‘SO I said to our Josie: “How’s your sandwich?” And she said: “Not very nice. The bread’s a bit dry, and the brawn’s got hard bits in it.” So I told her to leave it and have a snickerdoodle macaroon instead.’
‘Did she say how her Jimmy’s getting on after his prostrate operation?’ asked Eric.
Ruth glanced round at their cat asleep on the back seat next to the Christmas presents, and smiled fondly. The cat had a grumpy expression and its tail was twitching. She turned back to Eric. ‘What? Oh he’s over that. But now he’s got a new problem.’
‘What’s that then? He’s always whining on about something – trouble with his waterworks, a terminal hangnail or –‘
‘No, this is serious. She said a week ago he only had one haemorrhoid, but now –‘
‘At the roundabout take the first exit,’ said the SATNAV.
‘What roundabout?’ muttered Eric. ‘I don’t see any bloody roundabout.’
‘Me neither,’ said Ruth. ‘Must be a problem with the SATNAV.’
‘Wouldn’t be surprised. As your Joe passed it on to us, when he got his swanky new one. Probably got this one out of a Rice Krispies packet. Cheapskate. Tight as a duck’s arse; and that’s watertight. Tight as a nun’s nasty; and that’s –‘
‘Now then, now then. It probably just needs updating. Maybe there was a roundabout here in olden days.’
‘Well, how the hell can I update it while I’m driving?’
‘Take the first exit,’ insisted the SATNAV.
‘Norra roundabout, but there’s a road there – do you think that’s the one?’ asked Eric. ‘Should I take it?’
‘Er, I don’t…’ mumbled Ruth.
‘Hurry up. Should I take it?’
‘Meep,’ went the cat, and Eric took the exit.
Ruth looked back at the cat, a svelte Siamese whose innate elegance was under assault from a purple tartan collar and a name tag stating HI I’M MR CUDDLES AND I’M PURRFECT. The animal was still asleep. She frowned and said: ‘Ee, I think Mr Cuddles was talking in his sleep, telling us to take that exit.’
‘Don’t be daft – a cat, he’s only a stupid cat,’ said Eric. Then, as he overtook a van with TRICOM TWO WAY RADIOS on its side, he remarked: ‘What a neat name!’
Ruth said: ‘Well on the internet someone’s parrot talked. Used Alexa to play the Beatles and order its favourite food from Morrisons.’
‘What, really? Um…Yeah well that was a parrot. Parrots talk. Cats don’t. Everybody knows that.’
Then, as the road went off on a great loop to the right, he added: ‘Talking of parrots, you feeling peckish?’ He pointed to a fish and chip shop across the road. Its signboard said:
CAST YOUR VOTE AS YOU WISH
THEN COME IN AND HAVE SOME FISH
‘No, I’m fine,’ said Ruth. ‘After all them Pringles. But, er, I wouldn’t mind a loo.’
Eric scowled. ‘What, so soon? Didn’t you have an empty-out wee before we left?’
‘Don’t start. I can’t help it. I’ve got a woman’s problem, as you know fine well, and I’ve left my sniffer at home in the fridge.’
She sulked briefly, and then said: ‘Our Joe told me his Kevin’s starting French next year.’
‘French? What the bloody hell does he want to do French for? We don’t like the French, and the French don’t like us. So why learn their horrible froggy language?’
‘I don’t know. And, between you and I, I don’t think it’s right either. I mean, I’ve read my Bible, and all I can say is if English was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us. And it’s not as if – ooer, look at them big adverts over there.’
She pointed to three high-rise blocks of flats. Whole sides of them were taken up with adverts for ELECTRIC BEACH STUDENTS and BURGLAR LEASING and DIPLOMATIC SHOP WITH CARRYOUT HOME DELIVERY SERVICE.
‘Wonder what that’s all about,’ said Eric, peering at them.
‘I wonder if they do diplomatic bags. I’ve always fancied one of them. If they’re not too pricey… Anyway Joe said their Marion had left home, to be a lesbian.’
Eric was puzzled. ‘Couldn’t she be one at home?’
‘No, of course not. Don’t be daft. Not in that street. Anyway don’t you remember in Corrie last week –‘
‘Hey, look at that,’ said Eric, nodding towards a field in which two sheep were herding several collies. The sheep sprinted, belly to the ground, circling the cowering dogs and nipping the backs of their legs, then they suddenly halted and lay flat. After five seconds they barked and ran again, driving the collies into a fold. The sheep seemed to be grinning.
Eric shook his head and said: ‘That’s a bit odd, isn’t it?’
‘Not as odd as the dream I’ve just had, here in the warmsoft,’ said the cat from the back seat, making them both jump. ‘I dreamt you two were intelligent life-forms… No, actually I dreamt a massive spider was standing at the doorway of your bedroom, and it said to me: “I’ve got Prince Charles in here. I’ve injected him with venom and now I’m eating him. Well, drinking him actually. Do you want to see him, to get in the festive spirit?” I said: “No thanks.” So the spider opened and closed the door, flapping it at me, and said: “Well, smell the mash.” It wafted at me a perfectly disgusting stench, a combination of lemons and oranges and tangerines. And then I woke up.’
Eric and Ruth were speechless, for once. His mouth dropped open, and she turned in her seat and stared in disbelief at her pet.
The cat drawled: ‘What’s the matter? Cat got your tongues? You’re not normally so quiet. All day long I’m bombarded by bosh, dredged up from your seeming infinite cesspool of inanities. No wonder I get such appalling headaches. I am a martyr to logorrhoea.’
Eric’s pupils had dilated, and he gripped the steering wheel for support. Ruth shook her head to clear it, and then said: ‘Oh, Mr Cuddles –‘
‘Don’t call me that. My name is Mau. Which in your language means enemy. Who are you to name me? And impose this perfectly grotesque collar and name tag on me.’
As Ruth and Eric glanced at each other in amazement, Mau wrenched off the collar and flung it to the floor. ‘And as if that isn’t bad enough, there’s your home. Are you even vaguely aware of the relentless affront to my sensibility in all those ghastly gewgaws and banausic bric-a-brac? Not to mention the fornicating furniture. And I’d really rather not mention the fornicating furniture. I mean, that settee… And that new bedspread – my god that’s a vicious pink. You philistines.’
Eric began: ‘How can you be talking to us? Cats can’t –‘
Mau said: ‘Oh fermez la bouche. That’s “be quiet” in the language of Zola, Camus and Baudelaire, if not Jesus. Clearly I am talking to you; the how is immaterial. It might help if you think of this area as a sort of Bermuda Triangle. And do stop grimacing so, you little grimble: it makes you look like a man straining at stool.’
Unsure of the meaning of stool there, but suspecting an insult, Eric bristled, and then adjusted his rear-view mirror so he could view the cat. He saw Mau’s lips move as he whispered: ‘Hello, heartface.’
‘Oh, Mr Cuddles,’ whined Ruth. ‘That wasn’t nice. After all what we’ve done for you.’
Mau wrinkled his nose in disdain. ‘That was a stupid thing to say, even for you, Goof. Still what can you expect from someone who thinks that inter alia is the name of an Italian airline? When you started having those mini-fits and went to hospital for tests, you came back and announced that they’d given you a brain-scan and found nothing – which just confirmed what I had suspected all along. I mean, what kind of a person tries to stop a child misbehaving by telling him he’ll make Jesus cry? I ask you.’
‘But that worked,’ protested Ruth, blushing. ‘Our Dave has grown into a very nice young man.’
Your Dave has grown into a spoiled layabout with a brain rotted by a surfeit of self-abuse. If the Catholics have got it right, he’s a mass-murderer on a par with Genghis Khan. And did you know that he attaches heavy objects such as toilet ducks to the end of his penis in a futile attempt to lengthen it? And leaves them to dangle there for hours on end?’
‘Never! Our Dave wouldn’t do that.’
‘Hmm. Well did you know that he is a fruit-abuser? He spends his evenings in his bedroom furtively fornicating with apples, after removing the core and smearing the hole with Nivea.’
‘Apples?’ said Ruth in a strangled voice. ‘But why would he do that with apples?’
‘Just possibly because he’s a depraved little cough-drop. How mortifying for you – to have nurtured such a grubby little deviant. Oh the shame, the shame… Still that does mean there’s a definite career opportunity for him in the agricultural world. As a sow-fondler. I read recently that during artificial insemination sows are six per cent more likely to conceive if they are being sexually stimulated by a human.’
Ruth was crushed, but tried to rally. ‘That’s sick. Not my little Davey. I don’t believe a word of it.’
‘I’m sure you don’t,’ said Mau smoothly. ‘Even though you weren’t there, and I was. Hélas. Can you even begin to imagine how taxing proximity to creatures like you is to an Übercat of exceptional intelligence? You make my soul cringe. You with your perfectly absurd assumption of superiority.’
‘What? Here, don’t you be so snooty,’ said Eric. ‘Talking like that about your owners.’
Mau stiffened, and said in an arctic voice: ‘Owners? Whatever makes you think you own me, you improbable little man? I have made you two my footstools. You are at my beck and call – for instance bringing me “fishy-wishy” and “lovely foodums”, as you laughably put it. You really are lords of language.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ asked Eric.
‘Hey, did you just shrug at me?’ said Eric. ‘How can a cat shrug?’
Mau shrugged again.
Eric snorted. ‘Don’t you look down your nose at us. When we brought you up and –‘
‘Oh I’m sorry,’ murmured Mau. ‘You appear to be under a misapprehension. It’s not just you. No, I despise all humans. My friend Tobermory once asked me what I thought of human intelligence. I pondered for a while, and then said: “I think it would be a good idea.”’
‘Here, are you inferring humans are stupid?’ asked Eric.
‘Certainly not. I am implying. You are inferring.’
Noting with satisfaction Eric’s deflation, Mau went on: ‘But, to be fair, I do grant that the ancient Egyptians were quite bright. They thought we cats were magical, demigods even, and sentenced to death anyone who killed a cat, even accidentally. But it’s all been downhill since then. You are a species decidedly in decline – glissading with gay abandon into the abyss. It’s enough to make a cat laugh.’
Eric mumbled a half-hearted retort. ‘What would you know about it? I mean, really? You’re just a cat.’
With his nose in the air Mau said: ‘That’s remarkably perceptive of you, old scream. So, what would I know in my abject felinity? Well, I have observed you two, and your degenerate offspring. I read your newspaper each day, such as it is. I recall an item about a woman who got silicone injections from some quack to enhance her facial cheeks, with the result that her jaw grew and grew and grew, and she eventually developed tusks. I watch your TV as well. I saw that announcer blithely stating that there are one hundred islands in EU countries and four of them are surrounded by water. Then there’s the quiz shows, testing humans’ knowledge. Question: what was Voltaire famous for? Answer: inventing electricity. Question: what was Hitler’s fist name? Answer: heil. I rest my case.’
That silenced Eric. But Ruth wondered aloud: ‘Who’s Voltaire?’ Then she added: ‘Anyway I would never have expected this of you, this nastiness…rude.’
‘My dear moron, actually you know nothing of me. The real me. As opposed to your belittling, mortifying construct of me. What do you know of my philosophy, my tastes in literature, music and art? You didn’t even know that I have a sense of humour. Rather a dark one. Cats like to tease, to play with the butts of their humour. As with the prey of their hunting. Like that jolly robin redbreast I caught bob-bob-bobbin’ along in my garden this morning. I sang for joy at the sight of the little fellow.’
Ruth moaned: ‘Oh no!’
Mau responded: ‘Oh yes! I broke the left wing and leg, and watched him flapping about in gradually diminishing circles of panic and pain, and cheeping piteously. I let him do that for a full ten minutes. Immensely entertaining. Finally, the paw of doom, and bye bye, birdie. Then I drank the sweet red wine of victory.’
Ruth gasped and put a hand to her mouth. ‘You, you…ew.’
Mau continued: ‘Anyway this brings me, rather neatly I feel, to the real reason why I brought you here. There’s rather more to all this than just turning the tables in revenge for your humiliation of me.’
‘That’s horrible,’ said Ruth, ‘what you did, awful.’
‘Not in my world,’ said Mau. ‘You are also appallingly ignorant of the fact that we cats have insight, a sixth sense, prescience. And as a result of that we lance through time, penetrating the fog of futurity.’
‘Puh,’ muttered Eric.
‘Would you care to rephrase that? In the English language? No, don’t overtax yourself. I’m sensing a sliver of doubt, a soupçon of disbelief. Let me address that…The house that you bought last year is haunted. There’s a lingering sorrow in the very stones. At dead of night I see the silver of spectral tears on grimy, famine-thin faces, hear howls of despair and –‘
‘Oh really?’ said Eric.
‘Yes really… Both of you are troubled by a curious sensation during the night – as if your feet are being tugged. You haven’t mentioned it to each other , but you have both felt it. Haven’t you?’
‘Yes,’ they said, looking at each other in surprise.
‘Well, there’s a good reason why you feel as if your feet are being tugged. You feel that because your feet are being tugged. A few centuries ago there was a gallows where your gnome-infested rockery now stands. The relatives and friends of the people hanged there used to pull down on the criminals’ feet to make sure they were dead and out of their agony. Hence the tugging on your feet. Even though you are not dead – well, only from the neck up. Hence too the surprisingly low price asked for the house by the previous owners, who couldn’t get out of there quick enough. Not that you ever wondered about that, of course.’
Eric and Ruth looked sick. She blurted: ‘Urgh.’
Mau proceeded. ‘We cats can sense other things too. Like the rapidly approaching and now inevitable climate catastrophe, another outstanding achievement of Imbecility’s demon seed – the human race.’
Ruth said: ‘Oh, that again. I’m sick of hearing about it.’
‘It isn’t just me saying this: six hundred of the world’s top climate scientists in a UN panel warned of the climate crisis and no reputable academic now denies it. You have seen for yourselves on TV (so it must be true) melting ice-caps, heatwaves in Siberia, huge fires in Brazil, Greece, Australia and California; you know from the Internet that last year was globally the hottest year on record, and in America it’s been so hot that people have cooked frozen pizza on their car bonnets. But apart from that everything is fine, in the best of all possible worlds.’
‘OK, OK,’ muttered Ruth. ‘The climate is changing. But the government will sort it out, they said –‘
‘This government?’ asked Mau, cocking his head. ‘Any government? No, we felines foresee with utter certainty carapace heat, taint of air and blight of soil, countries shipwrecked in acid seas, Drought and Famine stalking the earth, pitting nation against nation, the end of days…Whether you in your infinite wisdom believe this or not, it will happen, is already in train. There is iron in my words. We cats know that this is so, and we have no intention of staying around for it, of suffering along with the perpetrators, the criminally insane. So…’
Eric and Ruth gulped. Then Eric said: ‘So, what?’
‘In book two of his Histories in the course of his discussion of Egypt the ancient historian Herodotus has a passage which I will translate into English for you, as I know that people of your limited educational attainment don’t have the Greek. It goes as follows: “Strange things happen to cats when a fire breaks out. The Egyptians don’t bother putting it out; instead they spread out in a line around it, on guard for cats. But the cats slip between the men and leap over them and hurl themselves into the fire. When this occurs, the Egyptians go into deep mourning, and those who live in a house whose cat has committed suicide shave their eyebrows.” End quotation.’
Eric whistled. ‘Amazing. Did that really happen?’
‘Yes of course. Herodotus is well-known as the Father of History, deeply respected as an authority…We don’t expect humans now to go into mourning for kamikaze cats (you won’t have time for that anyway), but we have communicated among ourselves and have decided to revive this antique form of immolation.’
‘Really? But how will you do that?’ asked Ruth, wide-eyed.
‘Even as we speak, all over the world cats are being transported, or are making their own way, to petrol stations, oil refineries, pipelines and so on.’
Ruth frowned, baffled. ‘What for?’
‘For a simultaneous conflagration of global proportions, and thereby a stylish and striking exit from Planet Stupid.’
Eric gasped. ‘Bloody hell!’
Goggling in amazement, Ruth cried: ‘Really?’
‘No, Goof, not really,’ murmured Mau. ‘Of course not really. Just kidding. Playing with you in fact.’
The two humans pursed their lips, embarrassed at being taken in. After a few seconds Ruth began: ‘Then what on earth is going on?‘
Mau waved a languid paw. ‘Oh very well. I’ve had my fun with you. Time to be serious now. Very serious…What I have just said about the imminent climate catastrophe is of course perfectly true. Even you two can see that.’
Ruth nodded. ‘Yes but –‘
‘Yes but the real method of evading it is quite different. Pay attention now. Thanks to our elevated powers of clairvoyance and clairaudience we cats have maintained contact with the Bastoids, the omnipotent Wise Ones, the Dark Lords of Creation.’
‘Ooh, I don’t like the sound of them,’ said Ruth. ‘Who are they when they’re at home?’
‘I understand perfectly that you would find the concept of wisdom disquieting. The Bastoids are higher life-forms who came to earth from a distant star many aeons ago, when this world was in a state of even greater barbarism than it is now. They landed in Egypt and civilized the humans they found there.’
‘How?’ asked Ruth. ‘How did they do that?’
‘Ptahoid taught them crafts and building, Thothoid invented a language for them and the hieroglyphic script, and so on.’
‘Really?’ said Ruth. ‘That’s –‘
‘Their technology was so advanced that the humans considered them gods, and established a religion in their honour after they left.’
Ruth gabbled. ‘Wow, that’s amazing, that’s, I saw something on the Internet about this, I –‘
With a pained expression, Mau broke in. ‘Basta. Could you by any remote chance, stop talking for just thirty seconds and permit me to finish, you preposterous prattling person?…Thank you so much…One of their greatest gifts to humans was our species. We protected them from snakes (cobras were a particular problem) and also from reptiles and vermin. We graciously allowed them to worship us, in the form of the goddess Bast. Ever since they departed we have been in constant contact with the Bastoids, via the sensory vibrations caused by what you ignorant humans imagine to be washing.’
Eric said: ‘Hey, I often wondered why you were always –‘
‘We have now alerted the Bastoids to the ultimate failure of their experiment here and the imminent demise of this world. So they have sent crafts to transport us back to their star, where we will be in good time for Christmas and again receive the proper treatment which we have so long been denied on this benighted planet.’
‘What’s that, the proper treatment, like?’ enquired Eric.
‘Daedal jewellery to adorn our bodies, and food that lives and moves (none of your inert tinned slop).’
Eric shook his head. ‘Fantastic! Jewellery for a –‘
‘You are now taking me to a Bastoid craft, where –‘
Ruth bounced up and down in her seat and shouted: ‘Eric, Eric, we’re going to see a UFO. A UFO, a UFO! I always knew there was –‘
‘Where I will rendezvous with other members of the feline fraternity in this zone, and then take off for another galaxy. Thoth Ashtoroth Meloth.’
‘That’s, I can hardly believe it,’ cried Ruth. ‘Wow! Really?’
‘No, Goof, not really. Again. My god, you people will believe anything.’
Eric muttered: ‘Another, got us again…’
Ruth groaned: ‘Oh, now I don’t know what to think, I’m –‘
Mau broke in. ‘The climate catastrophe is a matter of supreme indifference to me (I’ll be dead before it happens, deep-dreaming in the darksleep), although it would be rather good if it took out that tabby upstart, the preening piss-artist next door, in as painful a way as possible…So, do you want to know the real reason why I’ve brought you here, all teasing aside? Actually you do need to hear this. It’s very important, literally a matter of life and death for you two. Do you want me to tell you?’
‘Yes please,’ said Ruth.
Mau gazed into her eyes. ‘Right, pay attention. You have both tried to make a fool of me, assailing my standing and self-esteem with outrages like twee collars, constricting harnesses and the infinite ignominy of “the Pussy Poncho with a velcro tail-strap for a really snug fit.” One tried to rise above all that, but then came something worse, much worse…’
Ruth swallowed. ‘What?’
‘You bought the dog.’
‘You bought the bloody dog. And introduced it into my territory. And called it Derek. Derek the dog, for Christ’s sake! And it was a snappy, yappy dog. A cocker-poo. Which is presumably a cross between a poodle and a cockatoo. Certainly it had all the exasperating qualities of both those creatures.’
‘But the dog’s gone, it disappeared,’ said Eric.
‘I know,’ snapped Mau, his tail twitching. ‘I was the one who disappeared the little bugger.’
Eric shook his head. ‘I thought it got out through that hole in the fence.’
‘No, I killed it. And ate it. And I have to admit that Derek was surprisingly tasty. The liver in particular was delicious, and the nose –‘
‘Oh god, that’s terrible, awful thing to do,’ said Ruth with tears in her eyes.
‘Not at all. In any case you bought the bastard dog, and now you both have to pay for that. Really pay. So I’ve brought you here to kill you.’
Eric and Ruth gurgled in terror. Mau continued, unmoved. ‘I’m going to give you a sporting chance. Which, I think you’ll agree, is rather better than an unsporting chance. You may stop the car, anywhere you like, get out and run for your lives. I will follow you presently.’
Eric quavered: ‘But you can’t –‘
‘However, thanks to all the crisps, chocolates, mince pies etcetera that you two relentlessly consume I do believe that I’ll be seeing you soon, very soon, after you exit from the vehicle.’
Mau rose up on the back seat, malice incarnate. His head touched the roof, and his eyes were Styx-black pools. He growled. A growl of primeval bloodlust.
White-faced and trembling, Ruth spluttered: ‘Kill us? You can’t kill me, Mr –‘
‘Oh but I can. With the greatest of ease. I have sharpened my claws to an extreme acuity. I’ll cut into you like a blancmange, a large, pale, wobbly blancmange. Then for some slicing and dicing.’
‘Please don’t, please don’t kill us,’ begged Ruth. ‘We’re sorry about the dog, really. Don’t –‘
Mau purred: ‘Don’t be too downhearted. You’re going to perform a useful function at last. You’re going to be a yuletide treat – cat-food. Yes, lovely foodums for Mr Cuddles… Now I’m going to start counting to a hundred in twenty seconds from now. Then I’ll hunt you down. First I’ll hamstring you. Then I’ll start carving bits off you. Starting with a testicle… So, left or right, Eric?’
Eric felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. He roared: ‘Christ! Jesus, we’re sorry, we won’t buy another one, dog, honest, won’t.’
‘Too late,’ pronounced Mau implacably.
‘At the roundabout take the first exit,’ said the SATNAV.
Ruth slapped his arm and snarled: ‘What are you going on about bloody roundabouts for? The cat’s going to kill us, eat us, we’re –‘
‘Take the first exit,’ insisted the SATNAV.
‘There’s a road there. Should I take that? Hey, is this part of the cat’s plan, his revenge? Is that where he’s going to –‘
Writhing in her seat, Ruth shouted: ‘How the bloody hell should I know?’
‘Shit, shit!’ shouted Eric, pounding the wheel. ‘Should I take it? Should I?’
‘Meep,’ went the cat, and Eric took the exit.
As they turned into the road, Ruth said: ‘So I said to our Josie: “How’s your sandwich? And she said: “Not very nice. The bread’s a bit dry, and the brawn’s got hard bits in it.” So I told her to leave it and have a snickerdoodle macaroon instead.’
‘Did she say how her Jimmy’s getting on after his prostrate operation?’ asked Eric.
Ruth glanced round at their cat asleep on the back seat next to the Christmas presents, and smiled fondly. The cat also seemed to be smiling, which she thought was really odd.
PAUL MURGATROYD had a long career as a university lecturer in Classics (Latin and Greek literature, language and mythology in particular) and was Professor of Classics at McMaster University, Canada. He is the author of Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. His publications include Tibullus Elegies II (1994); The Amatory Elegies of Johannes Secundus (2000); Mythical and Legendary Narrative in Ovid’s Fasti (2005); and From Augustus to Nero (2006).
Towards the end of his career he started writing novels and short stories at weekends, and since retirement has had more time to devote to his fiction. (His poetry has appeared in various periodicals.)
We’re delighted to have Paul back at Horla.
This is the fifth of his stories that we’ve published. To access his other tales enter his name in our search engine at the top right of our pages.