‘What’s the difference between melancholy and sad, Dad?’
‘Hmm. I am sad because my cat died. I am melancholy because all cats die eventually. Sad is pretty quick, but melancholy goes on and on and on.’
Rory and Tanya, five and seven years old, sprawled across the sofa and his lap, were quiet a moment, perhaps trying to fathom the subtle distinction their father had just alerted them to, or perhaps trying to locate some melancholy within themselves.
If the latter, they won’t find any, they are simply too new for melancholy. Melancholy is for silly old losers like their father.
H and the kids are having a rare five minutes together and they are reading a book about another melancholy old loser called Joe, who has lost his cat up a tree.
For H, for anyone, it is tough at the age of thirty-nine to accept that you are a silly old loser. The understanding can seriously spoil your life. But H is resourceful; he can deal with it. In fact, he plans to take it lying down.
H is horrified by the utter predictability of Joe’s story. Joe dotes on his cat. But the darn thing took a stroll up this tree hours ago and can’t get back down again. It is way up there, near the top and Joe is way down here at the bottom. The cat sits up there all on its own, quite unbothered by its predicament, fat and smug and very aloof.
A neighbour comes along with a ladder and offers to help, but Joe refuses because he doesn’t want to put the neighbour out. The neighbour tells Joe he would love to get the cat out of the tree because it is such a fine animal and no man should be separated from his cat. Joe says no. The neighbour goes away. Then the fire brigade comes along but again Joe refuses help because he thinks a whole fire engine and crew and mechanical ladder is too much palaver for one silly cat even if the fire brigade is specifically there to help people. The fire brigade goes away. Next the local human pyramid team comes along and say they would love to make a human pyramid tall enough to fetch the cat down. They insist that building human pyramids is their absolute favourite thing and it would be no trouble at all. Joe doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone falling off the pyramid or being hit by a low flying jet. The human pyramid team goes on its way.
Along comes a snotty-nosed boy with a catapult, who tells Joe he is such a good shot he can ping the branch with a stone and the cat will drop out of the tree and into Joe’s hands. Joe is horrified. Suppose the boy accidentally hits the cat, suppose he did hit the branch but Joe missed the falling animal, suppose the boy missed the tree altogether and the stone pinged on someone’s head. So the deadeye, snotty-nosed little dick goes on his way too, leaving Joe to stare forlornly at the cat, no closer to getting his hands on it, his flow of opportunities apparently all dried up.
It was not clear to H what or who Joe was waiting for.
As he was reading, H’s mind was elsewhere speculating on the ending of the story. Joe will do nothing useful and will continue to refuse all offers of help. Eventually a big wind will come along and the cat will be blown out of the tree and into Joe’s grateful and relieved hands. Then, of course, in the same wind the tree will topple, impaling Joe and his cat with its spiky branches.
‘Did your cat die, Dad?’ asked Rory, throwing H with this abrupt return to the theme of sad and melancholy.
‘Yes, it did, young man. Very much so.’
‘When did it die?’ Tanya wanted to know.
‘Years and years ago. Or was it years and years and years ago? I forget which.’
‘Did you cry?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think you cried like a poof.’ They giggled cruelly.
H was not sure whether he was more put out by the barbaric stereotyping in the remark or by the emphatic dismissal of crying as a legitimate response to nature. Tears, after all, are the wine of melancholy.
The above extract is the beginning of Cats Die, a short story collected in Un-Tall Tales by Chris Page