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A Room with a Mew

17 min

an elderly woman named Nellie sits by her window observing life in her village when a local drunkard named Leo tries to sell her a kitten.

This story is my submission Soaring Twenties Social Club's Symposium. The STSC is a small, exclusive online speakeasy where a dauntless band of raconteurs, writers, artists, philosophers, flâneurs, musicians, idlers, and bohemians share ideas and companionship. Each month we create something around a set theme. This month, the theme was “Windows". Consider joining us.

—I was sittin' there, lookin' out the window as I do, and along comes Leo, that rotten scoundrel, holdin' a kitten in his arms, and says (Leo, not the kitten), "Fancy buyin' a kitty, Auntie Nellie?"

—Leo? That drunkard? And what did you say?

—And I told him, why in blazes would I need a cat? Who, he thinks, is gonna feed it? I spend me days sittin' by the window, me legs ain't what they used to be, you know that, but sittin' there, openin' the window, watchin' the world go by, feelin' the wind on me face, the sun dazzlin' me eyes, the heat bakin' me, summer flyin' by, I take off me headscarf, let me hair down — long hair, mind you, grey but long — put on me dark glasses, and there I am, sittin' like I'm at a bloody resort, but no need to shake on a bus or a train, just open the window and breathe in nature. Once, me granddaughter even snapped a photo of me like that, cheeky thing. "You should be a model, Grandma, you're a spittin' image of one," she says, but I'm an old woman now, I know I am, as far from a model as walkin' to China, but still, it cheered me up, she's a clever girl, top of her class, a real beauty, just wish she'd visit more often than once a year as those ungrateful children brin' her to see me, if she was older, she'd come on her own and take more pictures, for I do love those photos – when else will you see yourself lookin' like a bloody Aphrodite? But you, you won't see that photo, you haven't earned a peek at that beauty yet, you old rag, half-blind as you are, you'd probably go stone blind, or hex me, for sure.

—Eh, what are you natterin' on about, Nellie? Hexing? You? You could hex anyone yourself, if you blinked.

—I do, unlike you, you sly old witch, go to church, I do. Light me candles, pray to God, to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and a whole host of other good folk.

—Well, I go to church too.

—I've never clapped eyes on you there, you saggy old sow, not even once.

—Maybe we go on different days. God sees everything, Nellie, even your foul mouth.

—I'm only teasing, lovingly, you daft lass.

—Well, what about our Leo then?

—So, he comes to me, with a kitten, mind you, and says, "Would you fancy buyin' a kitty, Auntie Nellie? Prices are fair and square, right fittin' for your pensioner's purse." Cheeky sod, he's never even seen me purse, it's got a black hole in it big enough to fall through, especially since the pension they pay nowadays is barely anything, as you know. Factually, I went to the post office once, to collect me pension (back when me legs still worked a bit), and there's that scrawny cow Lena sittin' there, you know her, Tonya the Fanny-for-sale's daughter, and, well, she's got five kids now, a spittin' image of her mother, poppin' them out like a breedin' sow, God help us, and she tells me, "There's no pension yet, Auntie Nell, they haven't brought the cash," and I says to her, plain as day, "What am I supposed to eat then, you fat halfwit?" and she just shrinks into her chair, all deflated like, and says, "You could try bein' less rude, Auntie Nell. I know all about your temper, but you're out of line now."

—She said that straight to your face? And what did you do?

—I told her, "I'm only teasing, lovingly, you daft lass."

—Go on, what did she say?

—She says, "I don't need love like yours, Auntie Nell, I've got plenty of me own, so you can shove it up your arse, and deep."

—Well, I never...

— I thought, that's it, end of the line, the youth these days are totally out of hand, no shame, no conscience, no compassion, no respect for the older generation, for in our time, remember, after a fifty-hour work day, we'd just sit by the window, prayin' for our fiancé to return from war, prayin' to God for the wheat to grow and the bugs not to eat our potatoes, and then, instead of a fiancé, remember that time, a tank rolled up? Remember what I did with it?

—It's a story for the ages, Nellie, love. How could one forget?

—A little reminder won't hurt, though. I'm sittin' by the window, and here comes this tank. I step outside, grab its barrel, and tie it into a knot. Out of the tank, these bloody Germans start crawlin' in droves, babblin' in their language, some gibberish. I just show them me proletariat woman fist, give them a look fierce as an amazon warrior, and they, scared witless, shite their black trousers all over and scurry back into their tank, off they go — phew!

—That, I remember. Now, what about Leo?

—So, I told him straight, I've got no money. Nil, as much as our brave footballers score these days.

—And what did he say?

—Nowt much. "I know you have it, Auntie Nell, you're trickin' me, you've just got your pension, I'm not a fool," he says. So, I think, he won't leave it be, that drunken twat, and I decide to appeal to his conscience. "Why aren't you in the army, Leo, don't you love your country?" But he straightens his crooked back, all proud, and says, "I'm a writer, Auntie Nell, what's a scribbler like me to do in the army?" I'm starin' out the window at him, in me black glasses, grey hair nearly touchin' the ground, like a siren, or a mermaid, and I say, "What kind of writer are you, Leo? In our time, what were writers? War heroes. What did they write about? The hardships at the front, about legs blown off, about our Glorious Army's victories over the enemy, about heroic deeds, about God, about feelings, about love, and about how our women could stop a tank in its tracks and tie its bloody barrel into a knot, and what will Leo, our in-house alcoholic, write about? How holly-jolly it is to be at the bottom of a bottle and at the bottom of our society? Sees he's a Leo and thinks his one step away from Tolstoy. Oh, by the way, just this winter, I was runnin' to the shop, so

—Eh, you? Running? Don't kid yourself, Nellie. A runner now, are we? Where do you think you were off to, you old cow?

—I was running, I was, legs movin' like a young lass, you'd chip-chop with your legs faster with that frost tht was, not even me old bear coat, left over from me granddad before they set him off on a raft down the river (you know how it was back then), does any good, nor the knitted fur scarves, nowt at all, so there's nowt for it but to grit me teeth and run.

—And where'd you get them teeth from? Tell me that story, too, Nellie, please do.

—From a bloody unicorn, they grew in. Eat right, not like scrabblin' in horse dung, and you'll grow them too, you raggedy mop.

—So there you are, runnin' along, and what happens next?

—Well, next I see Leo, standin' there, the writer, pullin' out his "pen", and he's peein' on a snowdrift, but he's not just peeing, he's writing, letter by letter, like some Tolstoy's really come crashin' down on us.

—And what did you do?

—I shouted at him. "What are you doing, peein' here, you bastard, got no shame nor conscience, you sewer rat?" but he just turns, looks at me, not a flicker of reaction on his face, tucks his pen back in his pants and staggers off, like a buoy on a lake, face all red, covered in snow, clearly just stood up from that very snowdrift.

—And what did he write?

—Well, he wrote it down, expressed it, you might say, the whole essence of the universe in one word.

—And what word was that?

—Eeh, "CUNT", in big letters like that, all golden and glitterin' in the sun, it were a clear day, always is when it's nippy like this. I thought to meself, here, that's young folk for you, artist, writer, painter. What're you laughin' at, you daft old bat? Why you laughin' like a bloody horse?

—Well, could he, Leo, write not about the nature of existence, no, but about you, me dear.

—Now, don't muddle the waters, you old hag.

—So, you pulled him up on his writing, and what did he say?

—He says, "I am, Auntie Nellie, writin' a novel, about our village and village life, and you," he says, "Auntie Nell, you're in it too."

—Am I in it, am I?

—Sorry, love, tragic heroine of Shakespeare, but who needs you in their novel? "This novel," he says, "is really about the structure of the universe and the forces that dominate it, and the village is just a framin' device," was what he said, I remember this nonsense word for word, still got a sharp memory, I do.

—And what are these forces?

—Well, I'm like the queen of the universe, greatest creature in it, guardian of its structure and essence, holding its history together, its sole chronicler, would-be empress, and Leo — the fool, entertains me with his jokes.

—You're fibbing.

—Go ask him yourself, you gobby peroxide bitch.

—Next time I see him, I'll ask, Nellie.

—"Our village," he says, "is nowt less than a perfect model of the universe, where various human essences, good and evil, come together in a long, magical dance. They dance and waltz, until in this dance is born the Truth, with a capital "T", that one, where human and more-than-human nature are fused, and through us, the universe comes to know itself, choosin' me as its chief representative among mankind."

—You should tell this to the priest, he'd smack you with his thurible for such heresy.

—Well, our priest drives a bloody G-Wagon, I reckon he doesn't give two hoots about these metaphysical shenanigans, bless him, look at the jowls on him, only his collar covers his four chins, might as well be a politician, or a mayor, or a governor, or go straight for president, they like that sort of enterprisin' beauty there, big demand for that breed. You know Nick the One-Eyed?

—I know, how can I not know him.

—Galina, our church cleaner, once told me, that Nick the One-Eyed came to atone for his sins and lift curses, and he’s got them aplenty, a whole G-wagonload, as they say, and a small cart, and three more trailers on the way.

—Have you seen the palace he’s built for himself?

—I once told him, when I bumped into him on the street, he was walkin' with his brute of a bodyguard, that imbecile giant Denny, in his boots as black as pitch, as if he licks them off himself every morning, only to tramp through the same muck, mind you, that you and I walk in, and he walks past me without so much as a glance, and I whisper, just loud enough to be heard, "may you never raise your mast again, you bloody imp."

—And what did he do?

—Well, he must have good hearing, with everyone always whisperin' about him, even in church, he shot me a glance and continued to tread muck with his licked-off boots.

—You’re Joan of Arc.

—So he comes to church, like a devil to a devil, as they say, and whispers to our priest, "I’ll donate to the church, and you’ll absolve me of me sins, deal?" Our priest’s no fool, he agreed, absolved him of his sins, and now look at his jolly jaw, he’s drivin' around in his Mercedes G-wagon through our native mire.

—Can you get through our mire on anythin' else though? What’s the fuss about? He earned it — bought it, absolvin' sins isn’t easy nowadays, look at the amount of work.

—They should bloody walk with their bloody legs, bellends, they’ve ruined the entire road.

—So what about Leo, our writer?

—What a bloody writer he is. I told him straight, but he keeps blatherin' on, says maybe I’d like to buy a kitty, and there I was, wiltin' in the heat, sittin' and starin' at him from under heavy eyes, black and judgemental, heavier than all of Nick the One-Eyed’s unabsolved sins combined and measured.

—That’s your talent.

—And he says, "I’ll give you a discount, Auntie, love, as the guardian of the universe, take this new fluffy friend for half price."

—Was the kitty pretty at least?

—The kitty, I must admit, was absolutely lovely, I saw her from afar — grey, long fur, eyes amber or maybe tangerine, some exotic breed, not from around here.

—And what did you do?

—I told Leo I had no money, said, "give me the money, and I’ll buy your animal."

—And what did he do?

—He looked at me with such pitiful eyes, like a little child. "You," he says, "Auntie Nell, you’re the true kingpin here, or a queenpin, everyone knows you, you’re our real strength, the backbone that holds the whole village together, without you," he says, "our tiny universe would crumble like sand from a broken hourglass, and imagine, Auntie Nell, you sittin' by the window, enjoyin' our lovely summer, dreaming, and beside you, or even on your lap, sits this kitty, purring, radiatin' kindness, love, positive cosmic energies, and in winter she’ll warm both body and soul, for cats are such creatures, they catch mice and heal chakras."

—And what did you do?

—I must confess, I melted at such a pitch.

—There you have it, he conned you, me dear, charmed you, a cupid in businessman’s clothing.

—Who’s conned who, you teetering twat. I sees this lovely creature in the arms of that raggedy cretin, the village's own parasite, a boozed-up flea, a sodden louse, I does. Lookin' into Leo's bloodshot eyes, and the cat’s precious amber ones, while I sits in me black glasses. He can't see how me eyes are moving, to him, I’m just a statue in the window, Venus, bloody Venus of Milo

—Or of Willendorf...

—Oh, shut up! And I thinks, I gotta save that cat. She’ll perish with that wretch, or he’ll sell her to his drunken mates, them great novelists just like him, and it’s lucky, if them boozy lips end up floggin' her to some decent soul, otherwise, God forbid, gobble her up when there’s nowt to chase the vodka with, I’ve seen worse in the war years, I have.

—You goes on like you were the only one in the war.

—And where were you? Sharpenin' your tongue or lyin' under the enemy?

—Me dear, me mother hid me in the woods, in an oak tree, fed me on crushed acorns and nettles soup.

—We’ve seen it all, we have. Horses, dogs, cats, lether belts — dreadful times... So I thinks, I can't leave this cat, with eyes like two tangerines, to such a total outcast, sorry to say, a marginal figure, our village's daft Leo, a slave to Dionysus. I decides to buy the critter off him, not just buy, but trade, set up an honest communist barter, pressin' on his sorest spot.

—What’s that spot, Nellie? Not his writin' tool...

—Hold your tongue, you pervert. His boozin' muscle, his liver, that is. I’ve got an alternative for you, I tells him, a more universal currency, better than money, since our money’s as good as toilet paper these days, maybe even less so. When they start payin' pensions in copper coins, you won’t even have somethin' to wipe your arse with. Sometimes I wonders, how did folk manage a couple centuries back without paper money, and now here we are, millions handed out, barely enough for a couple loaves of bread, some milk, sausage made of offal. So I says to Leo, the fool, "Do you think happiness lies in money?" And he says, "What else, Auntie Nell?" "Well", I tells him, "in peace of soul!"

—Oh, is that so... And how are you? Peaceful?

—Look here, I tells him, "Nick the One-Eyed has so much money, he could fill an airplane hangar, and still have room. What does he do with it? Buys off his sins, and you, Leo, dear, got any sins to buy off? No? So why you, daft, all after money, when you says a cat can warm the soul? Now, can you put a price on that?"

—And him?

—Well, he's standin' there, scratchin' his nape with his free hand, his hand all muddy, as if he'd been diggin' in the Devil's arse, and the kitten, squirmin' all over, not wantin' to sit in his arms, it's probably reekin' of booze from his breath, and he says, Leo, that is, not the cat, "no, me dear mistress of the universe, it's priceless, it is," and I says to him, "I've got, Leo, love, a bottle of pre-revolutionary vodka, medicinal, made with holy water — they only distilled such stuff under the Czar. You give me the cat, I give you this bottle, and then our souls will both be at peace.

—Vodka? To Leo? You're quite something...

—Hold on, not done yet, the most important bit's coming. So, we live, me and Benedetta, this cat, we dote on each other, go to the shops together, collect the pension, and off to church, she runs around me, rubs against me legs, jumps, sits on me shoulder, like a parrot, I swear, only me back ain't what it used to be, starts stiffenin' up after she sits there for half an hour, had this instance, woke up one morning, and this little devil's climbed on me, purrin' so loud it's like a drum corps vibratin' through me spine, won't budge, so, I had to lie there till noon, couldn't get up, couldn't move. Had this dream once, sat on the cat in it, Benedetta was huge in the dream, like a horse, or a bloody outlandish elephant, and off we flew to explore our universe. Me with a glitterin' crown, her with those tangerine eyes of hers shinin' like floodlights, lightin' our way through the cosmos. We're flying, light speed, maybe even faster, and all we see are traffic lights blinkin' and cars honking, but no coppers or any other beings that could stop us — such is life for the mistress of the universe and her faithful friend Benedetta. I even brought her fresh milk a couple of times from your cow, sneakin' out at four in the morning, milked a cupful and brought it to her.

—So it was you...

—Don't you shriek, banshee, what, a cup of milk too much to spare? You and your old fart of a husband guzzle it down by the bucketful every day, and the cat, bless her, probably never seen fresh milk in her life, well now she has, of course. If you'd seen how she gulps it down, lappin' it up like an excavator, almost scoopin' the cup along with it, a trifle to you, but a joy to Benedetta, she's like a child, me girl, and it makes her happy and me too, keeps me from sittin' alone all day.

—And what am I to you?

—You and your old fart, I'm sick of the sight of you both, me soul's fed up with you, but with her, here's somethin' new, you won't even see such beauty on the telly.

—Thanks a bunch, friend.

—You hush, I'm just teasing, lovingly. What are we to each other?

—I don't even know anymore, Nellie, what we are, maybe nowt.

—But we've been through hell and high water, seen everythin' there is to see, either in person or on the telly, but Benedetta, she's seen nowt, so I showed her, and then one day she just disappears.

—Oh... Just like that?

—There you are sighing, but if you'd seen me sighing. Half a day she's gone, a day, two days, thought she certainly wasn't off courtin' tomcats, the furry little strumpet, somethin' must've happened, felt like a bear was squeezin' me ribs, tryin' to crush them, break me heart, so, I took a little carvalol, and other things, chamomile tea, herbal liqueur for calming, sat by the window, watchin' cars drive, mud churn, drunks wander back and forth, the priest in his G-wagon comin' from the sauna, Nick the One-eyed on his errands — the village livin' its life as if nowt's happened, and me Benedetta was nowhere, just gone, as if she'd evaporated and merged with the ether, so, I thinks, time to start a search operation. Remember when Marfa's husband got lost, went for mushroom picking, that old fart?

—Aye, I remember, God bless his soul.

—So there I was, thinkin' I've done this before, heads straight to the Community Centre — they're cultured folk there, understanding, compassionate, sure to lend a hand; I walks in and says, "Eh up, lovely lads and lasses, I've lost me cat, Benedetta, cryin' day and night I am, she's been gone three days, me little joy". And they goes, "And what can we do for you, Auntie Nellie?" I says, "Print me some flyers like you did for Marfa's husband: here's a lost cat, grey, fluffy, with eyes like tangerines, amber with a yellow sheen, answers to Benedetta". They makes me a dozen of them flyers, I'm wanderin' round the village, stickin' them up on poles, cryin' me eyes out, the world's all dark, like it's the end of days.

—So some human feelings left in you, then?

—Human feelings might've upped and left, you daft old bat, but plenty of cat ones. Cats, you know, they don't ask daft questions, just sit there quiet, meow now and then (that's their language, innit), you feed them, water them, pet them, and they're happy with you, but folk these days, try pleasin' them, all drunks, junkies, prostitutes, and you two ancient relics, too stingy even to spare milk for a kitten, bet you'd begrudge water from your rusty tap when I'm dyin' — that's half the people, one's a thief, another a murderer, a fifth already in jail for all the above, but a cat? Sacred creature, by Leo's account, probably the real essence of the universe.

—So, did Benedetta turn up?

—So there I am, mourning, same as ever by the window, in me black shawl, me best black dress, the one I buried me old man in and saw off me wayward friends, all in mournin' I am — Benedetta's gone, no sign of Benedetta, anyone might pass by the window, young or old, a thug or a priest, a stray dog or a filthy pigeon, but not me dearie. Even the sprats I bought for her went off, and me heart's gettin' worse, every part of me creaks, fallin' apart like an old shed, but then I see — Leo comin', the bastard, face red as a watermelon, in his torn old dad's quilted jacket, holey rubber boots, splashin' through puddles, and guess what he's holding?


—Naay, ah, if only — me flyer, "lost cat, name's Benedetta, find her and you're a champ, and champs deserve a reward these days".

—And where's Benedetta?

—"Auntie, Nell", says this twat, "your cat's with me, safe and sound, sittin' at home, guzzlin' milk down like there's no tomorrow, purrin', tail's not waggin', nose cold, eyes still that same yellow". What a daft lad, eh? What sort of writer is he, can't tell the difference between amber-mandarin and yellow? I got all excited, told him to brin' Benedetta, brin' her quick, why turn up empty-handed? And do you know what he says?


—He's after a reward! "That'll be a million", says the cheeky devil, "no less, and I don't want your vodka, not the Czar's, nor even your famous moonshine, nowt. Drank your vodka," he says, "and felt only worse, so wretched I nearly hanged meself, already borrowed a rope on credit from a local chaps, found some soap, picked a good tree with a view on the lake, then realised I want to live, understood where true happiness lies, so, Auntie Nellie, hand over the money," says the cursed fiend, "and then you'll see your cat."

—And what did you do?

—I got so angry, I was boilin' over, muscles tense, veins bulging, almost breathin' fire. Grabbed the porcelain ashtray next to me, flung it at him, at Leo, with all me might, nearly fell out the window doin' it, but hit him, right in his empty head, so it echoed all around the neighbourhood (surprised it didn't shatter the neighbours' windows), and he, Leo, the mountain goat, leaps up, starts huffing, thought he'd gone mad. "Me cat," I yell, "give it to me, you vermin."

—And what did he do?

—Nowt — left. "Come and get the cat yourself, you old cunt" he says, "and now I definitely won't give her to you without the million. You've got no soul," he says, "you're no mistress of the universe, that's just me fiction."

—And what's your point in all this?

—What do you mean, what's me point? I've got no choice, do I? Need to save me cat, me beloved Benedetta, but to save her I need to find a million somewhere, and it's still a week and a half till me pension (I'm countin' the days), so she doesn't perish with him, that rotten scoundrel. That's why I came to you, to ask, see if me dear friend would lend me a small million till payday?



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