Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Flora Jardine

It’s a common fairy-tale theme — imprisonment in a tower — and a common true-life tale of city life today, a dark one and Tom was living it, although he didn’t think of it in literary terms himself. At age nine, he had never known anything but high-rise living. To him it was just life. He lived with his parents in a small unit on the fifteenth floor of an apartment block. His parents had jobs but not well-paying enough for them to buy a house although they, and Tom, longed for a garden.

Tom’s mother made sure her working hours fit his school hours, so that she came home when he did each day at three o-clock. Often after school she read to him. Even now that he could read perfectly well himself, he liked to lean back on the sofa and listen to the lilting voice of a story-teller. Who doesn’t? When she was busy with other things he could always go online or watch cartoons on TV, but that wasn’t as enjoyable as being wafted into the oral world of story.

Staring out the window was Tom’s other favourite past-time. Living deep in the city he looked into a forest of other tower blocks, watching their lights come on as the sun went down, glimpsing little vignettes in the window squares, and making up stories about what he saw.

The closest building was on the right of his field of vision, with a mere alley-width between himself and it. The apartment at the same level as his had a minute balcony, as did his own, and on the balcony there often sat a large grey cat.

“Hey, Old Grey,” Tom would call to him, although he knew the cat couldn’t hear him. Too much background traffic noise, but Tom knew the cat could see him, and sensed that he knew when Tom was speaking. He often looked Tom’s way, yellow eyes staring, sometimes the tail flicking. Tom recognized the cat’s fidgetiness, the tail swishing, stretching, circling and resettling on the balcony rail. He felt the same way, stuck up in the air on a tiny balcony. The stories his mother read aloud, by contrast, were about secret gardens, enchanted forests and ocean voyages.

“Why can’t we have a garden?” Tom asked Mother.

“Maybe one day …” she replied wistfully.

“I could have friends over,” said Tom. Characters in Mom’s stories always seemed to have friends, partners in adventure, but rarely did Tom bring a friend home after school. There wasn’t room to do anything except sit side by side in front of the TV, munching popcorn, and he could just as well do that by himself.

In the absence of companions Tom made distance-friends with the cat across the alley; more than that, he began mirroring it, imitating the feline movements which seemed to express his own moods. Confined in a “unit” in a tower block, he swung his arms like the cat did his tail, and when the cat arched his back or stretched his paws out, Tom did that too. When a sudden noise, a siren say, or the roar of a truck or burst of loud music caused the cat to sit at attention staring in its direction, Tom looked the same way, although in the forest of buildings the sources of noise weren’t visible.

Sometimes the cat would lick a paw and wash his face, in a languid motion that looked dejected and half-hearted. Automatically, Tom would rub his own face, massaging his nose and his eyebrows, restlessly. It was as if the cat was his yoga teacher, teaching him movements that combated immobility and captivity. When Old Grey didn’t come out on the balcony Tom went through the stretches and sways on his own, adding deep breathing to the routine.

He wondered what Old Grey was doing when not on the balcony breathing polluted city air. He could tell from the configuration of windows that Old Grey’s apartment was much like his own, and equally tiny. No space or airiness in there. Tom had seen that some apartment dwellers took small dogs out for walks on leashes in the noisy dirty air, but Tom was sure that Old Grey never got out of his unit, never sneaked off along a hallway, down dozens of flights of stairs or onto an elevator, to cross a strange-smelling lobby and escape through the heavy front doors when someone happened to be entering.

Tom wished poor Old Grey could do that, that he could race through the streets, hide under garbage bins, find something to eat and make his way to one of the little pocket parks dotting the grey city-scape around them. He visualised Old Grey’s journey, grasped it as a hero’s journey like those in stories his mother read to him, and he longed to imitate it himself. One day, he told himself … wondering how old he’d have to be before his parents would let him go out on his own. Mother always picked him up from school. Weekends they sometimes went to the Community Centre Pool, or the museum, taking a bus. (“The traffic’s hell,” said his parents, “all bike lanes and delivery trucks, no room for an ordinary humble family car.”) In their tone, Tom caught the same wistfulness he felt about having no garden to play in.

“Like you, I want to climb a tree,” he said to Old Grey, who sat unhearing but somehow not unknowing across the alley. “I bet you wish you could scratch your claws on tree bark, roll in dry soil, stretch out in sunshine on soft grass.” Thinking this he inhabited the body of the cat – the body of his twin. When the cat arched his back, restlessly, Tom arched his; when the cat hunkered down silently to endure his confinement, Tom hunkered down to endure his own; when the cat flopped onto his side in bored resignation, Tom did the same, when the cat closed his eyes against the sameness of his surroundings, of his days, so did Tom.

Slowly he hatched a plot, a fantasy to pass the time: one day he would find a way into Old Grey’s high-rise, figure out which apartment was his, somehow get the jailers there to open the door, get inside and stroke the cat’s soft grey fur. Then, somehow, he would kidnap Old Grey, bundling him inside his jacket and whisking him off to the closest park, taking on the role of liberator.

“Just wait, you’ll see,” he whispered, describing this fairy tale to Old Grey who solemnly regarded him from across the dark urban alley, as if he could read his mind.

“Be free, Old Grey!” Tom would tell him at the park, leaving him tinned fish for his first meal of freedom, the first meal of his journey. It will be my journey too, said Tom to himself, and I will be the hero of it.

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