56. Two Cats

EARLY IN THE FIRST year of her accounting degree, which her father had decided she should take in Australia, a young woman noticed two black cats with white markings playing together in a courtyard at the rear of the Old Physics Building on the campus of her university. It was late in the afternoon and, her class having just finished, she was walking in the direction of the student dormitory where she had rented a small room on the sixteenth floor. As she wasn't looking forward to returning to her room, nor to the strange and overcooked meals provided in the canteen, she was dawdling back, and she stopped to watch the cats. She shared her room with a girl who also came from another country and was in her first year, but unlike the young woman her roommate was enjoying being away from home, and moreover was exceedingly pretty, and had already found herself a boyfriend, and so she was rarely there. She would appear from time to time to pick up something of hers she needed, and each time she came she said the same thing, I don't know why I keep paying for this room. The young woman was thus left alone much of the time to dwell on her sadness at having been sent away from her mother and her sister, to whom she was very attached. She spent many hours talking to them over the internet, and would have gladly spent many hours more if not for her father, who would lose his patience and tell his wife that they had wasted enough time talking, and that their daughter should be left in peace to do her homework. The young woman resented her father, and she spent much of her time in her new environment sharpening the axe of her resentment, and this is what she did now as she sat on a bench outside the Old Physics Building to watch the cats play. She suspected her father had long kept a succession of mistresses, and yet her mother and her sister were both very devoted to him and thought the world of him. Each time the young woman tried to raise her suspicions with them her mother and her sister reacted angrily, and so she kept them to herself. When her father had announced she would be sent to study in Australia, she asked him why her older sister had been able to complete her studies at home. He told her that each of his daughters was different, and had different needs. He had decided after much reflection that she needed to leave home, that it would do her good, and in fact she wasn’t the first in her family to have done so. She had a brother, much older, who'd studied in New Zealand and now worked in Taiwan. But my brother is a stranger to me, she'd said defiantly. Is that what you want me to become? He told her she needed toughening up, that she was too attached to her mother and her sister and that one day she would thank him for it. Her mother added that she should be patient and accepting of her father’s decision, for she would soon see his wisdom, and moreover, she told her daughter with utter seriousness, It will end very unhappily for you if you should disobey him. She left home with a heavy heart, knowing she wouldn't return until the end of the year, when it would once again be winter in the northern hemisphere, meaning she would miss the summer vacation her family took annually at a holiday house they rented in the south of country, overlooking an emerald bay.

So it was that two or three weeks into the semester, after a late class, she found the two cats playing with one another, and sat down on a nearby bench to watch them. Neither animal had a collar but both seemed plump and healthy. They were both half-grown but they played gently with one another. They sparred with one another in the junction of two walls, and tumbled and wrestled in the orange and yellow autumn leaves the wind had gathered in the corner. All my life, she thought, autumn has been my favourite season, until now. Now it causes me only pain. The cats played lazily and without aggression, almost affectionately, as if for the pleasure of it. She remembered that animals also had the capacity to feel pleasure, a thought that hadn't occurred to her since her childhood. She sat watching them in the gathering gloom until it was night and she only left the bench and the cats for fear of missing her canteen dinner. By the time she returned to the student dormitory dinner was no longer being served, although one of the servers took pity on her and gave her some mashed potatoes to heat up in the microwave. It didn’t seem to matter: she felt inexplicably becalmed.

The following week, after the same class, the cats were there again. She sat to watch them, happy to skip dinner altogether this time. Another student sat nearby, enveloped in earphones and reading a textbook, unaware of the cats. The young woman could not be sure if the other student was a man or a woman, and so she decided he was a man, more to be decided upon something than for any definitive sign one way or another. Though the other student paid them no heed, the cats approached him, curling around his feet and rubbing their necks against his shins. This brought out a longing in the young woman. She approached the trio, hoping to get close to the cats, but the animals shied away into the nearby shrubs. Why do they play with you and not me? she asked the student. She would have liked to sit on the bench, but only if he wasn't there, so she remained standing. She asked him the question in Mandarin, as he too appeared to be Chinese. The student replied in Cantonese, which she didn't speak. She repeated the question in English, which she spoke only very slowly and with great effort: Why do they play with you and not me? The student replied, just slowly, Cats despise weakness. Crestfallen, the girl turned around and walked away, returning to her dormitory to find that once again she had missed her dinner, assailed by the usual tumult of feelings that the cats had helped her escape for a time the previous week. In the following days, she returned every afternoon to the courtyard after her classes but she found neither the cats nor the Cantonese-speaking student. She was now as fascinated by the memory of the student of indeterminate sex as by the cats. Had he not spoken so cruelly, she might have listened more closely to his voice, to try to ascertain whether he was in fact a man. She tried to remember his voice but try as she might she could only remember the cruel words he had spoken. Had they been merely an awkward joke, or had he seen something in her, some inner truth that, despite her efforts, she could not keep concealed? She longed to see him again, but by the end of the week she’d lost hope that she’d ever see either cats or student again.

The following week, after her late class, she passed by the courtyard. Days shorten quickly at that time of year, and it was much gloomier than the first time she'd encountered the cats. This time, the courtyard was blocked off to pedestrians by orange plastic tape so bright that it shone even in the gloom. The brick paving had been dug up and the shrubbery uprooted, although for the moment the bench had been left in its position. As part of renovations to the Old Physics Building, an extension was being built. Eventually it would fill the space completely, and there would no longer be a courtyard at all. She found this discomfiting. Not for the first time since her arrival, the young woman felt on the verge of tears that, try as she might, would not fall. She leaned under the orange tape and sat on the bench forlornly. It took her some minutes to become aware of her surroundings, but when she did she noticed the two cats, meowing in the rubble just a few feet behind her. She stood and approached them cautiously. They seemed unruffled by her approach, as if they remembered her. She was close enough now to pet them, and she cajoled them in as sweet and soft a voice as she could muster. When she felt she had gained their confidence, she lifted them one by one and tucked them inside her jacket against her chest. Although it was against dormitory regulations, she decided she should smuggle them into her room at the dormitory – at least until she could find them a home, she promised herself. The young woman leaned over again to get under the orange plastic tape, but the sudden movement startled the cats and they panicked, kicking and clawing their way out of the jacket and scratching her chest, her cheeks, forehead, neck and hands before springing out of her jacket and disappearing around a corner. Feeling herself bleeding where she’d been scratched, she touched her wounds on her cheeks, her neck and her chest with her finger and felt the stickiness of blood, and in the gloomy light saw a dark smudge on her fingertips. She walked back to the dormitory with her usual poise. She went straight to her small room on the sixteenth floor. Though the blood quickly dried and stiffened on her skin, the wounds were still smarting. She coolly returned the stares of the fellow students she passed on her way. Only one of them, a boy who'd been very kind to her and whose motives she suspected, asked her what had happened, but she walked past him haughtily without replying, blushing crimson. She put herself straight to bed without tending to her wounds and listened to music until she fell asleep. She woke up in pain in the middle of the night still wearing her headphones. She had turned onto her stomach and irritated her wounds, which were now stinging. The light was still on. There were smears of red-brown blood on the sheets. She turned it off. Perhaps the cats' wounds would cause her to catch some disease. Strangely, as she fell back into half-sleep, the thought of falling ill was somehow consoling. It would be something to focus on. She slept only fitfully. In one of her dreams, her father scolded her, but he spoke in what sounded like Cantonese, and she couldn't make out why she was being scolded.

She was woken in the morning by the ringing of her mobile phone. She turned it off without answering, and disconnected the phone in the room too. She felt hot and put a hand to her forehead, noting with pleasure that she had a fever. She fell in and out of half-sleep all day, checking herself each time to see if she was, as she hoped, feeling worse. Sure enough, she was soon overtaken by flurries of flickering pain throughout her body, which she noted with satisfaction. There was a visit from her roommate, who came to tell her she was moving out. Why is the phone off the hook? asked the roommate, but the young woman didn't stir, pretending to be fast asleep. Her roommate shrugged and packed her bags, and left without saying goodbye. Late in the afternoon, there was a visit from the janitor, who was, she noted, the same sexually indeterminate student who'd so fascinated her just days earlier. By now she was beyond the point of caring about the sexually indeterminate student, or janitor, or whatever he was. He told her that she too should pack her bags, as a reservation had been made for her to fly home that very evening. Your father has taken suddenly ill and is at death's door, he said. Your mother and your sister have been trying to call you all day. There was no time to lose, he said. She was to pack quickly and go to the airport. He himself would drive her. Overjoyed, the young woman sprang out of bed and packed her bags. She took only what she would need, leaving her winter clothes behind her as it would be summer above the equator, and before leaving placed her keys on the desk and slammed the door to her room shut behind her, confident she would never again have to enter it. The janitor carried her bags to the car. She was dizzy with pain, and hungry too, but in her elation she barely noticed. She noted with astonishment that she was still dressed in her nightgown. They drove to the airport in the rain. Autumn was at an end. At home the plants on the balcony would be in full flower. Preparations would be made for the holiday by the emerald bay. She waved gratefully at the janitor as he drove away (he was almost definitely a man, she'd decided), shivering happily in the cold in the knowledge she was leaving it behind. Pushing a luggage trolley, she approached the check-in counter of the airline that operated the flights to her country - only the girl at the counter told her there was no flight to her country scheduled for that night, and moreover there was no record of a reservation made under her name.

Author's note: I didn't get time to post a story today, so as I have done on another occasion I have posted another story instead, a story I wrote several years ago.