Story: ‘Cat-Brushing’

Jane Campbell

Jane Campbell reads a story about dispossession in paradise.

This morning I was brushing the cat as I watched the rain come across the water towards us. She is a Siamese and smooth-haired and like me quite old, and her fur is not as strong or as resilient as it used to be, but she arched her back with delight and raised her head so that I could reach her throat, the most vulnerable part of her. And seeing her respond like this to the strong smooth strokes, I could see myself in bed with one of the lovers, and my own arching and offering, and wondered, when I had finished with the brushing, whether she felt as I had when it was over: not just brushed/fucked but glad, even grateful, to have been brushed/fucked. In other words, was it only the moment with her, or was there a reflective pleasure as well?

When I had finished she walked away while I stood up with some difficulty. She lies fully extended on the kitchen floor for the brushing process while I kneel beside her. I find these days I have to hold on to the edge of the counter to get to my feet but I tell myself it is good exercise for my thighs. And then, inevitably, the other exercises my thighs once got involved in come to mind.

The kitchen door was open and I could see the water in the Great Sound, which early this morning resembled sheet metal on which the tiny humps of the islands rested. I walked to the door and watched as the whole horizon and all the sea and the land became cloudy with the strengthening rain. The cat sat beside my feet. We both looked out. I know of course that we do not see the same thing. Her perception is different in every respect. I feel the dampness and smell it and hear the raindrops in quite a different way from her. But she sits and watches it with me with just the same degree of satisfaction. It is a tremendous view to have available all the time and I feel very lucky. The kitchen gives onto the veranda, where there is a jumble of chairs and tables and a large corner sofa where I sometimes sit with her for hours. The view from here is like a mobile panorama for old people: there is always some movement somewhere. There are the big regular ferries for the locals, of course, and the huge ungainly liners stuffed with fat tourists moored out at the Royal Naval Dockyard, but apart from these there is the constant traffic of smaller boats. Sometimes, when the sea is a pellucid blue in the sunlight, a little yacht with white sails will float across the mesmerising expanse of colour and I will watch it from one side of the Sound to the other, wondering about the people within, loving its calm progress in the sea breezes. At night the boats turn into patterns of bright green and red and orange lights, and chug back home to anchor alongside the docks of lucky homeowners.

The cat and I watch all this together. This is Bermuda. Tourist paradise. Rich home to rich financiers like my generous son. We know we are very lucky. My son is nearly fifty and his new wife is in her late thirties. Not really such an age gap. She makes him happy. At least I hope she does. The cat and I have known him for much longer, of course. Well, I have known him all his life and the cat for many years.

While we watch our view I knit, because apparently it is good for old fingers, while the cat does nothing but blink wisely and push her warmth against my thigh. I do wonder if she knows about loneliness, although cats are said to be uninterested in anything except their own comfort.

I love this view, but of course it is not my view. I do not own it any more than I own the cat. We are both housed and fed by my son, since I am now judged too old to live alone. The cat does not know this and since I am the one who gets up first in the morning and feeds her before opening the kitchen door she may think I am her primary caretaker, if that is the phrase, and therefore her owner. And it is my bed that the cat comes to at night, after hunting, and she curls up under the sheets between my knees. It is strange to have her there, but I believe she used to sleep with my son before he married. I will not complain; anything between my legs is welcome these days.

I own nothing now, except, I suppose, my body and my mind, such as they are after so many decades of use. Ill-use, sometimes. But at least, thank god, they have been used and I did not waste them. I cannot of course tell my son this. He looks so fondly at the two of us when we sit together in the evening, the cat on my knee. In his head, as in the head of the world, an old woman and her cat are a charming representation of innocence.

The cat and I are learning about the process of dispossession. Ageing is often represented as an accumulation, of disease, of discomforts, of wrinkles, but it is really a process of dispossession, of rights, of respect, of desire, of all those things you once so casually owned and enjoyed. I could seduce men quite easily once, after I had escaped from my husband. They were married men and so I was safe with them. We could drown in mutual waves of desire and longing and yearning, leading to brief ecstatic periods of gratification and delight and an enormous gratitude for the sheer good fortune of our circumstances. We found it so easy to please one another. And that too is another dispossession: the capacity to please. Once, when I arched my back and let out little miaows of pleasure my lovers thrilled with the knowledge of their potency. Now, I offer a few inches of knitting to my son. It is a terrible loss.

So in the absence of being able to please I try to be useful. And not disgusting. The cat got sick yesterday: she does sometimes. She hunts, has always hunted, but is, I feel, less successful than she used to be. There it is again, the loss. She catches the slower prey and eats bits of it and it may be already ill or diseased.

It is a terrible thought but I am in a similar place, as the young people say. I saw my son’s face as he mopped up the small patch of the cat’s green vomit and so I know how he will look when one day I lose control and crap on my skirt and he sees a brown smudge and smells it and knows my disgrace. Dispossessed, you see, of control and elegance and all the charms I had in abundance once.

We both have a bit of a weight issue. She has been put on a diet by the vet: she has three restricted meals a day instead of being allowed to graze as most cats are. I try to eat less but I am lumpy and shapeless now. If I went around on my hands and knees all the time (and, of course, that brings dear S. to mind), I too would have a stomach that hung out towards the floor. Once it was such a provocative pose.

I have had a cough recently – for several months now, I suppose. My daughter-in-law took me to the doctor last week and he said it might be an allergy. I think that’s ridiculous. When I was a child no one had allergies. These days there are peanut allergies, milk allergies, gluten allergies. We just had food or no food. And we had pets. ‘Do you mean asthma?’ I said. But the smart young doctor, who did not seem to want to look at my saggy old breasts when he listened to my chest (so humiliating), was rather vague. He sort of winked at my daughter-in-law, the way adults do when there are children around.

After we got home I said nothing, hoping the subject would go away, but this morning my son told me the doctor thinks I have become allergic to the cat. ‘Nonsense,’ I said. After all, Siamese are the least likely of all cats to cause allergies: everyone knows that. And we’ve been living alongside each other now for three years. But he insisted that the doctor was very confident about his diagnosis.

‘The doctor said that as we become older we can develop new allergies, even to Siamese cats.’

‘So what will you do?’ I asked. He was late for work by then, so he said: ‘We’ll talk when I get home tonight.’ He’ll be back in a few hours. I am afraid. I am afraid for myself and for the cat.

Sometimes I watch her washing herself. She licks and licks and I wonder what it feels like. I wish I could lick myself. It was P. who was best at that. He loved it, would disappear down there between my legs for hours. No, of course, I exaggerate – but I never knew quite why it was such fun for him. I would of course be arching and miaowing and murmuring as usual and I could please him that way as much as he pleased me. K., on the other hand, did nothing like that. ‘The boys would say if you’ll suck pussy you’ll suck anything,’ he told me and I smiled, because how ridiculous. He was so prim in some ways and so lascivious in others. But it was C. who would sleep beside me, like the cat. He was my sleeper. I watch the cat curled in on herself and think that is the way we were. Like one body, one smoothly aligned set of muscles and skin.

I hate knitting in the way I used to think I hated cats. That was when I lived alone. I needed my freedom and space and no dependants. But the cat is my fellow inmate now and I think we understand each other.

She has an ageing face, as do I of course. Her eyes are as blue and large as ever, and her ears still enchantingly bat-like, but her black nose is not a young nose and her jaw is an old jaw. The lips, if that is the word, of her mouth are uneven and discoloured. And although the fur alongside her muzzle has always been pale (she is a Blue Point) it seems to me whiter now. She has virtually no teeth – they are a weakness in Siamese. It must exacerbate the hunting problem. I still have my teeth, but heavily veneered and crowned and so on. They hurt quite a lot. Sometimes I think it would be simpler to have them extracted, as the cat’s have been.

I heard my daughter-in-law mention a baby and that she believes cats carry germs. I think of this while I stroke the cat and admire her serene profile. But I mustn’t speak. I have been reprimanded for speaking too sharply to children.

Once my students were afraid of me, or at least of my occasional tongue-lashings. I had a reputation for being a disciplinarian, but it was one I cherished. I told one student off once and she never offended again. I learned from another member of staff that afterwards she had said: ‘She was furious with me but I knew she still loved me.’ And I did. And I was loved and feared in return. It was a good place to be. Now I am loved, I suppose, but also expected to be sweet and fluffy. And quiet. What a fate.

My son will be home soon. My daughter-in-law will be late in tonight. I think he will bring up the subject of the cat while she is not here, and then he can say it is her concern. If they got rid of the cat where would she go? My daughter-in-law prides herself on not being sentimental about animals. I suppose the truth is they would kill her and then I would be expected to knit for the baby.

I sometimes wonder if it is incumbent on me to defend the cat to the death, as it were. I hesitate only because, as with all love relationships, I am not sure how much altruism is in it. After all, without the cat here, there would be no more cat-brushing. I shall miss her terribly.