by Nod Ghosh
MY CAT HAS been meowing in a Spanish accent.
This wouldn’t be unexpected if we lived in Valencia, rather than the South Island of New Zealand, but Poco has lived in the Christchurch suburb of Hoon Hay since he was a kitten. Why he’s making short staccato vowels and substituting m sounds with an n is a mystery to me.
My flatmate Damo says, ‘You’re talking crap, Harry.’ But given his disinterest in anything other than team sports, Damo can’t tell whether Poco’s ne-e-a-ows originate from the Iberian Peninsula or the Kuiper Belt.
Damo has a rectangular jaw. His hair is the colour of wheat-straw.
My hair is slick and black. They used to call me The Oily Indian at school. And though it’s Damo, not me, who thinks Matariki is a type of lizard rather than a rising star cluster that signifies the Māori New Year, he’s not the one who’s regarded as ignorant by my brother and the few mutual friends the three of us share.
They give me blank looks, talk over me, and laugh at jokes that have lost their meaning in the wash, jokes they won’t share with me.
The shame of it is that I’m smart. Really. Until recently, I was a postgraduate student researching the philology of schwa sounds at Canterbury University. Most people don’t understand what that means, just as most people don’t understand why I dropped out less than a year into the project.
Damo is clever in his own way. He could tell you anything you want to know about wire and reinforcing mesh. He’s been employee of the week twice at Mighty-Five Hardware in the last seven years, but he doesn’t understand the subtleties of my cat’s diction. Nor does he appreciate Poco’s other talents.
The cat has learned to grin. Damo reckons it’s more of an aggressive grimace. Perhaps Poco’s smile is merely a stretching of the lips, not a tooth-baring Cheshire-cat grin.
I’ve never been to Cheshire, so I wouldn’t know.
I’ve never been farther than the Gold Coast in Australia. Our parents took my brother and me on the holiday of a lifetime when I was five and Barun was ten. It was all Surfer’s Paradise, Dreamworld, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and You boys have opportunities we could only dream of in our world.
Barun and I learned to speak English from our immigrant parents. Though they were well spoken, they didn’t always speak well.
‘You must have to do better.’
‘Unlike you, your brother is the most good boy in his class.’
‘Oh yes, we had been to Gold Coast.’
As a child, I’d correct them.
‘Choop!’ Baba would scold. ‘I’m near twice-double your age. Don’t give me advice on how I am saying this.’ He’d twist my ear for good measure. Even if my father hadn’t been a policeman, I’d have been scared. My lobes still ring red when I remember his hand approaching my head.
What I did acquire from my parents though, was a mild accent. I tried disguising the Bengali with an exaggerated Kiwi twang. It made me sound Welsh, and earned me a black eye from Benbow the class bully in year two.
I’ve lost the accent, but not the desire to tell people what’s what. I once tried explaining what a ‘schwa’ was to Damo. He yawned and flicked through a rugby magazine. I suggested he look it up on Wikipedia instead. Even though the article supposedly has multiple issues, I know it’s adequate. Good enough to tell Damo the schwa is an unstressed vowel sound, rather like how the letter a sounds in the word about, only not quite as simple as that.
The idea of animals having different accents isn’t that far fetched. They’re cleverer than you think. Look at chimpanzees. They communicate with their hands and feet, and also by clipping leaves in a particular way. Some have been known to accumulate hundreds of words, which is probably more than Damo uses in a month.
And what about birds? People like Benbow and Damo use bird-brained as an insult. But avian courtship rituals are complex, and feathered creatures have amazing powers of mimicry. It’s not only parrots and mynas. There’s the case of Ripper the Australian duck who was recorded quacking the words You bloody fool.
Google it if you don’t believe me.
And there was something on television recently about a cat in Mosgiel who developed a stammer in his meow. The owners found a vet in Timaru who specialised in mammalian vocalisation disorders. They set up a crowd-funding page so they could take the cat for weekly visits. After a month the stammer improved. After three, it had vanished. Amazing. I thought the vet’s fees were extortionate otherwise I would have taken Poco for his punctuated meows.
Right now, money is a bit tight, you see.
Damo nags me if I don’t pay my portion of the electricity bill the minute it arrives. He also complains about Poco’s litter tray.
‘Why don’t you clear out the cat’s poop, Harry?’ He says Harry with a mock Indian accent when he’s having a go, as if he’s saying the word hairy, but with a weighted h, and without the diphthong thingy. I’d consider asking him to use my given name, but he mispronounces Hiresh so badly(Heeraysh), I’ll tolerate Hairy.
Hiresh means the king of gems. I’d be proud to own my name if people could say it properly. If I don’t get Heeraysh, it’s Harosh. I’ve even had High-res. It’s not a difficult name, but Damo can’t work his ethnocentric tongue around it. He can’t even say Harry without sounding as if he has a speech impediment.
Perhaps I should take Damo to the Timaru vet, but I don’t know whether they’ll accept human subjects. Perhaps as a favour, since I contributed to the crowd funding, or maybe because of Damo’s subhuman qualities.
Barun, my brother’s name, means Water God.
I tease him, calling him God of wastewater, or Pee-King.
Barun doesn’t even wince. ‘What’s wrong with being named after a deity?’ he says. And, ‘Everyone needs water. You can’t drink gems.’
Barun still has a mild accent. I guess it’s because he wasn’t born here. Our family moved to Auckland a few years before I was born. They left Panmure for Christchurch when Ma was expecting me, but I reckon my brother still bore the North Island taint when he arrived in the south. I’d call him JAFA before I knew what the acronym stood for. Google it if you don’t. My brother would sit on me and twist the skin on my wrists.
‘Sewage-features,’ I’d cry.
‘King of Gems,’ he’d retaliate, releasing me for a second. ‘A suitable title for a dealer or gang member. The Drug Lord of Hoon Hay.’
I’d lash out, but Barun was larger and meatier. He’d hold me at arm’s length like a thrashing puppet until Ma would tweak my ear for starting it, even though I hadn’t.
It was Barun who introduced me to Damo. They’d worked together at Mighty-Five when my brother was a student. Damo’s previous flatmate had stolen the kitty money and disappeared owing rent. My brother’s friend needed to fill the vacancy, and I needed somewhere to live just as quickly.
Things weren’t going well with my supervisor at Uni. Let’s say I was a long way from being the most good boy in the department. My parents were ashamed.
That wasn’t the only reason they asked me to move out.
Ma found a bong under the bed. She had no idea what it was for. A beautiful object it was too. I’d paid more than I should have for the water pipe, considering there was a chip in the mouthpiece.
Baba knew what it was all right. After years of being a police constable, I guess he could recognise drug paraphernalia from a distance in a darkened room with a bag over his head.
‘Shorbanaash!’ Ma had screamed when Baba told her what it was.
Shorbanaash is one of Ma’s regular curse words. There was a time I didn’t know what it meant. But when my parents invited me to leave the family home, I knew the word signified defeat, destruction and undoing. Ruin.
I might have got away with the pipe, but that wasn’t all my parents discovered when they looked deeper. The King of Gems – Drug Lord of Hoon Hay title my brother had given me had morphed into reality. I’d supplemented my income in ways a police constable’s son shouldn’t. I’m surprised I didn’t get busted earlier. Sometimes people don’t smell what’s on their own doorstep.
After I left university, it took a while to find a job. I used the proceeds from my extracurricular business venture for the flat deposit.
Damo needed someone to share the bills with, but wasn’t looking for much more. We’d have a beer together if Barun came round when the footy was on, but that was about it. So I adopted Poco. His Bouncicles and Muttonchop Munchies didn’t cost a lot. I needed the company.
Eventually Gabor the Hungarian hotdog stand owner offered me a job.
Now my ill-gotten gains are spent and I know how much vets charge, I might have to find a new home for Poco before he falls sick.
I’m pondering whether I can live without the cat when he rubs against my leg and I swear he says ¡Hola!
Then he yowls for food in regular Cattish. Pity Damo isn’t home to witness it.
I grab Poco, and whisper, ‘Say something,’ into his ear, in a Banderas-like Spanish accent. Then I translate: Di algo. The words feel satisfying in my mouth. This animal is my only friend. I hold him tighter. He protests in the universal language of Hacked-off-ish, bites my thumb and tries to escape.
I hold him tighter still, and open the bag of Pussy-Delight cat treats I keep on our wooden coffee table. Poco prises the paracetamol-sized biscuit from my fingers before I can say buen chico, even though he’s not really been a good boy. The cat jumps down onto the worn rug and skitters under the table. I shake the bag. There’s a thok as he jumps up. He’s trying to reach the Delights through the wooden table top.
Perhaps Poco would be a little brighter if he had a bird’s brain.
Barun calls around unannounced. He fist-pumps Damo, hands him a six-pack of De Salinas Especial.
‘De Salinas.’ I reach for a bottle. ‘My favourite.’
‘Not for you, King of Gems,’ my brother says, blocking Damo and the beer.
I try to grab a bottle, and Damo pulls away. My brother dances around us.
‘Stop being a knob,’ I say. ‘Just give me one already.’
‘Sure,’ Barun says, taking the pack and placing it on the counter. ‘You going to run to the bottle shop and get some too, little bro?’
‘Aw, come on, man. You know Gabor the hot dog baron pays peanuts.’
‘Then maybe you can contribute actual peanuts,’ Damo says.
I try to grab a beer again. ‘Just gimme one cerveza, bro,’ I plead. ‘I’m parched.’
‘There’s water in the tap,’ Damo says. ‘And cut the pretentious Spanish crap.’
‘Keep out of this.’ I push my flatmate aside. ‘This is between me and the bro.’
Barun grabs the beers and guides Damo to his room. ‘Shall we go in here?’
‘What the— ‘
Poco rubs against my brother’s retreating leg, as if the six-pack contains Pussy-Delight cat treats, but he too, is shut out.
‘Traidor,’ I shout at Poco as he scratches Damo’s door. ‘Traitor,’I repeat in English, in case the cat doesn’t understand.
The reason my brother didn’t call before he arrived is clear. He hasn’t come to see me. He’s visiting Damo. They’re probably talking about me now. Damo is most likely telling Barun how I won’t pay my share electricity bill. It’s not my fault. It’s only three weeks overdue. Ah, maybe four or five now. Six? Blame Gabor the Hungarian. He doesn’t pay enough.
Poco has given up scratching Damo’s door. He rubs against my legs, grinning.
‘Haram jadahs,’ I hiss, spouting Ma’s Bengali equivalent of the b-word.
‘Haram jadah,’Poco yowls and shoots under the table, leaving me speechless.
My cat has used the singular form, and I wonder whom he’s referring to.
Nod Ghosh is a graduate of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Christchurch, New Zealand. Published books include: The Crazed Wind (2018), Filthy Sucre (2020), and Toy Train (2021), all novellas-in-flash from Truth Serum Press. Throw A Seven is due for release in late 2022 from Reflex Press. Nod was guest editor for UK National Flash Fiction Day’s 2021 anthology Legerdemain. Her novels are represented by Nadine Rubin Nathan at High Spot Literary.
Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/.