the joy of the cat (third draft) part 6 of a serial…
and so lets go back to our beginning, not quite the beginning but near enough, so here we have an engineer, a systems analyst called Jean Grenier, me, simply me. (Obviously that isn’t my real name, all the names of living people are fictional, only the dead have their real names) Tall thin, unmuscled, weak. poor eyesight, good hearing, flat feet, stiff… doesn’t exercise, never runs, reads a lot, likes cinema, likes looking at art. Speaks and reads english, french, german, dislikes most mass culture, has weak family ties, hates opera. Not very friendly, anti-social, except I must confess to her, neither of us understand this. I am, he is, in short, the complete opposite to the man who was the father of the child at the beginning of this in a state of suspended animation in her womb…
On the roof of the building, after seeing Feramontov she knew she had to stop. I think she had told her about to ex-boyfriend and her boss at K that they had to break up in the morning. It was Sunday afternoon and she came back home and met me (Jean) in the lift, i smell of coffee. I’ve just been to the roasters and bought back some loose tea and coffee beans, I told her. My warehouse apartment was next door to hers, I had the front front front half of this floor, with my entrance to the right of the corridor, facing the street, three or four rooms, there is a double set of fire doors between our apartments, on the back wall of my kitchen and living room, a narrow corridor between the fire doors. Her apartment was behind the fire doors, on the inside of the building facing the lightwell, it has two floors, the first floor containing a large open space, a kitchen and library/office at one end, a second floor containing the three bedrooms, an unused open space that spreads across the front of the building above my apartment, a bathroom and stairs at the top of which, a door opening out onto the walled roof garden. I’ll open the fire doors whilst you make the coffee, she said. She likes my coffee machine.
We drank water, espresso and flat white coffee, and ate some pastries that I had brought back, sitting outside, on the bench on the platform at the top of the fire escape that ran in a zigzag pattern down to ground level in the lightwell. The door was open and Henry the cat was coming up the fire escape stairs from the garden below in the lightwell. I’ve broken up with Franz, she told me. Is that a good thing? I asked her. Yes, I think so, though I feel miserable. I never liked the guy much, I said to her. I was probably the only man she knew who said such things to her. I know, I did though, he made me feel happy and i felt safe, she said. Why did it end then? I asked her. I was wrong. His mother, sister and niece came over and he prefers his mother and family to me. Not separated from his parents which is never a good thing. I said. Probably needs years of psychotherapy. She looked bleakly at me, it’s complicated she said hesitantly, Nice coffee this. She was looking at me. <…> It’s always is complicated still its an absolute given that the man you are going out with should prefer you to his mother… And vice versa? Looking at me with a peculiar expression. Would you say that I should prefer you to my father or brother? Yes, otherwise why would we be sitting here drinking coffee and eating cakes. I should have said more because it didn’t translate as well as it might have. Later after she went home. sorry, I went home. I was distracted and went to the local repertory cinema to watch a 1960s Italian movie, I can’t remember the title, it’s the one with the flying crucifix being helicoptered across Rome.
On Monday morning, the door bell rang and I opened the door and found her standing there. She looked unusually uncertain. I realized that she wanted something from me and wasn’t sure if she should ask. Over the years since then I have often thought how different things might have been if I’d said “no” at this point. Though actually things were already way past the point when I could have said no to her. Mostly I recognize that I made the right choices, except of course for that occasion years later when I was attacked and left to die in the ha-ha on the estate, and she helped me up, leaving bodies behind her. I suppose the other thing that happened was that my relationships with people at K and H subtly changed. I didn’t notice it happening but i moved from software to security. Hello, I said, can I help? I wanted to wince at my all too middle english language pronunciation, she, in her Japanese or Korean way didn’t notice, or didn’t care. I think that because everything we said to one another in those days was a translation between our respective languages, between our differences, is why we liked one another. I have a favour to ask and was hoping you could… She began to ask. I gestured at her, to come in. come in. Would you like some tea? I have just made some, interrupting her. I offered, reaching for an extra cup. I have a favour to ask. I am going away and was hoping you could look after Henry the cat for me. She sipped some tea and looked at me over the rim of her cup. How long will you be away? I have to go to Africa, for work. OK you’ll…? (Did she know the answer to her request already? Probably) I will need some instructions as I have only fed the cat occasionally. I’ll leave some instructions, the vet etc details. When do you leave? She ignored me and said, Since I will be away we should leave the fire doors open, you know the pin numbers, here are some keys in case. Ok, roof Ok? fire escape? Yes, please look after them. Use the space, no sub-rentals! Erro of course I’ll look after your cat, because it’s your cat, I said (thinking what am I saying to her) I wouldn’t dream of subletting, besides Henry would eat them, are you pretending he is a domesticated cat? and well I’m pretty anti-social. Well no, but… She stopped and I realized that we probably knew more about one another than she and I thought or perhaps that she knew me better than she had imagined What is it? I asked. Nothing I was just a little surprised. How long will you be away? Probably a month, perhaps a little longer, I suppose. What about the utilities? Water, council tax, electricity, network… Do I need to switch them to my accounts to pay them? Can you afford to do that? I think so. Use the money in the account first. She picked the keys off the table, unlocked and opened the fire door. I didn’t know you could do that. I changed the locks whilst you were away last year. This is the master key, she smiled, now with its master. Handing me the key. She propped the doors open. She turned on the led lights in the service corridor that ran between the apartments to the fire escape, some were broken. She waved me into her loft. All the details are in the files here. She said opening the filing cabinet drawer. You’ll have to open my mail and email. When do you leave? On Wednesday. The cat came and sat next to me on the sofa. It looked at me and I wondered again how much English it understood. Passwords? Passwords and accounts are on the roladex… I didn’t go to work, we spent the morning talking about my looking after Henry, the flat and some other things that shouldn’t be documented. In the end we spent the days before she left, chatting, collecting information, shopping and getting to know one another. At some point during the three days, perhaps whilst we were talking as I watched her pack, I thought I’ll miss her. But neither of us said anything that might suggest such things. It was only later that I realized how much I was pretending we were friends.
The night before she left I said to her: This is a dead drop address for you. You can use any of these peer to peer signalling systems and message me using this address. It’s secure, encrypted and untraceable. Use this identity and address as yours, my address is… If you need to speak to me, use that address. I smiled at her. How secure, how untraceable? She asks looking at the two cards. Better than anything that K or Hat has, it’s non-geographical and your end will always be untraceable. I will not know where you are unless you tell me. Any messages to this address can only be decrypted here. In the equipment in my office. As she looked at the cards for a fleeting moment she regretted leaving before she could work out if she liked him or not. She wondered if he liked her. <do we like him?> <probably. He doesn’t know what that means to us. > If she wasn’t going away, I thought, I would have a problem this strange schizophrenic woman… As I said to her later in an exchange of messages, whilst she was sitting on the dock looking out over the Indian Ocean; normal people would have had sex and slept together. Why didn’t we? Don’t answer that. She typed. But neither of the two bodies and the three personalities looking at the cards and regretting her leaving were normal. And that was it. The doors between the loft apartments were wedged open with plastic wedges that didn’t move for years. Secrets and trust entered their lives at that point. Or perhaps I should say they entered his life because as you may not have realized until this moment he was someone whose entire working life was based on the precept “people always lie”… (She didn’t know this about him until much later in their relationship, when he told her he loved her and he asked her whether, if she ever needed to run again, could he go with her.) But you are not really interested in this clash of ideologies and desire or even the assemblage they are, at that moment unconsciously constructing. In the morning I helped carry her luggage to the taxi waiting in front of the building, she is about to get in the taxi, before she turns and puts her arms around me. Thanks for being so nice. She must feel my hands and arms around her body and tell her I’m sorry she is going, she already knows this and turns and leaves. Photos were taken of us standing there, placed on the desk in front of her boss at K, with knowing looks.
I went back to work after she left in the morning, I think it was Wednesday, it may have been Thursday. They ask where I had been. I said that I had a nice few days with an Italian woman who flew back to New York. There was a progress meeting about the Hat integration, during which i drank a double espresso and ate some fruit jellies, i didn’t offer any to the IS director because he was being idiotic. I told him that we could not and would not do real-time billing for his virtual role playing game. It was pretty clear he didn’t understand what real-time means. I offered fruit jellies to Nomiko and Nancy her PA. They were giving me their usual peculiar looks. Afterwards on the way to Erro’s desk I followed Nomiko and Nancy to the security floor. They were both looking at me with inquisitorial stare. I have to collect something from Erro’s desk, I said waving her desk keys at them. There is an envelope of passwords and bank details. Come and see me afterwards, Nomiko said […]
I sat at her desk in the corner of the floor, and unlocked the desk drawer. Ley was standing beside the adjacent desk talking to someone. I was opening the draw and put the gun on desk, she stepped towards me. Do you want this ? I asked her. Gesturing at Erro’s gun on the desk. At the bottom of the draw beneath the file I was looking for, a pile of reports, she had photographs of me. She had photographs of me, I said, even I could hear the surprise in my voice, looking up at Ley who had taken the gun. What are you doing Jean? I am looking after her cat and need to take her passwords and other details, so I can pay any bills. I remember looking up at her, her slightly startled expression. I thought you knew we live next door to one another. I do, i met you there. I looked through the other files, don’t think there is anything else i’ll need. I think this is all work stuff[…]
They were waiting in Nomiko’s office. She was already looking at some photographs on her desk when I knocked on the door. What do you want? She asked me. Covering the photographs with an envelope. Hello, sorry can I have a word? Yes, sit down, Nancy you should stay. i thought you’d like to know Erro’s gone. Where to, did she say? No, any destinations she has mentioned, well, i think its unlikely she’s gone there. How do you know this? I’m looking after her cat and her loft apartment. She said I should tell you as soon as I was back in the office. Do you know what she does for K? No, I said, we’ve talked about it, she says she is a surveillance expert, but neither of us really understands what the other does. Tell them what you do with her. Ley said from behind me. I looked round at her , eh? She was still holding the gun, and looked round again, Us? mostly we drink tea and coffee, go to the cinema, occasionally shopping and stuff and talk and talk. We are both pretty anti-social so we are pretty surprised that we are. Nomiko has picked up the photographs and is looking at me. Interesting, thanks. We’ll put her things in storage. She handed the photograph of her holding me before she boarded the taxi. What did she say to you? Thanks for being so nice, I said you know that guy you were going out with, he’s an idiot. The same as last time. She said. Come back tomorrow after we’ve seen if there is anything more you should take. Thank you. She has handing the photographs to Nancy. I went back to my desk to write up my meeting notes. When I looked back at them after calling the lift, I could see they were still looking at me. My relationship with K and Hat changed at that moment, I stopped being one of the technical people necessary to keep the organization going, and instead became one of the reasons it existed. I moved departments without without even noticing, taking my people with me.
A few weeks later the pandemic arrived in full force and they had to restrict going into the office. Whilst I was working on the final requirements document for Hat, i received a message from her — “arrived” a picture of the sea, large waves running into the beach. “any problems?” I sent back a picture of Henry curled up asleep on my sofa… Everything’s fine. Wish I was there with Henry. “It’s nicer here than I ever imagined… feel like Lawrence Durrell.” Spacetime slipped away, it ages in a hurry. I experimented with different routes to the office, short and direct, south and north being more meandering. I think I always entered the building through the front door, but its impossible to remember for sure. In June the summer heatwave began, the streets were empty. I started watering the plants on the rooftop garden. A patch of green, visible from the helicopters that flew over everyday. I left the rooftop door open for Henry and the fire escape down into the light well. I painted the fire escape corridor white, changed the lighting, and added some radiators.
After a month I began to receive occasional visits from the people looking for her, checking that she was still away. The caller asks to speak to her. I tell him she is away. Our meeting is innocuous, he leaves an obscure message which only understandably by her. She refuses it. A secret network reaching out to find her across the diffuse mesh network of the criminal world. I repeat that she has left the country by now we are two or three metres in the apartment from the door. He looks around the room. A few more meaningless sentences and he leaves… Every month someone would arrive to check… I have to decide whether to save someone. Her text said. Does it put you at risk ? I responded. No, I don’t think so,. She responded. If it doesn’t make things more dangerous for you, then save them and see what happens. I paused and then said. Come back soon. We communicated with short, each other in highly coded short phrases what we were doing. Over the year we began to understand how the other thought and felt. I have no idea when she told me about Fern, was it before or after she was born? I am pretty sure it was after I couriered some iron tablets, calcium and multivitamin supplements and some technical kit. The year passed slowly…