Saturday 15 September 2018

Alma Meta

The Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

            ‘I’m not sure about…,’ started Jim.

            ‘About what?’ I asked.

            ‘Your change of direction.’

            ‘Ah. You mean the cat stories?’

            ‘Exactly. I preferred the … well, the more sci-fi stuff.’

            ‘You know I prefer to regard my stuff as SF. I don’t like the term Sci-Fi.’

            ‘Whatever. I preferred the stories about Space Lice. Psychic alien plants. And big fuck off space craft.’

            I sighed. It had been a while since I’d seen Jim. We were in a pub called The Mitre, one of our old university haunts. It hadn’t taken us long to make our way there – I’d timed the time it took from when the train arrived until we found the familiar seat in the pub’s window: less than 30 minutes. True to form, rather than browsing the library’s latest catalogue or singing in the choir, like some of the returning graduates did, we’d gone straight to the pub. Ostensibly we were there for a college dinner, but from years of experience they were dry stuffy affairs. During the halcyon years of university we’d become accustomed to pre-loading before these events, and old habits died hard.

            I looked up at his jowly and recently bearded features. His beard was full – much better than the wispy effort he used to occasionally sport in our salad days. ‘Well, I have lost a few Twitter followers…’

            ‘Twitter?’ he asked scathingly. ‘People still use that?’

            ‘It all started out as a bit of a joke.’

            ‘Twitter? I thought Jack Dorsey was serious about the whole thing.’

            ‘Who is he?’ I asked.

            ‘He invented Twitter,’ Jim explained, a touch of sarcasm in his tone. I think he was getting his own back for the SF versus Sci-Fi comment.


            ‘I’m sorry. You were saying… The cat stories started as a joke.’

            ‘Yes. I’d been on this writers’ conference. The subject of writers’ familiars came up. The cat was of course mentioned. In fact, I’d included a piece for critiquing which contained a cat.’

            ‘Thrilling stuff, this,’ said Jim, managing to somehow simultaneously roll his eyes and drain his glass.

            ‘Anyway, one of my writer pals suggested that my cat was sitting at home, bashing out novel after novel and was far more successful than I was.’

            ‘You did call him Isaac. What kind of a name is that for a cat?’

            ‘He isn’t called Isaac.’

            ‘Really? Hang on, was it Arthur? Bradbury?’

            I ignored this and continued. ‘So I started writing these stories from the perspective of a cat who was famous in his own right. But at the same time, lived a double life as a house cat, tended to by his human owners, which he refers to as Slaves.’

            ‘I think I need another pint,’ remarked Jim. ‘Same again?’

            As Jim stood at the bar, I gazed out of the window, looking across to the flank of St John’s college. The street outside was busy with tourists, students, bikes and the occasional bus or taxi. I’d whiled away many hours in that same spot, often with a science fiction novel to hand, a pint in the other. Much had changed since then, but in some ways it hadn’t. The smoking ban meant that the air inside the establishment was actually breathable, unlike the toxic fog we used to have to contend with – but at the same time, I couldn’t shake the desire to step outside and spark up a ciggy. For old time’s sake. To feed the nostalgic beast inside.

            I wondered about the cat stories. Whether I was sabotaging my creative output by writing them rather than the more generic space opera I’d started with. Was my voice being stifled by The Cat’s feline miaows? Perhaps I should bring him to Cambridge, to where it all started. I imagined him walking down the street, looking at all the students pouring out of this very pub. Probably with disdain.

            ‘Toxoplasmosis,’ Jim muttered, settling a pint of Abbot in front of me on the wooden table. As I lifted it to meet Jim’s glass, I noticed it left a ring of wetness on the surface. I was sure they used to have coasters in this place, which I’d routinely tear to pieces over the course of the evening, my fingers needing something to worry at when they weren’t tapping out stories.

            ‘I recall learning something about that.’

            ‘You get it from cats. Causes cysts in the brain. You can catch it from cat faeces. Probably why you are coming out with all the cat shit. Because it has literally voided its bowels into your mindbox.’

            ‘Do you mind?’

            ‘I think we were referring to yours.’

            ‘Anyway, since when were you the expert on feline fiction? I thought you were only interested in rugby and kidneys?’

            ‘Much of what you say is true,’ Jim said, wiping some of the foamy beer from his moustache.

            ‘Perhaps you should combine the two. Make up a game with a kidney shaped ball.’

            After a few word games with this metaphorical ball, we set up Bridge Street towards the river. We battled against a tide of tourists, groups of which were lead by officious leaders brandishing selfie sticks. I’d always found the tourist side to the town frustrating as an undergraduate. They just got in the way of the purpose of the town: my purpose, I’d felt, grandiosely. But here I was, essentially a tourist, my ties to the college now withered with time.

            Jim stopped just before the bridge, looking inside the windows of an estate agent. There was a look of sadness in his eyes.

            ‘This was where–?’ I started.

            ‘Yes,’ Jim interrupted.

            ‘No more free poppadums,’ we said in unison.

            ‘I can’t believe, given the amount we used to spend in there, he couldn’t keep going,’ I remarked.

            ‘Maybe he died. Probably died,’ Jim replied.

            ‘Perhaps. Or set up somewhere else.’

            At the bridge, we hesitated, and stood watching the punts go buy. The river was busy with tourists: tidy groups of more elderly travellers competing with unruly packs of younger kids. Punts were strewn at odd angles across the river – someone had tried to turn, but failed, and was now causing a huge backlog. There was the dull clunk of wood on wood, as the punts collided.  Some of the European students shrieked. A young man tottered, trying to keep his balance, but couldn’t manage it and splashed into the water.

            ‘Woah,’ said Jim.

            ‘Yeah, he was lucky he wasn’t crushed between those punts…’

            ‘No, it wasn’t that.’

            ‘What was it then?’ I asked, looking at Jim’s face with concern. Abbot was a strong pint – perhaps it was having some adverse effects on my old friend.

            ‘I just blinked. And when I opened my eyes, the entire place was filled with cats. Cats on the riverbank, filling the punts… Everywhere. Like something out of your stories.’

            ‘Weird,’ I remarked.

            ‘You’ve never brought your Cat to Cambridge?’

            ‘No he’s at home in Bournemouth. Probably asleep on the bed.’

            ‘I meant your fictional Cat.’

            ‘No. Not yet. But there’s an idea…’

            Later, as we walked across Great Court, heading toward the drinks reception in the court beyond, it felt for a moment like we had never left. The setting sun cast long shadows over the court’s central fountain, lighting the great hall from the opposite side, giving the impression it was filled with fire. A light breeze caught the sound of evensong, which then capriciously danced away again. To our left a solitary don plodded across the grass, wearing his robes as if they were as heavy as lead, tired by the Atlas-like task of supporting the weight of his knowledge. Or, given the sway of his vestments, possibly the bottles of port cached within.
            ‘You know what I’ve always hated about cats?’ asked Jim.

            ‘Go on.’

            ‘I’m allergic.’

            ‘But you’re not allergic to spacecraft, right?’


            ‘But who knows, you could be allergic to aliens?’

            ‘Perhaps all cats are aliens. I wouldn’t put it past them.’

            ‘I’m just a facilitator, in that case.’

            ‘Just part of their greater plan,’ replied Jim.

            ‘Like we were part of this place’s greater plan?’ I suggested.

            We left Great court, passed the hustle and bustle of the buttery and great hall - the latter offering a glimpse of Holbein’s Henry the 8th through an open doorway. And then we were part of the crowd of familiar faces: some forgotten, some remembered, some even ignored. We went our separate ways, dancing through the crowd in the Brownian motion that is required of such events.

            And occasionally, I wondered about a group of cats doing the same, drinking pints of milk or even the bubbling fermented stuff, dancing through the shadowy cloisters. As I stepped away from the crowd of humans, they bore me away to the windows which offered a view of the backs. Offering a series of mournful miaows, they pointed at the sky. Something large was descending, something metallic and beautiful and strange. Something not of this world. It settled on the opposite side of the river, shrouded in a pall of steam or smoke.

            There was the peal of a gong, as the hatch beneath the craft opened. A gong struck again, bringing me back into reality: my fellow humans were pouring upwards into the great hall, following the call to dinner. I waved goodbye to the feline horde, then turned away to join my fellow alumni, leaving the cats and their giant spacecraft behind.


Author's note: This is a companion piece to the last two Caturday stories. But despite any misgivings suggested above, The Cat will return. Being a capricious creature by nature, exactly when is an entirely different matter...


  1. Silvio: ‘I’m afraid Dr Moriarty has scoffed the lot. Creme Brûlée instead, sir?’