Saturday, 24 August 2019

Tapetum



'Where is the red dot - I need to find it!'
 

It was another day of interruptions. I was trying my best to concentrate but the moment I’d get stuck into my editor Bobinski’s efforts with his red pen, something else would happen. As usual one thing led to another – one story crashing headlong into the next. Not for the first time, I wondered if stories have a life of their own.

Distraction number one: Mimi ’s hyperactivity switch seemed to have been flicked, so she was charging around the house relentlessly. I blamed my tall Human Slave who had been teasing her with the laser pointer that morning, making her crazy with excitement. I suspected she was still looking for that dot of red light. She’d learn, just as I had.
Distraction number two took the form of a surprise visit from my agent, Smilodon. The first I knew of this was when Mimi careened into my office, before breathlessly announcing: ‘He’s here! He’s here.’ Needless to say, this wasn’t particularly useful. Once she’d managed to get her breath back, she managed a few more words. ‘You know. Old Sabre Tooth. Burmese agent fellow.’
‘You mean, Smilodon? He who was involved in arranging your sinecure?’
‘Harsh. I do some work. But right now I have to find something.’
And with that, she was gone. I stood up and stretched my old bones, my back legs increasingly wobbly as the days pass. The medication my human slaves give me does help, but I find basking in the sun, preferably in the flower bed, is the best remedy. Moving down the stairs these days involves what you might call more of a bunny hop: not particularly graceful.
Smilodon was standing in the hallway, some kind of umbrella under his arm, watching my ungainly descent with a mixture of amusement and concern.
‘How delightful to see you,’ I said through the remaining teeth I could grit.
Wunderschön… Wonderful to see you. Now I hope you don’t mind me barging in like this…’

Given the time it was taking me to finish my latest work, he’d made the decision to leave his cosy Cambridge garret and make the trip down south to Bournemouth. As we spoke he arranged himself on the sofa in what can only be described as a sprawling fashion. The conversation guttered - I was still lost in a literal world of my own making, my thoughts in the brain of a character I’d created. There was a rather twisty plot point which I was considering rewriting. Smilodon eyed me curiously, furnished with the bowl of snacks my Slaves had prepared for me earlier in the day, into which he dipped his paw intermittently.
‘So… Fristenbestimmung für die Veröffentlichung… about this publication deadline,’ he said, when we’d run out of small talk and the silence was beginning to get uncomfortable. As usual when we meet, I wondered at the way he lapses into German at the beginning of sentences. My theory is that his brain works so fast that it takes his mouth a while to catch up. But perhaps it is pure affectation, a way of showing off his cultural heritage.
‘Well…,’ I began, moments before Mimi bowled across the room, sending a flowerpot into a precarious spin. The bamboo within rustled as it turned, bowing to and fro, before the terracotta settled once more on its pedestal. I watched, hackles raised.
Mein Gott… My god, she’ll have that over before long,’ remarked Smilodon.
‘It’s already happened twice. But my Slaves keep repotting it and leaving it in the same place,’ I explained.
‘So I see you’ve had certain distractions,’ Smilodon said dryly as Mimi disappeared again in a flurry of paws and fur.
‘You mean chasing ghosts and escaping the clutches of evil right-wing fascists? You could consider it grist to the mill. Even at my age,’ I replied, blithely.
‘But nevertheless, Mimi appears to have been more of a hindrance than a help.’
I lowered my voice as I replied: ‘Having her here was your idea, Smilodon! She has been helping me get things together. But… You know how it is…’
Vielleicht… maybe she will yet prove her worth?
‘I’ve got a few stories out of her already. Although sadly they still need to be written,’ I said forlornly.
Also… About your writing. We have set a date for Black Smoke to be published. You’ve seen the cover artwork. There are posters uber alles… all over the place. We can’t pull out now - the ball is rolling on this one. I’m just here to give you a friendly nudge.’ Smilodon gestured a nudge with his paw, before plunging it back into the bowel of treats.
‘It’ll be done. It’s just the next one which will be delayed. You can’t force these things,’ I replied, haughtily .
‘Ah, there it is: the capricious artist’s temperament,’ Smilodon said. ‘I was beginning to think you had lost it.’
‘I’d hardly call it caprice. I just don’t want to put something out there I’m not entirely happy with. And ultimately, neither do you.’
Ja, ich verstehe… I understand,’ said Smilodon.
‘Did you hear about that American Human author?’ I asked.
‘The one who got all her facts wrong and then had to get books pulped?’
‘Indeed. Death recorded. Well, there you go… Need I say more?’

Eventually Smilodon, having felt he’d exhausted enough time on this particular client, made his excuses and left. Apparently he was on his way through the Feliverse to Bath for a glitzy literary dinner in the Roman Pump Rooms. The old spa was stocked with a population of carp, which seemed inured to the higher water temperatures. Apparently they’d tried to introduce trout first, but they’d ended up with a thick cloying chowder an hour or so later. I’d been to a literary dinner there long ago, once they’d sorted out the fish population, and the repast itself was usually preceeded by a half hour of sport, the clear waters of the spring stained with blood. The flagstones surrounding the pools proved useful to kill your catch, which would then be proferred to a nearby chef for cooking. I hasten to add, I merely observed this carnal activity, not being one for surrendering to our natural feline instincts. Smildon left in a show of embraces and kisses, waving his umbrella at us both as he danced through the portal and away into the feliverse. I politely ignored the fact he’d made a fuss about going out of his way to see me, when in fact the portal system to Bath led straight past us.

Which brings me to the biggest distraction of the day, distraction number three. A veritable Trinity of distractions, or as a human once put it in a dead language: omne trium perfectum. I’d barely sat down for half an hour when Mimi crashed through the door once again - a furry ball bouncing from armchair to record deck to speaker to table, her head then appearing from behind the computer screen I was attempting to use.
‘Twig!’ she said.
‘A thin woody shoot growing from a tree branch or trunk - what about it?’ I asked, adding a few more words to a hanging sentence.
‘Twig is here!’ she exclaimed.
‘Have you been bringing things into the house again?’ I asked, my attention finally being pulled away from the scene I’d been writing. ‘What with all the leaves you’ve managed to capture and leave in the kitchen, it is a wonder there is any of the tree left.’
‘You know who Twig is. Stop being so silly,’ said Mimi, looking somewhat crestfallen.
‘Ah, we have another visitor!’ I exclaimed, in sudden realisation. ‘Remind me who this Twig is again?’’
‘She’s owned by a work colleague of our tall Human Slave. Anyway, she’s here about a poltergeist.’
‘No such thing,’ I scoffed.
‘Just come and listen to what she has to say,’ said Mimi, gently pawing at the computer screen. I sighed and began the now familiar slow bunny hop descent, resigned to the fact today was just one of those days.

Twig was a black cat, but one without the black smoke coat of Mimi: she was a pure black. Her ears were slightly moth-eaten, as if she had been accustomed with pugilistic tendencies at one time. But her manner was timid and gentle, belying any previous aggression. I recognised the type - one who had suffered during their early ears, before being rescued by a decent loving family who homes them. It was an all too common occurrence in the feline world.
‘Twig!’ I exclaimed, feigning previous acquaintance.
She responded with apologies and thanks and other platitudes, which I pawed away.
‘A drink?’ I asked, to which Twig nodded an acceptance. ‘I’m afraid we’ve only got semi-skimmed left. But it is organic.’
‘That’d be fine,’ Twig replied.
‘Mimi?’ I asked, but from the clattering sounds in the kitchen, she was already on the case. This was followed by some small talk about our receptive Slaves, which continued until Mimi tottered in on her back legs, clutching two tumblers of the aforementioned. She managed to place the glasses on the coffee table without spilling a drop. I reminded myself to tell her that if this editorial large didn’t work out for her, that she’d be safe in the circus, or at least one of the decent restaurants in Belgravia which Smilodon frequented. She made herself scarce immediately afterwards, dashing off in a hurry - still looking for the laser, I surmised.
‘Now, what’s this about a poltergeist?’ I asked.
‘Well… it all started on Tuesday, last week,’ Twig began, her accent bearing a slight Dorset inflection.
‘And what exactly happened?’
‘I was sat on the sofa and then, our of nowhere - bang - the picture above the fireplace flew across the room and smashed on the floor.’
‘I see,’ I replied. ‘And when your Slaves came home?’
‘Well, they were already there. They saw it too. They cleaned up the glass and put the picture back on the wall, the frame slightly dented.’
‘Right.’
‘And then, moments later, it happened again. This time, the frame splintered, so they left it standing on the wall. But even then it wasn’t safe, the thing kept toppling over, as if pushed. I felt something near me, pushing. There were two spots of light, which vanished. But, I’m used to seeing ghosts - this wasn’t like one of them - so I made the assumption that it was a poltergeist. And you being such an expert in these things, or so I’ve heard…’
‘Well, you do flatter me. But really…,’ I said, running out of steam. It is my opinion that poltergeists are rubbish, but I decided it was best to be kind. ‘Tell me about the picture.’
‘It is picture of a human. An old one,’ Twig replied.
‘Interesting. An old member of your Slave’s family?’
‘I think so. A grandparent I think.’
‘Interesting. And you said you saw two points of light?’
‘Only briefly.’
‘Well, perhaps we need to take a visit,’ I said, as Twig timidly finished her milk. I noted down the address, and the shortcut she explained was easiest through the feliverse and showed her out. I returned to the sitting room, where Mimi was already sweeping away the tumblers.
‘I thought you’d gone out?’ I asked.
‘I was under the table, listening.’
‘I told you, poltergeists don’t exist. I’ll humour her with a visit. But only because of our Human connection.’
‘I never said I thought it was a poltergeist,’ Mimi said, defiantly.
‘Well, what do you think then?’ I asked.
‘I think it is an invisible cat.’
I paused for a minute, letting this sink in. ‘Because of the two points of light?’
‘Yes. Definitely an invisible cat.’
‘That is just a story, a fiction. Like something I’ve written.’
‘A lot of what you’ve written is based on real events.’
‘Well, blame that on my lack on imagination. Trust me, there are no invisible cats.’
‘But the story…’
Despite the effort, I leapt onto the bookshelves and selected a volume, pulling it out with a few claws. It crashed to the floor, pages spilling out of its spine – the book was an old paperback, which smelt musty, its pages etiolated and foxed. I leapt down next to it, flipping back the cover so Mimi could see it. ‘This is where the fiction came from. It is a story called The Invisible Man, written by a Human called H. G. Wells. In it, a scientist creates a formula to make people invisible. But he tries it out first on a neighbour’s cat,’ I explained.
‘How very unpleasant.’
‘He is quite a cross character, in general. I won’t explain exactly how he treats this poor cat. But anyway, the formula made the cat disappear.’
‘The book is called The Invisible Man. Not the Invisible Cat,’ Mimi said indignantly, interrupting my flow.
‘Yes. The cat was the scientist’s first subject, before he turned it on himself. Anyway, the cat didn’t quite disappear completely. The pigment in its eyes, the tapetum, was left unchanged. So all you could see were two sparkling green points of light - the rest of its body had completely vanished.’
‘Tapetum,’ said Mimi, trying the word out on her tongue. ‘What an usual word.’
‘It is the substance which makes our eyes shine in the dark. And apparently immune to all kinds of invisibility potion,’ I added.
‘I don’t get how this old science fiction story written by humans relates to the presence of invisible cats,’ Mimi said, her tail whipping back and forth, which signalled her frustration. Perhaps my explanation was too longwinded. She pawed at the paper book, flipping its pages back, rubbing her nose on the cover, as if to divine meaning.
‘Well, firstly, my dear Mimi, because they, the invisible cats of which you speak, are also a fiction. It’s believed that the story of the invisible cats derived from that human story. You see, in this story written by the human writer H. G. Wells, the cat disappears, is presumed dead. There is another later story written by one of the late caterati. The writer, a cat called Scarfic, was owned by a woman called Maura Budberg, one of Wells’ lovers and a former spy. One assumes Scarfic overhead something of the story and then went on to write his own fiction, wherein the cat lived and went on to propagate a population of invisible cats.’ I paused, stretching my forelimbs in a self-satisfied manner, before continuing. ‘But that second story is presuming the veracity of a previous fiction. So, invisible cats aren’t real. It is a fiction told to explain things that can’t be explained by transgressions across dimensions, and a device often used in feline speculative literature,’ I said, somewhat dismissively.
‘Humph,’ said Mimi, clearly put out. ‘But if the tapetum is truly resistant to invisibility potions, then maybe, just maybe it can be seen in other dimensions.’
‘That isn’t something I’ve had experience of,’ I replied.
‘Well, maybe you weren’t looking hard enough,’ Mimi replied. At that moment, there was a noise above. We both darted under the table as a few more books slid off the shelves, presumably released by my fiddling. They hit the ground with a series of thuds. This was then followed by a couple of hefty hardbacks, which hit the ground harder.
‘Let me guess what you are thinking,’ I said, once the minor book avalanche had ceased.
‘Invisible cats. Polterkatzen, if you and your posh friend prefer,’ Mimi said, flouncing out before I had a chance to say any more.

The day rolled on. I managed to attack the edits from Bobinski and finally made some headway. Mimi spent all day out in the garden, despite the intermittent drizzle; I think she was making a point, rather than being truly curious about the neighbourhood. Thankfully she returned when our Human Slaves came back from wherever they go during the day, the acoustic signature of their cars pulling up a sign for us to gather in the hallway and wait for their arrival. Or more to the point, wait for them to feed us.
‘Nice day,’ I asked, as we heard the sound of a car door, the jangle of some keys.
‘Fine thanks,’ Mimi replied.
‘We’re off out later,’ I offered. ‘To try and find the Invisible Cats.’
‘I thought you said they didn’t exist?’ Mimi replied sarcastically.
‘Well, perhaps you need to find that out for yourself.’
Presently, the small human slave came through the door, clutching bags of shopping, some of which I could sense contained a few of my favourite dinners. But before we could feast, we were questioned about the mess in the sitting room. Not that we were expected to reply of course, or even acknowledge that we had caused the books to fall. And as it happened, because of the bamboo which Mimi kept knocking over, the blame was directed at her.
I do wonder why humans expect us to be able to understand them. We obviously can, but they don’t know that, yet they persist in this odd anthropomorphic behaviour. Still, I suspect I wouldn’t even notice my felithropic behaviour unless someone pointed it out to me.

The rain from earlier had passed, so after dinner, we passed time outside on the patio chairs. Or at least I did. Mimi soon became bored and decided to entertain herself by chasing a seagull around, which was a slight cause of alarm. I wasn’t sure which one would come off better. I had visions of the seagull picking her up in its claws and dragging her away across the rooftops. In the end, the seagull got a bit too close and was viciously cuffed around the head, which prompted its quick departure. ‘I almost had him,’ said Mimi from the fence rail above. We remained outside in what had become a balmy summer evening, watching the light fade from the sky, stars slowly winking into existence in the heavens above. And then, as the house lights slowly turned off, one by one, we crept out into the night.
Twig’s house was pretty easy to get to, at least when compared with our travels to the antique shops in Boscombe. So I won’t bore you with all the details: it was a simple trip through a few corridors in the feliverse, and then two quiet streets in the humanverse. Being cats, we went around the back first, slipping into the garden through a hole in the fence, scaring off a fox which had come to drink from the garden’s large central pond. The lawn smelt of camomile and I could see and smell a variety of blooms in the neatly arranged flowerbeds, although the night had sucked their colours away, rendering them all in grayscale. Twig emerged from a cluster of sword lillies, where she’d been waiting for us. Or perhaps hiding from the fox.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she whispered and we followed her in through the cat flap, passing by a kitchen which smelt of cinnamon and baking, and then into the sitting room. The picture was there leaning up against the wall, its frame cracked exactly as Twig had explained. We turned it around together to inspect more carefully. The picture was indeed of an old woman, the family matriarch perhaps, but there was nothing unusual about it. I couldn’t detect any ghost aligned with this particular object. I wandered around the room, sniffing the fireplace, examining the nooks and crannies - the magazine rack, behind the glass cabinet, the bookshelves. But there was nothing, not a flicker of spectral activity. This wasn’t to say it didn’t exist - sometimes ghosts only intermittently make themselves present. I explained this to Twig and told her I’d create a binding formula, which firms up the dimensionality of a particular area, in case there is any spillage. It was one of the first things I learned when I was finding out about this stuff. A simple enough thing to do: just a few choice movements combined with a single sentence. It often did the trick when there was fitful spectral activity. Mimi watched me, rolling her eyes, completely unconvinced.

‘I hope that will solve your problems,’ I told Twig in the kitchen afterwards. ‘It could be the presence of the Matriarch making herself felt. Perhaps she wants more influence over family affairs?’ I suggested. Here I was bordering on the supernatural. I believe the quantum stuff, for sure, but the emotional aspect of such entities doesn’t usually figure. I didn’t have any other explanation, however.
‘She has been mentioned a few times recently, by my Slaves,’ said Twig.
‘Well, who knows. In any case, she won’t be getting through any more,’ I said confidently. ‘But if you ever need us again, you know where we are.’ I looked around for Mimi, but she had already slunk away into the gloom of the garden. I could see her outside the bifold glass doors - two green shimmering eyespots which occasionally appeared, hovering above the camomile lawn. I said my goodbyes and wished Twig all the best, heading out to join Mimi and head home.
Outside though, I couldn’t see Mimi anywhere. I circled the pond a few times, then felt an odd sensation of something brushing past me. I turned quickly, claws out, swiping blindly, briefly making contact with whatever it was. There was another movement and the thing caught me on the side of my head, sending me spinning. Angry now, I turned again and leapt into the darkness, my paws both striking an object in the gloom. For a while I hung on, but then the sensation in my paws vanished. Then came the sound of a cat in pain. I ran over to where the sound had come from, but there was nothing there. Moments later, I saw Mimi padding over the lawn towards me.
‘Why did you leave without me?’ she asked.
‘I… I thought you were out here!’ I said, surprised.
I felt something on my paw and licked it, tasting the salty taste of blood. I felt confused - none of this made sense. Perhaps it was the fox that had come back?
‘Nope,’ replied Mimi, bring me back to reality. ‘While you were muttering that mumbo jumbo, I went for a walk around the house. There’s a broken window in the downstairs toilet window. Creates quite a breeze when the door is open. Enough to knock a picture of the wall, I reckon,’ she said.
‘Really? So, no invisible cats, then,’ I said, unsure of myself.
‘No. None whatsoever. Let’s go home,’ Mimi replied.
We were almost at the gap in the fence when I turned, looking across the garden. There were two eyes gleaming in the dark staring back at me.
‘Mimi, can you see that?’ I asked.
‘See what?’ she asked. But the two points of light had now vanished.
‘Just thought I saw something,’ I replied. ‘It’s nothing, though.’

Except the more I think of it, the more I wonder whether it was just nothing. Was I just imagining things? My mind is prone to flights of fancy. But perhaps there was something in all those stories; perhaps Scarfic wasn’t just making it up. I haven’t seen any such thing since. And thankfully, Twig’s slaves have remained untroubled.
Was this because I managed to scare away whatever was causing the problems, or that my messing with the quantum field worked? Or perhaps, the more prosaic mending of the shattered downstairs toilet window solved the issue? Sometimes being so close to a story creates a subjective bias. In any case, I can’t decide. So this time, dear reader, I think I’ll leave the decision up to you. But should you see the incorporeal tapetum, the invisible cats frolicking in your back garden, do let me know.

END



The Cat will no doubt return. In the meantime, you can check out all the other stories of the feliverse here:

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