When I’m not gawping in horror at really bad books, I’m attempting to write better ones, or simply dicking around on the internet. I suppose this falls into the latter category – a short story I wrote for a fiction competition on Something Awful.com.
There are dirty jobs and then there are jobs not even I want to do. Teaching is one of them. You never know what you’re gonna get with other people’s children. At least with Harriet we know that she’s clean, can be persuaded to eat certain vegetables and has been thoroughly inspected for nits in the last fortnight. Some of the little weirdos she brings home from school are another matter – eczema, tantrums, strange eating habits. One of them smelled ominously of piss.
Obviously that’s where she’s getting it from. Them.
“She never uses language like that at home,” says Lilah, trying to look blameless. “We don’t know where she’s getting it from.”
“It’s hard to say these days,” says Mrs. Steiner. “So many influences. Television, video games, internet…”
“Mm.” My wife nods in agreement, but there’s a gleam in her eye as she looks down at Mrs. Steiner’s six months’ bump. I know that gleam. It says ‘Oh, just you wait.’
“She’s a very bright child,” says the teacher. “It’s often harder when they’re bright – they listen more, pick things up much easier.”
“Yeah, we know,” I say. “She’s always getting nits.”
On reflection, this was the wrong thing to say. We’re halfway home before Lilah starts talking to me again. “I don’t believe you sometimes,” she says. “I had to pretend to be Catholic to get her into that school, which means that if God’s a Catholic I’m probably going to hell – and then when they say she’s doing well you praise her ability to play host to parasites!”
“You have to admit she’s good at it,” I say. “And I didn’t even mention that time she got worms.”
Lilah turns off the engine, the better for me to hear her molars grinding. She takes a deep breath through her nose, the sort of throaty, snoring breath I associate with her practise of advanced yoga positions. “Jaime,” she says. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you really need to reacquaint yourself with what’s normal, okay? Your average South London primary school teacher is not interested in hearing about maggot infestations, crime scenes or that bloke in Streatham who turned into soap.”
The proper term is savonification. Apparently it’s not a suitable subject for dinner parties. I’m technically a company director so I get invited to dinner parties, but I’m not allowed to talk about what we do. People don’t like to think too much about death. They especially don’t like to think that one day they might die alone in the heat of July and be found sometime in September, stinking up the place and all but liquefied on the bathroom floor.
But they do, and someone has to come in after the coroners and pathologists and police and make the place fit for human habitation again. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it, and like any job that nobody else wants to do, there’s money in it. There’s enough money to move to a leafy part of Wandsworth, bullshit our daughter into the local Catholic primary and have dinner parties where I’m short on conversation.
I’ve been known to make vegans faint.
Yeah – I know I shouldn’t be proud of that.
Lilah pays the babysitter while I go up to check on Harriet, who is not-pretending-very-well to be asleep. When I open the door I see the white of her eye – just a flash but enough to give her away. “Go to sleep,” I say. “Mrs. Steiner said you were doing very well at school.”
She yawns. “Doesn’t matter,” she says. “I’ll have a new teacher soon.”
“I know. Mrs. Steiner’s going to have a baby.” I stroke her hair, sneakily checking for nits.
“Did a bat bleed on her?”
“If a bat bleeded on her and she licked it, then she’d get babies, wouldn’t she?”
It takes me a moment to decipher this new piece of Harrietese and I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing. If she thinks she’s said something funny she’ll want to know what and then she’ll be up for hours. “That’s right,” I say, kissing her goodnight.
“Can I have a kitty-cat?” she says. “You said I could if I got a good school report.”
I did as well. Does the swearing cancel out the otherwise glowing report? “We’ll talk about it in the morning,” I say. If there’s time. There’s never enough time. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it but then I look at her and I know it is. She’s absolutely beautiful – takes after her mother, luckily. It’s a short distance from Peckham to Wandsworth, but only if you’re talking geography. It’s only natural, isn’t it? To want your kids to have it better than you did.
Lilah is already sacked out on the sofa with a bottle of wine. “We’re going to have to have the old birds and bees chat with her,” I say.
“Fuck off. She’s eight.”
“Oh, I wonder where she gets her lovely language from.”
Lilah fills my glass. “I never swear in front of her. I always stop myself. I even said ‘toilethead’ as a swear the other day.”
“Hastily converted ‘twat’.”
“I thought so,” she says, wriggling her toes. “And why do we need to talk to her about sex, exactly?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. She’s just got babies and rabies confused. She thinks you get babies from being bitten by a bat.”
Lilah sits up and frowns. “Why does she even know about rabies?” She sighs. “Jesus, Jaime – I wonder what she overhears sometimes, about your job. She’s not even freaked out by it. You don’t think she’s a bit…gothic, do you?”
“Nah. She’s just got a strong stomach, that’s all.” I rub the curve of her spine, wanting her to settle back, relax. The line between her eyes has got deeper over the past few years.
“I just worry that I’ve given birth to Wednesday Addams.”
“She’ll be fine. We’ll just straighten her out on the babies-rabies thing – explain that human reproduction doesn’t usually involve barking and frothing at the mouth.”
Lilah hangs out her tongue like a dog. “Depends how you go about it,” she says, with an evil look in her eye.
We’re late going to sleep and I’m woken by Andrejz calling from this morning’s first job, a clean up of a granny flat in Clapham. “Jaime – is problem,” he says. For some reason he always gets more Polish on the phone. “We cannot get in to flat.”
“What?” I head downstairs, needing tea before anything else. Harriet, one shoe off, one shoe on, hey diddle dumpling my son John, is standing on one leg in the hallway. “I picked up the keys yesterday. They were in the portakabin on the board – didn’t Milo get them…where’s your shoe?”
“Don’t know,” says Harriet. “What shoe?” says Andrejz.
“Not shoe,” I say. Harriet grins, displaying a wider gap than usual between her front teeth. The tooth fairy drives a hard bargain in this house.
“Where’s Milo?” I ask Andrejz. “Put him on.”
“Milo cannot come to the phone right now.”
“What the f…” I stop myself just as Lilah comes past, clutching her car keys, Harriet’s other shoe and Harriet’s packed lunch. She doesn’t say anything, but only because she has the strap of her handbag between her teeth. She doesn’t need to say anything – the look says it all.
“I’ll be there in a bit,” I say.
Milo, I decide, has overslept. Probably not even in his own bed and probably not doing much sleeping, knowing Milo. He’s at that age – seventeen – a walking erection. The horny little prick has the keys to the portakabin where the flat keys are, which is why Andrejz is standing around scratching himself.
It turns out I’m wrong. When I get to Lavender Hill, Milo is at the job. He’s also bleeding. His buzzcut head is covered with scratches and holes.
“There is a cat,” explains Andrejz.
“What kind of cat? A fucking sabretooth?” There’s what looks like an honest-to-God gash across the top of Milo’s bonce.
Milo winces and swats my hand away. “I don’t know,” he says. “Do I look like David Attenborough? It was just a black and white blur – leapt out of the kitchen and attached itself to my fucking head.”
“It looked like Davy Crockett hat,” says Andrejz. “Very funny.”
“Yeah, hilarious,” says Milo. “That’s probably the same fucking cat what ate her face.”
“The old girl who died,” says Milo. “She was in there a couple of weeks and the cat got hungry…”
“…doubt they could have even done an open coffin if they’d found her sooner,” Milo continues. “It was like that zombie bloke in Miami, you know? Fucking horrible.”
Milo, like most kids of his age, is prone to exaggeration. I return Andrejz’s eyeroll and start thinking about what we’re going to do about the situation. I’ve never had to evict a territorial cat before. Usually the relevant authorities deal with bereaved pets long before we get involved.
I call the RSPCA. The woman on the other end of the phone says there might be an officer free around lunchtime. Meanwhile, time’s ticking away and we’ve got another contract this afternoon. “We’re going in,” I say.
We enter the flat, me and Andrejz wearing two woolly hats each and Milo a regular urban spaceman in his crash-helmet. The smell is surprisingly faint – that sweetish rotten smell that you think you’ll never get used to even though you do. They’ve aired the place out well. Maybe that was how the cat got in. Maybe it got out too.
There’s a dark stain on the kitchen lino, more like a shadow really. If you didn’t know what it was you wouldn’t look for it, but we know. I can see the shape of an arm, a leg, like a chalk outline from a murder. I reach to take off one of my hats, but Andrejz grabs my arm.
“Look,” he says.
I look up. The cat is crouched on top of the Welsh dresser. It’s so small that I want to laugh, but I can’t deny it’s got a nasty look on its eye and it’s making a low, steady rrrrooowwwwwling noise that can’t mean anything good.
The cat leaps. Three grown men – well, two grown men and one teenage drama queen who’s been known to demand the afternoon off because his girlfriend changed her Facebook status – run screaming from the airborne cat.
“Told you it was mental,” says Milo.
“It’s probably just scared,” says Andrejz. “You need to get it in a towel.”
“A towel?” I’m not sure I’ve heard right.
“Yes. Towel. You wrap it in a towel and put it under your arm. Is best way to…uh…restrain a cat.”
Milo blinks at him for a moment, then punches him lightly on the upper arm. “Well, good luck with that,” he says, lighting a rollie as he walks away.
Just then the RSPCA officer turns up and what few brains Milo and Andrejz bring to the table puddle out of their ears. Rachel from the RSPCA looks like she should have coasted in on a clamshell, all luscious lips and tangled curls. “I was in the area,” she says. “But we’ve got a lot of calls this morning, so I might have to nip back later if I can’t get him now. What is it? The owner’s died, you said?”
“The cat’s quite traumatised,” says Milo. “I mean, it’s upsetting, you know? Especially if you’re a sensitive man – like me.”
“I’m not sensitive,” says Rachel. “Hard as nails, me. I don’t like sensitive people.”
“Well, I’m not a delicate flower or nothing…” says Milo.
“Course you’re not, love,” says Rachel, taking a pet carrier out of the back of her van. Milo is bright red.
“You’re not gonna, like…kill it, are you?” I ask.
She frowns. “You’re not going to try and impress me with your sensitivity, are you?”
I hold up my left hand. “Married man.”
“Right, Mr. Married,” she says, tapping the logo on her uniform. What part of Royal Society for the Protection of Animals were you not getting?”
“I know, I know,” I say. “But they do get…put down, don’t they? The strays and that.”
Rachel sighs and scratches the back of her messy blonde hair. “Yeah,” she says, with a sigh. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s a sad fact of life that there aren’t enough homes for them all – and the ones that have behavioural difficulties are the least likely to be rehomed.”
“And that thing’s a fucking psycho,” says Milo. “So it’s pretty much Dead Cat Walking.”
Rachel gives him a long, dirty look. “Yeah, I think I preferred you when you were trying to be sensitive,” she says, opening the front door.
There’s no sign of the cat. Rachel’s doing her best to pretend the smell doesn’t bother her, but she turns a funny colour when she sees the kitchen floor. Andrejz tactfully steers her into the next room while I check out the kitchen again. First thing I do is check the top cupboards and dresser – no way do I want to experience another aerial bombardment. Cats flying through the air, I decide, are only funny on YouTube. In real life, when they’re leaping at your head, they’re fucking terrifying.
I check the cupboards under the sink and find the cat. The moment I see black fur I expect claws and yowling to follow, but the cat doesn’t move. It just stares at me, saucer eyed. It’s a nice looking cat, actually – not your usual manky old-lady cat. White shirtfront and white socks – a tuxedo cat. Poor little thing is probably scared out of its mind. Under normal circumstances I’d find it…cute. I mean, it was doing the whole Shrek thing, you know? Puss in Boots, with the big, sad eyes.
Behavioural difficulties, says Rachel. Least likely to be rehomed. She says it in the gentle language of caring organisations, but Milo’s nailed it – Dead Cat Walking.
“Shh,” I say, and close the cupboard.
“Nothing in the kitchen,” I say, back in the hallway.
Lovely Rachel is white to the lips. Looks like she was sensitive after all. “I’ve got to get on,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got a call in Hackney…”
“Don’t worry,” I say, steering her maybe a little too fast to the front door. “Leave us with the cat carrier and I’m sure we can handle it.”
“No we can’t,” says Milo.
“Yes we can,” I say, flashing a gobful of teeth at Rachel. “We’ve got a towel in the back of the van.”
“A towel?” says Rachel.
“Yeah. A towel. To…restrain the cat.”
“Oh,” she says. “Oh, I see. Yes, that works. Firm but gentle.”
Andrejz looks smug enough to run for parliament.
I smile and lie some more to Rachel. Yes, we’ll give you a call as soon as we’ve found the cat. Yes, we’ll hand it over. She drives off to her job in Hackney, probably congratulating herself for not being sick. Ours is not a job for everyone, or so my wife keeps telling me.
I’ve never been a good liar. “The cat’s in the kitchen, isn’t it?” says Milo, watching the RSPCA van round the corner.
“It is, yes.”
Milo sighs. “What the fuck, Jaime?”
“They were going to kill it.”
Milo sighs, even longer and harder than before. “This is not part of my job description, man.”
“I know that.” He’s right. He’s here to scrub corpse juice off kitchen floors. Cat wrangling was not in the contract.
“I’m not going back in there.”
“I know that too,” I say. “It’s alright. You should probably knock off and get a tetanus booster anyway.”
Andrejz emerges from the back of the van. He’s wearing the same smug expression as before, as well as a tatty blue and orange striped beach towel, draped over one shoulder. He holds up a sandwich. “Tuna fish,” he says, and strolls into the flat.
Milo leans against the alley wall and watches the flat door like a man badly in need of a bucket of popcorn. We hear a crash, a clatter, and swearing and then miraculously Andrejz appears, the cat rolled up like a burrito in the blue and orange towel. Only its head is visible and its eyes are angry. The low mrrrowwwling sound is back again, only now with an undertone of fresh malevolence.
“Jesus,” I say. “That is not a happy cat.”
“That is not a cat,” says Milo. “That is a time-bomb of claws and pain. How the fuck are you going to get that thing into the cat carrier?”
Andrejz opens the cat carrier with one hand, stuffs the wriggling cat inside and removes the towel with a magician’s flourish even as he’s closing the door. “You English,” he says. “Everything is drama. Just get the fucking job done. Is done then.”
For a moment Milo looks like he’s about to say something Daily Mail, but there’s no arguing with Andrejz’s logic. Get the fucking job done and it’s done. End of. We take up our mops and buckets and hoses – there’s a lot to do and we’re three hours late starting. Then the babysitter texts me and says she’s stuck in traffic – could I do the schoolrun?
I couldn’t, but I do anyway. Harriet spots the cat carrier the instant she gets into the van. Psychocat is giving it the Shrek-eyes again, giving me a bad case of the guilts because I realise it hasn’t had any water and the only food it’s had is Andrejz’s tuna sandwich.
“It’s a kitty-cat!” says Harriet. She scrambles into the back of the van before I can stop her. I’m halfway through saying her name when she’s got the fucking door open. That little wire latch was the only thing between us and a screeching, black and white fur projectile.
Except my daughter has special powers. She rubs her hand over the cat’s head and says “Here, kitty,” and Psychocat steps out of the carrier. My heart is in my mouth – any minute now it’s going to flip its shit and my kid will probably lose an eye. And my wife will kill me.
Harriet is ecstatic. Strangely, so is the cat. It’s rubbing its face all over her, tail in the air. “She’s purring!” she says. “She likes me. Is she a girl?”
“Really didn’t want to get that close and personal,” I say, and I realise I’m in trouble. There is no way to explain to an eight year old that this might not be the right kitty-cat, the cat she’s wanted all along. This cat has to go back to the cat’s home, where they are absolutely, definitely, categorically not going to kill it, no way, uh uh, would I lie to you?
Of course I would. I’ve lied to her about Santa, the tooth fairy, about grandma going to heaven. I’ve even told her that broccoli is delicious.
Can I really look my kid in the eye and say that I had no idea what was going to happen to that cat?
It’s a no brainer. Unfortunately, that kind of raises another question – can I look my wife in the eye while knowing I brought home a face-eating psychocat as a pet for our daughter?
Again, it’s impossible. The cat makes it impossible. When I get home Harriet is in bed and the cat is curled on the couch next to Lilah. She’s scratching its head and its purring, the picture of contentment.
“You could have warned me,” says Lilah, although she’s smiling. “I had to go out and get cat food.”
Doesn’t need food. It will eat your face. The words rise like an unwelcome belch and I swallow them quickly. “Yeah, it just sort of happened,” I said. “Long story.”
“Tell me all about it,” says Lilah, patting the sofa on the other side of her. As I approach the cat raises its head, eyes wide and wary. I’m suddenly very conscious that I’m not wearing a hat.
“It doesn’t like me,” I say. “I had a hell of a time getting it into the van.”
“Probably just doesn’t like men,” says my wife. “Some cats are like that. Something about the registers of the male voice just freaks them out.”
“Previous owner was a woman,” I say. I sit down very carefully. The cat slits its eyes at me.
Lilah sighs. “I’m guessing she died?”
I nod. She died and the cat ate her face.
“Poor little thing,” says Lilah, her hand on the cat’s spine. It’s purring again, tail in the air, looking intensely pleased with itself now that it owns my wife and my daughter. It’s been years since I sat in an English lesson but I’m reminded of that bloke from the story who was freaked out to fuck and back by a black cat. I will consume your soul, the cat seems to say. And then I will eat your nose in your sleep.
“Alright,” says Lilah, after a short silence. “Go on then.”
“You know. Do your thing. Tell me about how the owner who died had been there for two weeks. Tell me about the maggots, the flies, the smell – all the horrible things you usually tell me about.”
I shake my head. “No. No, it wasn’t like that.” The cat ate her face. “Anyway, I probably shouldn’t talk about these things. You’re right – who knows what Harriet might pick up.”
“Fucking hell,” says Lilah. “Carry on at this rate and you might get through a dinner party without making anyone sick.” She picks up the cat. “Say goodnight, Wednesday.”
“Wednesday?” Even as I say it I can see it fits – that little wedge shaped black and white face, the large, angry eyes.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.