A Cat, A Leaf and Fresh Fish
A Cat, A Leaf and Fresh Fish
The early hours are invariably punctuated by nocturnal sounds; rodent-like scurrying amongst bins, strange scraping noises and the ruffle of blankets in makeshift sleeping spots for homeless souls. At this time, cats tour their established routes often fighting with other felines who cross their path. Ella the tabby was used to living with the rest of the rejects. She found food wherever she could.
Albert had been dead this last year. Forty years of marriage was a hard thing to forget and Marie hadn’t. She thought about her beloved husband every day. Retirement beckoned, golden years or at least that’s what people said they were. She wasn’t looking forward to it; today would be her last day at the fish market.
The alarm sounded its sonic boom at 2.45am as usual. Throwing the quilt to one side, she eased her way into waiting slippers and shuffled wearily into the bathroom. Her daily encounter with the mirror was a philosophical one; the usual face-off in which she would register the constant march of aging. Her slept-in hair was silvery grey, eyes screwed noting a blue hue that still lit up rooms when she entered. Her cheeks were chubby (unkindly some might say “jowly”) from the ravages of over indulgence in a round but still attractive face. The shower beckoned.
The fish market in the centre of town was a hubbub of noise and activity. Lorries would deliver fresh fish for the day ahead, market traders busily taking receipt of supplies for their stalls. Marie was as active as the rest, taking in rake, sole, crab, trout and cod amongst other variations and types. Arranged alongside suitably positioned ice, wares were ready in presentation form for the first customers of the day.
“Still your last day then, Marie?” Frank Williams was a tall, thin man who had lived in Northampton all of his life. He had a gaunt face with a scar on his left cheek from a childhood accident. He was standing, arms folded wearing his white hat, uniform and blue and white striped apron at the front of the next stall.
Marie didn’t reply immediately. She thought about things briefly, eyes looking at the ground.
“I think this is it, Frank. This industry is dying anyway. Can’t see this market being here in a year’s time. People buy their fish at the likes of Tesco and wholesalers.” Marie was also born and bred in the county, her accent a light countryside drawl.
“What will you do with yourself?” Frank looked away at the rest of the traders pondering what kind of footfall the day might bring. It was Friday which was usually one of the better days.
“Oh I don’t know. Maybe spend more time cooking. I might get myself another pet. We used to have a couple of cats but never replaced them after Marmalade died a couple of years ago. I need looking after.” She laughed at that, self-disclosure with a ring of truth.
“Ah, there we go, doors open on the dot. 4am. Here we go again!”
The first buyers of the day wandered in; mainly restaurant and shop owners looking for deals. Joe public usually started to appear from 5.30am although that varied by keenness, of course. As early as the market started, everything was done by 8.30am. Marie had been thinking about things in-between prospects. Her future still looked like a blank canvas of not knowing what to do with herself. The kids were grown up and had lives of their own. She didn’t socialise much beyond the people at the fish market. Maybe she would take up day-drinking and slide aimlessly into a drunken oblivion. At least she wouldn’t have to wake up at silly o’clock anymore.
It had been a decent few hours. She estimated making a profit from earlier transactions and was ready to start packing away. As she looked up from cleaning a plastic tray, Marie noticed a blurry figure close by. Pushing her glasses back up her nose, focusing brought into view a tabby cat on all fours clutching something in its mouth. At first, Marie wondered whether it was a dead mouse being carried as a trophy. On closer inspection, it appeared to be a dry brown leaf.
“And what have we here?” she asked leaning forward, the cat taut and ready to flee.
“There’s really nothing to worry about, me duck. Is that for me?” Marie’s voice was soothing, her accent loaded with colloquial reassurance.
The interloper growled quietly then seemed to think better of it. The cat’s eyes shone, pupils large and beautiful, its grey and black tabby fur short and sleek as light reflected off it. A curling tail made shapes in the air.
“I tell you what, I’ll do you a deal. How about a leaf in exchange for a piece of fish? Turning back towards the stall, a shiny, scaly specimen was fetched. Slipping out to the walkway out front, she dangled the offering in the air inches from the cat’s nose. The furry visitor remained nervous, its eyes darting. For a few seconds there was a silent stand-off with nothing said. Both stared at each other, Marie’s eyes twinkling at the thought of being paid in leaf currency.
Trust was an issue for Ella. The family she had lived with on Barrack Road had done a moonlight flit with the terraced house they lived in subject to a repossession order. Left to fend for herself, the young tabby had been on her own in empty premises for weeks whilst the house was on the market waiting to be sold. It was enough time to become semi-feral, roaming from garden to garden, scavenging.
Ella stealthily crept towards the woman in front of her and gently dropped the leaf. Gazing expectantly, she awaited the exchange which duly came. Clutching the fish in her mouth, she backed away, turned and padded off amongst the stalls and out of sight. Marie breathed out, her heart pounding with an excitement she hadn’t felt in a while. Thoughts raced through her mind. It was an unusual way to end an era and yet…she was having doubts.
Saturday morning brought with it the promise of blue skies and sunshine. Frank stood outside the hall smoking, staring out into the darkness of early morning watching for sunrise before taking receipt of fresh supplies. Bodies milled about around him but, one in particular, drew his attention. Marie was hustling along the car park in the direction of the stalls.
“Thought you had retired, my lovely?” The bustling woman turned and smiled.
“Just couldn’t stay away. There’s a cat that needs me.” Frank gave a quizzical look as he tried to make sense of the comment.
The morning drifted along in an intermittent flurry of buyers. Time seemed to go quicker earlier in the day for some reason. Maybe it was the promise of hope that went with the advent of diurnal activity.
With Saturday nearly done, Sunday was always a rest day with no market. Marie glanced at her mobile phone – it was 08:22. The stall-owners would be calling it for another session and the cat was nowhere in sight. Marie wasn’t sure why she had convinced herself that there would be a repeat occurrence. It was as though she was desperate for something to believe in. After all, this was a day of work that she hadn’t planned on and had only come about because of yesterday’s encounter. She wanted to see the cat again so badly. Other traders were discreetly packing away what they could before the official end of trading. Marie reluctantly started to close up, unsold fish going into storage boxes. In the corner of her eye she noticed a movement from underneath the stall opposite. Squeezing through a tiny space was a tabby cat.
“Ah so you have decided to come after all. And you have money with you again.” Between Ella’s teeth was another leaf. She looked as coy as the last time, her eyes doleful and pensive.
“Don’t worry darling, the deal’s the same – a leaf for a fish. How’s that?” She smiled, her heart filled with joy at the sight of the feline.
Slowly, Ella edged forward and dropped the leaf at Marie’s feet. In exchange, another small fish was dangled above the cat’s head as it reached up and gently took it. Once again, with its hard-won gain, the animal skulked off to eat undisturbed, away from any competitors.
Marie smiled as she watched the cat disappear. She thought about the interaction and how it made her feel needed again. She would like nothing more than to take the moggie home but it looked a way off before that might be possible. No point in forcing it if the animal was just going to run away. She sighed and continued clearing away.
Ella continued to visit Marie’s stall and exchange her leaf currency for a piece of fish each day. After a while, it became a relationship based on mutual trust, both observers to the steady decline of an industry. Marie’s prediction came true; the fish market did close twelve months later to be replaced by an Arts Centre funded by the local Council.
When the doors of the hall were shuttered for the final time, Marie brought along a cat carrier in the hope that Ella would come home with her. It was touch and go for a while but the semi-feral feline finally wandered in, lured by the treats waiting inside. She hated being caged, mewling all the way back to Marie’s house. The retiree was terrified that her attempt at unofficial adoption would end in tears and that the cat would run for the hills as soon as she was set free.
Marie kept Ella in at her new home for a couple of weeks except for a trip to the vet for a check-up to see if there was a chip implanted that would give the existing owner’s details. There were mixed feelings when the check came up blank although Marie felt that her gain was someone else’s loss. She renamed the feline Tabitha (Tabby for short) in the absence of any name tag.
When it was finally time to allow her access to the garden for the first time, the atmosphere was a strange blend of tension and wonder as the prowling cat investigated bushes and plants, sniffing out boundaries and where the path to an escape lay. Marie watched as the tabby feline drifted away across other gardens and out into the wide world. It was an aching, empty passage of time that passed waiting to see if the cat would return.
The early hours are invariably punctuated by nocturnal sounds; rodent-like scurrying amongst bins and strange scraping noises. Ella the tabby was used to living with the rest of the rejects. She found food wherever she could. As a burnt orange sun was setting, she reappeared, entering through an open kitchen window. Ella had a leaf in her mouth. There was a piece of fish waiting in the fridge.
Image free to use at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabby_cat#/media/File:Cat_November_2010-1a...