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William Baeck: Writing & Photography


The Flat Eats the Cat

Seven am on our first morning in England. I woke to the sound of Aline shouting in panic. Wait. I should stop right there. I’d been married 20 years. Aline shouldn’t have been able to panic. She has no panic gene in her DNA. It ought to have been as biologically impossible for her to panic as for a flatworm to play the flute. She’s just not wired for that. Which is why she did such an amateur job.

“The flat has Grommet!” she yelled from another room.

“What?” I asked.

“Grommet. Hurry! He’s in the wall!”

My first thought was that she was talking in her sleep again. She’d done that all through the first year of our marriage. Whenever work became too stressful, she’d go to bed, sleep quietly for a few hours, then sit suddenly upright around two in the morning to announce in a monotone, “There’s a burglar in the house,” punch me in the arm, and lay back down with a soft snoring whrrrrrr.

This time however she was clearly awake. Non-sequiter alerts erupted in my head along with the cover of Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. “What do you mean?” I called, rushing into the living room.

She was on her hands and knees when I came in, pointing Terrier style to a 6-inch hole in the baseboard by the kitchen. “There! I was sitting on the couch and saw him walk over to that hole and just climb in. I tried to stop him. I even got ahold of his back legs. But you know how Grommet is, he just turned around in his skin and slipped right in.”

I reached inside the hole as far as I could. By laying on the floor, inserting and bending my wrist, I could just get my arm in as far as the elbow as I felt along inside the wall parallel to the floor. No cat. No meow. No “chuff, chuff” of his nose steaming along the floorboards like the cowcatcher on a locomotive. I reached down. This was chilling. Behind the hole there was a gap with no flooring. Our flat was four stories up. Hadn’t the contractors sealed the walls between floors? Hadn’t they planned for that? What if he fell from Flat 8 straight down to the ground floor Flat 1?

Panic is something I’m very good at. So I did what I knew. I panicked. I went revival-meeting wild, gabbling, “Jesus, Jesus!” and scuttling in circles. I grabbed a flashlight and peered into the hole, but couldn’t make out any bottom beyond it, only flooring to the side. I couldn’t see the cat. I called plaintively, “Grommet, Grommet—here kitty, kitty,” as if that had ever done a person a damn thing, remembering an Italian exchange student I once knew who’d asked me the sensible question, “Why do you name your cats? They never come when you call them.”

I tried to picture how the walls were defined. Was it just this single span of wall without any studs? Did it connect to the rest of the flats? And if so, how many contiguous open walls might there be? The entire block was a series of flats, each sharing a wall with its neighbor. Could Grommet roam from flat to flat, a Wandering Dutchcat, unable to find his way home? Had we moved into a city of studless walls, all plaster and wallboard, a London Tube system for lost pets?

I pictured London’s worst tabloid, the Sun, its headline screaming, “Ghost terrorizes block of flats in Maida Vale!” with descriptions of a mewling menace that was stalking its way through walls at will.

For half an hour we coaxed. I reached in with the camera and took pictures, hoping for a glimpse of a head or even a puckery cat butt. Then, for an instant, we saw a flicker of gray swish past the hole and loop back on itself. He was alive, and on our floor. And that was all that Aline needed for her pseudo panic to disassert itself. She took steps. She poured a noisy bowl of his kibble precisely one body length away from the hole so that Grommet could remember he loved and missed us.

Gray flash. A sound of paws like pats of butter dropping to the floor. Probing with a dust-whiskered face for the all-clear, he limbered himself out of the wall, sat himself before breakfast, and began dining noisily. My cat purred, my wife cooed. For myself, I was both relieved at his return and not a little disappointed I hadn’t brought a shotgun.

Addendum: Writing this a year after the fact, I came across the pictures I took inside the wall when I was looking for Grommet. In one photo, there was a small green rectangle at the far end of the inside of the wall. I zoomed in further, then all the way. As the rectangle filled the screen it clarified into a piece of cardboard box that someone had used as packing material, perhaps a workman filling a random gap in the wall during a long-ago repair and then covered up. In large black letters it said, “Cardboard Cat Scratcher (With Catnip).”

I’m sorry, Grommet. It wasn’t your fault.

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© 2010 William Baeck. All Rights Reserved