Alexander, by Peter Hully

The cat’s name is Alexander.  She’d chosen the name because of a famous chemist.  He didn’t know who she meant, but he pretended to anyway.   Now she’s not here, he thinks of the cat only as an ‘it’.  Its mews are chastisement, as it paws at the pink plastic bowl, scratching the base along the kitchen’s tiled floor.  He feels something fray and weaken within him, and he throws the newspaper to the floor.  The cat darts away, backwards and sideways.

He uses a fork to scrape out the ridged lumps of orange and brown.  The cat hunkers by the washing machine, watching.  Metal grates against metal.   He mashes at the lumps until the smell becomes too much.  His thighs tighten and he has to grip the counter to pull himself up.   The cat approaches.  It’s wary at first, but then it dives its head deep into the food, gagging as it eats and nudging the bowl around the floor.

Back in the chair, he can see that the cat is not right.  Midway along its stomach, the mottled brown fur drops down to a band of cold pink bristle, about as wide as his fist.  He approaches the cat and it continues to eat unabated.  He moves closer and the cat pauses, angling an eye at him and then returning to the food.  He places his hand on the bristle.  It’s cold and softly damp.  He can feel the cat’s guts and muscles squirm around.   The cat twists and catches him with the edge of a claw before dashing for the cat-flap.

He goes out into the small front garden. It’s early September and the yellow roses have already started to lose their petals.  Whoever did this might not have gone far, or could still be waiting.  But there’s nobody there. The bent piece of coathanger which usually latches the side gate shut hangs down loose.  He pulls the gate open and walks into the dark of the unlit alleyway between the two houses.  The back garden is empty, but there’s the gap between the shed and the back fence.  He stays close to the shed and creeps around, ignoring the cold damp swelling through his socks.  When he gets to the corner, he turns quickly, partly because he wants to surprise whoever might be there, but mainly to overcome his rising fear.   All that’s waiting for him is her bicycle, with its tyres punctured, and the twisted and rusted barbecue.  He holds onto the shed’s frame as his heart beats up in his throat.

*

The house is her house and not his.  He pours himself a glass of red wine.  It’s early, but it’s a Saturday.

He has two whole days with nothing to do.

He supposes he could go out.  There’s the pub at the end of the road, but it doesn’t seem inviting now that she’s not here.  He’d known her three weeks the first time they went.  They sat squashed up together against the jukebox.  Shaven headed men prowled the pool table and the barmaid screwed up her too much make-up face at his nervous politeness.  But all of this had just glanced off him without leaving a mark as they sat together and got good and drunk.

“What were you like as a child?”  She asked, leaning closer and gripping his arm.  Her voice was curious and without danger, but he didn’t speak right away.

“I learnt to whistle at an early age.   My mum thought it might be a sign that I was musically gifted, but . . .”  He lowered his head and trailed off into laughter at the absurdity that this is what he’d said.   “And now I’m an auditor.”

He expected her to be laughing too, but when he lifted his head back up he was met with a look of stern sympathy.

“That’s so sad, that you weren’t allowed to fulfil your potential.”   She said and held his arm tighter.

He thought it might be part of a drawn out joke and the punchline was still to come.

“My parents were brilliant.  Really they were.  Anything I showed an interest in, they supported.  Totally — one-hundred percent.”  She continued.

“No-no.   My parents were fine too.”  He said.  “I just wasn’t musically gifted.”

“But did you try?  What about instruments?  I had a piano and a cello.  A flute too.”

He remembered how he’d tried not to cry when the rest of the class had mastered ‘Three Blind Mice’, and he was left behind, floundering shrill and tuneless.  Frustration had overtaken him and he started to blow the wrong notes on purpose, wanting to be told to stop.  He decided not to tell her this, but the thought that he might thrilled him all the same.

“I took the cello to University, but it was such a drag having it there in that impossibly small room.  I think a boy broke it.”

He put his glass down and they both jolted at the bang it made as it hit the table.

*

The memory makes him finish his drink and pour another one.  He tries to remember her face.   A month or so later he managed to joke that her nose was a marshmallow, and she laughed and scrunched it up.  He made to pinch it but she jerked her head back, leaving his hand wavering.

He worries that he’s remembering this as a story now, instead of something that happened to him.   She used to sit on the counter next to the oven and eat cereal in the morning, always leaving the bowl on the side so that the crumbs crusted on, and he’d have to chisel at them with a spoon when he came to wash up.  Now she’s away, he feels as if he has to keep everything clean and right for her.

He checks for emails on his phone, but there’s nothing.  At first, there’d been messages: breathless long sentences about how thrilling it was to be out there and how much work they’d been doing with medicine and building things for the villages, but how she missed the cat, and of course him (she might have added a kiss after this).   The last message had been six weeks ago.  He supposes she’s moved on to another village – one without computers – like she said might happen.

He knows it’s dangerous out there.  He’s read articles about local gangs and militia and the things they do to those outsiders who come to make things better.

“Isn’t it risky.”  He asked.

She glared at him.

“These people need our help.”  She said, and he felt the familiar guilt of not being able to see things in a different way.

*

The cat-flap rattles and the cat pokes its head through.  It surveys the kitchen and snaps back and away when it sees him in the corner.  He thinks that he should call the police, but he’s not sure what he’d say.  He could imagine the policeman, or perhaps there’d be two of them.  They’d be disbelieving yet jovial, but then their attention would turn to him; who might want to do this?  Had he upset anyone?  Whereabouts was his girlfriend?  How long had he known her?  Why had he moved in?

*

She only visited his flat once.   He held the door open for her as she made her way into the narrow corridor which led into the living room and kitchen. She scanned the bare, dusty room, as though she might find something in there that was hers.

“You should move in with me.”  She said.  “What kind of a life can you have staying here?”

He didn’t say yes or no.  Instead he shrugged, and that was the way things had fallen.

*

The weekend before she left they held a party.  His friends said they were too busy, so everyone there was hers.  They wore scruffy, loose clothes, but spoke with a clarity and confidence that he found intimidating.  A dark, short man with long hair and a corduroy jacket brought a guitar, and everybody crammed into the living room to sit on the floor and listen to him play.  At first he found the atmosphere of earnestness to be too much, and he was worried he’d have to break away into another room because he didn’t get it.  But then he found himself to be drawn into the fast, spiralling intricacies of the melodies.  Just as he was nodding his head and getting it, the man would drum on the guitar – four beats like someone knocking on a door – then the melodies started again. The interruption was frustrating and unpredictable, but it’s what kept him there listening, sat on the floor and getting numb.

There was a punch at the party too.  They didn’t have a glass bowl, so it was served from five saucepans.  A moth-like, dreamy woman, who called everyone ‘sweetie’ or ‘my lady’, had made it.

“Take this darling.”  She said and passed him the red mug he usually drank coffee from.  The punch was the purple and orange slur of a cartoon sunset.  He took a sip and she nodded.  There was pineapple and peach and vodka, but then beneath it something else, an oily bitterness that made his stomach turn.  He took a sip of his beer, held his breath and managed to keep it all down.  He drank the rest of the punch like that, alternating each mouthful with a gulp of his beer, until he’d done his duty and it was gone.

An hour later and things had shifted.  The man was no longer playing his guitar.  Someone had put on some music he hadn’t heard before.  It was jittery and electronic, but also primal with mumbled chants rising up under layers of droning and bleeps.   The room wasn’t as busy as before, and he didn’t know where the people had gone — the bathroom or the kitchen, or the garden maybe.  She was there next to him, her arm weaved around his and her head on his shoulder.  As she breathed it bristled his flesh.  He stared at the carved wooden head next to the television.  She’d said it was from Africa: a souvenir from her first trip there after she graduated.  He’d never really paid it any attention before, but now he stared at it, taking it all in.  He saw that it wasn’t black, but rich shades of mahogany.  It became alive and rippled and pulsed as though it might burst into something wonderful.  He stared and stared, but it never quite got there.

“You’re so saintly.”  He said, her hair muffling his words.

“Huh?”  She said, turning around to stare at him with blackhole eyes.

“You’re so saintly, going away to help people.”  He said again, not sure if he’d ever meant anything as much before in his life.   She turned her mouth up into a lazy smile and brushed his hair, which he now found to be damp with sweat.

“I’m not.  Really I’m not.”  She said, sounding weary but kind.  “You realise, everything everyone does is always for themselves?”

He turned the words around in his head, but they didn’t settle down into meaning. Just as his thoughts started to grip, she kissed him, and then it was too late.

*

He lies on the settee in the living room, the TV on low and red wine crusting around his mouth.  The wooden head is still and furred with dust.  ‘Better off detached’.  He can’t remember where he’d read it, but the words had stuck and become a thought of his own.

*

The day after the party, his head was hollow and his skin clammy.  They took a room each as they tidied up.  She said it would be quicker that way.  He cleaned the kitchen, emptying the dregs of lager and cigarette butts and roaches from the half-drank cans into the outside drain.  He mopped the floor with the door open, filling the room with a cold emptiness.  The breeze felt good on his skin, but a film of chemical sweat still gripped his forehead.  There was too much water and he had to use three bath towels to soak it all up.  After he finished, he found her asleep on the settee, one foot rested on the floor and a cushion pulled across her chest.  The hoover was in the doorway with its cable wrapped tight around the handle.  She was going to the airport the next day, but he didn’t wake her.  He sat down on the sticky carpet and rested his head on the settee by her feet.  He stayed like that, hoping he too would fall asleep.  But then his neck started to ache and he needed a piss.

Next to the wooden head, there’s a photograph from the one holiday they’d taken together.  They spent a week on an island, lost out in the sea away from Scotland.  She said she longed for wilderness, and he thought he wanted to be with her.  They went on long walks, up over hills with marsh grass and sodden earth, walking through clouds that would open up to reveal the sea waiting for them below.  She had the right clothes, but his boots were too heavy and mud kept on clinging to the soles.  Every step made his legs ache, as the rustling of her waterproof trousers grew fainter, until all he could hear was the sound of the air and his own breathing.

*

Night falls with the passing of another empty day.  He lies alone in the bed, with his mouth dry.  The pillow is sticky and lumpy.  He flips it over, and pulls and pushes and punches at it.  He tenses at the sound of the catflap rattling downstairs — the cat going in or going out.  He thinks of what happened to the cat; who did it and what it might mean.   He wonders where the person might be now and if they’re watching the house.  He gets up and looks through the gap between the curtains and the window.  The houses and cars sit in strips of streetlight and murk.  A car drives past and he turns away from the window, flattening himself against the wall.  Once he can no longer hear the engine, he looks back out again, but there’s nothing for him to see.

Midnight comes and goes and he’s still awake.  The bed feels lumpier and he rolls about, not staying still long enough to fall asleep.

Better off detached.

Downstairs, the telephone rings.  He doesn’t move.  It rings and rings, echoing around the house that’s not his.  When it’s over, it’s the relief that finally pulls him away and into sleep.


Peter Hully is a 34 year old writer from Derbyshire, England.  His writing has appeared in The Mulberry Fork Review, Hot Metal Bridge and Page & Spine.

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