‘I’m sorry to hear of your loss’ the customers say and I fucking hate it. People aren’t ‘lost’ like a set of car keys, they’re ‘dead’ and the sooner we all stop hiding behind euphemisms and say how things really are, the better we’ll be able to understand each other.
‘Passed away’ is another one. Mrs Dawlish was the offender this time. ‘So, your Uncle’s passed away?’ she said, although I gathered it was a rhetorical question as she had been at the funeral. I contented myself with a curt nod. If she wanted more than that, she was going to have to be a lot more original.
I had been forced to put up with this shit for most of my childhood, when adults, mainly women, would ruffle my hair and exclaim ‘you poor mite, you’ve had a difficult time haven’t you?’ which is rather an understatement considering that both my parents died in a car crash when I was five, and it was only the fact that Uncle Roger stepped forward to take me in, that saved me from the inevitable path of children’s homes, buggery, drink, drugs and crime.
‘Extra-hot latte?’ I said. This too was a rhetorical question as in all the years she’d been coming to the cat café, Mrs Dawlish had never had anything else.
‘I’m going to sit with Bella today. Cats feel things very deeply you know, and Bella was especially close to Roger.’ There was an implication here that I was not feeling things very deeply, but I couldn’t really argue with her as it was true. I’d been numb for years.
However, cats, as all cat-owners know, are not really close with anyone. That’s why Roger liked them so much, for their independence of spirit. He once explained to me that he thought cats brought out the best in people and that’s how he came up with the idea of the cat café. Here he could combine his two loves; the aforementioned felines and cake, and save people from themselves at the same time. As far as I’m aware, his was the first cat café in Britain; and although he was very proud of this fact, it’s not like it’s spawned a franchise the size of costa coffee. It’s still a rather unique concept, and probably the un-coolest place for a young boy to grow up.
Girls, as you can imagine, vanished into thin air once I mentioned what I did as a Saturday job. ‘You work in a café? With cats?’ they would giggle, their eyes already sliding over me onto my best friend Johnno, who everyone knew, worked in a garage at the weekends and could drive by the time he was fifteen.
And the thing is that now, I can do whatever I like. Roger’s left me the café, but he was quite clear that he didn’t expect me to carry it on. ‘Cat cafés are the dream job for an old poofter like me’ he had said, still grinning even though by this stage, his skin was horribly jaundiced, ‘but I quite understand that a young man will have very different ambitions. Sell up as soon as I’m in the ground, and don’t think twice about it. I won’t turn in my grave, the only thing I ask is that you make sure the cats go to non-smoking, non-gay-bashing good homes.’
There were twelve cats in the cat café. There was no way I was going to close the café and be left with twelve bloody cats, but how on earth was I supposed to find homes for them all? Maybe I could have them all euthanized and put in the coffin with Roger like some Indian raj. I had ruminated on this to Johnno over a pint one evening. He had laughed, as I knew he would, but he and I both knew that I wasn’t serious.
So here I was, stymied. Two months after Roger’s funeral and still serving up coffee and cakes to the inhabitants of Lickfold and feeding twelve cats, emptying innumerable litter trays, brushing fur, and feeling my masculinity draining away with every day that passed. I’d come back to work in the café on a part-time basis when Roger was first diagnosed, gradually taking on more and more hours as he became increasingly ill. Finally, I’d handed in my notice at the insurance brokers and begun working in the café full time. Now Roger was dead, I could pick up my old life again, no problem. If it wasn’t for the bloody cats.
One of the trickier aspects of running a cat café, one which doesn’t feature in many instagram posts, is the issue of poo. Inevitably, I’ll have just lifted the lid off the coffee and walnut and be hovering the knife over it, when I’ll hear one of the cats scratching in a litter tray. Seconds later comes the blast to the nasal cavities and a sudden loss of appetite. Roger tried to counter this by placing little fringed curtains over the tunnels that led to the litter trays, but he didn’t make the tunnels long enough. Either that or the smell of cat poo has a scientific property which enables it to penetrate brickwork. So that morning, with only Mrs Dawlish sipping her latte and the morning rush of office workers still to come, I excused myself and went out into the back room to empty the litter trays and pump a shit-load of room fragrance in their vicinity. Because of this, I didn’t see her come in.
‘Are you the new owner of this property?’ She was standing at the counter waiting for me when I returned. She was young, with tawny hair and green eyes and rather severe clothing, which matched her expression. Mrs Dawlish was stirring her latte so slowly that I knew she was in full listening mode.
‘Roger was his Uncle, Amber’ Mrs Dawlish interjected, ‘so he doesn’t know much about the business itself.’
I tried to throw Mrs Dawlish an ‘are you for real?’ glare, but she had gone back to stirring her coffee and talking gently to Bella who was draped over her lap.
‘Well that explains it’ said Amber, getting out her phone and flicking through it.
She was looking intently at her phone. I am that bloody boring, I thought, that she can’t even give me her full attention when she is the one initiating the conversation! She thrust her phone towards me.
‘Do you recognise this cat?’
‘Yes’ I said, ‘That’s Tallulah’ I instinctively looked around the café as I said this. Tallulah was one of the more exuberant cats, usually to be found posing in the window with her leg in the air.
‘Well I suppose I should be thankful that you do at least recognise her but there’s absolutely no point in looking for her in here’ Amber said. Her tone was starting to irritate me.
I looked at the photo again. Yes, that was Tallulah, but it was Tallulah in a tree. And Tallulah did not go out, none of the cats did.
‘How did you get this picture?’ I demanded.
‘Surely the question should be, where is Tallulah?’ Amber countered.
‘Where is Tallulah’ I repeated, like some ignoramus.
‘Up the Silver Birch in my garden and wailing like she’s had her throat cut. God knows how long she’s been up there, I’ve been running back-to-back sessions this week and haven’t been home that much, so it could have been as long as three days.
Mrs Dawlish had given up any pretense of not listening to the conversation. She had gasped in horror at the mention of Tallulah and the tree and now interjected ‘Amber is a grief councillor’ as if that had any relevance to anything. I ignored her.
‘Well I’ll need to come and get her, won’t I?’
‘Yes’ Amber said, ‘yes please – she sounds terrified’.
The thought of how scared Tallulah must be sliced through me with unexpected fierceness. Here was a cat who had never been outside before, who was trapped in a tree and no doubt experiencing massive sensory overload. A cat, who had just lost her owner and not understanding death must think she had been abandoned. And there was me, the person who was supposed to be looking after her, who Roger had trusted to look after her, who hadn’t even noticed she was missing. My hands started to shake, and I gripped the counter hard to try and get control over myself.
I was hoping that neither Amber nor Mrs Dawlish would notice, but the fact that both their voices softened, made me think they had now seen me for the fucking wuss that I am.
‘It’s not your fault’ said Mrs Dawlish ‘you’ve had a lot on your plate’.
‘Look’ Amber said, ‘come around when you finish up here won’t you?’ She produced a card from her handbag, which, as well as her address, confirmed that she was indeed someone who specialized in loss. The irony of the situation had me breaking out in an involuntary chuckle, despite the fact that I was still hanging on to the counter top. Amber had the good grace, or the experience, to ignore the fact that I seemed to be turning into a raving lunatic.
‘She’s a lovely girl, Amber’ said Mrs Dawlish. And for once, I knew exactly what she meant.
I managed to extract Tallulah from the tree with only minor scratches. I had expected her to put up more of a fight, but perhaps her moodiness was only skin deep. I hugged her to me briefly before putting her into the travel basket and snapping the door closed.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Amber asked, over a beer which she had instinctively seemed to know I wanted.
She laughed ‘no, your Uncle’s death. It’s a small place, you know, there’s not much people don’t know about each other here.’
‘Not really no’ I replied. ‘Thanks for asking though and not dodging the subject, but I’ve found that burying things away deeply and trying not to think about them works pretty well for me.
Amber laughed. ‘Oh God, I really sounded like a councillor then didn’t I? Sorry, it’s hard to shake off the day job sometimes.’
I held up the cat basket, ‘likewise’.
And we clinked our beer bottles at the joke, minor as it was. It felt good to be sitting out in the sunshine, just talking.
‘What are you going to do with the café, if you don’t mind me asking?’ Amber said later. The sun was going down and shadows were flitting playfully across her skin.
‘I’m not sure. I feel a bit lost at the moment’ I said, ‘but I’m actually OK with that’. And as I said it I realised I was. There was no hurry to make a decision. If running a cat café was not my life’s ambition, I could think of a lot of worse things to be doing.
Amber nodded, ‘I haven’t got my councillor hat on tonight. In fact, I locked it in the cupboard under the stairs when I went to get the beers, so you’re safe. But’, she said, ‘you’re right not to rush.’ Her eyes flicked up and met mine for a moment that stretched a fraction longer than was necessary between friends. ‘There’s a lot to think about and it’s a good idea to, you know, from time to time… mentally that is, to shake out the sheets.’
And for once, I really, really hoped this was a euphemism.
Word count: 1949