Who’s Charley? you might be wondering, and why does he need to come home?
Here’s a spoiler: Charley is home, safe and sound. And here’s the story of how Charley came home.
Charley’s a cat. White, with two black spots above his eyes, like eyebrows, and a short black tail. Charley lives with me and my sister.
I was away in Manila for work for three weeks. Charley was at home, looking after the house and my sister. While my sister was amenable to cats, she didn’t care much for his whining at my bedroom door, his random dashes across the living room, or his caterwauling at the cats in the alley behind our kitchen. (He didn’t — and still doesn’t — care much for her either; the only human he tolerates is me.)
One day, while the front door was open, he headed out to the garden and, to my sister’s surprise, out of the front gate. “Oh, he’ll be back,” she said to herself. “He’s a scaredy cat.”
But Charley didn’t come home.
The next day my sister texted me. (I was training people in Manila, and probably scaring them more than I ought to.) Charley's ran away, she wrote. I know he's outside, but he doesn't want to come home.
I stared at the phone, baffled. But he's a scaredy cat, I texted back. He never leaves home.
You're right, said my sister. Maybe he'll come home tonight.
But Charley didn’t come home.
I still had a week in Manila. I couldn’t run home just because my cat didn’t want to come home; my boss would’ve thought I was going nuts from stress. So I counted the days until I could leave, and as my last day there ticked by, Charley still hadn’t come home. My sister had searched for him all over the neighbourhood, but he was nowhere to be found.
I know he's around, she texted me, frustrated. I can hear him, sometimes. I bet he'll come running home when he hears your voice.
I frowned at the message as I packed up my bags, trying my best to stuff in all the gifts people had piled on me. There were no souvenirs for Charley. I wondered if I could lure him home with dried mangoes.
I still had no souvenirs for Charley when I left Manila. The plane touched down in Kuala Lumpur amidst the haze and dry heat, smoke from peat fires staining the air. I caught a taxi and headed home. I stowed my bag in my room and checked the house, making sure nothing had fallen apart while I was away. No sign of Charley. I headed outside and started calling for him. No answer. “What kind of a stupid stunt is running away from home anyway?” I muttered angrily as I poked around the garden. The only reply in the twilight was the wind rustling through the dying plants.
My sister came home. We ate the dried mangoes and didn’t leave any for Charley. I went to the kitchen to wash my hands, and I could hear the cats in the alley outside yowling at each other. “Hey Charley, you back there?” I asked, not expecting an answer. My sister had walked the alley every day and saw no sign of him.
There was a meow. I blinked. “Charley?”
Another meow. I dried my hands and headed outside. I peered into the alley, wondering if I was making things up in my head. “Charley?”
Another meow. I looked around, hoping my neighbours weren’t spying on me from their kitchens. Loitering in dark alleys at night was the kind of thing that got the community watch called on you.
Charley was sitting on the steps heading towards the house diagonally across ours, all regal and sphinx-like. I might have gaped at him a little. “This is ridiculous,” I finally said. “You couldn’t have been there the whole week. My sister will have a fit when she finds out.”
He gave me a lofty look indicating he didn’t care. (Their dislike for each other was mutual and epic.) I went closer to him and held out my hand. “Come on, we’re going home.” He let me scratch his ear and I started to slide an arm underneath him to pick him up when there was a sudden glint in his eyes, hard and mean. He jumped away, clawing at my wrist, and ran into the nearest drain.
I stood there under the waning moon, my hand stinging, feeling betrayed.
Eventually, I headed home, locking the gate behind me. My sister looked up from her laptop. “Where did you go?” she asked.
“Charley’s in the alley behind the house,” I said, pulling the door shut with a bang. She opened her mouth and closed it again. “Then he ran into a drain after scratching me.”
“You actually found him?” she said, incredulous. “Behind the house?”
I held up my hand, vaguely wondering if she needed proof that Charley had really been there and I hadn’t been hallucinating. “He scratched me, see?”
She muttered things under her breath that probably weren’t complimentary. I went to bed, too exhausted for anything else.
Charley knew I was back but he hadn’t come home.
I went to look for him every day for the next two weeks. He would always answer when I called, but would run away as soon as he knew I had seen him. “Charley!” I yelled after him one day as he darted off. “I know this is revenge but you’re being unreasonable!”
I stalked back home, wondering whether my neighbours (and possibly the community watch) thought I had a falling out with a boyfriend called Charley and, for strange and mysterious reasons, our arguments were always one-sided and always took place in the alley behind the house.
“No luck?” my sister asked.
“You can stay out there forever for all I care!” I shouted at the open front door. There was no answer. “Don’t come home if that’s what you want!” My sister winced. She was sketching in a notebook, and I saw that the page was filled with Charley in different poses.
“You know what you should call your fashion line?” she asked, apropos to nothing. “Charley Come Home.”
“Hah!” I said, though I was unsure whether my contempt was towards Charley or the idea of a fashion line. I had made one dress and posted it on Facebook, and friends were very impressed by it. I wasn’t terribly impressed myself. One dress a fashion line makes not.
“It’s a cool story! Heartbroken because Charley didn’t come home, you started sewing clothes. He’s your inspiration! People will lap it up and come in droves.”
“No, I’d have to do something self-sacrificing to make it a good story,” I grumbled. “Like sewing myself and my seven brothers cat costumes only by moonlight so that I could turn into a cat and bring him home.”
My reinterpretation of the fairy tale was studiously ignored. “It’s a cute brand name!” she insisted.
I sighed. “Yeah, sure, why not.”
This was definitely revenge.
The next day there was a storm. We left the door open and I watched as the wind whipped leaves around and the rain blurred everything into soft, grey lines. “Do you think Charley’s all right?” my sister asked. “He’s afraid of storms.”
“I don’t care,” I said. I watched as the puddles in the garden turned into streams and rushed into the drains. Charley liked hiding in drains these days; he probably thought that made him a macho street cat.
“Huh,” my sister said thoughtfully, and we continued watching the rain.
The rain petered off as night fell, leaving everything clean and crisp. I headed outside, towards the alley, not really hoping for much. “Charley?” I called out.
A meow. He was sitting on his favourite steps, not very sphinx-like now with fur sticking flat on his body. “At least I know you haven’t drowned and been swept away to sea.” I waited for him to start running, but he just sat there looking at me. I frowned at him and he nonchalantly started licking a paw. “So you want to come home now?” I asked, arms crossed, not bothering to reach out to touch him. He gave me a suspicious glance but stayed where he was.
I sighed and crouched beside him. “Come on now. You know this is all your own fault.” He flicked his ear but didn’t argue. I lifted him up and the front of my shirt was soaked by the time we entered the house.
My sister looked up from the book she was reading and raised an eyebrow at the sight of us. “Decided being waterlogged isn’t worth the street cred?” she asked him, smirking. He ignored her and leapt to the floor, heading towards the kitchen, acting like he never left. She shook her head. “Think he’s cured of wanderlust now?”
“The back alley doesn’t qualify as wanderlust. It doesn’t even qualify as running away from home.”
“Well, he’s home now. That’s a good thing, right?”
Charley peeked at us from the kitchen door, eyes gleaming triumphantly. I let him have his illusions. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
And that is the story of how Charley came home.