Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Last Shortlisted Winner of The Strictly Writing Award: TOO MANY KITTENS by Uta Coutts

"I can't think about this right now," Carl says, and he's irritated; I can tell by the way he clips his t's, tight as a miser's arse.

"While we still share responsibility for this house, you have to. It's not an option."

"You have no idea of the pressure I'm under. It's relentless."

"Most of that pressure is of your own making," I can't help reminding him. I try very hard to be civil but sometimes my composure slips out of gear. "And that doesn't make the problems go away. You need to pull your weight here."

"It'll have to wait."

"It can't wait."

"That's just the way these things go, kitten..." He stops, and I hear him inhale sharply. I imagine his face at the other end of the phone, appalled, defensive; I know him so well.

"God," he says. "I'm sorry."

The word hangs in the ether between us, furry and fluffy and emphatic in its crassness.

"Kitten" is what he calls her. It just slipped out, born of the thoughtless familiarity he has fallen into so readily and without any sign of conscience over the past two months, an endearment that's unlike him and so contrary to his serious-scientist nature; his new screensaver on his mobile phone is a fuzzy, wide-eyed fluffball of a kitten with a big red ribbon, and he's forty, for Christ's sake.

I have the ridiculous and self-defeating urge to laugh, but knowing how quickly my laughter erodes into tears these days, I suppress it. I almost have it in me to feel sorry for him, for his ghastly gaffe, this casual frond of a word, this hacksaw ripping out bits of my soul. But only almost.

"Leigh?" he says.

"Decisions, Carl. Unless you want my solicitor to make them for both of us."

"There's no need to be..." The rest is lost because I've hung up. My voice is falling off its vocal hinges and I don't want him to hear it.

Carl and I have been married for fifteen years. Fifteen good years, or so I believed and I wasn't the only one, friends often told us we were their "pedestal couple" and I thought I knew what that meant, but what it really means is that you fall to earth from a higher point, and all the harder for it. We used to laugh a lot and argue little. Now we rarely ever laugh and every one of our conversations, by phone or otherwise, ends in accusation. There is no such thing as an amicable divorce.

Two months ago my husband fell suddenly and - for me - catastrophically in love with a woman fourteen years his junior. Since then he's lost a stone in weight because he's been to the gym every day, he's replaced his nerdish specs, which I rather liked, with daily disposable contact lenses, he wears trendy shirts (one of them's orange. Orange!) which he leaves trailing out of his low-slung trousers as though he's twenty-two, he's traded in his Volvo for a snazzy convertible to impress Vicky, who has the intelligence and emotional maturity of a mayfly, and they've set up house together in the next village in a new-build semi, not with a white picket fence but nearly as bad: a neatly trimmed hedge. He said he wants to get back to basics, whatever that means.

I was too unconventional, he says. I didn't understand him, he says. It wouldn't have happened if he'd been happy, he says. He would have left me anyway, regardless of Vicky. He feels like all this time he's been like a hamster in a wheel and the faster he runs, the faster the wheel turns. He's getting nowhere. He wants out.

Is there a script writer who turns out these stock phrases for men starting their mid-life crises? Last year I mopped up my friend Emma's tears when her husband left her, and now I hear echo after tired echo bouncing off my eardrums and making my head hurt.

He's found his soul-mate, he says with a painful lack of tact.

And yes, he calls her kitten. I wouldn't be surprised to hear her call him tiger. Reach for the bucket.

I'm the one left knocking about on my own in our dream house which we now urgently need to sell, a hauntingly gothic cavern of a house which we spent years doing up - well, his dream house, to be strictly accurate. He was the one who fell in love with the decrepit shell and its eerie walled garden while I had my reservations about the size and immensity of the project, but as we spent our weekends working on it together - always together - we both grew to love it.

Or so I thought, until two months ago. It's hard to revise opinions held for years. Now every brick, every paintstroke is suffused with retrospective sadness, grief and betrayal. My eyes are perma-swollen, my face raw meat pickled in tears.

Alarm bells should have started ringing when the text alert on his mobile turned from a basic two tone bing-bong to a cute meow. I thought he was having a playful or ironic phase. More alarm bells should have gone off when a virtual feline started prancing across the screen of the laptop we shared, but perhaps I am exceptionally dense when it comes to trust: I thought trusting is what you do, when you're married. It took a few more unsubtle hints before I got the message. A postcard saying Sweet Dreams, showing a tabby kitten asleep on a pillow, which I found when I took his jacket to the dry cleaners'. Then, a soft-toy kitten keyring: blatant, because he wanted me to notice - he wanted me to confront him, coward that he is - and in the end I did. He admitted everything in relief and in far too painful detail, and two days later he was gone.

The abundance of kittens dumped, unwanted, in my life is what upsets me most, because it is demeaning to keep crying over something so banale. The image of him and her screwing in our bed is not a happy one either. I'm surprised I'm not dehydrated, I had no idea the human body has such limitless capacity for tears.

Carlandvicky (how quickly he has fallen into this new unit!) have moved on, and they want me to snap out of it and move on too, considering it's been over two months and there are - small mercies - no children to muddy the issue. To this end, they've invited me over to their house next week to discuss the sale of the house.

That's what our ill-fated phone conversation was about. We need to get estimates from the estate agents; the cost of the mortgage was crippling when we were together and is even more so now he's moved out. Carl accuses me of being bloody-minded because I asked him to do his share: tidy away some of his things and help with the gardening, so the place looks in good nick for prospective buyers. I don't think this is unreasonable. After all, he wants half the proceeds. But he's too busy, he doesn't have time and that's just the way these things go. Kitten.

I admit that on some self-torturing level I want to see their love nest, to see them diminished for buying so enthusiastically into the suburban bliss scenario. I'm tempted to watch from behind a bush and see Carl wash the his-and-hers cars on a Saturday morning, and equally tempted to find a rent-a-bird to crap on them afterwards.

---

Carl phones to apologise for his ill-judged remark. It wasn't just the remark that hurt me and he knows it, but it helps him to pretend he has a vestige of decency left.

After prevaricating for the best part of a week, I give in against my better judgment and agree to visit them. If morbid curiosity doesn't kill this cat, remaining entombed in the mausoleum of a house any longer than necessary surely will, and besides, I have an urge - more - an aching need to understand what turned my familiar, reliable, wonderful husband into a stranger overnight. Insensitivity and oafishness never used to be part of his make-up, but perhaps one can acquire them cheaply as part of the adultery package.

Vicky plays the gracious hostess and tries hard to be pleasant, but I think it's a strain because it's against her nature. I sense that beneath the fluffy exterior - blonde, melon-breasted, wasp-waisted, everything I'm not - lurks a hard-nosed bitch. I may be biased. At any rate, she can't be as faultless as Carl claims. In my Book of Judgment she has at least one major flaw: she got involved with a married man.

"Come and meet Fudge and Truffle," she says, and I nearly trip over the two diminutive furballs that have been brought in to make their family happiness complete. It makes me want to throw up on the cream carpet but I restrain myself. We sit down together, and with a gargantuan effort - mostly on my part - we manage to draw up what will be the blueprint for our divorce settlement, while the furballs take turns climbing up my jeans with their sharp little claws.

Post-agreement small talk is stilted, and I'm glad I can make my excuses because Carl is coming down with a cold. Good. Now it's your turn to have the puffy eyes and the red nose for a couple of days, I think nastily. Just so you know what it feels like.

---

"How are Fudge and Truffle?" I ask a few days later when Carl phones to confirm some details we hacked out. Call me old-fashioned, I still can't bring myself to enquire after Vicky.

"Well, er, they're no longer with us." He sounds sheepish. "Turns out I'm allergic to cats."

"Really? What a shame. They were so cute. Who took them?"

"What with the holidays coming up, no one wants to be, er, saddled with kittens. So we took them to Wood Green."

"Ah. And how did Vicky feel about that?"

"She was a bit upset, actually." I still know him well enough to hear the magnitude of the understatement.

"Oh dear," I say.

---

Jasper and Paloma - I renamed them because I couldn't stand the syrupy sweetness of their names - are now three years old. I retrieved them from the Animal Shelter because I couldn't bear the thought that Carl's new-found callousness should have additional victims, and in time the two furballs and I got used to each other. Once Carl and I sold our house, signed the divorce papers and disbanded our joint history, I moved to a small Victorian cottage, and the cats settled in as though it was made for them.

They sleep on my bed every night; they crush their warm little bodies against mine and purr out their unqualified affection for me like miniature engines in overdrive. I never used to be a cat person but these days I couldn't imagine my life without them.

---

Carl and Vicky lasted barely six months. He's on his third relationship since our divorce came through, he has dark rings under his eyes and he's started smoking again; the slight beer gut testifies that he doesn't see the inside of a gym very often these days. He's gone back to stripy shirts which he tucks in at the waistband, not a trace of orange in sight.

We talk on the phone every now and then. He's intimated more than once that he knows he made a mistake, and would I consider giving him another chance? But even if I wanted to, I could never have him back, because he's allergic to my cats.

Well, that's just the way these things go.

12 comments:

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

Uterly brilliant, a fantastic read. A very worthy winner. I enjoyed that immensley, well done!

Kath said...

Oh, it all captures so many truths. Loved it. Well done.

ginny said...

What a fabulous story, so clever on every level. I wish id written it!

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I very much enjoyed reading that.

Reb Alexander said...

This is brilliant, I loved it. I'm falling back in love with short stories...Especially the cat allergy...

Beth Kemp said...

I really enjoyed that, thank you. Nice engaging voice and it definitely 'felt' true. I really admire a good short story like this.

debutnovelist said...

Great story, Uta. Tight, convincing, everything it needs to be. Love it!
Alib

Antje said...

Captures the male mid-life crisis to the tee. Very clever, the cats and all.......

Debs Riccio said...

Congratulations again, Uta - we LOVED this!

Uta said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind comments. U x

Susanne said...

Bittersweet...brilliantly written...well done!

Karen said...

Fabulous story - you made every single word count :o)