It was at Margaret’s funeral that I first realized Barbara was dangerous. The event itself was a great success, if one may tastefully use such a word with reference to a funeral: I had kept Margaret’s relatives to a minimum by insisting that they should stay at the local hotel and not in my house. Many of them, therefore, rapidly added train-fare to bed and breakfast and decided not to come. Those who did wore black, wept discreetly, and settled for a few rounds of drinks rather than the lavish wake they had hopefully anticipated. But Barbara remained. Dressed in green, hideously distinguished by dyed red hair and that huge mole on her cheek (which I had cheerfully removed many times by mental surgery as she sat over dinner with Margaret and me in earlier days), Barbara remained. There was no one left in the bar; last orders had been called; glasses were being collected. The black arm-band I had acquired for the occasion began to weigh on me with an almost tangible pressure, macabre emblem of a sorrow I could not feel, for surely Margaret’s death, of all deaths, was the one for which the phrase ‘a merciful release’ had been invented.
‘We must go,’ I said to Barbara, ‘before they throw us out.’ I felt that to be forcibly ejected from a pub on the day of my wife’s funeral would be unseemly, to say the least.
She drained her glass. She looked at me with those huge eyes that matched her funereal green. They glittered. I am aware that this word is ridiculous and must be inaccurate, but I can find no other word which remotely describes what Barbara’s eyes did. It occurred to me that Barbara made me nervous. This too was ridiculous and I could not recall that it had happened before. But then I had not been quite so alone with Barbara before. The barmen had disappeared somewhere; the place was deserted. And Margaret was dead; I had heard the earth drop on her coffin. At that moment, hearing that obscene sound, I had, for a second, wished her back, forgetting the pain to which I would have been sentencing her. For no one should hear such a sound, and I had not thought about it in advance.
‘Let’s go,’ Barbara said. She stood up, and I noticed how tall she was, as if for the first time. I seemed to be newly aware of a great many details on this particular day, but I put it down to my heightened emotional state. We walked out of the pub together into the dark of the October evenIng and I shivered. Barbara’s presence was something I could have done without. Sufficient that Margaret was dead and I was alone and the strain of the past years was ended. I was oppressed by relief and sorrow and anticlimax.
‘Take me home,’ Barbara said. I visibly blinked at her, thinking she meant London, a good hour’s drive away, but she added, ‘I must come back to the house. I can’t go home till I’ve been in Maggie’s room again.’
The nickname irked me, for it was one I had never used and its use always seemed affected, although I had heard her address Margaret in this fashion innumerable times. It suggested someone altogether younger and more sprightly than the bravely lingering invalid I remembered. I was tired and weak from the funeral; Barbara’s car was at the house, and short of shoving her into it there was no means of escape. I made a feeble protest out of silence: we got into my car without speaking and drove to the house without exchanging a word, while I bitterly reflected that to revisit my dead wife’s room tonight was a most unholy and extravagant request. Arriving home, with tyres crunching on the gravel, I felt extraordinarily lonely, in the way that is only possible in someone’s company. The darkened windows lowered at me and I thought quite clearly and briefly what a fool I was not to have arranged to spend the night at an hotel.
‘At last.’ Barbara said. She seemed quite eager, impatiently tapping her foot on the step as I groped for my key. ‘All that,’ she said contemptuously, ‘all that at the cemetery, that didn’t count.’ Finding my key and inserting it into the lock occupied me so that I had no time to examine this extraordinary remark, but it registered nevertheless. We entered the house and I yawned and said pointedly, ‘One drink, Barbara, and then I must go to bed. I’m very tired.’
She took off her coat. This I thought was a bad sign, suggesting a longer occupation than I had given her any right to expect. She hung it up and I noticed that her dress matched her coat, that they were very much an outfit, and I wondered what on earth had possessed her to choose such flagrant green to wear to my wife’s funeral.
‘I don’t want a drink,’ she said with a sort of self-possessed cheerfulness. ‘I won’t be long.’ And she disappeared upstairs, smiling at me over the banisters in a way I found somehow sinister—or, getting a grip on myself, at least out of place. I went into the living room and poured myself a stiff whisky.
The room, thank God, did not remind me of Margaret: it was so long since she had spent any time downstairs. It had become very much a man’s room, very much a study or a library: my room. I relaxed. With a little effort and some more whisky I could almost imagine Barbara was not upstairs and I was (as I should be and would have to be) alone in the house. I refilled my glass and put up my feet: it was uncanny to realize that I would no longer have to listen for Margaret’s emergency bell.
I don’t know if I dozed. I was certainly tired enough to do so. But the next thing I knew was Barbara appearing in the living room in front of me. green and glittering, her smile almost phosphorescent in the dim light. Or was I dreaming?
‘That’s done,’ she said, in the tone of one who has accomplished an important task. ‘Now I’ll have that drink.’ And she sank into an armchair opposite me.
It seemed churlish to remind her that she had earlier refused a drink, but I resented none the less her air of occupation. I poured her a whisky and wondered how long she would take over it; from my standpoint it was her first and her last. I began to feel light-headed and a little victimized. Surely on the day of Margaret’s funeral I was entitled to a little consideration, even from her friends?
‘The thing is,’ Barbara said, as if we were in the middle of a conversation, ‘I must get away. I can’t bear it. Maggie was everything to me. You know that.’ And she stared at me with her huge eyes.
I was transfixed. Tales of snakes and rabbits, hedgehogs in the glare of headlamps, filtered through my mind.
‘You were great friends,’ I said sententiously. My mind and my body were beginning to part company, whether through alcohol or emotion, or a combination of both, I had no idea.
‘She was my life.’ Barbara, taking an enormous draught of whisky, still held me fixed with her green and glittering glance. I actually began to tremble; I even wondered if perhaps I was about to go down with flu. The whole evening, the whole day, started to crumble. I felt I had an uncertain hold on my very sanity. ‘But you, Henry. You shouldn’t be alone.’
I wanted to say I could manage; could manage very nicely, in fact. I wanted to say that being alone was exactly what I needed or, alternatively, that it was I, rather than Barbara, who should get away. But I was mesmerized, and I said nothing.
‘You must have been very tempted,’ she said, fitting a cigarette into a long amber holder and lighting it, ‘to help Maggie over the hill.’
Now I really began to shake. ‘What?’ I said. And my voice sounded squeaky even to myself.
‘You know what I mean.’ She actually smiled at me. I watched her teeth and wondered if they were her own. But I was appalled. The conversation had taken a new and unexpected turn. I couldn’t answer.
‘You can talk to me, Henry,’ Barbara said. She inhaled deeply and I watched the smoke curling upwards as she breathed out. There were even a few impromptu smoke rings. ‘Maggie and I had no secrets from each other. You can tell me.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘No.’ All social conventions seemed suspended. ‘There’s nothing to tell. Margaret was very ill. You know how ill she was. It was only a matter of time. The doctor said so.’ I clung to this. The doctor had understood my position and the nature of Margaret’s illness; it was absurd for Barbara to intervene. But she did.
‘Maggie might have got better,’ she said flatly, to my astonishment. ‘I was praying for her. We used to pray together. You didn’t know that, did you, Henry?’
Indeed I did not; there was no way I could have done. And I could not see any purpose in her telling me now. I raised my glass to my lips and noticed how heavy my arm was and what an effort the movement involved. I must be even more exhausted than I had realized.
‘I had no idea,’ I said, ‘that either of you were religious. Margaret never mentioned it.’
‘In our own way,’ Barbara said. ‘There was no need to mention it. We were very close.’
‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘I know that.’
‘Well.’ Barbara turned her glass in her hand, catching the light from the lamp. She drew on her cigarette and watched me through the smoke as she exhaled. ‘Your ordeal is over now, isn’t it? You’ll be much freer now, won’t you, Henry? Able to go out and about. You might even take out that girl—what’s her name?—June, from your office.’
‘You must be mad,’ I said faintly. I began to feel lightheaded, as if I had drunk far more than I had. ‘She’s just a secretary. Probably got a dozen boyfriends her own age. I don’t know a thing about her.’
‘Ah,’ said Barbara almost tenderly. ‘But a man of your age, Henry. Let me see, what are you? Forty-five? In your prime. It’s not good for a man like you to be alone.’
‘I shall manage.’ There was something so uncannily sinister about the way she used my name that I could hardly answer. ‘I shall have to get used to it. You can’t seriously imagine I intend to start chasing little girls.’ The whole discussion, particularly on this very day, struck me as in the worst of taste.
‘But you mustn’t be alone yet,’ Barbara said. ‘Especially in this house, with all your memories. Just now, in Maggie’s room, I felt she was very much alive. Still with us. But that’s probably because we were so close, she and I.’ She rose, stubbing out her cigarette and finishing her drink. ‘So I shall help you, Henry. We shall help each other, in fact. I told you I must go away for a while, whereas you, I’m sure, need the routine of work to sustain you. But not to come home to an empty house. So I shall send you my cat. She’ll be company for you.’
It is always a mystery how one agrees to do anything one does not want to do. I suppose I argued, albeit feebly. I do not care much for cats, while not actively disliking them. I think I suggested kennels, which were instantly rejected as unthinkable. The fact remained that Barbara was going away and I was not, therefore what could be more appropriate than for me to look after her cat in her absence? Yes, she was grateful, and yet my overall impression is that I was made to feel that she—or indeed the cat—would be doing me a favour.
After she had gone, and I never watched anyone leave with more relief in my soul, I staggered back to the sofa with another whisky. It must have been a large one. I lay there in a state of complete exhaustion and pictured myself enjoying the luxury of my spare room bed, the warmth, the silence, the solace of sleep. And I woke in the same position, stiff and cold in my funeral clothes, with the living-room fire shrunk to a heap of ashes. It was then—my first waking thought of the day—that I remembered Barbara had actually accused me of murdering my wife.
And then it began. The cat arrived two days later in a large wicker basket and I had to collect it from the station. I had expected Barbara to bring it herself, and in daylight. Sober and rested, I was prepared for some very plain speaking about her outrageous remarks of the other night. Instead there was a letter of instructions on cat care and a parcel of tins which had to be alternated with the best fish and liver and chicken and rabbit. She enclosed five pounds; I supposed it would be enough. But the whole performance sickened me and there was no way I could retaliate: the letter carried a postscript, ‘I leave today.’ Barbara had made good her escape.
The cat, when I finally opened the basket, was striped, and vaguely a cross between tabby and marmalade in colour. It seemed perfectly normal, I had heard its yowling protests during its period of captivity and when I finally released it, it showed as much gratitude as cats ever show, looked round in surprise at its surroundings, and took off on a tour of inspection. I opened one of Barbara’s tins, shuddered at the smell, and put a plate of the stuff on the kitchen floor by way of welcome. The cat—Barbara had told me it was called Jennet, but I could not bring myself to use such an eccentric name—the cat returned eventually, sniffed at the food, disdained it, and rubbed itself round my legs, a habit I dislike although it is supposed to indicate friendship. I had nowhere to go that evening—I am by nature rather a solitary person and I was beginning to appreciate the peace of my empty house—so I cooked for myself and ate, then settled down with television and a glass of whisky. The cat lay on the rug in front of the fire. It made no sound. All mewing had stopped the moment I opened the basket. Occasionally it rolled over and stretched in that totally relaxed and apparently boneless way they have, and regarded me with its huge yellow eyes. There is something peculiar about a cat’s stare: they seem to gaze longer and harder than other animals. A long, unblinking look, so that I had to be the first to glance away. But that was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual feeling of being silently sized up which no one enjoys: in human terms similar to being introduced at a party, or meeting a prospective employer. But it was only a cat, I reminded myself. I did not have to respond to it; I could ignore it completely if I chose. So I kept my eyes fixed on the television and drank some more whisky.
By ten I was surprisingly tired, too tired even to continue watching a programme I usually enjoyed. I got up and went into the kitchen to make a warm drink to take to bed. The cat followed me at once, as if at a given signal. While I was busy at the stove it ate a little of its food, then stood at the back door expectantly. With a strange sensation of relief I let it out and watched it disappear into the night. When I closed the door I felt an unaccountable lift in my spirits. I had not realized before that its presence was in some way oppressive.
I reckoned it gone for the night, had a leisurely bath and went to bed about eleven, taking one of the pills the doctor had given me. At three I was awake—suddenly, abruptly awake. I had forgotten to draw my curtains and there was bright moonlight pouring into my room, enough to wake anyone. But it was more than that. There on the window ledge, with its face pressed against the glass, its yellow eyes luminous, was the cat.
My house is covered by wistaria, so it must have been an easy climb. I should not have been surprised; perhaps it had yowled at the back door for admittance and I had not heard it. I felt ashamed of the shock it had given me, for what could be more normal than for a cat to climb? But it is always alarming to be woken abruptly from a drugged sleep. A cat-flap in the kitchen door, I reflected, would soon put an end to this nonsense; then it could come and go as it pleased. I got up resentfully and opened the window. The cat jumped in at once. It seemed disturbed: standing in the middle of the floor and swishing its tail. It also seemed larger than I remembered it, but I thought that must obviously be due to my half-awake state, an illusion of the night. I closed the window and opened the door, saying idiotically, ‘Go on then, good cat,’ for I had no intention of allowing it to sleep in my room. It didn’t budge. Its tail lashed from side to side and it went on standing, all four feet firmly planted, in the middle of my bedroom. I felt absurd and rather cold, in a draught, clad only in pyjamas, virtually pleading with an animal to leave me alone. ‘Come on, puss,’ I said, more absurdly than ever, for it looked nothing like a puss, that cosy childhood word: it seemed to be glaring at me. Its eyes were huge and—now I came to notice—rather like Barbara’s, though hers were green: they both had the same unnerving stare. As it didn’t move I went towards it, to shoo it out of the room, but with a certain ridiculous apprehension, as if it were a larger animal. The fur rose on its back and its tail, it made a strange sound in its throat, and then, before I could even react, it was gone, streaking through the open door and down the passage. I closed the door and leaned against it; I found myself damp with sweat. Those pills, I thought, those pills must be too strong for me. Perhaps I should have my prescription changed. I went back to bed, but I could not sleep for what seemed like hours, and when at last I did I dreamed strange dreams that in the morning I could not clearly remember, but which left me unrefreshed.
‘That bloody cat is getting on my nerves,’ I said to Bill in the pub three days later. The trouble was, I did not know how to explain. A cat-door had stopped the nocturnal visitation, but a pattern of other, equally unpleasant habits had emerged: sharpening its claws on the furniture, playing with its meat in a most obscene manner, greeting me in the morning with a row of dead mice on the kitchen floor. Its presence was everywhere: it stared at me as it lay on the rug, it followed me round the house. Would Bill take any of this seriously? And it had even taken, occasionally, to standing outside Margaret’s door and mewing—not in protest but plaintively, almost conversationally, as if it were having a long, sad discussion with someone. ‘It miaows outside Margaret’s room.’ I said.
‘Let it in.’ Bill was relighting his pipe and his conversation was punctuated by the sort of sucking noise I particularly dislike. But I had known him a long time and he was someone to have a drink with. I could not recall having been so irritated by the noise before. ‘We had a cat once.’ Suck. Puff. ‘Couldn’t stand a closed door. In, out, all the time. Drove us nearly mad. You’re not using the room, are you?’
‘Of course not.’ The question shocked me a little.
‘Then open the door and let it in.’ Suck. ‘Probably all it wants, just to have a look round. Damned curious animals, cats.’
‘They certainly are.’ But I did not mean it as he did. And the idea of opening Margaret’s door somehow appalled me. I had not been in the room since the day of the funeral. ‘This one, anyway. It’s really a bit odd.’ I longed for him to read my mind, to know what I meant as if he had seen the cat for himself. I knew I would never find the right words to tell him.
‘Odd? In what way?’ He sucked at his pipe; he did not seem really interested. I could almost hear him thinking, Henry’s in a funny mood, going on about a cat. Poor chap’s not himself again yet. Can’t blame him, I suppose, in the circumstances, but still.
‘It follows me round the house,’ I said. I could not begin to describe its tigerish, sinewy walk as it sloped down the corridors after me. ‘It stares at me. You know that bloody disconcerting stare they have. Only this one seems . . . worse somehow. And then all the miaowing. It gets on my nerves.’ But I had not even begun to tell him the truth. I was too afraid of mockery.
Bill leaned back in his chair. ‘Sounds as if you ought to get away, old man,’ he said. ‘Take a holiday. Get away from it all. You’ve had a lot of strain, you know. Probably went back to work too soon.’
‘But I can’t get away,’ I said desperately. ‘That’s the whole point. Barbara got away first.’
‘Barbara?’ He looked blank; he never had been good at remembering relevant facts about other people. Too wrapped up in his own petty affairs.
‘It’s Barbara’s cat,’ I said. I was obscurely angered at being forced into speaking the words. ‘I’m supposed to be looking after it while she’s away.’
‘Oh, well, in that case you’re stuck, aren’t you?’ He drained his glass; he looked relaxed and casual. He simply did not see the seriousness of my position. ‘How about another round?’ he said cheerfully.
And then the postcards started to arrive from Barbara. One each day, and each from a different place. It gave me an odd pain to read her handwriting, as if fingers were squeezing my heart. ‘As you see, I keep moving,’ she wrote unnecessarily. ‘Maggie is with me in spirit.’ And, ‘I hope by now you and Jennet have come to an understanding. It comforts me to know she is with you.’ And again. ‘This is a beautiful place. If only Maggie could have seen it.’ Every day there was a postcard waiting for me when I returned home. I had taken to eating out, sampling my new freedom of movement, I suppose, or calling in at the pub on my way home for a few drinks instead of going out later, when I often felt too tired to move. I found that although I didn’t enjoy alcohol as much I seemed to need it more. And I have to admit that even then, within a week of Barbara’s departure, I felt a strange reluctance to enter my own house.
The postcards lay on the hall table where Mrs. Coates, my daily, who came and went in my absence, always placed the mail. The cat watched me read them, dashing as it usually did into the hall when I arrived, not so much to welcome me, I felt, as to check up that I had in fact returned for the night. And it watched me tear them up viciously, each one, into tiny pieces, as it sharpened its claws on a broom, on a chair, on the leg of a table. I had tried chasing it away but it only moved on somewhere else and started again. How long its body was when it reached out full length! It seemed longer each day, and wider too, as if there were more space between the stripes. I rebuked myself for drinking too much: my imagination was getting the upper hand. Mrs. Coates had noticed nothing; there could not be anything to notice. She even seemed to like the animal and had taken to feeding it during the day, leaving me little notes of reassurance that ‘Pussy had some nice fish’ or ‘Pussy ate all her rabbit.’ Yet it still demanded food from me at night and if I refused it would twine itself round my legs in the way that I dreaded, as if it knew I could not bear contact. So I fed it. Going into the kitchen and chopping up meat which I left it alone to eat; I had had enough of watching it pirouetting around its meat like some blasted ballet dancer, tossing it in the air and catching it in its claws, dropping it and starting again, as if the wretched meat were alive. And yet, despite all this food, in the morning there would be two or three field mice laid out, quite dead, quite unmarked, as if they had died of fright.
Barbara had been gone for a week, therefore I was halfway through my ordeal. But I was shocked to find myself thinking in terms of an ordeal. The cat never left me alone. All the time I spent in the house it spent with me: I simply could not get away from it. If I watched television, it watched me; lying on my rug, in front of my fire, it stared at me with its large golden eyes, yawned indolently, showing all its sharp white teeth, rolled over, flexed its muscles, stretched to its full length, and finally curled up again. Its presence filled the room. Was this what Barbara had meant by company? I could well have done without it. If I got up to fetch a book from another room or to make myself some coffee it followed me, silently padding along the corridor or up the stairs after me. I tried closing doors to shut it out but it only scratched at them until its claws seemed to be grating on my very nerves or until my automatic concern for the paintwork forced me to let it in. At least when with me it was silent. I tried going to bed early, but any time before midnight it seemed to resent, for then it would scratch at my bedroom door or miaow outside Margaret’s for what felt like hours, until it finally slunk away, out into the night, regardless of the weather, to hunt.
My work was beginning to suffer—because I was not sleeping well, I supposed. I tried to explain to people at the office; they had been very patient with me since Margaret died, making allowances (which I hated, as I had always been known for my efficiency) and now the allowances became really necessary, not a mere generous gesture to show respect for my bereavement. I saw their surprise at the trivial mistakes I made and the way in which they quickly covered up. ‘It’s the cat,’ I explained. ‘It’s getting on my nerves. (I was beginning to visualize my nerves as the exposed roots of a plant, red raw, with the cat swinging on them.) But they didn’t understand; I could see them look puzzled. And the image of the plant made me sweat, just a little, so that I felt hot and cold at once, shivering in my jacket, with drops of moisture on my face. ‘Are you all right?’ someone asked. ‘You look a bit groggy to me.’ I found it hard to focus on their faces, so I was not always sure exactly who was speaking to me.
But I was not going to pieces. Oh no. In fact, so far was I from going to pieces that one lunchtime I made an appointment with the optician. It was about time I had my eyes tested again: another of the routine jobs I had put off because of all the business with Margaret. Not that there was much wrong with my eyes. I only wore glasses for reading and could actually manage without them if I had to, except that I would eventually get a headache. Still, it was a good thing to have regular check-ups. The chap did all the usual tests and told me there was no need to alter my prescription, there had been no significant change. That’s all you know, I thought. I tried to be casual; I said, ‘Then I couldn’t be seeing things . . . bigger, by any chance?’ and he looked at me oddly and asked what I meant, what kind of things? I said, laughing it off, ‘Oh, just things, you know . . . people, animals,’ and grinned at him, to show it was all quite trivial and light-hearted. I felt a fool, to be honest. ‘Not at all, quite impossible,’ he said reassuringly, and yet I did not find it at all reassuring; his smile seemed false. ‘But if you’d like me to make further tests . . .’ he said. ‘Oh no, no,’ I said quickly. ‘That won’t be necessary.’ I wanted to get out now. But he lingered at the door with me. ‘You’re probably a bit tired, a bit run down,’ he said. ‘Maybe you need a holiday. Have you been under any sort of strain lately? That might account for it.’ I burst out laughing, backing away from him into the street, but I didn’t like it. Account for what? It was not as if I had told him anything. ‘Why not see your doctor?’ he shouted after me, his face creased up into a frown, as I walked off, laughing, along the windy pavement.
But of course it was no laughing matter. No one knew that better than I. The thing was, to proceed with caution. No good coming right out with it. Ridiculous to suggest seeing a doctor; I had seen enough of them to last me a lifetime, during Margaret’s illness, and if there was one thing I had learnt from living with a chronic invalid, it was how not to turn into a hypochondriac. There was nothing wrong with me, I knew that. I was fit as a fiddle. A touch of indigestion now and then if I ate or drank too much; well, everyone got that. The merest palpitations if I woke suddenly in the night; well, you could not expect to sleep quite normally with pills and it was much too soon to give them up. I would not sleep at all without them as long as that creature was prowling about, making a row. Nobody could. And it would be bad for me to lie awake, dwelling on memories. The past was the past and no one could change it, even if they wanted to.
So I was cunning. There was an RSPCA place near the office and I went in there next day in my lunch hour and asked them how big a cat should be and whether an adult cat could go on growing. I knew Barbara had had the cat for years. The girl behind the counter gave me rather an odd look, I thought, but she answered all my questions and we went into the animal’s diet: maybe I was overfeeding it, just a little, but that could not possibly make it grow, only get fat; it was much too old, fully grown. Then how about boarding it out, I asked quickly, before she lost interest, just for a few days, till its owner came back. I was a busy man, it was rather a tie, I could not be bothered with it. I made all this as casual as possible. Her face became dubious, even suspicious; her answers confused. I could hardly make sense of what she said, but it seemed their own kennels were full up (that must be a lie, for a start) and why didn’t I try my local branch or the vet in my area, although at such short notice it was doubtful if anyone could help and in any case it was unusual (or irregular—I cannot remember which word she used) to accept an animal from anyone other than its owner . . . something about the responsibility. I was outraged. Didn’t she think I had had enough responsibility, what about me, did nobody care? Her eyes were alarmed; she muttered something about asking advice and backed away from me, as if to call someone, but I knew better than that and I walked off, out of the shop while she was still speaking. That would show her.
All the same, she had given me an idea. I went home early—they were quite willing to let me go—and phoned all the local branches and vets in my neighbourhood. The cat watched me do it, but I paid no attention. I had to pretend it was mine, which stuck in my throat, but it had to be done. Again they all claimed to be full. While I waited for each one to answer I stole quick, secret glances at the cat. It was bigger: there was no doubt about it. And yet, when I looked
again . . . As if someone were switching images, showing me two different photographs. Before and after. One, two. Rather—now I came to think of it—like that miserable optician with his alternate lenses, testing me. They were all at it. Barbara was testing me. I was on trial.
When I put down the phone I was shivering. The last place had let me down too. They were all pretending to be full, all muttering about short notice. But it simply could not be true. End of October, near enough; there could not be that many people away, boarding their pets. Pets. That was a laugh. A pet was something pleasant to touch, something you could stroke. Something soft and warm and friendly and . . . small. But this gave me another, better idea. You can’t say I gave up without a struggle. If I could only bring myself to touch the animal (I had avoided all contact since releasing it from its basket) I could get it back in its basket and out of the house. It would be my prisoner. I could put it in the car and take it along to the wretched RSPCA, who seemed to have no idea of their duty, and pretend it was ill. Then they would have to take it in. I could say anything I liked; after all it could hardly contradict me. I could say it was foaming at the mouth, or refusing to eat (that would be a nice ironic touch), or being sick every day. By the time they found out it wasn’t so, Barbara would be back.
I resolved on action. No more delay. I was even a little proud of myself. Such a simple solution; why had I not thought of it before? I advanced towards the cat, noting the position of the basket in the hall, closing the doors of the rooms so it could not escape, placing myself between it and the stairs so it could not run away without passing me. I would have to be quick: a quick grab, before it knew what was happening. But crafty too. So I made myself talk to it in a low, soothing voice. ‘Nice cat, good cat, come on pussy, there’s a good pussy cat.’ Rubbish like that. It made me feel sick, actually. I must act quickly, before horror of touching its fur took me over. It seemed definitely orange today, or was it just the contrast with the very black stripes? Its coat really did seem more sharply defined. I got nearer gradually. It never stopped watching me, swishing its tail; that was a bad sign, I knew. But I had to go on: I had no choice. It backed away a little, almost into the basket, as if it were playing into my hands. I kept up my idiotic false monologue. But the smell was beginning to bother me. As I got nearer the smell that had faintly pervaded the whole house since it came grew suddenly more noticeable. And yet it was not the ordinary cat smell I knew, but much stronger, and though I could not place it I recognized it.
It all happened so fast. Looking back, I don’t know in what order. Did it bare its teeth first, before I grabbed, or did I grab first, making it growl? I think I half closed my eyes at the moment of contact. But I saw its mouth open, and I felt my hands close on fur. Then the sudden sharp pain. I had never felt pain so acute. I let go at once; I had to. A black and orange streak flashed past me, seeming enormous, smelling obscene. The hall was full of its snarl. And I was left half crouching over the empty basket, staring at my hands.
They were covered in blood. I had never seen scratches like that. Two or three on each hand. But deep. All over the backs of my hands. Blood.
I told the story at work, as a hero. In bright sunlight, with people around me, it seemed almost an adventure: I wanted admiration. But no one seemed to realize how brave I had been, or how much I had suffered. My hands were covered with Elastoplast. Was it possible they thought I was inventing the whole thing? Even June seemed to look at me oddly, with an air of disbelief, and shuffled some papers on her desk to show she had work to do. She had not been really friendly, not at all her old self, since Margaret died. No one had. It was almost as if Barbara had talked to them all, putting them against me. I was beginning to feel myself an outcast. Was there nowhere to go where someone would understand? Did nobody care what happened to me?
‘It was nice as pie this morning,’ I told her. ‘All round my legs, asking for breakfast.’ I was keen to make this clear (though I shuddered at the memory) because it seemed to prove normality.
‘There you are then,’ she said pointlessly.
I lingered by her desk. It was some time since I had managed to be alone with her; in fact I had begun to wonder if she was deliberately avoiding me. Perhaps everyone was, as though I had some dreadful disease that might be catching. But with June it was worse. I cleared my throat.
‘I was wondering,’ I said, ‘if you’d like to have a drink with me after work?’ My voice sounded odd, strained. ‘Or dinner. If you’re not doing anything, that is.’
She did not even look up. I gazed at her, the top of her shiny hair, her pretty hands on the typewriter, her pointed breasts in the tight pink sweater. I willed her to say yes. I was so tired of eating alone.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said without expression. ‘I’ve got a date.’
‘Oh.’ I was absurdly disappointed. No, more than that, rejected. It had taken so long to get up my courage again. I felt a door had slammed in my face. ‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘It is very short notice. How about tomorrow?’
She replied tonelessly, as if she were quoting from a magazine, ‘I always wash my hair on Fridays.’
I didn’t know what to say. She was like another person, not June of the old days. I made my voice cheerful, casual. ‘Maybe one day next week then?’
I expected polite agreement, however vague. After all, I was not pinning her down to a day. But she shook her head instantly, not even pausing to think for politeness’ sake.
‘I’m busy all next week,’ she said.
I should have left it at that, but something snapped. I heard myself say, quite sharply, ‘I’m not a leper, you know. You were happy enough before—’
Her hands paused on the machine. ‘Pardon?’
I found myself trembling. Why should this slip of a girl be able to make me tremble? ‘You’ve changed your tune,’ I said slowly.
She resumed typing, her mouth set in a line I knew well. It was a look that meant leave me alone, can’t you see I’m not in the mood? ‘Things are a little different now,’ she said smoothly.
‘It was a merciful release.’ I could not stop the words coming out. I even put my hand on her typewriter and repeated them. ‘You must know that.’
Then at last she looked up. All the warmth I remembered had gone from her eyes. ‘I beg your pardon?’
I was incensed. After all, I had left it as long as I could, waited a decent interval, whatever that was. Still I could not get my tongue round the words ‘Margaret’s death’. I started to say, ‘You know very well what I mean,’ but she stood up at once, as if at a given signal, and ripped the piece of paper out of her machine.
‘Excuse me,’ she said crisply, not looking at me. ‘I must take Mr. Hervey this letter to sign.’ She moved right round the desk to avoid passing close to me.
I lost control at this and who can blame me? I came to the point abruptly, shouting after her, ‘Do you like cats?’ and she turned at the door, the merest crease of a frown disturbing the childish perfection of her skin. She was so ridiculously young. But hard, I was learning, the way perhaps only the young can afford to be.
‘Well, do you?’ I shouted. ‘How would you like to live with a cat?’ I felt the sweat break out cold on my forehead.
‘It’s rather urgent,’ she said. ‘So he’ll probably want me to post it at once. I’ll be going home early.’
When I got home the cat was small and meek, waiting for food. But I knew better than to be fooled by appearances. Inside it was mocking me, biding its time. Yet it looked so innocent, so harmless. Was it really the same animal that had clawed me so viciously?
I dreamed that night of June. June at the office, smiling, close to me. June in my bed, welcoming me, my hands on her breasts. But I could not move. I knew I was being watched. I thought in the dream it was Margaret but it might have been Barbara. There was someone in that room, watching us, but June did not know. I tried to tell her and she did not understand; she thought I was saying something else and she smiled even more encouragingly. I struggled to free myself, to point to the watcher, whoever it was, but my hands seemed glued to her body. I woke to a piercing noise, the unmistakable, unforgettable sound of Margaret’s bell.
It stopped at once, but I was already, by old habit, halfway to the door of my room. I was panting and covered in sweat. Automatically I completed the movement and opened my door. But Margaret was dead. I had seen her dead, I had seen her buried, I had heard the earth drop on her coffin. She could not be more dead. It wasn’t my fault; she had to understand that. I had acted from the best, always from the best of motives. I could not help myself. But Barbara did not understand. Barbara would not make allowances, like Margaret. Barbara wanted revenge. I hammered on Margaret’s door, completely losing control, crying, sobbing for mercy, and into a patch of moonlight on the landing, as into a spotlight on stage, strolled the cat. I was not mistaken. It was not my imagination or my eyesight, simply all I had feared and been unable to say. Larger. Every day a little larger. It was turning into a tiger.
Next day old man Hervey called me into his office. I was haggard from lack of sleep, from a night mostly spent curled up on my bed in my dressing-gown, shivering, reliving the past, listening to the wind fairly howling outside. It had been gusty all week but it seemed much worse that night, like a full force gale, or perhaps it was just that I was awake to hear it. I had tried to make plans. As I could not get rid of the cat I should have to go away myself. I resented this. Driven from my own house by an animal. But anything was preferable. I should have packed there and then, and gone. But in the morning, in daylight, with the cat nowhere to be seen, it all seemed like a nightmare, no more, and my head ached, and I was late for the office.
Mr Hervey suggested a holiday. They would make it compassionate leave, sick leave, whatever I liked; it need not even come off my annual holiday. I was run down, he said. It was understandable. A lot of strain, I had come back too soon. He oozed sympathy, but I knew. He wanted to get rid of me, wash his hands of me. I was no one’s responsibility. Get a bit of sun, he said, soon fix you up, but what he meant was you’re going to pieces, man, and I’m not having that here, in my office. I nearly asked him how he felt about cats, but he didn’t look that sort of man.
So I went home early. The weather was wild. Late October winds lashing the trees, leaves blowing everywhere. I walked in a kind of trance, passing some giggling children in masks, but hardly noticing them. I was very cold. I knew there were things to be done, yet I felt incapable of action. I dreaded my return to the house yet I longed to be there, as if in a refuge, though I knew it was no refuge. Most of all I felt like a puppet. As if I had always been a puppet but only just realized it. All freedom of choice an illusion.
I let myself in, and the door slammed with a hollow sound; the place echoed like a tomb. I picked up the mail from the hall table and went into the living room to pour myself a drink. When I looked at the letters I found a couple of bills and underneath them a postcard. I knew before I turned it over that it was from Barbara. ‘Happy Hallowe’en,’ was all it said.
Of course you will think me a fool not to realize before. But I had not been meant to realize. The thing was beyond my control. I rushed from the room, dropping my glass and heading for the front door. My instincts still made me behave as if I had a chance. But it was futile, almost laughable. The cat was there in the hall, between me and the door, blocking my path.
It was enormous. It might have come straight from the jungle. It was any tiger you can see in a film, in the zoo, on safari. Vast and orange, dark-striped. It even smelt different, as if it had never been a cat: I got a sickening waft of the authentic circus smell. And it opened its jaws and roared. For a second I was paralysed by the sound, then I turned and ran.
You cannot say I was cowardly. Straight into the kitchen I went, in search of a weapon. But there on the floor in front of me was a mouse, and this time there was blood on its neck.
I picked up a knife. The cat had not moved, but it could only be a question of time. Perhaps it would play with me. I tried the back door, my hands slippery with sweat, but the key was missing, Mrs. Coates being cautious. So I was forced into bravery. The kitchen door was useless, a mere sliding and folding affair, affording no protection. So back into the hall I went, brandishing my weapon.
The cat was in the doorway of the living room. Lying down, watching me, just like a cat. Except that it was still a tiger. I could reach the stairs without passing it, but not the front door. I wanted to run but instead I moved slowly; as I drew level with it I suddenly waved my knife, either from impatience or bravado. Or perhaps I had the idea that if I could make it roar again, someone might hear, someone might come. Though at the same time I half believed that it was audible only to me.
It merely yawned. A huge sleepy yawn, showing all its teeth. It had all the time in the world.
Somehow this terrified me more than anything. I panicked, hurling myself at the stairs. Halfway up I slipped, missing my footing, flung out both my hands to save myself, and automatically dropped the knife. It fell through the banisters to the floor below and I watched it with sickening despair but no surprise, as if I had known this was meant to happen. The cat saw it too. And as I dragged myself back to my feet a sudden sharp pain told me I had injured my ankle.
Progress was slow now, but still the cat did not come for me. I hobbled along the passage to the upstairs phone, in Margaret’s room. It was damp and chill when I entered it but there was no horror: I had known all along I must return here and when I did it was like coming home. But the phone was dead. Even this gave me no surprise; I had hardly expected it to work. The lines have blown down in the gale, if you want to be rational. What does it matter?
I am very cold. And there isn’t much time left. It must happen before midnight, I am sure of that. Forgive me. June and her breasts cannot warm me now as I lie on your bed, Margaret, in your place, where you died. It’s so cold. A pane in the window has blown in. But you know better than Barbara, don’t you? She may know facts, or what she calls facts. But you know my motives. You know I acted for the best. Don’t you?
It’s coming. My watch has stopped but I should guess it is nearly midnight. That would be about right. I could bar the door with furniture but that would only delay it and I am too weak and my ankle pains me. Padding along the passage I can hear it, very steady and stealthy. It knows where to come. Oh, God, I’m so alone. Never more alone. My heart bursting, a blackness in front of my eyes. I hope it won’t hurt too much.
Schlagwörter: Dark Prose