Fatima stood perfectly still by the front door, breathing, but not noticeably, as if the stuffing had been sucked out of her. She squeezed her arms into her chest. Her headscarf, wrapped tightly in layers and folds around her head and neck, dripped from the rain.
“You’re wet. Do you want a towel?” I asked from the bottom of the stairs.
She didn’t blink, like she was fixating her gaze on something through me.
“It’s late. Have you been at the mosque?” I asked. It was unusual for her to come home after eleven thirty.
Her forehead was creased with concern.
“Did the bus go on one of those detours again?” I laughed, “I told you the trains are quicker. Remember?”
Rain drummed onto the roof. A siren faded in the distance.
“Do you want to sit down?” I suggested.
She flashed a glance in my direction and remained standing—a circle of water formed around her on the doormat. I yawned and motioned as if I was about to go upstairs.
“Cat,” she said. It sounded like ket, the k and t punctuating the silence as if she was spitting out the word. “Black cat. Outside”, she said—her accent Eritrean Arabic.
“Oh, that one. Yeh, bloody thing’s always there.”
“One hour I wait, outside,” she said. “One hour. Ooofff.” She exhaled sharply, her chest deflating.
Fat, bulging, and black, like a rain cloud, there’s a stray cat that likes to hold court on the wall by the gate to our house. Because I’m allergic, I usually give it a wide berth or flick my foot at it. It scampers but always returns and
waits outside our house as if it wants to mess with me.
“Would you like some tea?” I asked. Fatima liked a glass of black tea late at night. She’d wait for the sugar cubes to completely dissolve before sipping it. She said it helped her sleep.
“Why the black cat no move? I move.” She jabbed herself in the chest. “I move to the other side of the road. I cross the road. I stand by the next house. I stand by the car. Ooofff.” Her arms fell by her side. “I walk to the shop. I come back. Cat still there.” She pursed her lips.
“I’m not sure I understand. I squinted my itchy eyes, trying to concentrate. Are you scared of cats?”
“No,” she exclaimed and leaned back, affronted by the question.
“Bloody thing. Why didn’t you just shoo it away?”
“Shoo?” she looked at me quizzically.
I flicked my hand. “You know, shoo.”
“No shoo. This cat not moving.” She wagged her finger exactingly.
“But, why didn’t you text or call me? I would have shoo-ed it away and let you in.”
She didn’t respond. We stood in silence for a few moments, the only sound the dishwasher beeping, once, twice, three times.
I couldn’t drop it.
“But…” I mumbled impatiently. I wanted a proper answer. I knew Fatima didn’t mind waiting, but for an hour?
She often told me how long it took her to travel to her appointments by bus. Two and a half hours on the 91, 59 and 109 to the Home Office in Croydon; two hours on the W7, 253 and 308 to the Refugee Council in Stratford; and seventy-five minutes on the 41 and 231 to English ESOL level two at Enfield College. I imagined her waiting to
change buses, sitting awkwardly on the narrow plastic benches, checking Citymapper every few minutes, wrapping her hoodie around her thin body, calculating the travel time.
“They’re so unreliable,” I huffed one evening after telling me that she’d waited forty-five minutes for a 91.
“But you can see, outside,” she said, her voice rising. “Underground,” she wagged her finger, “no good, like a cave.”
“Is there a reason you don’t like black cats?”
“Reason?” she asked.
“Yeh, like in your culture?”
I grabbed my phone and typed, “Eritrean cat superstition.” Nothing much came up. I banged the screen again, “black cat pavement Eritrea.” A few pages appeared with images of pavements and pedestrian crossings in Eritrea. One last go. “Black cat Eritrean culture.” Little apart from some videos and cutesy photos of black kittens. I smiled apologetically and stuffed my phone into my pocket.
“Did you have a bad experience with a cat?”
“Me? No,” she said, “I like cats. This cat sit outside the house. This cat looking at me. This cat not let me pass. This cat not happy,” she shook her head, “no, no, no.” That wagging finger again. “Me,” she put her hands on her chest, “I like cats. Not this cat. So…” she paused, “I wait.”
Don’t, I said to myself, as I itched to ask again what she did outside for an hour, in the rain, when she could have shoo-ed the cat away and been in bed by now, drinking her tea, planning tomorrow’s bus journeys. Don’t, I thought, tell her that you are allergic to cats and have the test results to prove it. Don’t tell her that your tear ducts swell when you go near them. Don’t tell her that you used to throw water at cats in the garden and scream obscenities at them. Don’t tell her that you enjoy hissing at that black cat that sits outside the house.
She slipped off her trainers and walked towards the kitchen, her feet leaving wet footprints on the floor.
The kettle roared.
I needed an explanation, but why now? I wasn’t an asylum seeker like Fatima. I hadn’t lived on the streets for eight years since I was eighteen. I hadn’t left my family behind in Eritrea. I hadn’t begged for food and water. I hadn’t had
to wait for answers from the Home Office. I hadn’t lost contact with everyone I knew because I’d lost all my phone numbers. I had never been reliant on charity. I didn’t have to wait in line, often for hours, when I needed new
clothes. I hadn’t spent an hour outside a house that was hosting an asylum seeker trying to get in, but found the entrance blocked, by a black cat.
I removed a couple of mugs from the cupboard, made two teas, and pulled out a chair for Fatima at the table.
We sat down. She dropped a couple of sugar cubes into her cup. I waited.
Miki Lentin is a writer and consultant in the cultural sector who lives in London. He has published a collection of Short Stories called Inner Core, was a finalist in the Irish Novel Fair in 2020, and has been shortlisted in numerous competitions, such as the Fish Short Memoir Prize.
MUSEPAPER STORY PRIZE #71
FEBRUARY 23, 2023 / MUSEPAPER STORY PRIZE #71 / "WAITING" © 2022 MIKI LENTIN