A Family Affair – by Anand Jacob

by TBLM

“This depraved lifestyle is no good, Cattaparthy,” said a voice, and Cattaparthy opened an eye, reconsidered, and shut it again.

“Fergof merber,” he said.

The visitor, a slim tuxedo cat, sipped from a glass, and tutted.

“You won’t last two years. This stuff is not bad at all,” said the cat, sniffing the glass’s amber contents.

“Wharg,” said Cattaparthy.

Cupping a hand to his ear, the visitor said: “Even early in the afternoon, so profound,” he said.

“WHAT,” Cattaparthy growled, “What are you doing here? Geddout.”

“To his own brother he speaks like this,” said the other, sadly, and rose.

In the ensuing silence, Cattaparthy slipped into an anxious dream, which was interrupted by a bucket of cold water upended over his head.

Mowbath watched his soggy brother sputtering and yowling, and said: “You know, I enjoy these conversations.”

Sometime thereafter, after the application of a towel, two Disprins, and a cup of coffee, Cattaparthy sat in a chair glowering at his brother.

“Mowbath,” he said.

“Have you talked to Serpaw uncle recently?” said Mowbath.

Cattaparthy looked confused. “Serpaw uncle? Why, what happened?”

“Blocky’s gone,” said Mowbath.

“Oh, shit,” said Cattaparthy, “He loves that bird. But how? I didn’t know he was sick.”

“No, no, ‘gone’, as in ‘absent’. Missing, not dead,” said Mowbath, and then, reflecting: “I mean, I don’t know, but there’s no corpse and all.”

“Oh,” said Cattaparthy.

“Last Tuesday, the old guy came back from his nightly round, and the kid wasn’t sleeping in his cage. Didn’t show up that day, the next day,” said Mowbath. “Serpaw went and found all Blocky’s friends. None of those characters have seen him.”

“Last Tuesday. Ten days,” said Cattaparthy. “Police?”

Mowbath shrugged.

There was a lull while the two sipped their respective drinks.

“I didn’t know you were in touch with uncle,” said Cattaparthy.

Mowbath said nothing.

“No, really, how did you find out?” said Cattaparthy.

“He came to stay with me,” said Mowbath.

Cattaparthy spat coffee a good distance, and chortled while Mowbath dabbed at his face in an pained manner.

“My day is getting better,” said Cattaparthy, and then winced as his headache returned to contest this assertion.

“I’m happy for you,” said Mowbath. “Blocky’s family found out, and gheraoed the bloody building. Shouting, signs. Angry neighbours. Not good.”

“So he ran to your place,” said Cattaparthy, then snorted, picturing the slovenly old cat at the residence of his notoriously fastidious brother.

“Shut up,” said Mowbath. “Listen. We need to find that stupid kid.”

*

“He would never run away. He’s been kidnapped,” said Serpaw, staring at the wall.

He’s losing his vision, thought Cattaparthy.

“A birdnapping?” Cattaparthy said, earning a sharp look from his brother.

Serpaw had not heard him. “He was a very happy bird,” he said, and appeared about to cry.

“The family? Mowbath said they’re giving you trouble.”

“Bunch of dirty bastard pigeons!” said Serpaw. “Chucked him out when he was a little egg.”

“Pigeons…?” began Cattaparthy.

“Figure of speech,” said Mowbath, nudging a lump on the carpet with a suspicious toe. He wrinkled his nose, and muttered “Oh God.”

“Right. So they think – what? Why are they mad at you?” said Cattaparthy.

“Filthy pigeons. They said I ate him,” said Serpaw, and the thought seemed to bring him close to tears again.

“Is that so,” said Cattaparthy, glancing at his brother, who was still looking at the carpet, revolted.

Cattaparthy said: “Was he upset – worried – about anything, uncle? I mean, when you saw him the last time.”

Serpaw said nothing for a minute, and then began to weep in earnest.

“He wanted to go to Australia,” he said.

“Australia??” exclaimed both brothers.

“I said there’s nothing there … it would have been so expensive,” said the old cat. “I should have said okay – I should have said we can go. He was so angry with me. Now I can’t even say sorry…”

Mowbath and Cattaparthy held the silence while their uncle wept, his unkempt head on the table.

Mowbath said, in a gentle tone that surprised his brother: “We’ll find him, uncle. But why did he want to go to Australia?”

“That’s where they’re from,” said Serpaw.

“What?” said Mowbath.

“Didn’t you find him in Shivaji Nagar or something?” said Cattaparthy.

“I mean originally. Budgies. They’re from Australia,” said Serpaw. “He wanted to see his ancestral home.”

“Bloody hell,” said Mowbath.

*

“I knew that kid had some funny friends,” said Mowbath, peering with distaste up the grimy staircase. “But this! This is more your kind of thing, thumby.”

“Yes, yes, up we go,” said Cattaparthy, poking his brother between his elegant shoulder blades.

They stood in front of a battered door, Mowbath scrutinising the number.

“Looks like it,” he said, searching around for a button to push. Finding none, he gave the door an assertive rap.

From within came a shrill yapping.

Mowbath said something inaudible, and his brother grinned at him mightily.

“Pug,” he said.

“Miss Gowri?” Mowbath called.

The yapping stopped abruptly.

“Who?” said a high voice.

“We’re friends,” said Mowbath, and cleared his throat, “Friends of Blocky.”

“I don’t know any Blocky! Who are you people?” said the voice.

“Block- Blocky Serpaw?” said Mowbath, raising an eyewhisker at his brother, who shrugged. “Budgie? Who lives in 4th block?”

The door swung open to reveal a somewhat overweight pug in a housecoat.

“Something happened to Bubbles?” squeaked Miss Gowri, and then, registering her visitors, gave an involuntary growl.

Cattaparthy very casually reached into his jacket.

“Bub – ah no, no, we hope not,” said Mowbath. “I’m Mowbath. Serpaw is our uncle.”

“Where’s Bubbles?” said Miss Gowri, staring agitatedly from one cat to the other.

Mowbath forced himself not to swat her. He said: “We don’t know. We’re looking for him. Can we come in?”

“Masterfully done,” murmured Cattaparthy, as they sat at a table a few minutes later, watching their host bustling distractedly about her tiny kitchen.

Tea arrived.

“Ah,” sighed Cattaparthy at his first sip.

“Bubbles loves my chai,” said Miss Gowri, looking at him. “And my cake. He always finishes my cake, greedy fellow. I don’t have any left, sorry.”

“I’m Cattaparthy,” said Cattaparthy.

“Yes, yes, he’s told me about the two brothers,” said Miss Gowri.

“His daddy’s always telling him you two are useless,” she said.

“Miss Gowri,” said Cattaparthy, “Blo- Bubbles has been missing for nearly two weeks. Have you seen him?”

“He sings to me sometimes. Such a voice he has,” said Miss Gowri.

They waited.

“We like to play gin rummy for hours and hours,” said Miss Gowri.

“Recently?” said Cattaparthy.

“No, we didn’t play the last time,” she said. “He was very angry.”

The cats exchanged a look, shorthand from their childhood.

“Bubbles was angry?” said Mowbath. “Why?”

She looked ahead of her and said nothing.

“We need to find him, Miss Gowri,” said Mowbath.

“It was about two weeks ago,” she said.

“Really? What happened?” said Mowbath.

“When he came, he was drunk. I gave him tea. And cake,” she said.

The tip of Mowbath’s tail twitched.

They counted to ten in their minds.

“He asked for something, and his daddy said no,” said Miss Gowri. “He was very angry. He said he never asked for anything before, but still the old fool said no.”

When they were outside some time later, Cattaparthy said: “Never asked for anything.”

“Yeah, I heard that,” said Mowbath. “Little prick. Serpaw spoils him completely.”

“Anyway,” said Cattaparthy, “We found out that Miss Gowri makes first-class chai.”

“And cake, allegedly,” said Mowbath.

*

Mowbath having begged off for a little R & R at the club, where he might possibly also run into his friend the police officer, Cattaparthy had come alone. Not that he minded. Cattaparthy enjoyed his brother’s company, but he could be a liability when legwork had to be done.

It was an old part of town. Rain trees arched enormous canopies over narrow streets. The sort of neighbourhood where residents were vociferous about the smallest disruption of peace and quiet. It was a surprise the birds were still around demonstrating, thought Cattaparthy.

From behind a transformer pile down the street, he surveyed the group outside his uncle’s building. There were five, in various colours. One old geezer and four younger birds.

“Justice for our Blocky” said a sign in two languages, bearing what must have been a picture of the missing bird. “Serpaw Bird-Killer” said another. “Serpaw – Predator!”

But the birds themselves seemed to be at peace, sitting around on plastic chairs, having tea.

He remembered that they had created a ruckus some years ago about the propriety of Blocky’s staying at the house. The word had been that Serpaw had paid out a fair sum. No doubt these characters had seen the opportunity for another shakedown.

Poor Serpaw uncle, thought Cattaparthy. After this round, it looked unlikely he could ever come back here.

That was the downside to being a recluse. Everyone was eager to imagine the worst.

Eyes narrowed to slits, Cattaparthy traced the path that would take him up to the flat without a confrontation. Then he found a side street and melted, as only he could do.

*

Serpaw had sequestered himself in the guest room, watching TV, or sleeping, or simply staring at the wall; it was impossible to say. The brothers sat conferring at the table.

“I did run into Khan. We played a couple of games,” said Mowbath.

“Your buddy the Director-General?” said Cattaparthy.

“Who do you think I am?” said Mowbath. “I don’t play squash with the DGP. Khan is Additional Director-General.”

“Your buddy the A-DGP,” said Cattaparthy.

“He hadn’t heard about it. I asked if he would poke,” said Mowbath.

“Will he poke?” said Cattaparthy.

“I mean, I let him win a game,” said Mowbath.

“Solid fellow you are,” said Cattaparthy.

“This is a crisis,” said Mowbath, glancing towards the guest room.

“So something will happen?” said Cattaparthy.

“Who knows?” said Mowbath. “It’s a distracting time for the cops, with all these court cases. What’d you get?”

Cattaparthy took a gulp of whisky, and said, “They’re still outside the house.”

“Persistent bastards,” said Mowbath.

“Maybe you can get Khan to just get them removed,” said Cattaparthy.

“Yeah, I’ll ask,” said Mowbath.

“Anyway, I don’t know whether he can go back at all. Those signs they’re flashing around are pretty bad,” said Cattaparthy.

“Yes, I saw,” said Mowbath.

Cattaparthy said: “I went up.”

“House ok?” said Mowbath.

“Smelled a bit, so I did a little cleaning. Watered the plants and what not,” said Cattaparthy.

He paused for another gulp, and said: “Looked around Blocky’s room.”

“The idea is to sip, not glug,” said Mowbath, wrinkling his nose.

“Whatever,” said Cattaparthy. “You feel free to sip. You finished my damn bottle.”

“Moving on,” said Mowbath.

“Lots of Australia stuff,” said Cattaparthy, “Koala bear stuffed toy. Big
AC/DC poster – though that may or may not be connected.”

“What the fuck is an ‘AC/DC’?” said Mowbath.

“Rock-and-roll group. It doesn’t matter,” said Cattaparthy, fumbling in his shirt pocket and extracting a photograph. “I found this hidden away.”

“Cute chick,” said Mowbath, inspecting the bird cuddling with Blocky.

“Yes,” said Cattaparthy, “See her headband.”

“Australian flag,” said Mowbath, “That would explain the sudden obsession.”

“Maybe,” said Cattaparthy.

“‘Maybe’, he says,” said Mowbath. “Could he have forgotten the days?”

“Anyway, there’s no evidence of any kidnapping,” said Cattaparthy. “Toiletries missing, chargers gone, no laptop, no tab. The kid left.”

“Yes, it’s what we thought, anyway” said Mowbath, taking a sniff from his glass, followed by a delicate sip.

“Ah,” he said.

“Elitist asshole,” growled Cattaparthy.

“Degenerate alcoholic,” said Mowbath.

*

Halfway through the first coffee of the day, a thought emerged, bright and shiny.

For a moment, Cattaparthy considered going back to bed.

Instead he said: “Mowbath! Is he up?”

“Woofm,” said Mowbath, lost in his morning worship of stock market movements.

Cattaparthy got up and took a cup of coffee in to the old cat.

Shortly thereafter they sat at the kitchen table in the customary configuration of good cat/bad cat/perp, though Cattaparthy could see that Mowbath was too distracted to play his role.

Serpaw sat staring into space despondently, paws cradling his coffee.
“Uncle, anything you haven’t told us?” he said.

Serpaw looked in his direction. It was not clear he had registered the question.

Cattaparthy decided there was no point padding around.

“Have you lost any money?” he said.

Mowbath looked up from his phone. “What?” he said.

Serpaw fidgeted and looked away. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

“If you want to find him … ” said Cattaparthy.

“Uncle,” said Mowbath.

They watched him squirming for another minute.

“Some money is missing,” Serpaw said, finally.

Mowbath said a bad word.

Cattaparthy sighed.

“What happened?” he said.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Serpaw. “I forget so many things. I must have made some mistake.”

Cattaparthy said: “How much did he take, uncle?”

Serpaw looked about to cry.

“It’s only to find Blocky, uncle,” said Mowbath. “We should know everything.”

“Th-three lakhs something,” said Serpaw. “It was gone from the cupboard.”

“You kept THREE – ,” yelled Mowbath, then stopped short at a look from his brother.

Cattaparthy pictured himself wringing Blocky’s neck with a sharp twisting motion, and then said: “You didn’t tell the police.”

Serpaw gave him a look of terror, making a gargling sound.

“No, no, we’re not going to tell anybody,” said Cattaparthy.

He waited till Serpaw was calm again, and produced the photo.

Serpaw inspected it and then looked up. “Who is this girl? Has he run away with her? Who gave you this?” he said, agitatedly.

Cattaparthy said: “Don’t worry. With girl, without girl, wherever he is, we’ll find him.”

A little later, the brothers were sitting at a cafe across the street.

Mowbath said: “Don’t pull one like that again. He could have a heart attack or something.”

“Yes, it was a bit too much in one shot,” said Cattaparthy.

“My brother the detective, but it was well deduced,” said Mowbath.

Cattaparthy flashed his eyeteeth, gratified.

Then he said, with a growl, “What a first-class little piece of shit.”

“Two tickets to Sydney?” said Mowbath.

“Maybe,” said Cattaparthy.

“There he goes again,” said Mowbath.

*

“What are we doing?” said Mowbath.

Cattaparthy heard eagerness in his voice. He would not have believed it possible.

“Waiting,” he said.

Mowbath opened his mouth to say something sarcastic, and then thought better of it.

Yes, thought Cattaparthy, he’s actually become keen on this whole thing.

“Is this it?” said Mowbath, inclining his nose.

Across the busy street an old dog was sniffing around a streetlight, dressed in an overcoat far too large for him.

“I believe it is,” said Cattparthy, and handed Mowbath a package.

“What the hell is this?” said Mowbath, with distaste.

“Payment. Hang on to it. Just stay here,” said Cattparthy.

“Payment? What’s in it?” said Mowbath, prodding the package. “Ugh.”

Cattparthy grinned at him and crossed the street.

“Snooker,” he said, and the dog looked up.

“Look what the cat’s dragging in,” said the dog, chuckling and snuffling.

“You found out what I asked?” said Cattaparthy.

“Where’s the stuff?” said the dog.

“Close by, but not with me!” said Cattaparthy holding up empty paws. “I’ve not forgotten, Snooker.”

“I didn’t bring anybody this time,” Snooker muttered, scratching around in a pocket. “Nothing to worry.”

Cattparthy inspected the paper held out to him.

“This is where she lived?” said Cattparthy, “The Australian girl?”

Snooker emitted a rattling sound.

“Australian girl,” he said. “That’s so funny.”

Cattaparthy stared at him.

“Oho,” said Snooker. “Mister detective has become old and slow.”

“She’s not Australian,” said Cattaparthy.

“That little bird’s never even flown to Goa, I doubt,” said Snooker. “I knew the parents.”

He’s right, thought Cattaparthy, maybe I’ve become old.

“They used to have that shop,” said Snooker, looking across the street vaguely. “Talked a lot, but such nice birds. Don’t know why the girl became like that.”

“Children are a mystery,” said Cattaparthy, waving across to Mowbath.

*

They were talking about Snooker.

If he finds them,” said Mowbath. “That is an ancient dog.”

“Birds are his specialty,” said Cattaparthy.

“What was in that package?” said Mowbath.

“Ah,” said Cattaparthy, with a smile.

“Asshole,” said Mowbath, then frowned. He reached into his pocket to pull out his phone.

“It’s Gowri,” he said, and then into the phone: “Miss Gowri! How – yes, yes, it’s Mowbath. Mow-bath. Yes. Sorry? What? What! Where? Yes. No, no. Yes.”

Cattaparthy fought the urge to take the phone from him.

“No, no, never,” said Mowbath. “NO, no, no, don’t worry, we won’t – ,” he said.

Mowbath mouthed something at Cattaparthy.

“What??” whispered Cattaparthy.

Mowbath mouthed something again. “I understand Miss Gowri,” he said. “Don’t worry, like we told – yes, don’t worry about my brother. Like we told -.”

Cattaparthy marched out to fume on the balcony.

After ten minutes, he had decided to go back in and kill Mowbath, but at that moment his brother exploded onto the balcony.

“He called her!” he said.

“Who called her? Blocky? Where is he?” said Cattaparthy.

“She wouldn’t tell me. She’s scared shit we’ll pluck out all his feathers,” said Mowbath.

“It’s an idea,” said Cattaparthy.

“I think she knows he’s taken money. Listen, get changed, she’ll see us.”

“Not bad,” said Cattaparthy. “Mowbath finally becomes useful.”

This time Miss Gowri did have cake.

Cattaparthy nibbled at a piece, and found out that he did not like cake.
“Miss Gowri -,” he said.

“Can I trust you fellows? Miss Gowri said, giving them the soulful doggy eyes. “Do you have children?”

“What? No,” said Cattaparthy.

“God, no,” said Mowbath, shuddering.

“You’ll never understand,” said Miss Gowri mournfully.

“Miss Gowri, ma’am, we don’t want to hurt Blo- Bubbles,” said Mowbath.

“Will you tell us where to find him?” said Cattaparthy. “Uncle is very worried.”

“I had two,” said Miss Gowri. “Both gone in accidents.”

The cats made tuts of commiseration.

“So when Bubbles came -,” she said.

“I know how you feel,” said Cattaparthy, hoping it sounded sincere, “But we just want him home.”

Miss Gowri said nothing for a while, and then sighed.

“Miss Gowri – ,” said Mowbath.

“I’m here, Mowbath,” something squeaked behind them.

They turned and stared at the dishevelled budgie standing in the doorway.

“Don’t hurt him!” yelped Miss Gowri, as both the cats sprang to their feet.

*

Mowbath staggered out of his bedroom when he smelt coffee, and said, “You look like shit.”

“Ergf,” said Cattaparthy, with his head on the table.

“I gave up at two, I think,” said Mowbath.

“Yerf,” said Cattaparthy.

Mowbath contemplated the door behind which uncle and budgie were still asleep, after their long night of recrimination and remorse.

“I don’t understand it. I’d have killed the fucker,” said Mowbath, stirring his coffee.

“Arg,” said Cattparthy, and there the matter rested for the day.

*

“Are we sure?” said Mowbath. They were watching a yellow budgie with bright green streaks across her head. She skipped across the street, disregarding an angry shout from an autorickshaw.

“So she was pink, now she’s yello. Feather dye is cheap,” said Cattaparthy. “She’s heading up to her house. Five minutes, then we go.”

“What? How the fuck do we know there’s not a bunch of criminals up there?” said Mowbath.

“Because we know,” said Cattaparthy. “I was up there last night.”

“Right, captain,” said Mowbath.

“There was a lakh and a half left,” Cattaparthy said, “Give or take.”

“You found the money? What are we doing here?” said Mowbath.

Cattaparthy said: “I’m just a curious guy.”

*

Through the door, they could hear a high voice screaming. When the sound stopped, Cattaparthy tickled the lock and swung the door open. The cats stepped into the apartment swiftly.

“Shut up,” said Cattaparthy to the budgie, who was sitting on the sofa.

He crossed over to her and took her phone away. “I don’t care, Kareena,” he said. “Just that Blocky would feel bad if we damaged you.”

The girl kept sniffling. After a moment she said: “Shit.”

“Is ‘Dumdum’ on his way here?” said Cattaparthy, pointing to the screen of her phone.

The girl nodded.

Cattaparthy peered at her pupils carefully and decided he knew where some of the money had gone.

“Where’s the rest of the three lakhs?” Cattaparthy said, “Sit down.”

Kareena yelled: “You took the money! My money! Give me my money!” and jumped at Cattaparthy.

Cattaparthy gave her a light nudge, sending her sprawling back on to the sofa.

“Not your money,” he said. “Where’s the rest of it?”

“I don’t have it,” she said, after a while.

Mowbath, leaning against the wall, was trying to remember what movie it all reminded him of. He looked around the flat. Modern furniture, neat little kitchen.

“Who has the money?” said Cattaparthy.

“You’re not going to get it back,” said Kareena.

“That makes me very sad,” said Cattaparthy, sadly.

“Sabby. He won’t give it back,” said Kareena.

“Who’s – oh, fuck it,” said Cattaparthy.

“You want to stay and say hi to Dumdum?” Cattaparthy said to his brother.

“No!” shouted the girl.

Mowbath shrugged.

“Sorry, Kareena, things to do. We’ll catch Dumdum next time.” said Cattaparthy, and saluted.

*

“If I didn’t know you, I’d have been worried,” said Mowbath, when they were down a couple of glasses.

Cattaparthy pushed a pile of notes across the table.

“Fifty-fifty,” he said.

“Much appreciated,” Mowbath said. “Uncle?”

Cattaparthy said: “What about him? He looks pretty happy.”

Mowbath tossed his glass back and said: “You opportunistic little fucker.”

“Man, I have expenses you don’t even know about,” said Cattaparthy, pouring him a fresh drink.

***