Linda and Patrick Hillman stood on the front porch of their brick-veneer house, staring across at their teenage son in dismay. Although a big, powerfully built man, Pat felt helpless as he watched his son walking around the tall grass beside the railway tracks. Pat and Linda had often warned Alex about the dangers of playing near the railway tracks. But they knew that in a depressed area, during a recession, there were few other places for a working class teenage boy to muck about.
And the railway tracks were appealing to all the local kids. Railway Street was actually two one-sided streets running parallel to each other, with the railway lines in between. On one side of the street were houses, then a one-lane road, then the railway tracks, separated from the street by only a 140 centimetre tall wire-mesh fence running the length of the street. Across the fence was a few metres of wild land with native grass growing almost head high for young Alex. Beyond the grass was a couple of metres of land covered in grey stones, followed by the twin sets of tracks.
At the moment Alex was standing on the stones between the grass and the tracks. But Pat knew that it was only a matter of time before his son headed for the tracks themselves.
One of the latest crazes among the local kids was playing chicken with the trains. Only a fortnight earlier a twelve-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother had been killed playing chicken, not far from where Alex now stood. They had stood on the tracks waiting till the train was almost upon them before leaping across to the other tracks. So intent on the train they were baiting, that they didn't notice the train coming in the opposite direction from the station fifty metres away.
But Alex was too sensible to play chicken....
Normally Pat and Linda would tell off the boy for playing near the tracks. However, they didn't want to yell at him at the moment, knowing that he was still distraught over the recent death of Timmie.
Timmie had been Alex's pet, an enormous black-and-tan tabby tomcat. But he had been more like a family member than a mere pet. Pat and Linda had given Timmie as a ten-week-old kitten to Alex for his first birthday present. Since then boy and cat had grown up together. Only a month ago Alex had celebrated his fifteenth birthday; Timmie his fourteenth.
Although Alex had seemed to believe that Timmie would live forever, Pat had known that it was only a matter of time for the ancient tomcat. For the last few years Timmie had been slowing up. He had developed rheumatism in his legs, which had slowed him almost to a crawl on his bad days -- although on his good days he could still gallop up and down the corridor outside their bedroom, usually at night after he had sneaked into the house, or had been let in by Alex.
In his early days Pat and Linda hadn't minded the cat spending a stray night indoors. However, in later years Timmie had started to become incontinent. Pat remembered his rage recently after walking out into the hallway barefoot and stepping into a pile of cat feces. He recalled with shame how he had ranted and raved, threatening, "I'll break that bloody cat's neck the next time he does that!"
But there had been no next time. Five days later Timmie had been dead.
Despite the best efforts of Alex and his parents to stop him, like the local kids, Timmie had been unable to resist the allure of the railway running down the centre of the street. And the tabby tom had had less trouble than the kids to scurry under the badly-maintained wire-mesh fence to get firstly to the forest-like tall grass. Timmie had liked to act like the Bengal tiger which he fancied himself to be, to stalk through the overgrown grass and weeds. Then he would race madly around the dirty grey stones beyond the grass, before finally scaling the metal tracks to reach the other side, where he would repeat the procedure in reverse, then finally squirm under the chain-link fence to race across the road to chase rats and mice through the derelict houses on the other side of the street.
As a kitten Timmie had effortlessly skipped across the metal tracks. But as he grew older, he had slowed down until it had become more of a Herculean task to climb the tracks, than the adventure it had once been. Pat remembered watching the old tomcat painfully pulling himself up the pylons which seemed like Mount Everest as the cat reached its fourteenth birthday.
Until one day the ancient cat had been too slow and had been hit by a train.
Despite being sick to the stomach and throwing up at the sight of Timmie's mangled remains, it had been Pat who had had to scrape up the remains of the tomcat to bury him in their back yard.
Finally brushing off his wife's restraining arm, Pat walked across the road to the wire-mesh fence. "Time to come inside, son," he called.
At first he thought that Alex hadn't heard and began to call out again. Then the teenager turned round and walked -- slump-shouldered looking more like seventy-five than fifteen, aged by his grief -- back toward the fence.
"It's all right, son," said Pat, feeling stupid for saying it. He placed an am around his son's shoulders to lead him back toward the house.
"It's time for dinner, son," said Linda as they approached.
"Okay mum, I'll be in in a few minutes," said Alex, heading down the side of the house.
Pat followed slowly after his son, knowing where he was going. He stood near the back door as Alex headed across the lawn toward the small grave near the deal wood side fence.
Over the last week Alex had divided his spare time between the railway tracks and the grave site.
"Hello Timmie," said Alex walking across to the small grave. Timmie had been buried in a spare space in Linda's rose garden. A small deal wood cross with the tomcat's name marked the grave.
Pat looked up startled. For a second he wondered if he should speak to his boss Paul at the yacht club about Alex. Paul Borizovsky was a retired psychiatrist and a good friend of Pat. "No," thought Pat, "no boy of mine needs to talk to a shrink!" But in truth Alex was more his mother's son. Although he had his father's dark colouring and Celtic good looks, he had inherited his mother's short, elfin statute instead of the great height and broad shoulders of his father. Alex had also inherited Linda's sensitive nature, which sometimes worried Pat who was afraid that the boy was growing up to be a sissy.
Alex stood by the small grave for almost five minutes. Then as he started to turn Pat hurried inside, not wanting to be caught spying on his son.
At the dining table the three ate mechanically, not saying a word, although Pat and Linda exchanged occasional worried glances. It was as Linda was clearing away the dirty dishes that Pat finally summoned the nerve to say, "We've been thinking of getting a new cat for you ... Old Bob Clooney's cat has just had kittens...."
That was as far as he got before Alex went running out of the room, toward the back yard.
"You bloody idiot!" Pat cursed himself. He was afraid to look at Linda, for fear of seeing that she was thinking the same thing.
"He'll come around in time," said Linda. "Bob said it'll take him a month to find homes for all the kittens ... Maybe by then...." She left the sentence hanging, like Pat, afraid to hope.
Over the next fortnight Alex continued to divide his time between the railway tracks and the grave site. Pat wanted to apologise to his son, to tell him that he didn't mean to belittle the death of Timmie, but was afraid to try for fear of only making things worse.
Then, to the surprise of Pat and Linda, Alex suddenly stopped hanging around the tracks and started to spend his afternoons in the garage behind the house. Not owning a car, the Hillmans used the garage to store unwanted possessions.
Every night for a week Alex went to the garage straight after school and stayed there till dinner time. Then he would return to the garage after dinner until it was time to have his bath then go to bed.
"What can he be doing down there?" asked Linda one day. She half feared that he might be hiding girlie magazines there; half hoped that he was, wishing for anything to take him out of his depression.
"I'm going to have a look," insisted Pat. He easily pushed past his wife at the back door to start across the lawn toward the garage.
"Son are you okay?" asked Pat throwing open the garage door.
"Dad, I..." said Alex looking up startled from where he sat on the concrete floor, surrounded by boxes of discarded clothes and old magazines.
Pat stared down at his son in horror. Seeing the black and tan bundle in his son's arms, for one crazy second he thought that by some miracle Timmie had been restored to life.
Then he saw the hollow eye sockets in the mouldy head and realised that it was the severed portions of the tomcat which Alex had dug up from the rose garden and now cradled lovingly in his arms.
"Look dad, Timmie's not really dead at all," said Alex, staring glassy-eyed at his father, "he was only hurt. But he's getting better. Soon he'll be well again."
"Holy Lord!" said Pat having to grab the garage door to steady himself as he almost fainted.
* * *
After reburying Timmie, Pat mixed up a bag of concrete to set over the grave, then went into the house to telephone Paul Borizovsky, hoping the retired psychiatrist would agree to treat his son.
Over the next three months Alex visited the psychiatrist twice-weekly. Although he never repeated his ghoulish act, Alex failed to come out of his melancholy, and continued to spend most of his spare time either at the grave out back of the house, or at the railway tracks out front.
Every evening Pat would stand by the front porch watching as his son stood by the spot where Timmie had been hit by the train.
"Why the Hell isn't he responding?" demanded Paul one day.
"These things take time," explained Paul Borizovsky. Who had stopped in ostensibly to have dinner with the Hillmans, but in reality so that he could see Alex in his home environment. "Three months isn't long."
"Perhaps I'd better call him in?" suggested Pat. Receiving no reply he crossed the road to stand outside the wire-mesh fence.
"Alex, time for dinner," he called.
When Alex failed to answer, Pat repeated the call. Then, sighing from frustration, he walked along the grass verge until finding a place where the local kids had pulled the meshing loose from the upright struts.
With a lot of pushing and pulling, straining and grunting, and silently cursing, Pat managed to force his large frame through the gap to reach the grassy area on the other side.
At the start of the "forest" Pat hesitated. As a child he had been warned against walking through long grass by his father who would sternly say, "That's where tiger snakes live son."
Although no tiger snakes had ever been seen near the railway lines, Pat struggled to master his lifelong fear of long grass. Finally he forced himself into the grass -- moving at a rapid pace in the hope of getting past any hidden snakes before they could spring.
At the other side he heaved a sigh of relief. Walking along the grey stones toward his son, he started to call to the teenager, then stopped.
"Timmie, Timmie, Timmie, here Timmie," called Alex softly.
"Oh God!" thought Pat in frustration.
Hearing his father's footsteps on the stones behind him, Alex looked round guiltily, as though caught in some illicit act.
"Dad, I..." began Alex, stopping mid sentence. He blushed deeply.
"Timmie's dead, son," said Pat, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.
"Yes I know, dad," said Alex. But he sounded like a bad actor, unable to sound as though he really believed the lines that he had to speak.
Not knowing what to say, Pat put an arm around his son's shoulders and guided him back towards the wire-mesh fence. He had to force himself not to run through the grass abandoning his son.
Over the next few weeks Alex continued to go across to the train tracks every night before dinner to call to Timmie, to the dismay of Pat and Linda.
Alex also continued to visit Paul Borizovsky, however, the psychiatrist seemed unable to make any progress with the teenager.
One night Pat was walking past his son's bedroom, when he heard a soft murmur. Guiltily placing an ear against his son's door, he heard Alex say, "Don't worry Timmie, we won't be getting any dumb old kitten. You'll always be the only cat in this family."
"Oh, my God!" thought Pat, flinging the bedroom door open wide.
"Dad? what?" stammered Alex in shock.
"Thank God!" muttered Pat in relief that there was no sign of Timmie's corpse on the bed.
"Oh, er, I thought I heard voices in here," offered Pat lamely.
"I was just thinking out loud."
"Oh," said Pat, hurriedly retreating out into the hallway. After a moment he raced outside to check the rose garden and was relieved to see that the concrete slab over the grave had not been disturbed.
Over the next few days Pat got into the habit of sneaking past Alex's room whenever the boy was in there. On occasions he heard Alex talking, but couldn't quite make out the words through the door.
Although they both felt guilty, as though they were spying on him, Pat and Linda took to creeping into Alex's room each night while he was sleeping, to see that he was all right.
"How much longer is it going to take, son?" thought Pat one night as he stood looking down over Alex's sleeping form. Sighing deeply, he turned to walk out of the room, when he heard a low murmuring coming from the foot of the bed.
At first be thought it was Linda standing in the doorway whispering to him. But when he went across to check there was no sign of his wife.
Puzzled he looked slowly round the dark room, half expecting to see someone crouching in the shadows. Then he realised that the murmuring sounded more like a cat purring.
At first he thought that Alex had finally got over his shock at Timmie's death and had adopted a stray. Thinking, "Maybe that's what he's really been talking to these past few weeks?"
He turned on the bedroom light, expecting to see a furry creature on the foot of Alex's bed.
To his surprise though, there was nothing on the purple quilt, although the sound of purring was much louder now.
"Puss, puss, puss, where are you puss?" Pat called softly, trying his best not to awaken Alex, as he walked back toward the head of the bed.
At his call the purring stopped for a second, replaced by a sharp, "Rowr," as Timmie used to answer when Pat or Linda called to him, making them half believe that the tabby understood their words.
Startled by the sound, Pat looked back toward the end of the bed. He still saw no cat, however, for the first time he noticed a large dent on the quilt.
A large, cat-sized dent.
Somehow controlling his fear, Pat forced himself to walk over to pat the dent....
And was startled by the feel of a soft, furry body beneath his hand.
At the contact Pat jumped backwards crashing into a small bedside table, and the purring started up again, louder than before.
"Dad? What?" asked Alex awakened by the sound of his father's stumbling.
At the sound of the teenager's voice, the dent in the bed rustled slightly, then a second, much smaller dent appeared, followed by a third, then a fourth, then a fifth, as though something were walking up the bed toward the pillows.
After a few "paces" the invisible creature stopped and the bed began to shake slightly before the dents continued up the bed. "Just as Timmie used to do to shake a cramp out of one of his rheumatic old legs!" thought Pat. He wanted to run from the room in horror, but found that his legs were frozen to the spot.
Finally the footsteps reached the head of the bed, and the purring reached almost bass-drum-like intensity.
As Pat watched in horror Alex reached out one hand and began to stroke the unseen visitor. Seeing his father's terror, the teenage boy said, "Don't worry dad, it's just Timmie. He was lost for a while, but I knew that if I called him long enough, eventually he'd find his way back home."
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia