Cat Food

by Penny Wightwick

Dorothy used to work as a secretary for the Labour Party. She could touch-type 100 wpm at her best and her shorthand was second to none.

I made all my own clothes, she would say as she fingered the shiny worn hemline of her cut-on-the-bias deep-plum skirt. Very seventies. That was when she felt as if she might grow up enough to inhabit herself. But as her
twenties slipped into thirties and she still went home every night on the bus to her bedsit in Ladbroke Grove with just the cat for company, she became increasingly aware of her aloneness. She stopped believing this was
something she’d grow out of.

Then the bottle of wine on a Friday night became more of a three or four times a week thing until it was every evening with a 6-pack of Special Brew as well, just in case. Lying on the sofa in front of the telly – watching
the clock make its tortuous progress, she’d conk out and wake in the early hours, her homemade skirt all crumpled. She’d fling herself on the bed to doze through the dawn until, on a good day, on a day when she didn’t ring in
sick or make a got-to-take-the-cat-to-the-vet excuse for being late, she’d run the iron over the skirt, a bit of deodorant, quick brush through her hair, and a thick layer of pancake with eyebrows pencilled before throwing
herself out of the door for work.

She’d felt as a child that she wasn’t really there. Her mother, a little nervy woman, kept a ship-shape home and shouted at Dorothy if she so much as moved a cushion, dropped a tissue, lost a sock in the wash. Dorothy learned
to keep small and neat and out of the way until she started to wonder if she existed.

The days of the Labour party job and making clothes had long since crumbled. She lost her job, the cat died, she went on the dole and then she gave up buying wine. She’d crawl out of bed to the offie for a 6-pack in her creased clothes: she didn’t bother with the iron any more. She still applied the pancake though, pencilled the fine dark line of her eyebrows. She used the makeup to give herself a mask she could recognise. Like the invisible man in that silly film who painted himself with whitewash to make himself visible.

Another 6-pack by the afternoon and then in the evening she’d apply orange lipstick and walk round the block to the different offie so at least they thought she only drank at night.

Just on your way home from work, love? The young man would say. He had nice curly hair and a smile that twitched in his long sallow face.

I work for the Labour Party, Walworth Road, she’d say.

You’ll need a drink after that!

Tonight she gets the 6-pack and a half bottle of whisky – it’s giro day, her little treat. She has extra money anyway now: her social fund loan came through and she’s been on a heavy bender this week. She thinks the bloke at
the offie has stopped believing her Labour Party story and she hasn’t even bothered with the orange lippy or with brushing out her long dark hair. He probably doesn’t see her at all.

Now she sits with the whiskey gone and opening her third can of Special Brew and she hears the cat in the wardrobe again. She forgot to buy cat food – the one thing in the world she needs to take care of! The plaintive cry of an agoraphobic cat. It gets more insistent and won’t be ignored. She drags herself to the kitchen, pulls out packets of stale crackers, half used Vesta meals and Instant Whip until she finds a tin of tuna right at the
back. Must be from when she had the last cat – she can’t stand tuna. She struggles with the tin opener, her hands slip, the oil spills onto the kitchen surface. The cat howls as if the claggy smell has seeped through the
wardrobe door.

Dorothy finally prizes off the lid and takes the tuna in the tin to the bedroom. She slips on a pair of tights lying on the varnished floorboards, steadies herself on the wardrobe door. The days line up before her – all the
same – as she holds onto the tuna and watches the shine of walnut and the dishes of dried-up cat food sliding towards her, followed by the cat, its black legs stretched out stiff, its face in a fixed grin.

The howl of the cat sinks into her darkness.

 

Penny Wightwick has published short stories, including in Mslexia, and is looking to publish her first novel, hoping it won’t be long before she can call herself a professional writer as well as a part-time Information Officer and mother of her eleven year old son.

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