Beyond the Dawn
Once again, the morning came upon him like a thief. Eyes shut tight, he lay in the no-man’s land between sleep and waking that, for him, had become normality. For a lingering moment, he thought he smelt her hair next to him, the faint muskiness quenching his nostrils. The years bled away as morning mist lifts into the day, breath loitering expectantly. His mood gathered pace with his stiff loins and together they made preparations to rise, like the sun. He tilted towards her side of the bed, smiling. Then his synapses, slow shuffling in the geriatric dawn, caught up with themselves and here he was again – Groundhog Day. He rolled back and sighed. Eyes opening reluctantly, the sunlight that had played tricks with his mind now warm on his face, he stared at the ceiling and contemplated the day ahead.
Once off the horizontal, what he chose to do next was immaterial. At one time, to be up naked from the sheets and into a deluging shower was automatic. To be clean, to match her smooth, pink energy as well as for the childish pleasure of finger-squeaking his hair, was essential. Done without thought. Now, the choice was wide but barren. Coffee or tea? Dress or dressing gown? Toast or cereal? Or, as was often the case, simply nothing at all? Such choices were weightless, hence the slightest breath of wind might stir the sails into one direction or into quite another. Eat, wash, drink, stay in, go out? It was of no moment to him now.
Today, he sat at the kitchen table, toast hovering between table and mouth (precisely what need had he of a plate?), cheek resting thin on his hand. The day was settling into a well-worn and familiar groove. His thoughts turned ever inward, repining, as always, offering the line of least resistance. Why in all their long fallow time together had he not been kinder to her? He recalled their first years together. How his astonishment that such a girl should have consented to marry him had been turned upon its head when she suddenly fell dangerously ill. As she hovered close to death, he recalls events now with such precision: the acrid cleanliness of the ward, the mitred bed corners and flashing monitors. But it was her lank, unwashed hair and grey skin that had taken centre stage, obliterating pity, obscuring love. All he could feel was revulsion and not least with himself. As she recovered, he found himself awash with a guilt that drove deep.
Why had he never been able to show her how deeply he really felt? If there was such a fountainhead of love and affection, why had he been so niggardly towards her, his carping eyes forever unable to see the real person? (Or maybe it was just too well concealed?) Most painfully of all, why had he continued to find any illness or injury she suffered disgusting, her temporary frailty not evincing compassion but irritation? He recalled his final sight of her, lying in the hospice, her once strapping frame shrunken beneath the covers, cheeks sallow and cold. As he leant over dry eyed, the sour smell of death drifted across his nose and that same flinching response filled him with a familiar self-loathing. In the brief flirtation with a bereavement support group that had followed, the earnestly vouchsafed advice that he should ‘Learn to love himself’ had engendered only a mocking hoot. How could he, who apparently seemed incapable of loving anyone adequately, achieve such an astonishing feat?
Lifting out of his reverie, he began to chew the now cold toast and gazed blankly out of the kitchen window. The cat appeared like the Cheshire variety: one minute absent, the next there in all her marmalade glory. They startled one another and the cat’s mouth opened soundlessly as if in answer to his surprised ‘Hallo!’ Shuffling across to the door, he opened it. An orange shadow fell lightly onto the step and paused, but only momentarily. With a brief yowl, she breasted his defences and took possession of her objective. She had to make her demands abundantly clear before the vanquished brought forth sustenance. Then, after an initial sniff of displeasure, the four-day-old tuna was swiftly despatched and she set about assaying her conquest. The sour pit of his sheets seemingly entirely to her liking and the occupation was complete. He sat on the end of the bed and looked down at her sleek tawny completeness, enthralled.
Unlike any normal captive, he felt no animosity, no rancour towards his new gaoler. Indeed, it was as if she had always been there. His mornings now began with her feet kneading his sheets and his ears filled with her hungry rumbling. His days fell into sync with her movements. He became doorman to her duchess, opening and closing them as and when she required, ridiculously pleased by the occasional chirruped acknowledgement. His evenings, once as much a wasteland as the rest of his day, became a cocoon of mutual pleasure. The weight of her on his thighs became as fundamental as breathing. He arranged the flat to suit her needs and happily accommodated her ever-changing taste in food. Like a true aristocrat, she was gracious with her staff, bestowing a lick here or a passing chin rub there and a rumble of pleasure when settled on his lap. In those moments, he cared nothing that someone else might have a claim on her. Indeed, if anyone were to come asking, he knew he would fight tooth and nail to keep her.
Where she had come from, he had no idea. Likewise, he had no idea how old she was – with cats, age is harder to assess than with humans. When she began to lose weight, but still ate like a horse (‘Although surely I’m more of an Arab filly?’, she might have said), he was concerned. When the rich plush of her coat began to fade and surrender its sleekness, he worried and took her to the vet.
- No, he didn’t know how old she was.
- Yes, she was eating well, always had.
- Don’t worry, they said, it’s just old age. Nothing to be done.
- ‘It happens to us all’, the smooth faced child vet announced with a knowing smile quite empty of any knowledge.
He took her home gently, cradling the cat box against the autumn wind and the jarring of his steps. Once home, she faded like a brilliant flower past its best, her tonal range diminishing until in the spectral glow of the television, she descended into monochrome. He began to find pools of urine or loose bowel movements around the house. As he mopped them up, he saw the mortification in her averted head and found himself saying: ‘Don’t worry, love. You can’t help it’. As she washed herself less, he took to brushing her now lifeless coat, gently negotiating the bony terrain of her frame. Sensing something, she took to creeping from his lap up onto his chest and almost touched noses, her rancid cat breath curling into his, unnoticed.
One morning, as he knew it must, the end came. He woke to find her stretched out beside him as always, but now her head and ears seemingly too large for the shrunken body. There was still some life in her, though and he brought water in a dropper to moisten her thin black lips. He wiped her leaking eyes with a cotton bud and wept as she chirruped faintly. He felt her purr as he stroked her head, her eyes widening, twin almonds of green dazzling in the pale room. Her purr deepened as the now half closed lids fluttered like faulty shutters and then slid down for the last time. The rumbling continued, finally entering a slow decline into stillness.
In the half-light of the growing day, he brushed her fur with a pad of velvet until it gleamed almost as of old and then gently arranged her in her favourite sleeping position, all toes touching and curled like a comma.
His tears dried finally and in their place, he found a bewildering wellspring of contentment. He felt somehow purified by the trauma and alone with his destiny, yet at peace with the knowledge, finally, that he had given quite as much as he had received.