A NIGHTTIME ENCOUNTER

ZOE WELLS

It was 3am when I closed my laptop and realised that I hadn’t eaten since that morning. 

It wasn’t that I felt the hunger – there was no dull ache, no physical reminder – but rather it occurred to me that I hadn’t spoken to anyone since Phil that morning, when he’d asked me how I’d slept, and I’d slept fine, and he’d slept fine, and he had to go to work now so have a good day and I’d gone back to my room and booted up my laptop and somehow then it was dark and then 3am and that was that. So, I must be hungry, but there was nothing left to eat except too hard bread and too soft fruit. And cornflakes. But I’d had that for breakfast, and dinner the day before, so I threw my old yellow raincoat over my pyjamas and headed on out to Tescos.

There’s a certain thrill to being awake, specifically awake and about, at 3am on a Tuesday. It’s not a time you should be up. The world is at it’s most silent at this hour – even the insects, birds, rabbits and cabs seem to have quietened for a moment, as though they’ve nothing to run from, nothing to worry about, because the rest of us have retracted our claws and gone to sleep, for now. Only the elements are in motion. The wind ruffles the leaves of nearby trees, and if you take a moment, stand still, and look straight up, you can track the movement of the clouds by the stationary stars. Stand too long and you may start to wonder if the stars too might be moving. If maybe the clouds are staring up at them as they shuffle quietly across the cosmos. 

I think that if I were to lay back on the grass and push my arm up into the sky, I might almost reach the bottom layer of clouds, or maybe the edge of the atmosphere. And if I stretched, put out my index and focused my whole mind on it, I might be able to prod the moon a little, push it further away and watch as the ocean tides ebbed and flowed to a stop, to a stand-still as they watch my titan hand push further into the dark. Even at that, I’d never reach the stars. 

The bush next to me rustles. Between the earth and the wind, two spots of yellow light reflect back at me. These stars creep close towards me, blink, then duck and hop over the boundary between me and them. A black cat, her fur shimmering as it breaks up the light from the lamppost, looks up towards me. Ancestral night trapped in physical, but no doubt adorable, form.

I offer her my hand. She regards it. Sniffs it. Pushes her face towards it. I ruffle her ears and she backs up a little, then moves towards me, touching my ankles gently as she walks past me, then swings back round and pushes her head yet again. Ruffle. She purrs.

“What’s your name then?” I say, scruffing her neck, but there’s no collar. She’s a scrawny thing too, but I can’t believe that anyone could look into her everything eyes and throw her out to the cold, unforgiving night. “That’s fine then.”

I always wanted to get a big black cat called Sue. After the Japanese susuwatari, the soot sprites in Miyazaki films that scuttle under floorboards or in lofts, fist sized black balls that stare at you with those white-circle-black-dotted cartoon eyes, as they wait for you to move, to announce yourself as some kind of danger. Susuwatari, or susu, a sound that’s gentle on the ears of a cat. Sue, for short.

Then there’s something about giving an animal a middle-aged white name that has a strange deliciousness to it, too. “Deborah, heel.” “Here Bill.” “Jonathan, sit.”

“You doing okay Sue?”

She looks up at me like “do I look okay?” as she grooms her skinny body. Her fur is matted along her chest, the white of her roots showing through the filth. But with a cock of her head it turns from “do I look okay” to maybe a “darling, I’m always okay”. 

My own stomach grumbles. “I’ll be right back,” I tell her, standing up to continue to Tescos, and she paces behind me because she’s a cat, of course she doesn’t understand, “just wait here, just wait,” but she won’t wait, until I cross the road and I’m in the car park and she sits there, her sun eyes boring into me, and I hunk over against the wind and walk through those huge sliding doors.

 The only lady at the checkout asks me how I’m doing as she scans through my £1 pizza and £3 worth of cat food.

 

“Not bad,” I say. “Slow night?”

“The slowest.”

I nod. She bags my items but forgets to charge me the extra 5p. Not bad at all.

Outside I look for Sue, but she’s already gone – returned to the wildness to hunt for mice and rodents, hopping from bush to bush, living out her adventure night after night. Or just gone home, tapping against a glass door, waiting until morning to be let back in. But this was the way it would always go – she goes back to her world, and I to mine.

I look back to that same, spinning, ever moving sky. Even this, even now, when there’s nothing but me and them and the great nothing, the world feels almost too much. Too busy. Too rushed. But as the single distant car fades into silence, and the whole night returns to quiet, you can hear the low hum of the universe return, as a distant, distinct, purr.