Meow Mail

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.

Author’s Notes: Originally for the SentinalAngst list.


Tibbles approved of holiday seasons, especially ones where the emphasis was on good food in large quantities. Steak, turkey, goose, ham, interesting fishy bits – any cat knew that these were what a seasonal celebration should be about.

He had more reservations about the other assorted paraphernalia that came with the meals. There had been the unpleasant episode one July when Dora thought he would like a Stars and Stripes collar, and at Christmas she was unreasonably neurotic about his gentle paw pat to the Christmas tree baubles. Tibbles knew exactly how much pressure was needed to make a glass ball spin and catch the light. Accidents only occurred if Dora had failed to attach them properly – probably after excessive indulgence in eggnog.

Thanksgiving was Tibbles’ favourite party. Everyone in the block reliably cooked more turkey than their guests could possibly eat. Neighbours actually looked for Tibbles and offered him slices of it without the need for a gentle hint. In fact he ate so much turkey that he rather hoped some of them would roast a goose or a piece of beef for Christmas just for a bit of variety.

Christmas, as it happened, was a holiday that Tibbles regarded with mixed feelings. He had never quite grasped what it was about, and it sprawled so untidily from just after Thanksgiving until it bumped into New Year. Besides, although significant amounts of food were consumed, cake and gingerbread were not really cat-friendly. Then there was tinsel – scratchy irritating stuff that was inclined to fall unexpectedly from where Dora had draped it to startle a mature cat from his after lunch meditation. Dora grew distracted under the pressure of Christmas shopping and sometimes feeding the cat was displaced from its proper importance in her day. And worst of all, there was the vile eggnog concoction, proof, if any were needed, that human beings were far from the pinnacle of creation.

No, Tibbles wasn’t too sure about Christmas, and he was delighted to find that Jim – heroic, cat-like, feline-sighted Jim – seemed to share his feelings. Food, yes; decorations, no; eggnog on a par with chemical warfare. There were no other humans in Tibbles’ acquaintance as right-thinking as Jim!

Tibbles had been vaguely aware the previous year — the first Christmas after Jim had taken in that scruffy stray, Blair – of arguments next door.  Jim held with dignity to his principles; Blair complained that they should ‘get into the Christmas spirit’. Blair suggested decorations; Jim said no. Blair brought home a tree that dropped all its needles on the stairs, some cinnamon scented candles that made Jim cough and a blonde wearing a very short red coat, black boots and not much else. Jim put the tree out on the balcony and gave the blonde the candles to speed her departure. But all the same, there seemed to be more laughter in the loft than Tibbles had heard before, and little bits of colour and decoration crept in without spoiling the food.

This year there had been no arguments and no laughter either. Tibbles knew why, owing to his judicious policy of listening outside all the neighbours’ doors. An astute cat could plan his day more easily after some careful attention to people’s discussions about dinner, and sometimes he found out other interesting bits of information.

In this case, he discovered that Blair had a mother.  Obviously, Tibbles realised that at some time this had been the case, but it turned out Blair’s mother was still, occasionally, around and liked to see Blair. Probably it was because he was inadequately trained, though Tibbles felt this showed she hadn’t done a very good job in the first place.

Anyway, lying comfortably outside Jim’s door one evening, not bothering to meow because he wasn’t fond of curry, Tibbles had heard all the important bits of the story. Blair’s mother was staying with friends in green and eco-friendly Portland. The friends had moved from a mildly anarchist youth into prosperous middle age and would love to have Blair as well as his mom for the holidays. It would be her only chance to see him for months.

Tibbles knew there was a tendency among his human acquaintances to assume he was neither sensitive nor thoughtful. It was most unjust. Why sensitivity should be associated with skinniness he had no idea and he spent large parts of his day thinking. Admittedly it was mainly about food, but it still necessitated deductive reasoning ( for instance he’d worked out that eco-friendly meant inadequate amounts of meat in a meal) and sensitivity to tones of voice.

Tibbles could tell, because he was both sensitive and thoughtful, that Blair wasn’t sure he wanted to go to Portland. He could also tell that Jim wasn’t happy, but Jim, naturally, dealt with this with stoicism and silence. Jim never whined. Well, perhaps on one occasion when he was expecting steak and got tofu, but even a hero could hardly be expected to endure that silently.

Tibbles did his best to facilitate a helpful conversation about all this. He purred enthusiastically at Blair when he said maybe he’d just go for part of the holiday and he nudged Jim hard when Blair said something tentative about coming back for Christmas. It had no effect. Blair forgot what he was talking about and said, “Hey, look, man, Tibbles is starting to appreciate me.” Jim just kneaded behind Tibbles’ ear – perfectly as always, but not the result Tibbles was looking for. So as soon as he was free from Rainier, Blair had gone.

That had been nearly a week ago. Tibbles had kept a particular look out for Jim, who would now need a pleasantly companionable cat to help him with the left-overs.  That part had gone quite well, but in every other way Tibbles – though by no means the thin and neurotic type – was now seriously worried.

Jim was not right.

For the first couple of days Tibbles put this down to the fact that Jim’s evil pack-leader – the cigar-smelling, cat-stomping Captain Banks – had made him do something called stake-out day and night. Over the time he’d known Jim, Tibbles had learned that in spite of its promising sound this had nothing to do with food and everything to do with hanging around in the cold instead of coming back to a warm apartment and a friendly neighbouring cat.

Maybe Jim was tired from the stake-out and vulnerable to germs; maybe he just ate something that disagreed with him. Anyway, the next day he had a vomiting bug. Tibbles was no stranger to the occasional episode of sickness. He always tried to be discreet, leaving the evidence behind Dora’s chair or outside the door of the bad-tempered vegetarian on the first floor. But once the unpleasant moment was over, Tibbles  felt his usual cheerful self, recovered appetite and all. Jim stopped the hairball noises and returned to work, but he was by no means back to normal.

For two evenings in a row Tibbles slid in with Jim when the door to the loft opened as Jim came back from the PD. For two evenings in a row, Jim slumped on the couch for an hour or more before he wearily got some cold chicken out of the fridge. Tibbles sat patiently leaning on Jim’s leg while he rested, purring a little in case it cheered him up. He waited politely while Jim handed him more than his share of the chicken. And he worried. If Jim was a cat, his fur would be bedraggled and his eyes sticky. Jim had no appetite! Tibbles waited quite a while before eating up the chicken to see if Jim recovered an interest in it, but Jim just drank one of Blair’s weird teas.

Blair called that evening, but Jim was as heroic and as silent as you could be while still holding a telephone conversation. Although Blair did not have the same sort of sensitivity and thoughtfulness as Tibbles, he did ask, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to come back for Christmas?”

Tibbles pushed Jim’s shin with his head.

“No, you have a good time with your mom,” Jim said.

Tibbles meowed at him loudly.

“Better go,” Jim said. “I think Tibbles wants letting out.”

Frustrated, Tibbles decided he would go home and give the matter his deepest thought.  Dora was watching a program about the Christmas spirit, which seemed not to be about either drink or decorations but something to do with the mysterious Christmas baby and being kind to other people. Tibbles resolved to be kinder than ever to Jim, even at the cost of personal inconvenience, and instead of dozing while his chicken digested, he began to consider ways and means. A little later, in spite of the damp cold outside he slipped along to have a word with his nearest neighbour, the bakery tabby.

It was just as well he’d done so, because the next day he realised that Jim was not just under the weather but really not right, in a peculiar way Tibbles had not seen before. For the third day in a row, Tibbles listened for Jim’s characteristic tread in the hallway, and slipped out to walk beside him the last few steps to the loft.

“Hey, Tibbles,” Jim said, but even his voice was not quite right, not just tired but odd-sounding, as if Jim couldn’t hear himself.

Tibbles followed him in and sat neatly beside the couch; he’d groomed carefully so as not to leave stray hairs in Jim’s territory. It was different at home; part of Dora’s role in life was to do little chores liking clearing cat hairs from the furniture. Jim sat down, sighed and stretched out his legs. When Tibbles rubbed up against the nearest one, Jim didn’t seem to notice. His leg felt wrong too, stiff and inflexible. Tibbles arched his back and rubbed more vigorously but it made no difference.

Jim hadn’t bothered to put the light on – he and Tibbles could see quite well in the dim light from outside, but it made it hard for Tibbles to see his expression now. As far as he could make out, Jim was watching the rain hitting the window. It was a vile night. Tibbles had a horrible feeling he was going to have to go out in it.

Time passed. Jim didn’t move. Tibbles’ stomach marked the minutes. Eventually he tried a soft meow. Jim didn’t seem to hear it. Tibbles looked up at him and meowed louder. Jim, who could hear a fly’s footsteps, remained blank. Risking life, limb and the end of a beautiful friendship, Tibbles jumped uninvited onto the couch.

Jim didn’t give even the tiniest sign of noticing.

This was all wrong! Tibbles decided that it was an emergency and justified behaviour he would never normally indulge in. He jumped onto Jim’s lap, kneaded Jim’s legs with his claws slightly extended and head butted Jim hard under the chin. To his relief, Jim coughed and moved. Tibbles jumped hastily down.

“What the fuck…” Jim muttered, rubbing his eyes.

He looked down at Tibbles, maybe trying to remember if he really had just felt a cat’s claws stick into his lap. Tibbles gave a slight rroowwp, just a polite wake-up call.

“I shouldn’t have watched the rain,” Jim said. “Damn it, first my hearing’s haywire then I zone. What the hell is wrong with me?”

Tibbles wondered that too, only without quite as much bad language because he had been unfairly inhibited by Dora. Jim stood up without his usual grace, but at least he was moving. “Lucky you were here,” he said to Tibbles.

It hadn’t of course been luck but Tibbles’ thoughtfulness. He didn’t quibble however, because he discovered that Jim was planning to chargrill a large piece of steak – without any fuss about vegetables, too. Replete, determined to endure any discomfort to help Jim recover from the strange sickness that he had developed, Tibbles plodded out of the door once the steak was gone. There was no doubt in his mind now that Blair, useless as he seemed, served some important part in looking after Jim. Blair must be brought back.

Tibbles went on past his own door, to the end of the hallway where three rather neglected plants were supposed to be brightening up the top of the stairwell. Normally no-one paid them any attention, but one evening a couple of months earlier, Tibbles had seen Blair scrabbling in the earth of the largest pot. His first thought – ‘surely he can’t be going to…’ – had faded to puzzlement, and then understanding as Blair fished out what was clearly a quite illegal spare key to Jim’s loft. He’d watched Blair replace it, and had decided that if they ever came to open warfare he would dig it up and present it to Jim like a mouse. (Tibbles didn’t do actual mice.)

Fortunately that hadn’t happened. Tibbles had a more important plan for the key now. It was a little known fact that, in an emergency, cats could co-operate to get a message sent over quite a distance. A ridiculous amount of fuss had been made of dogs doing this since 101 Dalmatians aired. Midnight barking! Tibbles had heard of it and it was about as useful as Chinese whispers. No, cats had a better system. If at all possible, they sent something tangible. If not, the last cat in the chain found the recipient and did the back-arching, hair-standing-on-end, I-can-see-something-strange and-supernatural trick known to all cats. With any luck, said recipient would then be alarmed enough to call all his friends and relations and find out what was wrong.

Tibbles didn’t have to rely on the acting ability of some distant cat, though. He would send the spare door key. Even Blair could hardly fail to get the message from that.

Carefully Tibbles dug out the key and set off for what he knew was going to be a long wet and unpleasant walk. His first stop was the tabby at the bakery, a pretty and trim little cat in whom Tibbles would probably have been interested if it wasn’t for the evil interference of the V.E.T. He got rather wet and windswept even getting that far. The tabby, as she’d promised the previous evening, went along with him into the territory of the tom at the filling station, a bruiser called Rocky.

Tibbles felt his wet, cold fur try to stand on end, but Rocky, though distinctly rough in his manner, was apparently good at heart. Like the tabby, he listened with interest to Tibbles’ story.

“Sure he’s not on something?” he said. “Catnip for humans, know what I mean?”

Tibbles hid any indignation. After all, he was the one asking the favour. “No. Nothing like that,” he said. “I think he’s sick.”

“Good guy is he?”

“Very generous,” Tibbles said. “He gave me half his dinner.”

Rocky nodded, impressed. “Well, hang around for a while. We’re busy tonight so you may be in luck.”

Tibbles hung around till well into the evening. In spite of the slight shelter around the rest room, he grew colder and wetter and more and more worried about the chance of finding a travelling cat. Then not long before midnight Rocky came up in a hurry.

“Quick. I think this one will do. She’s fluffy and spoilt, but she’s on her way to Portland and she says she won’t let you down. Come on now while her owner’s inside.”

To Tibbles awe and envy, Rocky could open car doors. Inside, a vision of well-brushed white fur was bouncing with eagerness.

“I’m so excited! I’ve never had a chance to be part of a meow mail before! I promise I’ll get it there!”

Meow mail?!  Tibbles looked at Rocky, who shrugged. Maybe it was a she-cat thing. Hastily Tibbles explained what was needed, described Blair, perhaps rather unflatteringly, and handed over the keys. He was glad that two of his many talents were listening and having a good memory. He was able to tell her where Blair was staying and even a few tit bits of news about the area it was in.

In spite of the fluff and the over-enthusiasm, the she-cat seemed reasonably intelligent. She repeated all his instructions correctly, and hid the key under her cushion.

“Princess!”

He’d been just in time! That was evidently her servant returning and seeing the car open.

Rocky shot off in one direction; Tibbles moved with rather less agility in another. He picked himself out of a puddle in time to hear the voice saying, “My poor darling! Were those rough cats bothering you?”

Rough cat! Tibbles should have been indignant but actually he felt a twinge of pride. Perhaps he was getting rougher. It was Jim’s good influence after years of emasculation by Dora (and of course, more literally, by the evil V.E.T.)

He saw Princess press her nose to the window as the car left and thought she winked. Although she was not the choice he’d have planned, he felt remarkably hopeful as he trudged home, in spite of the fact he was actually shivering and he ached all over. Not far from Prospect a stray hissed at him, but Tibbles, buoyed by the thought of being a rough cat, hissed back and amazingly the stray fled.

Smug, in spite of stiff legs and appallingly bedraggled fur, Tibbles reached his own building and nipped in between the legs of the bad-tempered vegetarian who was coming in late from some meat-free orgy. He was tired, and colder and wetter than he’d ever been in his life, but it was worth it.

Dora – quite appropriately – greeted him with cries of relief and exclamations of horror. More usefully, she rushed to find towels and warm blankets and a saucer of hot milk. She was really a good servant, Tibbles conceded. She had failings, but she did her best. And he had done his! It was out of his hands now. He curled up close to the radiator and fell asleep comforted by the thought that white fluffy females with pretty pink noses could generally get someone to do what they wanted.

Worn out by his adventures, Tibbles had to drag himself out the next day to check that Jim was going to work. Once he was reassured of this, he went back to bed, only stirring for breakfast, brunch and lunch. (Happily, Dora believed that eating well would keep off a cold.)

By the time Jim came home, he was feeling almost his normal self again, though there was a twinge in one paw and his fur was not quite right. He padded quickly along to follow Jim into the loft, and Jim courteously held the door open.

“It’s only Wonderburger,” he said.

Tibbles purred loudly. He was very fond of Wonderburger and could not understand what some less tasteful people – like Dora and Blair – could possibly have against it. He kept a close eye on Jim, but although Jim was clearly not right, he was also being careful. Twice Tibbles saw him start to watch something –first  the fire, then the bubbles in his beer – and jerk back from getting lost in it.

Tibbles started to calculate how long it might take for his message to get to Blair. Princess might have been in Portland by around two in the morning if they hadn’t stopped again. Would she have found someone that night or would she have waited for morning?

Just as the burger was all gone, Tibbles heard the elevator. He sat up. It was not the regular time for anyone on this floor. Jim sat up too. He turned his head in the way that indicated heroes or cats were listening to something important. Tibbles was sure he recognised the footsteps in the hallway. He meowed loudly at Jim.

“You’re right,” Jim said, hastily opening the door. “Blair!”

Blair looked rather tired and bedraggled too, though nothing like Tibbles had been.

“Hey,” he said. “Jim! What have you been doing to yourself?”

Tibbles approved, and gave Blair a more enthusiastic rub than he’d intended. With all his faults, Blair could see what was important.

“Stomach flu,” Jim said briefly. “I’m fine now.”

Tibbles didn’t even have to make a noise. Blair obviously wasn’t fooled by this. Before he had his jacket off he was asking personal questions and generally fussing — but in a good way, Tibbles thought; a way that meant Jim would be properly looked after now. It was a bit too much work for even the most talented cat.

As the burger was all gone, and Blair was mentioning vegetable soup, Tibbles thought he might go home  and finish his rest. Dora would probably still be susceptible to hints he needed extra nourishment.

As he finished the bowl of chicken that a carefully timed sneeze had encouraged Dora to produce, Tibbles heard laughter from next door. He wandered back out into the hallway.

“I tell you, this horrible stray tom cornered me, Jim, literally. I tripped over a trashcan trying to get around it! Then it walked up to me and seriously, it was like cat of the Baskervilles. It was huge! And it looked me over as if it was planning which limb to bite.”

“Very scary, Chief, but I‘m not sure why that put you off Portland.”

“That’s because I haven’t got to the really creepy bit yet. It gave a horrible yowl, then it dropped something by my feet, and when I picked it up, it was the loft key!”

Blair paused dramatically. Tibbles smiled to himself. He knew what was coming…

“Your key’s hanging up over there,” Jim said. “You forgot it.”

“Oh. Yes. You’re right, man. Must just have been a weird coincidence,” Blair said hastily. “It really looked like the key, that was it. Anyway, don’t let’s get off the point. When I saw it, I guessed I should be home. That’s what’s important. I managed to hitch a ride with a guy bringing a truck of roses up, and as soon as I saw you I knew I was right. Stomach flu; that can play hell with your electrolytes. Your whole system could be out of whack. You need to tell me exactly what you’ve been experiencing!”

“I’m experiencing the thought that maybe someone got an extra key to the loft cut without mentioning it to me,” Jim said, not distracted.

“Jim! Weird cats. Mysterious happenings. Home for Christmas!”

“The home for Christmas bit’s not so bad,” Jim admitted.

Satisfied, Tibbles strolled away.

On Christmas day, sated with lunch and with the company of Dora, Mabel, Dora’s cousin and Mabel’s neighbour, Tibbles meowed quietly outside the loft door. To his surprise it was Blair who let him in. “Jim tells me you looked after him while I was away, so I suppose the least I can do is give you a bit of duck.”

Duck? They’d had duck! Tibbles had thought he was too full to eat another scrap, but suddenly he found a little room. The loft was looking brighter and a last minute tree had found its way into one corner. It still had needles, so probably Jim had supervised its appearance. Tibbles walked over to it and eyed the baubles. Gently he patted one and watched it catch the light.

“Tibbles! No!” Blair said.

“Leave the cat alone,” Jim said from the couch where he was looking much better and more Jim-like. No doubt he was full of duck. “Tibbles knows how hard to tap a bauble. If they’re fixed on properly they won’t come off.”

Tibbles felt a huge purr rising. Blair said indignantly, “That is so unfair!  If it was me patting the baubles… Don’t laugh like that man, I’m not saying I want to get down and play with Tibbles I’m just pointing out…”

Jim went on laughing. It was a good sound.

~ End ~