2008 Contest Shortlist

Saving a Spanish Cat

Never travel with animals, children, or a very good grasp of train schedules and immigration procedures.

We were ready to return to our chaotic Parisian lifestyle. My fiancé Fred and I were rejuvenated after a week in Parauta, a tiny village nestled in the mountains of Southern Spain. There was, however, one hesitation: the little Siamese cat who seemed to have adopted us during our brief stay. We called her Minou. She was beautiful, with liquid crystal eyes, and classic smoky smudges on her face, paws and tail. Her coat was like down feathers, pristine and flea free. She was a stray, we were told; cats were considered more pests than pets in that area. We stood solemnly beside the car, while she sat on the steps peering at us inquisitively.

“Let’s take her,” Fred read my thoughts. “We’ll figure it out.”

Smuggling a cat without papers into France would be difficult. Our first stop, after buying a cat cage, was the Seville train station. I would get to Paris by switching trains in Madrid and taking an overnight train. With a kiss for courage, Fred left us at the station and rushed to the airport to catch his flight.

The only tickets left were first class. Averting the critical glances of the other passengers, I slid the cage in front of my seat and sat cross-legged. Minutes after the train set in motion, an angry employee approached me and demanded something in Spanish. His eyes gleamed with malicious pleasure. I shrugged warily.

“He says the cat needs a ticket,” the guy across from me said.

“No one told me that!” I exclaimed. My heart beat painfully against my chest.

The two men exchanged words; the worker snarled something and flicked his moustache.

“You must pay forty euros and the cat must stay in the luggage,” the guy said apologetically.

“Forty euros? I don’t have enough,” I cried.

The worker’s anger flourished. He shouted and his eyes flickered with rage, while his mouth contorted into a sinister grin.

“He says you must pay when we get to Madrid. A controller will go with you to a distributor. You must take your cat to the luggage now.”

I rose while the others stared unabashedly. I joined Minou in the luggage compartment, curling up beside her and speaking softly. Her anxious expression reflected my internal state.

I got out my ticket and my heart convulsed. The connecting train was at a different station. I would have to pay the fine, buy a ticket for Minou for the next train and switch stations, all in fifteen minutes.

A young train worker came and knelt beside us. “I’m really sorry,” he said kindly. “She’s a beautiful cat.”

I explained my situation to him and he frowned with concern.

“I’ll be back,” he said with determination.

I stood up to stretch just in time to see my complementary meal being thrown away. I’d forgotten that feature of first class tickets. My stomach protested with a deep groan.

“OK,” he said triumphantly when he returned. “We asked the supervisor. You don’t have to pay!”

Relief flooded through me.

When the train reached Madrid, I was at the door, cage in hand.

Through a combination of speed walking and brazenly approaching strangers for help, I managed to find the metro that went to the other station. Once I had arrived, with only a few minutes remaining, I went straight to the platform leaving for Paris. No time to buy the ticket. Everyone had already boarded.

I turned and approached the conductor. He glanced at the cage and shook his head. “No animals on overnight trains,” he said in French, unflinching.

My mouth immediately parched with panic.

“No exceptions,” he said, sensing I was about to reason with him.

I had no other choice but to burst into tears. His expression was that of disgust, but his eyes softened slightly.

“I’ll talk to the head conductor,” he said, reluctantly heading to the front of the train, reappearing a minute later with another uniformed man.

I continued my plight. “Please, this is my only way home,” I begged, aware of the spectacle I was creating.

By this time a crowd of train employees had encircled us and were shouting their personal opinions in Spanish, incomprehensible, though it seemed they were on my side. The conductor looked at me, his expression unyielding, and I allowed a few more desperate tears to escape.

“There are no cats allowed on overnight trains. Ever.”

“Please sir,” I cried, “we’ll sit in the aisle, the bathroom, anywhere!”

Passengers had their faces at the windows, wondering why the train wasn’t leaving, observing the scene. The conductor crumpled his mouth and shook his head firmly. The two of them turned their backs, boarded the train and the door closed behind them with a hostile thud.

I stood on the platform, watching the train pull away, sniffling, trying not to descend into total panic. A young female worker approached and wrapped her arms around me. She pushed my head on her bosom and stroked my hair gently while she cooed in Spanish.

“I don’t know what to do,” I sobbed. She shook her head in incomprehension. I tried in French to no avail. She took my hand and led me upstairs to a French speaking employee. She explained the situation to him, then left me in his hands.

He looked at me gravely. “There are no cats on overnight trains, and there are only overnight trains to Paris. You can either fly or take the train and hire a company to send your cat.” I stared at him. None of these options were feasible, not without proper vet papers.

“Are there any more trains tonight?” I asked, thinking I could slip on discretely and hide the cage.

“That was the only one.”

“What can I do tonight?” I asked him. Clients with cats would be unwelcome in any hotel. I began imagining a night on the streets of Madrid.

“I’ll talk to security. You can stay in the station tonight.”

I thanked him and left the office. I would call Frédéric. His plane had landed a few hours ago. He’d know what to do.

I bought a calling card and dialled Fred’s number. Voicemail. I left a tearful message, then sat and waited. My stomach twisted with hunger, but I was too unsettled to eat. No one knew were I was, and I felt invisible in the bustling, timeless environment, as if I had died.

I called Fred every hour, leaving increasingly desperate messages.

1:00 a.m. Calling card expired. Fred still hadn’t answered. Something was wrong.

The security men locked the doors and set the alarm, which made excruciating high-pitched beeping. There were other’s locked in: an elderly man with no teeth, a young hoodlum who lay curled up and alternated between coughing and snoring, and two homeless guys off to the side. The temperature seemed to have abruptly plummeted, and I sat shivering on the cold ground beside Minou, who was silent and seemed relatively calm. I had no plan. All I had in my bag were a few books, our pairs of shoes and my computer. I opened my laptop and searched for an internet connection, finding only an access that required a credit card. Fortunately, Fred had given me his before leaving.

2:00 a.m. After an hour of failed attempts, the connection miraculously activated. I messaged one of my French friends, explained the situation, and asked him to try Fred’s number. In ten minutes, Fred was online.

“What happened?! he wrote. “What aren’t you on that train?”

“Didn’t you get my messages?” I asked, exasperated but relieved he was safe.

He hadn’t gotten them. His phone had broken and had only resurrected for the two-minute window in which my friend was able to get through.

Fred began a detailed search of train schedules and just as my batteries threatened to die, he found something.

“Tomorrow morning, get on a train to Basque Country. There you’ll switch to a train that’ll make its way north to Paris. You’ll arrive at around midnight,” he wrote.

The scale of the journey was disheartening. Could Minou stay in her cage all that time? The internet connection expired before my batteries.

3 a.m. I lay trembling on the frigid tiles, watching Minou sleep. I hoped she would be able to endure the remaining travel. A heavy fatigue loomed over me, though not powerful enough to allow the luxury of sleep.

6 a.m. I was overjoyed to see the doors being unlocked, the faint hint of sunlight, and the first employees arriving. I bought my ticket, making sure to get a complementary cat version, and at 10 a.m. we boarded the train. I placed Minou by my feet and we were both unconscious before the train had even left the station.

Once home, the cage would have to be hidden out of sight, as its presence instilled debilitating anxiety in both me and Minou alike.

Nisha Coleman