A loud crash echoes through the stairwell I’m currently running up, towards the roof garden that positively blossoms in autumn. I stop, craning my head towards the sound which seems to be coming from Apartment B on the second floor, seeing if anything more follows. I think the Martins live there, with their pet goldfish who they constantly fawn over, and Mr Martin’s mother, who they don’t. I see Mrs Martin Sr often, hobbling towards the rickety old lift with her rickety old legs, using her sturdy oak cane to help her with her uneven gait in the narrow hallways that line each floor of the aspirationally-named Watten Estate.
The goldfish, however, I see much less often, only catching a glimpse or so when the glass table on which its fishbowl resides is polished, resulting in Goldie (I know, I know, how original) being moved closer to the window that overlooks my favourite tree. It’s a coniferous pine, and I’ve overheard the gardener tell a potential resident the tree is almost 400 years old. I’m not sure what that means, but it does sound impressive. And of course, it’s not like the gardener knows from experience, he can’t be more than 70 years old himself, can he?
Hearing nothing more than the buzzing silence one usually hears in a stairwell, I continue, leaping from one step to another, stretching out my body to hook the tips of my paws onto the next step before swinging lithely up the rest of the way. If I hurry, I can beat the pigeons to the seeds that drop softly onto the tiled concrete floor of the roof level and won’t have to forage in the grounds outside. It’s been getting a bit cold lately, and I prefer being inside this building when the people are all huddled inside their own units and the loudest sound I hear is the pitter-pattering of my own paws.
Another crash sounds, this one sounding like it might be right behind me, and I have to make a split decision between scampering to the third-floor window, barred with a spacious grill through which I can easily get in and out, or taking my chances with the fourth-floor hallway, and hoping I don’t meet any unfriendly faces on my route.
A scuffed footstep and resulting curse hasten my feet in the opposite direction, and the decision is made for me. I squeeze myself under the swinging door separating the hallway from the stairs, hurtling towards Apartment 4C, where I know six-year-old Robin resides. Robin and his mother live together, and I see him from time to time at the garden upstairs, mostly during the day when his mother isn’t in the building. I think she has a job which keeps her busy and away from him. Often munching on a sandwich, Robin is kind enough to offer me bits of crust that sometimes have a trace of the fatty nuts I adore on them. I love Robin and his sandwiches, and I love that he drops the bits far enough away from himself so I can retrieve them without putting myself within reaching distance.
I learnt that lesson the hard way, when one twelve-year-old’s sticky fingers yanked a tuft of my fur from my back, when I didn't know I had to be curious and linger long enough to be offered food but quick enough to grab it and run without interference. People tended to want to stroke my back, not recognising that my body had tensed up in fear, not relaxed into enjoyment. “Look at me petting this squirrel,” they would squeal, “I feel like a Disney princess!” Whatever that means, I guess. Some caresses had actually been quite nice, and I leaned into the light touches and gentle rubs, trying to encourage those service providers. But after my almost-scalping, I wasn’t about to risk a single human touch, even if that means leaving behind any delectable morsels that would otherwise be mine.
Running down the hallway, my ears and nose twitching as I take in my surroundings, I am arrested by an unfamiliar odour and a silence that doesn’t quite match the silence that coincides with Robin’s nap time. Something doesn’t feel right. I move towards the open door, the familiar drawing of a bird hanging framed and colourful from a hook screwed into the wood. The odour is getting stronger, and I pad softly into the biggest room in Apartment 4C, where a large cream sofa with only one or two mildewed stains resides, a round glass table with metallic-looking legs holding a steaming cup of liquid right beside. It might be mint tea, I think, as I gingerly sniff the air, trying to separate and sift through the various smells that occupy the space. Glancing next to the table, I realise someone has spilled some tea as a wet patch spreads through the already-darkening beige carpet, making it look like a dull brown instead.
Oh, wait. That wasn’t tea at all, was it? I move closer, touching the edge of the liquid with a paw, drawing back in alarm as it stains my finger pad red. I back up, almost tripping over my tail which had grown limp without my permission and coiled itself under my feet, not fully understanding what I’m seeing until realisation sets in with a ping of finality.
The boy, Robin, my friend, is lying on the ground next to the sofa, his legs curled against the inside legs of the table. His eyes are open, unseeing, and his left hand is clutched to his throat, other hand on its way to his jacket pocket, where his inhaler usually resides. I know this because I have seen him use it when we’re together in the garden, when it gets too difficult for him to breathe on his own. I don’t understand people and their bodies. I don’t really understand how they live or how they die. What I do understand, though, is that I do not want to be here when his mother gets back to Apartment 4C.
I turn and bound out the open window in three fluid leaps, the gauzy lilac curtain sash trailing behind me sadly, a marker, almost, of the tragedy contained within. Maybe I can find a new rooftop garden to call my own.