My wife, the cat by Anna Rivers

(published 17th September 2018)

My wife turns into a cat sometimes when she thinks she is alone. She thinks I don’t know, but I do.

I’ll leave her washing up our breakfast things, shout a hearty, extravagant goodbye, get into the car and slam the door loudly, rev the engine so she knows I’m going, and roar off down the road. I’ll park round the corner and jog back in my suit and tie. It’s only worth doing this on days when she isn’t going in to work: she’s a part-time teaching assistant at the local primary, specialising in working with SEN kids, but two days out of five, plus weekends, she works from home as a freelance copy-editor. That’s when it happens. I suppose she must be bored.

I hide around the corner of the garage and watch Emily stepping out of the back door. She looks up at the pale blue sky, smiles and flexes her shoulders and her long hair ripples in the morning breeze. I smell jasmine, gardenia, sweet pea. Her body curves and writhes in on itself like smoke, her spine flying upwards, arms bristling in on themselves, shoulders plugging deeper into their sockets, her head blunting, shrinking and then she shakes her new, lithe, glossy black figure with a mewl of pleasure and darts into the flowerbeds. I wait just a breath, I don’t know if my wife-the-cat would recognise me or not, but she can’t know I know but I need to know where she is going, what she is doing. But by the time I reach where she disappeared she is long gone, and I could search the whole neighbourhood and never find her. For the umpteenth time, I walk alone back to my car, a failure.

“So how was work today?” Emily asks me that evening, as she carries the lasagne dish to the table and eases her ladle into the thick, cheesy crust. I eye her, narrowly.

“Oh, you know. Tim was complaining all day as per. Apparently he’s overrun with cats. Ripping into his rubbish every week, tormenting his little girl’s rabbit…”

“Oh, really?” she says disinterestedly. Surely she’s acting. She’s too calm, portioning out lasagne so demure, so cool, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

Or could she really not know, somehow? Did she black out and not remember? Was it a curse, did she need protecting from herself?

“Yeah, he was saying the number of cats around here’s becoming a real nuisance…”

“Hmm,” she says, and she sits down and pours herself a glass of water. Her wrist is slender and her fingers graceful on the handle of the jug and all I can see is sprouting fur, twisting muscles, all I can see is the terrifying metamorphosis into a tiny, agile paw… My hand clenches under the table. Why won’t she just tell me. I try a different tack.

“What did you get up to today, then?”

“This and that,” she replies. “Finished that manuscript about the fisherman. I don’t know why they think it’ll sell, but I don’t get paid to question the agency’s business choices, I guess.” She smiles wryly and I bite the inside of my mouth, taste blood. I need evidence. She clearly isn’t going to come clean with me – so I’m going to have to force her to betray herself. I need evidence.

A week later, the next time I know she’s going to be home alone, I set a trap for her. I sneak back to the house again and watch her metamorphosis – then I securely lock all the other doors and windows in the house and remove her spare key from under the flowerpot beside the front door. I open the kitchen window just a fraction; it’s located above the bins which makes it an easy access point, as good as a staircase, for a creature as agile as a cat, and underneath the windowsill I place a plastic window-box full of red paint. There’s only one way in or out, now, and it’s booby-trapped. Stunned by my own genius and buzzing with anticipation I force myself to return to my car and drive to the office as usual – I could be watching all day for the climax. I just have to contain myself until the evening.

I does bother me, I confess, that I’ve never seen her change back. When does she do it? What does it look like? What happens to her clothes? How does she, as a cat, she-as-a-cat, keep such a close eye on the time?

I’m reckless as I drive home and I’m never reckless. Today I swerve around corners, roaring my ignition impatiently behind lazily-weaving cyclists, barrel through tight bottlenecks like a racer. Sweat is congealing unpleasantly under my armpits and my breath burns hot in my nostrils. A brazen BMW cuts across me at the junction nearest home and I jump violently, pounding the horn and swearing, the shockwave of what might-have-been, the near-collision, shuddering me. I’m surprised at myself. Why am I so rattled? What do I think is going to happen? Am I just proud of myself?

What will happen to our marriage, once she knows I know, once I’ve tricked and humiliated and forced the truth out of her, once I come back to discover her embarrassed and paint-spattered, in a kitchen frenetically daubed like a Jackson Pollock canvas, literally caught red-handed, red-pawed, possibly naked, ashamed, angry?

What do I want to happen?

I am afraid to open the front door. I sit in my car with the engine off for several minutes, in the stench of my own nervous sweat, forcing myself to breathe slowly, in and out. Finally, slowly, so slowly, I open the car door and ease it closed behind me, then I curse and reopen it to grab my briefcase off the passenger seat and close it once more. I place each foot on the path carefully, precisely on the gravel, unsure if I am trying not to make any noise or simply craving a ludicrous, inhumanly-perfect control of my own movements. I’m not trying to sneak up on her, Somehow I’m just… scared.

“Em, I’m home,” I call into the warm stillness of the house. There’s a clattering from the next room and the kitchen door opens. A heady, hot-vanilla scent of baking spills out, bathing the air in nostalgia and Emily’s voice floats back: “I’m in here!”

Dreading what I am about to find, I enter the kitchen. It’s all dark gold, shimmering under the falling sunlight – the basin of red paint sits untouched, congealing, starting to stink a bit now, below the windowsill. Emily is just bending down to the oven to remove a tray of squashy, steaming amber muffins. “How was work, Don?” she asks me brightly. I stare at her, at the spotless room. Not a drop of paint has been spilled. Can she really have cleaned everything up so fast, leaving not even a ripple on the sides of the basin? “By the way,” she adds, shoving back a lock of long hair from her flushed forehead with a clumsy, oven-gloved alien-hand. “I left that paint there in case you needed it for something, but it’s sort of in the way. Would you mind moving it?”

Rage spikes inside me and I have to bite back the poison on my tongue, the urge to smash and smash and smash at the crockery, the furniture, the crookedly-smiling woman beside me – I bite it all back. I turn and swing out, tugging my jacket down smartly off my shoulders with a crisp, cruel precision, no movement wasted. So that’s her game. She thinks she’s so clever, so coy, she thinks she can outfox me, the lying bitch. Well, I’ll show her.

The next morning before she wakes I creep outside and take a carton of strong, putrid, intensely toxic weedkiller from the potting shed. Tying a damp rag across my face I slosh it all over the back patio, thickly, so that the fronds of young grass at the edges of the flagstones wither before my eyes. I pour out so much the stones glisten greenish-black like an evil rainbow and my eyes water at the stench – then I replace the carton, close the back door, slip back upstairs and scrub my hands so vigorously in the bathroom sink the cuticles actually bleed a little – but at least I get the smell off. Then I flush the toilet loudly, to give myself an alibi, and crawl back into bed beside Emily. She smiles sleepily and stretches, snuggling back against my shoulder. You just wait, I think fervently, cradling her close. Oh, you just wait…

I lie in wait round the side of the garage as usual for Emily to open the back door, smile up at the sun and stretch her arms up to the sky. She twists herself and butterflies her limbs and Emily-the-cat springs onto the patio, mewls in shock and leaps back as her sensitive paws come into burning contact with the poisonous chemical. I spring around the house in triumph as she sneezes desperately for breath.

“Aha! Caught you!” And I lunge for her, but my-wife-the-cat is more resilient than I’d given her credit for and she shoots away so that I sprawl hard onto the stinking flagstones. Dark acid splashes up, staining my suit with putrid oil. I curse and fling myself after her – she has already gained the back hedge and is scampering away across our neighbour’s lawn and, enraged, I throw myself after her, forcing my way through the twigs and leaves and stumbling into the next garden like a scarecrow. Old Miss Wood is frozen over her rhododendrons, watering can in hand, aghast.

“Don! What on earth is the matter?”

I’m stinking, sweating, with dead leaves jammed in my beard and eyelashes and my suit luridly spattered with toxic acid. The cat pauses at the corner of the house and I lunge for her again – miss, land heavily in the mud at Miss Wood’s feet. “Catch that cat!” I shriek, but Emily has already shot around the corner like a little black arrow and she’s gone. I stagger upright and sway.

“Don?” The old woman looks apprehensive. I brush at the twigs in my hair, trying to smooth it down, but to no avail. I point after Emily. “Please forgive this intrusion,” I manage to croak. “That is my wife, you see. No matter. I’m sorry to have troubled you.” I turn and, with all the dignity I can muster, I walk back across the garden, clamber back through the hedge, and re-enter my own house. It is all very quiet. I sit down at the kitchen table in all my filth, and enjoy the silence. I am still sitting there enjoying my silence when the police arrive fifteen minutes later. Miss Brown called them, of course. I can’t really say I blame her.

I’ve been sitting here in the interrogation room for half an hour and so far nobody’s come to speak to me. I’m sure they’ll understand, though – they’ll understand that I won. She didn’t defeat me: I drove her away. It serves her right to be out there, homeless, friendless, a mangy animal good for nothing but ripping up other people’s rubbish bags. That’s what happens when you keep secrets in a marriage. If only she’d been honest with me from the beginning none of this would have happened.

Ah, there’s an officer at the door, at last. He looks smart and no-nonsense, honest, he looks like my sort of chap. I’m sure he’ll appreciate my point of view.

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Anna Rivers

Anna Rivers grew up in Brussels, studied English Literature at the Universities of Warwick and Oxford and now works in publishing in Oxford. She spends her free time reading, writing and practising yoga and is currently working on a novel inspired by her travels in Iceland.