“Californian Haggis” by Nick Alexander © 2007 – All rights reserved
It is colder up here than he had thought it would be. Of course, he knew that the Poconos were gonna be cold in winter. He had those photos of he and Gina with the snow-capped mountains in the background to remind him of that. But he had somehow romanticized the idea of the cold and in doing so had reduced it to crisp glittering frost and whisky nightcaps and log-fires – images which have nothing to do with the dirty melting sludge outside his doorway, or the fact that he can see his breath as he tries to get the damp kindling in the fireplace to light.
He has been here before, so there’s really no excuse for regrets. He was here in November three years ago – he and Gina stayed in this very house. But of course being with Gina changed everything. He’s not sure why, but it was all different back then. He casts his mind back and remembers doing exactly this – crouching in front of the fireplace and blowing on the flames, the same quilt wrapped around his back. Only of course it was different. Gina had been crouched behind him, her naked breasts squashed against him. She had giggled and fiddled with his nipples – erect from the cold and a week of constant shagging. And under such circumstances – who was going to get pissy about the temperature of the place, or about the fact that the kindling wouldn’t light?
He doesn’t regret moving here – not yet anyway, though he doubts that that could yet happen. But for the moment he’s simply aware that it had to be done. They were going to do it together, Gina’s dream as much as his… Only Gina met Mr Asshole Real Estate Agent and fucked off to Miami instead. He imagines them sprawling in the Florida sunshine, or, knowing Gina, snorting as much coke as Mr Asshole is prepared to pay for.
He has trouble reuniting these two images of Gina: the Gina he loved, OK the Gina he still loves, and the Gina who dumped him overnight for such a complete loser. How can those two people be the same person? But anyway, the point is, they had decided to come here, thus it became something that had to be done, with or without her. His self-respect depended on it. But Jesus it’s cold!
Of course staying in New York without her wouldn’t have been any fun either. He’s been dumped in New York before, and being a dumped person is no fun anyplace. At least here there are other enemies to fight, the cold pushing loneliness to mere second place.
He blows again on the glowing twig and a tiny flame appears, a tiny flame of hope. If he can just get the fire going and get the temperature up in here it won’t be so depressing. Tom shivers and pulls the quilt tighter and heads through to the kitchen where the kettle has started to whistle.
Weekends. They could be bad in the city too, but at least in the city there’s always the hope of that chance meeting, the unpredictable bumping into destiny in the shape of a new woman – he tries to think of an image of an attractive woman that isn’t Gina, but it’s too soon. It will come. Time heals and all that. He knows. But it’s hard.
And here in Pocono, pop. 42, what’s the chance of that? There’s a bar in town, the same one he and Gina stumbled back from every night. But with Gina, just as he hadn’t noticed the cold, nor had he noticed that all the people in the bar were men, that the average age of said men was 62. For why would he have cared?
Tom prods the tea bag with a nearly clean teaspoon and wonders again about the cat idea. Old Williamson has been trying to convince him to take his cat, Haggis for weeks now. He’s moving away to live with his kids – in Florida of all places – only Haggis can’t go with him – his daughter is worried about some weird disease that people catch from cats whose name escapes him, worms in the brain or something.
“A little company for you,” Williamson keeps saying. “Not good to be all alone in a house.” And a cat as company seems like such a sad-arsed concept that he feels that he has no option but to turn it down. But now he wonders again whether a cat wouldn’t provide at least a little comfort. Maybe having another warm-blooded being in this cold shell of a life would be of some help. He had a cat as a kid. It was like a living, fur covered hot-water bottle. Maybe that’s exactly what he needs.
Haggis is seriously overweight, and his fur is a bit patchy, but he’s friendly enough and seems to adjust to Tom’s cabin without much ado. And they seem to have something in common – they both hate the cold. Tom nicknames him, Haggis the Heat Seeking Missile. For wherever there is a modicum of heat, even a vague, barely detectable idea of heat, Haggis will find it. If Tom switches on a desk light, Haggis will sit beneath it (blocking the light). And if Tom puts a mug of hot tea down on the desk, Haggis will wait until Tom lifts the cup to sit on the warmed spot of the desk.
And when Tom lights the wood fire, Haggis will spend an entire day edging across the room towards it, desire for comfort fighting instinctive repulsion. By the end of an evening, he’s invariably so close to the flames that Tom can smell the odour of his singeing whiskers.
Tom enjoys having Haggis here – Haggis, his ally against the cold. And though he would never admit it, he does actually feel less alone than before. Even if that does still strikes him as sad-arsed.
If November was colder than he remembered it, and the slush got him down, then December is colder than he imagined it could be. It’s cold enough that he has started to wonder what the fuck he was trying to prove and to who. He feels like he’s in one of those Japanese endurance game shows, only instead of eating worms or putting his arm in a spider’s nest he’s being asked to live on the coldest place on earth for a whole winter. Only if he manages it he wins absolutely nothing.
Haggis has taken to following him around and – if the fire isn’t burning – sitting on his lap with only the briefest excursions outside to let nature take its course.
The third of January, when Tom opens the kitchen door to let Haggis, who is whining, out, he freezes, the doorknob still in his hand and stares at the gleaming snow. Aware of Haggis whimpering and scuttling back inside behind him, he notes the imprint of the front door knob in the white wall of ice blocking his path.
Williamson warned him to throw Haggis out when it snows. “Lock ‘im out, otherwise he’ll just be pissin’ ‘n shittin’ all over,” were his exact words.
But Tom doesn’t have the heart. How on earth is the cat supposed to find anywhere to shit anyway? What’s he expected to do – tunnel? So Tom puts on his warmest clothes and his woolen hat, and the gloves that Gina’s mother knitted for him, and he spends the morning shoveling – digging strategic channels through the snow for both of them: to the main road for himself (and once the snow-ploughs have hopefully swung past – to the bar). And to shit-corner (behind the tree) for Haggis. The icy air makes his skin and lungs smart but the exercise does him good. It takes him out of his mind and into his body for a few hours, and he almost enjoys himself.
Eventually he lures Haggis out from under the bed and presents him with his own private freeway to cat-paradise. And Haggis bounds and bounces across the cold earth, defecates behind the tree in less than ten seconds, and bounds back in, and in that moment Tom loves that cat in the same way (only less of course) that he loved Gina when he was able to do something for her. Being needed – that’s what helps.
When nightfall arrives and the snow plough still hasn’t cleared a path to the bar, Tom builds his biggest fire yet and breaks open the final half-bottle of Bushmills.
Tom hoped for some reason that it would be warmer this evening, what with the snow and all – no doubt some old wives-tale from his childhood. In fact, the house is smothered in a block of ice – of course it isn’t any warmer. Tom adds another log to the fire. He has been trying to ration the wood in the hope of making it last all winter, but today something has snapped. “Fuck it,” he says. “If we run out, we’ll just have to go buy some more.”
The cat, about five inches from the flames, flexes a paw – perhaps a reply in cat-language. Tom swills half an inch of whisky around the tumbler and swigs it back.
Two logs at once definitely give out more heat that the usual one, and, what with the whisky and the warmth, he starts to relax, perhaps for the first time since he moved here. He watches the cat watching the fire. The yellow flames flicker, casting a shimmering light throughout the room. He sips at his whisky and slings a third log on the fire. It spits and crackles and when he closes his eyes, the heat on his face, the red through his eyelids reminds him of being on a beach, and he wonders why he didn’t choose someplace warm for his life-change. Of course it was his and Gina’s dream : the snow, the logfire, the skiing. Typical of Gina to leave him with a duff dream and head off to Miami. He remembers being on a beach with her – where were they? Thailand, or was it Bali? The sand, the palm trees. The sunlight flickering across his face. Gina’s head resting on his lap.
He opens his eyes and realizes simultaneously that he needs to piss, and that he has an erection. “Don’t look Haggis,” he tells the cat, standing a little unsteadily, placing the empty tumbler on the mantelpiece, and heading through to the icy bathroom.
It takes a moment before he manages to pee, and he wonders, as he stands and waits – as he sways and waits – just how much he has drunk.
When he returns the nearly empty bottle answers the question. “Oh well,” he says again, “What the fuck.” He slings another log on the fire and swipes the bottle from the table and pours it into the glass. But as he withdraws the bottle, he misjudges something, maybe the distance of the glass from his arm, or the height of the glass… However it happens, the glass – now half full, slides across the tiled ledge and plunges down towards the hearth before bouncing once – slopping whisky as it does so, and then shattering into a thousand tiny pieces.
The cat – which the glass has narrowly missed but the whisky hasn’t – springs into mid air and performs an amazingly youthful Nuriev mid-air-twirl, but in his sleepy state, he too misjudges something, and his tail – liberally doused in whisky, sweeps an arc through the flames from the log fire. Tom watches it all happen – spectator to some savagely bizarre act of destiny. The cat’s tail crackles and pops as blue alcohol flames sweep up and along its twirling appendage. When Haggis’ feet finally hit the ground he bounds in a single leap onto the sofa. Tom throws a towel – the nearest thing to hand, and a vague attempt at a fire-blanket, but Haggis just shrugs it aside and disappears into the bedroom in a flash of flickering fur.
Tom jumps over the sofa and follows the cat, knocking over a table lamp as he does so. He wrenches the mattress from the bed and peers down at cowering Haggis, thankfully self-extinguished, cringing in the corner below.
“Jesus Haggis!” he exclaims, trying to restrain laughter. It has always seemed to him that cats can pick up on mockery, and considering the situation it’s best avoided. “Poor Haggis!” he says, reaching though the wire netting of the bed to stroke the hissing cat.
After a few minutes of lying on the floor and stroking the cat’s flank Tom manages to lure him from beneath the bed. Other than the stench of burnt fur and a few frizzled ends along his tail, Haggis has got off extremely lightly. Tom hugs him tight and strokes his chin, and eventually Haggis – who, Tom has noticed, has a very short memory – stops looking at him like a potential killer who may just have done this on purpose, and starts to purr, at which point Tom lifts him and looks deep into his eyes. “You see,” he tells the cat. “It’s just you and me against the world.”
There’s a flickering in the cat’s eyes that makes Tom frown. He carefully places him on the bed and turns nervously, rigidly to look at the doorway behind.
There is no mistaking the yellow shimmering of the lounge wall beyond. He stands, blinks, swallows hard and peers through the door-frame.
Flames have now almost completely consumed the towel he threw. The sofa beneath is burning nicely. The curtains to the right are just starting to join in. Tom looks at the scene – a bit of a disaster. A nasty mess to clean up. But not beyond the point of no return. Not yet. He could run and shout, grab the fire extinguisher, swipe the flames… He could battle like a real man and save all of this, and go buy white paint and new curtains and carry on this fabulous winter-wonderland adventure. And what would that prove? And to whom?
But he can feel the wheels of destiny turning. He can feel cracks opening.
He steps back into the bedroom; Haggis is staring wide-eyed at the flickering light in the other room, his fur starting to bristle in fear. Tom pushes the door shut with his foot and sits on the bed next to the cat. He knows he’s a bit drunk, and he consciously wonders if he’s thinking clearly – if he isn’t going to regret this.
“Hum,” he laughs. “Don’t worry Haggis. The next life, as they say, is gonna be so much better. The next life is gonna be so much warmer. Give it a minute or two,” he glances at the smoke coming under the door, and then behind at the bedroom window, visually checking his escape route.
“What do you think Haggis… Florida?” He thinks of Gina. He imagines bumping into her jogging with her real estate loser. “Or maybe California? They say it’s nice in California at this time of year.”