“Heathcliff. It’s me, Cathy, I’m alive.”
“This isn’t Heathcliff. It’s Cliff, Heathcliff’s flatmate. What’s your name again?”
“He’s in the bath right now. We’ve been out on the moors, grouse shooting. What’s your name again?”
(pause) “Nope. Doesn’t ring a bell. Can I take a message?”
“I’m outside the window. Can you let me in?”
How could she be outside my window? I was on the 14th floor. But there she was, spectral, ghost-like, standing on the window-cleaners’ gantry, waving, madly waving, frantically waving, wind-blown and desperate.
Just then the doorbell rang and an avalanche of fear sliced through me. I hopped to the door and pressed my face close to the peephole. It was the room service I had ordered over an hour ago. Three men stood looking at the door. Why did it take three men to carry Eggs Royale? Was this a trap?
Exhausted, I slowly, silently, slid to the floor. I had an overwhelming urge to scratch my ear. Not something I would normally mention but when your hands are tied behind your back, you notice these tiny details.
My parents had taught me escapology, showing me how to dislocate my joints – and I still am able to free myself from simple bonds. But these weren’t simple. They were the art of a master craftsman. I was trussed up like Tutankhamun. Like a stuffed three-bird roast ready for the pot. I was physically, metaphysically, linguistically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually tied up in knots.
My analyst had taught me a mantra to use in moments of great stress. So I closed my eyes and repeated the word slowly. Barely a whisper at first, my lips enjoying the shape of the two syllables.
I toyed with drawing out the first syllable at the expense of the second, then vice verse. I must have gone into a trance. Minutes passed. I had lulled myself into a false sense of insecurity. The banging in my head seemed to get louder, like a drum beat. But it wasn’t in my head. Someone was beating the door down.
The beat resembled the death march from some Verdi opera. Which one was it? Nabucco? Aida? Otello? The Force of Destiny? Eureka! That was it – the muzak playing in Waitrose that had been annoying me for the past hour was Verdi. It all came rushing back to me. I wasn’t in the freezer aisle, where I normally hang out. I’d got disorientated. I was in the pet food section. The bastards had moved everything round – again. And that’s when I saw her.
She was loading tins of cat food into her handbag. She stealthily (or, more accurately, what she thought was stealthily) ducked past two gossiping mothers, dove underneath the end of the conveyor belt, and army-crawled past the dozing cashier. She waited for the security guard to return to the text message he was sending and then darted out the door.
She reminded me of Holly Golightly and Paul Varjack (nameless in Capote’s version of course, but she lived in a fairytale Hollywood world) when they pinched masks from the 5 and Dime. She, however, had pinched cat food instead of a cat mask. Impressive.
I thought fleetingly about how much my father would have judged her, but then I looked at the tins of food in my basket and said to the supermarket cat staring up at me:
“I don’t give a shit. I win!”
“OK, you win,” it said back to me. “But you gotta pay for hers as well.” Its eyes narrowed.
The animal, the same grey as a day-old pitta bread, had shown up a year ago and everyone had welcomed it with open arms. It seemed to have an inexhaustible array of skills – shelf stacking, store detection, dusting, bread-making, stock taking, even cashing up.
At the time, the vet had thrown up his hands. “I think it’s part human, part writer, part demi-god,” he squinted, unsurely. So perhaps it wasn’t alright to eat its food. Writers can be vicious creatures once their routines are thrown into disarray. I gingerly put back the tins, tin by tin, trying not to make any sudden moves. I thought, if I ever get out of this place, I must send it a pizza delivery – something unexpected, a surprise, a Friday night dinner for one.
But then again, my uncle had died of pizza poisoning while on an opera tour in Milan. As a result, from that day on, my aunt came to live with us and refused to eat anything but Scots porridge oats. Life was never the same again.
Cancel the pizza idea. I needed to make another offering. Maybe a scribbled love letter? A sonnet? Could I stretch to a sestude? Was there time? And that’s when the death march started. Slowly at first. The bell tolling for me. I was pinned to the shelf. So, I did what any man would do in the same situation. I started singing along. I have a light but pleasing tenor voice and as I reached (unsuccessfully) for the high notes, the cat slunk off, satisfied that I was an out and out failure, not worth cornering.
At that moment, I was brought crashing back to the present as more music filled the air. The bathroom door opened and in a haze of steam and dramatic fanfares, reminiscent of Stars in their Eyes, a human form emerged.
“Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Val …”
The rest of the sentence was lost as the front door finally gave up the ghost and dissolved into smithereens. Three men tumbled on top of me, into the room. The Eggs Royale flew into the air, caught in a slow mo of inevitability.
Cathy saw the whole thing. Weighed down with cat food and nicely loosened from all her frantic waving, the gantry gave way and she disappeared from view as if through a trapdoor on stage. Were it not for the music and the splintering door and three blokes making a right racket, I might have heard her faint, descending scream. The Eggs Royale became suspended in mid air. Disbelief rained down upon us all.