Helen Lattimer’s husband, George, died just before lunch on an overcast Tuesday in June. He’d been in the garden tending the roses which these past forty years were his pride and joy. Helen called him from the kitchen to ask what type of sandwich he wanted and thought nothing of it when he didn’t reply. George was taciturn to a fault and doubly so when gardening. After a short time Helen, growing impatient, decided to venture out and repeat her question to his face. It was rare that he ignored a question to his face, though not unheard of. As she made her way to the garden she caught sight of her face reflected in the glass of the French doors. She thought she looked tired, even for a woman of her age.
‘George, are you there?’ she said as she walked towards the high shrubs that formed a green wall around the suntrap of their patio. She expected he was in his shed pottering around in the copious jars and boxes looking for this or that. He spent more time there than anywhere else. In the forty-two years they’d been married not a day had passed, unless they were abroad or out of town, when George had not, on some pretext or another, managed to sequester himself in his shed with his radio. At first it hadn’t bothered Helen. She was young and in those days it was best if a wife didn’t bother her husband if he wanted to be alone. In the middle and later years of their life together, Helen ignored her frustration by drinking wine and going on long walks. Now in the twilight she simply didn’t care. George was what he was and that was that.
It was with that thought swirling in her mind like an odd sock in a dryer that she set eyes on her dead husband. She knew he was dead straight away. He was sprawled across his Pink Knockouts and Carefree Spirits with the most peculiar look on his face. It was as if someone had given him a great fright or told him a wonderful joke. In his hand he gripped his secateurs so tightly it looked like they would snap. Helen sighed and went back inside and called for an ambulance.
After the ambulance arrived and took George away Mrs. Byrne from next door dropped in. A small group had gathered on the street and she had appointed herself to act on its behalf. Helen received her without enthusiasm or reluctance.
‘A cup of tea,’ said Mrs. Byrne, ‘that’s what you need.’
Helen smiled benignly as Mrs. Byrne busied herself rifling through presses for cups and tea and other such things. Helen couldn’t remember when Mrs. Byrne, or any of the neighbours, had last been for a cup of tea. George didn’t really like the locals. He found them intrusive and nosey and they found him surly and unfriendly. George was no longer there though and Helen would have to sit like a crumpled piece of paper enduring the kindness of Mrs. Byrne.
As Mrs. Byrne rabbited on about how hard it would be without George, especially as Helen and George had no children, and how Helen should call Fr. Hourihan and book the church for the funeral Helen’s eyes began to wander beyond her neighbour’s face and into the garden. She noticed something moving along the back wall. A tiny shape emerged from the variegated colours and fell with the delicacy of a ballerina onto the manicured grass. Mrs. Byrne, oblivious to Helen’s roving eyes yapped on almost without drawing breath and barely noticed when Helen arose and moved to the window.
‘What is it?’ asked Mrs. Byrne after a moment.
Helen said nothing and went out through the French doors and into the garden.
Mrs. Byrne moved slowly towards the window but could only see Helen hunkered down on the grass. She attributed Helen’s strange behaviour to grief and decided it would be best to leave her be for now.
Outside Helen was staring into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. After a moment, she spoke to their owner.
‘Where have you come from?’
The cat, which was no bigger than a closed fist, blinked twice in succession.
‘You must be hungry,’ said Helen.
She got up, went back to the house, and was surprised to find the cat following at her heels like a dog. She opened the door and it hopped into the house with the alacrity of a schoolchild on the first day of summer. Her instincts were to give the cat milk, but she had read somewhere that milk could upset a cat’s stomach and given this cat was so small she thought it better to give it something else. In his time George liked a tuna sandwich and seeing as he was no longer around Helen thought they may as well go to another mouth. She opened the can and spooned out about a third of the contents onto a plate. She watched with fascination as the cat consumed the tuna in a single, hard to believe, mouthful.
‘You must be very hungry, ‘said Helen bending down to spoon out the rest of the tuna.
The cat gobbled it up in about ten seconds then licked it lips, rubbed its head with its paw and with the casual nonchalance of a familiar guest hopped onto a kitchen chair, curled up into the shape of a Danish pastry and fell asleep.
Helen smiled in bemusement. Something about the cat reminded her of George but she put that down to the fact that almost everything reminded her of George, the house, the garden, the roses, the shed. She began to wonder where the cat had come from, it seemed too small to be separated from its mother and so she surmised its mother was around somewhere, or perhaps its mother was dead and the little thing had ventured into the world following its instinct to survive. Whatever it was, the cat was asleep in her house and Helen was glad. She left the cat to sleep and went into the hall to call Fr. Hourihan.
The conversation lasted an hour. Fr. Hourihan liked to talk and waxed lyrical about George’s love of his garden and travel and sport. Helen felt like objecting when Fr. Hourihan spoke of travel as it was her love of travel that dragged George to see the world. Had George gotten his way, they would never have left Dublin. It occurred to Helen as Fr. Hourihan rattled on and on how uneventful her life had been and how she’d sacrificed so much for George and gotten so little in return. If only they’d had children she thought for the millionth time, but fate had dealt them a cruel hand. George could make anything grow in a garden, but a childhood bout of mumps had left him as sterile as an Arctic landscape. Still, life is what you make it and Helen had found some comfort in her few friends, her city breaks (usually without George) and her love of art and art galleries. Every week, sometimes more than once, she took herself into the city to visit one of the art galleries or museums. George never showed an interest in such things and would scoff at the notion of appreciating stuff that was, as he put it, made up.
‘I mean,’ he would say proudly as he made a delicate cut along the plum red stem of a pink rose, ‘this is art, that stuff you gawk at can’t hold a candle to this.
One afternoon Helen came home to find George asleep in his armchair. She noticed he’d been careless and had dragged mud into the house. Instead of waking him and admonishing him, which was pointless, she went into the garden and snapped three of his Teasing Georgias.
‘I know it seems hard to understand now,’ droned Fr. Hourihan wrenching Helen back to reality, ‘but the Lord has his reasons.’
‘Thank you Father,’ said Helen, ‘I have to go.’
With that she hung up and went to get a glass of water.
When she entered the kitchen, the cat was still asleep but something very odd had happened. Instead of it being curled up like a tiny comma, it was now the size of a full-grown cat. Helen scrunched her face as if to correct any defect in her vision but the cat was cat sized and purring softly like an idling engine. A moment later it opened its eyes and gave a ferocious yawn followed by a resonant and thrilling miaow. The cat pounced from the chair and curled itself around Helen’s legs like smoke. Helen stood absolutely still but her eyes took in the length of the creature. It was an elegant grey and white with a lithe body and a tail that moved like a dancer. She bent down to stroke it and it bumped its head against her hand and rubbed its cheeks along her wrist.
‘I must be losing my mind as well as my eyesight,’ said Helen quietly.
Over the next few days the cat ate and slept and grew steadily bigger. By the end of the week it was the size of a golden retriever. After the initial shock Helen delighted in seeing the cat every morning and observing how much bigger it had gotten.
‘Look at you,’ she would say, ‘you’re almost too big for the chair.’
The next day chair was replaced with couch.
A week later the cat was the size of a lion and Helen began to have grave concerns about what to do with it. She didn’t feel threatened or worried for her safety, indeed even with its great and unusual size, the cat was as gentle and affectionate as when she’d first encountered it. No, her concern was her neighbours and after that the rest of the world. She thought to call the zoo, but worried they would take the cat away and study it. Whomever she thought to call she knew it would end badly for the cat. Instead, she decided to do nothing, accepting that the strangeness of the situation was best left unencumbered by any practical issues.
The cat must have sensed Helen’s concern as it began to spend less time in the house. It would lie among George’s roses and sleep during the day or sometimes take itself to the now empty shed. In the week after George’s death his nephews had come over and taken away anything useful they could find. Helen didn’t mind and even if she had they’d have paid her no notice. They were all the same the Lattimers, it was just a pity she had wasted her life on one of them. Anyway, she was glad they came and took what they wanted and were gone. It was the end of her dealings with them. George’s brother and his wife barely spoke to Helen at the funeral and had no dealings with her since.
One morning about a month after the cat had first arrived the roses George had devoted his life to were flattened and Helen walked to the shed to feed the cat only to find it was now too big to get out the door.
‘Oh dear,’ she said, ‘what shall I do with you?’
She knew it was time to call an expert.
Like a light being turned on a media circus grew up around her small house. At first, it was a chap from the RSPCA, but within an hour of him seeing the cat there were four others and a day later the TV people descended like low pressure in from the Atlantic.
By this time the cat almost filled the shed and despite the clamour that had grown up around it, the cat slept and purred and seemed to be unaffected by everything. Occasionally it would stir and stretch and the shed would shake and look as if it would rise from the ground only to settle once more to the delight and relief of those gathered. Only the neighbourhood boys revelled in pure excitement and would whoop and dare each other to go to the shed door and touch the cat. Helen enjoyed their good natured and innocent curiosity. The media, however, were another thing. They were a right nuisance. They rang Helen’s doorbell and thrust microphones and cameras in her face. They asked her inane questions and for the first time since George’s death, she missed him. He’d have known how to deal with them.
One evening in July the doorbell rang and Helen answered it expecting to find someone from RTE or Sky News but instead she found Fr. Hourihan. He wasted no time in letting himself into the house and within a few minutes was talking about signs and wonders. Helen didn’t pay any attention to his notions and smiled politely as he gesticulated and quoted scripture. She admitted to herself a curiosity regarding the cat’s provenance and why it grew to such a size, but she had never considered anything supernatural about it, not because she didn’t believe in such things but rather because the whole thing seemed, on some intuitive level, perfectly normal.
Fr. Hourihan filled with a sense of fiery righteousness made his way to the shed and approached the door. The neighbourhood boys sat on the wall between the houses and held their breath as the priest poked his head around the door. He stood in amazement and was marvelling at the creature when without warning, the cat yawned and Fr. Hourihan fell backwards and clawed a retreat with the haste of someone in mortal peril. He managed to roll over and once on his feet ran with Olympic speed into the house and out the front door. The boys on the wall laughed aloud like a chorus of jackdaws. Helen, drawn to the noise, went out to the boys.
‘Your cat is brilliant Mrs. Lattimer,’ said a blond-haired boy.
‘I bet Fr. Hourihan has to change his underpants,’ said another.
The boys guffawed and Helen smiled in appreciation of the joke. She went back into the house and returned with biscuits and cake for the boys. They plonked down from the wall like a thick syrup and graciously accepted the food.
‘Are they going to take the cat away?’ asked one of the boys.
‘I don’t know,’ said Helen, ‘I don’t even know if they can. The people from the zoo are talking with some experts about it.’
‘I hope they don’t take it away,’ said a boy.
Helen forced a smile. She knew that there were plans to remove the cat the next morning. She regretted lying to the boys, but she didn’t want to spoil their enjoyment.
At that moment the cat let out a loud miaow that shook the shed.
‘Maybe he’s hungry,’ said the blond-haired boy.
Helen left the boys to their munching and searched through her cupboards for food for the cat. In the chaos that had grown up around the miracle moggie she had not fed it as regularly as before. Oddly, this did not affect the cat nor its size and anyway, the cat was now so big that all food it received were mere morsels. She came back out to the garden as the lengthy shadows of dusk began to fill it. In the shed the cat purred contentedly. Helen carried the open can of tuna to the door and emptied it onto a plate. It was the last tin in the cupboard. Helen thought it fitting given the cat would soon be gone. The cat’s nose twitched and its eyes opened. It moved its huge head to the door and pushed its muzzle into the air. Helen gestured for the boys to gather around. They did so obediently and all fell to rubbing the cat’s nose and whiskers.
‘Mrs. Lattimer,’ said one of the boys, ‘do you think the cat is magic?’
‘Yes I do,’ said Helen instinctively.
The cat lapped up the tuna and closed its eyes. It purred and the rhythmic reverberations enveloped Helen and the boys in a wonderful sense of calm and they stayed with it until it grew dark.
Despite this calm, Helen did not sleep well. She wrestled with a fitful sleep and just as she nodded off, she was awoken by tremendous crash. She got up and hurried to the back room as the noise had come from the garden. In the dark, she could see a large shape moving. It was the shed. It had risen from the ground and now four huge limbs, a long and powerful tail and a thick square head thrust through the splintering wood. In an instant the shed had disintegrated and the cat, now the size of an elephant sat in Helen Lattimer’s back garden licking its paw. It looked up towards her and through the starry grey of the night, Helen once again saw the sparkling blue of the cat’s eyes. It blinked slowly and with a graceful bound leap over the wall and was gone.
No one knew where it went or heard anything about it ever again and soon all interest in Helen Lattimer and the cat moved onto something else.
A few days after the cat’s departure there was a knock at Helen’s door. It was the group of boys. They stood before her silent and respectful.
‘I think I have some more biscuits,’ she said, inviting them inside.