He’d not long turned four when he first mentioned the cat under the stairs. He’d taken to playing in the space, in spite of how dark it was and the fact that there always seemed to be a pile of coats that littered the floor because they wouldn’t stay on their hooks. It was a rainy afternoon during the autumn half term, so all the children were in the house and the noise level was reaching critical mass.
I’d taken the fresh laundry from the dryer and as I stood holding the warm bundle in the kitchen, even above the childish din, I heard an almighty yell from upstairs; dropping everything, I ran! In the room shared by the two younger girls was a horrible mess caused by what looked like paint but smelled like soap. “He’s ruined everything!” wailed one, “On purpose!” chimed in another! And I had to agree; quite a few things were definitely ruined! Their carefully constructed Lego models and a beautiful lamp were now covered in purplish-blue gunk, which was running across the shelf and falling onto the books and toys on the shelves below. He was standing in the corner of the room, still holding the dripping bucket that usually only saw the light of day during trips to the beach; his hands, T-shirt and some of his hair bearing the tell-tale signs of his guilt but his face the picture of innocence. “The cat said I should do it!” he stated, quietly and unphased by the commotion still raging. “We don’t have a cat!” I replied, baffled. “We do!” he insisted! “The cat under the stairs.”
Almost without fail, from that day, every misdemeanour, every indiscretion he committed – and there were very many – was blamed on the cat. He never gave it a name, as many do with imaginary friends, nor could he describe it, even when pressed, yet referred to it as ‘he’ in conversation. He refused to accept that the cat wasn’t real, although we reasoned with him, emptied the space so he could see there was no cat and did everything in our power to distract him and find him real human friends to play with.
On his eighth birthday, we bought a kitten; a tiny tabby speck with a sweet nature and soft fur. He refused to name it or have anything to do with its care, claiming that the cat under the stairs didn’t like it and wanted it to go. Indeed, the kitten seemed to take great pains to avoid the area under the stairs, walking a curious path whenever it neared the space. Occasionally, she would hiss and bristle at the staircase. It was unnerving, to say the least. After only two months, the kitten slipped out unnoticed and, in spite of circulating posters, she was never returned to us. We decided not to buy another pet.
As the years passed, the imaginary cat remained part of our lives, to the point that he would insist on adding ‘and the cat’ to cards and gift tags and we could see the knowing glances that would pass between relatives at gatherings. He’d vanish under the stairs, from where we could hear low muttering and long pauses. We took him to see a child psychologist, who suggested that being a lone boy among several sisters may be behind his wish to have a male companion to himself, even an imaginary one. It seemed unlikely to me but with no other explanation forthcoming and no other real behavioural problems that couldn’t be accounted for by being the spoilt youngest child, we didn’t pursue the matter. We simply waited for him to grow out of it.
When he was fourteen, we began to feel very squashed in the house that had been fine for two adults and five children but was less accommodating for seven adult-sized people. As soon as we began to look for another house, he became almost inconsolable; he barely slept, he spent more and more time under the stairs, even doing homework in there, albeit of very poor quality. We reassured him that we were only looking locally, that he would still go to the same school and see the same school friends, not that he had many. He didn’t care; he just wanted to stay with the cat under the stairs.
Before too long, we managed to find somewhere bigger and within our price range so, after a couple of frantic months, we were standing in the new house, surrounded by boxes. I saw him looking toward the door that formed a cupboard of the space under the stairs; I watched him as he tentatively opened the door, flicked on the light and looked inside. A strange look passed over his face: relief? “Is there space for your cat?” I joked, trying to lighten the mood. “There never was a cat.” He said, looking very, very young, all of a sudden. I felt my breath catch in my chest at this long-awaited admission. “But he said you’d worry if I told you he was a goat.”