Fiction: Lost Child
By Sian Astor-Lewis
When they came across a dead cat on the pavement, some kind of cosmic shift occurred. The aching night sky, heavy with lights and fumes, was suddenly clear, pricked with tiny stars. It’s what they were both looking for, really: something to make sense of everything. Until then, it had all felt so senseless.
They looked up at the building next to them. It towered up into the sky. As the clouds moved gently it looked like the building was swaying, about to collapse on top of them. But they knew it was just an illusion.
The cat appeared to have fallen from a window. Poor thing was flattened, on its side. From its nose, a crusted black dewdrop of blood had bubbled up and congealed. Apart from that it almost looked like it was sleeping. But the longer they gazed at its infinite stillness, lifeless as a doll, the harder it was to believe it was merely lost in feline dreams.
Neither was in the best state to deal with it: they were on the way home from a messy night out. Their fingers had been plaited together as they stumbled over half chewed chicken bones, crushed cans. Now their fingers wriggled apart like worms. The cat was a bad omen. That was obvious. They were both Cat People, perhaps one of the many reasons they were so drawn to each other, when it was so obvious they should stay apart. They both understood how much it pained the other to witness its crumpled whiskers and oily fur-coat, soaked with dew.
“Should we do something?” asked the one with red hair.
He made a scooping motion with his hands close to the cat as if he was about to pick it up, but it didn’t quite ring true. His fingers didn’t quite brush its speckled fur. Fear glistened in the yellowed whites of his eyes.
“I thought cats always landed on their feet,” said the other, the one with green eyes.
“Apparently not.” Red wiped his hands on his tweed coat. Just to be sure, he spat on them, rubbed them together, and wiped them on the coat again. The smell of his spit and wet wool radiated from his hot hands.
Green eyes flashed towards red hair.
“Do you think this is a sign?”
He didn’t answer. Green eyes lingered. She hadn’t gone looking for trouble, but it had definitely found her. She’d never have imagined all those months ago that she’d be here, with the strange, older guy who’d asked to borrow her compact mirror in a queue for pub toilets, just as she was dousing her lips with red smears. He’d told her that her lips were obscene, and this comment had somehow stolen her heart. She didn’t know back then he was with someone who had a little avocado stone growing inside her. By the time she found out it was the size of an actual avocado. Green eyes thought about this mysterious woman with her swelling bump all the time—the bigger it got, the more she loved him. It was all too much—and now the cat—it all came up. She retched abruptly, clamping a hand over her mouth. She was used to shoving the self-disgust back down again, swallowing it until it disappeared for a while.
Red scratched his head vigorously, as if he was riddled with fleas. He wasn’t lying to himself—just to two women. Despite all of his fuck-ups tonight may have been the worst. He’d turned his phone off, had called on this kid for comfort. She was always there, waiting in the wings. He knew it fell on his shoulders to resolve things.
The whole situation was in his small hands. He could make one tiny gesture to right things with the universe. He had wronged it many times.
“Fuck it,” he said, “let’s bury her.”
Red winced as he wrapped his skinny fingers underneath the cold body. It was stiffer, yet moister than he expected. Once he lifted up the little, lifeless jumble of broken bones, everything happened very quickly. Pacing down the side street with the cat swaddled in his scarf, their eyes darted around, terrified of getting caught. There weren’t many people about, but still too many. It didn’t look great, out of context.
Slipping through pools of orange light from the streetlamps, they made their way towards an enclosed private garden, nestled on an island at the heart of two crossroads. With swinging limbs, they clambered over the slippery iron fence. Green eyes got tangled up for a moment. Red satin coat lining pierced by black metal spike. Just an old coat, had been her Mum’s in the eighties. Moth-eaten now, she thought it was still sophisticated. As she unravelled herself, she could see red hair rushing ahead of her darkened by the shade of the trees, clutching the kitten to his chest. Fur wet, eyes alive.
Huddling under a ring of birches, Red hair bent over a patch of earth, laid the body down. Although neither said it, they held an irrational expectation it would roll over and stretch, or at least twitch its ear. Its open eyes were the saddest part of all— too shiny, like something still lived in them.
“Dig!” he whispered urgently. “Quickly!” His hands were shaking. Green eyes faced the earth, and she pulled her nails through the mud. Hoped she wouldn’t dig up any worms.
“Once I saw a fox that had been hit by a car,” she said quickly, gasping for breath. “There was blood and guts everywhere. I had nightmares for months. Years. Sometimes I still have them. That’s why I sleep with the light on. ”
Red hair bowed further towards the ground, gritting his teeth, ignoring her. His flimsy hands grabbed and pulled at the soil, ripped roots and flicked beetles. Sometimes she sounded like a dim child, and he didn’t want to be reminded at that moment that he’d thrown his whole life in the bin, for that.
Eventually the hole was big enough for a shallow grave. They settled the cat in its final resting place, and hurriedly packed dirt on top. They each found a white stone, balanced them one on top of the other on the grave. She wanted to find a buttercup or a dandelion, but there weren’t any. It was winter—everything was dead.
Breathless, they sat back. Green eyes pulled a bottle of vodka from her long coat, rattling clear in glass, and swigged it. She passed it to Red, who took an obligatory sip, wiped his mouth and then spat. Green eyes tried to soften.
“We did it. Everything will be fine now, between us. You made it better.” She added with a whisper, “She’s gone.”
Red hair did not respond with warmth. He was colder than the cat’s body. “You know this doesn’t change anything? You know I’m never leaving her, for you?”
Green eyes iced over. She took another sip of the vodka, and extracted a cigarette from her knickers. She’d put it in there earlier as a joke, but it was her last one. During the time it took her to light it and take her first drag, it seemed like she wasn’t going to answer. She closed her eyes, tasted a sweet fleshy trace on her lips. “Why are we doing this then?” she asked.
Red looked away, lit his own fag.
“I thought you wanted to. But she’s not going away.”
Green eyes of disbelief.
“So why the fuck did we bury the cat? We could have left it.” She held up her blackened hands. Unspeakable germs embedded under her nails. “Why did you make us do this?”
“I just had to put something right with the universe.” The despair in his voice said he knew nothing would ever be made right.
“I thought this was about us.”
She suddenly felt like a little girl. “Do you even love me?”
He looked over her fondly, her worried mouth, her small, off-kilter tits. There was something so sweet in the way she wanted to look after him, like a child playing Mummy with toys.
“I do.” He said, “I love you.”
Red rage drained out of green eyes. They flooded blue with tears. “I love you too.”
They leant across the grave and their mouths met. Strings of spit wouldn’t let them part. Held them tightly together.
Red jumped up, a bounce back in his step. Gave green eyes an affectionate lick on the cheek.
“I’m craving something dead. Shall we get a kebab?”
“Not sure I’m hungry.”
“But you’re always hungry, my baby?”
Baby sent a jolt through both of their hearts.
Green eyes didn’t really have any idea how to deal with what had happened. Aside from embracing him for occasional bouts of brutal, feverish weeping, which came as quickly as they went, stroking his back, again and again, she didn’t bring it up. He looked like he’d totally lost his train of thought about food, suddenly like he didn’t know who he was or where he was. He’d lost so much weight recently, he was even smaller than usual, shrunken inside his dirty tweed coat. He wore it every day. It had been his Dad’s, and he’d been excited to pass it on. Keep it going for generations. In reality, no one would have wanted to inherit his scummy comfort blanket.
His fingers felt around the cuff area, rubbed the mound of thread where the scuffed bronze button had been. His fingers had started habitually moving there, noticing something missing, as obvious as a tooth in your mouth, now just a sore, tinny space. Green eyes had suggested it, a part of him buried with her, whoever she would have been. He might as have well pulled out his teeth and hair too. He would have given anything.
“Alright. Kebab.” She was about to climb back over the iron fence, but her shoelace trailed in the liquid mud.
He got onto his knees in the mud, unravelled the knots to tie them up for her. Since she’d lost the little finger on her right hand, she found laces awkward. Writing was hard too. Most other things were okay.
He sighed as he wove the dirty strings through his fingers into a bow. Green eyes never explained what had happened to her finger. Red hoped it was nothing to do with him, or the situation he’d dragged her into.
She felt tall, looking down at him.
“I hate children,” he said.
“I know, I know. It’s okay.” She rubbed red hair. It felt greasy and wet, like the fur of a dying animal: the sticky, feral smell of iron stuck to her hand. He groaned as he got to his feet, as if his whole body was in pain. He patted her bum, disappearing over the fence.
Right outside the kebab shop, she sank her teeth deep into the soft bread, tearing at the brown, stringy meat. Even though Red had made a big deal about getting one, he wasn’t eating, was just smoking, blankly watching her.
“I think it’s tomorrow now, by the way,” she said with her mouth full.
“It can’t be…”
“Well it is.”
Part of her wanted to suggest that he went home, before tomorrow (which was now today) and what he had to do. She imagined he’d drink and smoke throughout the day. Of course he’d eat nothing. No one was really invited. The cemetery was close to his place. He’d go, stand there before the unthinkably small hole, then survive until it became bearable to live again—perhaps. It was too painful to do anything more than that.
She screwed up the greasy wrapper, dropped it in a bin, turned to him square on. Serious green eyes, like two algae-spotted ponds.
“What do you need from me?” she asked, peering into his weary face, trying to bring him back to her, pinching her eyebrows together, sucking the last bits of cabbage from her teeth.
“Just pretend it isn’t real.”
She wanted to offer something more practical, like a hug or a cab. “Nothing is real.” She said.
She held out her hand, and he let her tug him slowly along. There was no rush to their pace: they had nowhere to be, nothing to do. No reason at all to go to bed. No reason to wake up. They’d aimlessly walk and talk like two kids. It would never get fully dark, and it would never be silent. Their footsteps were light, barely disturbed the dust. He knew it wouldn’t last forever, but it was the only thing that would get him through the night. There was so much life, everywhere. They were merely together, existing. There was something phenomenal about being alive, together.
As their soles struck the ground, he noticed something was vibrating through the city, purring through the concrete, brushing softly against their skin. It was tangling itself between their legs, calling for them. The cries got louder, ricocheted off buildings. He liked to think it was the universe talking to him. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it was saying…
Sian Astor-Lewis is an award winning London-based writer and filmmaker. She is currently developing her debut short story collection for publication in 2024 by Tears in the Fence. Her no-budget debut feature film To Nowhere, described by the Guardian in its four star review as ‘raw as a fresh wound… a remarkable bit of drama’, had its theatrical release in London (Summer 2023), premiering at Curzon Soho, to great critical acclaim, and is now available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema.