My cat, Shadow, was at last getting friendly with his next-door neighbour, Benji.
At their previous convergences, of which there had been three or four dozen, Shadow and Benji squared up to each other like rabid hedgehogs; but all that hissing and bristling seemed to be safely behind them. Perched together on the wooden fence, both medium-sized and densely black, they brought to mind the twa corbies of the Elizabethan poem.
‘So what’s the set-up where you are?’
‘Well, it’s a tall house,’ said Shadow. ‘But I stick to the ground floor and the basement. The basement’s where they put my crapper. Not that I use it much any more.’
‘Nah. Do it outside and bury it.’
‘Exactly. And dig the hole beforehand.’
Shadow turned his head. ‘And the set-up where you are?’
‘I’m in an apartment.’
‘What’s an apartment?’
‘Oh, a flat. Sorry. I’m English.’
‘Yeah, I thought you talked kind of weird. No offence.’
‘None taken,’ said Shadow.
‘So who serves the food at your place?’
‘You see, the thing is there are four of them. Two smaller girls, one grown-up girl, and a man.’ His eyes went wistful. ‘The grown-up girl is the only one who serves me lovingly. Sometimes she even sings while she does it.’
‘Yes, sings. “He’s the number-one boy in the world.” That kind of song. The smaller girls serve me as if they’re in some kind of hurry. And the man, he gags and groans as he does it – though at other times, I have to say, he can be quite considerate.’
‘And, uh, the food itself?’
‘Oh, all right I suppose. Savoury biscuits. Beef in gravy, chicken in gravy. Always gravy. And tuna and salmon in gravy. Shrimp. Sole. Mackerel. And sometimes real fish out of the fridge or the pan . . . What’s all this about fish?’
‘Yeah, exactly. Why do they think we like fish?’
‘I know. Fish is okay. But what you really want is mouse.’
‘Mm. Mouse is delicious,’ said Benji. ‘Mice are good.’
‘Mm. When they’re still warm. And the tail tickles your nose as you slurp it up.’
‘And also they’re fun to kill. But how often d’you come across a mouse?’
‘I know. And they never serve mouse.’
Benji held up a forepaw and ran his tongue down it, as if for taste. ‘You got a catflap?’
‘What’s a catflap?’
Overhead, twenty feet above Shadow and Benji, two female squirrels shimmied down the old telegraph pole and levelled out, Indian file, on the thick tightrope of the power line.
As she bobbed along the lead squirrel was saying, ‘It’s a good thing you’ve come. And I’ll tell you why as soon as my friend joins us. You’ll like it here. It’s not a big garden, as you can see, but just look at that. We happen to be quite proud of it.’
‘Two huge boles. That’s a serious tree. Do you know what kind it is?’
‘Mulberry. So there’s sometimes quite a bit to nibble on too.’ Her head jerked sideways and downwards and she said, ‘And don’t worry about them. The one who’s not licking his leg – that’s the actual garden cat.’ She gave an amused chirrup. ‘The garden cat tries a pounce every so often. It’s pathetic.’
‘No speed. None. I’ve seen grass grow quicker than that. I give him a good cawing too, every time he tries. The garden man would be quicker than that.’
‘Him by the glass doors?’
‘Yes, him. Mind you, there’s no harm in the old boy. He’s only having a smoke. Once in a while he’s given me a fright, but nowadays I just ignore him. In fact he comes in useful – when the opossum skulks by.’
‘You have an opossum?’
‘Now and then. All he is is another lumbering trash-eater. He’s no threat. Just horrible to look at. Like one big sore. And the old man there, he makes him slink off. Throws rocks at him . . . Ah, here she is.’
Another squirrel joined them.
‘Now you girls say hello to each other and we’ll begin.’
‘Okay. As I said, I’m pleased we’ve found a third. Because you can do it with two but you really need three.’
‘Need three for . . . ?’
‘Tag.’ She tensed herself into the ready position and her tail shot skyward. ‘And you’re it.’
‘What’s the stroking scene where you are?’
‘Could be better, quite frankly, Benji,’ said Shadow after a somewhat sorrowful pause. ‘The smaller girls and the adult girl have a habit of picking me up. And I don’t really like being picked up.’
‘You feel trapped.’
‘Out of your element.’
‘Right . . . You know, it’s good to find someone I agree with on this point. Getting picked up’s overrated. How about the guy?’
‘He doesn’t pick me up, but he . . .’ Shadow hesitated. ‘Well, when I swoon onto my back at his feet and writhe around – completely irresistibly, I’d have thought – one time in five he’ll bend down and give me a quick scratch under the chin.’
‘And that’s it?’
‘Sometimes he just strokes me with his shoe.’
‘His . . .’ There was a troubled lull. ‘Uh, Shadow, does your guy ever kick you?’
‘Kick me? No. Certainly not. Why would he?’
Benji tipped his head this way and that. ‘Yeah, well you see, my guy, he’s always in a bad mood in the evenings. I say always. Nearly always. He comes home cranky. It’s because he hates his job.’
‘What’s a job?’
On the paving stone beneath Shadow and Benji two flies were about to share a bird dropping – one that had taken the form of a crusty black splat.
The smaller fly was a freshly promoted pupa; indeed, on any reasonable timescale he was hardly out of maggothood. The taller and fatter and hairier fly was nineteen days old and, with any luck (if all went according to nature’s plan), had about a week to live.
‘Hey,’ said the smaller fly. ‘What goes on down there, old-timer?’
‘That covered bit by the glass doors?’
‘Yeah. I took a look. Trash can, woodpile. Damp and humid. Nice stink of butt smoke. Seems like a good place to go swarm.’
‘It is a good place to go swarm,’ said the older fly. ‘Plus they got brightly coloured hosepipes and broom handles for you to glom onto. But know this, kid, and don’t ever forget it. Whenever the man appears? Get the hell out of there.’
‘Why’s that, doc?’
‘Because he’s a mass-murdering bastard. That’s why.’
The junior fly hawked out another jet of stringent drool to help liquefy his lunch. ‘The swat?’
‘Not the swat.’ The senior fly paused for effect. ‘The spray.’
The junior fly gave a gulp and said, ‘The spray. I’ve dodged a swat or two in my time. As I told you, I usually hang out in kitchens. But the spray . . .’
‘Look. Here he comes. Look. He stalks them and creeps up on them. Like he’s on some kind of mission . . . Jesus. You see that?’
‘Jesus. Right in the face.’ The small fly gulped again. ‘Now what happens?’
‘Yeah, watch.’ The big fly’s tone was grim. ‘When they cop the spray they always take to the air and think they can fly it off. Then they’re forced to land or they even crash . . . Yeah, he’s down. Watch. See the wings flicker? And how he’s trying to stretch his back legs? Kid, believe me, it’s a terrible way to go.’
‘Sometimes he’s got two sprays. Two. One in each hand. The man’s a fucking animal.’
‘Point taken. You won’t need to tell me twice.’
‘I mean, haven’t we got a right to exist – same as anybody else? He doesn’t kill squirrels, he doesn’t kill cats.’
‘Ah, forget it. Life’s too short.’
The senior fly was trying not to roll his compound eyeballs. He had a lot of time for the junior fly – but he did think that this kind of attitude was sadly typical of the younger generation. ‘Come on, get serious, boy. Think. I mean, what are we? An inferior form of being? We don’t sting or bite. Sometimes we buzz, but we don’t whine – like others I could name.’
The small fly gave a dismissive upward flick with his pube-like foreleg and said, ‘Yeah yeah.’
‘Yeah yeah? Think, kid. Because I don’t get it. I mean, what is it about us that’s supposed to be so “offensive”? I don’t get it. Can you name me one “distasteful” habit?’
‘Fuck him. Eat up. Enjoy.’
For a while they conscientiously expectorated over their meal.
‘Hey, old-timer, you know what?’ The little fly swallowed with some gusto and said, nodding, ‘This is good shit.’
‘Later. I’ll see you around.’
‘A pleasure to talk to you, Benji.’
‘Likewise. Hey, Shadow. How you going to get back in?’
‘You’ve got your catflap, I’ve got my guy.’
Benji gave a sniff and said, ‘Yeah that’s right. He doesn’t have a job. This asshole, all he does is let you in and out.’
‘D’you mean arsehole?’
‘We say asshole.’
‘Well it’s true. This uh, this asshole just lets me in and out. I’m always thinking, since he hasn’t got anything else to do, why doesn’t he stroke me more? But he’s good at letting me in and out. I hardly ever have to wait. He’s a full-time catflap.’
‘Right. The asshole’s a full-time catflap.’
Shadow smiled. ‘You know, when he lets me in I say thanks.’
‘How d’you do that?’
‘It’s halfway between a mew and a purr. Like this.’ He gave a demonstration.
‘Nice,’ said Benji.
Shadow glided down the seven steps and sat expectantly in front of the glass. The door opened.
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘No thanks necessary, Shadow. Just doing my job. After all,’ I said with a shrug as I returned to the desk, ‘that’s what I’m here for.’
Illustration © Matthew Green
This story, published in 2014, uses language that Granta would not publish today. We are committed to making sure all previous issues of the magazine remain accessible to our subscribers in order to engage in a critical way with our history.