The Cat Auntie of Lengkok Bahru
By Paul Tan
Since the encounter with the Policeman, I have come down later to feed the cats. I look at the good side: there are fewer people staring at me, the air is cooler and the cats are less jumpy.
I keep to myself but it was hard not to notice the old man who brings his pillow and blanket, and sleeps on the ledge of the sheltered common area where weddings and funerals are held. He must be enjoying the cool air too, or maybe he is on bad terms with his wife.
My sister says he is not breaking the law. She says it is a common area. But what does she know? She, who thinks the TV newscaster is looking at her with meaningful eyes, and who worried about the drinking water when news of the suicide in the reservoir made the headlines. My sister, the crazy one.
But she lives with me so we have to tolerate each other. I am the cat-loving sister, the practical one who keeps track of our money, the one who cooks the rice, chicken and the occasional ikan kuning for the cats, on top of making dinner for the both of us. I am the one who has a job, sewing curtains and making clothing alterations for the overworked seamstress in the wet market. My sister, well, at least she washes the dishes every night, before she heads to the living room to watch TV.
There are at least eight cats in my neighbourhood and they all quickly draw close to me when they see me, or hear the creak of my trolley wheels. I recognise each one of them, though I never gave them any names. I know the ginger one makes the highest pitched meow; the black and white one, patterned like a cow, likes to rub against my ankles and the one with the stumpy tail is the most aggressive when he is hungry. I used to feed them at early in the evening, after my sister and I had dinner. That's the time when many residents return home. Many of them are tight-lipped, barely grimacing, as if wishing they were somewhere else, or that they deserved better. Though sometimes they stare at me rudely, they never speak to me.
Just once though, one of them kicked a Styrofoam saucer of water and yelled "freak!" But that was the only one lousy incident.
My routine changed when the Policeman came to talk to me last month. I was squatting down, scooping rice on a plate as the cats studied me impatiently.
"Madam, you have to stop "
"Feeding the cats."
"Well, there have been complaints. They say the cats make a mess, and a lot of noise."
"I'm not responsible for their meowing what."
"Well, you are feeding them and making them stay around here."
"If I don't feed them, they will still be around. Very cruel to let them starve."
The Policeman I verified he was not an imposter by checking his ID had nothing to say. I noticed his hands had a few ink stains. Maybe he stays in the office all day and doesn't go out for any assignments. Maybe the only assignments he is given is to stop cat-feeding aunties. Poor thing. He looked distressed, but that could have been a ploy before he got nasty.
"Okay, I stop, I stop. I promise."
I really meant to stick to my promise, and told myself the cats can hunt rats or sticky geckos for their supper.
Until they started talking to me. The first time was at the letterbox when I was going through my mail and throwing out flyers. The one with the stumpy one sidled up to me.
I looked around. Like in the movies, no one was near enough.
"Er, hi cat."
"Why don't you give us names? Humans like to give animals names."
"Er, I dunno."
"I have been called Mei, Billy, Stumpy and Pulot Hitam. Don't ask me why. You humans are weird."
"Why are you talking to me? Have you talked to other people before?"
"Maybe. It's a secret Why don't you feed me? Let me tell you. I am tired of catching geckos and going through the rubbish."
"I can't. The police said "
"Well he is wrong. It's not a crime to feed cats."
"I checked it online and asked my lawyer contacts."
Another cat languorously appeared, a striped grey and black tabby. He purred, "Nobody else wants to feed us. Everyone is too busy, worrying about angry bosses. Or examinations. Or global warming."
Then more of them appeared, pleading me to give them the home-cooked food they missed.
To cut a long tale short, I decided to listen to the well-researched cat who first spoke to me I settled for Stumpy for his name - but decided to delay feeding time till later at night. Just in case.
Stumpy eventually introduced me to the other cats in the community, who all told me they preferred to eat later at night anyway. Something about suppers being better for their digestion and giving them happier dreams when they slept.
Over the weeks, the old man who sleeps on the ledge has become a friend too. He came over to make small talk when a sudden rainstorm woke him up one night. These days, he helps me with the feeding.
There seems to be more of the furry creatures now and while I try to give them all names, as Stumpy suggested, my memory is not good.
The old man explains that his wife talks too much; even in her sleep, she is jabbering. That's why he sleeps outside. The Policeman even tapped him awake once and told him to return home for reasons of safety. But he insisted he wasn't doing anything illegal and that he was not being a nuisance.
In turn, I tell him about my chats with Stumpy, Ginger and Moo-moo and how I learned so much from our conversations about the world about the stars are holes made by the claws of a giant cat on a black canvas sheet and how baby frogs are created when lightning strikes still ponds. He nods attentively as I lay the food out in my Styrofoam containers.
"He is a nice old man, isn't he?" Stumpy asks, suddenly appearing out of nowhere.
"Yes he is. He doesn't look right through me like other residents here."
I tell Stumpy about the sewing I did today and how the seamstress gave me extra money to help feed my pets.
"Oh, look Mr Policeman is here again."
I freeze. Even though the Policeman is not fierce, I am still not my normal self. It's as if I have been caught red-handed doing something bad. The cats slink away. I come to realise the Policeman is shorter than me. He clears his throat.
"There have been some complaints -"
"But feeding cats is not illegal. Tell them Uncle," I implore the old man.
"Yes it is not illegal. Like my sleeping here."
"But littering is a crime. This woman," the Policeman looks at me uncertainly, "has not been clearing up properly. Look, there's uneaten food everywhere. It attracts rats."
The Policeman waves an ink-stained hand to emphasize his point.
I retorted, "But the cats said it is okay. They checked the law and asked the lawyers."
"Madam, you have to stop from now on. Or else I have to issue a written warning."
I wail. I don't know where it comes from. But it is a horrendous cry from the guts of my being, like the sound of chalk on blackboard. A few passers-by crowd around us to see the commotion and someone whips out a mobile phone.
I must have been really loud because my sister appears in the void deck. She says to the Policeman, "I am sorry. He's my younger brother. He likes cats very much. Please let me take him home tonight. So sorry, so sorry. I will clean up the mess here."
She then whispers to the old man before coming to hold my wrist. I push her hand away and squat on my haunches distraught, letting my housecoat ride up mid-thigh. I remember little else of the rest of night but I know at some point, my sister must have dragged me upstairs, as she has in the past. My sister, the apologetic busybody.
Yet in a strange turn of events, the old man looks for me the next evening in our flat. How does he know where we live, I wonder. He looks a little silly carrying his pillow and blanket.
"Come on, the cats are waiting."
"Cannot. I will get into trouble for sure."
"Don't worry. I have spoken to the cats and they say they clean up after themselves."
"They are sorry they are so messy."
My sister calls out from the kitchen. She says she has prepared the cat suppers, and will join us in the feeding tonight. So I nod a careful okay to the old man.
Downstairs, even the Policeman comes to say hello. Surprisingly, he even bends down and strokes Ginger and Stumpy. He tells me he really likes cats too and grew up playing with them at a neighbour's house.
Ever since the cats agreed to clear the empty saucers and containers, everyone is happy. I tell the cats they are good civic citizens and deserve to be in the newspapers.
Last night, I saw the grumpy man who kicked away the water saucer. He was returning home late, staring intently at his phone as he walked. Maybe he isn't so bad either, just that he has lousy days at work sometimes. I think I will be brave and approach him to help me feed the cats next time. Quite clearly, cats make everyone happy and smile more. So this can only be good for him.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013