Absent Without Leave


The cat was the first to leave.

Felicity didn’t notice, cats being shifty, sly creatures. But, when she looked back on it, the cat was the first.

It was a large, beefy cat, mostly black but with a white bib. It had been called Whisky, as a kitten, because of the time it whiled away whirling in energetic pursuit of its own tail. She had suggested, when it became an adult cat, re-naming it Stout. That would have suited its shape and its colouring. It could also have led to it leaving even sooner.

Her husband defended the cat’s bulk saying it was her fault for having him castrated.  The two men in the house had hotly opposed the castration, but that had been her price for tolerating a cat at all.

The thing about cats is that they often have two or three alternative homes on the go at once. It’s a way of hedging their bets, or maybe keeping their people up to the mark. Leaving home can then be gradual: a slow shift from occasionally eating elsewhere towards rarely eating at home. Eventually, the cat will leave the building.

Husbands know these strategies too.

At first it’s the occasional dinner missed because of ‘the need to work late’. Then there’s ‘the meeting in London’, requiring an overnight stay. It may escalate into ‘the weekend conference’, or even ‘the one-week training course’.

But husbands can’t move smoothly to the full and final transition. Once they are ‘keeping the golf clubs at the office’ it becomes clear they are on the move. If they say they are going to keep their collection of Grateful Dead recordings at the office, well, then they must expect some serious interrogation.

Cats, of course, don’t need to worry about interrogation. If a cat could speak it would lie with an ease any errant husband would envy. But no one ever asks a cat.

Ignorant of feline fickleness, Felicity thought her son was the first to leave.  He announced he was taking a gap year trip to India.  Waiting for his exam result, and knowing his Mum’s ignorance, he devoted part of the summer, to teaching her to send and receive emails.  She couldn’t get the hang of it.  She enjoyed being taught by him, but the machine had such odd ways and there was too much to learn.

When her daughters left for University she had been OK, but when her son left she was distraught.  She cried for hours, sitting amidst the chaos of his bedroom, wondering where to start.  Her husband grew impatient and used ‘the quiz-night at the pub’ excuse to get out of her way.

Eventually she decided to pull herself together.  She tidied the lad’s room into big, plastic under-bed boxes, and took a lot of the worst junk to the tip.  She enrolled on a quick computer course for beginners.  Her husband welcomed this.  He didn’t seem to mind her being out three evenings a week for four weeks.  She learned to receive, reply to, forward and save emails.  She learned about attachments.

About half way through the course Felicity set up the computer at home and received an avalanche of emails, mostly about the extraordinary generosity of East African governments.  There was a lot about Viagra, too.

And there was a backlog of forty or so emails from her son as he travelled to Vietnam.  In India he had met up with someone called ‘K’ who wanted to go that bit further.

Most of his emails asked about the cat.  How was Whisky?  Did Whisky miss him?  Was Whisky still sleeping on his bed all day?

That was when she first noticed an absence of cat.  For three months Whisky must have been a Schrödinger Cat but, now that she came to look, he was gone.  Not even a grin.

She interrogated her husband.  Eight years ago, the cat had been his choice, his way of consoling her son during a long bout of illness.  He had seemed fond of the cat.  It often spent the evening stretched out on his lap as he watched the telly.  Though, now she thought about it, she hadn’t seen it there for some time.  Her husband was often out in the evenings.

Under interrogation, he expressed surprise and ignorance.  He hadn’t seen the cat in ages.

She was puzzled.  Only now did she realise that she hadn’t put any food down for weeks.  Her son fed the cat regularly, but she had fed him occasionally, when her son forgot.  She had no recollection of filling the bowl since her son had left.

Mr Siddiqui, at the corner shop, agreed to put up ‘the lost cat’ poster.  After a couple of days a woman from two streets away called in to say the cat was living with her, had been for months.  She said it was called Padre.  The cat-thief apologised, saying the cat had begged for food, and seemed so hungry.  How, Felicity wondered, could a cat shaped like a football ‘seem so hungry?’

She sent an email to her son saying the cat had missed him so much it had left home.

She asked after the cat, sometimes, when she bumped into its new owner at the corner shop.  She sent emails to her son saying the cat was well in its new home and she had been invited to pay it a visit.

Felicity went round for coffee to the cat’s new house.  The cat was there, but it ignored her.  It had a bright red collar now, with an identity disc.  The new owner was a cat-lover and could, she said, talk about Padre for hours.  He was such a character.  Padre lay, motionless, basking by the gas fire.

To stem the flow of pussy trivia, Felicity asked about the new owner’s husband.

‘I’ve no husband,’ she said.  ‘He left me, just like yours.’

As Padre’s new owner prattled on, Felicity sat in silent shock.  The prattle was about the missing husband: dinners spoiled by ‘the need to work late’, ‘the meetings in London’, ‘the weekend conference’ and, finally, ‘the one-week training course’.

She had interrogated him.  He admitted there was an affair.  They had tried to patch things up, but the absences continued.  Eventually he had moved out to his girl friend’s flat.

During her long and bitter account she made comparisons with Felicity’s husband.

‘I could never see what my Stan saw in his fancy woman.  She was an ugly cow.  At least yours has picked a pretty one.’

And, later on, ‘Yours will come back, you’ll see.  She’s too young and flighty to settle down with him.  She’s just a saucy tart, having a bit of fun, so she’ll dump him for a younger man.  Then he’ll come back home with his tail between his legs.’

Eventually, Felicity pulled herself together.  She thanked her new friend for the coffee, and for looking after the cat.  She went home.

She sat at the kitchen table, alone.  Her husband was away at a meeting in London.  When night fell, she sat in the dark.  The phone rang.  Still in the dark, she answered and heard Marie, her daughter.

They hadn’t been talking long when Marie asked ‘Are you all right, Mum?’

‘I’m just sad because the cat has left home.’

‘But didn’t he leave yonks ago?  I didn’t see him once this summer.’

‘I went round to see him today, and I felt so sad.’  And as she said this, Felicity thought I’m glad it’s dark, so she can’t see I’m crying.

‘But why be so sad?  It was always a boys’ cat.  It never liked any of the girls in the house.’

There was a pause, as Felicity struggled to get control of her voice.  It took too long.

‘Is something really wrong, Mum?  Your breathing sounds funny.’

‘I’m OK.  Just tired, it’s been a long day.  I think I’ll have an early night.  I’ve a lot to do tomorrow.’

And, on the next day, she had a nice man round who changed all the locks.  She went to see a lawyer.  She invited three friends round for an evening of Bridge.

While she waited for her friends to come, she carefully packed her husband’s clothes.  She put as many as would fit into two suitcases, and put them outside the front door.  She stuck a note on the handle, addressed to her husband.

When the friends came, they didn’t play Bridge, they just sat and talked about divorces and adultery.

When her husband arrived home she heard him with his key at the door, failing to get it into the lock.  He banged on the door and she went and shouted through the letter box:  ‘Go away and read your note.’  She switched the porch light on, to help him.

There was a pause.  Then she heard him go to his car, but the cases in the boot, and drive away.

This was her note:

‘I wish I’d been kinder to Whisky.  You’re the one that should have been castrated.’

June 18th 2011


Robin W. Ahlgren

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 Posted by at 15:06

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