Ethel was under the garden bench, trying to coax Norman out, when she
came to her decision. If he died, then so would she. She would climb out of the bedroom window and end her life splattered on the weed-ridden patio that her husband had so carefully laid fourteen years before. But Norman wouldn’t die (again). No, she would catch him and take him to the vet. He wouldn’t leave her this time.
“Norman,” Ethel pleaded. “If you come out you I’ll let you into the
kitchen for a bit, before we see the vet. You can hunt for the mouse behind the cooker again. Norm, come here.”
It was a warm Sunday in May, ten years before, when Ethel’s husband
Norman died for the first time. Ethel was washing up after lunch when their cat, Smokey, who was upstairs lying on Norman’s stomach as he took a nap, began to howl. It was a strange noise, an anguished screech that Ethel had never heard before. She abandoned the sink and hurried up the stairs to the bedroom.
“Smokey,” she said, approaching the bed, “whatever is the matter?”
The cat jumped from her husband’s stomach and landed at her feet. It
stared silently up at her.
“Norman,” said Ethel, crossing her arms, “why was the cat making that
noise? Did you try and touch it again? You know how Smokey hates to be touched.”
When there was no response from her husband Ethel reached forward
and gently thumped her husband on the arm.
“There’s no point pretending to be asleep. I’ve nearly finished the
washing up you old lazy-bones.”
Ethel pinched her husband’s arm.
“You’re not being funny, Norman.”
The cat jumped onto the bed as Ethel reached across the bed and shook his shoulders.
“Norman,” she shouted. “Norman, wake up.”
She lowered her cheek to her husband’s mouth and pressed her fingers against his neck.
“No, Norman. No.”
Ethel snatched the phone from the bedside table and dialled 999.
“Please,” she said. “Please come quickly…”
With the phone tucked between her neck and shoulder Ethel pounded
on her husband’s chest for fifteen counts and blew into his mouth twice.
“Wake up, Norman,” she begged. “Wake up, love. Don’t leave me alone, Norm. Don’t leave me behind.”
Ethel pounded and blew, pounded and blew until her muscles tightened and cramped and her lungs ached.
“Take me too,” she whispered as she collapsed on the bed and tried to
gather her husband’s body to her. “Please take me too.”
The cat, who had been curled up at the end of the bed, stretched,
stood up and padded along the length of Norm’s body. It nudged at Ethel’s
arm until she moved and then squeezed between her and her husband.
“How strange,” Ethel thought, as the cat pressed its head against her
breasts and began to purr. “How very odd.”
Ethel placed the cat basket gently on the vet’s counter.
“Come on,” she said, waving a piece of meat at the entrance to the cat
basket, “Come out, love.”
“Is that roast beef?” asked the vet.
“Yes,” said Ethel, reaching into the basket and easing the cat out. “It’s
Norm…Smokey’s favourite. He’s not keen on it dry though. He prefers it with gravy and potatoes.”
“Hmmm,” said the vet, as she tilted the cat’s face towards her and
shone a light into its cloudy green eyes. “You are feeding Smokey cat food aren’t you, Mrs Griffiths? I have told you before, several times, how important it is that a cat eats food that has been specially pr…”
“He won’t eat it,” said Ethel. “He’s refused all kinds of cat food since…”
“…your husband died,” said the vet. “Yes, you did tell me.”
The vet opened the cat’s mouth and peered inside. Ethel looked from
the vet to the cat and back.
“Will he get better?” she asked.
The vet put down her torch and stroked the cat’s head.
“Ethel,” she said softly, “Smokey is a very old cat. He’s practically lame and those whimpering noises you mentioned earlier? He’s in pain. He’s not going to get any better and I think that the kindest thing to do might be to…”
“No,” said Ethel, gathering the cat into her arms. “You’re not putting
him down. He’s all I have.”
“I know it’s hard, but you want what’s right for Smokey don’t you? You don’t want him to suffer.”
“Suffer,” said Ethel, her voice a tight squeak, “What about my suff…”
She swallowed the rest of the sentence. She didn’t want the vet’s pity. What she wanted, what she needed, was for Norman to get well.
“Thank you for your time,” she said as she manoeuvred the cat into its
carrier and headed for the door, “but if you can’t help me I’ll find someone who can.”
“I’m not crying, Norman. I just don’t know what to do.”
Ethel wiped the tears from the top of the cat basket and leaned back
against the pew. She hadn’t been inside St. Andrews since Norman had died.
“Sorry God,” she thought as she gazed around the church. “I’m one of
those awful people who only pray when they need something, but I didn’t know what else to do or where to go. And now I’m here… I don’t know what to say…apart from, apart from please…please don’t take him away…”
Ethel slumped forward, wrapped her arms around the cat basket and
began to cry.
A deep male voice startled Ethel from her misery. She looked up, still tightly gripping the cat basket.
A tall man in navy trousers, brogues and a pale blue round neck was standing at the end of the pew. Ethel frowned at him, and then spotted the dog collar.
The man smiled.
“John, please. Mind if I sit down?”
Ethel shuffled to the left. The vicar glanced at the basket on Ethel’s lap and sat down. They sat, side by side, for several minutes, the vicar smiling beatifically at nothing in particular until Ethel could bear it no longer.
“Yes… sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“What it is vicar…what I need to know is…and you’ll think me silly
but…people’s souls…do you think they could transfer from the person who is dying to another living thing?”
Ethel stared straight ahead, at the sunlight that streamed through the
stained glass window at the end of the church and cast rainbows over the pulpit.
“Cat,” she said.
“Cat?” echoed the vicar, shifting slightly so he could peer into the
basket. “Mrs Griffiths, have you suffered a recent bereavement?”
“My husband passed ten years ago vicar, but it may as well have been
“And have you spoken to anyone about how you feel? A counsellor, friend, relative for instance?”
“Norman is all of those things.”
Ethel looked at the floor and lightly kicked an embroidered prayer mat with the tip of her grey slip-on shoe. The vicar glanced down at the cat basket.
“Mrs Griffiths,” he said, “what’s your cat called?”
Ethel began to silently count the number of panes in the stained glass
window. Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen, thought Ethel. Go away now. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.
“I was very lonely,” she mumbled, “right after Norman died. I missed
him so much. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I found him and the more I thought about it the more I focussed on the way Smokey reacted. When he started refusing his cat food I thought…it was easier to believe that…”
“Mrs Griffiths,” the vicar placed a hand on Ethel’s shoulder, “I think it’s time you let Norman go. It’s important to accept that he’s gone. I could help you.”
Ethel stood up.
“We have to be going now, vicar,” she said as she shuffled towards the
aisle. “I need to get the dinner on. Thank you for your time.”
It was dusk when Ethel returned home. She placed the cat basket on one of the kitchen counters and opened the door.
“Come on, love,” she said as she turned to open the pantry door. “Time for dinner. We’ll have sausages and mash, plenty of gravy”
The cat crawled from the basket and stumbled to the edge of the
“No!” cried Ethel as the cat lost its footing and slipped down the gap
between the counter and the oven. It landed heavily on the cold floor tiles and lay still. Ethel lowered herself to her knees and stared into the cat’s face. It was breathing quickly, each breath more shallow than the last.
“Don’t die,” Ethel begged. “Please don’t die.”
She pulled her handbag onto the floor and unlatched it. She peeled the cellophane from the slice of roast beef and held it in front of the cat’s nose.
The cat looked up at her and then closed its eyes. Ethel squeezed her
hand into the gap and stroked the cat’s head.
The cat took a deep, rattling breath.
“Don’t leave me,” Ethel whispered. “If you die there’s nothing left to
believe in. Don’t die. Don’t leave me alone.”
The cat exhaled and lay still.
Ethel lay on the kitchen tiles for a very long time, her hands cupping
the cat’s face, her cheek pressed to the cold tiles. When the tears finally stopped she reached up to the kitchen counter and slowly pulled herself up. She stood at the kitchen window and stared at the patio, then walked slowly
out of the kitchen and into the hallway. She paused at the bottom of the stairs, her hand on the rail.
I’m scared, she thought. What if I don’t die but break all my bones
instead? What if they take me to an old folks home and I’m unable to protest? What if I die and Norman’s not there? What if I change my mind as I fall through the air?
Ethel frowned. There was a noise coming from the kitchen – a very
faint scrabbling noise, like claws on tile.
“Norman?” Ethel said as she hurried back to the kitchen. “Norman?”
She froze when she reached the door and watched, open mouthed, as
a small grey mouse inched its way across the cat’s lifeless body and scurried across the kitchen tiles. She put her hand to her mouth as the mouse sniffed at the slice of roast beef on the floor, gripped the edges with its tiny hands and took a small bite.
“Norman?” Ethel whispered. “Norm, is that you?”
(published by Espresso Fiction 2008)
(c) CL Taylor 2008