Tony is sat working at his grey desk in the grey office he shares with thirty other accountants. At exactly four thirty, he will turn fifty. Tony’s wife, Joyce, is standing on the parquet floor of the kitchen in their semi-detached bungalow that very moment baking his favourite cake – the one topped with butterscotch cream and walnuts. Tony has asked for the day off, but his manager, Reg Barton – surely the most irritating man alive – refuses, like he does every year.
“It’s our new oven, Mr Barton,” Tony tries as a last resort. “Joyce struggles with all the different dials. I’m usually there when she uses it, but she’s prepared a lot more food because of all the guests we’re expecting. Would it be possible for me to just pop back and – ?”
“Can’t be done, Tony. Not this week. We’ve got an audit coming up and an inspection the week after that. I need everyone in an extra hour every day for a fortnight. No holidays for anyone. Well, apart from Clive –”
“Why Clive? What’s Clive doing that’s so important?”
“Taking his daughter’s rabbit to the vet. Testicular cancer, Tony. It’s serious.”
Smiling through gritted teeth, Tony returns to his swivel chair, sits back against the uncomfortable fake leather and tries to let the rabbit slide. When he joined as a junior clerk twenty-four years ago, when the company wasn’t in turmoil, he’d had a different chair, a much better one that spun the full three-sixty degrees without serious risk of injury. Nowadays, to save money, everything has to be second-hand, so the blasted chair only swivels one way and not that far around. He jerks it into position and continues work with aggressive reluctance.
But shame starts to wag its finger at him. Because Joyce is not an idiot with the cooker dials. She is a very patient, capable woman. He feels terrible for using her as an excuse (and, admittedly, even worse that it didn’t work). Yes, he really feels like a top-class cunt. He visualises her, all rosy-cheeked and smily, pottering around the kitchen, expertly turning as many dials as she can get her mitt-covered hands on. He sees the whole scenario in his mind vividly: the scent of fresh baking, sunlight streaming in through clean windows, Joyce smiling as she bends down to open the over door. He could have cried. He’d forgotten how much he likes his bungalow and his wife and his little chair by the garden door where he can sit and read his paper or write a silly poem and no one judges him or tells him to increase his efficiency or reminds him, between the lines, that he is Past It, Give Up And Die Please. Eyes closed, he stays there a moment longer in the chair by the open door catching the summer breeze, sipping morning tea, watching their cat plodding past Joyce’s slippered feet as she gently beats breakfast eggs. With a whispered, “hello,” Joyce reaches down to stroke the thick, warm fur and . . .
Tony is swept out of his pleasant daydream and thrown into a bucket of cold confusion. They don’t own a cat. Why is he daydreaming about a cat? Unnerved, he glances around at his co-workers, but it isn’t some trick. Everyone’s still tapping mindlessly on their keyboard, grimacing at flickering screens. Was it a cat? Or a sign? Or both? Tony’s sure it was something. Spurred into excited action like a detective with a new crime, he opens his internet browser and types ‘cat’ and the first half of his postcode into the search panel. He spots a link to a local cattery and another to a centre for abandoned animals. A strong urge makes him click on the second option where he gazes, sadly, at a dozen or so lost, abandoned or maltreated cats. He clicks on the photograph of a pretty, green-eyed tabby that seems to beckon him closer and discovers the cat’s name is . . .
Tony’s appalled. How could such a sweet creature warrant such a ghastly moniker? The cat might be furry, black and brown, but he looks nothing like a giant spider. He’s described as “a loving, playful family pet abandoned in a bin when times got hard, but has maintained his dignity throughout his ordeal and is still able to trust those humans who are prepared to comfort him”. Tony is surprised and touched by the description. A dignified, trusting cat. A warm tear pops into his eye. He likes Tarantula. He likes Tarantula a lot. He feels an immediate affinity with him. So much so, in fact, that something that has lain dormant in his soul for years switches on like a light. Rapidly, feverishly, he scribbles down the address of the animal shelter.
“So about the audit,” begins Reg Barton as he looms over Tony’s shoulder, eyeing the webpage.
“What about the audit?”
“Shouldn’t you be working – to prepare?”
“No. I won’t be here for it,” Tony replies simply and he turns so abruptly in that cheap swivel chair that something in the mechanism snaps.
“Did you receive a redundancy letter?” says Barton worriedly.
“Gracious, no. I’m indispensable,” says Tony with a sarcastic smile. He stands up quickly in case the chair collapses altogether.
Barton glares at him. “So where are you going?”
“Home. To my wife and cat.”
“I didn’t know you had a –”
“Yes,” says Tony proudly. “We have a cat. A very dignified, headstrong cat who doesn’t take shit from anyone. His name’s Tarantula and he’s nothing less than a credit to society.”
As Barton stutters in disbelief, Tony calmly logs out of his computer, scribbles a note of resignation (“I’m resigning, all the best, Tony”) and hands it over. “Good luck with your audit, Reg. Shame I won’t be here to help you this time.”