I must have heard the story of the dead cat at least three times from three different sources. Interestingly, every time the events would be identical and the setting same: a small university town in mainland Europe — a nice, leafy and affluent neighbourhood. Quiet and peaceful, as is expected in a small hamlet away from the main city; and the party where a cat took centre stage.
Well for those who aren’t aware of the story, here it is in first person.
My aunt had recently defended her thesis in social anthropology and to celebrate the occasion, agreed to invite her husband’s friends and colleagues (all academics in the same university) to dinner at their place . It was a Saturday and twenty of the most distinguished scholars from different departments had confirmed. More than being important and senior faces in the academic roster, they were all very close to her husband — himself a senior professor of cosmology in the department of astronomy in the same university. Cesare, my uncle is Polish and my aunt, a true-blue Bengali had first met him in a coffee shop in Florence, where she was holidaying and he, attending a conference on Dark Matter.
The menu was a mix of cuisines: Bengali delicacies & some continental to cater to every palate. But the highlight of course, were the clams — those chewy, buttery wonders of the ocean cooked with spaghetti, garlic wine sauce and a hint of select herbs. This was my aunt’s favourite and though her husband was not much in favour of any shelled variety (‘there are instances when these have gone wrong when not cleaned properly’) she insisted; and won. So, clams it was — nice, soft shelled and waiting to excel. All thoughts, of not being particularly risk-free were shelved behind a heavy-duty morning of cooking. My aunt, in her usual style, prepared everything from scratch — the spices, the sauce, the ingredients- leaving nothing to chance
It was close to two in the afternoon that the cooking got done and she could close the kitchen for a quick refresh before evening. And that is when she saw the cat.
As she was passing the dining area, she saw a cat perched on the table, with her face close to the bowl staring at the clams . Were the clams licked by the cat? One could not say for sure, though it did seem to be menacingly close to the bowl. Of course, my aunt did not hesitate to shoo the cat away immediately, but whether it had licked any one of the hard-shelled varieties from the bowl was anyone’s guess!
My aunt was thus left between the rock and the rummage — not knowing whether she should throw away the entire bowl or would, removing the top few and keeping the rest intact, be good enough. Throwing the entire bowl would be righteous and morally correct; throwing away the top few clams and keeping the ones which possibly could not be touched by the cat, would be more practical. The clam and spaghetti after all, was the highlight for the evening.
So, keep she did. She removed the few clams on the top and worked hard to not think of this anymore. And by evening as the lights were on, the guests started coming in and the wine bottles opened, everything was nice and smooth as if the cat on the table had never happened!
Fast forward to the evening then. Twenty of the most distinguished wise men from the local seat of learning — all above fifty and many 60 or more– presented themselves in their best casually relaxed selves by 7 in the evening. The drinks included the best wine and malt selections that the town could offer, the savory alongside comprising the best cheese and homemade salads. The ambience, the conversation, and the intermittent roaring laughter — all hinted towards an evening where everything was perfect; the party simply rolling on at its best. And of course, the clams rightfully took centre-stage. Everyone complimented my aunt’s culinary skills, a few wanted her to share the recipe — in short, all that could go right, went right. If her dissertation was one hallmark of success, the arrangement this evening was no less.
Encouragingly tired and undeniably happy, it was almost 2:30 in the morning when my aunt saw off the last guest and walked up the passage to lock the driveway gate and switch off the portico lights before retiring for the night. And that is when she saw the cat lying dead outside the driveway, by the side of the road. Yes, dear reader, the same cat that she had seen in the afternoon trying to pry at the clams before it was shooed out by her.
“Holy Christ! How could you?”, my uncle, Cesare, cried out when he heard of the cat and the incident in the afternoon, of it being seen on the table and around the bowl. “Why did you not tell me?”, he asked, “I would have never allowed you to have any of those goddam clams served to the guests? I am sure these were not cleaned properly!”
‘What if the clams were poisonous, as they often are?”
“Surely the cat died of the same poison?”
“What if things go wrong with our guests now? Majority of the faculty are old, vulnerable, and fragile. Can you see where this might go, Sheila?”
A barrage of question with very few answers. Yes, this shouldn’t have been done and my aunt knew it. It was a big risk that she had taken, and things have now gone belly up. It did not need Cesare’s questions to embarrass her. She herself was feeling immensely guilty and almost pushed to the edge.
But the situation needed addressing and it was decided that the guests would be informed of this immediately. So, at 3 in the morning, telephone calls went out to all invitees. All 20 of them.
‘Cat seen near bowl of clams, few clams removed from the top, rest served….. ….discovered just now that the cat is dead! Our fault, we should have been more cautious…….admit that there is always a possibility that the clams might have been poisonous! Apologies, apologies! But just now as a precaution do come over to the local A&E for a check-up and for those with any felt unease, a complete wash of the stomach.’
Embarrassment is an understatement to describe how the hosts felt standing in the hospital lobby watching the guests arrive — a second time that evening — but this time for medical attendance. An uneasy silence hung between them and the guests: some trying to be casual about it, some indifferent, a few sympathetic but a large majority visibly annoyed, for what they perceived to be irresponsible behaviour.
It took close to two hours for all guests to be attended — two hours of thorough shame and misery for my aunt and uncle. It was close to dawn when they left the hospital.
‘An evening of glorious highs and crazy lows’ thought my aunt. What a way to end what started out as a wonderful, wonderful day. If she ever felt dejected, it was now and justifiably, wanted some time to herself. She decided to settle down on the couch in the living room downstairs and allow the night to pass by- but the horrible feeling hung heavy in her head. The evening, the guests, the praises and then the horror … the images came flashing in her mind as she tossed and turned. A deep sense of remorse engulfed her as she slowly fell into a slumber. She was awoken a little later by, what half asleep she realised, was the sound of a car stopping close by.
She looked out of the window to find an old lady walking up the driveway and their eyes met. The old lady smiled; my aunt looked at her in askance.
“Darling, I live down the road about a quarter of a mile from here,” she said. “Sorry to disturb you so early in the morning, but I wanted to let you know, that I might have run over your cat while driving back last night! I should have informed you then, but I think you had guests at home so did not want to disturb you. I am terribly, terribly sorry; it is old age you know, and the doctors keep telling me that I shouldn’t be driving…….” My aunt wasn’t listening anymore.
A night of the cat, clams, chaos, confusion and now this confession! She was not sure whether to feel happy or sad?