Mae misses Kitaj

Picture credit: Grace Brauteseth

Mae goes no further than the garbage chute in the annex to dispose of takeaway containers and empty ashtrays. She takes seriously her vow not to leave the apartment block since Kitaj her tabby left. Gaining presence in this apartment over time, her task is to rescue 39 square meters from the threat of total nonoccupancy. Recycling old trauma for effect on the phone, she tells her office, or tells the man speaking softly for the office from front desk, it’s a family emergency back home in Margate. She fantasises nobody for miles around has left their apartments either. Whole neighbourhoods hadn’t stepped outdoors since Kitaj got loose. Blinds closed, it’s easy picturing long empty streets of backlit spectators, surveying lives of the great indoors through their windows high and low.

Friends come with cigarettes and groceries, less patiently.

She refills Kitaj’s untouched bowl with pouches of wet food every morning. She wants to see him gun across the carpet hearing the pouch being opened.

She worries Kitaj’s been adopted by an elderly uncomplicated couple who feed him wafers of ham by hand or pâté off their blue fingers from floral armchairs, calling him a name they think is sweet, dredged up from their uneventful past like Lionel or Llewellin.

She refused to put a collar on him or get him chipped.

She moves his bowl beside the front door this morning.

Can’t deny his catness like she’d done so often, being likely why he scarpered.

After he’d gone, her friend Cecilia said missing cats like Murakami’s kickstart stories. Maybe Kitaj’s vanishing meant more to Mae, i.e. what’s coming, the future, Cecilia said, than what’s in the past? His missing’s your beginning, etcetera? Mae said Kitaj’s not a fictional cat Cee, and he’s really gone.

She switches all the lights off coming back from the garbage chute, closes her door, kicks the food bowl accidentally and strokes a stuffed toy turtle on a trestle table in the kitchen, in the dark, picturing Kitaj, an afterimage of Kitaj moving over the surface to the sink where he’d poke his head in drinking water from a pan she’d left to soak, or really just didn’t want to wash at the time, days ago.

Toying with the tassels of a cushion, he’d be, when she woke up on the sofa.

One thing she uses as an excuse, being urged to leave the apartment, is that she’s over-travelled these past six months… Exhausted by an estrangement that begins as exhilaration and becomes work, hard work, reimagining a person who’s you inhabiting this exhilaration in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Amsterdam, Beijing, and having to rethink being “new me”, here in Paris me, Lyon me, Boulogne Mae, searching for R. B. Kitaj paintings in the Pompidou Mae, and Mae spending an afternoon, the afternoon before ferrying home, noting down the French words for penguin and jellyfish at the Nausicaá Centre National de la Mer.

Kitaj scarpered because she spoke to him abstractly, felt free talking to him in fragments late at night. Believing of course he understood on a biological level, some called spiritual, absorbed her point about struggling to be human, he understood on scales she couldn’t fathom, digested on a core level giving him to understand her troubles much better than she ever could, though for this same reason, couldn’t communicate in shallow human talk, like her brother who always tried speaking to her as if siblings meant perpetual therapy or lessons in one of his vaguer -ologies. Kitaj couldn’t teach her a thing about universal grammar and couldn’t care less about méduse and manchote.

Cats have no small troubles, such as searching for the French word for human. Or feeling hopeless hunting down a dead cat’s talented scratches on sofas or other surfaces.

Typically, if a missing person isn’t found within the first few months, her brother says… She hears him shrug at the other end of the phone one thousand seven hundred and seventy seven miles away, his pause says it’s doesn’t need saying, what’s so obvious. If a missing person isn’t found within the first few months, almost always suicide, or murder, he adds, reassuringly. If a missing person isn’t found within the first few days or weeks, almost certainly a suicide too. Extended investigations into missing persons are seldom successful. Missing persons aren’t a sub-genre of our species. Miracles have happened. Being missing is not a crime. In missing persons cases the first seventy-two hours are said to be crucial, he said. This window wasn’t relevant anymore, since Kitaj had been gone for more than a week. If a missing person hasn’t been found within the first few days, then it’s highly likely suicide. Besides, if it isn’t suicide or murder, then there’s a good chance Kitaj doesn’t want to be found.

Cats aren’t persons.

Her brother isn’t like their dad, who had a temperament closer to Kitaj’s.

She remembers on one long impromptu summer drive from Margate to Somerset, when she was little, from the backseat watching her dad shifting gears and steering, all the way imagining, she remembers clearly, his hands could talk to motorways and were having a long conversation with road signs and roundabouts and service stops in a sacred tongue channelled through their old receptive blue Volvo. She also remembers her dad’s hands plunged under car hoods and sinks, miracle working engines and pipes. Toiling at hinges, fittings, wiring, putting together or breaking apart furniture, and at his workplace she’d seen him turning out brake flanges, flywheel shrouds, swivel pads. He’d sometimes shape scrap metal into animal shapes for her. Getting home from school one afternoon she saw him on their front step preening glass from his foot. On a beach in Whitstable he sliced the sole of his foot open on an oyster shell. He built a hutch for her guineapig and didn’t notice his thumb snagged on wire, blood varnishing the wood underneath. He broke his leg on a building site and with seven-year-old Mae spent an afternoon colouring-in the cast he wore like ceremonial armour. Her mum parked him in front of the TV, ashtray and cigarettes within reach, so he’d sit still and heal. She wrote messages to herself on his cast in a funky alphabet made up on the spot.

Imagine a world without certain words, she once proposed to Kitaj in the dark. Whole misread philosophies scooped out of our language and binned, so we’d go on luxuriously not knowing their meaning, like you, probably, Kitaj, aren’t you happy not knowing what phenomenology or psychosis mean?

Days before Kitaj left Mae went with friends to Dungeness to witness Nuclearhenge. After sunrise they watched shingle crypts, elbows of oars, boxes and soles of shoes and stuff so malformed by the constant wash of wind and salt water it was impossible to identify, all this being part of the Ness and its mythology of the perishable.

We’re not much more complex than molluscs. Pulling the Pangea back together through a big geologic nostalgia trip online turned to shit, is the last thing she told Kitaj, after getting home from Dungeness, the night before he left.

Someone told her imminently we’d be seeing time for real, spewing out of black holes. Time as a thing, seen. Neither eternal youth or the fabric of time have ever been as robustly knowable, achievable and small, her friend said, quoting his phone.

Her kitchen is softened by philodendron. Low sun. Eyes and ears adjust to the morning. Empties, washes and refills Kitaj’s bowl. Ignores the soaking pot. Refreshes his water, and everybody else out there does the same, exactly synced, she thinks.

Who puts their life on the line for an acronym? Her brother wants to know. He says he’s calling from a bathroom in a strange house, where people are arguing about future-crisis orientation and rebels in the Congo. I’m a stranger at a stag party, he says, sitting in the bathroom where it’s eerily silent. He spilt sweet and sour sauce on their pristine parquet floor, so he’s hiding in their giant bathroom, bigger than your whole apartment, probably. I brought with me into the bathroom a small container of food and a glass of red wine. I’m eating a spare rib, on the bog.

Mae pictures a monosodium glutamate sunburst on a clean snobby floor and laughs, listening to her brother chewing down the phone.

Kitaj come home, she thinks.

Until Kitaj returns, she tells her brother, she’ll not renew her broadband. And no, she anticipated his response, it’s not a revitalising act of disconnection or noise-cancellation, it’s a simpler vow.

Has it been longer than a week without? he asks. Because within three to five days you’ll either sink into what Edwardian doctors used to call neurasthenia, or malaise, or withering we’ll call it. You’ll experience a rapid withering, overnight, unless you’re in the lucky seven percent who report after five days feeling a heightened, self-realising ecstacy that lasts the duration of their disconnection. I’m putting you in the likelier seven percent Mae, knowing your love once-upon-a-time of lonely garden escapades.

Preteen Mae under a tree puked into a sandpit, after watching a stag beetle pierce a snail. She never thought it’d froth, but the snail frothed and frothed and she buried it in the sand so it’d stop. The beetle and snail’s paths wouldn’t have crossed if she hadn’t joined them in combat under the apple tree.

Disturbances are merciful nights like these. Outside in the corridor, two men argue. She presses her ear to the door trying to get the gist. Mae silently opens it and peeks, but can’t find the thread that’s made them square up and start shoving. Angry at the morning about to recur so soon, they channel their fear of sunlight through each other’s presence. One man walks away, flinging up his arms, and she imagines Kitaj strutting up the corridor to slip through the crack, chowing down with no excuses on a fresh poultry bowl.

She asked friends to bring a pot of Raspberry Bellini paint, because she’s going to repaint her living room. She prematurely moved furniture and threw bedsheets over the sofa and TV cabinet and armchair, ready to work. When she opens the pot, late at night after her friend dropped off the order in a rush, Mae’s disappointed because Raspberry Bellini shouldn’t smell the same as the white undercoat. She paints white cat silhouettes all night.

She adds coconut oil to Kitaj’s food, having heard somewhere this is good for cats. Or good for cats with certain conditions, though Mae thinks it can’t do any harm, either way. Will Kitaj recognise what’s happened to the walls, or give a thought to all the furniture moved into the middle of the room under bedcovers? He used the back of her sofa as a scratchpad.

The friend who brought the paint also gave her the cat, a few days after they’d been to see an exhibition together at the RA, where Mae obsessed over R. B. Kitaj’s painting The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even, and the friend took Mae to see more of Kitaj’s paintings at the Tate and said they’d go to the Jewish Museum in Berlin that summer together, and Mae said she had a new ambition, to own a Kitaj, which she’d have as the sole possession in her shitty flat she’d worship and not let anybody else see, not even her friend. Days later the friend came in carrying the cat, let it free on Mae’s floor and said this cat’s name’s Kitaj, now you have your very own Kitaj in the flat and he’s s all yours.

Mae took pleasure mocking the voices and beeps throughout her flat, telling her things were running out, voices that didn’t change their tone however soon the headphones were about to cease altogether, or signals soft in their prompting her to charge the phone, pay the bill, change her payment method, redock the landline, replace batteries, telling them to fuck off until the time came when at night Mae switched off all the lights and there were no residual nagging tomorrows, now there would be a silent morning free of all petty connections to a world without Kitaj, like a giant pair of scissors cut her umbilical cord to bullshit, she put it to the friend who came again with food but said she wouldn’t bring cigarettes anymore.

Asbestos detected in the block opposite being demolished last year brought neighbours together until the danger passed and they were strangers again.

She left walls white and used Raspberry Bellini to paint cat silhouettes less clumsily, starting each morning on a fresh stretch of skirting, painting life-size cats in different poses, reclining, stretching, reaching for shadows or strutting with their air of supremacy. Saving a full wall for each new day, the living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen were complete in sixteen days, the friend coming every fifth taking a special interest in her Raspberry Bellini cats, accusing Mae of decorating her own Egyptian tomb.

Though what’s the point of me trying to stop you?

Her guineapig snagged its nose in the chicken wire her Dad secured in the wood frames they constructed together in the garage. Months later her rabbit ate its babies in the same hutch. Up early in her pyjamas when it was still dark, she snuck out with a torch to see if the mother rabbit had given overdue birth, finding the massacre mid-scene. Her brother reminded her every bonfire day of how she was in a frenzy that year breaking up the hutch and after throwing beam after beam of the cage into the fire, she danced wild in a trance expelling bad voodoo, because you thought the cage killed your guineapig and drove the rabbit you gave away to the neighbour kid to murder, and Dad cried, thinking he’d built you a death hutch with his own hands.

She wouldn’t put a collar on Kitaj, were he to return tonight.

Lionel or Llewellin’s owners aren’t doing well, neglecting their surrogate child cat’s little luxuries, too absorbed in heating and moving from one room to another and the arthritic turmoil of stairs in the old house, they forget to feed the cat pâté off their blue fingers or anything else and Kitaj grows tired of their long hibernation, so leaves, retracing his steps back to her apartment block, Mae imagines, watching traffic and festive streaks in offices blink.

Imagine a world without certain words like access control system, window sensors, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or asbestos, would we feel less safe deep down, or more secure? Kitaj’s unknowing gives him greater access to a world Mae wants to wake up to and get lost walking through, the further she walks the more she forgets penguins are manchote in French and Qì’é in Chinese, jellyfish méduse in French and kwallen in Dutch, molluscs weekdier, and that time can now be seen as sputum on a toilet seat. Walking beside Kitaj in his world, she forgets beetles pierce snails and sparerib sauce stains parquet floors and oyster shells cut the soles of father’s feet, that mother rabbits cannibalise their babies or that baby rabbits are called kittens, chatons, katjes, and abstract to her and Kitaj are the hours it takes to find a missing person isn’t a suicide.

About Chris Vaughan

Chris Vaughan is a writer and artist from Whitstable, Kent, currently living a short jog from "The End of Europe" in the South District of Gibraltar. His fiction and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Best British Short Stories 2022, Ambit, Galaxy Brain, Action Spectacle, The Lifted Brow, Philosophy Now, Epiphany Magazine, Open Letters Review, Flash Frontiers, The Rumpus, Bright Lights Film Journal, Bookslut and The Warwick Review.

Chris Vaughan is a writer and artist from Whitstable, Kent, currently living a short jog from "The End of Europe" in the South District of Gibraltar. His fiction and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Best British Short Stories 2022, Ambit, Galaxy Brain, Action Spectacle, The Lifted Brow, Philosophy Now, Epiphany Magazine, Open Letters Review, Flash Frontiers, The Rumpus, Bright Lights Film Journal, Bookslut and The Warwick Review.

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