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brown seashell - ornamental icon The Scent of Loneliness

The Scent of Loneliness

“I don’t even like cats,” the old man told the black kitten that huddled between the garbage bins in the cul-de-sac behind his local. He had spent at least five minutes standing in the rain and staring at the little animal. And the kitten had stared right back at him. Unflinching, unmoving, it had simply looked at the old man with green eyes that were much too large for the tiny black triangle of fur and whiskers.

“And you are ugly,” he added. This was true; the kitten that cowered between rubbish and the crates with empty bottles was not pretty. In fact, it was the rattiest specimen of the feline race that the old man had ever laid eyes on. Huge, bat like ears, matted fur that spiked like a moth-eaten glove of fox fur into all directions. Without doubt the kitten was home to legions of fleas and battalions of worms. And it was tiny, barely larger than the rusty can of tomato soup it crouched next to.

“My daughter is allergic to cats,” he continued. His voice was a little hoarse. His coat had seen better days. The daughter in question lived and worked in Brussels; her career was going splendidly, but that was also the very reason she seldom had time to visit.

The kitten did not even blink. It was raining harder by the minute. With the wet fur clinging tighter to its body, the kitten seemed to shrink to the size of a large rodent.

“And my grandchildren. They would grab your tail and yank it hard. They are three, four and seven years old. They have a dog. They don’t know about cats,” the old man explained. But his grandchildren were also in America. His son had emigrated seventeen years ago. It had been a splendid opportunity for a young computer specialist. An opportunity that he could not begrudge his talented son. He had been there for the wedding, of course. But with three children so close together in age, a visit to France had to be carefully planned. And when his wife had died… how could he expect that his grandchildren meet their distant grandfather next to the coffin for the first time? To have his son at his side at all had been a great comfort.

“So, you see, there is really no room for a cat in my life,” the old man finished. But he did not move. The kitten did not move either. It just looked at the man. The rain kept falling.

Suddenly the man knelt down and held his hand out to the little animal.

***

He did not have a lot of experience with people. And the experience he did have, had not been particularly pleasant. It consisted mainly of being dropped near the very same garbage bins where he was crouching now and being kicked at and chased away, when he had tried to enter the pub’s kitchen in search of warmth and food. He could not understand a word of what that human was telling him. Except that the voice was old and tired, and that it sounded as if it had not been really used for talking for quite some time.

When the old man suddenly knelt down in the puddle in front of him and then reached out for him, he felt as if his heart would stop. Had his fur not been so heavy with rain, he would have ruffled his pelt like the panther he ought to be and his tail would have come up bristled like a bottle brush. But, hungry, cold, and very wet as he was, his tail slunk under his starved belly and he only crouched lower into the shadow of the rusty can of tomato soup. Behind him was a crate of empty bottles. To his right was a garbage bin looming in ominous shadows. He could not back away any further. But, just when he had decided to try and catapult out of the danger zone, the hand stayed its advance.

This hand. Just a few inches away from his nose. It was an old hand. That much, at least, he knew about humans. Wrinkles and spots and thick veins – this was an old human. An old man, who smelled of loneliness and fish. He recognized the scent of loneliness, because that same smell clung to the spikes of his own matted fur, along with the excrements of his numerous fleas. He preferred the fragrance of fish. Cautiously he moved forwards and butted his small triangular head against the old hand.

***

“This,” the old man said, “is a leash.”

It was a dangly bit of red leather that smelled rather obnoxious to his sensitive nose. By now his knowledge of the human language had increased to the point that he even understood the female two floors below them and her ongoing arguments with her mate. Not that he understood the arguments as such – what was wrong about having more than one female, he wondered. When the urge came to follow the cats and sing to them, this urge was followed. As often as possible. That was very simple. Why were these things so difficult to understand for human beings?

He narrowed his eyes and swished his tail. Fleas and worms were a thing of the distant past. He was a tomcat in his best years now. He was huge. His fur was glossy. His tail was thick and strong as black snake. He coiled and uncoiled his tail in a show of formidable French temper. He was a French cat and he had the character to go with that heritage. He swatted at the dangling leash quite languidly, but caught it expertly and with no visible exertion.

“If you want to go out with me,” the man announced in an unusually firm voice, “you have to wear this. They don’t allow animals without proper leashes and girdles in pubs around here.” He paused. “Quite uncivilized, really,” he muttered. The cat stared at him. What was the meaning of civilization to him? But the way the old man said “pubs” made him hesitate to use his claws against the dangling leather and the hand that held it – it was the way the old man said “fish” and “whisky”.

He soon discovered that pubs were very well worth the discomfort of this dangly bit of red leather that his human liked to call a “leash”. There was fish to be had in pubs. And cream on saucers. There were admiring looks to be garnered and tender touches to be received, like a king receives the homage he knows is his due. And he did not mind the benefits of walks around the quartier either. He was allowed to sniff the garbage bins as long as he wanted or to sit in front of a gully for an hour, his tail in agitated motion at the scent of rats down below. Riding on his human’s shoulders afforded him a view of nests and windows, of delicate Siamese beauties and of sparrows he would have liked to taste. He could endure the constraining pressure of the leather around his chest for that luxury. He also did not miss the curious and admiring looks that followed the old man’s steps whenever he rode on his shoulders. He was a cat. Of course he was vain.

***

“Name?” the old man frowned at the question as he always did. “I think he has a name. Of course he has a name. He’s a very dominant personality, you know. But, you see, I think although he understands me perfectly, I am old. Foreign languages – well, that’s never been my strength really. Why don’t you ask him for his name?”

As always, the all too curious were taken aback. Discomfited. They looked at the man. They looked at him. Not sure how to react, they moved back, muttering flustered compliments, sometimes pressing a note into the old man’s hand that would buy a whisky and another bit of fish. Not that they needed it; the cat knew by now that the old man had worked all his life and that his pension was quite comfortable, especially since his wife had died, who had not had a job but stayed at home, to raise the son who was in America and that daughter who was in Brussels.

***

And the daughter who was in Brussels. He did not like the phone. Mainly, because it disturbed his slumber at awkward times and because the man did not like it either. Also, because his sensitive hearing did not allow him to ignore either side of the conversation. Why did humans always have to talk and breathe quite so loudly?

“Hi Papa, I’m so glad that I got hold of you right away. Guess what?” The bright female voice is positively burbling. The old man needed a moment to react to this voice, to the intensity of emotion suddenly raining down on him, leaving him drenched and helpless.

“Yes? Hello? Oh, my dear! How good to hear your voice! What happened?”
There was an envelope on the table. He did not understand the man’s obsession with paper. Paper between hard bits, no fun at all, a soft rustling sound throughout the evenings, sometimes all through the night. And then, the softer bits of paper, arriving every other day. Most of them were discarded and he was allowed to shred them to soft, whispering pieces with his gleaming claws. But some, some were kept. Like this one. A creamy, rectangular object. A few glistening dark, translucent leaves. A sheaf of white paper that smelled eerily clean at first and now smelled only of the man’s hands, leafing through them, over and over again.

“I get promoted! A wonderful opportunity! But I have to go away for half a year! To Africa! Can you imagine the adventure?”
The old man’s fingers curled around the envelope. A rectangular piece of paper, soft and silky with being handled too often, with being picked up, weighed, put down. Picked up, almost discarded, put down again.

“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” the old man said.
But the cat heard something else in his voice. Unspoken words. But… but… there is something I have to tell you…

“It is! I never expected it! Such a surprise! Look, I know that I promised to come over. But now… it’s awkward. Everything’s alright, is it?” A pause of an heartbeat.

“Of course. Of course it is.” A smile at the other end, clearly audible.
“Good! Then I will get my stuff prepared and all, and when I am over there, I will give you a call, so you know I’m alright. And in six months I’ll come and stay with you for a week at least, and I will get you a mask or something, from a real African tribe!”
Another pause. He could hear how fingers traced once again the lines of the opening of that envelope. Heartbeats. Would there be fish tonight?

“A mask? You have ideas!” Yet another pause. Indecisiveness. “I… I wish you all the best. I know you have waited for this opportunity. And I am not going to wear that mask.” Laughter.

“You won’t? Just wait until I’m back! We’ll wear masks and dance to some tribal music.”

“You could make me do that. You know that, don’t you?” The words rushed out too quickly. He raised his head, whiskers quivering. He saw the fingers, still running down the lines of the envelope.

“I do! Take care, papa.”
The envelope remained closed.

Did he notice that the old man’s steps grew slower?
Did he notice that the old man grew thinner?
Did he notice that the old man slept even less?

Of course he did; he was a cat, after all. But for all his perceptiveness, this was his first close-up and personal experience with human beings. He did not know what those subtle changes might mean. But he would have liked to play with that envelope. It seemed to be so precious. Thick and smooth and covered with satiny thin paper on the inside. It would feel so delicious to his claws.

Another phone call. The ringing breaking a dream of a gully and a rat, a rat he had almost had. The man fumbled for the phone.

“Oui?”

“Hi Dad! Can you believe it? You are going to be a grandfather again!”
He observed the old man. How he clutched the speaker. How his eyes widened with those curious ebbs and flows of emotion that he had learned to discern in the human face.

“That… that… is wonderful! But… you wanted to come and visit this summer, how –”

“I am afraid that will have to wait another year! In that condition Charlene should not travel so far. But, tell you what, I’ll send you the tickets and you just come over. You could be here for the birth!” Silence. The speaker trembled in the old man’s hand.

“Oh… I… oh, boy, I am so happy for you. But what a large family. But… this year…” A pause. Again, the old man’s fingers traced the envelope.

“This year, I’m… I’m afraid I can’t manage. Didn’t I tell you about the cat?”

“The cat?” the voice on the other end, so near, so similar to that of the old man, yet so different and so distant, betrayed some consternation.

“I… I have a cat. I… would need someone to look after him. And this year…” The gnarled fingers completed another circuit. “This year… it’s not possible, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, really, father!”
There was a smile in that ‘really’. What was it about human smiles, he wondered. Cats did not smile that way, meaning a smile sometimes, meaning ill-concealed tears at other times, meaning nothing at all but exasperation between times. Humans, really. And the phone did not help to understand them. Not really.

“But next year we are definitely going to come, all of us. You’d better get prepared for an invasion! Or I will send the CIA and abduct you! Just so you know!”

“Yes, yes,” the old man agreed, his voice suitably shaky with emotion. He put the envelope on the table. “I know. Give my love to Charlene, and let me know as soon as it’s clear if it is a boy or a girl.”

“Oh, I will, papa. Take care!”

The old man stared at the envelope, his breathing strained.

“Let’s get something to drink, Tiger, shall we?”
His name was not “Tiger”, of course, but it was not an objectionable name as such. So he suffered to be addressed as such, especially since he knew that the old man was aware of the fact that this was not his real name. There were days, when they almost understood each other. But on other days their relationship remained as mysterious as that envelope on the table in the living room. Cream coloured, smooth, thick. It would feel good under his claws…

***

“Condition inoperable,” he muttered, as he left the pub, the cat proudly astride his shoulders. He glowered into the darkness, every inch a panther.

“Condition inoperable,” a refrain he had heard for many nights now.
He had heard it. And that envelope. The sofa, too, probably. And if the female down below would stop berating her mate for a moment, she would have heard it, too. In laboured breathing, heavy, faltering steps.

The only ones, who had not heard it, were half a world away.

“A girl? Finally? Oh, I am so happy for you!”

And there had been a package sent, at once, with satin paper smelling of old roses, with items smelling of an old, faint, almost forgotten female scent, and something new mixed into it.

“A doll, my dear, you would not know what that is,” the old man had explained and gently moved the grabbing paws aside. “A little frock my wife once made, for the christening of a grandchild she never saw.”

He had growled and tried to get into the package, but to no avail.

“So you are safe where you are? And you are happy? The work is interesting?”

Yes, yes, yes and more than that, a breathless stream of narrative, like drops of rain against the kitchen window, when the humming of the refrigerator echoed the rhythm of the rain and he was sure that there would be no fish tonight.

“I am glad.”
And later, just a whisper, “Condition inoperable. Why does it take so long?”

***

The old man’s steps were less than certain, but his hold on the shoulders was tight. An old, faded tweed jacket offered more than enough hold even for the panther he had grown to be. For a moment the old man hesitated, between the light of the pub – the door slowly falling shut on him, and the light of the lantern at the corner of the street.

There was a young woman staring at them, a tourist, obviously, on the way back to her hotel, but curiously alone. She smelled of loneliness and love, a curious mixture, the cat thought, but he recognized the fragrance, for it clung to his own glossy fur, loneliness and love. He turned his gaze away and purred into the old man’s ears, and the rhythm was that of words heard almost every night.

Condition inoperable.

In his pocket, the letters he knew he had to send were strangely light and insubstantial.

***

Old man and cat faded away into the shadows of the lane. The woman returned to her hotel, and on the next day, to her husband and her own cats.

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