On the first date she had asked him who his favourite author was, and he decided to go for broke, he’d just tell her the truth. “Homer,” he said. And she’d narrowed her eyes at him, just a little suspiciously, and said, “Which translation?”, and he knew right then that he’d fall in love with her.
The date hadn’t been going particularly well up to that point. They’d run out of things to say during the starters, and Nik wished they had gone straight for the main course, this evening was going to be long and awkward. But now her face brightened up, and she was full of the same energy he had glimpsed when she’d been talking to her friends, the energy that had made him pluck up the courage and ask her out in the first place. “I must confess, I have a sneaking love for E V Rieu,” she said. “I know it’s not the most accurate translation, and at times it’s almost unforgivably populist. But it was the version my father had in his library, and when I was a little girl I used to go downstairs past my bedtime and sit underneath his desk and read from it. When I read E V Rieu, I can still smell my father I think, it makes me feel so warm and happy.”
Her name was Helen, and she was his Helen of Troy – and she didn’t have a face that could launch a thousand ships, she wore glasses that were much too big, and there was always some spot or another growing on her chin, and whatever she tried to do to it her hair would remain defiantly mousey. But she was his Helen of Troy, and he thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and whenever she was with him he felt good and somehow at peace. When he kissed her after that first date it was soft and sweet, and he tried to work out what it tasted like but could come to no firm conclusions. And she told him his kisses tasted like books, like paperback books, and he could see that wasn’t a criticism, her eyes sparkled as she said it, and with her he thought himself attractive and witty and wanted. And those first few months they’d read Homer together, their favourite passages, out loud, taking turns; and Nik would always remember one particular Sunday when they sat up in bed naked reading Achilles’ lament, and all those afternoons now rolled into one – it couldn’t have always been Sundays, it couldn’t always have been raining, it couldn’t always have been necessary to have that little portable heater at the end of the bed going full blast – but that’s how it seemed.
They didn’t read Homer all their lives, of course. They got married and Helen took his surname, Helen of Troy became homely little Helen Perring. And things changed, and there wasn’t always time for recitations, and sometimes there wasn’t much time for Sunday cuddles either. He had his parents, and she had her mother, at least for a while – and how they liked to visit, and how much cuddle time those visits stole from them! And then they had children of their own, one boy, one girl, and that was it, cuddle time was out the window, and with it any consideration for poetry, especially poetry that was long and epic and full of heroism. The day to day routine of work and sleep seemed really very far away from heroism, and entire years were lived by Nik and Helen together that had no heroics within them whatsoever. But he always loved her, and she always loved him.
“Now, you’re not going to be silly about this, are you, Nik?” Helen said, in that slightly disapproving and fiercely practical way he’d got used to, the voice that so many of his friends thought was cold but he knew was anything but. “You aren’t going to get depressed or anything. You have to keep going, I wouldn’t like it otherwise.” And he promised. She tried some months of chemotherapy, and her hair fell out, and it made her sick, and he could see how weak she was. “It’s such a bore,” she said to him, “but I think the cure’s worse than the cancer. I’m going to stop. This isn’t how I want to die.” And there was nothing grand or epic about her death, the doctor said she just slipped away, and that that was the kindest thing. And she wasn’t sent off with a funeral pyre, the skies didn’t blacken with her loss, and the old gods weren’t in attendance.
And Nik missed her, of course he did. “Try not to miss me,” she’d said, “there’s no point in that.” And she’d looked so forthright when she’d said it, she wasn’t going to take any of that missing-her nonsense – and he’d almost laughed, because she was lying on the hospital bed looking feeble, and so thin that she might have blown away in the wind; what right had she got to still sound so strong and so insistent? He kissed her then, and he still couldn’t work out what she tasted of, and he hoped that to her he still tasted of paperback books. He tried not to miss her, he tried to obey. He tried to think of her only practically, and with measured happiness, and without grief. But he did miss her nonetheless.
Nik was surprised that the best advice of the day turned out to be the vicar’s. The whole funeral there’d been nothing but advice thrown at him, from all the well-wishers and mourners and long lost family members from Helen’s side, Nik had no idea that so many people he barely knew could have become so expert at his dead wife and the gap that would be left without her. And at the service itself the vicar had seemed the least help of all, with his guff about God and solace and being in a better place, Nik didn’t need any of that. So when the vicar approached him at the wake, glass of wine in one hand, sausage on stick in the other, Nik was wary. But there was nothing Godly about what the vicar had to say. “Try reading the local paper,” said the vicar, in hushed tones, as if this were some big secret no one else should hear, as if widowerhood had conferred some special local paper honour upon Nik’s shoulders. “The local paper will tell you what’s what, there’s lots of things going on right under your very nose!”
The local paper was delivered free on a Thursday, and Nik usually flung it straight into the bin. But by the time his first Thursday without Helen rolled around, Nik had decided he would give it a go. It wasn’t that he was lonely; he would tell Gemma and Pip that, he didn’t want them worried, and they were good kids, they’d rallied around and offered help when help was needed – but they had their own lives to get on with, Nik knew that, he didn’t want to get in their way, this grief was his now, it was his. But it was true that now the hospital visits were over, now that the day to day focus on his wife was gone for good, Nik didn’t have anything to fill his time with. The local paper was full of suggestions. There was a local choir, a local cricket club, local groups that took coach parties into London to see popular musicals. Nik tried them all, but found that he sang too flat for the choir, that the cricketers bowled too fast and batted too slow, and, as he’d long suspected, he couldn’t get his head around musicals, he didn’t know why everyone kept bursting into song like that. Salvation came, most unexpectedly, as Nik one day looked through the small ad pages.
‘CAT FOR SALE’, said the ad. ‘Housebroken, very friendly, good with children, from a loving home. All vaccinations up to date, spayed. Can recite Homer clearly in English translation. Four years old Persian, black fur, perfect for small or large family. Call to enquire.” Nik had never much liked cats, but he called to enquire anyway.
He went around to inspect the cat the very next day. The cat didn’t look very impressive. It was a bit overweight, and the fur wasn’t black, not proper black, it was like a sort of dark brown. The cat didn’t seem too impressed by Nik either; he took one look at his prospective new owner, glared, yawned, then went to sleep. “He’s very friendly, properly housebroken,” said the woman. “Ideal for any family, large or small, spayed, vaccinated, the lot.”
“You say he can recite Homer?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “The Iliad and The Odyssey, one after the other, straight through. We gave it a listen once. The kids got a bit bored, it’s very nice, but there are no pictures or anything, it’s not what you’d call real entertainment.”
“I don’t see how it’s possible,” said Nik.
“Well, he’s been trained,” said the woman, and nodded succinctly as if that explained everything. When it clearly didn’t, she sighed, added, “A very good actor trained him, famous, can’t remember his name now, you’d recognise him from the telly. I mean, the cat has no idea what he’s actually saying.”
“That would be ridiculous. He’s a cat.”
“He just imitates. But he does it very well. Does the voices and everything.”
“I’d like to hear the cat in action,” said Nik.
“Well,” the woman said doubtfully, “we could do that. If you really want. But it’s taken ages to get the cat back to the start again. You see, there’s no rewind button. Once he starts, he’ll just carry on with it, every time he performs he’ll just resume from where he left off. I’ve got him all set up nice and ready for a new customer, it’ll be harder to sell him if he’s just left hanging in mid-canto.”
“If he can really do it,” said Nik, “then I’ll buy him.”
So the woman went to fetch a whistle. It was blue and plastic. “One blow on this will start him off,” she said. “Another blow will put him in pause mode. Like so.” She blew on the whistle. Nik could hear nothing, but the cat obviously did. Fast asleep as he was, his eyes opened wide in an instant. He yawned, climbed out of his basket lazily. He stared at Nik irritably, as if knowing full well he was the cause for this disturbance. And then the cat stretched. He clambered up on to his hind legs, teetering back and forth for just a moment til he got his balance upon them. Nik could now see that he had a white patch on his exposed belly, and the cat affected an expression of solemn dignity, that dash of white against the off-black suit made him look like a butler. The cat puffed out his chest, put his front paws down smartly by his sides, lifted the head towards his audience. And began to declaim.
“Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!”
The voice was thick and theatrical, and far too low for the cat’s comfort, Nik thought he must be straining his throat performing Homer through that resounding bass baritone. But if the cat were suffering he was too professional to show it, he spoke out with confidence and apparent understanding.
“Good, isn’t it?” said the woman.
“The translation is Alexander Pope’s,” said Nik. “It’s not one of my favourites.”
“But, bearing in mind it’s coming out of a cat, I have to admit, I’m impressed.”
The cat was still reciting, something about levelling Troy’s proud walls to the ground. The woman took the whistle once more, gave it a single blast, and the cat stopped dead. He froze into position for a few seconds, mid-sentence as the Greeks shouted joint assent to engage in war. Then he stuck his tongue out, just the once, and then collapsed in on himself, sinking down to the floor. He stared at the humans expectantly, as if waiting to see whether or not the recitation was stopped for good, or whether this was just the briefest of toilet breaks and he’d soon be required to heave himself back up on to his hind legs again.
“Good boy,” said Nik. “Or good girl. Well done.” He didn’t know how to talk to cats. And he reached out awkwardly to pat it on its head.
“I wouldn’t,” said the woman, stopping him. “If you want him as a loving pet, then, yes, lavish him with all the strokes you want, he can’t get too many of them. But if you want him to be a working cat then that’ll confuse him.”
“Well, I don’t want to confuse him,” said Nik, “that’d be cruel. And I’ve had quite sufficient love in my life already.” The cat blinked at him, in a manner that Nik found almost insolent, got back into his basket, and went to sleep. And even though Nik didn’t much like the cat, and the Pope translation had always been rather too florid for his tastes, and utterly disregarded the pure dactylic hexameter for iambic pentameter, and the woman was now charging rather more for the cat than she had suggested on the phone, Nik bought the cat anyway. He bought him, and paid a little extra for the basket, and paid a little extra for a litter tray and six and a half tins of cat food, and paid a little extra for the plastic whistle.
The cat didn’t make a sound all the way back in the car. “This is your new home,” Nik said to the cat, and felt a bit stupid, it wasn’t as if the cat would answer him, was it? “I think I shall call you Homer.” And the cat fixed him with a beady look, as if to cast disdainful judgment upon that little predictability. He didn’t look around the house at all, showed not the least interest in it. He ate his food in as matter-of-fact a way as possible, shat discreetly into the litter tray, and curled up into the basket as if getting rest before a shift of work.
That evening, after supper, Nik didn’t bother with his television. He sat himself down in his favourite armchair, poured himself a glass of wine, and whistled for the cat. And the cat appeared in the doorway, already on its two legs, strode purposefully into the room, took a stance that was formal and proud, and transported Nik to ancient Troy. And Nik basked in it, and it was good.
Patroclus was killed by Hector, and Hector was killed by Achilles, and Achilles was killed by an arrow in his heel, that must have hurt. And Agamemnon roared, and Menelaus whined, and Odysseus schemed – and the cat was so good at doing all the voices, he got their characters just right. And Helen, Helen was nothing like his Helen, who had been steadfast and loyal and true, and whenever her name was mentioned Nik would cry a little, and he told himself that was the power of poetry three thousand years old, he told himself it was his mourning the fate that would surely befall Troy. Because Troy fell. As Troy has always fallen, and it might be because the gods decreed it, or because literature has demanded it, in so very many translations, across so much time. Troy fell, and Nik got greedy, as the poem neared its climax he made the cat perform for longer and longer sessions, until after a seven hour all night bout the cat got giddy and fell over.
“Oh!” said Nik. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” And he blew the whistle, and the exhausted cat, limp on the floor and wheezing but still forcing out Alexander Pope, came to a shuddering stop.
“I’ve worked you too hard,” said Nik. “Let’s take a break for a while. Here, let me feed you. Here, let’s put on some television! We can watch television for a bit, would you like that?” And he felt the urge to stroke Homer the cat, but he resisted – he wasn’t even sure Homer would like to be touched, this was a cat that could release the words of Zeus and Apollo, this was an oracle, he might find it disrespectful. So instead Nik put the basket up on to the sofa beside him, and together he and the cat watched some sitcoms, and Nik laughed in spite of himself, and even the cat looked amused.
And, around that time, one of those mornings as Troy tottered and fell, a little padded envelope came in the post. There was no note inside. Just a small plastic whistle like the other. But this one was red.
“Are you properly rested?” Nik asked the cat that evening. “Are you sure you’re okay? Not much on the telly tonight, what do you think? The Iliad’s done, what do you say we dip our toes into The Odyssey?” And this time he blew the red whistle.
He was so used to the blue whistle being silent, and Nik had taken to giving it a good hard blast. He now did the same with the red, and the noise that came out of it was shrill and piercing. It set his teeth on edge, it shrieked in his ears. It quite frightened him, cutting through the peace of the house like that, and for a split moment he wondered ridiculously who was making such a ghastly sound – when it was him, he knew it was him. And the effect on Homer was different too. No lazy stretch into position this time – no, he jumped on to his hind legs in a trice, as if he’d been given an electric shock – and that may have been true too, for his fur was standing up on edge, and there was the faint smell of something burning in the air. And the cat began to recite.
Over the past weeks Nik had grown to love Alexander Pope. Pope made the story a little harder to follow than he might have needed, and sometimes Nik felt he cramped the Greek original with the constraints of his own style, but it had a melody to it, and Nik would sometimes dream hearing that melody, the iambic pentameter running through his head. What came out of the cat now was not Alexander Pope. It was nothing like Pope. The translation was entirely different – strange and jarring, ugly – no, worse, actually dissonant, actually painful; it was like Homer’s great poetry was being brutalised, the words clumsily thrown together without thought or sense, something great was being made stupid and trivial and bad; “Stop that!” said Nik uselessly, as the cat dragged itself gamely over the lumpen metre and the atonal rhythm, “Stop!”, but the cat couldn’t stop, though Nik thought his eyes pleaded for him to make him stop somehow, it was as if the ineptness of the verse was cutting the inside of Homer’s throat. Nik grabbed for the whistle, old faithful blue, and gave it a silent blow. The cat stopped. And it was only now, in the sudden silence, that Nik could hear how fast his heart was racing, that he was panting with panic, sweat was pouring off his brow.
Nik went to the bathroom. Splashed his face with cold water. Splashed again, and felt himself calm down. And then, relaxed once more, thank God, Nik went back into the sitting room.
And there was Homer. And Homer hadn’t relaxed. He was still standing bolt upright, quite stiff. Only the tail was moving, thrashing about with, what? anger? fear? The tail and the eyes, which were larger than Nik had ever seen them, wide and rolling. And still that smell of burning in the air, as if somewhere a fuse had been blown. “Hey, boy,” said Nik, “hey, it’s all right, you can rest now.” And he reached out instinctively, to hell with the instructions, he’d give the cat a pat on the head – but then pulled his hand away, the cat was hot, Nik’s fingers were scorched at the touch.
“Here,” said Nik, as soothingly as possible. “Here, come on boy.” He took out the blue whistle, blew at it again. He didn’t know what that would do, whether it would switch the cat on or off. It did neither. The cat glared at him in desperate fury.
He picked up the red whistle again. And it was hot too, he dropped it, he had to go to the kitchen and put on his oven gloves. And he could smell it, that same acrid stench hanging around it. He knew better to blow it hard this time, he’d be careful – he mustn’t anyway, he shuddered at the thought of his lips tightening around it, that they might blister at its very heat – but as he raised it to his mouth he felt there was something forcing him to do this, forcing the mouth open, forcing him to thrust the spout of the whistle in, forcing him to take a deep breath and blow as hard as he could…
And this time he cried with pain as he did so, the noise was shriller still, and he felt something pop in his ear, and he expected that when he put his hand to it there’d be blood and bone pouring out (but it was all right, it was all right, there was nothing, but oh, it hurt) – and the blast hung in the air for too-long seconds like the flare of a toothache – and the cat slumped to the carpet, the invisible ropes that had been holding it upright had at last been cut.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he did pick up the cat this time, he held it in his arms, and it bit him.
That night Nik was woken by the sound of Greek soldiers in his living room. And there he found Homer, standing on hind legs once more, every nerve of his body quivering, and the voice issuing out of it was especially grand and sonorous – “Stop, bad cat!” said Nik, but the bad cat was having none of it, because Odysseus was on his way home to Ithaca and he had no idea of the trials and tribulations in store, and there was no time to waste, he had to start that voyage as soon as possible or how would he ever get home? And Nik found the red whistle, but this time it didn’t want to be blown, it was cold to the touch, almost icy, he put it between his lips and it was like a dull dead thing, and when he blew it it made no sound – it wanted him to listen instead to the story his cat was trying to tell him. And the verse now felt archaic, like the translation by George Chapman, and yet it was in the classical hexameter, like Richard Lattimore – but it was neither of them, this was coarse, there was no gilding the words with careful poetry this time, and when the cat spoke it sounded like bald truth. And Nik couldn’t help it, he was spellbound, in pyjamas as he was he sank into his armchair and listened. Odysseus braved the one eyed Cyclops, and met the enchantress Circe who turned his men into pigs, he sailed right between Scylla and Charybdis and he had to be bound fast to resist the lure of the Sirens. Bald truth it was, a man suffering misfortunes beyond imagining or sense, all in the quest to get home and find his wife, and Nik cried, he cried so much. And the cat seemed to be crying too, its eyes were running, but Nik thought that might be with pain, it had been standing up now for eight hours straight, and it was dawn, and suddenly the cat stopped, and Nik flinched at the sudden quiet, and realised that light was flooding into the room – and the cat said:
“She is waiting for you.”
Just that. And then it collapsed.
Nik picked up its unconscious body and put it in its basket. He checked to see if it were still breathing – it was shallow, but Homer was still alive. Nik stroked at its fur. “It’s okay,” he whispered. Some of the fur came off in a thick clump.
The cat didn’t sleep long. Nik had left the room, just to go to the bathroom, and when he returned was delighted to see the cat was awake, its eyes were open and gleaming, its tail was wagging. “Homer!” he said – and at the sound of his master’s voice it seemed that the cat activated, it sprung up out of its basket, it landed nimbly upon its back legs, it stiffened into position – “No, no, you mustn’t,” said Nik, but it was no good, and his voice sounded so feeble against the cat’s own, as again out of the animal poured that voice, that hateful voice, the polished tones of a seasoned British actor enjoying his performance just a little too much and to hell with the pain it might cause.
And on Odysseus travelled, and this time he went to other worlds. He reached a land where the people were no more than an inch tall. He got taken on a quest to throw a ring into the heart of a mountain, to nations ruled by messianic lions and witches dispensing Turkish Delight, to an enchanted forest where magical countries balanced upon the tops of trees. And to places Nik couldn’t even begin to recognise, where the seas were made of skulls and the skies were made of blood and people breathed sand and drowned in thin air. And how the cat spat out these stories, the stories that wouldn’t stop, the odyssey that would just never ever end – and Nik took that red whistle and he destroyed it, he stamped it underfoot, and still the stories wouldn’t stop; the cat propped himself up against the wall now, he was so very weak, and the fur was falling off his poor breaking body, and he was sick. “She waits,” he said, and shut up, and died.
Nik buried Homer in the garden. He did the very best job he could.
And he went to bed, he hadn’t slept properly in days. And he dreamed of Helen.
He dreamed of his last attempts to see her. He’d been at the hospital, and he’d told the nurse that he wanted to visit his wife, and the nurse had said it was past visiting hours. And he’d explained, very calmly he’d thought, that she was dying. She was dying right now, that he just didn’t want her to die alone, he didn’t want to miss out on anything she might want to say to him. And the nurse said, and it probably wasn’t cruelly meant, why would it have been, it was probably meant to reassure – the nurse said, everything Helen would have wanted to say to him would have been said by now. That he should let Helen sleep. What would be the good of that, he’d asked, and he admitted now he probably wasn’t calm, she’ll be asleep forever soon. – And he hadn’t seen her that one last time, the time before that became the one last time instead, and Helen died in the night, the doctor said she just ‘slipped away’, and no one knew exactly when, it might have been the Friday or the Saturday, who could tell? – Who could tell, because the skies didn’t blacken at her loss, and the old gods weren’t in attendance.
Nik felt something heavy on his chest, and something speaking close, and he opened his eyes, and there it was, there was the cat, and it was standing on its hind legs again, and it wasn’t as erect as it had once been, Nik could see how weak it was, and the fur had fallen off its body, it was as bald as Helen had been when she died, and he could see a trace of crusted vomit on Homer’s dead mouth where it had been sick. And it didn’t declaim. It whispered to him a story.
It told the story of Odysseus, now near the end of his journeys. All his men lost, now travelling alone, and after having seen so much wonder, and suffered so much because of it, and still not yet losing hope of seeing his wife again. And he went to Hades. He crossed the river Styx, and paid the ferryman, passed the treble headed dog that guards the underworld and keeps the dead from the living. And Odysseus found there Mrs Helen Perring. With her big glasses and her always mousey hair. “Oh, God,” said Nik. “Let me go,” said Helen. “I miss you so much,” said Nik. “Let me go,” said Helen. “I love you, and I never told you enough.” “Let me go, let me go, please, please, let me go.” And Nik apologised to her, and it was an apology for everything, for all the times he’d let her down, that his love had been found wanting, for all that he had never deserved her. And then, yes, he let her go.
Nik dried his eyes. Then he dried Homer’s eyes. Homer seemed grateful for that, his tail wagged a little.
Nik gave Homer some breakfast. “Come on,” he said, “to keep your strength up,” and Homer tried to eat, and Homer just wasn’t hungry. So Nik set Homer down upon his lap, his poor dead cat, and began to stroke him. The cat was cold to the touch, the fur had gone, there was mud, bits of leaves. “I’m not letting you die on me again,” said Nik. “You’re all I’ve got now. And you’ll never have to read to me, not any more. Job done, boy. Good job done.”
And he had an idea. He picked a book off the shelf, the only one he could reach without disturbing his pet. And he began to read aloud. Softly, soothing, he read to his cat. It didn’t matter what he read, it doesn’t matter. And a cat who had never made a sound to his master, not in his real voice, began to purr. And as Nik told his cat stories, he thought he saw new fur pricking at its skin.