Kit-chicoo Park said the sign in fat Sixties pop-art lettering: holiday home for cool cats. Alex groaned and parked the car in brilliant September sunshine. Even catteries were theme parks these days. He had come with his one-year old daughter, Holly, to collect Tinkerbell. Or rather, he had been despatched by his wife the minute the family returned from a nightmarish week in Disneyland Paris. All Alex wanted to do was sleep but Holly was nearly vibrating with excitement. “Oooh!” she marvelled, pointing at two bushes either side of the cattery’s gate that had been pruned into feline shapes. “Oooh!”
“Yes, darling,” said Alex, with stoical weariness. “Cats.”
The ‘Park’ lived up to its name: there were kitsch plastic cats dotted around the manicured grass in a variety of poses, with a few gnomes and toadstools thrown in for good measure – placed in unlikely social groupings by plashing fountains and a tiny brook. But there were also a few subversive artistic flourishes: Alex recognised the Sixties adult cartoon character, Felix the Cat, whose image covered the walls of the last of a series of huts. These were where the cats lived, he supposed, crammed in like battery hens: a battery cattery.
Holly was scampering around on the grass, cooing to the garden cats and knocking over the gnomes. Her golden candyfloss hair seemed to catch fire in the sunlight, tufts bursting out at the back like solar flares.
But Alex was squinting instead at the Georgian manor house which overlooked the grounds. A man and woman were staring down at them from an upstairs window. To Alex, who was short-sighted and had left his glasses in the car, they seemed transfixed with terror, as if they had just seen a ghost. Though it was more likely, he thought, that they were worried about his little Weapon of Mass Destruction.
When Alex had set straight all the knocked-down gnomes and scooped Holly up, the couple from the house had come out and were walking towards them. They were both in their early fifties – old hippies, he presumed, although the woman was dressed in a dark blue business suit and her hair was a neat silver crop. The man, in contrast, wore faded denim dungarees and had a walrus moustache. His long corkscrew hair was tied at the back with a white towelling wristband. He hung back slightly from his wife like a dog in its master’s bad-books and this impression was reinforced by his hangdog expression.
The woman spoke with a loud American twang: “Hi, pleased to meet you. Your wife came before, didn’t she? I’m Nancy Springer and this is my husband, Bob.”
“Hello,” said Alex. “We’ve come to collect Tinkerbell. Sorry about my daughter. She can get a little frisky”
The married couple stared at Holly with awkward fascination. Not used to kids, thought Alex. Probably weren’t able to have any, so adopted other peoples’ cats instead. Lucky sods. Their set-up here seemed like a doss compared to bringing up three young children.
“She’s a honey,” smiled Nancy, through gritted teeth.
Holly replied by wriggling and kicking her legs, delivering a smart back-heel to Alex’s groin.
Bob barked with laughter.
“Jesus,” grimaced Alex, bent double. “Give me strength. And deliver us from children.”
Nancy shot him a withering glance, while her husband regarded him with wet spaniel eyes. Fundamental Christians, thought Alex. These people were starting to irritate the hell out of him.
Nancy insisted on giving him a guided tour of the luxury cat facilities with a running commentary: “best baskets in Europe, ergonomically tested … a diet regimen includes an optional chocolate mouse with the evening meal.” Each cat room in the huts had its private “gym,” where “guests” could have a workout using hamster wheel, marble-run and pom-pom punchbags.
As they walked around the grounds Alex became disturbed by the way Bob was looking at Holly. He stared at her openly and persistently, despite his wife’s warning eye-flashes. The only time that he stopped was when a low-flying aeroplane buzzed the grounds, engine spluttering. When it had passed, husband and wife exchanged a meaningful frown.
Keen to leave as soon as possible, Alex made the mistake of mentioning that Holly needed feeding. “Come into the house,” ordered Nancy. “She can have some milk and cookies.”
What do you know about babies? Thought Alex. You won’t have any teats. Stupidly, he had left the changing bag at home. But he followed her into the house. Like Bob, he was used to being bossed about.
They were shown into the main room – an Aladdin’s cave of billowing silk in autumn colours, festooned from the lofty ceiling. In contrast to the grounds, the décor was tastefully ethnic and there wasn’t a cat in sight. Alex marvelled at the exquisite carvings and sculptures that lined the mantelpiece and sideboard – beyond Holly’s grasp, thankfully. He sniffed the air suspiciously: had the old hippies been having a crafty joint before he arrived? A sandalwood joss-stick sent out a delicate plume of smoke into the room.
“Tea?” asked Nancy. “Lapsang Souchong? Darjeeling?”
“We really ought to get going.” Alex wrestled with his squirming daughter.
“I’ll just get her milk. Why don’t you let her play on the carpet?” The question was really an instruction, so Alex complied and sank into the soft embrace of a tangerine sofa.
A plump golden Buddha sat cross-legged where the TV would have been in Alex’s house. Holly scampered off to pat its head, then settled down in front of it. A meeting of minds, thought Alex. He closed his eyes and saw the chaotic messiness of his terraced house, with its stampeded dirt-track garden. Then he opened them and saw the splendour of this place. How did these people do it? Did they have an army of servants, cleaners and gardeners? He hadn’t seen anyone else since they’d arrived. The big difference between them and him was – what? – money, of course. But also that he had three kids and they had none.
Alex felt suddenly envious of childless couples – of their freedom, time and space. He daydreamed that if he’d been spared the horrors of fatherhood, he could have made more of himself. Instead of being a house-husband, he could have been jetting off around the globe like this couple obviously had – maybe as a foreign correspondent, filing reports from far-flung exotic locations.
But here he was, a burnt-out shadow of his energetic childless self – a slave to his three little rulers. There were irksome days at home when he seemed to spend hours looking for lost dummies. He had Victorian fantasies about 6 o’clock bedtimes and being addressed as “Sir.”
Nancy’s patent leather shoes squeaked into the room. “Bob is fetching your cat,” she announced, flourishing a small baby bottle of milk in Alex’s direction. “Your wife paid when she brought it in, I think, but I’ll just go and check.” She hesitated. “Do you want me to feed her?”
“She can do it herself, thanks,” said Alex, a little too loudly. He rose from the sofa, then sat down again as Holly reached a hand out towards Nancy. A shaft of sunlight lit up her fuzzy halo of hair as she tilted her face to smile up at the woman. His baby daughter was so beautiful, he thought. What had he done to deserve her? She seemed to have a profound effect on Nancy, as well, whose brisk business demeanour softened in front of his eyes: the expression was like the one he saw on his wife’s face so often when she looked at Holly. Maternal love.
Holly snatched the bottle and crawled back to sit in front of the golden Buddha. Without another word, Nancy squeaked out of the room and the door slammed. Alex could hear raised voices in the hall: the owners were obviously having an argument about something. He guessed that Bob had collected the wrong cat.
Alex closed his eyes and waited for them to return with Tinkerbell. He calculated the Springers’ weekly earnings. Say there were about twenty “guests” per night at Kit-chicoo Park; their owners paid £35 per cat. This was … £700 per week. Easy money, or what? Perhaps he ought to set up his own rest-home for clapped out old Dads, or retreat for hen-pecked husbands. He could buy a few sheds and stick them in his garden. All that was really required was space and the absence of children or wives. Maybe when his own children left home … Alex started to fantasise about how he would build up the business, adding the latest hi-tech gadgets and alcohol accessories to his “room service.” Then he saw Bob Springer in his mind’s eye, sitting on a bed wearing only boxer shorts and vest, raising a can of beer and belching horribly …
Alex jerked himself awake. How long had he been dozing? The golden Buddha smiled at him. Where was Holly? A plastic ‘Pet Voyager’ cage propped the door open: Tinkerbell was mewing and scratching to be let out. He picked up the cage and ran into the dark hall. “Holly!” he yelled, his voice ragged with panic.
He tried all the downstairs rooms, listening out for her cries, then vaulted the stairs two at time. Muffled voices reached him from the end of the landing. Something made him act like a cop, crouching and hugging the wall, sneaking noiselessly along the corridor. He wanted to catch them red-handed.
“It’s my turn,” Bob was saying. “Come on Nancy, you’re hogging her.”
Alex couldn’t believe his eyes. There was his daughter being held tightly by Nancy Springer, while her husband pulled at the baby’s arms and legs, trying to hug her. Holly, for her part, giggled: this was the rough tickling game that she played with her brothers at home.
“What,” shouted Alex, “the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He dropped Tinkerbell, who let out a yowl.
Nancy held out Holly to him and he snatched her away, shielding her from them.
“She wanted to play, that’s all,” drawled Bob.
“I’m going to report you to the police,” hissed Alex.
“You don’t understand,” said Nancy in a flat voice. “We only wanted to have a cuddle, to hug our daughter.”
“What do you mean, your daughter?”
“Let me show you something.”
“No. We’re going.” Alex picked up his cat again and they made their way out. At the top of the stairs Nancy caught up with them and stuck a framed photograph under his nose. On closer inspection, it turned out to be three in a row. One was of a baby that could have been Holly. She had the same wild fiery hair and cheeky face. The second was of a girl on a swing, probably the same girl aged about ten, long hair streaming behind her like golden kite-tails . Completing the triptych was a graduation photo, the face more solemn now, but radiating pride. The young woman was holding a degree scroll. She looked ready to take on the world, thought Alex.
“Alike, aren’t they?” said Nancy
“For some reason, I got it into my head that you didn’t have any children.”
“We don’t,” said Bob. “Not anymore.”
Alex stared down the flight of stairs. He opened his mouth to speak, but found it was as dry as dust.
“Jenny was taken away from us two years ago,” said the mother matter-of-factly.
“On September 11th, 2001,” said the father
“She was working in New York at the World Trade Centre,” explained Jenny’s mother, “the day the terrorists attacked.”
“God,” murmured Alex, “Jesus.” Instinctively he buried his head in his own daughter’s hair, letting go of the Pet Voyager. It went bumping down the stairs and crashed into the wall opposite. Tinkerbell let out a long unearthly caterwaul and, tight in his arms, Holly began to scream.
© Nick Walker 2004