Photo of a brown mangy cat meowing and sitting under a park bench

Cat Man by Erin Riley

One of the most beautiful displays of love I have ever seen is between a geriatric man and a cat.

I often see his bent over, contorted frame buckling under the weight of two full green shopping bags. Both always neatly square and full – perfectly balanced and tightly held in his strong but ageing hands. He carries a backpack and wears a navy hat that covers his weathered face. Wisps of grey hair creep out from its edges. He walks at a pace which belies his age (he is, at the very least, 85) and the weight of his bags. I have seen him in Marrickville, in Enmore, in Stanmore and as far as Camperdown. Sometimes I would be driving home from work and I would see him marching steadily up Salisbury road with his neat and boxy treasures.

I used to see him a lot more because, back then, he used to perform his beautiful act of love daily, right under my bedroom window. My bedroom window, in the red bricked corner block by the pool. The bedroom where, at the time I first noticed Cat Man, I was falling in love. He wouldn’t know me but I watched him most evenings as purples and oranges filled the park, immersed in his daily ritual. A ritual I know now, was just one of many.

I say it was my bedroom, but that is a lie, because it was not yet mine. I was only its temporary visitor when I spotted Cat Man for the first time. It belonged to the person whose soft earnest chuckles turn my chest to honey.

Before it was the bedroom from which I would witness one of the most tender displays of softness, I used to swim most nights at a pool across from it. I would glide up and down, a lane to myself, with only numbers in my head. Leaving the pool, I would look up at the red-bricked corner block – its long windows like eyes. A dull pink illuminating the room of someone I didn’t know. I was obsessed with the red brick corner block with its lights and windows for eyes. As if alive and warmly waiting for me after my nights at the pool. I would gaze up into its soft face as I climbed into my car. I would say to myself: one day I’ll live there. My fantasy second home by the pool.

Under the bedroom window that is now mine, but once wasn’t, there is a small verge – a patch of green between the footpath and the road barely enough to even be considered a verge. Verging on verge. There is a tree on the verge and under that tree, used to live a mostly white and brown mangy stray cat. She was beautiful. With her sharp edges, wild eyes and her decrepit furry body, all clotted and slightly grubby. She lived happily day in and day out in the shade of the verge-tree like a Queen. A shabby, drunken queen who gave few fucks.

Every dusk without fail, I would watch Cat Man cross the street– the pool mostly emptied of people as the sun faded – to feed his mangy queen. He would bend and place his bags by his sides onto the grass. It was only then that I knew what was in his bags. They were filled with treats for his Queen.

Without his bags his body curved as if it were still carrying them. He patted his rotting angel softly, without bending his legs and with a ninety-degree bend from the hips. He slid his backpack off, dropped it by his foot and out of it he took a brush, which he used to lovingly and slowly massage her back. I had tried many times to pat the mangy cat. I consider myself to be ‘good with cats’ – slow, patient and crouchy – but this cat would have none of it. She wouldn’t let herself be patted by anybody but Cat Man. And he was allowed to use a brush!

I remember the person, who was letting me visit their bedroom by the pool, said to me that this daily ritual we were witnessing was one of the most beautiful acts of love they had ever seen. I would watch this person, who I was already so desperately in love with, watch Cat Man’s devotion from the window with eyes that brimmed with tears. If I was lounging on the bed at dusk or reading my book on the couch, they would signal me over to the window, move the curtain so we could both bear witness. A cat has never been so loved.

Out of his green bags he would take out many plastic Tupperware containers. He would line them up and the cat would sit patiently watching. Each was filled with cat food. One with wet food, two others with variations of dry food. He then took out a series of small bowls from his backpack, which he placed side by side. A cat buffet. He took out a bottle of water and filled one. One time he poured her some milk as a treat.

The Cat would rise and devour her three courses while Cat Man either stood and watched or, sometimes, she allowed him to continue softly brushing her as she ate. After maybe 15 minutes, Cat Man would methodically pack up the tubs of food and place them back inside the green bags. He rinsed the bowls with the water, placing them in a plastic bag, putting them back into the backpack. Slowly he manoeuvred the backpack, a sort of slow, curved toss onto his back from one side. I could tell he had done these many times, saving him one more bend. His flat back caught the bag every time. He would weave his arm through the bag’s other strap, patting the cat one last time, and from the middle, bend to retrieve his green bags.

As it was getting colder, we noticed that the cat had acquired a small tent. There were even a few blankets inside it. We would often see her grotty face poking out from inside. Cat Man, slowly, over many days, had constructed her a shelter from the rain. She loved it.

It was usually dark by the time Cat Man left. His shuffling symmetrical silhouette would turn back toward the park – a marker of the day’s end. I wondered how many local strays got this royal treatment. His bags were clearly so heavy – there must be others. I imagined him walking the streets for hours, a methodical and timed-to-the-minute route. A bunch of stray cats waiting for their favourite person to arrive. I wondered whether our mangy verge friend was the last on his route. Perhaps his favourite. From my vantage point, I couldn’t imagine anyone could love more wholesomely.

I came home one day to horrifying news. ‘Something awful has happened’ – my now-partner said to me as I came through the door, into the warmth of their arms. Some well-meaning people had come from the cat protection society a few days before, asking after the scruffy creature we had become very fond of. It was stray but loved, well fed and very happy, we said.

Two fire engines had come by and our mangy scrappy queen had been so scared that she had scaled a tree. She was too high. The people from the cat protection society were there too with a huge net but she wouldn’t budge.

‘They put the hose all over her, can you believe it?’ my partner sobbed, eyes welling with tears. I imagined the force of painful cold water on our beloved wretched street angel. She’d jumped down, escaped the net and run away.

They left eventually. The do-gooders. The fire brigade.

Cat Man came, as usual that dusk to feed his favourite. She wasn’t there. We watched him from the window – checking her little house, looking down the street. We waited too, for our verge neighbour to return. For days we hoped to see her back, propped in her spot under the tree. But she never came back. We watched her home get wet in the rain and scattered by the wind. Cat Man came by every day – but eventually he too stopped coming.

I see Cat Man less regularly now. When I noticed him last, he was carving his way through the park pushing a shopping trolley full of green bags with his straight and determined arms.

Photo of a brown mangy cat meowing and sitting under a park bench

About the author

Erin Riley is a 36 y o social worker who has spent the last decade working in community based aged care. They have since left this work to pursue a palliative care position in the (in)justice System at Long Bay Prison – with a hope to provide an intersectional lens to social work practice within a custodial setting in their work with incarcerated dying people. They are new to writing and when not at work like to ride their spin bike in the garage, watch basketball documentaries and read in bed.

Photo by ahmad ghardash on Unsplash.

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