THE OLD MAN AND THE CAT
There’s a square on the edge of a busy town. People go there in the late afternoon to sit and relax, to buy food or exercise. A short young man, with a very large nose, pulled up at one of the corners on his motor scooter, near the basketball court, right on the junction.
It was early afternoon, clear and oppressively hot. Next to the basketball court was a climbing wall, and beyond that a volleyball court. In front of them was a football pitch with grass grown sparse in the dry season. Then there was a roughly-paved jogging track and outside that the street, broad and clean. The jogging track was separated from the road by a low pavement. Eating stalls stretched the length of the pavement, selling ices, rujak, satay and lontong, and other plates of rice.
A parking attendant blew his whistle to get attention. The young man looked round. He started up his scooter and moved to where the attendant pointed: across the street, but still quite close and sheltered under a shady acacia tree.
“What are you going to eat, mister?” asked the attendant, wiping sweat from his face with a small red towel flung over his shoulder.
“Don’t know,” answered the young man.
“It’s hot. Something icy would be good. The stall in the middle is the best, the one painted blue.”
He crossed the street towards the line of stalls, slowing a little when a high-end sedan passed by. He glimpsed the occupants. Two young women sat in the front, laughing. His gaze followed them as they moved on, until they were lost to sight at the junction with the main road, by the volleyball court.
A scrawny ginger cat staggered along the gutter just as the car turned off. It looked lopsided, being so thin, as if its legs weren’t strong enough to hold up the rest of its body. It stopped and laid down on the edge of the burning asphalt.
The young man felt he couldn’t ignore it. Half running, he scampered after it to pick it up. It was so light that he was scared he might break its bones. He moved under one of the trees. The cat seemed to regain some of its strength. The young man squatted, but the cat refused to be laid down. Initially so weak, it now stood and mewled relentlessly, rubbing its body against his legs.
“What’s going on?”
A homeless old man came up. His clothes, hair and nails were all filthy. He left a large bag in the shade a little way off.
“The cat’s starving,” said the young man.
“Yeah, well, we’re all hungry. Just a second, I’ve got some water.”
The old man took up his bag and opened it in front of the young man. It contained clothes as disgusting as the ones he was wearing, a few one thousand rupiah notes and a packet of cigarettes. He took out a bottle of water and poured a little into his palm. He brought it close to the cat’s mouth. The cat had stopped mewling.
“It doesn’t want to drink.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t.”
“It’s got a sore on its mouth. It’s in a bad way.”
“Looks like it. I’ll buy it some food. Have you eaten?” asked the young man.
The old man laughed, showing his rotten, crusty teeth. He said, “Buy me something if you want to. I’m fed up with lying when it comes to eating or other matters of pride.”
“You go and eat first, over there, and then come back here.”
“You might be put off, eating with someone like me. I haven’t had a wash in two days. When they found out I used to go and wash in the mosque near the big monument, they started locking the bathrooms at night.”
The young man headed over to the food sellers and returned with two portions of pecel with fried chicken and dried fish. All three of them, the short young man with the large nose, the old homeless man, and the cat, sat peacefully beneath a large tree. The young man unwrapped his food and fed the cat first.
“The chicken’s tough, it won’t be able to chew it,” said the old man, warning him.
“But it’s starving.”
“That’s exactly the point,” he shot back. He took a pinch of his own rice and gave it to the cat, which gulped it down.
“Here, eat up.”
A nearby concrete bench was in the shade of a tree branch. The young man sat there to eat. The old man stayed seated on the ground. The cat finished its portion of rice and came over to the young man, who gave it a shred of chicken. The cat wolfed it down.
A pedestrian passed by and held out a one thousand rupiah note to the old man. He took it without hesitation and put it in his bag.
“Do you often come here?”
“Not really. I get about a bit. I only go home at night.”
“Oh, so you have a house?”
“I sleep in the market. With friends.”
“Are there a lot of you?”
“No. Just the one. There used to be two, but one died last year.”
The young man had lost his appetite. He kept feeding the skinny cat. After eating so voraciously, it soon became drowsy. Then it vomited all the food that had just passed its lips.
“What did I tell you? A stomach that is used to being hungry is different to one that is always full.”
The young man didn’t respond and kept trying to feed the cat. By now, it’d grown weak. Still wracked by hunger, it kept trying to chew the chicken but couldn’t swallow it.
“If we leave it, it’ll be dead by the end of the day.”
“So who’s going to look after it?”
“You are. Take it home with you.”
“I’ve only got a rented room. It’d be impossible. And I work all day.”
“Where d’you work?”
“In the government mining office.”
“Ooh, fancy. You’ll be earning good money. No hunger for you. Why aren’t you at work now?”
The young man thought hard about how to save the cat, now stretched out as if it had forgotten its suffering.
“Let me look after it,” the old man suddenly offered.
“How would you do that?”
“What do you mean ‘how would I do that?’ When I eat, the cat will eat. An abandoned cat and someone like me are no different: we can eat whatever, and sleep wherever.”
The young man fell silent again.
“And he can replace that friend of mine who died.”
The old man wrapped his unfinished food up again in the paper. He took a plastic bag from inside his bag, put the leftover food into it, and tied it up.
“Why didn’t you finish it?”
“It’s for me and the cat later.”
“I’ve got some left too.”
“Give it to me, if you aren’t going to finish it.”
The young man handed over the food and the old man repeated the process. He then took a packet of kretek cigarettes and placed one between his lips.
“Do people give you cigarettes?”
“No. I buy them.”
“They aren’t cheap. Shouldn’t you be careful with your money?”
The old man cackled and said, “This is the only way left for me to enjoy life. I couldn’t
be any poorer than I am.”
A passing car attracted the young man’s attention again. This time it was a black SUV, one of the latest models. The windows hadn’t even had dark film applied. From where he sat he could clearly see a handsome young couple, a man and a woman, sat side by side. The woman wore black glasses and blood-red lipstick. His eyes followed the car until it went round the corner towards the main road. Three kids of indeterminate age turned up and sat behind the climbing wall. One of them had a heavy-looking white plastic container about as big as an exercise book. They whispered with a look of glee on their faces and then ripped open the container, taking it in turns to inhale the contents. In a short while, they drifted off into silence, leant back against the climbing wall with eyes closed.
The old man finished smoking his cigarette and said, “Go home. I’ll look after the cat. It’s my friend now.”
He carefully picked up the limp cat and cradled it.
“Here’s some money for you. Buy some cigarettes, and some antibiotics for the sore on its mouth,” said the young man.
“Actually, I’ve still got some cigarettes. I’ll use it to buy some food later. Much obliged.”
“You’re not going to leave the cat here, are you?”
“Of course not. We poor people have feelings too, you know.”
“Probably more so.”
“You go home, go on.”
“Where can I find you again?”
“It’s hard to say. During the day I could be anywhere. Do you know the jamu seller at the end of the market? I’m there at night.”
The young man didn’t know the stall, but he’d be able to find it. He headed off towards the parking, paying the two thousand rupiah charge and then driving past the row of food stalls, now busy as the afternoon drew on. Before turning on to the main road, he stopped for a second and glanced back: the old man and the three unconscious glue sniffers were still there.
A week later, the young man felt restless in his hot room in the boarding house. He remembered the old homeless guy and the hungry cat he’d left behind on that afternoon.
He immediately set off to the market to find them. It was late and the market was quite still. The lanterns of the sellers of fruit, sweet pancakes and other cakes were still burning even though they had packed up their wares into open-backed trucks or push carts. Only the sellers of fried rice or chicken noodles didn’t seem ready to go home. He easily found the jamu stall at the very end of the market, right at the bottom of the steps leading up to the stalls on the next level.
“Want some jamu?” invited a young woman with a sweet smile, in a gentle voice, as he switched off the engine of his scooter near the stall.
“No, thanks,” he answered swiftly, regretting it immediately. “Maybe later.”
He parked at the bottom of the steps. He straightaway recognised the old man beneath the stairs, stretched out on some cardboard with another man. The old man sensed someone was approaching.
“Oh, it’s you!” the old man called out. They both sat up.
“Yes, it’s me. How’s it going?”
“You mean the cat, I guess?” The old man knew there was no-one on earth who would come looking for himself. “It died two days ago. Its bed is still here,” he said, pointing to a small cardboard box close to his feet. The box was empty, except for a scrap of worn-out green cloth as a bed.
The young man was crestfallen. “Well, never mind. Let me buy you some food. Noodles or rice?”
“You choose. Get some for him too.”
The young man went over to the fried rice stall and ordered three portions. He asked them to bring it over to them below the stairs, and went back over.
“How did it die?”
“You know, it just died. Its mouth got worse and it died.”
“What did you do with the body?”
“Chucked it into the river, from that bridge.” The old man pointed to a river that flowed strongly in the rainy season, between the market and the town which were connected by a large bridge. The river flooded when heavy rain fell in the mountains. “I threw it away in a plastic bag, from that bridge.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Not really. I loved it. At the point it died, someone loved it.”
“That’s true. We can never guarantee that,” chipped in the other man. His face was long with a somewhat curved chin. He looked younger than the other man.
“You need to stop sleeping rough after I’m dead. That friend of ours died even though you and I cared for him. I’ll die, and you will care for me. Then there will be only you left.”
All three of them laughed.
The fried rice was brought over. They ate together. The young man perching on his scooter, the two men sitting on the steps.
“It’s so long since I ate with a plate and a spoon,” said the older man.
“Me too, normally I get the food wrapped up and take it home. I don’t have a plate at my place.”
“Aren’t you married yet?”
“No. Not yet,” said the young man.
“Maybe I’m too ugly.”
The two rough sleepers laughed at his response. The young man joined in, after a moment’s hesitation. The older man said, “Maybe it’s not that. Maybe you just don’t know what you want.”
The two men laughed again and went on eating. The young man was only just able to bring himself to a smile. Cars and motorbikes passed back and forth, taking people home to bed. Lights started to go out; the traders, the fairground rides and those shops that had stayed open now gave in to the night. A cat walked past, different to the one that had died. Not ginger, or thin. The jamu seller, stocky and with a slim moustache, stood not far away talking to a customer, while his pretty wife squatted nearby washing glasses in a large bucket.
People seemed to be enjoying life. But not all of them, of course.
PRATIWI JULIANI was born in Amuntai, South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, in 1991. She studied economics, and opened Jules Bookstore, a bookshop and reading room in her hometown. She also collects and distributes books for underprivileged women and children. She began writing in 2017, when she also presented at the Ubud Readers’ and Writers’ Festival. The collection of short stories Performing Dolphins and Other Stories was her first published work, in September 2018. Published by Comma Books and Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, it was longlisted for Indonesia’s pre-eminent literature award, Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa, in 2019. She has published two novels, Dear Jane in March 2019 and Debu Dalam Angin (Dust in the Wind) in April 2020, both with Comma Books and KPG.
About the Translator:
IAN ROWLAND is a literary translator from Indonesian into English, living and working in the United Kingdom. He works on forest and environmental issues, primarily in Indonesia. He graduated from the School of Oriental and Afrian Studies, University of London, with bachelor and masters degrees in Indonesian, and has maintained a strong interest in Indonesian literature since then. His most recent translations include the poetry of Erna Alidjai, to be published by Chogwa zine in mid 2020. He has also translated the poetry of Theoresia Rumthe and Weslly Johannes, and the novel ‘Neath the Protection of the Ka’aba by HAMKA.