August Short Story selected by The Big Issue

SkyPen is the online writing forum from Blackstaff Press and each month a short story is selected from the forum by The Big Issue for publication in their magazine.  This month’s winning writer is Richard Barr with his short story, Very Quite People.

Very Quite People


He’s a slender little Manx no-tail, and he’s the blackest, sleekest coat I’ve ever seen on a cat.

We call him Jinx. He moves like water flowing through a narrow channel and his instincts and perceptions are forever on a razor’s edge. Often he ceases with a stillness that could only be conferred by Medusa. But his sudden thrusts and jumps are pure quicksilver, sprung from some unknown well and spurred by a singular objective.

We think his lack of kills is linked to his missing a tail. We know for sure his aptitude for climbing is diminished for this reason. His balance too. He circles the tree at the bottom of the garden watching Candyfloss, our other one, climb up and up, edging toward the blackbird’s nest, which is very high up and nestled snugly between sturdy branches.

His pink ears turn sharply at every tuneful birdcall. But unfamiliar noises will rouse only the one ear, which will turn sharply, this way, that way, to pinpoint the source of the infernal sonic disturbance that has so rudely interrupted his dozing. Responding to noises raised from various locations, the ears will move one independent of the other, like roving spy-dishes perched upon the dark hill of his skull.

His sleeps are long and very still. Seldom does he stir, but when he does makes a noise like a grandparent cooing quietly. His paws go too, claws out; in his nightmare he’s batting something away, making exploratory jabs at some ephemeral dreamscape foe. Yet when we watch him we see that he doesn’t truly sleep, not in the same way we do. When we look closely we notice the one eye betraying that rheumy amber sliver, you could say coquettish, but truly our eerie sentinel is eternally vigilant.

And yet while he is master of these rooms in which he sleeps and plays, outside it is a different story. Those ears, and a nose that’s forever raised and twitching, are the sensory vanguard, a million unconscious processes sifting strange smells and new sounds. He moves over each short foot with caution until his surroundings are assimilated, and then, just like that, that swaggering fluidity slackens his frame again, and he deftly pads toward one of his unknown places and disappears.

Outside we can only surmise on where he goes and on what factors have shaped his experience. However, it is plain to see, his station is not a high one in the pecking order of local felines. We put this down, again, to his having no tail, and sometimes, in wine and weed induced flights of fancy, we like to imagine that neighbouring cats have a discriminatory bent in their thinking and pick on him because he is black. But he is not much of a fighter, and will sooner run from a scrap than arch his back and face off against an opponent.

He grooms regularly and thoroughly. Every area is covered. We think about if he were a real human boy how concerned we’d be by this; how we’d think he had some type of narcissistic disorder like body dysmorphia or something. We buy him toys sometimes, but he regards them like a chair would a candlestick holder. But still, when we’re walking the aisles of the pet store we deliberate carefully in deciding on what to buy him. Seeing in our minds’ eye the many joys & uses this windup mouse or that catnip garnished snake will bring him. A dog would be different we think. Throw the stick and the dog will chase it. Many an afternoon can be wasted in running, and chasing, and catching a thing (any inanimate object will do), when you’ve a dog in tow. But, we know, and have decided upon this many moons ago, that we cannot abide noise. That neither of us can live in a household with anything or anyone which makes more noise than we do. It is why we are childless, and have two cats and no dogs. We are very quiet people.

Despite him taking no interest at all in whatever colourful and/or aromatic trinket has been purchased from the pet store, the movements and activities at work in the back garden do provoke in him the most spontaneous and energetic of frolicking. When we’re not speaking and I’ve decided to take myself upstairs, I’ll stand and watch him through the bathroom window and maybe be amazed by his supernatural ability to flatten himself against the earth, to transport himself bit by tiny bit toward that eternally singular objective, seemingly without means. And yet, as mentioned earlier, and despite these, his best efforts, his kill rate stands at zero. Wariness stirred and compelled by the near-precognitive hardwiring in their tiny brains, the birds all take flight and Bastet has come up empty again.

Now it’s summer he has taken to staying out for a couple of nights at a time. Between his leaving and his coming back we don’t know where he’s been. Now and again he’ll show up with leaves and twigs in his coat, like he’s been spending his time crawling along hedgerows, perhaps in a protracted stalking of some half broken, dwindling creature.

The longest time he stayed away he was gone four nights. This gave rise to another one of our communication vacuums, before which we voiced abstract, near absurd, accusations, each blaming the other for his disappearance. The day before the night of his return, I had tried breaking the ice by making up a fanciful story of where he’d been and what he’d been doing.
‘…he’s away to a festival with his boy and their pals. There’s festivals happening all over the country this time of year, and he’s most probably over 18 in cat years, so he’s no longer obliged to tell us where he takes himself to…’
On and on I went. Even after she’d taken her leave I got my Dictaphone out and continued the tale in an effort to preserve it, for a reason totally unknown to myself.

Lately we have chosen to sleep in separate rooms. Morning time we both rise together, step into the hall together, rubbing the sleep from our eyes and yawning, and in the unspoken movement of ourselves establish who will use the WC first and who will run down to make the tea.

The morning he brought the dead blackbird in, it so happened we’d emerged from the same room to find him there waiting, purring low, a long and rolling throatiness that sounded like the engine of a big motorbike turning over.

Neck snapped, head drunkenly lolling to one side. Breast stripped of feathers, down to the flesh. Wings fully outstretched and legs pointed down, straight. The perennial ritualistic serial killer would have nothing on this. And thus, this is how the blackbird was presented. His gift to us.

Image: “Havana Brown – choco” by Dave Scelfo from Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, USA – choco. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –