The cat is sleeping on the windowsill of the spare room cum study cum laundry room. I admire the golden-tawny colour of his undercarriage, the leopard spots on his saggy, old tum and his perfectly striped legs. His chest and leg are bald where he was shaved, revealing velvety nude grey skin beneath. Two weeks ago he was quite unwell; kidney problems. When I left him at the vets he was a shadow of his former self. I thought he would die.
‘We are going to have to keep him in,’ said the very efficient vet.
I blubbed hideously. My partner looked embarrassed. A box of Kleenex were expertly presented to me by the vet.
When Marley was returned to me I could not take my eyes off him. I watched his every move as though it were his last. Sometimes, when he lay on the cushion with his head hanging off, I would rush over to his side and shake him awake fearing that he had gone to meet Bastet along the River Nile. He’d shake his head and adjust his eyes and see me and sing a reassuring rhythmic song. I recorded his purr on my Dictaphone. I took hundreds of photos.
It seems absurd to feel so much for a cat. But then, he has been with me since he was six weeks old (the lady on Shootup Hill said he was older but she lied). He survived my student years and all the late night parties and cannabis fug generated by Pink Floyd lovers. He even took me back after I left him with a friend in East Grinstead so that I could bum around Australia for a year. All it took was a quick sniff and it was as if I’d never been away. Marley has lived in Finchley, Kilburn, Leytonstone, Clapham and Peckham. He’s travelled extensively and he’s even endured kitty jail. He’s done time. In his 18 years, the old boy has lived.
Nowadays he likes to curl up with me on the sofa to watch old movies. He is quite deaf. It takes him a long time to get up from his cushion and he often wonders into the kitchen/hallway/living room and then stops and looks around with a bewildered air as though he clean forgot what he went there for. Sometimes he watches us walk down the driveway and he stands at the very top yowling in his guttural voice. It bounces off the walls of the flats. The neighbours talk. They say things like: ‘Oh my God, it’s just a cat!’ The vet says he might be a soupçon senile. But whatever he is, he seems happy.
Marley’s whiskers are twitching. His eyelids flicker and his black-padded paw flinches. He is dreaming of the little one, Lulu. She is ginger and white with freckles on her nose. She is very smart.
In his dream, he is licking her face and the backs of her ears with his pungent, oily, dense, spittle-covered emery board tongue. Suddenly he is overwhelmed by the desire to bite her. It happens every time. He sinks his teeth slowly into the whitest, softest part of her throat. She extricates herself from his grip and punches him in the face before leaping back sideways like a crab-cat. She runs out of the cat flap and he follows her into the night. She scales the birch tree where he cannot go. He watches her climb to the thinnest, highest branch and she taunts him from her elevated position.
‘Come down Lulu.’
‘No way Grandpa…You come up here.’
‘I can’t. It’s my arthritis.’
‘Tough shit fat boy. Shouldn’t have bitten me.’
‘I couldn’t help it. I don’t like it down here all on my own.’
‘Don’t worry. The big French thing will be out soon with that Staffy she’s fostered from Canine Incarcerate. I hear he was in for cat-killing.’
‘Yeah man. It was like a quintuple felicide or something. Didn’t you hear? All the cats have been talking about it. Anyhoo, I’m going hunting and you’re way too slow to catch mice. You really are quite the most monstrous clummer I’ve ever known.’
‘See ya. Say hi to Gnasher for me.’
‘No, Lulu, wait. Let’s play catch leaves.’
‘Why do you want mice anyway, there’s chicken in gravy in your bowl. Mice are revolting; all that bone and eyeball, grasping claws and weird little teeth and a wiry tail to get stuck in your throat. They make my skin itch.’
‘Fat chance of getting any food the big things leave. You always push me off and eat my dinner Maximus Felis Catus. ’
‘No I don’t. I just have a little lick.’
‘You lick off all the juicy bits and leave the dried up crispy remnants for me. That’s why I am tiny and lithe and you’re morbidly obese, too fat to be a real cat.’
‘Am not, I’m just as real as you.’
‘Are not, you’re like a man-cat. I saw how she held you over the loo that day when you were chucking up. Are you a cat or a man? Man-cat! Man-cat! Man-cat!’
Lulu undermines his cat-ability, his very cattiness. Marley jolts awake from his anxiety dream. He looks at me and blinks. He rotates on the spot and grumbles quietly as he flops down again into slumber. And I love him.