Just a Cat

insomnia story

It was 2.56am when it occurred to Emma that she could not remember the name of her childhood friend’s cat. Lindsey had been her timid next-door-but-two-neighbour, and her cat had been completely black with an incongruously bright pink nose. Emma’s daughter had reminded her of the creature that evening.

‘A kitten got stuck on the gym roof today!’ Lucy’s voice was thick from the garlic bread she hadn’t quite swallowed. Emma looked at her sleepily, feeling grateful that her fourteen-year-old was animated by kittens on roofs rather than alcohol – unlike her son, who had already escaped their household for a ‘quiet drink’ with his friends.

‘My friend’s cat did that once,’ Emma told her, scraping Bolognese sauce into the bin. Lucy did not ask her for more information, nor did Emma think about the matter any further. It was not until 2.56am, during her weekly bout of insomnia (coinciding with the nights her son was out until the early hours of the morning) that she realised she could not remember the cat’s name.

At first Emma distracted her anxieties over Jamie’s whereabouts and the maddening void of memory where the cat’s name should have been by thinking of their next holiday. Only four months to wait now. They hadn’t booked the hotel yet. Jamie hadn’t even decided if he was coming. Alan probably hadn’t spoken to his boss about the time off. She felt worse than before. The clock read 3.04am in optimistic red numbers. Emma felt dejected again; only eight minutes had passed and she was no closer to remembering the cat’s name or falling asleep. Worse still, her son hated spending time with her so much he’d rather stay at home for ten days on his own.

Perhaps, Emma resolved, she should do something else. Count the furniture. She sat up, smoothing her hair down as though someone would be able to see it. The objects in her room, blots and blurs in the darkness, suddenly seemed so inert. She couldn’t see them against the background of her warmly mundane life with Alan. Instead, they seemed like insipid remnants of a life she no longer wanted. The wooden dresser, adorned with artificial flowers to conceal dents and scratches, seemed pointless and incongruous against the ‘lemon spirit’ coloured walls. Alan had read that yellow walls were calming; they made Emma think of jaundice. The paint itself was curling away and flaking off like moulting skin. Sometimes the bouts of insomnia that settled over Emma were so impenetrable and disorientating that she found herself absentmindedly picking at a patch of the scaly, flaking paint at her side of the bed. She was always surprised the following day to discover specks of yellow beneath her fingernails.

Alan promised every day to repaint the walls ‘tomorrow’. Overwhelmed by her sudden, though not unfamiliar, spasm of nocturnal discordance, Emma wondered what the point would be. The paint would only peel again, the patches discolour with age. Who even saw their bedroom anyway? Was there any need to indulge in the inexorable circles of domestication?

Emma tried harder to remember the cat, resolving that she wouldn’t be able to sleep until she did. Moving her eyes away from the peeling paint, she thought of Lindsey, of the friendship they shared from the age of four to the age of twelve. Surely this would arouse some spontaneous memory of the wretched animal. They had not been too close, Emma remembered. Occasional afterschool play sessions and walks-home that dwindled as they reached their teen years. As if it was news, Emma was surprised to recall the embarrassment she began to associate with her next-door-but-two-neighbour as they grew older. She imagined Lindsey now, chewing on her collar as she drew chemical equations onto lined paper. At the elbows of Lindsey’s slightly yellowed school shirt was a perpetual stain of tiny brown-red freckles, evidence of the chronic eczema that had permeated her childhood with self-consciousness. The three buttons at the collar were heart-shaped; occasionally the neckline would become speckled with blood too.

This memory of Lindsey was solid and warm, as though she was standing in front of Emma now, back to the peeling-jaundice walls. Emma thought about how these arbitrary images formed a dot to dot picture of a past she had never bothered to contemplate. But she wasn’t connecting all of the dots. She was ignoring one entirely. Drawing the picture without it; it was prettier that way.

Guilt coiled in Emma’s stomach with the same sickening motion she felt whenever she thought of something displeasing from her past. A car’s headlights moved past the window. The light ran from one side of the room to the other, disappearing with the noise before Emma had time to process it. Twelve-year-old Lindsey was gone by the time Emma looked up. She thought of her again, trying to force her presence back into the bedroom. The enflamed elbows against her rolled-up sleeves stirred a further, less pleasant memory of smooth cursive on a blackboard and faded textbooks adorned with genitalia on almost every page. She thought of the girls sniggering behind Lindsey’s back, throwing bits of paper into her untidy plaited hair.

Emma felt suddenly unbearably itchy, shaking her head to disengage the memory’s autonomous progression; breathless, she kicked the duvet away. Her scalp felt uncomfortably prickly as she dug her fingers through her hair to scratch it as though she had lice. She glanced over at Alan, at his thinly veined eyelids fluttering occasionally to reveal slits of white with miniscule branches of pink. His nose looked more apelike in the dim light, his close-set eyes too close. He looked peaceful.

She wished she could tell him. Tell him what? About the cat? Why she couldn’t sleep? That she was unhappy? Was she unhappy? She still couldn’t breathe properly, tasting imprisoned air and dust in her dry mouth. There was something sorrowful in the yellow glow of the jaundice walls and worn carpet; a dense, shoreless universe curling around her.

Emma waited until her heartrate slowed before creeping out of bed. The floorboards creaked in the same places they always had, the door whined as she opened it just enough to slide out. The landing was darker than the bedroom but the air seemed fresher. As Emma walked down the stairs with both hands on the rails, she felt as though the darkness was watching her, pulsing and breathing as erratically as herself.

3.26am: Emma’s heartbeat became loud enough to compete with the shriek of the kettle’s crescendo. She felt suddenly sick. It seemed like such an intrusion that her irrational emotions could dictate the practical comportment of her physical body like this. Why was Lindsey forcing her presence into Emma’s life after all this time?

Emma shook the memory away again; she glanced at the lemon and blueberry cake Lucy had baked three days ago. Only a quarter remained now, it was probably stale. She’d throw it away tomorrow and tell Lucy she finished it for lunch. The blueberries, some detonated from their mauve skins into red debris, looked like acne on pale skin. Berry!? Was the cat’s name Berry? No. She felt her cheek itch.

Emma placed her head in her hands, hummed without tune. The kitchen smelt of unwashed clothes. Emma imagined Alan sitting opposite her as he had seven hours ago at dinner. She thought of the way he removed his glasses to tell a story, pushed his plate three inches forward and rested his elbows on the space he’d created. His delivery was always clumsy; chasing sentences after one another. She always had to look over his shoulder when he spoke like this, at the harlequin-patterned lampshade on the coffee table. She wondered if Alan observed her little habits: the way she wet her lips, twitched her ankles as she read, scrunched one nostril at a time after she’d sneezed. He probably hadn’t noticed any of them.

The smell of the kitchen became unbearable. Emma moved to the living room; it was cooler in there. She surveyed the cabinet in the corner of the room, the one ornamented with countless photo-frames. A delirium of birthdays, Christmases and summer holidays; she felt nauseated. There were few photos of Emma; she preferred pictures of Alan and the kids. If she did stumble across her freckled hand visible over Lucy’s shoulder, or her unrouged lips beside Alan’s wideset grin, she would tuck it behind the corpus of other frames.

Emma sat cross legged on the floor. She flicked through the TV guide she found wedged beneath the armchair. With her chin resting against her fisted hand, Emma circled anything that interested her and put a star next to anything that really interested her. For a few moments, she thought she had forgotten all about the cat; it wasn’t until she shifted her weight, relaxed her fist, that she realised she had pierced four crescents into her skin with her fingernails. Was the cat called Moonlight? Moony? Star? No. Lindsey wasn’t that clichéd.

It was 4am now and Emma wanted to cry because Jamie said he’d be home by 3am and Alan said he’d repaint their bedroom two years ago and she couldn’t remember the name of stupid Lindsey’s stupid cat. Emma thought of Lindsey’s chewed collar again. She closed her eyes and imagined the group of girls sat behind Lindsey on the bus. Remembered the way they’d pour the contents of her school bag out the window. Call her names; laugh at her protests. Emma reluctantly thought of the silver flash of scissors she witnessed one of the girls carrying onto the bus as she presented the bus-driver with her pass. The high-pitched cackles as they cut away one of Lindsey’s plaits. The way it fell to the floor like a piece of old rope, rolling to the back of the bus until it stopped beside Emma’s book-bag. Lindsey’s sparkly, wet eyes looking at Emma. Directly at Emma.

This was the dot Emma refused to join up in her picture. It wasn’t the worst thing Emma had ever done, not even close. She had stopped feeling guilty for her cowardice before she’d even finished school, just as Lindsey’s hair had grown back. In that moment, however, at 4.07am, this was the one memory Emma would return to if she could. Just to say sorry. Maybe while she was there, she would ask what her cat’s name was.

Emma glanced at the dim morning sunshine filtering through the streaky French windows; the blemishes on the exterior side turned her reflection into some sort of distorted caricature image. Her irritation towards Alan seemed suddenly irrational. She felt calmer. Perhaps she would write to Lindsey. Ask her about the cat. Tell her she was sorry they lost touch. Or maybe just tell her she was sorry; Emma was sure now that Lindsey would understand what she meant.

She ripped a piece of paper from Lucy’s school notebook and leant on the TV guide. ‘Dear Lindsey’. Emma flinched exaggeratedly upon hearing Jamie arrive with a bellow of laughter and fresh air.

‘Mum? Why you awake?’

‘ “Why are you awake”, Jamie.’ She rolled her eyes, forgetting that she was sat cross-legged on the floor drafting a letter to a girl she hadn’t spoken to for forty years.

‘Why are you awake?’ he mimicked her. As he sat down, Emma felt her shoulders unclench upon observing that he did not smell of smoke.

She sighed, suddenly embarrassed in front of her intoxicated son. ‘I was thinking about my friend, Lindsey. I couldn’t remember the name of her cat.’

‘I can help,’ He stared at her intensely. ‘Fluffy?’

‘No, it wasn’t that silly.’ She laughed.

‘Paul?’ Emma stared at him, struggling to reconcile the dimpled boy whose imaginary friend was called ‘Dandelion-Febreeze’ with the one sitting before her. His pupils were so dilated she could scarcely see the hazel irises and his smile seemed lopsided somehow. His cheeks were still cratered by two circular dimples though. Emma was grateful; they were the only persisting indication that it was still her boy.

‘That’s a ridiculous name for a cat, Jamie’ she mock scolded, as she did when she told him Dandelion-Febreeze’s request for her own room was outrageous.

‘Paul.’ He laughed hysterically. ‘Come on, Paul! Dinner time!’ He used a high-pitched voice, unknowingly imitating Lindsey’s mother, who would stand at the top of the road with a tin of tuna calling for the cat.

‘Watch the litter tray, Paul!’ Emma joined, laughing even though she knew it wasn’t funny without the numbing effects of intoxication.

Jamie yawned without restraint, covering his mouth with his elbow only after Emma had had enough time to notice the mossy-green filling in his second molar. He made his own dentist appointments now.

‘I’m going bed now, Mum,’ he said, elbow still over his mouth as he leant back with his eyes closed.

‘Right there?’ Emma smiled, raising one eyebrow. He opened one eye then closed it again; a wink in reverse.

‘Nah, I’ll go up.’ He stood up; Emma heard his back crick like the floorboards in her room. ‘You should go bed now, too. Don’t worry, Mum,’ he said with his eyes closed again, breathing deeply through his nose as he stretched his arms above his head. He twisted his wrists in circular motions; his fingers almost touched the patchy ceiling. Alan said he’d repaint that, too. ‘It were just a cat,’ he added finally, letting his arms drop back down to his sides dramatically.

‘It was just a cat,’ she corrected.

‘Yeah.’ He nodded, squinting at her.

‘Go on then, up to bed,’

At 5.00am, Emma listened to the creak of the stairs as Jamie ascended two at a time – they only made this sound when he walked up. What a strange house it would become when he’d leave her forever; stranger still when Lucy would. The glittery effects of their banter lingered in the air; Emma tasted the laughter on her tongue. She felt suddenly exhausted. Before abandoning her undrunk cup of tea, Emma paused over the bin in the kitchen. Lucy’s leftover Bolognese was still in there, discoloured and coagulated. She abruptly scrunched up the note she’d begun and threw it all in on top of the sauce. Lindsey did not need to know she was sorry. The idea that Lindsey would care at all that she had been thinking of her cat was so absurd it seemed like something she had conjured up in a manic episode.

‘Paul,’ Emma thought. She would remember the cat as Paul. Alan’s ape-like nose seemed sweet now, in the morning light; perhaps he really would repaint the wall tomorrow.

Just moments before she surrendered to unconsciousness, Emma felt a numbed jolt of realisation. For just a second, she remembered the cat’s name. It didn’t matter though; she wouldn’t remember it in the morning. Then again, she would barely remember that she ever wanted to.


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