Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux
The noise woke him. At first, he thought it had come from the nearby railyard, where the shriek of tortured metal-on-metal sometimes made him fight his way up from the depths of sleep, panting, his scalp itching with sweat. But it wasn’t that. He reached for a cigarette and glanced at his bedside clock: 3 AM.
He lit the cigarette, scratched at his unshaven face and listened intently, mouth open. There it was again, sort of a low keening. A cat? No.
He threw back the blankets and went to the open window. Leaning on the sill, he thrust his head out and turned it back and forth, scanning for the sound.
He looked up at the sky, noting that the low cloud cover seemed strangely bright, the colour of cigarette ash. The reflected light of the city, he thought. He spat into the night and on to all those millions of fools, rushing to and fro, busy about their futile doings, prating about energy and ambition and getting ahead, mistaking their febrile twitchings and monstrous greed for vivacity when what it really was was delirium, the last crisis before the brain and the body collapse into coma.
The keening noise…there it was again…where was it coming from? He tilted his head–first one way, then the other–in an attempt to narrow-down the source of the sound, but he could no longer hear it. He shrugged, spat again, and went back to bed and what he hoped was a dreamless sleep.
Going out the front door in the morning, he was ambushed by Mrs. Applebaum.
“Good morning, Mr. Faber,” she said and peered aggressively into his face, as though she suspected him of impersonating the real Faber, “what is wrong with your cat?”
Faber kept his face blank to keep from laughing. “Cat, Mrs. A? I have no cat.”
“But I am hearing it all night, mister,” she said and she proceeded to do an eerily accurate imitation of the keening sound that had woken him in the early hours. Faber felt an abrupt chill, like a man caught in a cold draught.
“I assure you, Mrs. Applebaum, I have no cat, ” he said curtly, opening the front door.
As he walked down the steps to the street, he heard the old woman behind him, muttering in her native German…or perhaps it was Yiddish? He felt a twinge of guilt for his abruptness. She meant well and she wasn’t a bad landlady; he’d rather she didn’t ‘take an interest’ in him but she did. Not, he thought, out of any prurient nosiness or because she had a prying nature–rather, because she was a good-natured old lady, lonely and bored.
He decided that by way of apology, he’d bring her a small gift when he came home that evening–flowers, chocolates, one of those wretched gossip magazines that she liked so much.
Of course, she’d insist that he come in for a cup of tea and she’d read him snippets from the magazine about the doings of people he’d never heard of while he shook his head and pretended shock or outrage or whatever spurious emotion seemed appropriate. The small, thoughtless cruelties require penance, he thought; the larger cruelties, I can take in my stride.