In The Dark

Entry by: Paul McDermott

10th December 2014
When all was said and done, he couldn’t blame her for leaving. After three months the pain was starting to ease, but that didn’t make the loneliness any easier to bear.
He had no appetite, evidenced by half-finished remnants of meals bought from several fast food outlets within walking distance, all abandoned as the food turned to ashes. He thought most of the people still living in the area either couldn’t cook, or wouldn’t: what else would explain the high ratio of chippies-to-households on a council estate which was falling apart, and over half the properties were unoccupied?
Walking through the rubble-strewn streets of the Boot Estate at any time was about as safe as going for a stroll in one of the more hotly-contested districts of Beirut, but at this time of night he wasn’t likely to be mugged for the few coins a local wino needed to satisfy his craving for strong cider.
It had once been an attractive part of Liverpool. When the council had offered him a tenancy on the estate, he’d thought of the neat, pleasant semis with well kept gardens he had known as a child, and thought it too good to be true.
Sadly, ‘too good to be true’ was exactly what it had turned out to be. Seeds of jealousy, he thought to himself as he checked the lock on the door and rambled aimlessly towards one of the few working streetlamps at the end of the cul-de-sac.
“What makes you think it’s all your fault?”
He stopped dead in his tracks. Amazingly, there were working streetlamps on both sides of the road and relatively good visibility, but no sign of anyone else on the street. His heart hammered a brief double-time tattoo: he felt the thunder of blood coursing swiftly through his temples and ears as the adrenaline kicked in, preparing his body for fight or flight.
“Relax! I’m not your enemy!”
A shadow detached itself from the remnants of a hedge and coiled at his feet. He barely had time to recognise the shape as feline before it lifted its head and speared him with a pair of eyes which were nearer to purple than blue. It was impossible to look away, even if he'd wanted to.
“You're too hard on yourself.”
This thought appeared fully-formed in Phil's mind, though he sensed it hadn't arrived there by the usual route. The timbre was smooth, almost creamy: not entirely human, perhaps, but he'd never concerned himself over what a cat imbued with human speech might sound like, and had little to work with.
“I can sense your feelings, I hear many questions. I can help, but you must trust me.”
Go with this, Phil. It can't be happening - but it is …
“We agree on that! Now, I have your attention. Do I have your trust?”
Phil parted his lips and drew a short breath, though he had no idea what to say.
“You still need to relax – Phil.”
His breath became a gasp of disbelief. This extraordinary feline could apparently sense or ‘read’ his personal details …
“You don’t need to ‘voice’ what you’re thinking” the silky voice purred from some unmapped zone inside his skull “ … but if you try to relax, it will be a lot easier for both of us.”
“How …?”
“ … is it done? That I can’t say: for us it’s as natural as breathing. For my part, I’ve never really understood how you and your kind manage to balance on two legs without falling over!”
This sounded so incongruous, Phil had to smile in spite of himself. He'd had few occasions to smile recently, that was certain: somehow, he sensed that was about to change.
“That's a start! You need to lighten up: you've been far too hard on yourself the last few months.”
“And you know this, because ...?”
The cat raised its head sharply. Phil sensed an almost-audible throb of power as the deep purple eyes bored into his and locked there.
“Because I am Cat. I need no better reasons.”
Phil sensed there was much more behind this cryptic statement, but decided to file it for later study.
“I have walked at your side for many cycles” Cat continued, “ ... and you have needed no more than a gentle nudge in the right direction from time to time. Do you know your true birth sign?”
This apparent side-sally caught Phil wrong-footed. He opened his mouth to admit his summer birth in the sign of Cancer, but realised he was being tested. .
“Panther” he heard himself respond. It was just as clear as if he had spoken the word aloud. “I was born under the fifth full moon of the Year of the Tiger” he added, and knew he had answered wiselyly when Cat purred full approval.
“Strength and agility are yours, and endurance. When you chose your life-mate I was convinced you had chosen well: another cat, a kitten born in the Year of the Monkey. Like-minded, willing to run beside you, one who would follow your lead, not contest it. It seems we both erred in our judgement ... no matter! You are once again He Who Walks Alone. Will you listen this time, I wonder? And will you have the courage to understand what you must do?”
“There’s only one way to answer that, I think.”
“You trust me, then.”
Not a question, nor a victory shout, but a quiet statement of fact from one who was satisfied with the answer given. Phil nodded.
“You may continue – Cat. Though you have the advantage of me there, for you have my name, while I can only call you …”
“ … exactly what I am! You are not yet ready for the Learning of True Names. Few of your kind ever reach that stage, but you have come close, much closer than you realise.”
The incongruity of the situation suddenly struck Phil. He was standing at the corner of a street on a semi-derelict estate, arguing philosophy in the middle of the night with an opinionated cat. It was enough to make him doubt his sanity.
“Don’t! Believe me, your sanity is not to be questioned, and what is happening is very real. Trust me, follow me … or not, as you please! There are times when even One Who Walks Alone may find his path shared by another, if only for a while.”
“It seems I have no choice – I can’t even shield my private thoughts from you!”
“Shielding is no great trick, but you are not ready to learn it – yet.”
Phil decided he had no grounds to feel insulted by Cat’s calm, measured statement. There was no intention to wound or even criticise: Cat was right. Phil considered himself reasonably intelligent, but his new companion obviously had a number of skills which were beyond any he had ever learnt.
“I can heal your hurt.”
Not a boast, but another simple statement of fact. Phil straightened up, squared his shoulders and offered a formal half-bow of submission.
“May I offer you what comforts I have in my home?”
Cat said nothing, but nodded as gracefully as any cultured, experienced diplomat and produced a purr of clear approval which seemed alarmingly loud in the silence of the suburban estate. He stood, his jet black tail quivering, and positioned himself close to Phil’s right flank. It was apparent they were to make the short journey back to his empty house as equals, not man and beast, not Master and Servant. He supposed he ought to consider himself honoured.
“Why do you think of your home as ‘empty’?”
Phil had accepted for the moment the inside-your-head conversation with his unique feline interrogator, but this question was one he hadn’t anticipated. He paused in the act of taking a tin of tuna and a few other midnight snack items out of the fridge.
"Too many memories, and nobody to share them with," he admitted. "This house isn't massive, but it's too big, now I'm on my own."
"I can help you with that." Cat purred.
Phil almost dropped the tin.
"I'm grateful, but how … ?"
"Allow me food and shelter for a while. Trust, believe … and we shall see."
Phil went to bed with a light heart that night, and slept soundly. When he woke, Cat was curled between his feet and the bedclothes were more or less in place.
"You pass the first test: you sleep like a cat!"
Phil stretched, arching his spine, arms above his head. As he did, he noticed Cat performing a similar wake-up routine.
"Your first meal is the most important one of the day."
Phil stiffened. Breakfast, for as long as he cared to remember, had always been a cup of coffee – two, if he had time. The thought of being dictated to in this manner had the hair on his forearms rising: a heartbeat later, he realised his reaction was precisely that of a cat, raising its hackles to intimidate an adversary.
Cat paused from his morning grooming: did he actually nod approval?
"Remember: Trust, Believe! I can help, Phil, but you must also help yourself."
"I don't remember telling you my name …"
"Your mind is open, your name in every breath you take! Now, let us eat. I promise, I will not prove difficult to please, or provide for … "
Cat was true to his word, or so it seemed. The remainder of the day flowed seamlessly: several times Phil felt almost as if he stood observing the interplay between Himself and his feline Mentor. In truth, the 'day' could easily have been an indeterminate number of periods of activity, separated by rest as and when required. In one period of sharp lucidity he was aware that the house had been deep-cleansed of every scrap of litter, takeaway boxes, styrofoam cups and other detritus, though he had no memory of performing the chores.
"Inner Peace will come when you achieve a natural balance of the things in your life which really matter. Trust and believe: these are always yours to control, and never as numerous as you may think!"
As Phil sat willing his body to relax he felt an unfamiliar euphoria of wellness suffusing his tired, aching muscles. He became aware of Cat's wordless approval as his conscious efforts began to show positive results.
"The First step on the road is the most difficult one."
'Hearing' Cat's thoughts was no longer a novel experience. Phil nodded agreement, but wasn't absolutely certain if this involved actual, physical movement.
"Do you still feel this house is empty?"
Phil's new-found equilibrium was rocked by the unexpected question, but to his own surprise he found he could answer immediately and without a doubt.
"Then you know what the Second step on the road must be."
"Forgiving, but not Forgetting."
Had he murmured the words aloud, or was the thought so potent it had taken on an independence, a vitality of its own? The answer, he realised, was of no consequence. It was true, and the Second step on his personal road to recovery was crystal clear.
"Forgive the hurt: but do not Forget the Good Times."
Cat purred intensely, louder and longer than Phil had yet heard, He stood and stretched, seeming to double in size before dissolving slowly, beginning from the tip of his upright tail. When only the mask of his muzzle and powerful, purple gaze remained, the phrase "Trust: Believe" floated once more across Phil's consciousness as the final vestiges of Cat's features coalesced into impossibly bright pinpricks, eyes which held steady until they winked out of existence.
"Cat: my thanks!"
This time Phil was certain he uttered the words aloud, though he had no audience. It didn't matter. For the first time in months, he was content to be Alone, not Lonely.