When Jack died I was real young, younger than I am now, and I said, in a temper, that I would never let it happen again. Jack was our cat. A dark brown Burmese fella, with nippy teeth, grabby scratchy claws and loud wheezy breaths that rattled through him in a strange sing-songy chorus as he tottered about on unsteady paws. He was also the first and only time that we tried, as family, to have a pet. And when he arrived there was a big hullaballoo among the girls. They were all pulling and shoving each other, with a bit of scratching too, all desperate to have a go.
Kissing and cuddling and yanking him under the covers, and chasing him round the couch until he hid in the corner and did a pee under the coffee table that drove Dad completely wild.
That fecking cat! he said, gritting his teeth and pulling his fingers into a fist as if he was going to punch to death a six-week-old fluff bundle.
Jack’s wheezing, from day one, got louder and louder, and by the end of the first week it had turned into full-on flu. The vet said that he possibly had it all along, that the breeder, an ancient fella from County Cavan, was probably a bit of a shark, and that Jack might actually die instead of getting better. This scared the girls no end. And that, combined with all the snotty green drippy stuff pouring from his eyes and nose, and the way he’d suddenly sneeze and blast it outwards and right into your face, made them run like mad whenever he appeared in the room. And it made Dad want to kill him even more.
I was the youngest, and I was the one who kept nagging Mam for a pet in the first place, so it was my job to be the cat-nurse. Which meant chasing Jack up the stairs with some cotton buds, wiping all the mucus away, and then bringing him into the bathroom and holding him over a hot bath so that he could breathe in the steam that was supposed to clear away all the hardened snot in his lungs that was causing the trouble in the first place.
Jack became super fit, and fast, and spent weeks and weeks lashing round the house, and causing all kinds of funny chaos, like chasing after the shadow of the pogo stick down the full length of the slope, or fighting with his bendy brass reflection in the coal scuttle and covering the green sitting-room carpet in tiny black paw prints. He was killed on the road outside our door when he was just seven months old. No one saw it happen. The first we knew of it was Maura Connell from next door with a big sad look on her face, telling Mam that she should go down the slope and see what’s on the road in front of our driveway.
I was the only one of the kids at home, because I hadn’t gone to big school yet, so when Mam brought Jack in, all squashed and red
around the head, I had loads of time alone with him.
Mam said that we’d have a family funeral in the back garden for Jack when the girls got home, and she used one of her good kitchen towels to wipe away all the red and black gooey stuff that was pouring out of the side of Jack’s head, mostly through his left ear hole and eye socket. She laid him out, next to the onion patch, real nice like, on a knitted blanket that Sarah had made in Home Ec, and then she ran up to the attic to find an old shoe box to use for a coffin.
I laid out beside him too, on the grass. And with no one around I stroked his still-warm coat, kissed the non-bloody side of his head and started crying like mad and telling him how much I loved him. I told him that he was such a good cat. I lied to him too. I pretended that I didn’t remember all the scratches he’d given me, or the times that he’d put massive rips in Dad’s armchair, or when he climbed all over the tray-bake pastry while Mam was on the phone. You’re the best cat, I said, stroking and weeping. You’re such a good cat. The best cat in all Ireland. All the others are jealous of you, Jack. Coz you’re the fastest, and the cleverest, and the funniest, and the best there is and ever will be.
The Fields by Kevin Maher is published by Little, Brown in May.