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Saturday, 8 May 2010

Bête noire - Short Story by Margaret Wilde

The young cat was tightrope-walking. That is to say, it was performing the delicate manoeuvre of walking along the balcony rail which was the front boundary of its owners' first floor flat.

The woman in pain, whose ground floor flat nearby afforded a good view of the cat, watched it from her armchair by the window. She had seen it, week after week, hour after hour, going over every inch of its balcony territory, up and down, back and forth, slowly, methodically, seeking to escape and explore further afield. Its bright, inquisitive, searching face would look out through the railings, through the trellis struts, look out onto the wider world denied it, being high above the ground.

The cat in the top floor flat was more fortunate. There was a sloping ledge from its balcony to the roof. This roof led to others, one of which led to the stairs and freedom. Another cat had a cat door at its disposal. Several cats lived on the ground floor and so could come and go.

Miss Smith saw a lot of the free cats. They tried to enter her flat if she left the patio door ajar. She had to make sure it was not open wide enough to admit a cat, since she had difficulty catching them if they got in. They sunned themselves on her verandah. They sharpened their claws on the nearby trees.

Miss Smith thought it must be especially galling for the constrained animal to see other cats enjoying liberty - but perhaps she was being anthropomorphic?

The balcony doors were left slightly open for the cat. It had the run of its 'own' flat. Sometimes she would see it at the bedroom window - looking out - stretching, stretching, stretching up, trying to push open the window.

Once, she had seen it patiently and ingeniously insinuate itself into the hanging basket on the balcony. Having curled itself small enough to fit the hemisphere, using the momentum it had generated in the eventual successful leap into the basket, it had swung to and fro in a wider and wider arc, trying by this means to reach the upper balcony. But it had failed.

She admired the cat. It did not mope, become ill, turn aggressive. It just kept up its efforts, curiosity and hope undimmed. But surely it must have moments of despair and feelings of frustration?

And other people liked the cat. In friendly tones they spoke to the little black and white face as it peered down at them. - Its owners, too, were fond of the cat. They would gather it up into loving arms and take it in from the balcony, cuddling it, offering it comfort while denying it autonomy,

The woman in pain also spoke to the cat - but quietly, since of course it was too far away to hear. She empathised with the fine creature. How closely their suffering matched! - She too was offered comforting words, and they were as inappropriate for her as for the cat.

The cat's zest for living was not yet impaired. How long could it keep on 'keeping on'? She saw it on its 'tightrope', best vantage point for escape if escape were ever to be won.

"Jump!" she whispered softly. "Jump!"

Margaret Wilde © 1999

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