I was born in the worst winter ever. It was said that the ground was so hard, the air so cold, the snow so thick, that my heart froze the moment I was brought into the world.
That and being brought up by a cat.
Mathilda is watching me. I am seven, as is she. She arrived the same day I was brought into the house. Mathilda is fluffy and white and she has green eyes. We are both seven. I am stroking Mathilda. She is purring. She sleeps at the end of my bed every night and is always with me. She has a deep husky purr which I like. It’s a large house and I don’t know where my parents are but it is quiet which is good.
I am looking out of the window. There’s a party going on in one of the flats opposite. People are laughing and dancing. I look into the house and I see my parents, briefly.
And Mathilda, my cat, tuts.
Matilda is French. I like French things. I like cheese, croissants, and berets – all these things are French. So Mathilda is French too but she speaks perfectly good English only in a French accent.
“What are they doing over there?” She says in a French accent.
“ I don’t know,” I say, “they’re at a party.”
“ And you here on your own. Oh ma Cherie, what parents you have!”
Still, at least it is quiet.”
We sit in silence, me looking out at the party over the road and Matilda purring her husky purr with her eyes half shut. It’s about ten and I know that most children — well, some children — will already be in bed and a mother or a father will have told them a story, would have maybe spoken to them until they fell asleep.
So Matilda tells me a story instead.
First you must capture it. That is easy enough. Then when you get one you must not kill it straight away – that is not the way forthe joie de vivre. You must corner it, terrify it, let it think it might escape, give it hope; the hope is very important, ma Cherie, otherwise it might play dead and that is so, so dull. Sometime your little English mice can be very, very dull. And then when you are bored with it, you might kill it. You must never eat it, no, no, no, no, no, that would be so uncivilized, barbaric.”
“That sounds a really nasty, Mathilda.”
“But it's a mouse, ma Cherie.”
“I’m big, it's little.”
“Ma Cherie, it's not my fault it's so small and stupid. Come on, let’s go and kill a house plant together before your parents get back.”
My Mother and Father are rowing. Dad came home late again. Mum’s face was all pink and she lay on the sofa tearing things up, waiting for him. I think they were letters. And now they’re shouting downstairs. In a minute they’ll stop, then they’ll be sobbing and then they’ll go to bed and then they’ll be that other silence. It only happens at night when they’re both home. They squeak, or one of them squeaks, quite loudly from the bedroom. It’s not mice I think. I don’t think there are any mice in their bedroom. Mathilda would have killed them if there were.
But this is before the strange squeaks and they are still shouting at one another. Mum is saying she can’t take it any more, and then Dad always says, ‘well leave then’. I’m never mentioned. I don’t suppose they’d mind if I stayed in the house on my own with Mathilda. It’s ten or eleven at night and I know other children are asleep by now with their stories and their Mothers, so Mathilda quietly tells me how you suffocate birds.
“They’re beautiful, don’t you think, in the air, so certain, so free but on the ground panicky things. So after you’ve terrified them, given them hope, taken away hope, given them hope and then taken it away, you place them inside your mouth, never breaking the skin, and suffocate them. Then you see, they remain whole, still lovely, still beautiful and perfect — well, until they decay. But that happens to all of us, Ma Cherie.
“That’s just horrible, Matilda.” I say.
“Anything weaker and stupider than you should be destroyed. All of us cats think that. And look at me: I eat, I purr, I sleep and I kill. And I’m happy. Oh Ma Cherie, there is so much to teach you.”
And then she starts taking about housemartins again.
“I’ll tell you how stupid birds are. In Autumn they go on these ridiculous flights half way round the world, not to any where nice you know like Italy or Paris but to deserts, you know that big one below Morocco that one, anyway they go there, but they don’t stop before they cross it, oh no, that would be too sensible, they try to fly across it, and most of them die, they die! Because they are crossing a large land mass with no water! How stupid can you get. So the Mum’s, the Dad’s say to their little fledglings, once they’ve sat on them, loved them and hatched them, now you can fly for miles and miles and days and days, then we’ll reach a desert, which we will also try and fly over and where you’ll die. The House Martins I have had in mouth have died less painfully.”
And in the middle of this I hear my parents’ raised voices again and something crashing to the floor and then a thud and then Mum lets out a howl so deep it reminds me of the noise Mathilda makes when they put her in her cat basket. And then there’s silence and a door slams shut.
“Yes,” Matilda repeats. “ The housemartins I have held in my mouth until all air has left them have died less painfully.”
We’re on the roof, looking down. I am now nine. Mum is on the sun-bather in the garden and Dad is rubbing oil into her back. They have forgotten to feed me again. They often forget at weekends and they never remember to feed Mathilda, who I feed. I had frosties for breakfast and I’ve just had frosties for lunch. It’s not so bad. I like frosties. Dad is moving his hands up the back of my Mother’s legs. My Mother is beginning to squeak like a mouse.
Mathilda tutts and we look away.
Mathilda is teaching me to jump.
“Focus” she says, “focus. Be the place you want to land. See it, concentrate on it, be it.”
“I don’t know what you mean,’ I say.
“Watch, Ma Cherie.” She says.
And she crouches and moves her legs back, her hips rocking from side to side, she focus’ and jumps.
And then she’s on next doors roof top looking back at me.
“You want me to jump onto next door’s roof?” I say.
Mathilda half shuts her green eyes. I know this means “Of course Ma Cherie, why ever not?”
My Mother’s squealing is now very loudly.
I crouch, be the landing I want to be. And jump.
I’m flying through air, I’m so high I can see all the gardens in the street, I can see into the scruffy flats over the road, I can see the whole world spread out beneath me like a ripe orchard waiting to be picked. And I land, exactly where I want to be. And Mathilda rubs her white fur against my legs.
This becomes our new adventure. Every evening Mathilda and I climb up to the top of the house and jump. No one sees.
It’s very late. Dad isn’t home. Mum’s face is pink and I can see she’s been tearing up pieces of paper again. They’re all over the floor. I go in to say good night but she doesn’t notice me.
Mathilda is already on the bed, and she watches me with her thoughtful green eyes.
“I think I should be telling you about the intercourse soon, should I not Ma Cherie?” she says.
“The intercourse?” I say.
“ Should you?’
“Oui, Ma Cherie,’ Mathilda says sternly.
“But I’m only ten.”
“Ten! Ten! Oh Ma Cherie, by ten I had had maybe five thousand lovers.”
“When a cat is in season one takes as many lovers as one wishes, maybe as many as fifty. You must learn from this, Ma Cherie.”
“Fifty every time, imagine how happy I am, the freedom, the raptor, the excess. So they are never near my heart, never let them melt the ice, oui Ma Cherie? Oui? If they melt you then you are no longer your own master. Look at your Mother, mmhm? A damaged little thing, given hope and then her hope taken away, trapped, like a stupid mouse or a bird with a broken wing. Your father, he melted her solid heart many years ago and now – look at her. What she needs is a thousand lovers. But you, Ma Cherie, if you take as many as you like, one thousand, two thousand – then no man will ever be master of you.”
I am now 14.
“I came first.”
My Father is watching television.
“I broke the county record for long jump. For my age that is.”
Still nothing. Apart from someone other than my parents arguing, arguing on TV that is. I think the man on TV has been having an affair with someone else and his wife has found out and is threatening to leave him but he’s just laughing at her and telling her to go anyway and then suddenly he grabs her and kisses her and she melts into his arms, like a dick.
“Not second, or third, or last,” I say “but first. That is for all under fifteens for the whole of the county, that’s not the school, or the immediate area, or just to the spa and back, that’s the county —
But Dad still doesn’t hear me. He’s still watching the long TV kiss. So I go into the kitchen.
And I repeat what I have said, to my Mother. She doesn’t listen to me either. I think she’s been crying again.
And then I write them both notes.
“Since I have broken the county record for long jump, I am now in desperate need of new trainers. Special trainers for long jump. Communication on this matter with either parent would be gratefully received.”
Still nothing. So I steal some money from Mum’s purse, she doesn’t notice. I’ve done it before. She never notices.
Then Mathilda falls ill.
Mum listens to me when I place Mathilda’s wheezing body on her lap. Mathilda howls with agony in her cat basket all the way to the vets. She is put on antibiotics but she doesn’t get any better.
I’m away for two days competing. I win again. I’ve just turned 15 and I break the national record for long jump. But when I come home, Mathilda is barely moving at all. She’s been sick and I realize she’s urinated on my bed.
Mum’s not been checking on her. They’ve probably been rowing again, or drunk again, or making up again or fucking again whatever they’ve been doing they haven’t noticed how she needs to be looked after, loved, cared for and now, and now, Mathilda is dying.
I make my Mother take Mathilda to the vet’s by placing my face two inches from my Mother’s face and screaming at her.
The vet wants to put her down but I won’t have her murdered. So we take her home.
That last night I sit on the bed with her, stroking her. She’s in pain, and she no longer purrs her husky purr. Her eyes are watery and she looks at me with all the love in the world, with all the love I ever knew. And then she gives me her final words, her final advice, on how to be, how to love, how to cherish in the world.
“You’re an animal,’ she says, “like me. You’re going to walk through men.”
And then she dies my Mathilda, my friend, my Mum, my Dad.
And I go downstairs. My parents are rowing in the sitting-room.
I collect every piece of paper in the house I can find: cards, notes, bills, birth certificates, passports and I tear them into a forest of snow across the whole house.
The following Autumn I leave for college. It’s a scholarship. I now hold the record for best junior long jump in the UK. It is hoped I will be good enough to represent Britain in the next games.
It’s my first day. Mathilda is next to me, she’s always with me, unseen but there. I’ve been training and I’m sitting by the track, hot and pink from running. I look beautiful. I could be tender. I could be gentle. I could be kind and loving. I look like an ordinary, unassuming, attractive young girl, someone that will do you no harm. A boy is walking over to me.
“It’s Gemma isn’t it? My name’s Tom,” he says.
And I half-close my eyes and wait for him to sit next to me. And the chambers of my tiny frozen heart glisten. And my claws retract and extend and retract and extend.
“Yes” I say, “It’s Gemma. What you doing later?”