Not a Cat Person
First published in Hauntings, Newcon Press (2012)
Stewart Tyrrel had never spared any thoughts for where his colleagues lived. For him, they existed in virtual space, book-space, there alongside the classic authors of antiquity, the writers of commentaries, the publishers of papers in respected journals. There was no need for any of these people to have a physical presence in the world. To be tied to one home, to the gross physicality of a single human body, diminished them somehow.
Certainly George Bechter’s house avoided any latent expectations. This? This great pile of a Victorian, enough rooms to make a Bed and Breakfast out of it, three storeys of mouldering red brick. And yet George’s writing had always been so insightful, so carefully detailed and meticulous. Finding this sprawling domain as his home was like visiting the author of some fabulous diet to find them twenty stone and cramming cakes.
Nor had he envisaged the Widow Bechter, clad in respectable black, waiting on the curb for him. George had never spoken of family.
“Dr Tyrrel, thank you for coming.” She hovered at the gate as though reluctant to even set foot on the property.
“It’s the least I could do. I counted your husband as the most incisive mind in our field. He was a brilliant man, Mrs Bechter.”
You didn’t have to live with him, was the look in her eyes. “I’m sorry to ask for help like this, but his book... his publishers are threatening to reclaim the advance from the estate, and... there was never much money to start with. He said it was almost finished. He said that only a week before he...”
“It will be an honour to bring his final work into print,” Stewart confirmed. As she was apparently not going to, he strode down the path to the front door, which forced the Widow Bechter to follow in his footsteps. Once that Rubicon had been crossed she apparently felt confident enough to turn the key and usher him in.
Bechter’s house smelled faintly of rot – not of human death but of ancient things being given over slowly to the new life of mould and damp. The place was still cluttered with his possessions, perhaps just as it had been when the man’s heart had finally given out.
“It’s all in his study,” Mrs Bechter explained, as if he would know where that was, and she loitered in the hall for some time before taking him up the stairs to show him.
Looking on that, where the great man had worked, Stewart nodded grimly. “I see why you said I could stay over here.” He had been hoping just to box up Bechter’s research materials and get them home, but every flat surface was spread with papers and open books, annotated and marked with scraps and post-its and red pen. Every surface was heaped with them: desk, table, shelves, even the top of an old drained fish tank that now held nothing but dust and sand. Anatomised in every part of the room was an unfolding project in medias res. Bechter had indeed been in the midst of his work when he died, and what Stewart saw didn’t look like something a week from completion. The chance to get my name on it, beneath his, he reminded himself, and besides, he would get his share of the advance monies. The deal that Mrs Bechter had put to him had been surprisingly generous.
“Have you...?” He gestured towards the papers.
She shook her head quickly. “I was going to, Dr Tyrrel, but... I can’t stand to stay in the house now...”
“Now he’s gone.”
“It’s more like he’s not gone. I’m sorry but... My husband was a difficult man to get on with, towards the end. He was very wrapped up in his work. Very committed to it. We didn’t speak much, not much at all. It was hard to be in the house with him. It was like I was sharing him, like he was married to someone else. I don’t know what you or his colleagues got from him, but at the end it was all I could do to force a few words from him. I think that the only thing he cared about at all was his work and his beloved Felix.” She said the name with utter disdain, and Stewart recalled the flap he had seen in the front door, and marked Mrs Bechter down as ‘not a cat person.’
“Well I’ll get right down to work, Mrs Bechter. It’ll take me a little while to catch up with where George was, and after that I should hopefully be able to give you an idea of how much longer this will take. Or did you want me to liaise with the publishers direct?” He was already seeing his name on the cover. After George’s, of course, but there was plainly enough work left to do that he could snag a co-authorship, and this would be George Bechter’s final, posthumous work, a grand opportunity for Stewart to step into his shoes as the leading man on Pythagorean philosophy.
“There’s some tins and things in the cupboards, still,” she prompted. “Tea, milk. I made sure...”
“I saw a Tescos down the road,” Stewart confirmed. “I’ll be fine.” He could see she was desperate to go. “I’ll keep in touch.”
He had intended to spend his first day in the Bechter place just sorting himself out, but the lure of the work, all those books opening their secrets to him, ensured that he was at the dead man’s desk within an hour of the widow’s leaving, reading through the draft chapters on the man’s computer, locating the reference works that Bechter quoted. Classical Theories of Metempsychosis, was the title. There had been few more brilliant scholars of ancient Greek philosophy than George Bechter. In his declining years, Stewart had seen his thoughts darken with each season, reflected in the shifting focus of his papers and his talks. Everything had been about ancient death, in the end, until this last book had outlived him.
Or perhaps not death. Stewart read over Bechter’s notes on the Pythagoreans, who all accounts claimed were strong proponents of metempsychosis: the flight of a soul on death, reincarnation, transmigration into other bodies, animals, trees, a web of constantly turning life that knew no true extinction. Sitting there, knowing that the man who had made those notes had indeed passed on along that wheel, or perhaps just into oblivion, Stewart felt an odd sense of his own mortality. You too shall pass, was written between those cramped lines of handwriting, or in the double spacing of the 12 point Courier on the screen. Only through this shall we be remembered at all.
Unless the Pythagoreans had the right of it, anyway, Stewart considered wryly. And where was old Pythagoras now, in that case?
The lights flickered just with that thought, which gave him a bit of a turn. He had not noted the march of the hours but dusk was already well established beyond the windows. He drew the curtains, and spared a thought for the decades old wiring in that dilapidated house.
Bet George didn’t spring for an electrician often. He should at least find out where the fuse box was, now, in case something failed after dark.
He stepped away from the desk, then, and did a tour of the house, room after room of peeling green wallpaper and nicotine-yellowed paint. Fully half the house was given over to cobwebs and dust, surplus to requirements for decades. The Bechter children had presumably grown up and moved out long before, and it didn’t look as though any of them had cared enough to come back and assist their mother with the estate.
He found the fuse box at last in a well concealed cupboard under the stairs, checked to see how it worked and how he could reset things if need be. The sight of it, a rather more modern contrivance than he had been fearing, improved his spirits.
Then something moved, a furtive scurrying shuffle, and he went quite still.
Deep down at the back, where all pretence at being a cupboard left off, and it was just “under the stairs” – an irregular, part-walled space leading only to darkness - the light from outside glinted back at him. For a moment Stewart stared, assuming that he had imagined it, that he was making patterns where there was nothing, but no: something was huddled back there, staring out at him as he stood silhouetted in the doorway.
It took a moment for the name to come to him. “Felix,” he recalled. Opening the cupboard door wide as it would go, the animal was still just a little lump of fuzzy darkness barely separate from the shadow around it.
“Here, Felix.” Stewart held out a hand and made mouse-noises between his lips, but he could not reach in far enough, and Felix just huddled further away, the eyes glinting suspicion back at him. Small enough to be a kitten, Stewart decided. And terrified. But hungry, surely. Unless there are mice...
I’ll leave the door open, anyway. Stewart had always lived in houses with cats. The thought of Felix gracing the study while he worked was a pleasant one. Good to have some company. His general uncharitable thoughts about Mrs Bechter the non-cat-person hardened. I bet she didn’t waste much time looking for you, poor bugger.
He poked around for some cat food, found none, and eventually got down to Tescos just before it shut. Before turning in, he put out a bowl of meaty chunks for Felix, imagining that little patch of shade detaching itself from the dark of the cupboard to steal silently up and eat its fill while he slept.
The next morning began in triumph. He had been an hour at Bechter’s desk, despairing over how unfinished everything looked, when he discovered a hitherto overlooked folder on the man’s desktop that turned out to contain a far more polished version of the book, with various sections intended for review all flagged up helpfully in red. Suddenly what had looked like a month’s work was decidedly closer to the week that the Widow Bechter had sold him on.
The cat food had not been touched, he saw. Maybe it is mice he eats, then. Or maybe he just doesn’t trust me yet. Certainly when he poked his head into the cupboard there was no sign of a feline occupant.
He rang Mrs Bechter on the strength of his discovery, and confirmed that things were going well. She sounded somewhat smugly pleased, to his ear, and so he felt he had to put in, “I’ve seen Felix, by the way.”
There was a startled silence on the other end of the line, and then she said, “You mean the photos in the kitchen?”
He had been meandering that way to make tea, but now he quickened his pace, because he hadn’t paid much notice to the décor the previous night. “No, I mean Felix, Mrs Bechter,” he said sternly.
“Oh...” She sounded just as guilty as he had hoped. “Oh dear, I hadn’t thought... I hope...”
“Oh I’ll be fine,” he assured her, with heavy I-am-a-cat-person subtext. “He and I’ll get along swimmingly.”
“She,” Mrs Bechter corrected him.
“Odd name for a she,” he noted. The kettle was on and he turned to look at the framed photographs. No happy couple shot for the Bechters, it seemed, but separate his and hers. There was George, surely taken only a year or so before he died, a hollow-cheeked old man with a pipe in one hand, glasses so thick you could have bottomed bottles with the lenses. The shot had him leaning on the aquarium that Stewart had seen upstairs, looking thoughtfully off into the distance. Not a happy man, but not an unhappy one either. Resigned, maybe.
“He named her for the saint,” Mrs Bechter said, with all that disapproval back in her voice, as though she was not a saint person either. “Are you sure...”
“Oh, I’ll be fine.” The other picture was Mrs Bechter, probably taken about the same time. The cat that she held was grey and baggy and stared out of the frame as though it was pleading with the photographer for help. To her credit, Mrs Bechter had obviously got over her cat-phobia for the split second required to get a decent shot, but Stewart could only imagine the story behind that. Had George been begging with the woman to just pretend to be friends with his poor abused cat for the photo? Had she and the cat agreed a brief mutual détente only to humour him?
Working late that night, he heard the creak of the door, and from the corner of his eye he glimpsed the low, smoothly-running shape bolt into the room and lose itself – herself – amidst Bechter’s clutter. Reliving the lives of the philosophers, men from an age when reason and science, religion and magic all went hand in hand, Stewart felt that he could imagine a great sense of approval from somewhere in the room as Felix watched him work. When he left the desk, to answer the call of nature or to make some tea, he imagined a spark of frustration, claws digging in to the carpet in a minute tantrum. Like some tomb guardian of old Egypt, Felix was overseeing the completion of her master’s work.
He was at the computer until late, past midnight, because the book really was coming together. Each section that Bechter had flagged up had references, facts to check, papers noted for reading, but everything was around him somewhere. Navigating through the stacks of journals and photocopies and precarious towers of books, decoding the dead man’s haphazard system, the process was like some sort of vision quest, or an initiation rite into some great classical mystery. From time to time he caught glimpses of Felix, or thought he did – just a dark shape slinking by secret ways about the room, or the glint of those big eyes, cautious of him, and yet almost proprietary. Once, his hand brushed fur, a startled moment before the animal was gone in a flurry. And yet something was nagging him, and nagged at him as he went to sleep in Bechter’s own bed, with the sense of Felix somewhere in the room, crouching and settling and always keeping watch.
He awoke with the suspicion full-formed, and spent two valuable working hours searching the house – not for a cat, but for its effects. The flap was there, certainly, but he had already noted that the Bechters were out of catfood, and there was no litter tray, no cat toys, none of the paraphernalia that the cat owner should accumulate. Yes, cats came and went, and probably the animal was outside even now, but a suspicion was growing in him, and he called up Mrs Bechter again.
He recalled that awkward conversation of the other day, the change in her tone when he had mentioned seeing Felix. He had pegged her as a woman who disliked cats, but now he thought back on her words, the echo of them in his head suggested something other.
“Mrs Bechter.” It was after he had reported his good progress, reassured her that he was sound, sane, sensible and progressing. “Felix... predeceased your husband, didn’t she?”
“By only a few days,” came her whisper on the other end of the line. “I think that was the last straw for George. He did love her, doted on her.” And there was the bitterness he was ready for, because plainly she felt he had loved his pet more than he had loved his wife.
“When I said that I...” He wasn’t sure how to say it. “You said you couldn’t stay in the house. Was it...?”
“Yes.” He had to strain to hear her voice. “I kept seeing... I don’t believe in ghosts, Dr Tyrrel, really I don’t. And I think I could have coped with... if it had been George’s. But Felix...”
And upstairs in the study sat that near-complete study on metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, that belief that the soul of a man might inhabit a beast, or a beast a man, and so there was no difference, in the end, in the calibre and quality of those ineffable things. The outward body was not the mark of the inward being.
Why should a man’s ghost not appear in the shape of a cat, then, especially if his cat was so dear to him? Or perhaps cat and man are one and the same... Standing there in the broad daylight it was just a humorous conceit, a foolish piece of academic play. It was some other cat. I never did get a good look. Some local mog got in through the catflap. In the bright light of morning, looking at those photos in the kitchen, he almost convinced himself. He couldn’t even say that the little skittering patch of furry shadow that he had glimpsed looked much like the sagging, desperate feline clutched in Mrs Bechter’s arms.
But, just as with the lives of mortal men, so the hours of daylight must fail, and transmigrate into the moonlit dark. Sitting there past evening, the tweaking of aging wiring making the lightbulbs dance and flicker, Stewart heard the door creak. Craning round in his chair he saw that swift-footed shape rushing belly to the ground, a streak of shadow finding a hiding place amongst George Bechter’s reference works. The hour had stripped Stewart of his scepticism. He knew, without being able to account for the knowledge that Felix had come to visit.
Felix was larger, too. He never saw her clearly, but the sense of a presence in the room had grown beyond the kitten into the heavy-bodied cat of the photo, at the very least. Perhaps cats, being the centres of their own worlds, had no sense of their own smallness, compared to the apes that fed and sheltered them.
“Don’t worry, old girl. I’m still hard at it,” he murmured, and that same feeling of approval radiated back. He tried to tell himself, I’m going mad, talking to the ghost of a cat, but it seemed wholly appropriate, somehow. The supernatural had inveigled its way into his mind in feline form, and he was a cat person. Felix was not a disruptive companion, a ghost without chains or moans or throwing things about the room. What spirit, after all, would be quieter and more delicate than a cat’s?
So the night went on, and the next two, as Stewart chased down the loose ends of George Bechter’s last book, and Felix grew bolder. Her presence was often at his elbow, and sometimes he would let one hand drift down to stroke that soft, luxuriant fur, momentarily feeling the hard body beneath as it rose to his touch. Never a purr, though, or any feline sound, only the soft patter of feet. Felix was a polite, patient spectre.
But growing, certainly, and in those mad hours after sunset he conceived the idea that the size of the unseen, ghostly – possibly imaginary – cat grew with the progress of his work, that the spirit fed off the task that its master had left unfinished. By his fourth night in the property, hunched over the keyboard and working on the bibliography, the patch of quiet beside him had the presence and bulk of a tiger. Perhaps all cats were tigers, in their own minds.
When he left the work, he felt those wide eyes track him across the room, a moment’s doubt of his dedication to the project, but Felix knew his routines by now. Felix trusted him to get the job done.
He found that he was stringing the work out. During the day, when both Felix and his belief in Felix waned, he did little. He sat at the keyboard listlessly, feeling oddly alone and bereft. Without his spectral taskmaster he found it difficult to motivate himself. Instead, he mooched around the house, picking over the grave goods of the rooms he had not much been into, reading Bechter’s books, going through his cupboards and drawers.
That was where he found the collar. On seeing it, that red plastic loop with its circular metal tag, he felt a surge of triumph. Here, at last, was some relic of Felix that Mrs Bechter had not excised. Perhaps he would even keep it as a souvenir of a peculiar but not unpleasant week. At dinner parties maybe he would trot out the anecdote, and brandish this forlorn little collar as proof that yes, there had been a cat named...
The stamped name on the tag was “Mr Buffles.”
Stewart frowned at it and then shrugged inwardly. Obviously he had gone back further into the Bechter family history than he had realised. The relic he had excavated had come from a former age, when cats were given decidedly dafter names.
Towards evening, feeling the pull of the work just begin to get its hooks into him, he called Mrs Bechter again.
“I found some things belonging to your previous cat, by the way.” He had reported on the book, but he still felt fiercely partisan in the case of Felix vs Mrs Bechter, and now he had discovered that she had presumably been persecuting whole generations of unfortunate cats, of which poor deceased Felix was only the capstone.
Mrs Bechter sounded surprised. “We never had a previous cat, Dr Tyrell. What do you mean?”
“Well who’s Mr Buffles then?” he asked her, in the manner of the great detective unveiling the murderer.
“Mr Buffles is my cat,” came the voice over the phone, honestly bewildered. “You must have seen him in the photo, in the kitchen.”
Stewart was in the kitchen right then, and he locked eyes with the despairing-looking feline in the photo. That animal gaze had an urgency to it, a message for him.
“But if you’ve found anything belonging to Mr Buffles I’ll come and pick it up tomorrow, or the next day,” Mrs Bechter was saying. “Yes I will, Mr Buffles.” And there in the background, distant as the echo from a tomb, a faint mew.
“But I thought... you didn’t like cats...”
“I love cats, Dr Tyrrel. I’m a cat person. George, though, he never did get on with Mr Buffles-“
He moved the phone away from his ear, staring, hearing something move, soft-footed and yet so large, in the house above him. But she said it was Felix in the photo, he told himself. There was only one cat, though, and it was not sharing a frame with George Bechter. Instead, he was the academic alone with his pipe, one proprietory, fond hand upon the fishtank. The fishtank?
It was in the study, dry and drained, and he had assumed that the fish had been taken by Mrs Bechter, or flushed down the loo for all he knew, and thought no more about it. Looking at it now, partially occluded in the corner of the photo, it did not look much like an aquarium. There was no sense of water, no refraction of light over the sandy and stones that lined the bottom, but there was something there, some patch of darkness...
He dashed upstairs and bolted into the study, looking at the tank anew. No backing paper of water weeds, no pump, just a glass box lined with dirt, with a heater.
Not an aquarium: a vivarium.
In the room, Felix moved restlessly. It was past time for Stewart to get to work. Whatever shared the study with him - the thing that monopolised the shadows, half-glimpsed between stacks as it stirred from its slumber - would not fit in that tank, not any more. He had fed it too well, with his industry and his attention and his belief.
He sat at the desk, with that bulking presence at his back, feeling the keen point of Felix’s attention as his hands hoivered over the keyboard, ready to resume. Instead, he brought up a search engine. Named after the saint, she had said. His fingers shook slightly as he typed.
Saint Felix of Nola, was the prompt result. There was a picture of the man’s defining moment, hiding in a hole whilst a renaissance-looking bruiser stalked past, saved from the hunters only by the intervention of one of God’s smallest creatures. The soldiers had, the story went, seen the web built across the mouth of the holy man’s retreat, and thought it long- abandoned.
Only then did he turn around and see Felix plainly. For a long moment he stared into the expectant, clinical gaze of those round and plate-sized eyes.
Then he hunched back stiffly towards the screen and brought up the bibliography again, because that was his task, and for that, and no other reason, was he tolerated in this house. As the hours stretched towards midnight, he paginated and corrected errors and hunted a few last references through Bechter’s landscape of books with trembling hands. And all the while the vast, many-legged shadow of Felix was squatting, where the wall and ceiling joined, waiting for him to finish.
© Adrian Tchaikovsky 2020