by Kate Todd
Two people are swept along in a crowd towards the station entrance. Anything beyond the step directly ahead of them is obscured by the shifting shoulders of their fellow commuters, the mass of people creating waves that are further distorted by the rain as the droplets fall faster and with greater might. They’ve already passed the man sitting in the corner just inside the curtain of rain before he can process the snatches of detail caught in his periphery.
‘Did you see that?’
‘The guy sitting on the steps – the rough sleeper.’
‘What about him? What time’s the train?’
‘6:50. There’s another one in twenty minutes if we miss this one. He was cradling something.’
‘The man on the steps. He was holding his arms across his body – I thought maybe he was hurt, but he had a cat.’
A kitten, actually – a grey tabby – cradled on its back, wrapped in a tatty bath towel, batting at the frayed edge of the swaddling cloth. He – she? – it, is impossibly small, but perfectly formed. The man is indistinct at a glance, his dark clothes and multiple layers the mark of so many rough sleepers huddled in the margins of the city, but the kitten is clear in his memory, right down to each translucent claw on the kneading paws.
The kitten reminds him of the one his little brother brought home one day, both of them soaking wet and sneezing. Their parents had been kind, but firm. No pets, but they could feed the kitten until a suitable home was found. He and his brother stayed up all night, eventually falling asleep in a pile of pillows and blankets next to the kitten’s makeshift bed. Sometime in the early hours, the tenacious little claws appeared over the edge of the cardboard box, followed by the warm, sleepy ball of fluff. Morning found the kitten perched atop his little brother’s head, asleep in a golden shaft of light.
He thinks about the coming night. It’s already getting cold. He hugs his upturned collar closer to his rapidly cooling skin, but not before two icy droplets race down his neck. He moves in and out of the crowd without seeing any of them, the weaving action automatic after so many of the same journeys across the concourse. Ticket barriers to entrance, entrance to ticket barriers, platform, train, home. They take seats next to each other on the train, facing the concourse and beyond it, the steps.
‘You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.’
He hasn’t, too occupied by childhood memories and an uncomfortable feeling that sits in the fallow between sorrow and grace. ‘Sorry, what was that?’
“Glimpses of love are like beams of light, refracted and reflected in a way only the seer can interpret.”
‘I was asking if you’d thought anymore about booking our holiday.’
‘Should we get a pet instead?’ he asks. She looks up from reading the horoscope in her magazine.
‘A pet? We don’t have the time,’ she says. ‘And they’re expensive.’
‘So are holidays,’ he says, surprised by the petulance he hears. She’s the pragmatic one, he knows that, but the sharply defined edges of her thoughts still manage to surprise him sometimes.
She’s observant too. The soggy magazine is in her lap now, her delicate hands folded neatly, the way they are when preparing for a Serious Discussion. ‘Is this about the cat?’
‘The kitten.’ He corrects her and receives pursed lips in response. ‘You see homeless people with dogs all the time, but a cat? That’s unusual.’
This is not the idle talk about beach holiday versus urban mini-break that she expects. Her words are clipped. ‘I know this might sound mean, but I don’t know why homeless people have pets. Isn’t it hard enough to manage on the streets alone?’
‘Maybe that’s the point,’ he says. ‘Not to be alone.’
‘It’s not fair to the animals though, is it?’ she asks. ‘Better to give them up to someone who can feed them and take them to the vet.’
He tries to gather the words to illustrate what he saw, the gentle reach of a hand across the tiny furry belly where the towel had been kicked away. There’s a scratchy sensation in the back of his throat when he imagines that same space empty, even though he has to believe that she’s right in a way. The kitten is so vulnerable – to hunger, illness, the elements, violence. But there’s overwhelming tenderness in the man’s determination to provide his small charge with comfort. He tries to describe this painful beauty, but the words fall short. They’re awkward, the tone defensive.
‘You didn’t see them.’
‘I don’t see what difference that makes.’
He looks out the window, watching the platform recede and lets the subject drop. He can’t make her understand what he saw briefly illuminated in the gloom, not because he doesn’t want to – he does, desperately – but because glimpses of love are like beams of light, refracted and reflected in a way only the seer can interpret.
When he trudges up the same steps the next day, the man and his kitten are gone.
Kate Todd | @KTodd_Writes
By day, Kate Todd is a business analyst for an international fine art firm. In every other spare minute, she is a reader and writer. She is represented by Carly Watters of P.S. Literary. Always up for a challenge, she is currently editing her first novel and working on a new manuscript.