Tuesday, 8 May 2012

TRISTIS - A Short Story

(Written in 1997, recalled today after we left our much loved Tinkerbelle in the Vet's for overnight repairs.  A contribution to the Nobel Women's Initiative this week to stop the rape of women in conflict situations)



The rest of the litter was black and white - more white than black in fact. They were fluffier looking than he was – the convalescing James thought of the black kitten as a "he".
"Look, Mum!"
"What is it?"
"Look at the black kitten!"
"What about him?"
"He's different".
"Of course, he's different, he's black."
"I didn't mean that."
"What did you mean then?"
“I just meant that he was .... different,"

and Monica heard his voice trail away with a drop in pitch that said "It's not important, forget it."

Instead, he continued to stare at the black kitten himself. He had noticed that the little fellow was popular with all of his black and white sisters. (James thought of them as sisters.)

At different times one or other of them would search him out, and stare at him. He would accept the invitation to play, and they would tumble in the grass or run together after a blowing leaf. He had watched this scene for days as he convalesced and had always waited with a secret dread for the big tom-cat to appear at the end of the garden wall.

Once they became aware of him, the kittens all scampered to the shelter of an old door that lay longwise against the wall of the garden shed.

The tom-cat, big and grey and strong, then went to one end of the door. There was a pitiful sound of screeching from one of the kittens while all of the others tumbled headlong through the opening at the end near to James and hid themselves fearfully under the clematis.

All but one. For the unusual thing this morning was that the black kitten had turned back when he heard the screaming. The tom-cat left his quarry inside and chased out to get rid of the intruder. But the black kitten had humped his back, then hissed and spat.

The tom-cat pounced once, got scraped and moved away. Eventually, he scaled the wall, looking back only once with a sour puss, then disappeared from view.
By now, all of the five kittens were playing again; but James followed with his eye every action, every movement of the black. Monica opened a tin of cat food.
"You like the black fellow, I can see."
"I prefer the others myself."
"I know."
"What are you going to call him, then?"
"I don't know"
"Call him Felix."
"Why Felix?
"A lot of people call their cats Felix. It's a Latin word that means “happy.” We had a cat called Felix one time."
"What's the Latin word for sad?"
"I don't know. Why would you want to call him sad anyway?"
"I just do."
"Maybe your Dad might know."
"No, it's alright."
"Just because he doesn't like cats doesn't mean that he won't help you to name him. I'll ask him when he comes in."
Monica threw the empty can into a bin in the kitchen.

Sylvia was two years older than James. She came in the front door just now and threw her coat and schoolbag on a chair. Her cheeks were flushed slightly by the wind and rain. Her brunette shock of hair tousled just a little.
"Where's James?"
"Out with the kittens. Have something to eat, you must be hungry."
"I'll just have a Seven Up if we have one".
She went to the fridge, taking a look out the back as she opened the bottle and poured the drink. Then, as she started to sip, she went out to join her brother. Monica followed her through the open door.
"You'll need something to eat”.,

Her voice faltered a little. Without looking, Sylvia shook her head.
"Don't worry, I'm not hungry."
Her mother retreated feeling, as she always felt on similar occasions, a mixture of helplessness, failure and a touch of fear. She decided not to let her thoughts run in the direction that they had begun to take. Instead, she took the bag and coat that Sylvia had abandoned. She hung up the coat and put the bag under the stairs.

"That's it. Always throw your clothes around and let your mother act the servant. That's all I am in this house - a servant for everybody," and she sounded more convincing by raising her voice a decibel or two to a pitch of anger.


Dermot O Meara was a civil servant. Well dressed, well groomed, clean-shaven, he prided himself a little on his appearance. At 41 he had decided that the forties weren't so bad after all. Life was what you made it yourself. He was five foot eleven, broad-shouldered, fit from his early morning runs, although a slight paunch betrayed his fondness for the delicacies of life. The scent of "Addiction", his favourite After-shave, pervaded the air close to his body even at dinnertime
"So what's this I hear about people studying the classics?"
James and Sylvia cocked their ears, but Monica laughed.

"Oh, that's our James! I wanted to call the black kitten Felix and he wants to know the opposite word; of course, he'll always want to do different to everybody else.”
Sylvia glanced at her brother. Dermot spoke.

"The opposite of Felix is Tristis; both Latin words; Felix means happy. Tristis means....not happy. I agree with James. The other kittens look far happier - far more lovable."

"I didn't mean that", said James. "I like the black kitten."
"You mean you like Tristis", said his father.
Tristis. It's hard to get your mouth around that word", said Monica. "Tristis! Tristis! Come here, Tristis!" she mocked.
"At least, it's unusual, and not common like Felix", said Dermot.

"As usual, you didn't eat your dinner".  

Monica scraped most of Sylvia's plate into the cats' dish. 

"I don't see much point  slaving over a hot oven and cooking dinners for people who won't eat them."
Sylvia, James and Dermot all heard her remark, but none of them answered.

The Senior Counsel rose to address the jury. This was one case he didn't want to lose. His face was serious, his wig slightly askew. The judge leaned forward as he began.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, there is only one verdict you can bring in today, and that is the verdict of guilty.
You have seen Dermot O Meara in the witness box. You have seen Monica O'Meara, his faithful wife, trying desperately to shield her husband from his well-deserved fate. You have seen the videotapes, with the evidence of 14 year old Sylvia O'Meara and of her younger brother James O Meara.
The facts are simple. On the night of February 10th last, twelve year old James woke, as he usually woke, in his own bedroom at 3 a.m. He heard a noise in the bathroom. He expected then to hear a person leave the bathroom. He expected to hear his sister's door creak open and then shut. He expected to hear muffled noises from his sister's room and then the sound of his sister crying. 

He expected to hear all of those things because, night after night, for longer than he could remember, he had heard that sequence of noises: sounds of a person in the toilet, his sister's door creaking open, then shut, muffled noises, followed by his sister crying; and on the night of February 10th he heard them all again. But on this particular night, which was really the morning of Februauy 11th, this brave young boy decided to investigate what had become for him a waking nightmare. He got up, went directly to his sister's room and, in the darkness, attacked her attacker. 

He left scrape marks on her attacker's face, below the left eye. He also left a bite mark on her attacker's ear. He switched on the light and he saw that the attacker was Dermot O Meara, his own father. . . . . ."
The Senior Counsel spoke animatedly for half an hour.

Outside in the great Round Hall of the Four Courts, where learned looking men and women in wigs and gowns chatted and walked and smoked, their Aunt Mary sat between James and Sylvia, asking them about school and hockey and football.
Suddenly a door opened. Dermot O Meara came out, his hands chained to a prison officer.

James thought back to his last birthday when Dermot had bought him his own P.C. It had been a special delivery with a card saying "Happy birthday to the best son in the World".
James held back the tears. He thought he knew now why he had wanted so much to call the black kitten Tristis.

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