So, which neighbour shall I tell you about?
Shall I tell you about the lady with the hooded anorak, the stout walking stick and the Illegal (and very rude) Scotsman? Shall I tell you about the teacher with the weak heart – the one who recently rescued a Polish lady-dog almost the same size as herself, which can be seen taking her walks at intervals, clinging breathlessly to its lead? Shall I tell you about the Man At The End, who’s on morphine for the pain – I’m not sure what pain – and stays up all night at his computer, unable to sleep? Shall I tell you about the fairy lights draped round his living room, and the moving pictures of waterfalls, the lava lamps, the thick fug of cigarettes? Shall I tell you about the elderly lady who, year after year, tottered back and forth along our unmade road to care for her badly disabled sister, who lived a few doors down? Her sister recently died. Inevitably, two of the three cats were donated to me: Charlie got the other one. Since then she has hardly been seen: it’s as if she lives a wholly interior life. Shall I tell you about the retired prison warders – a he and a she, as far as it’s possible to tell? No, I don’t think I shall. I will tell you about Charlie.
Charlie is younger than me, I think. Difficult to tell – he’s kind of saggy, and always wearing overalls. Charlie is the other cat-person in this little road. I try not to feel sorry for his cats, but it’s difficult. Inside his house it’s just a blizzard of filth, and junk, and half-eaten food, and cat poo, and… sofas – an awful lot of sofas. He turned up at my door one day last summer with his usual Sorry to bother you, but… and asked if I would come over and hold one of his cats while he trimmed its claws. He couldn’t get anyone else to do it. In old pink shorts and a washed out tee-shirt I didn’t feel dressed for public appearances, but I went anyway.
I managed to clear a posterior-sized space on the greasy arm of one of the sofas and lowered myself onto it. The cat, dropped into my arms never having encountered me before, was terrified. Charlie went ahead with the claw-cutting using what looked like a pair of kitchen scissors rather than the proper gadget. I tried to imagine myself somewhere else. I tried to imagine that, like my younger sister, I had been born without a sense of smell. I tried to imagine that the terrified cat was not urinating warmly down the front of my shorts. And then urinating again, not quite so warmly. Squelching across the road, to throw all my clothes in the washing machine and myself in the shower, I was praying that none of the other neighbours happened to be looking out of their windows at this precise moment.
But usually the Sorry to bother you, but… means Big Fluffy has gone missing again. She always comes back – or always has done so far – but Charlie – who’s a bit simple – worries just as much on each occasion. His forehead creased with worry, wringing his hands, he once again describes Big Fluffy in minute detail and reminds you she was a present from his ex-wife on his fortieth birthday. He doesn’t tell you that Big Fluffy is sticky-to-the-touch from the filth inside his house. Ex-wife moved in the man next door some years ago but still talks to Charlie over the fence.
Usually it’s after dark, when he realises Big Fluffy is missing, and everyone up and down the road becomes involved in paddling round their muddy gardens with torches, and peering into unlit garages hoping Big Fluffy will leap out and peaceful TV-watching can be resumed.
But when Big Fluffy turns up, as she always does after and hour or two, it never occurs to Charlie to tell anyone. So there you are, still squelching around the garden, barking your shins on the hedgehog hut or getting bashed by the bird-feeders, and Charlie is home, rejoicing, Big Fluffy perched stickily on his knee. Days later, everyone else is still imagining Big Fluffy howling in a ditch, her hind paw tangled in rusty wire; Big Fluffy kidnapped by gypsies, skinned by now and turned into fluffy slippers; Big Fluffy somehow surviving on condensation trickling down some spidery garage wall, her voice cracked from crying…