This Stuff Only Happens in South London: ‘Hat Not Cat,’ a Short Story by David Nwokedi
‘Fucking cats,’ he said.
‘FUCKING CATS!’ he shouted it this time. A woman with red hair and an overfilled carrier bag walking down the road turned in his direction but didn’t look at him. At least, he didn’t think she looked at him.
He dipped his middle finger into his sherbet dip, pulled it out and sucked off the sherbet. The sherbet from the sherbet dip made him sneeze just like he knew it would. ‘AAITCHOO!!!’ Sherbet bits flew everywhere.
‘Fucking Purley Way!’ he shouted.
He was standing by his car on the forecourt away from the pumps. It was a garage on the Purley Way. Not any old garage, at least not to him. It was THE garage on the Purley Way, the one that he always stopped at with or without his car.
‘Meaaaow,’ the cat was in a brown suitcase in the boot of his car; white Hyundai X-reg; 16 valve engine; woofers and tweeters in the speakers and white fake leather seats. HER clothes were in the suitcase too, with the cat. Not a lot of room left for the cat because she’s got a lot of clothes but enough room for the cat to talk. ‘Get me out of here,’ it was saying ‘...meaaaow...’
X-reg in more ways than one. X-registration and ex of Reginald. A car with woofers and tweeters that used to belong to Reginald Mort; the late Reggie Mort as was not is.
Reggie Mort…‘The Greatest Ladies Man of Old Coulsdon Town.’
‘Bastard! Bollocks!’ he shouted. ‘In his own fucking HEAD was Reggie the Greatest Frigging Ladies MAN!’ he emphasized the words ‘head’ and ‘man’ when he shouted, he didn’t know why he did that and it annoyed him that he had. He dipped his middle finger into the sherbet dip again and slowly licked it off. He could taste the sherbet and, if his mouth hadn’t been full of his finger and sherbet, he would have smiled but of course he couldn’t. The sherbet made him sneeze again just like he knew it would... ‘AITCHOOO!!!’
‘WHOOOOOSHHH!’ It was the sound of a car pulling in to the garage, onto the forecourt. He wasn’t aware of the extra two ‘h’s’ on the end of the sound it made…HH…
‘Fucking Purley Way,’ he said quietly to himself under his breath.
A woman with sausage-like fingers and hair that looked like Shredded Wheat looked over at him from pump number 5
‘Meeaaow,’ the cat meowed, still in the suitcase, still in the boot of the car, still with HER clothes wrapped around its little furry body; furry with claws of course.
‘Shut the fuck up, CAT!’ he said, quietly to himself almost, just in his head but not quite. But the ‘cat’ bit was not said quietly, it was loud, too loud for a garage on the Purley Way. He tried to take back the loud ‘cat’ shout, tried to shove it back into his mouth but of course he couldn’t, once a word is out it’s out, we all know that (try shouting, “Prince Philip shags grapefruits!” outside the gates of Buck Palace and you’ll see for yourself that once a word is out you can’t put it back in. There are consequences). A woman with sausage-like fingers and hair that looked like Shredded Wheat looked over at him from pump number 5. She was filling her car with diesel.
‘HAT!’ he shouted across at her trying to mislead her, to confuse her, to make her think she had heard him shout ‘HAT!’ and not ‘CAT!’
He hated Ford Fiestas
‘Oh hat!’ he shouted again and he pointed at his head with the sherbet middle finger. ‘I must remember to buy my mother a HAT. She’s such a lovely mother I’m sure she’d look so nice in a hat; an orange HAT perhaps!’ This time he knew he’d over emphasized the word ‘hat’ twice. The woman with Shredded Wheat hair smiled at him thinly and carried on putting diesel in her car. ‘I’ve hoodwinked her,’ he thought just as a red Ford Fiesta pulled up at pump number 3. R-reg, balled rear tyres, tiny little scratches on the rear left spoiler. He smiled to himself. He had little spots of sherbet in his hair now of course because he’d pointed at his head with the sherbet middle finger.
‘Fucking Ford Fiestas!’ he shouted but this time he managed to keep it to himself, right in the middle of his head, right where no one would ever hear except him and God perhaps.
He hated Ford Fiestas (she drove one, not now but once some years ago). These are some of the other things he hated (with a passion); it’s helpful to know these things about him...it might come in handy one day…
...Scottish dancing, anything sticky, lumberjacks, Morris Men, Morris Women (not that he’d ever met any), Morris Minors, toadstools, knitting patterns, Gary Cooper, sausage rolls, fidgety people, fidgety midgets, people who pretend to be midgets, people who don’t like midgets, L. Ron Hubbard, anyone who’s surname rhymes with cupboard, Americans who’s surnames rhyme with closet (there were perhaps not many, he knew, but enough to annoy him), upright carpet sweepers, stick insects, the word ‘burgundy’, memory games, soup, having to get up to take apee during the night, post-it stickers, films about Alcatraz or any small islands in fact (especially rocky ones), people who talked about curds and whey (not that he’d ever met anyone who did, but he worried that he would), after eight mints, talking gobbledy-gook, people who say they are living on borrowed time, the day the clocks go forward, the day after the clocks go back and finally shellfish (they brought him out in hives)...
He told himself off a lot too...if he spilt sugar or if he didn’t clean the toilet properly or if he was late for work or if he bumped into someone on the tube or if he lied...he told himself off just like his Mammy would have done if she were still alive. But she wasn’t of course; she was dead. He knew he’d never really be able to buy her an orange hat. She had died of an overcoat. The doctor had said she had died of an overdose, that’s what he said was the exact cause of death, AN OVERDOSE, but what did he know? He was just a doctor. He knew that she really died of AN OVERCOAT and the doctor had just written it down wrong. The overcoat had killed her. It had smothered her with its affection. He knew; he was no fool; he’d never trusted that coat. The doctor had just been trying to hoodwink him.
BROOOOMMMM! The red Ford Fiesta pulled away and he thought of his Mammy and of hats and the woman with the Shredded Wheat hair coughed and screwed the fuel cap back on with her sausagey fingers. ‘She’s taken a bloody long time filling that car,’ he thought aloud. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said and looking at him she scurried off quickly toward the garage shop to pay for her diesel fuel. A little dust from the departing red Ford Fiesta sprayed her as she scurried.
In his hair, not that he could see, but in and around the little spots of sherbet lived some head lice. They fed off his head hungrily and maybe they would taste the little spots of sherbet and think to themselves, ‘Uuumh, nice, sugary. Not good for us but nice.’ He didn’t know what the head lice would be thinking because he didn’t even know he had head lice on his head. However, here are four facts about head lice that he did know had anyone asked him to name four things he knew about head lice...
- 1) That head lice were also called parasites. 2) That the singular of lice is louse and that it rhymed with ‘house’ and ‘mouse’ but not with many other words. 3) That head lice have specialized feet for gripping tightly on to hair follicles. 4) That if you had head lice you usually felt bloody annoyed, very itchy and possibly a little dirty, ashamed even…
He scratched his head.
‘Come on,’ the cat in the suitcase meowed. ‘Enough is enough; let me out of here...meeaoow!
‘Shut the fuck up!’ he whispered in a gentle, almost tender way. He said it with the type of inflection that you might say, ‘Please pass me my warm, fluffy slippers,’ or ‘Aren’t some French cheeses lovely and squidgy?’ It was incongruous with the actual words he used. He thought of HER clothes, the yellows and pinks and whites and the girly things wrapped around the little fluffy cat. He thought of the stifling claustrophobia that the cat must be feeling and of how its tiny claws would be scratching away at the insides of the brown suitcase leaving little scratch marks on the leathery surface. He thought of the little cat’s eyes and its little fluffy tail and the smell of Whiskas on its breath and he felt a pang of regret, an aching behind his ribcage. He thought of HER and he thought of his dead mother in a hat (any colour hat, he didn’t care). And the pain in his chest only got worse. He thought of Reggie Mort, he thought of what she and Reggie had done together whilst reclining. His stomach performed a cartwheel and his bowels started a juggling act. A lion tamer cracked a whip in his bladder and a Circus Master shouted, ‘ROLL UP! ROLL UP!’ in his ears.
The woman with the Shredded Wheat hair came out of the garage shop and hurried to her car. She looked up at him as she bent to get in to the car. She carried a copy of the Daily Express in one hand and a box of Weetabix in the other.
‘HAT!’ he shouted again as she looked at him and he pointed again at his parasite head; the head with the sherbet bits in it.
‘MEEEAOOOOW!’ the cat wailed in despair. And it coughed and spluttered a little too. ‘It’s too hot in here,’ it meowed. ‘I’m choking up.’
And he was choking up too. His guts were having kittens and his buttocks were clenching together feeling like two trombones being forced into one trombone case for a long haul journey. He was going all gooey and soppy inside and the anger was easing out of him like hot treacle rolling off the top of a treacle sponge. He grabbed at the handle on the boot of his car and frantically tried to wrench it open…
‘Come on,’ the cat cried, its little voice muffled by the Circus Master in his ears and the clothes in the suitcase, ‘be nimble. Be quick, let me out…Meeeaaaow!’
‘I’m coming,’ he cried thinking of HER. A vivid picture of her face flashed across his mind, her eyes, her nose, her neck, her agitated hair. He felt for his car keys in his pocket, frantically again…
‘Please… hurry,’ the cat meowed its little voice was getting weaker.
He didn’t notice of course but the parasite felt a little queasy from the fall
‘I am!’ he shouted and out of the corner of his eyes he could see a forecourt attendant with long arms walking toward him. He could hear the wail of a siren coming from somewhere, somewhere outside his head, outside the forecourt, away from the sound of the screeching Circus Master. Ambulance, Police. Fire Brigade? He knew not who was wailing their siren.
‘Meeeaoo….’ The cat couldn’t even finish its meeeaoow and left the ‘w’ off of the end hanging in the air…W…
He pulled the keys from his pocket, first having to remove two more sherbet dips, a ball of dirty, bloodied hankies and a small, plastic harmonica. He yanked at the boot of the car.
THUUUNK! (that was the sound of the lock opening on the boot).
He reached for the brown suitcase and heaved it out on to the forecourt. A parasite fell from his hair on to his shoulder as he did so. He didn’t notice of course but the parasite felt a little queasy from the fall. It soon found a follicle to latch on to and felt a little better.
‘Come on, COME ON,’ he said as he tried desperately to open the suitcase, his palms sweating with fear and causing him to fumble with the lock. He could hear the attendant’s footsteps getting closer and the sounds of the siren and of the Circus Master in his ears…
‘WOO, WOO, WOO!’ (the sound of the siren)
‘PUMP, PUMP, PUMP!’ (the attendant’s approaching footsteps)
‘ROLL UP, ROLL UP!’ (the Circus Master in his ears)
‘CLINK!’ (the sound of the suitcase lock springing open)
He spilled the contents of the suitcase on to the forecourt; the pink things, the yellow things, the white things, the girly things, HER things, and the cat. Nothing moved, not the pink things, not the yellow nor white things, not the girly things and most worryingly of all…not the cat. It just lay there motionless amongst the pile of HER things and the brown suitcase and the broken, bloodied heart that had been causing him all of that pain in his chest.
As the first of his salty tears began to fall, the forecourt attendant reached him and placed a tender long-fingered hand on his stooped shoulders. ‘It’s all right,’ the attendant whispered. ‘It’s all right.’
The sound of the siren was close, so close in fact that it had drowned out the sound of the Circus Master. He dipped his middle finger into his sherbet dip and sucked off the sherbet as his tears rolled down his downy cheeks. The sherbet made him sneeze just like he knew it would.
David Nwokedi - © 2015
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