#12NOW Prose: David Mitchell – ‘Cat Person’

A new story from Lagan Online 12NOW writer David Mitchell, about ice cream, a washing machine, and a curious cat.

East Belfast looks like a headache was what I was thinking when I turned off our street onto the Newtownards Road, squinting in all that glare and red brick and the Union flags wilting on the poles. I’d just taken an unprecedented psycho at my wife. Later, I would talk to a cat about a washing machine. Right now? Walking.

It was a perfect afternoon for a bust-up. Most days in Belfast, you’d have to stay indoors for your marital head-on, or at least find a brolly and sensible jacket before slamming the door behind you. This day, though, we were at the complaining end of a heat-wave so I was able to abandon ship in just my old Metallica t-shirt and know I’d last, at least until it got dark. I knew what I was doing.

Apart from the cars, there was little life visible. A man at the bus stop stewing in urine and tobacco. A fat physiotherapist on the phone. C.S. Lewis outside the Arches library, still trying to get into that wardrobe. Like the rest of us. Round the corner, McDonald’s.

McDonald’s – I stood there looking at it, the signage’s un-dead colours and crime-against-font, every muscle in me charged with its own special rage. I was no longer responsible for my actions.

I ordered: a Galaxy Caramel McFlurry please for the forty-four year old man on his own.

The staff girl followed her programming. She was probably the age of Lauren, our oldest. She seemed happy enough in her McJob, and I watched myself doing what she was doing, getting this and getting that, pushing buttons and pulling levers. The whole process took just long enough for me to work out that a month in here would pay about two weeks of our mortgage.

I went outside to the tables. I was vaguely planning to sit in one, have a go pretending I was on a balcony or in a pavement café in Mallorca like this time last year, but the tables were all taken so I went back onto the road and leaned on the wall overlooking the Connswater ‘river’. I counted things. Two roadworks signs beached in the sludge. Three pylons along the banks. Seven ducks.

I dug some ice cream and made to drop it in, just to see it plop. Somehow I lost grip; the ice cream and spoon fell and faded slowly into the dirty water, like a sugar lump into weak coffee. In my head I explained to the daughter-figure that I’d accidentally dropped my McFlurry spoon in the river and could I have another one?

I moved on. I have a long tongue.

It’s amazing how insane you look when you simply walk slowly, for no apparent reason, on a public road. Looking crazy didn’t worry me, but I couldn’t just keep going or eventually I’d walk myself back home. So I stopped.

And sat down on the ground.

It was the spot where the guy with a megaphone preaches on Saturday mornings, opposite Wyse Byse and along from Boots. My back was against a peeling wall and my legs stretched out. The pavement was hot, like a hot plate on a cooker, and I remember rubbing my finger into its chalkiness and holding the McFlurry against my face.

The cat was greyish brown with darker flecks.

I said hello when I saw it. I’m pretty sure ‘Hello, Mr. Cat,’ was what I actually said. It was moseying.

‘Enjoying the weather?’ I said. ‘You should get a McFlurry. This one’s got bits of chocolate, caramel goo and ice cream. It’s heaven, for the first half anyway. Then it’s regret the rest of the way. Get the metaphor?’

The funny thing was that the cat was looking at me as if it was quite interested, as if it was thinking about whether it had enough cash or whether ice cream was on the menu for dinner tonight and a McFlurry now might spoil its appetite. ‘Wanna try before you buy?’ I said. I fingered some ice cream out and flicked a dollop, splat, onto the pavement.

The cat sniffed it and watched the traffic.

‘Burger King more your thing,’ I said. ‘Or Morelli’s.’

I crossed my legs and tore the side of the paper cup so I could get my tongue down to the bottom. ‘So what have you been at today, then?’ I said, between licks. ‘Any chance you know about washing machines? Guess not. You just lick yourself.’

It occurred to me, as I watched it strut, that all cats, always, look like women in a bad mood.

‘Do you want to hear something funny? OK. Well. Our washing machine, right? We were paying this monthly guarantee thing, a tenner every month for two years. It gets you free repair or replacement if the machine breaks down. And last week, I stopped paying it ’cause we’re completely broke.’

The cat meowed.

‘What’s that? Why are we broke? Well, because unfortunately no-one wants houses designed anymore. So this week, the machine started smoking and blowing the trip switch, which isn’t meant to happen. And now we’ve no repair cover and we can’t afford to pay someone to fix it. Isn’t that funny? It breaks one week after we’ve been paying for two years.’

The cat sauntered towards me and lay down, curling itself against my leg. I could feel its soft breathing through my dirty jeans. ‘So then last night, I was lying in bed and I said to myself, I’m going to fix it. I’m going to get up early and I’m going to look up YouTube and I’m going to fix the washing machine. If it’s the last thing I do I’m going to fix it because we’ve three teenagers in the house so we need to have a… We should always have – ’

I busied my tongue with the McFlurry. My hand was shaking and I got ice cream on my cheek. I tried to rub it away but I just smeared it up with tears and grease from my hands. I waited for breath.

‘And the really funny thing,’ I said, stroking the cat, ‘wait ’til you hear this. The really funny thing is that my dad worked for forty years for a company that sold electrical appliances. He was a professional washing machine fixer!’

The cat’s head was lying on its paw and its eyes were half closed. It might have been full of sympathy. It might have been a million miles away.

‘And I know what he’d say to me,’ I said, ploughing the cat’s back with my fingers. ‘If he was here now. He’d say, “It’s just a washing machine, son. It’s just a washing machine.”’

Time passed. Traffic passed, some people too – two Roma women and a traffic warden. I shut my eyes and put my head back, feeling the caked tears tight on the bones below my eyes. The sun was smudging my thoughts wonderfully, but still, I was conscious that my phone hadn’t rung yet. It would. My wife didn’t think I had left her, or even gone very far. She’d probably even guess. A McFlurry.

Finally the cat, without warning, uncurled itself and walked away. Even in the heat I felt the loss of warmth at my thigh. I got up too and found myself following him. I might have let him go if he’d been heading towards my house, but he was going in the other direction.

‘Where you going Mr. Catface?’ I said. ‘You sick of me?’ His lazy stride – I wanted it. I loved this cat. Ten metres and he stopped at the curb. I waited until it was clear and walked across, watching to see if he’d follow. He pranced ahead of me, onto the footpath and straight for the path towards McDonald’s. Maybe he did want an ice cream after all. At the outdoor tables, he disappeared into some greenery.

I desperately wanted to keep sight of him. I went forward to see where he was, hunkered down to see into the bushes, but my eye tacked on to the legs of a woman sitting alone at one of the tables.

My wife, gazing into a McFlurry.



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