Eleven Cats and Me Make Pearls

Mr Pockets is a dear; he wakes me with a tender pat when at my desk I fall asleep, the pearls half-made on pewter scales, the pots of mixture cooling hard and sliding dawn rose-lighting sky.

“Have they gone out?” I ask, my voice a smudge and fingers waking up my eyes.

Mr Pockets purrs, on the worktop padding, stretched to rub against my neck and stroking hands and this means—

Yes, Trevor, they’ve all gone out on the Wagon, safe and sound.

Food, please, now.

Grinning, I get Mr Pockets his breakfast.

(He is Mr Pockets because every inch of him is ink, except his face and paws—they’ve been sugar-frosted and when he sleeps upon his back, his hands down his belly go; it’s like his paws have slipped in pockets.)

From the press I take a pouch and squeeze the mortal slime inside, wet and glistening jelly, blatant in its pieces, out into his bowl.

“There you go,” I say, “Yum yum Mistah Paw-kutts!”

And he looks at me as if to say—

G’way. Eating now.

Nom nom.

Our workshop stands in bushes at the end of Holness lane, one long and wooden room, clouded plastic to windows pinned, with dim gold lamps along the roof and tables ranked across the floor.

Every surface sees twisted glass alembics and racks of foster pipes, with slumping sacks of ketterjine and shallow mounds of wax, lit by coral tongues of Bunsen burners played on brass in cooling lengths, held in blocks of hydrogen, with patching pans of solder and rubbing stays and alabaster (matte and gloss) of every single grade

Here is where eleven cats make pearls with me, working hard both day and night.

A grunty breath comes from my shins, and looking down I see—Mosley has shuffled from his bed and brought his mouldy blanket with him.

Fnyarhm, he says.

Fnyarhm.

Mosley is a misery—mouth and eyes in downward curves, his whiskers tangled wire and sullen chin upon the floor between his paws. He likes to keep the cats in line, a hiss or whine with broken teeth, or a slapping paw to eye or nose, for they must stop their mischief and he must get his sleep!

On the worktop Auntie Doris pushes beakers with her nose, getting things in order for the pearl making to come. She softly yowls as if to say:

Such mess, Trevor! What would you do without me?

She tuts her way amongst the mess of half-made pearls. A while ago I made for her a little paisley bonnet, and when she hasn’t pawed it off she wears it proud between her ears.

(I like to think that Doris and Mosley are man and wife—they certainly fight enough!)

And then I feed Calico and Yowbdy and get Cottingley his medicine.

(He’s looking better, I tell myself. He’s looking better.)

But the rest are still out on the Wagon and so I sit where Doris has cleared and go about my breakfast. I’m halfway through the ham and lamb when I hear the Wagon coming up the lane—

Chuff chuff chuff chuff

With Mr Pockets and Calico dancing about my heels I pull the clanking door aside and let the Wagon in. Smoke and steam thicken air, taking a minute or two to clear—and I see there’s been an accident—a battered pipe is trailing.

“Oh, what happened?” I whisper.

From her perch at the front little Bosco Glory nuzzles up under my palm.

As if to say:

So-reee Trevor. We wanted to come home fast to see you! We’s a bit careless!

I sigh and say, “We’ll fix it tomorrow, when it’s light.”

I pick up Bosco Glory— a kittenish bundle, breathing between my hands.

“And next time,” I say, “I’ll come out on the Wagon with you.”

This makes Bosco Glory very happy!

The cats are leaping from the vehicle— Little Shish and Marigold and Captain Dan and finally, slowly, Madame Shush.

I put the Wagon under its tarpaulin as the cats line up, expectant, at their bowls. So I feed them, singing: “Bitta fish for Little Shish, half-a-bowl for Marigold, and more for Dan, he’s a growing man, an elegant mush for Madame Shush— lightly spiced and nothing gory; only the best for Bosco Glory!”

They yowl as if they’re singing along!

When all the cats have gone to bed I go wake Mr Gentleman. Here is where we sleep, all of the cats and me, in boxes all along the wall. And there, covered in moons and clover leaves, the box where Sancho Panza slept until the poisoned slip of meat.

(Cottingley’s recovering, look— his strength’s returning.)

At the end of the row and a bit apart, on navy velvet sparked with stars is the cat called Mr Gentleman.

“Wake up, Mr Gentleman,” I lightly rub his chin, “Time to go out.”

He turns amber eyes on me.

There’s a gloss to Mr Pockets—Mr Gentleman is living dark, a lithe shape cut in cloth of night— and soundlessly he rises, hopping from box to box to windowsill and shrugging under plastic.

He goes out to do his work while all of us are sleeping.

I lock the door, making sure there’s no-one in the lane.

I turn off our golden lamps.

I put myself to bed.

Mr Pockets curls upon my stomach.

“You remember, Mr Pockets, the day we first met?”

He yowls as if to say—

I do Trevor. I was scared in that bag and wet!

I rub his chin.

He purrs as if to say:

Thank you Trevor, thank you.

I smell the cats. Smell the cooling ketterjine and wax.

Smells of contentment.

We’re happy.

Look at us, curled asleep in bed, and one of us silently prowling the roofs…

Aren’t we happy?

***

And Mr Gentleman throughout the day is man about town— a shadow along a wall, a pair of ears in a hanging basket.

He learns everything, does Mr Gentleman. Nothing escapes his notice.

No cruelty, no shame. No ragged, abandoned misbirth.

Mr Gentleman finds the things that people don’t want found and brings them home to me.

***

The sun is going down when next I wake, Mr Pockets patting my cheek with his paw.

Mr Gentleman at the foot of my bed, lapping his dirty places. Looking up he lets me put my arms around him. In his velvet ear I whisper “What have you found out, Mr Gentleman? What can we use?”

(There’s plenty. Oh, there’s always plenty.)

As the cats all wake and stretch, Mr Gentleman curls up amongst his stars and sleeps. His day is done but ours has just begun…

Peering
out through plastic, the winds of evening makes the trees and bushes move—night
comes alive as we make our pearls.

We melt the wax and ketterjine and run it through the patching pans and Calico, a wicked cat of tortoiseshell, splattered black and amber, rolls a hundred pawfuls, a craftsman in his silent angles.

And Cottingley comes to help as well, a little dab of furry cream, but I know he’s still too weak. “Bed, Cottingley, back to bed.”

He softly mews as if to say—

Let me try, Trevor. Purrr-lease.

But I lift him; lay him softly down to rest.

“Another night,” I say.

With Calico working upon the pearls Yowbdy lumps upon my shoulder and we go to repair the Wagon. Yowbdy is a scruffy thing, a bathmat trod by muddy boots; his fur a poor attempt at dying ginger hair.

He looks at the machine with clear green eyes. His paws are talented, supple pads—we made the Wagon from everything: there’s half a washing machine in there, and half-a-mile of pipe, floorboards and a kitchen sink, the chassis of an Audi.

Something has knocked a funnel loose and when we fix it out we go—time to give the town our wears!

I wave at Mr Pockets as we turn away into the lane—

Chuff chuff chuff chuff

Our Wagon runs on steam— Little Shish and Marigold roll lumps of coal along the boards and down into the burner manned by Captain Dan. From that boiler of polished brass two long bent chimneys, dagger-fringed, send white smoke bellies up between the houses.

Chuff chuff chuff chuff!

A cat tree rises from its core, a nest of cubes and cylinders, covered in sisal and carpet cuttings—the domain of Madame Shush; imperious, diamante-collared, she is white and rimmed with pink. Languidly, unhurriedly, she keeps her eyes on things.

There’s a seat for me before the tree, and it is joy to watch the steam clouds blow, and Madame Shush slinks down to set upon my lap and nuzzling down we chuff our way through the sleeping town.

At the Wagon’s head is Bosco Glory, cream and biscuit brown and with an emerald ribbon round her neck. Her paws work on the levers; she guides the Wagon down streets and through the mouths of sleeping estates.

We slow— in pouches along the Wagon’s sides Calico and Yowbdy and Auntie Doris have stored hundreds of our pearls— “That house,” I say, pointing, selecting pearls for Little Shish and Marigold— with arching backs and tails high to show their asterisks they ghost over moon-silvered lawns.

That door will always get a pearl— that’s where the purveyor of poisoned meat is hiding.

(Once there were thirteen of us and we were happy, you should have seen us.)

And there are others too—

Those who push us to the margins.

Those who make our lives so much harder.

We’ve made pearls for them as well.

(Just leave us alone. We’re happy alone. Look at us, we’re happy.)

So from my seat and smiling I watch as Little Shish and Marigold dart from door to door, a globe of white in pink-tongued mouths.

They drop the pearls on doorsteps and scamper into night.

And we go home and go to bed and as I sleep I dream:

Everywhere about the town, as dawn comes up in day, the townspeople open doors and find a pearl upon their step; they pick them up and peer—

There are words upon them.

And I think of how their eyes are widening, reading the words that Calico scratched, the secrets that Mr Gentleman stole—

GIVE BACK THE MONEY

And—

YOU TOLD HER THE TEST
WAS POSITIVE

And—

YOU SHOULD HAVE GONE
BACK TO CHECK

And—

POISONER. POISONER.
POISONER.

And morning after morning, all of them knowing their secrets were known…

Sleep so good and kind when all your dreams come true like this.

***

And so it goes: a pearl a day for the poisoner, her secrets scratched upon each one…

Until one day—waking, as the sun goes down, a tap from Mr Pockets’ paws…and the eyes of Mr Gentleman are holes of darkness, looking on an amber sun.

And growling low as if to say:

The job is done.

By rope at dawn.

They found her and they cut her down.

That’s one door that won’t need more pearls.

(Rest now, Sancho Panza.)

***

We celebrate— Ketterjine makes our fires mauve—

Mr Gentleman, a shadow on the eaves, looks up from washing and I wave.

And in the moonlight down our lane, the cats and I line up to dance and Madame Shush and Yowbdy play ukuleles and Captain Dan his mandolin, while Little Shush and Marigold yowl in perfect harmony. I take their paws and they take my hand and round and round we go; Calico and Mosley, Cottingley and me, and little Bosco Glory, in moonlanes in the silver light.

“We’re happy?” I laugh, “Are we happy now?”

And Mr Pockets smiles and every inch of him is ink, except for snow-white paws and face.

“Yes,” he says, “Oh happy, yes.”

We dance— eleven cats and me.

(I’m crying. Why can’t I stop crying?)

We dance.

————————

Graham Tugwell is a writer and performer of Irish distraction. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in over forty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine and L’Allure Des Mots. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.