunk and tired, had hugged her and told her to keep it. The cold had made her unhappy and she didn’t say anything, only rested her forehead and then her cheek on his neck for a lingering moment. To him that had always seemed like a significant event, but now he knows he was probably wrong about that. Definitely wrong, because she had forgotten all about it.
Then the summer was over. There was another city in Europe that her father was from and she knew it less well, so she thought it might be a fairer place than London. She lived and worked there and her frequent thoughts about the city she had left behind always led back to him. And he was briefly very, very lovesick. Later, there was just enough time for something approaching a romance to be conducted over emails and messages and photographs before they met other people.
It is late and they are quite drunk, still talking and laughing in their own fashion, which has not changed. The pub garden has emptied and during a pause in conversation she looks around and then at him, narrowing her eyes.
What? he says.
You. You’re a very lucky guy, she says, smiling, wagging a finger. Her movements and expressions have become syrupy and while they are looking at each other he finds himself having to suppress a burst of exultant, near- maniacal laughter. He drinks some more beer to stop this feeling from fading. Moments later she wiggles her eyebrows at him, moves aside the coat and lifts her jumper to above her belly button, revealing sheer blue fabric beneath. He can feel how absurd the look on his face must be and she throws her head back and laughs. I can see you remember this, she says, leaning heavily on the table and raising a whisky glass to her smirking mouth.
He seems lost in thought for a moment. Yes, he says. I remember it.
It was in the coat pocket. I can’t believe it still fits, but it does. Kinda.
But he just nods, and she begins to feel embarrassed.
By late twenty-fourteen she was over there with her flatshare and her cat and her new boyfriend who of course happened to be English and he was doing his godawful postgraduate year. The atmosphere between them during that time had eventually built to this: a text conversation, which he remembered verbatim, about how racism manifested differently in their respective cities.
It’s more aggressive here, she had said. There are fewer black people, a lot fewer mixed people. Once an old woman crossed the road to tell me that I should go back to where I came from. Like it was a totally reasonable piece of advice.
Yeah, he had said. That’s unlikely to happen here. I don’t think I could deal with that, I couldn’t live with it.
You couldn’t live here?
I would find it hard if that sort of thing happened a lot.
About an hour later she had sent him an image of herself wearing lingerie: a blue silk one-piece, taken with her front-facing camera. The orange light of her bedroom, the contours of her body, the dark of her nipples and pubic hair showing through the fabric. Look what I bought. Would you move here for this?
Oh my god yes, he had said. But obviously he had not.
And he would not go two weeks from that day on without guiltily opening that image to stare at it. Even, to his great shame, during his short marriage. Seeing it now feels like being presented with evidence of a crime he has committed.
She is sipping her drink and tugging awkwardly at the hem of her jumper. He still does not know what to say, so he sips his drink also. Yeah, he says. Wow.
She looks away with a rueful smile. Wow, she says.
The bell rings and he buys the final round, returns to the table. As he reaches across her to turn on the heater she grabs his arm and squeezes his bicep. Wow, she says sarcastically.
He grins. Fuck you.
Then the pub is closing and they are standing on the street. They have both got themselves good and drunk and he, feeling excited and carefree for once, passionately does not want to stop drinking. Shall we find somewhere that’s still open? he says.
She doesn’t answer, instead taking his hand and looking into his face searchingly, teetering. Can we clear something up?
When I showed you what I’ve got on under here, your face didn’t even move. So.
I’m sorry, he says, not knowing what else to say.
I get it, she says. It’s weird.
No, he says. No. It’s just that you nearly gave me a heart attack.
She rolls her eyes and runs a hand through her hair, suppressing a smile.
You’re very hot, he says. It scares me sometimes.
She is laughing again now. It scares you?
Yeah. Like a level of attraction that feels dangerous.
Is that a compliment?
Do you want a compliment?
Yeah from me.
I’m not sure.
You, he says, moving back into her personal space, his head swimming. You. Listen to me, you are frighteningly perfect. He gestures to the air around her, as if tracing the edges of her aura. Your attractiveness is so powerful that it is practically an elemental force.
Rubbing her eyebrow, she pretends to find this embarrassing. He looks away down the street and then looks back, speaking with hushed urgency now: I look at you and feel the things someone feels when they look at something beautiful that could destroy them effortlessly, he says. Like a volcano or a storm forming out to sea. Small, awed, insignificant. I would let you fucking kill me.
She cackles and shakes his arm. Okay. Enough.
Stop grabbing at me, he says. You’ve been groping me all evening. Get off.
And then she flattens herself against him and slips her hand inside his jacket, rests it on his lower back, kisses his cheek slowly and then his mouth, gently places the open palm of her free hand on his groin.
Oh my god, she whispers. That’s disgusting. He laughs.
Don’t laugh! You’ve ruined this.
He leaves his bike where it is without a second thought. On the way back to her flat he ducks into an off-licence and uses his debit card to buy two dusty bottles of what the labels promise are champagne.
She has tidied very thoroughly, most of the toys have been removed from the living room. Faded aromas of perfume and incense. From a padlocked makeup bag in a high cupboard she retrieves an ancient gram of cocaine. I didn’t miss this stuff at all, she says, cutting lines on a paperback. They drink the warm champagne from dishwasher-clouded highballs and kiss. Then she puts a Bobby Caldwell LP on the turntable, removes her outer clothes and puts the coat on over the lingerie. This he watches from the sofa, head fizzing, pouring more wine as she performs some sort of drunken joke-dance with her hands in the pockets.
Time passes, they talk and they kiss and they run their fingertips on each other. His shirt comes off. The coat is removed. She takes her arms out of the shoulder straps and the silk slips down to her waist. She whispers something in his ear, kisses his neck and when he closes his eyes he feels slightly dizzy.
When the record begins to skip, he gets up and fixes it and then looks at some of the photos she has arranged on the bookshelf. The kids. The cat.
Is Yoghurt out? he asks. I was kind of excited to see him.
Oh. Yoghurt is dead.
Oh no! When?
Yesterday? God, what was wrong with him?
She shakes her head and touches her forehead as if recalling a distant memory. The insurance didn’t want to cover the medication and the check-ups, she says. I just don’t have the money.
How much was it?
She considers the question for a moment before telling him and he does not sense the danger. Oh god, he says. You should have called me, I would have paid.
There is a horrible moment now, looking at her from the far side of the room, thinking muddily through the booze and the drugs, when he slowly realises how serious a mistake he has made. But it is very hard to pinpoint exactly how it has happened and how it can be fixed. She pulls her shoulder straps up and adjusts the fabric on her chest.
You’d have paid.
You’d have paid for my cat. That you haven’t even been in the same room as.
No, no, no. No. Sorry. I would’ve been… I would’ve helped out. You know I’m — I’d — you know that if you need —
— Okay so you’re telling me that I had my cat killed for no reason? I should’ve dropped you a DM and just asked for a monthly bank transfer. I must be so stupid not to have thought of that!
Things are moving much too fast. Helpless, he holds his hands up and gives a little laugh, which does not help at all.
I mean. No. No, of course not. Fuck, that was stupid.
Yeah. Take it back.
What? she says mockingly. Wot? I’m a man and that’s all I can say! Wot? Wot? Wot?
She slams back an inch of warm champagne. From somewhere she has produced a cigarette, which she points at him. Take back what you said about paying. Say that you wouldn’t have paid.
But he is still several stages behind, caught up in trying to justify himself. His addled brain believes it is still possible to clarify his statement and satisfy her. He watches her light the cigarette and opens his mouth to speak, hesitates. The insane truth is that yes, he would have paid in a heartbeat.
I mean, if you had called I would have, that’s what I meant. But obviously there’s like… the thing of… I wouldn’t have been able to say no. So you’re right, it would have been awkward, it would have gone on and on and it would have forced us into some sort of financially committed relationship by proxy or something…? Ugh I don’t know, it was stupid. I’m sorry.
Look at me. You are being so fucking stupid right now. Just look at me and say you wouldn’t have paid. Say you were talking shit, that’s all you need to say.
He is still standing on the wrong side of the room, shirtless, increasingly aware of the cold. I wouldn’t have paid, he says. I was talking shit.
Her shoulders drop. Yeah. You wouldn’t have. I didn’t kill my cat for no reason — she pours out the dregs of the bottle — and I don’t need you to write me cheques. We barely fucking know each other anymore.
No. I’m sorry.
His intoxication enters a new phase now. He feels lost, tired and very, very sad. Wordlessly he goes into the bathroom, urinates, wets his face. His stomach bubbling and twisting. Not now, you bastard. You drank beer, you should’ve eaten something. He looks at his reflection. Sagging face, old. Sober up you auld fuck, he thinks. Sober up. Sober up.
When he goes back into the living room she is wearing a sweatshirt, resting on her elbows and smoking what must be a second cigarette out of the window. In a gentle voice she says Sorry, I got cold.
No, no. Of course.
She offers him the cigarette and he takes it from her. The sky seems to be getting lighter. His mouth is dry and he wants water. He pulls on the cigarette.
I was mean, she says. I’m just so tired and pissed off these days. I shouldn’t drink. I’m a dick.
It’s okay, you weren’t a dick. It was a really stupid thing to say.
She nods and gestures for the cigarette back. He was old, she says, taking the final puff and crushing it on the windowsill. Her features are drawn, eyes heavy-looking.
If you knocked over a piece of art in a museum, he thinks, it would probably feel a lot like this feels.
She closes the window, yawns, paws at her eyes, stretches the skin on her cheeks. Cats die, she says. Don’t they? Cats die.
Definite morninglight catching now on the edges of the furniture and around the gaps in the curtains.
Yeah, he says. They do. Cats die.
Peter Arkley Bloxham is a writer and photographer from London.