Schrodinger’s kitten

He checked the dashboard calendar: 1st June. He had said White Rabbits twice since it happened. Two months. But he still kept track; it would have been his weekend to have Tom. They’d be dragging their wakeboards from the river right now, or else, detaching cheese fries from a chilli bomb in Jerry’s. Extra jalapeños; Tom’s favourite. He still couldn’t look at those slippery demons without being reminded of his son’s olive irises; the exact same shade of green. Things had a way of lingering. Since the accident, Steve had had trouble remembering. And there were things he kept forgetting to forget. Like his feelings for Shelly. They had ended on good terms, Tom had only been three at the time; deciding that staying together only ever pushed partnerships further apart. It was Newton’s Third Law, or something like that. For every action there must be a reaction, both equal and opposite, so he had heard. At least her reactions were certainly the opposite. Shelly would keep the house, her dignity and Tom. Steve had kept the Citroen. He glanced at the dashboard again; he had always had a head for dates. 1 June. The first of June. It taunted him like a face-down playing card. Clicking on the indicator, he thumbed its frayed edges. 1 June… Katie’s birthday. The indicator snapped back. Weird really, that he’d remember his ex-wife’s daughter’s birthday when he forgot so many things of his own. It was like his memory had been replaced by hers. He dropped down into second as he passed and hoped she wasn’t in the lounge to see him glance up at the window. With the glare from the sun, it was impossible to tell. Her Honda, a paradise blue, was parked at an angle in the driveway. Odd that she’d be home on a Saturday morning; he could have sworn she had started back at work last week. Maybe she’d just taken a holiday, to throw Katie a party; that made sense. Or perhaps her rota had changed. She might have dropped weekend shifts altogether; understandable given everything. In fact, he had been amazed at her wanting to start back so soon. Shelly’s job was emotionally draining. But maybe that was just her way of coping; tangling herself in the insanity of others. Whatever the reason, she was doing amazingly. Her stitch-picker mind was still so sharp. Steve’s, on the other hand, was unravelling at the seams. It was likely she had told him about the change in her schedule and he had just forgotten. Yes—the more he thought about it, the more he found himself remembering that Shelly had said something like that the last time they’d touched base. The distractions couldn’t have helped his memory: the damp vanilla of her hair; the jingle of those earrings with the squiggles he’d bought her and the fire he had almost caused in her house. ‘Your toast!’ She had yelled from the kitchen. ‘Steve!’ A sharp intake of breath. The harsh sourness still lingered in his throat. He coughed. ‘If you’re trying to burn the house down, Steve, you could at least warn me about it.’ That sarcasm; it was almost worth losing his mind just to hear. He glanced back at the house in his rear-view mirror, cringing at the memory. To help himself to Shelly’s food, Shelly’s kitchen, was one thing; but to sit there in ignorance while the house filled with smoke. Four slices too! And he hadn’t even been hungry. As if that was the weird part. He had stood there, sheepishly in the doorway, muttering apologies as Shelly bounced the lever. Burning her fingers, she flicked charred multi-grain from the toaster and onto the sideboard. Her obstinacy was manic, but he suspected it was more of a reason not to have to look at him. She said nothing as she scooped the blackened crumbs into a pile. Four silent strides to the bin, Steve’s lunacy cupped in her hands. Dropping them in, she opened her palms and stared at the evidence lingering in the creases. Dusting them off, she tried twice to speak. She was struggling with something. ‘You had no idea you’d put that on, hey?’ she said, finally, softly, to the floor. He shook his head twice. And though her back was still turned, she guessed at his answer and nodded. ‘Steve, you don’t live here anymore.’ A silence, and he nodded. He knew that. But Steve hadn’t been able to make that knowledge stick. Since then, things had spiralled. It was becoming a regular occurrence, his going over there, uninvited, making Shelly’s home theirs again. Not intentionally, of course, he would never assume to impose where he wasn’t wanted. It’s just that, in all honesty, he felt that he was. Before each visit, he could have sworn she had called him and hinted that she’d appreciate the company. More than hinted. Katie’s dad had been away from the house more and more. Working. Steve had no real reason to doubt Niall’s honesty, he just hated to think of her alone in that house. She had Katie now, true, but she was still little. And since Tom… It must have been lonely. But obviously Steve was projecting. Either way, that was what had made him think to buy her the kitten. She had always talked about getting one when they were still married. He had never liked them, ripping up the carpet when you forgot to let them out and always strutting around, knowing something he didn’t. Then again, these days it seemed everyone did. But of course, Newton’s law—she loved them. She had one as a child. ‘Nelson,’ they had called him. And even when he had turned out to be a she, her parents had pronounced it terribly prudish to conform to gender specificity in felines. That last bit had cracked him up. He had considered the detail such an insight into a childhood she rarely talked about. She was finally opening up to him, finally letting him inside, the sign he had needed to get down on one knee. He might forget his own name, but he would never forget that weekend in the lakes. That cottage with the drip, the way she had curved her hand to her mouth when he laughed at her story. And so it came as such a blow when he discovered he’d made it all up. She had stood there in silence, gawping at him, eyes flitting from his face to the basketed kitten. And when he’d finished recalling her anecdote, a mutual shuffling had followed. And unsure whether to laugh, like she didn’t get the joke, awaiting explanation, her smile had slowly faded. When his own offered none, her embarrassment had morphed into fear. And then anger. What was he trying to do? Get back in by claiming to know more about her childhood than she did? Wouldn’t she have remembered something like, erm… having a cat? Did he think she was an idiot? No, he had said. She wasn’t an idiot. Of course she’d have remembered. Steve must have dreamed it. But the name thing had seemed so real. Maybe he had seen it on TV. He really was losing it. She had thanked him for the kitten when he eventually succeeded in jostling it into her arms. Retreating back into the kitchen, she had held it at arm’s-length, as though concerned its randomness was infectious. There really was no reason for Steve to have bought it. But here it was. Steve had driven home to sleep off the weirdness, praying he might not dream up more cat tales of yore. He had really pissed her off that time. Which is why he’d been surprised to see her photo flash up on his phone hours later; the cat wasn’t looking so good. It was doing this thing with its hind leg. The left… Did it matter which bloody leg? He supposed no, not really. Steve would have to take it to the vet. She had emerged with the basket and, strapping it into the Citroen’s back seat, even pleasantly smiled, the story mix-up seemed almost forgotten. He supposed it was a good thing that she was a family psychiatrist. He guessed it made her more understanding. Overtly, at least; he hated to imagine the relief she must feel that he was no longer her problem. At least, he shouldn’t have been. Just two days ago, she’d come downstairs on her day-off to find him watching Rugby on Niall’s widescreen, with one of Niall’s beers, half-empty, in his hand. There was canned macaroni bubbling away on the stove. The tin, partially opened, standing upright in the pan, the gas switched on full. Shelly had been napping upstairs and smelled burning; a plasticky smell that he had smelled too, but had assumed it was her cooking something for their lunch. He hadn’t liked to suggest that her culinary skills hadn’t improved much. She hadn’t found it that funny. ‘You’re getting worse, Steve.’ He knew that he must be. And soon the truth would have to come out about what had happened on the way to the vets. ‘Happened’—like he hadn’t let it. Like he wasn’t responsible for everything wrong in her life. He’d avoided the topic, with the macaroni distraction, but the cat had been ‘at the flat’ for four days now. He was surprised she hadn’t already started asking. Then again, perhaps she had asked and he just hadn’t remembered. Perhaps he had already told her. But, that couldn’t be right. There was no way she’d still be speaking to him. He had retraced several hypothetical journeys, but found nothing. He just couldn’t think why or where he might have stopped. A gas station, maybe; checks basket, cat jumps out. But this scenario didn’t seem likely, his tank was still nearly empty. Or perhaps it really was at his flat. He could have gone back there on the way to grab his wallet—sensing freedom, the cat splits, like a Looney Tunes sketch… and then somehow replaces the clasp. He waited for a gap in the traffic and swung left. He would scour the park one more time. His phone pulsed on the passenger seat. He glanced down. Call me Steve. Far enough now. His heart began to hammer. She was onto him. He re-read the message several times until the screen dulled then went black. At the lights, he jabbed the circle, and tapped in his pin. Call me Steve. Far enough now. He pressed reply. Cat’s fine Shelly. He held down backspace. Do you want me to bring him round tonight? Too obvious. He returned to the home-screen, dropped the phone in his lap and accelerated. He’d call her later and confess, if he had to, if he hadn’t solved the mystery by then. His phone buzzed again. Steve. Where the fuck are you? He flung it back down and pulled a U-turn, ignoring the signs and the horns. * He pulled up on the street opposite her house, where a wide, open doorway framed her figure, like a tongue in a shout. She was fuming. He could see in the passenger mirror. He hesitated before stepping out onto the kerb. She was already pacing in the driveway. Approaching, he went to say ‘Shelly,’ but his uvula choked him, and he swallowed her name. His arms reached towards her and she mirrored his gesture, but hers displayed fury. She side-stepped his concern. She was circling like a shark in one of Tom’s cartoons. He had not seen her this way for a long time. Her ponytail was unwashed and lopsided, sliding out of a hairband stretched loose at the staple. The hood of her sweater was turned inside out; and the label stuck up from the neck. Every time she turned her back, his eyes were drawn towards it. A small, flat face appeared behind Shelly in the crack of the doorway. ‘Happy Birthday, Katie!’ He remembered. Katie’s face smiled back for just a second, like she had forgotten to be sad. But then disappeared back inside. As she turned, for just a moment, he thought he saw the tip of a tail flick up from her folded arms. I did, I did saw a… ‘Who the fuck is Katie, Steven?’ Shelly spat through gritted teeth. He frowned, puzzling out what she might mean and then... ‘Oh right, hah, yeah, sorry, it’s not “Katie,” is it?’ But he couldn’t for the life of him think what else it might be. Maybe she liked Kate, now, or Katherine. Shelly had stopped pacing and was glaring at him. ‘Where the hell have you been Steve?’ She exhaled. He thought for a second. Her question confused him. In his flat, then his car, searching for that bastard cat. But he kept this last part to himself. ‘And don’t even try, Steve. Don’t say you forgot.’ First, she’d have to tell him what it was he hadn’t forgotten. ‘It’s Saturday, Steve!’ He knew that. ‘Tom, Steven. Your son?’ But he hadn’t forgotten about Thomas. How could he? He was in every thought. Every memory an agony. She couldn’t really believe that he had. He stared at her, blankly, and her face seemed to melt. ‘You were meant to pick him up at 11. I’m supposed to be at work, for Christ’s sake!’ There was a silence. Her words filled his mouth, but he couldn’t make himself spit them out. ‘Shelly. That’s not funny.’ She opened her eyes wide, in sorry disbelief. He realised then that she hadn’t been joking. She seemed to deflate. ‘Tom doesn’t think it’s very funny either.’ She said, flatly. ‘He’s upstairs, and he’s pretty cut up.’ A pause, and then: ‘Steve… You might want to say sorry.’ She surveyed his frozen features for a few moments longer, and then, shaking her head, turned back towards the house. Her words stretched in contrails behind her. The smoke of their edges already blurring. Tom… was upstairs. That’s what she had said. A million questions flooded his mind. Tom was dead. He was dead. He knew he was dead. He could see it all again, tracing ghosts down the driveway. The flashing blue lights in the rain on the road, that eggshell matte paint, the smell of the waiting room, and the waiting. The damp jacket condensing the polythene bag, Lego figurine still clinging to the zipper. It was missing one hand. That damned bike and all those lost Saturdays. He felt sick. He was going to be sick. He dropped into a crouch on the driveway. The pockmarks of pebbles swirled, making him dizzy. He fingered their brail but the meaning evaded him. Denim pinched his skin as he lowered his knees to rest on the ground. He stayed there for several moments, forcing each breath, drowning in answers. Every detail in his mind as real as the concrete. He pressed his forehead against its coolness. Then tore it away, and forced himself onto his feet. He lunged at the door. It swung inwards and resounded off the corner of the worktop. He loitered on the precipice of the kitchen; and the edge of what he couldn’t remember. Then the ache overcame him. He sprang from the doorway, tearing into the hallway and boots trailing a drumroll on the thick staircase carpet. He rounded the landing, and hammered pale panels. Tom’s bedroom was empty. He tried the playroom, still no one. And the bathroom. And rooms he had already checked. Doors to cupboards, flung open, swung limply on hinges, each bearing a hollow as real as the child they’d said goodbye to. Finally, he collapsed onto his old quilted duvet, spilling sobs into the vacuum of his world. He reached his arms up and grasped Shelly’s pillow, pulling it into his face. He breathed her in. Her wholesome vanilla, that granary bread of her breaths. A gentle knock at the door and he froze. A murmur. ‘Steve?’ Pushing tears from his eyes with the balls of his hands, he sat upright. It was Katie. They stared at each other, neither trusting their words. Her head dipped a little as she stepped through the doorway, as though ducking beneath an invisible cordon. Her feet shuffled slowly through the dust of the carpet, and when she stopped by the bed he watched toes curl and uncurl inside scruffy socks. He stared up into eyelashes damp as his own that clung to each other in a brackish embrace. She perched on the mattress beside him, staring down at the varnish of nibbled pink glitter. Her fingers were clammy and trembling. ‘It’s my mum.’ She said, quietly. ‘Shelly’, she added for his benefit when he didn’t seem to register. ‘There’s… She’s… I think something’s wrong.’ Her breaths mingled with his in the shrill static silence, that neither of them seemed ready to break. When someone finally did it was Steve, with a question. But before she had answered he already knew. ‘Well… like toast in the toaster.’ said Katie. ‘She keeps making it black, and she won’t scrape all the badness away.’ Her voice began to crack. ‘And this morning, when I’m five…’ She raked in a sob. ‘She said it isn’t my birthday. But it is. I’ve remembered. Even you said it is! And… and then she kept calling me Tom.’ Her sobs became suddenly calm. And her earlobes pulsed crimson, her nail beds blinked back. ‘But Tom’s dead, Steve, isn’t he? Tom died.’

Lucy Hamilton