I was highly annoyed when my daughter brought a stray kitten to our apartment in Fujairah four years ago. When I scolded her for bringing in the little beast she pleaded that she had found him abandoned on the road with no one to care for him. I had heard that the cat’s hair could trigger allergies. But Shabna was adamant. She won that verbal duel and I had to surrender, as parents always do.
She called him Shelby, after Thomas Shelby, the protagonist in the Peaky Blinders series based on the Birmingham gang. Thereafter I was forbidden to refer to him as ‘it’ and ‘that.’ He grew in stature. But I felt he was a nuisance and I continued to ignore him.
Years passed and the COVID lockdown turned our lives upside down. The world shrank within four narrow walls. Feeling the unbearable weight of isolation I began to think that any company is welcome.
The place I call home is not actually my home. This is not where I was born. This is not where I wish to die. Back home in Kerala, you can see at least a spider weaving a web on the corner wall. Here, I look around and see no sign of life.
It was in sheer desperation that I turned to Shelby. When I looked into his eyes under the harsh reading lights I realised they had the same shades of cruelty as the original Shelby. ‘My daughter was right when she named you Shelby,’ I whispered to him. Shelby seemed to understand. He quickly sensed my interest and responded with enthusiasm. Soon he started following me around the house. Sometime I try to shoo him away, but he sticks around doggedly.
Now I realise Shelby really loves me. He is with me when I read, watch TV and eat. He often strikes me with his tail and surprisingly it brings down my anxiety level. I feel bad about my past indifference to him.
There were two incidents in the past when Shelby’s actions or absence caused us considerable distress. One weekend when I returned to my bedroom after lunch I found the door was locked from inside. Who locked it? Everyone was clueless. An uneasy feeling enveloped us. Did anyone slink into the apartment while we were in the dining hall? We checked the CCTV footage and found nothing suspicious.
I called a carpenter to break open the lock. There, inside the room, sat Shelby staring at us with the most innocent expression on his face. The carpenter suggested the possibility of the cat’s jumping right onto the key and causing the door to lock. I had seen Shelby perform all kinds of acrobatics, but I’d never expected this level of precision. From that day I made sure Shelby never got to enter my bedroom. I’d scream at him and lunge forward with a stick whenever he went in that direction.
One weekend when we had guests at home, we suddenly noticed that Shelby was nowhere to be seen. We searched high and low but to no avail. Shabna was out of the house and I feared she would accuse us of negligence when she returned and found her pet missing. I asked my son Ameer to search all-round the apartment complex. Soon everyone learnt about the mystery of the missing cat. But nobody could find him.
Then Ameer went to a nearby apartment where Shelby was a regular visitor. He knocked on the door but there was no response. Then he banged the door using a little force in the hope that the folks inside would wake up if they were sleeping. That was a terrible mistake. A piece of the door came off. The apartment owner lodged a police complaint saying Ameer broke open his house.
I was furious. So much of trouble caused by a mere cat! As soon the guests had departed I advised Ameer to go to Dubai and lie low for some time until the problems were sorted out. By then I was quite exhausted and collapsed into a chair. A faint meow greeted me from behind. Yes, it was him, Mao’s spite and Gandhi’s calmness in his eyes!
These escapades slowly melted my distrust and suspicion and Shelby grew dearer to me by the day without my knowledge. We humans have too many prejudices, too many reservations. But Shelby loved me even when I looked away. Little by little I began to notice his every move. When I came late from my office, he would give me pained look. ‘Why couldn’t you come a bit early, man? Do you know long I’ve been waiting for you?’ he seemed say.
Now Shelby and I have become equals. We both stay home all the time. In fact he is freer than I am. When I read, he turns his eyes away. Is there a touch of melancholia in his eyes or am I imaging things? At night, his eyes glow like embers.
One day, when I looked at Shelby’s eyes, all of a sudden I felt like I was struck by a bolt of lightning. It gave me goose-bumps. Those were the eyes of my son, Ameen, whom Fate had so cruelly snatched away from us a few years ago.