Cat--astrophe by Dorothy Snelson

 It was there again. It must be the same one.

‘Third time this week’ Maurice thought to himself , gazing through the kitchen window, whilst munching his toast.

It was sitting unmoving, facing away from him; tall , thin, and statuesque. He wondered if it was stalking something, but cats usually crouched low when after birds or mice. They seemed to fluff up and didn’t look a bit like this one. If he didn’t know better he’d say it was a garden ornament. The next time he looked it was gone.

He settled down in his armchair with his tea and newspaper , tuning into Classic FM on the radio. He tried to concentrate on the day’s news but his mind was still on the mystery cat. Something niggled him.

‘What does it remind me of?’ he mused. Then it came to him in a flash ; an ancient Egyptian cat. Goodness knows he’d seen enough of them in his time.

Before retiring he had been a Curator of Museums. A local Edwardian mill owner had bequeathed a large Egyptian collection to the town. His son had a passion for travel and had acquired the artefacts and had them shipped back home. Unfortunately he died of some disease contracted in the tropics, and his heartbroken father wanted nothing more to do with the antiquities. He felt they were cursed and blamed them for his son’s untimely death. They’d been stored in the basement of the museum for years, until the council embarked on a drive to enhance the profile of the town. Some aged councillor remembered the Egyptian collection, and the idea of recreating an Egyptian tomb within the museum was born. Maurice had spent the years before he retired working on the displays and gained an in-depth knowledge of all things ancient Egyptian. He thought back to depictions of cats in the hieroglyphics he’d seen. Yes, in size and shape , mystery cat fitted the bill.

Maurice had lived alone since his wife had died some years previously.

His daughter, Rebecca had followed in his footsteps and was now Deputy Curator at the same museum. He decided to pop into the museum the following day, on his way to the library. It was ages since he’d viewed the collection, and Rebecca would have added to it considerably since then. It was her pet project.

He switched on the light in the hall as he went up to bed, with a cup of cocoa. It was then that he saw it, staring down from the half landing. It was facing him this time, its eyes glittering like burning coals and its face a terrifying snarl. He could swear he heard it hiss and spit. He dropped the cocoa , and jumped back as the hot liquid splashed his slippers. When he looked again it was gone. He spent the night in his armchair, terrified to climb the stairs. He could feel its presence in the dark corners of the room , its evil poisoning the atmosphere, for evil it surely was. As daylight arrived he began to question events. Had he been seeing things because of getting paranoid about the cat ? He would still visit the Egyptian collection though, because the clue to what was going on might lie there.

Despite feeling weary after the events of the previous night, he felt a certain pride as he climbed the steps of the imposing museum and saw banners proclaiming the Egyptian Collection to be the best in the North, and well worth a visit. He went to the room housing the Egyptian tomb, only to find a party of schoolchildren being shepherded round by fraught looking teachers. Once they’d disappeared , he started to make his way around the exhibits. A familiar figure strode into the room and hailed him, ‘Hello there Maurice. Bit of a busman’s holiday for you , this.’

David Wolstenholme had been his deputy and taken over when Maurice retired. Bright and ambitious, he had taken the museum to a whole new level.

‘Just passing’ said Maurice breezily. ‘Thought I’d see what you were up to these days. It’s certainly impressive David. Those school kids were enthralled. You’ve upped the ante with this Egyptian tomb. The subdued lighting, the arrangement of the exhibits and the atmosphere are all perfect.’

David smiled modestly and said, ‘Do you want to wander around by yourself , or shall I give you the tour?’

‘If you can spare the time I’ll follow you round. Is Rebecca in today?’

‘No she’s at the university this morning. Back this afternoon.’

They wandered around the darkened tomb with glass cases displaying artefacts and large cases with sarcophaguses. They came to the sarcophagus of Astrophe, an Egyptian High Priestess. It was one of the first exhibits that Maurice had displayed. As he gazed at it, the room suddenly felt cold. He had to stop himself from shivering. He noticed that there was something missing .

‘Where is Astrophe’s cat?’ he asked . ‘Wasn’t there some legend about a curse, if Astrophe and her cat were ever separated?’

‘Oh it’s over at the university,’ David said, ‘Some experiment ; carbon dating or some such. You’re right though; there was said to be a curse . Anyone who separated them was doomed to die and couldn’t enter the underworld,’ He laughed, ‘Well it’s been gone a week and we’re all still here.’

Maurice was thinking back to when his mystery cat had started appearing and yes, it was a week ago. Just at the time the mummified cat was separated from Astrophe. The room chilled further.

‘So who actually removed the cat and took it away?’ he asked.

‘One of the technicians, ' David replied, ‘He’s off sick at the moment .’

Noticing the look on Maurice’s face he chuckled, ‘Don’t worry , a bout of flu that’s been doing the rounds. Nothing sinister Maurice.’

Maurice headed for home trying to think why the cat should choose to appear to him. On a perfect summer’s day, the events of the previous night seemed unreal . Had he subconsciously been missing his former life, and somehow projected this cat image as a reminder? He hadn’t been the one to separate the cat ,so why should it haunt him? By the time he reached home he’d convinced himself that it had been down to an overactive imagination.

That night there was no cat on the landing. He awoke during the night to use the toilet and as he got back into bed he felt the room chill. He shivered. It was a warm summer’s evening. Why was the room so cold? He lay still , a sense of doom enveloping him. He felt as if he was lying in a cold ,hard box , with a great weight pressing down on him. There was the sensation of a lid coming slowly down to suffocate him. He was in total panic, and wrenched himself upwards, letting out a scream of primaeval horror. It was then that he saw it, fleetingly in the corner of the room, lit up by the moon’s rays. Then it was gone. He knew that the cat was warning him, but of what? His body was still shaking , but the chill had gone from the room. He went to the window. The garden was bathed in moonlight and there was no sign of the cat.

He spent the next day unable to settle. He felt terrible after his disturbed night, and his heart seemed to be permanently racing ,as he worried the cat would re-appear. By evening he was exhausted and dreading night time and what it might bring.

The phone rang; Rebecca, his daughter.

‘You sound weary dad. Have you been doing too much gardening?’ she asked.

‘Mmm , that’s probably it,’ he lied, ‘Lot’s to do at this time of year.’

‘Well, I’m ringing because David said you were at the museum yesterday. I wondered if you wanted me for something.’

‘I was passing time till I met Bert in Costa for a coffee’ he lied again. ‘David gave me a whirlwind tour and was telling me about the university experimenting on Astrophe’s cat.’

‘Yes, that was where I was dad.’

‘He said that your technician had taken the cat over there and now he was off ill. Flu I believe,’ he said a note of enquiry in his voice.

‘Yes, it’s been doing the rounds. He’d been feeling rough for days so I told him to get off home and stay there till he felt better. It was me who ended up taking the dratted cat over to the uni a week ago.’

Maurice’s blood ran cold.

‘Rebecca’ he screamed down the phone. How to warn her?

Too late.

She was no longer there. Just a terrible sound coming from the phone. A hissing and spitting . Then silence, followed by a deep, satisfied purr.

Selected: March Short Story Contest

Published in Issue #28

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