12 August 2017

Adrian’s Wall: First chapter

A commotion outside made him get up and put his face to the window. The ginger cat was tormenting something at the edge of the lawn. Cries of alarm were coming from the parent blackbirds: the sodding thing had got hold of one of their chicks.
    As ever, the sound of the back door opening scared it away. It dashed into the shrubbery and escaped through one of its usual holes in the hedge.
    His slippers wet with dew, Adrian reached the fledgling and saw that it was beyond hope. The cat had not only opened its breast but hooked out one of the eyes. As gently as he could, he picked up the young bird and crossed to the rockery.
    The chick remained motionless, stunned, panting, its pulsing heat spreading into his palm. Despite the plumage it had acquired, it still bore much of the reptilian look of the sparsely fluffed nestling, wobble-headed and straining upward, instinctively gaping for food. Even so, it had begun to leave all that behind. It had begun to lead its own little life.
    He laid it down and, taking a grapefruit-sized rock, ended its suffering.
    Yesterday there had been two fledglings clucking and chuckling in the shrubbery or on the lawn, begging to be fed. Four had left the nest. The other two must have fallen prey before this morning, to a magpie or hawk, or a rat, or, more likely, a cat. The same one, probably. There was no sign of the remaining fledgling, nor, except for the calls, of the parents.
    When, having washed his hands, Adrian got back to his breakfast table, his porridge was cold and his tea barely warm. In any case he didn’t feel like finishing the meal.
    There were three cats he had come to recognise as living in the vicinity, but the ginger one, in particular, treated his garden as its own. He normally drove it away when it appeared. It had learned that it was unwelcome and could now be made to scoot if he merely rapped on the window.
    On occasion he had not expelled this cat but waited to see what it would do. For long periods it would sit on the lawn and watch the same spot in the shrubbery. He had investigated but found nothing special there, no reason for surveillance. Or the cat would venture to the place where he kept a broad, shallow, china bowl as a birdbath, and then it might drink. This had struck him as odd, because cats were supposed to be fastidious. He had seen it eating blades of untrimmed grass, and prowling along the edge of his lawn, and lifting its tail to piss on his flowers. He had found his border plants crushed where the cat had been lying, and he had often found its smelly droppings and been obliged to clear them up.
    He blamed the ginger cat for these crimes because that was the one he usually saw. The second of the three trespassers, a shapeless tabby, he had seen on his property only once or twice. The third was an exceptionally ugly, off-white Persian – at least, he thought it was a Persian. Its face looked as if it had been pushed in, giving it a most disagreeable expression. One lunchtime it had encountered the ginger cat. The two had circled one another suspiciously before the Persian had retreated under the garden bench, from which place of safety it had glared out until its rival had wandered away.
    The law was such that one could do little about cats in one’s garden. Adrian had tried to be an upright citizen and explore what the market offered in the way of legal repellents, with no effect. He had hurled harmless missiles, and missiles that would leave no mark, but had only once managed to connect, again with no effect. He had considered an air rifle, but its noise might pinpoint him as the culprit. And he had noted with interest such stories as appeared in the press about ‘cat killers’, who usually, disturbingly, sounded rather like him: middle-aged men living alone who took pride in their gardens and had little contact with their neighbours.

    ∗ ∗ ∗

Towards dusk he unlocked the personal door to the garage. Though he had not used the car today and the boiler was only heating the water, the garage felt warmer than the air outside, retaining as it was some heat from the June sun.
    Some months earlier, on collecting his car after its first service, he had found in the passenger footwell a small carrier bag marked with the dealership’s logo. The bag had contained a partly empty canister of antifreeze. He had put the canister on a shelf and almost forgotten about it.
    Apparently antifreeze had a sweet taste, irresistible to cats.
    From another shelf he took down a wooden, six-bottle wine box. It held things he used when servicing his bicycles. At the bottom, a cassette brush was lying in an oblong, old-fashioned, enamel pie-dish, originally white with navy-blue piping, these days much begrimed.
    He now removed this dish, gave it an extra wipe with a rag partly soaked in bike-cleaning fluid and, taking the antifreeze, stepped out of the door. Where best to leave the dish? His back garden was almost completely private, bordered on two sides by fields. There was next to no chance of the dish being observed by human eyes – beyond the remote possibility that someone might come to call, and even if they did, he knew nobody who wouldn’t ring at the front door rather than come round to the back. To be on the safe side, however, he placed the poison next to the shed where he kept his mower and wheelie bins.
    During what remained of the evening his mind kept returning to what he had done, or was about to do, which was to cause the prolonged and agonising death of the ginger cat. At his usual time he tidied up the kitchen and climbed the stairs.
    While cleaning his teeth he confronted what hitherto he had been avoiding: the mirror.
    Lying in bed, Adrian reviewed the inward debate that had been going on since putting the dish out, or even while formulating his plan.
    Of course, it was the careless – the literally careless – owner who was to blame. The cat was simply being a cat. He had never understood why anyone would want to keep such a creature.
    Cat owners surely read the newspapers too, were surely aware of the feline slaughter of the nation’s songbirds and small mammals, and were just as surely indifferent to this. They let their cats roam at will, day and night, knowing they had the protection of English law.
    The neighbourhood cats invaded his territory, the one tiny sanctuary that remained to him in this world of duplicity and greed. They did whatever they liked when he wasn’t on watch, and in the past week they had killed at least one of the young birds in which he had been taking such a fond interest. As soon as he had realised that the blackbirds were building in the larger of his two choisyas, he had refrained from all activity that might cause them concern. When mowing the lawn he had feigned ignorance of the nest-site; such observation as he had allowed himself had been conducted through a window.
    After further thought, Adrian switched on the lamp, got out of bed and put on his dressing gown.
    Better the annoyance of the ginger cat than a guilty conscience. And what if he were found out? What if the animal managed to return to its owner before it collapsed? It would be rushed to a vet, who might recognise the symptoms of ethylene glycol poisoning. The police might become involved. Those cat killers in the news were fined and disgraced and surely had to move house. In any case, he had read that most fledglings were doomed. Were that not so, the world would be overrun with blackbirds.
    As he unlocked his back door he acknowledged that he was, yet again, absorbing the consequences of other people’s selfishness. The cost of not doing so was confrontation. Confrontation required courage, and it might just be that he had used up whatever small reserves of that he had been born with.
    He kept an old funnel in the garage and used it to pour the antifreeze back in the canister, not knowing how else to dispose of it. Since the entire contents had now become polluted, he would take the canister to the council tip next time he was passing.
    He had erred. He had let himself down. Even in conceiving of poisoning the cat, he had behaved without honour or dignity.
    Feeling scarcely better, Adrian went back to his bed.

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