Authors: Will Wiles
Tags: #Literary, #Humorous, #Family Life, #Fiction
Except my walk to the canal. The thought of the canal was like lifting a latch, and a door swung open.
. How many dead cats had it consumed in its time? And dogs, and rats, and no doubt people. A splash, a lingering roll on the surface, and then down into the forgetful black water, with only ripples for a wave goodbye. Yes, the canal now seemed a pleasing prospect. I looked forward to seeing it again.
I took another bin-bag and used it to pick up the cat’s body without touching the still fur and dead flesh. Its heavy coldness could be felt through the thin plastic. With what I thought to be an artful movement, I then turned the bag inside out around the chilly little corpse. Congratulating myself on this hygienic manoeuvre, I let my concentration slip, and without thinking squeezed the closed bag to push out any trapped air, receiving a blast of the dumpster smell directly in the face, a smell now augmented by the unmistakable taint of...or was I imagining? Still, I retched, my face pinched in spasm and a whirlpool turned in my gut. When I opened my eyes again they filled with tears, and I quickly shut them.
The bag now clung close to the curve of the cat’s spine – a curve kinked where the vertebrae had been shattered by the piano lid, a lid that should not have been left open. My fault, there. But Oskar had called – a little later, a little earlier, and the piano would have been left closed. I knotted the bin-bag three tight times. Then I took some spray cleaner from under the sink, squirted a generous amount
onto the counter, and wiped it meticulously clean. I fancied that I could still taste the smell from the bag, that awful hint of something wrapped in it, and I welcomed the citrus-chemical assault of the cleaning liquid against the soft membranes of the sinuses. Acidic, astringent, potent. When I got back from the canal, I was going to unleash chemical hell on that floor. It was going to get everything in Oskar’s arsenal. The thought of erasure was comforting. The cat slipping into the water; the stain effervescing and lifting from the wood, undone by some magical property of chemistry.
I looked down at the bag. Could a bystander tell what it contained? That curl of the spine and the body – did it clearly say ‘cat’? Or, precisely, ‘dead cat’? It looked, to me, like a cat, but I already knew what was in there. There was no obvious head...and I saw that I had put the bag down by the stain, partly on it, so that the blue-red residue of the wine appeared to have sprayed outwards from the cat’s head and neck. The scene resembled the halo of gore that accompanied a gangland killing in the films, complete with a victim in its black plastic institutional shroud, patiently waiting for its unhurried lift to the morgue while the experts appraised the splatter and talked of trajectories and trace evidence. Traces: they would rebuild the past, pull back the fleeing moments, reassemble the event by studying what it had left behind. The thought of wiping the slate was a fantasy, something was always left behind, some eloquent detail or blemish that would talk and talk until it revealed the truth. Or an ugly, blame-filled version of the truth. When people follow back these trajectories,
they expect culprits to be standing at the other end of them. Even if there was no culprit.
This was crazy, I thought, spinning these ideas over and over. Perhaps I was crazy, grip loosened by solitude and the small, furry spectre of death. But that in itself was not a wholly sane thought – whoever went mad after less than a week alone? And not even entirely alone. The dead cat was here, and sharing my space with it was bringing on these thoughts. Its presence went far beyond that little wrapped form, filling the air with a sort of karmic radioactivity, permeating the flat to its corners and secret places. No wonder its friend had fled so dramatically when it got wind of what the cleaner had brought in.
I took a deep breath, but bungled it somehow, and it came out in a whimper, so I took another. Then I picked up the bag by its knotted black neck, feeling again its particular weight; not heaviness, but a certain gravity. With another deep breath, I walked briskly towards, and through, the front door of the flat, slamming it behind me and trotting down the stairs. I was not going to repeat the mistake I made last time, waiting too long and missing my opportunity. If I moved fast enough, I was sure I could make it out of the building before the cleaner was able to intercept me, and see the bag, which I now, only now, realised I could have concealed in my holdall – but I was out already, on the faded pavement, and the main door went
behind me. I stopped, and the bag swung to knock sickeningly against my leg. There hadn’t been the slightest sign or sound of the cleaner. She had missed me, or I had missed her. It was a bright day, and the sun gleamed on the
dark varnished door and its bright brass fittings, even making the dull grey metal of the entryphone shine, its column of buttons like the front of a bell-boy’s waistcoat.
The street was quiet, with few passing cars and no nearby pedestrians, but I felt a quick jab of paranoia. What was I doing just standing here? Once again, I had drifted into reverie when I should have been taking action. The sooner this sordid business was over with, the better. I set off towards the canal, the bag now and then bouncing against the side of my knee.
The canal had blackened in my memory, intensifying in the mind’s eye into a flow of tar through a coal channel. Seeing it again, the water looked paler, but no fresher – a milky grey, unhealthily still, fringed with twists of hydrocarbon rainbow. Despite the pleasant weather, there was no one on the towpath – none of the joggers, cyclists or optimistic anglers who might enliven a British canal. I began to walk along the towpath, attempting to look like a man out for a relaxing stroll. Sweat prickled up my arms and down my back, and slimed my grasp on the black plastic. The only living things in sight were the thuggish weeds, some as developed as bushes, which pushed their way through the crumbling mortar of the retaining walls and the wounded slabs underfoot, and the incomprehensible algal scum that crusted the edge of the water. I scanned the ground ahead of me, wary of my footing, but also on the lookout for heavy objects that could weigh down the bag. When I imagined myself throwing the bag into the water, I saw its splash and its lazy turn as it settled
into its new conditions, finding its weight and then diminishing, swallowed by ripples...but sometimes I saw it turn and persist, pockets of air consolidating and inflating the plastic, giving it buoyancy...and a new black islet being born, bobbing in the grey water, an outcropping of guilt drifting out of my control, a marker...of course, the chances of anyone finding it, investigating it, would be minimal, infinitesimal, but I was not trusting my luck. It had to sink, it had to vanish. I wanted a weight.
I walked on. It was becoming clear that my memory had made all sorts of embellishments to the canal. The path, in my recollection, had been strewn with stones, bricks and rubble of all descriptions. In fact, it had a generous frosting of litter in the bushes and weeds at its edges, but little that was heavy enough to sink the bag. Splintered fragments of wooden pallets, small chunks of polystyrene packing rounded and browned with time, yoghurt pots, soft drink cans, used condoms. The arm of a shop mannequin, its hand lacking fingers. A coverless paperback book, laced with wormholes.
After a lengthy walk, I came across a short metal pipe, coated with rust, which seemed to suit my purposes. It was certainly heavy enough, and it was easy to tie the neck of the bag around it. With that done, I realised with a touch of surprise that the preparations were complete and that this spot was as good as any for the final act. I glanced left, right and up, checking for onlookers. The path was deserted in both directions and the few windows that watched over this site were empty, obviously industrial, large grids of glass with random panes smashed out
like moves in a game of dereliction. I threw the pole, underarm, aiming for the middle of the canal. It and the bag struck the water with a clumsy splash, larger than I expected, and the bag twisted under. The loathsome black plastic bubble rose, as I had seen it in my mind, but was quickly pulled beneath the surface by the sinking pole. I watched the concentric rings spread out on the water, and thought of some hateful black frog with a bulging, subsiding, bulging goitre under its glum mouth. That bubble was a little scrap of atmosphere trapped in the canal. How long would it take for the plastic to degrade, for the air to leak out, and for the little submersible to complete its descent?
It occurred to me that I could have punctured the bag, allowing the air to exit and ensuring that it sank. But that would have meant risking odour, and I could not stomach that. Still, I now thought, it would be a long time before the water came in contact with the cat’s body – would it decay properly? Would it, perhaps, mummify instead, like an Egyptian temple animal in a little household-hygiene sarcophagus? I was fairly certain that the water would get to it before that long...but there was always the possibility that the canal was so polluted that it had the properties of embalming fluid, another way that the cat could be cheated of its opportunity to relax into microbial sludge.
These thoughts of the cat’s onward journey were filling me with little worms of guilt. Best just to forget it now – it was gone, no longer a cat, no longer anything, an abstract, a memory. The palm of my right hand, slicked with sweat from holding the bag, was clammy despite the warmth of
the day. The ripples had dispersed, radiated out to nothing, a lost broadcast, and the canal had resumed its stagnant stillness. It was impossible to identify the exact location where the bag had hit the water. All was quiet. Even the background buzz of the city was subdued.
I made a secret promise to myself: I would not return to the canal. This was my final moment with it. I would turn my back on it. Up ahead, I could see a flight of steps in a recess in the retaining wall, leading back up to street level. Although I would follow the canal back – through necessity, I had no other means of navigation – I would not return along the towpath.
There was no street at street level. The steps led up to a large expanse of open ground. Weeds sprouted extravagantly here and there. For a terrible moment I thought that the city had disappeared – that it had been scoured from the Earth by some catastrophe while I had been beside the canal. How long had I been down there? How far had I walked – was it possible that I had actually left the city, walked beyond its limits? But as I reached the top of the stairs, I saw buildings. Ahead, away from the canal, was a long, slab-like, brick industrial building, dark and broken, its roof sagging. Beyond it, further down the canal, was a collection of freight railcars. Apart from the crumbling mill structure there were further low buildings, indistinct in the summer haze. In the other direction, back the way I had come, was another large, stained brick complex, its windows shattered, greenery frothing out of its gutters. Stillness and dust filled the air.
I began my walk back, following the course of the canal. Underfoot was a patchwork of materials: heaving herringbone brick, swatches of cobble, listing, gritty concrete, bare packed earth. The fabric of the city had transformed as I walked along the unchanging canal, and I had not noticed. My eyes had been lowered, looking for debris to serve as ballast, and I had missed the change in skyline.
Nothing moved except me and the traces of brown dust kicked up by my feet. The sun was at its peak. On the other side of the canal were three short cranes, their delicate arms raised as if to shield their eyes from the yellow light. The building ahead, six storeys of evacuated factory, had brick walls braced by a crude concrete frame, like ribs on a Halloween skeleton. I saw that it extended to the canal’s edge – there was no way around on the water side without returning to the steps and walking back along the towpath. The other route, the one I decided to take, was to turn away from the canal and walk deeper into this industrial zone. There was a passage or road parallel to the canal just a short distance away; my only concern was that I would lose sight of the canal for a long period, or be forced to move even further away from it and become disoriented as a prelude to getting properly lost. But the sun was bright and the silence of the zone seemed to be some protection – surely assailants would pick a place where there were people to assail. There was no one here.
The passage parallel to the canal was in fact wide enough to be a city street, but the word ‘street’ seemed wrong, implying a life or a sense of purpose that this
dejected thoroughfare lacked. This was just a long space between buildings. A railway ran down its middle, set into the cobbles like a tramline. The metal tracks were silted with dirt, and had clearly not seen a train in decades. The broad utilitarian walls of the buildings were enlivened by messages just under their roof line, square capital letters the height of a man in flaking white paint. In Britain, these would have been the names of the company or its owners – here, I thought, they might be socialist slogans, stripped of meaning by the evaporation of workers and production. Rubbish of all descriptions was piled against the walls on either side – unidentifiable orange-scaled chunks of machinery, smashed wooden palettes, heaps of box files and green-lined paper liquescing under many rains. An office swivel chair, its fabric and padding ripped off by someone or something, stood in my path like a Dalek rape victim. Less than an hour ago I had been struggling to think of suitable places to dispose of the cat. And now, having ditched the bag, I had discovered this wasteland had been here all along, a corpse-throw away from Oskar’s flat. Acres of land in which a dead cat would feel right at home.
‘More than enough room to sling a cat,’ I said to myself. And I laughed, loudly, an act that felt curiously deviant in its lack of inhibition, like leaving the door to the lavatory open when the house is empty.
Ahead, something large moved. I froze. A man in a plastic raincoat was rising out of one of the piles of rubbish – no, it was a large sheet of translucent plastic wrapping picked up by a breath of wind and folding over lazily. The
breeze that propelled it reached me, and the moisture on my brow chilled.