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Kitty and the Coward

by Ronan O’Shea

It was a hot evening when Kitty ran into the bar. There had been a bomb scare on the Northern Line and Quinn’s – usually close to empty – was packed with office workers who’d spilled out from the Tube station and across the street. Usually, they would have looked out of place amidst hunched-over types like me, Dempsey, and the regulars who fed coins into the fruity machine, smoked outside, watched Sky Sports news in the summer, actual football matches winter and spring. But there were plenty of them now, in sharp suits and crisp shirts, such that me and Dempsey had sat in a corner, as if we ever did anything but.

We were giggling at a video of a man in Paisley who’d taken several people hostage and shouted the following at heavily armed police:

“I want a bag of cans, I want Brendan Rodgers back, I want a job.”

It was an extreme length to go to, so as to ensure the return of Celtic’s recently departed manager.

—He must have been out of his mind, I said.

—Drunk?

—That too, I said. —I wonder if the cops gave in on the can front.

—Unlikely, said Dempsey. —Police aren’t meant to negotiate with terrorists.

The man was just desperate, was our conclusion. I looked up at the bar. Susie was serving customers. The most I’d ever said to her was two Heinekens and please. I wanted two things in life: to talk to Susie, and to avoid it at all costs. So I was desperate too, but at least I was only a hostage to myself.

I had nearly finished my pint, and wanted another. As if reading my thoughts, Dempsey pointed to my glass.

—It’s your round, he said, smiling, nodding towards the bar, and Susie.

—No, actually, it’s yours. I got the first, while you were in the jacks, remember?
He took out his debit card.

—I’ve been grafting all day, he said. —My legs are tired. You go, I’ll pay.

He grinned, but I refused to budge. I was also a barman. I stood all day, albeit not this day, and I wasn’t going to get his round for him, ulterior motive or otherwise. He caved and went to the bar, whispering a word in my direction that wasn’t kitty, nor cat, but similar, vulgar too.

I looked at my phone. The Paisley lad had taken hostages. The last male white rhino had died. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United States had met, and Cynthia Nixon, of Sex & the City fame, was going to run for Governor of New York. I felt sad for the Paisley lad and the rhino too; mad at the world leaders, and hopeful for the hopeful governor. And I’d an email telling me I’d to cover a shift on Thursday, Saturday too, on top of my other days. I replied to say ‘Sure, no problem’.

I looked up to the bar, where Dempsey was chatting with Susie and paying for the drinks, but was distracted by a sound from the front door.

—Christ, get a hold on him, said a voice of exasperation. It belonged to a man in his mid-thirties, a decorator in a t-shirt, flecked paint revealing its timeworn beige.

He was running in after a black and white cat with a bell around its neck. The cat was fat, but moved around nippy enough, a feline Maradona, plump but admirably nimble.

—Oh Jesus.

It was Dempsey, and he was allergic to cats, and in his haste to escape the cat – which had veered his way – he ran towards me and the table, spilling the pints on one rather than placing them gently the other.

—Oh for Christ’s sake, said Susie, and I said ‘nice one’ to Dempsey, and between Jesus and Christ I was now soaked head to toe in beer.

The decorator tried to grab Kitty, but it ran from him and towards the pool table, where a group of lads in suit trousers and untucked shirts were playing pool. They cheered as Kitty jumped up on the baize, at which point Susie began to wave her arms.

—No, no no, get him off, she cried. —Dad will crucify me.

Jesus, Christ, cross and Kitty. The cat was there now, on the table, in a standoff with the decorator, who had the look of a man whose livelihood depends on a species with which he could not communicate. I empathised. I sometimes served estate agents.

One of the office workers turned his pool cue upside down, pointing the collar towards the creature, expecting it to grab on. Kitty did not. He hadn’t the thumbs. Another player tried the tip, but Kitty’s reaction was to claw at it, such that he was left with a chalky, blue paw.

Stay, said the decorator (certainly a confusion of species), and for a moment I thought Kitty had listened, but no.

The cat was mocking him, jumping off the table and past the tradesman. He sat on the floor. The cat that is. The decorator circled.—Is he yours? Susie asked, the tentative decorator tiptoeing around to a crescendoing, expectant rumble from the punters in the bar.

—No, said the decorator. —The woman whose flat we’re doing up. I’m a dead man if he goes missing. I left the front door open while I was having a fag.

I pitied him, just as I pitied the Paisley man. I knew how it felt to lose a job, and to feel desperate. And I was now covered in beer, so I’d empathy in spades, more than ever now since I’d clocked Susie clocking me, with a curt smile, taking in the spilled pint all over my front.

The man dived at Kitty, a loud wheeeeey sound echoing around the pub as the cat glided away, its tail a middle finger, the gaggled mass cheering the cat as much as the man, watching with joy as events unfolded; pure theatre.

Fair play to the decorator; he grew into it, buoyed by the crowd as he tried to retrieve Kitty, charging again, the creature running between his legs amidst a unified ooooh from the masses, before jumping up on the bar counter.

—Get down! Susie shouted, walking towards Kitty, who evaded her, jumping to the back of the bar, its tail nearly knocking over a bottle of Malibu, Bailey’s (sticky murder to clean) and an RNLI charity box.

—Go on, son, said Dempsey, thinking himself safe from afar.

It was a moment of hubris, the fourth wall between audience and cast soon to be broken, so as to make Dempsey appear a clown. Kitty ran from Susie and the decorator, towards us, the coward and the fool.

Dempsey, suddenly, was not so smug. He jumped behind our table, and up onto the cushioned, fitted seats, their patterned fabric faded like the decorator’s shirt, matted in decade’s old chewing gum and god knows what else. He was afraid, the pub amused, Susie caught in two minds. To tell him off for standing on her father’s seating, or enjoy the spectacle for what it was.

—Go away, said Dempsey. —Go on, get.
Remembering his cackling glee upon seeing my beer-soaked person, I began to enjoy myself.

—Sheer-Khan won’t hurt you, I said. —Go on, give Kitty a good rub. It’s the only way to inoculate yourself.

He picked up a chair, turning the cushioned end towards Kitty, in a plea for détente.
I turned, saw the watchful eyes dotted around the bar, the office workers, Susie, the decorator; even the cat’s, gazing up from the floor.

—This fella’s having kittens, I said, pointing at Dempsey.

It was cruel, but the decorator laughed, Susie and the punters too. Even Kitty had a giggle, or so it seemed, the cat likely confused by the noise and fuss of it all. Feeling sorry for the decorator, and Dempsey, I took the opportunity to pick Kitty up, so it could go on with whichever of its nine lives it was now on.

A loud waheeey rose within the hot, fetid bar, and I looked towards the decorator.

—The door, I said.

He opened it, carefully scooping Kitty out of my hands, and walked out. There was a loud cheer and a few charged glasses and pool cues stamped on the floor, and I even bowed before walking back to the table and Dempsey, remembering as I did that my pint was now non-existent, and I had better go to the bar to get another in before Dempsey had to go home, leaving me to another lonely, sunny night in the solitude of the rented room of the expensive flat I shared with four strangers.

—That was class, said Dempsey. He looked at my T-shirt. —Sorry, I’ll get them in.

—No, I said. —It’s alright, I’ll go.

He nodded, and I walked up to the bar, where Susie was stood, smiling.

—Well done, she said. —That was a bit hectic, wasn’t it?

—It was a little.

—I see you had an accident.

—I did, I said. —It must have been all the excitement.

She smiled. —Heineken, was it?

I nodded, thinking of the desperate man chasing Kitty, and the lad chasing cans and Brendan Rodgers, who was more desperate still, but really only wanted the job, or hope, or the hope that came with the job.

I took my debit card out and watched the Heineken flow into the pint glasses, feeling a little ashamed of myself for sometimes feeling sorry for myself when as often as I wanted – really – I could have a pint, or two, or three or four, and not worry about it all that much; when I’d safe and secure work enough, much as I didn’t really like it, behind another bar, when I was only held back from life and the nice sides of it by shyness, a feeling of being inadequate, and small.

I held my card out, ready to pay.  

—No bother, said Susie, waving it away. —Try to drink this one.

She smiled. I said thank you, and added hope the rest of the evening’s not too hectic for you, which made little sense, but was a progress of sorts.

I made my way back to Dempsey, and the last place where Kitty the cat had enjoyed free run of Quinn’s the bar.

 About Ronan O’Shea

Ronan O’Shea is a writer and journalist based In London, UK. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Medium and National Geographic Traveller, among others . Set in Prague, his debut novel, Bad Bread, Good Blues, is available on Amazon now.