will you be alright without me?

Issue 32
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adagio in d …

it was enoch, though, who got the surprise.

squeak-squeak. urgent … someone’s heel on a toy, over and over. birdsong? yet in the earth, within foliage, beside an over-extended olive tree.

‘cat sat on the mat’, from long-ago school; sound out new words, parse … count one to ten … to steady oneself, find anchorage … genesis. especially on enoch’s birthday. cat sat on the mat? lolled, really. low-tide boat. there it sat — not on a mat quite — but at the end of a track, between pond and a row of cacti, abandoned honeysuckle, grass. iberian sphinx overlooking enoch’s wasteland of a backyard with its ficus and limonero reaching up.

so … the cat sat; there is the mat: a raised patch of rough ground covered with pine-needles, at the eastern edge of the algayat property where cypresses soared like galleons.

squeak-squeak? birdsong. in the earth?

enoch put aside a photo and ankled along the path this march morning, toward his toolshed. a reunion with an old london friend, in la hermana, within the hour, maybe a toast — and there was the closing of house and garden. this nameless, ginger cat — one of many strays hereabouts — gazed impassively at the aridness and enoch’s approach. maybe it was preparing to flee, or cowering optimistically that food might accompany the human and his goings-on.

it was enoch, though, who got the surprise — above the rustle of his sandals through undergrowth, across broken flagstone. squeak? urgent … someone’s heel on a toy, over and over. like birdsong, yes. within foliage? he halted by the olive tree, took stock of the quiet and its intermittent cry. glanced at the cat in shadow before the shed. its stare.

enoch pulled aside weeds, tangle of ivy, wild jasmine, and peered in.

a groan, as desperate as the sight, filled his lungs: a newborn kitten — grey, pawing, eyes sealed. enoch’s impulse was, of course, to pick up the creature. was it hours old? minutes? something restrained him. whatever it was, he turned to look at ‘cat on the mat’ who continued an unconvincing surveillance of landscape-other-than-whatever-you’re-doing. certainly did not return any look.

with his foot, he again shifted the grasses before the unseeing, bleating ….

let nature take its course? one voice:

ay.

i intervene?

ay.

once more, he contemplated ‘toolshed ginger-on-the-mat’ who may have been the mother-father. he felt an urge to blame someone. but his conscience demurred. how could you know a culprit?

he returned to the house. glanced at his watch. tore off a sheet of kitchen-roll and resumed the crèche scene: heart racing, he bent into the thicket, lifted the kitten onto corrugated tissue, stroked its head, and processed toward the ridge in front of the shed. ever-mindful cat sat — ever mindfully, and still. i know you know, one of them thought. possibly both … thought. three, in all likelihood: enoch, cat, kitten. i know you know.

treading warily along the remainder of the path, for here the vegetation was feral and concealed the paving entirely, enoch skirted the ginger all-seeing, well to his left, but near enough for it to observe the antics and not run away. he knelt.

with his free hand, he cleared a small hollow in the debris of rusty pine-brush. he laid the kitten, now mewing more insistently, on the topsoil and slipped out the kitchen paper. like a hasty potter, he pressed the surroundings into a mount that would protect the kitten from every angle.

enoch stood, backed away — not without a glance at ginger who watched — and turned toward the path. he walked slowly, with gravitas, in vain hope it would convey to the all-seeing that something with gravitas was afoot; requiring more than attention. a fellow, helpless, feline merited life, did it not?

once past the pond, enoch glanced to see if the leaden-eyed was curious about a makeshift hollow and its gift. but no. there sat cat, undaunted.

do i have patience for this?

from where he stood, enoch could hear the kitten — as though earth itself were beseeching him. at this instant of supreme reckoning, the adult all-seeing looked in his direction. what sort of ‘all clear’ had sounded for ginger, kitten, and man? enoch stared back.

squeak-squeak. urgent … within foliage.  

i guess i turn away, thought one of them.

for the hell of it, let’s stay with enoch.

he consoled himself, for ‘consolation’ like ‘cat on the mat’ gave him time; that on his return from la hermana, no more than an hour or two, he would see how the arrangement had turned out. would then make another decision. yet even in this resolve — one could hardly call it optimism — he suspected he had done wrong. something both neglectful and interfering that remedied nothing. that the kitten was now fully exposed — and prey to far more than a rightful parent.  

who knew?

i’ve acted, enoch told himself; not appreciating the irony. he did feel cowardly. with much imagination yet no insight nor effort. wretched, in fact. yet he could smile inwardly — bless the contortion — that this was an action he had been prepared to commit to. many people live swimmingly with hernias, he thought. nature would help him and look after its kitty. surely this was okay? he recognized that other people might be kinder: do more, less; feed it milk from cotton wool or a pipette; stamp on its head; call a vet; adopt the mite. didn’t animals know, instinctively, that some offspring do not warrant saving?

whatever … enoch let the thoughts evaporate. he’d done what he’d done — and there was hope.

time for la hermana.

sensing how tardy he had been, enoch rushed about the villa slamming shutters, doors. quite unsurprisingly, any notion of a shipwrecked kittycat soon vanished with the final twist of bolt and key. there was the long-missed school pal to anticipate; sole friend, really, newly immigrated to a more southerly part of spain. the chain of his padlocked gate fell to. late afternoon. sun.

heel on a toy? squeak-squeak.  

grief …

as he drove between the rockfaces of the valley, toward the village, enoch lowered the window. let his arm hang loose, leaned his face to the breeze.

i have not come to algayat to die.

he really needed to cheer up.

what am i waiting for?

chris would help that out. no doubt. and you couldn’t expect much from march gusts. maybe they would do the trick, though. dust, almond blossom, goats across the way. sort of thing. chris. they had to do, right?

he recalled the photo he had been looking at. before that ominous trek around the yard — and grimalkin-ery:

after all these years   i can look fully at you    us    black and white but   really   neither      ashen shadows   jaundiced bar of sun exposure down the middle   sepia blur east to west   yet there we are in england   some walled garden    teenaged you   paisley housecoat   sleeves rolled   holding up   display  mode   the weeks old son    a staffordshire terraced mother and baby home      well away from walsall where your humiliated parents lived   spring    1955    wolverhampton   it reads on the reverse      born in a hospital on the site of a former parish workhouse   no less   not far from the yard and its nursery moment    i wonder who took the picture      why      i wonder a lot of things      what happened just before      after      so it goes on       which explains  the infrequency of looking   i suppose      in two months time you will give me away      we are standing before a brick wall      imagine pink      red      beyond it a forlorn glade of trees or what look like over extended shrubs   lofty   tangled      over the years   but rarely because i have moved so often   i glanced at this monochrome image when i boxed canvases   or unpacked for the umpteenth time      its yellow scar  top to bottom   like ribbon      on three or four occasions i have peeped like a mouse      in decades of fleeing      again this morning      in algayat      backyard view of vineyards to a distant mountain range

remembering his walk through scrub — ‘garden’ was really too generous — of the rented casita, he realized that emigrating to a remote area of spain, seven months ago, was a move he had not thought through. he would talk to chris about that. so eager was enoch to flee canada and the rather barren existence he had concocted for himself. that was his sole motivation: to live anew. return to england out of the question: who could afford british prices, or the weather? maybe chris was happier in his migration, more organized, befriended?

until today   i had always believed that the one   long   stripling of tree in the picture was not beyond the wall   but in front      a washline prop   complete with    v   at its tip   to support a cord where pegged clothes would hang    that our pose directly before it was an unhappy coincidence      the prop   like some rude appendage   boadicea spear   or spoke at our backs   represented caesura between us      the way ahead for mother and child      this morning   as though a veil has lifted   or my courage more evident   i see      far too clearly and with these reluctant eyes      that the limb in question   behind the wall   is not a healthy elm either but is   in fact   dead or at least diseased      its finger and thumb   the  v   pointed skyward is defiant   a fist perhaps   determined in spite of its shipgoingdown demise     yet it s this mast punctuating the scene that i have always remembered in my sideways glances      what an awful picture  i must have thought      bunched up like grapes      you   me   brick wall    v    in 1950 s puddle drab greys      still   i hung on to it      from england   to canada   to spain      the sole icon of my origins      a hello goodbye wave    your innocent face    my hooded eyes that give expression to an ancient goblin hiding out in woolen mitts      years of recalling    or clinging to    in absentia    a washline prop that wasn t one at all      the more you stare at it   this backyard bout   the more the prop becomes a withered arm poking out of your shoulder      a monstrous   wiry   forked   thing against which the infant head might lean       later      after the shot

ironically, such impulsiveness mirrored enoch’s behaviour of more than thirty years’ before when he left england to try his luck on a british-rail job exchange (birmingham, new street) with toronto’s union station — which led to lifelong overstay. and a part-time career as street artist.

at the petrol station, enoch steered from the main road into la hermana.

most intriguing of all is your left arm supporting my tiny legs and whose hand is concealed behind the bootees right and left    as though i m already walking     treading water      on first   tentative   steps      that you   like a ventriloquist are assisting and not      are throwing your fullest weight into the hasty illusion      three arms   one withered   imaginary   a prop or paw pointing sky high   feinting   stop   go   welcome   farewell      your real   hidden   right arm at my back and hidden left behind my legs doing as much as they can before the tidal thrust   wavy navy   and baby truly steps out    

what on earth was he going to do — existing on the mean pension his canadian railway work provided — and no family, savings, nor friends in these parts? why did he never think properly?

enoch found a side street.

chris would know what to do.

the photo has been creased along its middle    but the paw prop makes light of that and forms an   X   marking the spot   as it were   where my shoulder touches your right breast      smile on your face      for the camera   for me      here is the baby   your eyes say   as they try to keep up with the day    the group of trees behind the wall forms a plumed hat about your untidy hair      and lends comedy   to the otherwise dismal capture    my own head swaddled in white billowing wool   like a sorrolla painting gone wrong    the tot s face does not want to leave    or do i now imagine that   it s difficult to see the eyes in shadow    are they in shadow    are they closed    or seeing far   aghast   into the world    beneath your breast    surely he knows      i do know      there is only the walking   and waiting      here is the baby     after a cup of pg tips      leaning my head    back   forth   side to side    breath against my cheek

enoch had manned a ‘lost and found’ department (go transit) at canada’s busiest commuter station. no-one in his life much — dogs for a while. he drew charcoal portraits at weekends: vulnerable faces, tourists, more lost and found. weekly pilgrimages to a basement parlour, east toronto. the promised land a constant ache: of skies, streetcars, a lake the size of oceans.

in la hermana, enoch parked the car and walked, with some gusto, across the plaza and into bar azul.

eagerly, eyes moist with anticipation, he sought his trusted friend. not yet arrived.

bracing himself, enoch found a table near the snooker, beneath television news, some incongruent posters of japanese noh drama, and a bullfight.

enoch waited ….

urgent birdsong … ? beside a coat stand.

you couldn’t walk around this place ….

nocturne …

after la hermana … it was past midnight when he reached his home in algayat.

chris had stood him up.

‘signature birthday an’ all’, enoch had muttered, drinking alone in bar azul — one aniseed paloma after another — while a group of farmers played board games, pretended not to notice. maybe something had happened? no call on his cellphone, no reply at the other end.

as if.

at algayat, face flushed, enoch’s hands were unsteady … in spite of … because of what happened in the village that night: and a hit-and-run that killed the young mayor and his son as they walked along an unlit street.  

enoch reached for his torch, grabbed a whisky bottle, and headed to the backyard.

some enraged asylum seeker — a voice repeated. that’s how the accident would be explained. wouldn’t it? no-one would ever think ….

hurrying along the path between lower wasteland and pond, he shone the light to and fro across the terrain, over the distant toolshed, water. for an instant, the beam caught a toy boat leaning against rocks. a grey, plastic, wreck abandoned by the owner’s children — lolling like the sphinx of earlier in the day.

enoch worried the light at its tilted portholes, funnel, prow, seeking bunched-up faces: captain, passengers, a parent with child. he combed the rudder, mast, its low-tide stay … and scampered on.

some enraged asylum seeker. never you. safe, white, you. go walk in your garden.

reaching higher ground by the cypresses and toolshed, he let his light juggle terrain: back and forth, side to side, playfully — like a car mounting the kerb.

no sign of cat nor kitten. for an instant he felt truly optimistic, relieved even. but knew, knew, that he wasn’t looking hard enough. not yet. that maybe the chris reunion had never been planned. that there was no chris, really. no-one at all. except his fear of remaining one more minute in the yard, on his birthday, and with that picture. and a kitten! no wonder he had done it, again … toyed with friendship, salvation.

he bowed closer to the pine-strewn mound. surely the ginger mother-father had rescued its kid? safely conveyed it to sanctuary in the lower wasteland?

as the light drew into topsoil, a little face met his. blind eyes, debris-spattered lips, flickering within the shadows. mute.

enoch gasped. but didn’t quite fool himself. ‘what did you expect?’

what did you bloody expect, enoch?

he tried to distract himself; recall the incidents of la hermana that evening: chris who never showed; the mayor and his son sprawled.

THERE WAS NO CHRIS TO SHOW.

no-one would ever think ….

enoch’s mind clamored for excuses, escape — anything but look himself in the eye.

without paper-towel, gloves, he knelt down, carefully brushed aside needles and branches. scooped up the body. ‘it’s a miracle you’re still alive,’ he said, heading back to the terrace. he sensed a sphinx at his heel; ‘cat on the mat’ un-sat, in pursuit.

no mat.

in moonlight, enoch tore white bread, shaped it, poured water: two faces at sea in a headlight.

look harder, enoch.

‘breathe, baby,’ he said.

paws every which way: heel for heel.

pressed doughy slivers to the kitten’s lips: birthday jig against its milky teeth: toe for toe.

‘yup.’

back, forth, side to side. mother’s breath.

never you.

enoch?

‘never you,’ he cried. over and over.

the guardia civil would still be open in town.

he worried her white belly. four tiny masts … rose with the flood tide … outstretched.

‘i’ll turn myself in, sweet one.’

enoch grinned like a rat, shook his head at the kitten’s open eyes. placed her on a stool in the hall.

‘will you be alright without me?’ he said, urgently.

from the doorway, he gazed at the pedestal, collected his keys …

‘i’ll turn the lights off, okay?’

under cover of night … and waved.

Royston Tester

Royston Tester has published three books of short fiction Summat Else (Porcupine's Quill), Fatty Goes to China, and You Turn Your Back (Tightrope Books). Recent poems have appeared in The New Statesman, Orbis, and the Canterbury Festival ‘Poet of the Year’ Anthology (2018, 2019). He lives in SE Spain.

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