George hated them. They stuck their dirty pig noses into his bin. They sprayed stinky juice over his drying socks. They screeched big time. Hair fell off them. They were local cats - stringy, drawling, gum-chewing felines who poured through Dixie's cat flap all day and all night without end.
Local. George pronounced the word like he was holding it in tweezers. Local meant something different to George. Local didn't mean you lived round here, oh no. After all, George lived round here, and he couldn't be called local. For local, read mentally-subnormal-uneducated-morons who wear clothes with writing on them and enjoy the later works of Stevie Wonder.
Local people. George didn't care for them. He could understand why they existed, and how they had come to be as they were. He even believed they had certain rights. But George occupied a comfy parallel universe and when they or their cats invaded it he wasn't happy.
You don't know how poncey this guy is. Like the time he described the way I was cleaning up the leaves in the garden as interesting.
I could have booted his smug fat face in there and then.
But this is about Dixie, back to Dixie. Dixie was the Mona Lisa of felines and had to be protected from these alien invaders. The tide couldn't be stemmed by George on guard with his supersoaker for every single one of Christ's minutes, so George bought a Flapatronic, an electronic cat flap which can be operated only by the secretly encoded Flapatronic collar.
The day the Flapatronic was installed I was trimming my hedge, using no doubt what George would describe as an interesting technique, and I watched Dixie approach the new cat flap with his usual pimp-roll kiss-my-sweet-ass walk. He pressed his well-bred shoulder to the door and it opened up like butter, snapping shut behind him with a smug and expensive sounding clunk. Exclusive and personalised for this prince of cats.
There was nothing new in this as far as Dixie was concerned; it was life as usual. But the effect on the local cats was fascinating.
A bedraggled ginger tom and a scabby black and white strolled up and pressed their heads against the flap. Nothing happened. The cats looked baffled. But they persevered, battering at the unyielding door for forty-five minutes before giving up and climbing on to the roof of the shed. They spent the rest of the day watching Dixie hopping in and out of the flap with what seemed to be a new nonchalant skip in his step.
What were the local cats thinking? They would be scrutinising Dixie's technique. Was there was some sort of a knack to it, some secret method? Maybe it was the way he wriggled his shoulders when he pushed the door? Maybe something else, something more subtle. Whatever it was, if they watched him for long enough, they would learn the secret. They observed his angle of approach, and the way he lowered his head. They weren't quite sure, but was he lifting one leg off the ground just before the moment of contact? Or was he pausing a moment? Did he sniff at the drain before he pushed the door? Maybe that was it. Maybe it was to do with what he ate beforehand, or perhaps it was the angle of his tail on entry. Was it only at certain times of the day that the door opened for him so wantonly?
George came over, dressed in his weekend gear; torn jeans, an REM T-shirt, converse all stars on his feet.
'How's your fabulous patented leaf control system working, buddy?'
Patented leaf control system. He was so funny, so arch. Here's what I did. I piled the leaves up against my fence until they rotted away. And, uh, that was it.
'The leaf system, as you call it, is working well, I'd say.'
'You know,' he said, 'piling them up against that fence might make the wood go rotten. Just a thought. We might have to watch that, you and I, because it's a shared boundary and if the fence goes rotten then we'll both end up paying.'
I continued to clip the hedge.
'You know, all those damp leaves packed up against the fence?'
I pointed my shears at him. 'Do you know what that pile of leaves is, George? It's a universe, a small universe. Hedgehogs, beetles, ants, all kinds of creatures live in there. We are part of a web, George, a big web, even you play a part, even,' I nodded at his T shirt, ' REM. You either eat it, fight it, or fuck it, that's the food chain, and in the middle of that pile of leaves they are eating each other, fighting each other, and fucking each other and I'm not going to do anything to spoil their fun.'
George looked at the pile of leaves as if expecting it to shift or tremble with all the churning activity within. Then he laughed. 'That's an, uh, interesting way of looking at it.'
'I don't find it interesting,' I said. 'I find it fucking tedious. But it happens to be true, that's all. Everything that's true isn't fucking interesting.'
George walked off shaking his head.
Boundaries. Typical George. Everything is boundaries, defences, walls. Dividing things up, breaking things down.
I went inside, made a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table. I watched the cats outside in the thickening autumn light. Dixie's cat flap had become the door to Nirvana and the greatest cat minds in the neighbourhood were dedicated to solving the problem.
But nothing worked.
Later Dixie appeared again, and one of the cats went over to greet him. This cat must have been elected by the group and he would be asking Dixie straight: Dixie, how do you do it? And Dixie would be telling them everything he knew. Because even though Dixie was owned by that bastard George, he was a good cat, with a strong sense of community.
'Look,' he would be telling them. 'All you do is walk up and push. Watch me, I don't do anything special.'
They followed his instructions but still it didn't work. Dixie was more baffled than they were. He liked his local friends, was happy they wandered in and out, poking their sticky paws into whatever fragrant dainties George had bequeathed him.
Dixie slinked inside, no doubt to ponder on his amazing skill. And after a time he came to the obvious conclusion; Dixie was a cat in possession of magical powers.
Later that evening I saw Dixie again. He was sat on a flowerpot in the middle of a crowd of other cats who leaned towards him as if he were magnetic. In the cat world he must have become a celebrity. How would this affect him? Fame would come, of course, with all the usual trappings; cat drugs, all night parties by the dustbins, and wild three-in-a-hedge romps. There would be relationships with other celebrity cats, like the tabby off the cover of Whiskas Cat Crunchies, a cat I bet every tom in the country would like to get to know better. I hoped that Dixie was level headed enough to deal with what was to come.
For a long while everything was perfectly balanced in our cat community. The local cats accepted that they couldn't use Dixie's cat-flap, and Dixie strolled about with his head in the air like a film star.
Then he disappeared. I didn't see him for weeks until the day George persuaded me that I should take a trip to the local dump.
'Hey, mate,' he called over the fence. 'Much as I love them,' he waved at the old TV and fridge I'd had sat in the back garden for a couple of months. 'Your, uh, outdoor gallery of conceptual art. . . we were wondering whether you needed a hand getting rid? Only I'm taking a trip to the dump this afternoon, and-'
'Oh, thanks for reminding me.' I said. 'I was at the dump myself the other day. I noticed they have a place for old fridges and electrical stuff. I'll go this afternoon.'
'Oh, OK' George said, doubtfully.
It was down at the dump that I saw Dixie. The poor cat wasn't himself. He looked kind of greasy and had a manic glint in his eye that was vaguely hysterical. It was clear that the euphoria of his newfound fame and glory had lasted a short while only. Doubts had set in. After all, what would happen if his amazing powers disappeared? What if he approached the flap and it didn't click open and he thumped against it like the other non-magic cats? He didn't understand his own powers. And with no insight into how his powers worked or where they came from, how could he protect them?
Like many stars, Dixie's doubts and insecurities had sent him spinning into a spiral of decline. So here he was, at the refuse dump, with a wild gang of feral beasts – angry, dangerous animals who'd never been stroked by a human, watched television or been given a wrapped Christmas present. It was sad to see Dixie like this, fallen so far from grace, and I called out his name, thinking if could catch him I could take him home.
But if heard me he didn't let it show.
I picked up a knackered old cooker and a rusted washing machine and loaded them into the car. I didn't really want to litter my garden with this stuff but if it annoyed George it seemed worthwhile.
I was arranging my new junk in the garden next to the TV and fridge when I heard George ringing the doorbell.
'Very funny,' he said. 'But, you know, it's just not just me who. . . there's the neighbours at the back, and there's, I don't know. My wife is squeezing my head about it. And it's the leaves as well, and -'
'Never mind that. I just saw your Dixie down at the tip.'
'That wouldn't be our Dixie. Dixie likes his comfort too much. But we've put a flyer out for him. Didn't you see the one pinned to the tree? Anyway, listen, there's something else. What do you think about the bowling green issue.' He waved his arm towards the park where a little oblong of grass sat manicured and pristine.
'Crown green bowling? George, I'm surprised. You didn't think that was real, did you? Let me explain. It's a bit like Morris dancing. They don't really play the game. It's a re-enactment by the historical society - out-of-work actors paid for by the council.'
'Well,' George said. 'The local kids have started to hang about there - drinking beer, smoking and god knows what.'
God knows what.
'So,' he took out a sheet of paper. Ruled lines and signatures.
'You'll sign our petition, of course?'
I took it from him and was about to scribble Osama Bin Laden in one of the spaces when Cakeshop Face loped over with her big farm girl gait. She was holding a sagging bin liner.
'George, it's Dixie,' she said. 'They found him near the dump.'
We stood and looked at each other for a long time.
I knew what had happened. Dixie was on a slippery slope and unable to fight back. A gang of council estate cats would have introduced him to richer diversions - veterinary prescription drugs maybe. He would have become addicted immediately. He would have put on weight; he would have become obsessed by sex; he would have flirted with mysterious, esoteric cat religions, popular in the south of the city. Eventually, after an all day bender with some self-obsessed ex-sit-com cat, he would have run into the road and, using the same powers that opened his flap, tried to stop the ten ton refuse truck that was roaring towards him.
The eighteen wheeler would have left nothing but a flat wodge of fur and blood.
Cakeshop Face opened the bag and George looked in.
'Oh God,' he said.
Dixie's little body slid into the wheelie bin. Tears were in George's eyes. Cakeshop Face put her arm around him and they went into the house. They didn't say goodbye.
A few weeks later George bought a new cat, a dandified Siamese with a sleek, wry way of looking at me that I didn't like. George fitted Dixie's Flapatronic collar to it immediately. That night I was lying awake, thinking about how George had described the way I keep my CDs in order of acquisition as an interesting approach, when from outside I heard a blood-chilling wail and the rasp of fur and fang against concrete.
The next day a gobbet of offal stained the drive and George was standing near the wheelie bin with his shovel. He looked pained, distracted.
'It's sad,' he said, 'I feel very sad. Two in the same number of weeks.'
'I know,' I said. 'I liked Dixie. He had something. A good sense of himself.'
It sounded like something another man might say.
'Did you realise,' he said, 'that the life of a cat is very complex? We have no idea. They each have a territory and it can be as big as a mile or so. They mark it out with urine and patrol it. That's what they do at night, I think. Imagine; a whole alternative map of the city could be developed based on thousands upon thousands of overlapping cat territories. Just think about that.'
He disappeared into his house, shaking his head.
I decided to tidy up the leaves. George was right. We would both have to pay if the fence rotted. It was a shared boundary and as such required care, respect - love even. For without boundaries how would we ever know where one thing ended and the other began?