Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Christmas Kitten: a fairy story



Gaspard came with the house. Or not really with the house: with the porch, which he had apparently made his own several years previously. You could hear his rasping breathing – more like a croak than a purr – emerging from the furthest corner behind the crusty wellingtons, empty demijohns and the folded-up pram frame, and the smell of festering Kattomeat and stale tom urine eventually permeated into all their coats so they carried a little bit of Gaspard around with them all day. His food had to be left out there on the filthy lino like an offering; the only time they saw him was on sunny days when he would crouch toadlike on the gravel of the drive, slinking off as soon as he saw the Volvo pull in and disappearing long before the girls could get out and go to find him. Although they never saw him, they knew he roamed further because about every six months some concerned driver – it was usually a woman – would come knocking, worried that they had seen a cat who “seemed to have been run over” by the roadside but it had taken off into their garden before she could get to it, and they had to explain that no, Gaspard just looked like that, and invite her to listen to the regular bronchial susurration emanating from the dark gap underneath the money plant that always needed watering. That’s how he got his name as well. On the day they moved in Tim caught him, lifted him up high above all their heads, commanded the girls to “gather round and hearken” to his gulping, heaving breaths and informed them that he would be called Gaspard, Comte de Coligny after someone from the Thirty Years War which he was teaching that term. Gaspard, unimpressed, spat and hissed and gave Tim such a deep scratch on his wrist that he got blood all over his tweed jacket and said a rude word, but the name stuck. On the rare occasions Emmeline had friends round she used to just tell them his name was Jasper, because it was easier. Mostly she took them in the back door so as to avoid the topic altogether. 

Tim always talked like that. Quite often what he was saying was a quote from somewhere, because he thought that made him cleverer than coming up with his own words. Tim was Emmeline’s daddy, but he preferred to be called Tim because he said “everyone calls me Tim”, and it was true that the students in his department called him all sorts of things but rarely Dr Wakefield. He didn’t mind if sometimes you called him Daddy, though, not like Paddy who wouldn’t answer if you said Mummy by accident: she just carried on with whatever she was doing and started to hum something that wasn’t really a tune a bit too loudly so you would get the message. She said – quite frequently – that she refused to be defined by her role as the children’s mother, just as she refused to be defined by her role as she wife of a man, and when letters arrived with Mrs on the envelope she got so cross that she actually phoned people up to tell them off, even though she was always saying she never had enough time for her work and they were usually just people like the gas board who didn’t really know her or care what she was called as long as their bills got paid. That was another of the things Emmeline had to be careful about: she tried hard not to call her mother anything in public, having learned her lesson at her awful birthday party when, with the wrong sort of food humiliatingly on the table, Helen Georgiou demanded to know why she called her Mummy “Daddy” and everyone laughed, even the grown ups. Afterwards she told herself that she should have known after Voyage of the Dawn Treader made such a point of Eustace Scrubb calling his parents by their first names: she’d tried to talk to her big sister about it at the time but Christophene just sniffed in a nasty way, said “you know those books are just a ridiculous Christian allegory, don’t you?” and went back to reading Elizabeth Gaskell.

The only one in the household who got a title was Baby Toby, who was too young to have a choice about it, or about the lack of gender-role indoctrination Paddy told everyone she was determined to bring him up with (Emmeline had already had to give him one of her dolls – her favourite, the little black baby – as a welcome present, even though she knew perfectly well even at her age that he was never going to want it). And Gaspard, who Tim often referred to as “Ah, Monsieur Le Comte!” when he heard him moving around in the porch, even though it had never made anyone laugh.

---

The kitten was nothing like Gaspard. It was black all over, so it stood out against the frost when Emmeline, who was the first to see it, looked out of her window in the morning and spotted it curled up at the very centre of the lawn. She went straight downstairs and out into the garden in just her nightdress and socks – she had to pull up one of the kitchen chairs to undo the top lock – and scooped the kitten up and held it very close to her to warm it up, and by the time she had got back to the kitchen the little thing had stretched out in her arms and begun to purr, and when Christophene came down later she found the pair of them sitting at the table staring lovingly at each other with big green eyes.

“What’s that?” her sister demanded, which seemed an unusually dim question even for her. Emmeline surprised herself as much as her sister with her answer. “It’s my cat,” she said firmly.

----

She’d never really put her foot down about anything before – there wasn’t much point, in her kind of family, who actively enjoyed wearing everything down to the ground with endless discussion – but on this, Emmeline was not budging. The kitten was equally devoted, padding everywhere after her, folding himself into her lap when she sat, sleeping curled on her patchwork bedspread at night, and quietly retiring who-knows-where while she was at school, although he was always waiting for her when she returned, sitting on the spot at the exact centre of the lawn where she had first found him. He paid very little heed to the rest of the family. Only Emmeline was allowed to feed him, spooning out Kattomeat which he ate delicately from a china plate in the kitchen, while the other half of the tin awaited Gaspard’s attention on the opposite side of the door.

“Have you got your familiar under there?” demanded Tim when they sat down to one of their usual brown meals, taking a risk that his wife was too busy ladling butterbeans to embark on her usual lecture about the witch crazes of early modern Europe and how they were essentially his – and possibly Baby Toby’s – fault.

 “No,” said Emmeline stubbornly, even though she could feel the reassuring heat of the animal on her thighs beneath the tabletop.

“She has,” said Christophene languidly, her nose still buried in Romola (the household operated a strict no-reading-at-the-table-except-classics rule).

“Has it got a name yet?” he enquired, accepting the first and biggest bowl.

“It’s not an it, it’s a he,” said Emmeline firmly. Christophene had launched an abortive attempt to call the kitten Heathcliff the week before. She was trying to call everything Heathcliff that winter. Her parents had agreed it was up to her sister, but every time she looked at the kitten, Emmeline came up blank. It didn’t feel like he needed a name from her. He just was.

She looked around the kitchen for inspiration as she awaited – without much enthusiasm – her own portion. She took in the pulses soaking in their pyrex bowls on the dresser, Baby Toby’s bottles in their sterilizer, Fred the Flourman with his bowler hat missing and the smoked glass jars filled with porridge oats and baking beans, and her eyes alighted on the nativity scene she had brought home from school the week before. It was looking rather the worse for wear. The toilet-roll Joseph had fallen over, and the star sellotaped to the roof of the stable had snowed quite a lot of its glitter down into the manger below. “He should have a Christmassy name,” she said thoughtfully. Her sister made a scornful noise, but thankfully her mouth was full. Under the table, the kitten flexed his tiny claws and sank them into her leg. “Like Herod,” she announced.

“Ha!” snorted her father, greatly amused. “Very good.” He and Paddy gave each other irritating grown-up looks.

“Of course you know what happened to Herod in the end, don’t you?” asked Tim, putting on a spooky voice that he was under the impression children enjoyed. “He got smote by the Angel of the Lord, and he was eaten up by worms.”

“Tim, really,” protested Paddy. It was hard enough to get them to eat as it was.

---

Unlike the kitten’s entry into their life, which was sudden and complete, Gaspard’s disappearance happened gradually. One morning the usual asthmatic accompaniment wasn’t there when they were putting their coats on for school and finding their mittens; one evening his bowl was still full of his previous meal, and the next night it was there again, looking even less appetising. Tim said vaguely when he was asked about it that he’d definitely seen him about; Paddy made a joke about the ravens leaving the Tower of London and that set Christophene off becoming over-dramatic and quoting Edgar Allen Poe. It was left to Emmeline to actually find a torch and go out looking for him, traipsing all the way around the mushy garden twice before she spotted a pair of yellow eyes staring out from the dry rectangle beneath the Volvo. “Are you alright, Gaspard?” she asked in a friendly voice, and was pleased to hear him wheezing back at her. She took his bowl out and shoved it as far as her arms would reach beneath the wheel arch.

“Territorial behaviour,” Paddy told Emmeline over the top of her typewriter when she went into her study to tell her. She was working on her monograph about Sylvia Plath, which is a bit like a book only no one is expected to read it. She pointed at the kitten who was twining his way lovingly round her daughter’s legs “Can’t bear to share their space. They’re little lions, essentially – and you know how the pride works, as many lionesses as you like doing all the hunting and caring for the cubs, but more than one male and all hell breaks loose. Typical.” She shook her head scornfully and returned to her typewriter. Emmeline was quite intrigued by this, but when she tried to bring it up with her father in his own study he just started declaiming bits of Hamlet, which didn’t help much.

Nor was he much use the next morning when, in the usual rush for his nine o’clock lecture, he blew through the kitchen like a tornado, threw his papers and himself into the Volvo and crunched the gears into reverse before coming to a thumping, stalling, swearing halt which they all heard and knew instantly what it meant.

Christophene started to cry quietly into her cereal. Their mother stood there frozen over the half-buttered toast for a moment, her hands to her face, before telling them to stay where they were and rushing outside with her hands full of Fine Fare bags to wrap Gaspard’s body in. It was her who dug the hole in the frozen garden too, even though Tim had phoned in by then and taken the morning off to “deal with everything.”

The kitten slept through it all.

----

School finished for the term, which meant Emmeline and the kitten could spend whole days together. One evening Paddy and Tim gathered everyone in the kitchen to announce that instead of having presents this year they thought the girls might like to help the poor children in Bangladesh, and spent a great deal of time telling them how disappointing and selfish they were when they proved less than keen. Paddy also told them she thought it would be nice to have just greenery for decorations that year because of course Christmas was a pagan festival that had been appropriated wholesale by the Church as an imperialistic tool of colonisation, and Tim and Christophene – whose romantic side this very much appealed to – were sent off to the woods the next morning in search of armfuls of holly, ivy and mistletoe, taking Baby Toby with them for the fresh air. Emmeline noticed that her crib scene had already mysteriously disappeared from the kitchen.

At least it meant they were allowed a tree, even if it only had a single set of coloured lights on it. Emmeline liked to sit by it in the evening – no one else really used the sitting room, because it didn’t have a television in it like normal people’s – and watch the kitten dance on his back legs trying to catch the reflections of the lights on the wall. She wasn’t allowed to switch them on herself because it was dangerous, and some nights, when everyone said they were busy, they didn’t get switched on at all. Then the kitten had to content himself with chasing the beetles and spiders that crept out of the earthy-smelling greenery and began to colonise the house.

Emmeline also discovered that she was apparently too old for Father Christmas this year. She wrote down her Christmas wish in a letter anyway, and signed it, and got the kitten to do his own paw print in the coal dust too, and then they burned it together in the grate on Christmas Eve with one of the matches she wasn’t supposed to touch either.

---   

“Shouldn’t you have gone to bed?” asked Tim blearily from the doorway soon afterwards, trying to focus on his younger daughter through the twin handicaps of his reading glasses and most of a bottle of that summer’s Elderberry, which was particularly potent and which he had at several points during the evening addressed directly and lovingly as “a cheeky little thing”.

“I don’t know,” said Emmeline, because it wasn’t really for her to say. Her father didn’t seem sure either, standing by the doorway burping gently into his beard until he was distracted by a shower of needles pattering down from the tree, which was gently swaying from side to side. “Is that your bloody cat in there?” he demanded, and, stirred into action, stooped down into the gap between the branches and the wall and started clapping and shouting “Hai! Hai!”, oblivious to the fact that the kitten was already making his unflustered way round the other side of the tree and over to Emmeline where she sat cross-legged on the hearthrug.

“He’ll have the whole tree over if you’re not careful,” the grumpy muttering continued from behind the branches. “You really are a silly girl. I think he’s been chewing on these wires…”

The bang and the flash really were spectacular. The hackles all along the kitten’s back shot up when he heard them, and it took a very long time’s stroking before Emmeline could get them all back down again.

---

Paddy was red-faced and arm-deep in a turkey when her younger daughter came slinking into the kitchen. She cast her a baleful look and snapped: “Why I am doing this and not your father I have absolutely no idea.”

Emmeline, who did know why, kept quiet and sat down at the table. Baby Toby was grouching in his high chair. He had knocked over his Tommee Tippee cup and it had fallen just beyond the reach of his chubby fingers. She watched for a moment, then picked it up and gave it back to him.

“Honestly,” spat Paddy, withdrawing messily from the beast. “I have got better things to be doing. I’m at a pivotal point in my research. Pivotal.” She wrenched open the door of the oven, bringing a great hot gust billowing into the room, and made as much of a racket as she could wrestling the metal shelves out of its interior and clattering them down on the draining board.

“And it’s no good you sitting there sulking,” she told Emmeline, deciding it would be easier to elicit a response from her than the turkey. “It’s too late to start messing around with stockings now, and that’s that.”

It was a simple manoeuvre for the kitten to entangle himself in her legs as she bent down to put the bird into the oven, but no less impressive for that. The turkey went up and sideways, sliding greasily across the cork tiles to come to a rest conveniently close to his food bowl. Paddy, by contrast, went downwards and forwards with a most satisfying bang, and turned out to be a perfect fit, her head and shoulders cooking nicely at twenty minutes per pound and filling the whole house with a delicious smell until Christophene got back from her evening out and switched the cooker off because Emmeline wasn’t supposed to touch it.

---

Christophene made a thorough survey of the house, upstairs and down, before coming back to the kitchen to address both Emmeline and Baby Toby. “You know what this means, don’t you?” she said rather nastily. “I’m in charge now, and you all have to do what I say.”

She pulled Toby rather roughly from his highchair, took him upstairs and wrestled him out of his babygro for a brisk bath despite his protests. Emmeline and the kitten both came to watch.

“He’s not meant to wear blue,” Emmeline observed through clouds of talcum powder.

“He’ll wear what he’s told,” his sister snapped, stuffing chubby limbs into a sleepsuit that was a little too small, having been bought in newborn size by a well-meaning but ideologically-suspect aunt, and ramming a dummy into a mouth that had made a convenient ‘o’ of surprise. “Now. You. Bed. I shall sleep in here with Baby Toby.” She hustled her sister out of their parents’ room and slammed the door behind her.

It was strange to lie in bed without the comforting weight of the kitten on her counterpane, but she understood that he was busy elsewhere. This night, of all nights, he had so much to do.

---

Christmas morning dawned bright and loud with the outraged screams of her sister. Emmeline slipped out of bed and over to her open door to listen.

“In his CRADLE!” Christophene was wailing. “Dirty BEAST!”

The door to their parents’ room flew open with a crash, and a black streak with a tail like a bottlebrush sped across the landing and into Paddy’s study, pursued by Christophene in a Jayne Eyre nightdress with Mrs Rochester hair. The kitten bounded from the floor to the paper-strewn desktop, leapt on to the top of the typewriter, crinkling the foolscap that curled from it, and from there launched itself to the top of one of the high bookcases which lined the study walls, where it stood arching its back and spitting at Christophene as she raged below.

She was an enterprising girl, and this did not detain her for long. Pausing only to deliver a sharp shove to her sister as she passed, she rushed down to the kitchen for a broom, hissing “pest, beast, pest” all the way. Brandishing it over her head she hurtled back up the stairs and began to jab it at the bookshelves as the kitten ran back and forth. Objects began to rain down – Paddy’s pebbles from the River Ouse, her glass paperweight from Haworth – followed by hardbacks, then paperbacks, until finally the whole lot from Aphra Behn all the way to Mary Wollstonecraft came tumbling down and the big oak bookcases after them, all smack bang on top of Christophene, while the kitten jumped clean away from the chaos and settled down to meticulously licking its paws.

Emmeline stood for a moment enjoying the welcome silence before making her way through to the room that had been her parents’. She stood looking down into the cot. Baby Toby’s sleepsuit and sheet were both coated with soft black hairs.

He didn’t seem that bothered, smiling and gurgling a greeting up at his sister.

“I think, Baby Toby,” Emmeline said thoughtfully, “I think that you shall be allowed to stay.” She propped her little brother up in the cot with a view of the open doorway and the study beyond, so that he could look and see what Christmas morning had brought. “You stay there, and I will go and get you a bottle.”

She went off down the stairs, and before long her reedy voice began to drift upwards. She was singing a carol.

The kitten finished his ablutions, and padded over to sit in the bedroom doorway. It looked at Baby Toby, and Baby Toby looked back at the kitten. It is all too easy to read complex human emotions that are not there into the faces of both animals and babies, but any adult observer – of which, of course, there were none left – might have fancied that a silent communication passed between the two of them. Certainly the kitten began to purr, and Baby Toby let out a giggle, and clapped his hands with delight.

From downstairs came the rattle of a pan being taken off the heat, the sound of pouring and of a top being screwed on to a bottle. The kitten silently descended, and stretched himself out across the tread at the awkward turn on the darkest point on the stairs.


Adam Macqueen
December 2013