Miss Cuddlywumps reviews the story “Long Live the Queen” by Ruth Rendell
“Long Live the Queen” is a weird and creepy story. We enjoyed it quite a lot.
The story opens with a woman, Anna, hitting and killing an orange tabby cat as she drives a little too fast on an unfamiliar country road. Anna is far too conscientious to just drive away, and so she approaches the unkempt cottage the cat seemed to be headed toward and rings the bell. The cottage’s person is not at home, but its many cats are. She can see them through the windows, along with all kinds of cat-related décor, including an oil portrait of the cat she has just killed.
Clearly, this home could have a sign reading Crazy Cat Lady Lives Here, though I suppose it doesn’t really need one.
Anna leaves a note with her phone number and address (you know this will turn out to be a mistake) and wraps the cat’s body in a rather nice blanket and leaves it atop the coal shed. She then continues on to her parents’ house, where she will be watching their cat, Griselda, while they are away.
Griselda says, “Go away!”
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Griselda is the kind of cat who is selfish in all things and does not seem to enjoy humans at all. She will purr loudly when left alone but stop the moment any human hand touches her. This is quite upsetting to Anna’s mother, who is also upset whenever Anna refers to Griselda as “it”—but that is how Anna thinks of the cat. (Clearly, this Anna person should not make plans to open a cat-sitting business.)
The story has kept the reader (especially those who like cats) off balance up to this point. The tale has been unsettling, but it turns positively creepy when the dead cat’s owner first calls Anna late at night and then shows up at the house the next evening. Her name is Maria Yackle (or something like that—Anna couldn’t quite make it out). She is old and wrinkled but dresses like a teenager. She is not friendly. And she is dirty (she bathes once a week and washes her hands once a day—eww).
Griselda loves Maria Yackle.
Maria demands compensation for the death of her cat, whose name was Melusina. It turns out Anna had not killed just any cat; she had killed the queen of the cats, and Maria had invested a lot in that cat—vet bills, food, the gas she used driving to the vet. That will be £799, please (or about $1,300, which I think is a reasonable sum for a good cat). Anna refuses to pay.
I was just waiting for something unfortunate to happen to Anna, but it does not. Instead, Maria just goes away. Griselda disappears one day, and Anna’s mother gets a new kitten who loves people. Happy ending. Then, about a year later Anna takes a wrong turn and ends up at Maria’s cottage. Maria is not home, but the new queen of cats (Griselda, the “it” cat) is. We hope the queen is happy too.
“Long Live the Queen” is not the fun sort of cat story we most love, but Rendell’s ability to unsettle us from the first page to the last is impressive and oddly enjoyable.
[“Long Live the Queen” (1991) first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and is available in the book Feline Felonies (2001), edited by Abigail Browning.