In so far as Pete loved anything, he loved that cat.
That was because it was the only creature in the world worse-tempered than he was, his sister, Marie, said.
It didn’t belong to him, or, properly speaking, to anyone; it was a feral thing, scavenging in the general neighbourhood. It lurked grudgingly round the doorways of those who fed it, but wouldn’t go in.
It didn’t like Pete better than anyone else. When he put food out, it waited until he had retreated before approaching, hissing if he moved towards it. Then it stepped forward warily, ears back. It approached the food from the side, sniffing it as though it might be poisoned, then bolted it down with a concentrated intensity, head bobbing in an aggressive motion as its jaws moved. As soon as the food was finished, it disappeared, silent as a shadow, to some other poor mug it had conned into buying it food, his sister said.
Pete called it Monty, after a cat he’d known as a child.
If he encouraged Monty to approach the cat would turn on him a glare of absolute hostility and disappear without even touching his food.
‘It’s not grateful, you know,’ Marie said. ‘Cats don’t know what gratitude is. Like some humans,’ she said, giving him a look.
Pete suspected Monty had seen the world for what it was and wasn’t impressed.
He had taken to looking out for him in the intervals between his carers’ visits, and always brightened if he saw his stumpy tail (car accident), torn ear (fighting) and uneven mouth (bad teeth).
‘Looks like a gargoyle,’ Marie said. Certainly Monty couldn’t be accused of being a pretty cat, but on the rare occasions when he seemed to relax on some distant wall, eyes narrowing to slits and his wedge-shaped face settling into an uneasy repose, it was possible to see he might once have been handsome.
‘You shouldn’t be handling pets,’ Marie said.
‘He isn’t a pet,’ Pete said, still watching Monty, who was apparently asleep on the shed roof. His eyes never completely closed, his tail twitched.
‘What if he scratches you?’ she said. Pete said nothing.
‘You shouldn’t be bothering with him in your condition.’
‘I shouldn’t be bothering with anything,’ Pete said, ‘in my condition.’ He went back in.
‘You should be bothering,’ Marie said, ‘with the state of this flat.’
Plates of half-eaten food shoved partly under the bed, unwashed clothing scattered over the surfaces, a layer of unspeakable grime on the cooker.
‘I like it like this,’ Pete said. Marie shook her head.
‘I don’t know why I bother,’ she said.
‘You don’t have to,’ said Pete.
‘You’re my brother.’
Marie sighed. There was a quiver in the sigh but she turned away so that Pete wouldn’t see her getting emotional.
‘Let me clear the bed at least.’
‘You can’t even lie down on it -’
He was looking at her with the kind of unremitting hostility worthy of the cat. For a moment Marie stood still, then she shook her head, fastened her coat, picked up her bag, and left, stepping carefully through the garbage on the floor.
Pete started to make himself a cup of tea, but the only available mug had dregs in it, with a cigarette stub bobbing about in them and a layer of floating mould. He took it to the back door to empty it. Monty had gone.
Soon his social care worker would arrive. A different one, maybe, since he’d told the last one to fuck off and get her kicks out of feeling superior to someone else. Finally offended, she’d left.
Good, he’d thought. She’d deserved it. Not like Marie.
He didn’t know why Marie still came around. She had her own family to deal with, and they weren’t speaking to him at all. When they were kids he’d always looked after her. But once their parents had died something had changed. She seemed to have decided she was his mother. She brooded round him obsessively, couldn’t seem to give him up. He found it almost as oppressive as his illness.
Which reminded him; he was supposed to take his medication.
His bathroom cabinet was entirely full of pills. Drugs to thin his blood and clot it again, to raise his blood sugar and lower it, to regulate his blood pressure, temperature, breathing, to help him sleep or wake him up, to correct his vision and restore his memory…
He picked up the first packet, stared at it then carried it through to where a calendar was nailed to the wall. All the dates were numbered on the drugs packet. According to this he hadn’t taken them yesterday.
But he couldn’t be sure what day it was.
There it was again, the fear, making his hands shake, his vision blur.
No matter how often he told himself his life wasn’t worth living, he was still stupidly, stubbornly afraid of death.
Right now he was afraid because he couldn’t remember.
After a moment he began rummaging through the clutter on his bed. He was looking for his book.
Recently he’d been keeping a diary, to try to counteract the gaps in his memory. He wrote down when he’d seen Monty, or if he’d watched something interesting on tv. And when he’d taken his pills.
But he couldn’t find the book.
Sometimes he felt as though something was eating holes in his brain.
Why had Marie left? She’d have helped him to find it.
Any minute now his social worker would arrive, then his mental health worker, then his nurse. He had an impressive team of carers and wanted none of them.
Why couldn’t they all leave him alone?
He’d forgotten what he was looking for. He wandered into the back garden for some air. There was Monty again, glowering at him with those yellow eyes from the lower branch of his neighbour’s tree.
‘Good boy,’ Pete breathed. He looked back towards his kitchen – surely he had a bit of chicken somewhere?
When he looked back Monty’s tattered rump was disappearing over the fence.
Monty knew him.
And he wouldn’t come near.
In the night he woke up sweating.
He pushed back the clothes, pulled off his t-shirt. He was drenched.
Dressed only in his shorts he stepped into the kitchen intending to open the back door, and narrowly avoided a small rope of shit on the floor.
He stared at it, uncomprehending. Monty, he thought.
But he never came in.
He must have come in while Pete was asleep.
The bathroom window. He always left the small pane open at the top.
But Monty never went inside anyone’s flat.
Pete opened the back door to see if he was still around. ‘Monty!’ he called softly, because the greenish light on his clock told him it was 3 am. ‘Monty.’
Nothing, of course. The cat didn’t even know it was called Monty.
Even so, he couldn’t help it, he called again. And this time he thought he heard an answering yowl.
Pete found his slippers – the ones Marie had bought him, naturally; he wouldn’t buy any for himself. He got a torch from the kitchen drawer – he had bought that himself after a power cut. Then he went back into the garden, calling repeatedly, following the intermittent sound of the yowl.
That bastard Neville, three doors along, had rigged up some barbed wire into a trap, and Monty was caught in it, twisted horribly. It had torn a gash in his leg.
Pete swore fluently. His first thought was to bang on Neville’s door then batter him when he answered it, but there wasn’t time. Monty was still trying to twist out of the trap, making it much worse.
‘Stay there,’ he said, stupidly. ‘don’t move.’ And he ran back to his flat to look for wire cutters. He knew he had some. He just had to remember where.
Fifteen minutes of fierce struggle later the cat was free, streaking away from him on his three undamaged legs. Pete sat back on his heels, sucking the back of his hand. Blood ran down his wrist; either the cat had scratched him or the barbed wire or both. Or maybe it was Monty’s blood. He stopped sucking.
Unsteadily he got up. He felt dizzy, ill. Just the stress. The night air was chilly. He made his way back to his kitchen.
It stank of cigarettes, coffee, bins. And the peculiarly acrid smell of his own sweat, which had a chemical tinge because of all the drugs. He left the door open in case Monty returned.
Hopefully the speed at which the cat had left meant that he wasn’t too badly hurt. Pete, however, was ripped from his finger to his wrist. There was another deep gash on the pad of his thumb and a third one on his lower arm.
Probably he should bathe them with something. He stared round his kitchen at a loss. Marie would know what to do.
He could hardly phone Marie at this time. Besides, she’d have him in an ambulance.
He assembled what he could find; a basin, paper towels, salt. No TCP, so he added a minute quantity of bleach. Probably not the right thing, but still. He dampened the paper towels and pressed them to his wounds. The flesh was already inflamed, tightening. Probably he should inject himself with something, but he didn’t know what.
Who knew what diseases Monty had?
He was surprised at how calm he felt, how clear his head was. He threw away one bloodied set of towels, then carried the basin to the table and sat down, pressing more damp paper to his arm.
Eight years ago he’d had everything. A flat in London, a career, a partner, Kieran, who was the one man he’d ever wanted to wake up with. All the others – he couldn’t get away from them fast enough.
Then Kieran had left him, and he’d discovered he had the virus. Not from all the years of sleeping around, but from Kieran, who’d apparently carried on screwing around while they were together.
He’d confronted him of course, and Kieran had denied it; said Pete must have been playing away himself. But Pete knew. He knew.
And then for a long time he didn’t know anything. He forgot to dress, or eat, where he lived, how to behave. He’d woken up one day in hospital, and from there was transferred to a secure unit. He wasn’t dying, they told him, but part of his brain was. Korsakov’s. The chances of him being released were slim.
But he was released, partly through the efforts of Marie, and Kim, his social worker, and partly because he’d been so unpleasant. He was too anti-social to live in a communal situation, his report said. While not physically dangerous himself, he’d more than once provoked one of the other residents into acts of violence against him, which was risky, given his condition. He was a risk to himself, indirectly, therefore, and injurious to the psychological well-being and progress of others. He was injurious to them! He still had a mark on his face from where Wendy had thrown, not just her coffee, but the whole cup at him.
So Marie got Kim on board and they had mithered the council until they’d offered him a flat. Which was a good flat, as Marie told him, ground floor, with a garden; not too far away so she could visit.
‘You don’t have to thank me,’ she’d said, because he hadn’t, not even when she’d helped him move in.
It was no different, not really. He was still under close surveillance – they still monitored his every bloody move. His health care worker would freak out when she saw his hand.
But he had a space to himself, and real neighbours, and shops. He could go out when he liked. And there was Monty.
He could hear something now, scrabbling about outside. He went to the back door, holding his hand which was now swollen and starting to throb. He shone the torch out and it caught the reflective glow of yellow eyes.
‘Monty,’ Pete breathed. Monty stood perfectly still, poised for flight. Pete stepped backwards, Monty stayed where he was. He could stay put for minutes at a time, Pete knew, but he didn’t close the door. He stepped back again.
Then the unexpected thing happened. With supreme caution, Monty approached the door. Pete held his breath. Monty looked inside.
Pete resisted the impulse to say anything, to step towards him. Monty stood in the doorway, half in and half out of Pete’s kitchen. After a moment, Pete turned and went into his lounge. And Monty trotted past him, limping, and sat on the arm of his settee.
Pete went to the other end of the settee and carefully lowered himself onto it. He’d never been so close to the cat before. He could see the torn ear, the damaged eye (one lid partly closed). He could see how large the pupil was in the good eye, how he had lost some of his whiskers. Monty’s fur was patchy, his tail twitched. Pete remained absolutely still.
His hand was really painful now, he should call someone. But he didn’t want Monty to leave. He would have liked to pick him up and comfort him but knew it was out of the question. So they remained there unmoving, man and cat, mangy, truculent, maimed.
Those old yellow eyes, staring at him.
First published in Confingo Magazine