There was a huge house at the end of my street where Old Jim lived, with all his cats. From what I’d heard, he had one cat for each day of the week, which was strange, but did make a sort of sense. As well I’d heard that he’d been born in that house and had not left since. I’d walk by Old Jim’s house each day on my way to school, and I’d think—each time—what a quiet soul he must be to live all his life in just one house.
His cats died, I guess, from time to time; once in a while a green van would drive up to Old Jim’s house and drop off a new cat in a cage.
Once, the van came as I went past on my way home and when it drove on I saw a white cat in the cage and went to look at it. The cat was so small it fell over when it tried to walk. When it heard me, its eyes went open and they were red, like blood. I put my hand through the bars of the cage and the small cat licked my palm. Its tongue felt like rough bark. I’d not felt a cat’s tongue till then.
Next thing I heard a creak and then there was Old Jim, stark in a white smock, at odds with the dark gloom framed by his door. I thought then what if Old Jim was blind? What if he had no use for light? What if all his cats had huge lunch plate eyes from being so long out of sun?
“Who are you?” said Old Jim.
I don’t know why, but just then I could not think of my name. “I’m from one house down,” I said. I made a map with my hands, to show him.
“Hmm,” said Old Jim. He scratched his chin for a while, like he was on the last round of a quiz show. I liked quiz shows.
“Is this your new cat?” I asked him.
“What makes you think that?” His voice was a deep growl.
“I just thought … he was for you. He’s on your porch.”
Old Jim made a noise: half a sneeze, half a cough. Then he said, “I don’t own them. They’re not mine.”
“But you get them sent to you.”
“I just care for them for a short while. Then I give them back.”
“Why?” My school bag pinned my left hand to my neck, but I kept it there. “I thought the cats all lived with you.”
Old Jim bent down and let the latch off the cage. He picked up the white cat with one hand. The cat looked like a scoop of ice cream, it was that small. He talked to the cat now, instead of me. “These cats are runts,” he said.
“That means they’re small, right?”
“And weak. The mum cat won’t give the runt milk. She can’t waste time on a cat who’ll just die, milk or not.”
“How can she do that? To her own kid?”
“That’s just the way it is.” Old Jim stroked the white cat’s nose. “So they bring the runts to me.”
“And you help them get strong?”
“That’s right,” said Old Jim. “Then I send them back.”
“That’s … that’s really nice of you.”
Old Jim put the cat back in its cage. “What else am I going to do?” he said. “What else.”
I left Old Jim with his cat and walked home. I thought of my own mum. I thought of Old Jim. I thought of all the cats he must have seen come and go. I thought how sad it must be for Old Jim to see all those lives bloom and then pass from sight.
The next time I walk past his house, I will stop and talk. I will try that.