Cat

“Look!  Quick!  Look now!  It’s doing it now!”

She turned to see what her husband was shouting about, drying her hands on a tea-towel.

“What?” she looked at the mess in the living room.  “What’s doing what?”

“That bloody cat!  It’s watching me again.  It wants to do something to me!”

“She’s just looking at you.  She probably wants some food.”

“Well it’s going to be disappointed then, isn’t it!”  He picked up a newspaper and brandished it in the direction of the motionless cat, laughing as it jumped from the arm of the chair and scrambled to hide under it instead.

He shot his wife a challenging look, daring her to criticise or to comfort the scared animal.  She turned back to the sink, shaking her head as she heard him stomp up the stairs.  It wouldn’t have killed him to take the some of the pile of ironing upstairs to put away; even if he just left it on the bed.

As she reached up to put the dishes away in the cupboard, she could see the cat, now curled up in a lazy ball on the back of the couch, her tail draped across her nose like a separate entity.  Walking into the room, she sighed and began to clear away the papers and empty cans that charted the progress of her husband’s day.  Wiping up the numerous spills that adorned the floor and surfaces, she could hear the noise of the Xbox upstairs.

Eventually, she was happy with the state of the room and shouted up the stairs “Tea?”

“Yeah.  And biscuits!” came the reply, followed by a burst of gunfire and curses as he dropped a life in his game.

“I’ll look.” She muttered.

While the kettle boiled, she searched through the cupboard but drew a blank; as she closed the door, the cat appeared on the worktop and she stroked its ear, enjoying the sensation of a loving being nudging against her hand for greater contact.

“You’re lovely aren’t you?” she murmured as the cat purred more and more loudly.  “Let’s find you something nice.”

She rummaged through the fridge and found a slice of ham to toss into the cat’s bowl, then watched as it finished it off in seconds.

“Where’s that tea?”

She jumped.  She had been so engrossed by the cat’s company that she hadn’t heard him come down.

“You feed that fat moggy more than you feed me.  Where are the biscuits?”

“You’ve eaten them all.”

“Just bring me some toast then!” he said as he headed back upstairs.  “With jam.”

As she watched the television alone, later, she stroked the head of the cat as it snuggled on her lap.  The film was an old one she could remember watching with her sisters and parents many years earlier, when she had still been happy.  There were some jumpy moments, but she felt safe as she exchanged warmth with the ball of fur on her knee.  “You wouldn’t treat me like dirt, would you?  No, you wouldn’t!” she crooned, as the rhythmic stroking stripped the layers of tension from her day.

During the night, she felt the bed bounce as her husband came back from the bathroom, yet he seemed to be asleep in seconds, while she lay awake for hours, listening to him snore, with the stink of his sweat pervading the room.  It was almost morning before she managed to doze off, so when the alarm rang, she felt as though she hadn’t slept, and her first thought was “I hate my life.”

As her husband slept on, she washed, dressed and headed for the bus-stop, carrying her uniform in a bag.  At the hospital, she slipped into the changing room and dragged on her work clothes, before heading for the kitchen, where she spent the day preparing food, washing dishes, cleaning the surfaces.  It was almost like being at home, except here she wasn’t expected to fetch and carry for him as well.  Her feet throbbed by lunchtime, but she barely had time to sit and wolf down her lunch before she was back on them again.

On the bus home, she rested her head against the window and the drone of the engine filtered through her skull, soothing her until she drifted into a deep sleep.  She woke with a jolt, hearing the hiss of brakes.  In a panic, she looked out of the window and, realising she had missed her stop by quite a distance, she leapt from the seat and hurried to the front of the bus to the exit.  It was raining.

“Oh God, Oh God, he’ll go mad!”

She hurried as fast as she could through the wet streets, but it seemed as though every road had gained extra traffic, specifically to stop her from reaching the house, so when she finally did … she was really late, soaked through and panting.

“What the hell are you playing at?” he roared as she pushed open the door?

“I’ve been sitting here starving and you’ve been gallivanting about for hours!  Where were you?”

“I missed my stop …” she began, but he cut her off with a slap.

“You missed nothing, you lying bitch!  It’s a bus.  It’s not rocket science!”

With stinging eyes and a sore throat, she stayed in the kitchen until his food was ready, leaving briefly just to carry in his tea.  She looked down as the cat rubbed against the side of her leg and looked up with bright, sympathetic eyes.  She knew.  She always knew.

Throughout the next hours, she didn’t once look at him, afraid that he might find some reason to start on her again and thankful that he seemed distracted by the football and his evening beers.  Eventually, without saying a word, he went upstairs to spend the last couple of hours playing his game from the comfort of their bed.  She waited until she could hear his sleeping rasps before heading after him.  As she left the living room, she stooped to where the black cat lay on her blanket and whispered “It’s time!’

In the morning, she stepped nimbly over her husband’s crumpled body at the foot of the stairs.  She picked up the phone, dialled 999 and said “Ambulance.  My husband’s had an accident.  I think he must have tripped on the stairs.  I think he’s dead.”  At her feet, the cat leant against her, flicking her tail and purring.

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Down by the river

The bench felt cold against his back; his thin jacket serving little purpose beyond modesty.  In the bag at his feet there was a rug: threadbare, damp, filthy.  When the weather grew colder, he would wear it as a coat, but for now it was just his bed, coming out after dark, if he could find somewhere safe enough to close his eyes.

He watched the river spread its arms to touch both towns with rippling fingers, joining and separating in one bold sweep.  He’d loved the river for as long as he could remember; all his important moments seemed connected to it, somehow.  As a tiny boy, he’d come here with his mum and his sister so often that it felt as though this had been their real home.  If there was any money, they’d all go on the ferry and rush straight up the stairs to the top deck, hoping to find a seat where they could see the important sights as the ferry followed its timeless course, and eat the sandwiches and the inevitable bananas that their mum would have packed.  They seldom stayed in the hard-won seats once the food was finished, preferring to play among the benches and ropes, rushing in and out of the warm, inner area, tripping over bags and prams belonging to the nesh passengers who’d claimed a comfy seat out of the wind, sticking their heads through the holes to look at the foamy water below.

When there was no money, they’d walk along the prom, standing on the rails to see into the grey depths, with their mother’s concerned warnings bouncing straight off them.  One time, he’d climbed through the gap to see better and his mum’s shrieks had scattered the hopeful gull clan that had thronged behind them.  All he’d seen, for the pain of the slap that waited, was the green slime, climbing the bricks and chains and some rubbish, floating on the top of the water.

As he’d reached his teens, he’d started to come down to the Pier Head with his friends, staying on the bus until it reached the terminus, then hanging around in front of Mann Island, shouting at girls, laughing when they shouted back, terrified in case they came over.  The inspectors and drivers from the MPTE would sometimes tell them to clear off, but not in such polite terms and they’d move ten yards if they could be bothered or argue the toss, if they couldn’t.

He’d met his wife down here.  She’d worked at the insurance company that was in the main building: the one with the birds.  He’d been working at a local paper, further up into town and coming down to eat his lunch by the river and he’d spotted her.  She’d made the mistake of throwing a crust to try to get rid of them and now the greedy birds wouldn’t leave her alone, so she kept flapping her coat at them and saying “Shoo!”  They’d back off a few feet for a minute, then pour back in like treacle or like teenage boys sent packing by the bus drivers.  He’d laughed and she’d looked up and seen him.  He felt bad, but then she’d laughed too and that was that; he was hooked!

Although he hadn’t spoken to her that day, he’d placed himself nearer to where she had been sitting so that when she’d turned up the next day, he was close enough to ask “No pet seagulls today?” and from then on, they’d had their food together there every work day for the next year and a half, going to the pictures and to see local bands at weekends.  They married on a Saturday afternoon at her church and had their reception in a pub close enough to the river to hear and smell it.  They’d been happy for eighteen years.  When she’d died at the age of forty-two, he’d taken her ashes to the river and scattered them in the dead of night, barely stopping himself from following her into the hypnotic ink.

Slowly, at first, and then more and more quickly, his routines had fallen apart.  Without her, he didn’t care about work or talking to people or leaving the house and it didn’t take long for the knock at the door.  No work, no rent money, no home.  Family members tried to talk him into staying with them, as he shrank before their eyes; a youngish man, ageing like an apple before their eyes, drinking to keep the memories at bay.  Falling.

Trouble followed him like a predator, ripping the last pieces of his life to shreds.  Arrests, fights, hospital wards.  And always, the only peace he could ever find was at the river.  Until today, as he clung to the cold comfort of the Mersey, he heard a laugh that had been absent for years and he turned his head to look for his wife.  She wasn’t there.  There was just a group of office workers, protecting their food from the gulls.  She would never be there again, but he understood in that moment how much it would hurt her to see him so beaten.  He pulled himself to his feet and looked at the crowd around his feet.  He flapped his hands … “Shoo!” 

Doorstep

I noticed the figure out of the corner of my eye as I went to the bathroom.  I’m not at my best first thing in the morning and my eyesight hasn’t been great for some years now.  But, as I glanced down the stairs at the front door, there was clearly someone there: outside.  “Milkman?” I wondered.  Ten seconds, twenty seconds … no movement.  “Not the milkman, then.”  Although not usually a timid person, I felt a bit uneasy.   Why would anybody be standing on my step at six in the morning?  There’d been no knock and I hadn’t heard a car pull up or any footsteps on the gravel as I’d lain awake for the previous half hour.  I’d been feeling a bit under the weather and had hardly slept a wink, but a full bladder had woken me from a brief sleep and I’d just had to get up.

And now I couldn’t hang on any longer, though, so I slid into the bathroom as quietly as I could and shut the door, controlling the handle to keep the noise as low as possible.  “Stupid!” I told myself.  “The front door has a heavy bolt, there’s no need to worry.”  But my skin was clammy and tingling at the knowledge that somebody was on the step.

Living alone can be difficult at times, especially when you get to my age.  My children have moved far away and my husband died nearly 25 years ago, when he was 53, from a massive heart attack.  The internet is my main connection to the world, although I’m not housebound or anything; I just keep myself to myself, like I always did, so I don’t really talk to the neighbours.  My arthritis has been getting worse and when I go to the shops, I’m becoming painfully aware that it’s taking me longer and longer.  But I don’t usually scare easily.  At least … I didn’t.

As I opened the bathroom door again, I realised that I was holding my breath and I let it escape through pinpoint lips, with almost a whistle.

“Still there!!”

The words in my head were the loudest sound in the house.  As I stepped back onto the landing, it occurred to me that the person might be able to see me, too, and I froze, staring at the still, dark figure.  The blue, frosted glass of the door didn’t give a clear view – just an impression.  It was no good – there was no way I could tell which way they were looking.  When I moved again, it was toward the wall, hugging it in an attempt to blend with the shadow and I tried to picture the view through my front door from the outside.

Having stood on that step thousands of times, you’d think I’d have a perfect mental image of what could and couldn’t be seen by somebody looking in, yet I couldn’t work out whether the top of the stairs would be visible from the step.  Glancing behind me, I considered the bathroom window.  It’s quite high up … small and covered by a dark roller blind!  They wouldn’t be able to see me because the background would be too dark to make me stand out!!  Thank God.  But what should I do?  I couldn’t stay there, watching.  I would have to go and dress.

Cursing my own procrastination, I opened the wardrobe door a fraction; knowing that it would send out a raucous screech if I opened it any further.  For at least three months, I had been intending to oil it.  But at least I could reach some clothes, which I put on as quickly as I could whilst keeping up the silence.  All the time, listening for anything that might suggest that the person on the step was moving, trying the door, leaving me alone, going around the back.  Going around the back!!  The doors and windows were all locked – a habit I’d developed after a burglary many years before – but they would have a clear view into the house from the back.  I’d come up to bed while it was still light; spent a couple of hours reading in bed.  So, even though my bedroom curtains were closed, the ones downstairs would all be open.

Of course, I couldn’t even get downstairs without having to walk really close to the front door and there were at least two stairs that would draw attention to my presence.  I was trapped.  Slowly, I twitched aside the corner of my curtain and strained to see the area in front of the step, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the person properly, but perhaps I could catch a glimpse.  No.  Nothing.  Not even a hint of a shoulder.

Creeping to the top of the stairs, I peered around the banister and instantly saw that the figure was still there – dark, large, menacing.  “Why?” I wondered.  “What does he want?”  This last thought fell like a thud.  “He?  Why did I think that?”  There was nothing to indicate that this was a man … it was certainly somebody tall, but so am I, and the clothes were too blurred to be distinguishable.  All I could tell was that the person on my step was tall, very good at standing still, and wearing something dark.  It seemed that the whole figure was of one colour, so could this mean that they had their back to me?  That they were wearing a hood?

I ventured onto the top step and, holding the handrail tightly, I eased myself into a seated position close against the wall.  The very creaky stairs were three steps down and then seven steps down but there was another temperamental one four down.  I didn’t believe I would be able to step over the worst one, without setting off the other one.  I definitely couldn’t step over two; my hips wouldn’t let me.  If I hugged the wall and only stood at the very edge of each step, I might make it down, but I was pretty certain that once I got halfway, if this person turned around then I would be totally visible.  My nerves were strained beyond anything I had felt for years and I wanted to cry.  If I cried now, I might not be able to stop my sobs from becoming louder and I was just too terrified to take a chance on drawing attention to myself.

If I made it to the living room, I would be able to take the phone into the kitchen, out of earshot, and call the police.  I would close the curtains, too, if I made it that far.  In all this time, I hadn’t seen the figure move a muscle.  The light was brighter now and I was sure they were turned away, standing like a guard on my step.  Not looking inwards, but out at the world.  “Why?”  Again the question reared its head.  But I didn’t want to think about that too deeply.  I just wanted to get help.

As I shifted my weight to pull myself up using the handrail, I felt a pain in my neck and into my jaw.  My vision swam and I felt the sweat pouring from my forehead and the palms of my hands.  I sank back against the wall and screwed my eyes tightly shut.  My heart felt as though it had swelled to fill my chest and the worst nausea I had ever imagined gripped me and held me pinned.  I was so frightened.  So frightened that I shuffled onto the next step on my bottom, and then the next.  The stair made its customary blackboard screech and I looked at the door, afraid of what I would see.  The figure didn’t move and I shuffled again, wanting only to get to the phone.  More in need of an ambulance than the police.

I don’t even know how I got to the living room, but that’s where I first opened my eyes.  I could feel my head being lifted and felt the hands on my shoulders and my neck.  Something was on my face, but nothing made sense and then I was just floating and jolting.  Noises … talking … I couldn’t move.  My arms were trapped … and then there was nothing.

Waking in the hospital, I felt the cold smoothness of the sheet and smelt the clinical smell so particular to such places.  My tongue was like an emery board and I looked around for a drink.  In the next bed, a woman in her forties or fifties was watching me.

“So, you’re awake at last!”  She seemed surprised.  “You’ve been talking in your sleep, you know.”

I cleared my throat.  “Is there anything to drink?”

She got out of bed and shuffled over in sponge slippers.  She poured me a glass of water from a large jug and watched as I struggled onto my elbows and then to an upright position.  The water tasted horrible, like an old metal spoon, but I needed it too much to care.

“Who’s Bob?” she asked.

I nearly choked on the mouthful of water I’d just taken.

“Bob’s my husband.  Why?  Did I talk about him in my sleep?”

“A little bit” she replied, “but I was wondering because I heard the nurses talking.  They said that if he hadn’t been there, you would have died.  He called the ambulance.  Weird that he didn’t wait around once they came.  They said he just stood on the step until the paramedics went in and was gone when they came out.  They said he went so quickly, it was like he’d vanished.”

Pictures of a girl

His eyes were drawn by the crow as it flapped across the garden on wings like borrowed rags.  He watched until it was a twitching dot, then nothing.  Only then did he return his attention to the pictures in his hand; smudged, old, yellowing, pencil portraits.  The same little girl, drawn from different angles: just her head.   She had large, striking eyes framed by long, curled lashes.  In one picture, she had her eyes closed and a ghost of a smile lay on her lips, in another her eyes were hidden behind the dark floppy fringe, but they were definitely all of the same girl.  Same bow-shaped mouth.  Same dimpled chin.  Same crescent birthmark at the side of her nose.

He looked up at the house.  He’d only lived there for a month, in fact he’d never even visited the area before he’d seen the house, then, one day … absent-mindedly clicking on estate agents’ sites on the internet.  It was just there: the perfect house!  Three bedrooms, original fittings, garage, large garden, much further away than they’d considered moving and a lot more than they’d planned on spending, but it just looked right.  It shouldn’t even have been in the search results.  Just a fluke, really.

Buying it had been much easier than he’d expected; the seller accepted his offer, which was quite a bit less than they’d been asking.  They’d inherited it and just wanted to be rid of it.  His own house had sold quickly, which came as a surprise, and everything just seemed to go smoothly.  Coming here would help them make a fresh start!  It would be so much easier because it was so far from everyone they knew: his family, her family, their friends.  What was left of them!

He jumped as she knocked on the kitchen window.  She was pointing down towards the sink so he nodded, even though he had no idea what she wanted.  He put the pictures back into the tattered envelope they’d been in, slipped it into the satchel that leant against his deckchair then, scooping up the bag, he walked into the garage. 

When he entered the kitchen, he couldn’t see what his wife was doing because everything looked so dark, but as his eyes adjusted, he saw she had potatoes in a sink full of water.  He sighed, picked up a peeler and asked, “What did your last slave die of?”

She laughed and replied, “Asking too many questions!”  She walked away.  He could hear her humming in the living-room.  It was nice to hear her humming again after all this time; she sounded happy when she hummed.  He hummed too: quietly.

They ate their dinner in the garden, chatting about the unexpectedly warm weather, the list of jobs that would need doing around the house, whose turn it was to wash the dishes.  They talked of everything and nothing at all.  The light had barely begun to fail when they finally went indoors and, in spite of an earlier conclusion, he washed the dishes, finding the robotic motions and warm water peculiarly soothing.  He couldn’t hear her humming now, but he heard her laughter occasionally over the noise of the television.

He dried his hands and, gently turning the back door handle, slipped into the garden.  He took a deep breath and identified honeysuckle, lavender, earth smells.  For some reason they made him hungry.  He opened the door to the garage and went in.  Reaching up to the highest shelf, he brought out the bag with the drawings in them and slid them back out.  Standing under the bare bulb, he scrutinised them for something new, some sign to make sense of them; he knew there would be none.  On each piece of paper, just the girl’s face and a date in the bottom, right-hand corner.  He’d looked at them five or six times a day for the last week, since finding them in a box in the attic, underneath some moth-eaten curtains, a few old books and a stack of newspapers dating back forty-something years.  He’d held them up to the light, smudged the pencil markings with his finger to check whether they were real and, time after time, he had placed them side by side with the tiny photograph from his wallet.  Comparing the dark hair in the drawings with the dark hair in the photograph.   Comparing the large, long-lashed eyes, the bow-shaped mouth, the dimpled chin and comparing the crescent-shaped birth mark on the face in the pictures, drawn before he had even been born, with the identical birthmark on the face of the seven-year-old daughter, whose death had come so close to destroying his marriage.

Breaking Family Triptych

I’m always busy,                     He doesn’t listen,                         Nobody loves me.

I’m always tired,                     He doesn’t care.                           I’m going mad.

I’m always working.               I need some more support.          They never notice

I might get fired.                     He’s never there.                         That’s why I’m bad.

I miss my wife.                       I feel so lonely.                             Nobody listens.

We never speak,                    I want to cry.                                They only shout.

I can’t admit my fears.           I thought I loved him;                    I can’t stop thinking.

She’ll think I’m weak.             I don’t know why.                          I just want out.