Friday 12 January 2024

Lucky Black Cat by Sarah Das Gupta, a dark, rich hot chocolate

There were two kittens left, two brothers, two balls of black fur. It was their blackness which was the problem. ‘No one wants black kittens. It’s a real problem,’ Mrs Royce explained as the two patted a ping-pong ball playfully across the lawn. ‘They’re the last of the litter. The tortoiseshells were the first to go, as usual. We’ve already got six cats or I’d adopt them myself but my husband has definitely drawn the line at six!’

Anne’s experience of animals, including cats, was negligible. So sketchy, it could have been written on the back of the proverbial envelope. She had two reasons for wanting a kitten. The first was undeniably selfish. Mice, as far as she was concerned, were anathema. Ever since they had moved into the old house, she had dreaded seeing that pinkish, bootlace of a tail disappearing under the sofa. Numerous friends had given the same advice, ‘You need a cat!’. The second reason was Gerry. Even at that moment, the curly haired, two-year-old was standing nervously on the other side of the lawn, as far away from the kittens as possible. ‘Come and watch the cats, Gerry. They like playing with the ball, just like you.’

He shook his mop of black hair defiantly. ‘I told Daddy I want a spaceship or a train.'

’It’s so difficult to restore his confidence with animals.’ Anne remembered that dreadful afternoon. If only she had kept an eye on Gerry. The first she had heard was barking and then that terrible screaming. Tony’s dog had been tied up and muzzled. As he explained it was a guard dog and unused to small kids. Apparently, Gerry had tried to pat it. The dog had jumped up and knocked him over in the cobbled yard. The bottom of his jacket had torn but the child himself was completely unharmed. Tony, red faced and awkward, had spent an uncomfortable afternoon apologising to his boss’s wife for his dog’s rough behaviour. Ever since that incident, Gerry had developed a deep-seated fear of dogs which now extended to most other animals.

     Armed with a few tins of kitten food and a cat basket, Anne drove home, not quite sure how she had acquired two black cats. Gerry sat nervously on the edge of the seat, as far away from the baskets and its meowing contents as possible.

    Gerry’s older brothers were delighted with the playful kittens. They had been reading about Ancient Greek heroes. What better names than Achilles and Jason? Anne insisted that one cat should be Gerry’s and the other could be shared between the older boys.

The kittens tangled the fringes on the armchair covers, got stuck under an old cupboard, joined in dressing up, pulling out and chewing holes in knights’ armour and scary Halloween masks.  They muddled up the Christmas tree decorations and nibbled the paper hats. At birthday parties the kittens patted the discarded wrapping paper around the garden. On New Year they meowed loudly at the smell of oysters and smoked salmon. Gradually, to Gerry, they were not so much ‘cats’ as fellow conspirators.

   It soon became obvious that litter brothers they might be, but the kittens had very different characters.  It emerged that Jason was a feline genius, a straight A grade student. He was a born leader who rapidly saw himself as more human than cat. If Anne was in the kitchen, he would go and fetch Achilles and lead him up the garden ready for their food or special treats. He knew the sound of the family car and would be standing at the front door five minutes before it arrived. Achilles on the other hand was nervous, especially of strangers. He would bolt off and only re-appear when visitors had left. Jason would parade proudly up and down, tail straight in the air, before graciously accepting appreciative stroking.

     Gerry gradually began to interact with the kittens. By the time they were grown cats, he would put out their bowls of food and stroke Jason who often slept on his bed. Ironically, Achilles, who had originally been given to Gerry, remained more nervous and aloof. When decorators came to re-paint the house, both cats avoided the hammering and smell of paint. Achilles virtually disappeared for two weeks which may well have been when the accident happened!            

                                                   °          °           °

Anne first noticed it one cold October evening. The cats by now were four years old. Achilles’ fur, usually black and sleek, looked ruffled and untidy. His neck too seemed swollen on one side. As she ran her hand down that side, she felt him flinch and move away. While he was eating, Anne shone the torch from her mobile onto his neck. She was shocked. There was a deep, ulcer-like hole in the neck which was red and inflamed. It appeared to have bled.  Dried blood was entangled in the fur. She suspected pus too had been oozing from the wound.

     ‘He needs a vet and a course of antibiotics,’ she muttered to the empty kitchen. Later that evening, she rang the local vet, explaining it would be difficult to put Achilles into a basket and take him to the surgery.

    The next morning, after a frustrating hour, they had still not caught Achilles. The vet had been very patient. Gerry had almost managed to pick him up from the old leather chair which he liked to sleep on. Anne thought they might corner him in the kitchen. He slipped away through the cat flap. Once Achilles had seen the vet, it was hopeless. Jason was no help either. He was meowing as if to warn his brother.

‘I think you need the “Cat Queen,”’ the vet said, over a reviving cup of coffee.

‘The “Cat Queen”! Who is she?’ Anne looked puzzled.

‘She is actually Jill Beaumont. She runs a rescue home for stray cats. Jill is a genius when it comes to catching them.  I have her number.’ He handed Anne a card as he left.

     In the week following, Achilles was visibly weakening. His coat was dull. He was hardly eating at all and his beautiful yellow eyes looked glazed.  Anne had tried to contact Jill Beaumont, but to no avail. She had been on holiday.

Gerry became very quiet. ‘Is Achilles going to die, Mummy? Can’t you get the medicine I had when I got chicken pox?  There’s some in the bathroom cupboard.’

Just as Anne was thinking about an answer, the phone rang. She had never been so relieved to hear a stranger’s voice. ‘Mrs Beaumont? Thank you so much for ringing. Achilles is desperately ill.’

‘Oh, I thought you had a cat problem. The vet must have got it wrong.’

‘Yes, yes, we do. Achilles is my son’s cat and he is very weak.’

‘I’ve just got to get the car out. I know the house. I’ll be there in five minutes.’


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Anne had hoped the ‘Cat Queen’ would be able to use her royal prerogative to lure Achilles into the cat box. It was proving just as tricky as before. The only difference was in Achilles himself. He was by then very ill, just able to drag himself around. With the help of the three boys, and the two women, they cornered the cat by the hedge and Gerry managed to pick him up. Stroking his head gently, he put Achilles into the wicker box. Anne and the boys  watched the car drive off. She found herself waving with Gerry as Achilles disappeared from view.

‘How silly, waving! He’s only a cat,’ she murmured.

‘He’s not just a cat. He’s my cat and he’s called Achilles,’ Gerry retorted through his tears.

     Mrs Beaumont was as good as her word. She had promised to give Gerry a daily report on Achilles’ progress. At first it was not hopeful. The vet thought it was a cat bite.  Achilles had a series of injections and was put on a course of antibiotics.  The vet had had to sedate him to clean out the wound thoroughly. Mrs Beaumont explained to Gerry that Achilles had been so weak, the vet had wondered if it was safe to sedate him.

‘Oh, he’d like that, ‘cause he wouldn’t feel it hurt. Like when I had my tooth out.’ Gerry reassured her.

By the end of the week, Achilles was on the road to recovery. He was in a cage in Mrs  Beaumont’s house and feeling well enough to yowl whenever she approached. Gerry could hear the noise down the phone. ‘He sounds really furious, like he wants to escape.  That’s good, isn’t it?’

Anne didn’t wait to hear Jill Beaumont’s pained reply! Then suddenly, everything changed.


The next morning when the phone rang, Jill asked to speak to Anne. Her heart missed a beat; something serious must have happened to Achilles, something too upsetting to tell Gerry who was hovering anxiously by the phone.

‘I’m so sorry, Anne. I really thought he was well on the road to recovery. He’s always hated the cage and I’ve had to be very careful about opening the door. But now he’s on strike as if he’s given up hope. He just lies on his bed looking utterly miserable. He won’t look at the food. I went to the market early this morning and bought some cod. I removed all the bones and cut it up carefully. The whole house stank of fish. He didn’t show even the tiniest bit of interest. All the other cats were becoming hysterical. My husband was moaning that the whole office would complain of the smell of his suit! Achilles just lay there. It’s the eyes which really upset me. They are so dull and glazed. In black cats I love that wonderful, indefinable combination of amber and gold.’ She broke off suddenly. Anne knew she was close to tears.

‘Do you think the infection has returned? I know you had a problem with him finishing the antibiotics.’

‘No, he’s broken-hearted. He thinks why should he get better to live in a cage with all these strange people around. That’s the problem. I’m pretty sure I’m right.’

‘Mummy, let me speak to Achilles. He’ll know that we are still here. He’ll realise he can come home! Please, let me!’ Gerry too was close to tears.

‘It’s worth a go but try to sound cheerful.’

Gerry took the phone and spoke in the rather high voice he usually used when calling the cats for their food. ‘Achilles, Achi l l e e s, dinner, dinner.’

Hearing the familiar summons, Jason started meowing loudly. Gerry put the mouthpiece close to the cat’s mouth. The response was nothing short of miraculous. Achilles started making a most extraordinary noise, somewhere between roaring and yowling

‘He doesn’t need the phone.’ Gerry by this time was laughing loudly. Anne too, spoke softly into the telephone, ‘Good boy, Achilles. Shall we bring you home?’

‘It’s amazing. I’ve never seen such a dramatic change in a cat! He’s standing on his hind legs, scratching at the cage. Even those wonderful eyes have changed! You’d better come and take him back.’


                                                 °                °              °

Achilles’ return was like an ancient triumph, worthy of his heroic name. He and Jason were both ecstatically happy. Their meowing and purring could be heard in the neighbouring gardens. Achilles forgot his usual shyness and inhibitions. He went from one member of the family to another.  He rubbed against them, his tail standing straight, like Harry Potter’s magic wand! His coat gleamed in the sun, while those magnificent eyes seemed to have regained their magnetism. The brothers lay beside each other on their favourite sofa.

Gerry sat between them, ‘Black cats are lucky cats. We had the two best kittens in the litter. I think I might be a cat vet rather than a doctor. Cats don’t argue like people and they don’t knock you over, like dogs.’  

About the author

 Sarah Das Gupta is a teacher, and has worked in the UK, India, Africa. Her work has been published in journals from US, UK, Canada, India, Australia, Croatia and Romania. She is progressing in learning to walk again, after an accident. Writing , which she started last year, is a great help! 
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1 comment:

  1. We have three black cats, siblings. It IS hard to catch a cat who doesn't want to go to the vet! Great story!