By Simon Downham-Knight
I recently went up to Nottingham to visit my old friend from school, David. I hadn’t seen him in about twenty years. We got chatting on Facebook after my dad died and he invited me up to spend some time with him and his family. When I got there his cat, Gilda, was giving birth to kittens. I sat and watched as each one arrived and Gilda carefully licked them clean before she ate the afterbirth with relish. I found that it triggered off a memory that I hadn’t thought of for about forty years, so I told David about it as he sat looking at the proud mother and her kittens.
It was 1981 and I was ten years old when my mum came home with Bandit and said that she was mine. She was a tiny little black and white kitten with a black stripe across her eyes that went up at the nose. This gave the appearance of a domino mask, hence the name, Bandit. It was November and pouring down with rain and I opened the door to my Mum, who was smiling down at me and dripping on the doorstep. She had the meagre little thing cradled in the crook of her elbow and it was shivering. She said she had spotted a wriggling brown sack floating in the old canal on her way home from work and had fished it out with a branch. There were three others in there that had all drowned but Bandit, who was the smallest; the runt of the litter, she said, had survived.
“You’re turning this place into a bleeding menagerie,” Dad said, barely looking up from his paper. I noticed Steve the Lodger, look at my dad and then at me and smile. Fat Helen, our other lodger, barely looked up from the book she was reading. She hardly ever said anything. In fact, the only words I heard her utter were – What’s for dinner?
“Well done, Maureen.” Steve the Lodger said as he looked up at my mum, smiling. “You did well to rescue one of them.” She smiled and blushed and then looked back down at little Bandit.
“Two cats, a small dog and a couple of hamsters is hardly a menagerie,” Mum said.
“You forgot to mention the terrapins,” Dad said and mum rolled her eyes as she crouched down and handed the pathetic creature over to me. She was really tiny and even though her eyes were closed I could almost see her eyes through the opaque lids. Over the next couple of days, Bandit got sick, really sick and we weren’t sure if the little thing was going to pull through. I fed her milk using a dropper and we kept her close to the gas fire in the lounge wrapped in my security blanket from when I was little. Steve the Lodger had been living with us for about six months and was much better support than my mum and dad. He fed her when I was at school; changed her litter tray and made sure she was looked after. He had started out as a temporary guest, moving out of his old house due to problems with his “psychotic” house mate and there were a few weeks before he could move into his new house. That had fallen through though. Now he was looking for a new place. All his stuff was packed in boxes and stored in the cellar. I sneaked down there sometimes and he had some weird stuff down there. Some animal skulls, a gas mask, some old dolls and cuddly toys and some leather strappy stuff that I couldn’t work out and a purple thing that was shaped like a penis. When I asked dad how he had met Steve the Lodger, he said that Steve was a friend of my mother’s from work. When I asked mum how she knew him, she said that he was a friend of my father’s from church. Whoever’s friend he was, I liked him. He was cool and into music and drawing and paid me a lot more attention than my dad ever did. He gave me a gatefold vinyl copy of Paranoid by Black Sabbath and when John Lennon was shot, he brought me back a vinyl copy of Double Fantasy and lay on my bed with me as we listened to it. We both agreed that Watching the Wheels was the best track on it, although I thought that Hard Times are Over was a decent second place. He also had an old hardback copy of Grey’s Anatomy that we would pore through. He would draw weird pictures out of it and encourage me to do the same. Anyway, with Steve the Lodger’s help, it wasn’t long before Bandit was nursed back to health, fighting fit and squaring up to the other local cats. For such a small cat though, she could be pretty ornery. She would moan and growl and hiss and spit and lash out at anyone and everything, including me. Dad said she was traumatised by the experience of being in that sack in the canal with all her dead brothers and sisters.
Fat Helen was so named for obvious reasons. She had lived with us for a lot longer than Steve the Lodger, but I barely heard her say anything the whole time I knew her. She was well known in the neighbourhood for turning up at people’s houses at mealtimes and foisting herself upon them for food. Steve the Lodger called her an incorrigible inveigler. One time, at a party I heard several of the neighbours work it out that she would sometimes manage to cajole as many as five dinners in a single evening. No wonder she was so fat.
Mum and Dad were Christians. Dad was a Deacon at the local Baptist Church, which was at the end of our road. Steve the Lodger also came to church with us, but I was always confused by the Star of David pendant he wore, the five-pointed star badge he wore and the fact that he would call God the wonderful Wizard of Oz when mum and dad weren’t around. I asked him about it once and he just winked at me. One day, he told me there was a present for me down in the cellar. I went down there and on the table was a brand-new shrink-wrapped vinyl copy of Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath. Their first album since Ozzy Osbourne was fired. Steve the Lodger had told me it was brilliant, and I couldn’t wait to hear it. The cover featured an illustration of three angels smoking cigarettes and playing cards. My heart fluttered at how edgy and subversive this was. I picked up the album and turned it over in my hands. There was a pencil illustration of the band and I got my first look at Ozzy’s replacement, Ronnie James Dio. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed, where the record had been on the table, a pile of polaroid pictures. The top one was of a man, I assumed it was Steve the Lodger, sitting on the toilet, looking down at his genitals. This was followed by various images of Steve the Lodger in various states of undress doing things with a woman that both fascinated and revulsed me. He must have left them there by accident. I went back upstairs with Steve the Lodger and we lay on my bed together listening to Heaven and Hell. While we both agreed that it was a brilliant album, it felt like a totally different band to the one Ozzy fronted. Steve the Lodger may have been a bit strange, but he was nicer than my dad, who only really paid attention to me when he was angry and belting me about.
One day, Bandit suddenly went missing. We looked everywhere for her; called out; left food in various places. Even Fat Helen helped. We looked all over the house. We looked down the dingy alley between our house and the next-door house, but all we could see was an empty cardboard box. We looked in all the neighbours’ gardens. We knocked on all the neighbours’ front doors and asked them, but she was nowhere to be seen. After two days of her being gone, I was beginning to despair.
“She’ll turn up. She’s a survivor, like you.” Steve the Lodger said as he playfully biffed me in the arm. “Do you want to go upstairs and listen to Heaven and Hell again?” And that’s what we did. While we were up there listening to Children of the Sea, he ruffled my hair and then stroked my face.
The next morning it had rained, and I went outside to look for Bandit. I had another look down the alley but couldn’t see anything apart from that soggy old cardboard box. I was about to go back inside when I thought I heard something, a high-pitched mewling. Much higher than the kind Bandit did now. I ran down to the box and looked inside to see her in there with four tiny little kittens suckling on her. I was overjoyed and reached in and grabbed her and held her close to my face. I then ran into the house to tell Mum and Dad and Steve the Lodger and Fat Helen about my discovery.
“I didn’t even know she was pregnant.” Dad said.
“I didn’t think she was old enough to get pregnant.” Mum said. “How early can they get pregnant?”
“We should bring the kittens in.” Steve the Lodger said. “Get the mother and kittens back together. They should be bonding right now.” We brought them in and put them into the domed cat bed with a blanket and some food and milk outside. There was a black one with a white star on its chest, a ginger and white tabby, a black and white one and a black, white and brown one. I went to school a while later. When I came back and looked into the cat bed, I could only see three kittens in there. The ginger and white tabby was nowhere to be seen. I looked all over but could find no trace of it anywhere.
“Have you done anything to the little tabby?” I asked my mum, then my dad, then Steve the Lodger. None of them had seen it. I looked all over for the little thing but found nothing. Later on, when I had another look in the cat bed, hoping to see the tabby had returned, Bandit growled and hissed at me. This time the black, white and brown one was gone. What the hell was going on? Where were the kittens going? Nobody had any idea of what could have happened to them and my despair was beginning to turn into anguish.
After dinner, Steve the Lodger called me over to the cat bed and said that the black one was now missing. He crouched down over me and was breathing into my ear as I looked into the bed that now had Bandit and just two kittens inside. Bandit hissed and growled at me and then looked protectively at her two surviving kits.
“Could it have been the dog? Could it have been Spike?” I said, looking at Steve the Lodger, imploringly.
“I don’t think so.” Steve the Lodger said. “I haven’t seen Spike anywhere near here for days. Spike’s a sweetheart as well. He wouldn’t say boo to a goose, let alone slaughter and eat kittens.”
That night I dreamt that I was inside a sack with four other boys, jostling, confused and unable to work out what was going on. Suddenly, I felt as though we were suspended in thin air and then, splash! We were soaking wet and freezing cold and being dragged along by the current. I watched helplessly as the other boys drowned one after the other. I awoke completely drenched in sweat and filled with fear and rage. Who would do such a terrible thing to little kittens? To me! I ran downstairs and found that the black, white and brown one was now gone, leaving just the two black and white ones, Bandit and her final kitten left in the cat bed. Mum and Dad didn’t seem to care. Fat Helen was completely indifferent. The only person who seemed to care was Steve the Lodger.
I got a detention at school that day. Some kid tripped me on the stairs, and I called him a flid. Mister McCardle, the Head, heard me and brought me to his office. He asked me if I knew what it meant, and I told him I didn’t. I kind of did know. I figured it meant the same as spaz or retard but I didn’t want him to know that. He got me to write “I will not use words I do not know the meaning of” five hundred times before he let me go. I ran all the way home from school that day because I knew nobody else could be bothered to keep an eye on my cat and her kitten. Nobody else cared about the mystery unfolding before my eyes.
It was after five when I finally opened the front door with the key around my neck and rushed over to the cat bed in the corner of the dining room. When I looked inside, I was barely able to process what was in front of me. Just the tail half of the black and white kitten with all its insides out and Bandit chewing on a chunk of its guts with a look in her eyes that I can only describe as shame. Was she ashamed? Do cats feel shame? I howled out in anguish and Mum, Dad and Steve the Lodger rushed over to me.
“Mystery solved,” my dad said and he slunk off to carry on reading his paper.
“That’s very strange,” mum said, shaking her head but also withdrawing as Bandit took several more bites from her final kitten.
“What’s for dinner?” Fat Helen said and I felt the blood boiling inside my head and my ears pounding.
“What’s for dinner?” I said. “Is that all you can think about? Dinner!? I bet you’ve already had five, you fat pig.” I screamed at Fat Helen.
“Peter! That’s just about enough of that from you.” My mum said. “You take yourself up to your room and you’ll get no dinner tonight. Helen can have yours.
“What the hell? Are you kidding me?” I shouted at my mum.
“Get upstairs!” Dad said. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you for the rest of the day. And that’s what I did. I took myself up into my room and sat on my bed with a sick pit in my stomach that turned over when I thought about Bandit eating all of her babies. I hope my dinner chokes you, Fat Helen. I didn’t want it anyway, you fat fucking bitch.
Some time later there was a knock on my door, and it was Steve the Lodger. He came in and sat on the bed next to me and put his arm around me.
“It’s a fairly rare occurrence but totally normal for a cat to eat their young.” He said.
“Why though? Why would she do something so horrible?” I said.
“It could be that she was stressed or traumatised after being thrown into the canal like that.” He said. “Maybe she was just too young. She had been missing for a few days. Maybe she was starving hungry, or us moving her into the house freaked her out. Whatever it was, it’s entirely normal for an animal to do that. I know it seems horrible, but the world is a dark and horrible place. Maybe this is a good opportunity for you to learn something about that.” He got up and stood over me, looking down, smiling. I noticed that his fly was undone, and he took my face in his hands.
I once saw a film called The Last Movie directed by Dennis Hopper. I liked it but I never really understood it. The reason I bring it up now is that there were points in the film where a black title card would flash up with the words “SCENE MISSING” on it. I don’t remember what happened after Steve the Lodger took my face in his hands but whenever I try to remember, I just remember that title card in The Last Movie. The next thing I do remember is watching Steve the Lodger leaving my room and closing the door behind him. A few minutes after that, Fat Helen came in, sat next to me and without saying a word pulled me tight into her fat side and rocked me back and forth for ages making this weird cooing sound. All I could think about was Bandit and her kittens. I could feel the polyester of Fat Helen’s dress on my cheek and could hear her stomach gurgling through her side and I was filled with an envy and a rage that she had eaten my fucking dinner.
When I finished my story, I could see that David was uncomfortable. He had stopped paying attention to his kittens and was sitting on his chair and was looking at me with compassion.
“Scene Missing?” He said. “What do you think Steve the Lodger did that you can’t remember? Why do you think you can’t remember? Where is he now and why did Fat Helen come in and hold you like that?”
“I have no idea.” I said. “I always felt that the kitten thing was the most traumatising thing that happened to me when I was a kid but there’s something else, that missing scene that just keeps pecking away at the inside of my brain and it won’t let me go.”
“Maybe you’ll remember one day.” He said.
Copyright 2021 – Simon Downham-Knight