Here is a short story which I've recently discovered. It was written sometime in my mid to late teens and is clearly influenced by the chiller anthology shows of the 1970s and 1980s.
Colin lit his low tar cigarette on the third strike of the match. As the sulfur caught his nose he took a deep drag, peering through hooded eyes as an icy breeze sheared across the back of the house. He tucked an arm up beneath his armpit, sighing as he exhaled.
It was worse outside than he’d thought. Perhaps he should have slipped his pullover on. Then again, if he had, Lou would clock it and know he’d been outside; she’d want to know why. She’d cast him that sideways look, get up close, smell his breath, his hair. She’d finger his pockets, find the fags and then have the face on for the rest of the evening. He shivered. It was easier this way.
Colin shunted an old plant pot at his feet, exposing a nest of mouldy cigarette butts and burnt-out matches. Bending with a groan - that weary siren of creeping middle-age - he flicked an inch of ash into the grubby pile.
The garden looked a bloody mess. The grass could have done with a trim a good fortnight ago, and the tall, imposing fence needed replacing altogether. It must have been standing thirty years or more; whenever Lou’s father had bought the place. Along its length were dark holes and fissures, with brambles piercing through from woodland beyond. Irregular pieces of wire mesh and flaky chipboard panels had been slapped over breaches in an effort to keep things out, but the battle was clearly being lost. Mangy, stray cats, which old Don used to curse at, would often saunter through the gaps to mince across the lawn, burying a shit next to Lou’s memorial rose where the old man’s ashes had been scattered. He’d have gone barmy if he knew the indignity his remains suffered now. Bloody cats; vermin. That fence had to go, Colin decided, taking a deep drag. They’d never sell the place without cleaning it up.
Oh, it wasn’t a bad place all in all. It definitely had the potential to be a good home. A coat of paint over the window frames, some new guttering. Definitely some new guttering. If Don hadn’t been such a tight sod, it could have been done on his account. He’d challenged his father-in-law about it in the living room once, shortly before he’d finally done the descent thing, and died.
“It’s fine as it is,” he hissed, biting down on his pipe. He raised his newspaper, a convenient barrier to conversation; clearly the end of the matter.
“But the gutters are leaking out on to our bedroom window, Don. It’s getting damp on the windowsill. Mould’s growing on the curtains…”
The newspaper barely moved. Thick trails of pungent smoke curled around the edges. He could hear Colin’s voice, but he wasn’t listening.
“Hello,” he breathed, proudly sardonic.
“It’s got to be repaired.”
The mighty broadsheet slowly descended; the wrinkled face of the old bastard sneered at him in a halo of smoke.
“I’m not spending my savings on things I don’t need or want,” he said slowly. “Especially on the likes of a scrounging, jobless boy like you.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Don.”
“I never liked the look of you, Colin. Always on the make. Always after something.” Two quivering fingers pointed at his eyes. “I’m watching you. You won’t be getting your hands on a single penny.”
And he didn’t. When Don died, the solicitor had the pleasure of informing them that all of his father-in-law’s savings were to be donated to the RSPCA. Perhaps Don wasn’t aware that stray cats were part of their remit, Colin thought, otherwise he may have reappraised the decision.
Something caught his eye. As if on cue, the head of the ginger tom from next door peeked out from one of the narrower gaps of the fence, rustling a tin panel which had been nailed across to prevent such intrusion. Slightly ruffled and with a furrowed brow, it emerged completely, revealing a bloated body patterned with rusty brown streaks. It eased itself lazily into the daylight, snaking its tail in the air before padding across the lawn.
It hadn’t seen Colin smouldering against the wall, eyeballing the little bugger as it crept across the grass, intent upon its scheduled crap in the flowerbed. The thing pranced along as if it owned the place, carefree and utterly oblivious. Colin made a special effort to remain completely still. He was going to time this one carefully.
The fat tom lulled about for a moment, then perched its rounded rump above the loosely turned ground next to the yellow rose tree, tilting its tiny head as if it were eavesdropping on something distant. Convinced it was now in the throes of dumping its load all over his father-in-law’s ashes, Colin pounced.
Instantaneously the cat reared up, wide-eyed and arched, before vaulting the hedge into the adjacent garden.
“Y’little sod!” he added, satisfied and smiling to himself. It was a pointless outburst, he knew, as the thing would be back again when he wasn’t around, churning up his borders and spraying against his chrysanthemums. But for now, Colin bathed in the glory. Years of put-downs by that nightmare of a man had made these little triumphs seem like a major victory. For all he had cared and nursed Don, now he’d quite happily piss on his ashes too - if it didn’t ruin the garden of course.
He extinguished the fag with a sigh, bending to knock the stub into his hidden pile. The chill of the wind caught him, the wrinkled, leathery skin on his neck cramped, almost tingled.
It was only for a moment. Something different. There wasn’t a movement, just a shape, somewhere on the periphery. A black thing; in the middle of the lawn. He cast a glance.
Another cat. How long had that been there?
“Oh bloody hell. Get lost,” he snapped, straightening up.
The cat blinked slowly. It was lean, inordinately muscular, Colin noticed.
“Go on. Piss off.”
This one had some brass neck for sure, he thought. He lashed out with his arm, hoping to scare it off, but the creature narrowed its pale green eyes, silently observing. It titled its head, eyeing him up, and then it seemed, the house beyond.
Colin had had just about enough. He strode towards the thing, ready to boot its arrogant little backside into oblivion.
“Col? What you doing out here?”
He froze. The wife. Damn.
“Nothing,” he said in an upbeat tone. “Nothing. Just taking some air, Lou. Ahh! Cold, innit? Brrr.”
Colin rubbed his arms, jogging towards her. She was standing dangerously close to the fag mountain.
“Cold cold cold!” he added loudly, as her eyes began to wander.
“Yes…” she replied, with a suspicious slowness.
Colin hurried her inside, quickly knocking the plant pot back over the incriminating stash. As he closed the door, he peeked back at the lawn, expectantly. There was nothing; the animal had disappeared.
Yet, that evening, from a dark, shady gap in the fence, an angular black face watched with an intense silence, as Colin and Lou’s curtains closed off the view of the warm lounge which glowed within.
Colin couldn’t sleep at all. The wind whistled through the tears in the fence outside, making panels clatter in the distance. He turned over, untwisting the bedding, trying to regain some comfort from the noise.
Lou snored meekly next to him, content in her dreams. Occasionally she murmured something indecipherable, or slapped her lips like a dog.
Still, he lay there, studying the ceiling’s flaking wallpaper which appeared beautifully abstract in the pale moonlight. The old man really had let this place go. To think the bugger had imagined them both living in this dump as it stood was madness. The sooner they left, the sooner it was sold, the better. It didn’t matter what happened to the place, or what Don specifically wanted now the bug-eyed sod was gone. They could do as they liked.
Colin closed his eyes. There was a faint murmur, a rising sound. What was it? It sounded like a weird cry, almost, like a baby. It was a drawn out, gurgling whine, coming from the garden.
He’d once heard that cats sometimes sound like jabbering babies when they ‘talk’ to one another in the stillness of the night. It certainly sounded like talking, or even singing. It was a weird, unpleasant lullaby which failed to encourage sleep.
The grotesque harmony continued. He wished they’d shut up and let him get some rest. The alarm clock was creeping up to 4am. He needed to be up early in the morning to get on with the house repairs.
But the whining din didn’t relent. The freakish cries reminded Colin of something he’d read in the local paper only a few hours earlier. An infamous old woman had been found dead in the week. A real old character, she was. Don had known her, and he’d hated her, blaming her for the cat problem on the estate. She was one of those weird old spinsters who feed stray cats all day long and always carried the faint sweet aroma of stale urine. He’d once seen her shuffling about the estate, enticing mangy strays with fish heads she’d picked up from the market. As it turned out, the old love had suffered a minor stroke in the house one day, locked up with these cats, and couldn’t move to raise the alarm. After a few days, in the absence of food, the strays got hungry and turned their teeth on her instead. Biting the hand that fed them, literally. It was anybody’s guess as to whether she died before or after the feasting. Weird thing was, when the police broke in, all the cats were dead apart from one which darted out the door. An oversized black one, apparently. It was just typical of the local Tribune to dramatize a small story like that into a ghoulish spectacle in the absence of proper news. It was hard to tell what was true anymore.
The noises outside seemed to subside.
An oversized black one, apparently…
There was an infantile scream from the garden. The noises abruptly stopped. He waited. Nothing. Just the wind.
“Thank Christ for that,” Colin mumbled. He turned over.
Next thing it was morning and Colin awoke alone. Downstairs, he found Lou cleaning up last night’s dishes.
“Sleep well?” she asked.
“Rotten,” he croaked, gagging for a smoke. “Just off outside. To take the air.”
Colin stepped into the crisp morning. There was a light haze and dewdrops patterned the grass. He stopped striking his matches when he noticed a sodden brown mass on the pathway, less than a meter from his feet. Perhaps something had blown in from next door’s washing line. Creeping closer, he recognised it as the body of the ginger tom he’d seen yesterday. It was outstretched, with its head cast back and mouth agape. A smooth underbelly was exposed, seemingly raked away, exposing innards clotted with blood so thick it was almost black.
Nauseated, he backed away. He’d smoke his morning one quickly – he needed it – then he’d find a box to put the body in. No need for Lou to see this. This time he tossed the barely finished cigarette end to the ground, making back into the house. He almost knocked Lou over as he rounded the corner to the kitchen.
“Do we have any boxes left?”
“What d’you mean?”
“Boxes. Cardboard boxes, about so big,” he gestured.
“There’s one left from the move, in the hall,” she said.
Colin made off. “Great.”
“But it’s sort of being lived in!” she smiled.
“What d’you mean, ‘lived in’?”
Lou snaked her arm around Colin’s waist as they moved into the modest hallway. The box was on the floor; inside it was a small blanket.
“We’ve got a new housemate,” Lou said, girlishly, tightening her hold on Colin.
He didn’t like the sound of this. He didn’t like it at all. Lou guided him towards the window.
“Look, he’s out there, right now.”
Outstretched through the misty pane of the window was the lawn, backing up on to the old fence. Sitting in the corner, unmoving and upright, was the tall, black cat.
“He’s watching over us. Barely six months. Isn’t he cute?”
The cat turned slightly, meeting his gaze directly. Could it actually see him? From that distance, through the window? Could it hear him?
“Oh come on, it wouldn’t do any harm.”
“We haven’t got time, not now,” he said, starring at the creature in the distance. “We’ve got to sort the house out.”
“I’ve called him Donald. After Dad, you know?”
Colin’s stomach balked. A flash of the black cat and the old woman, with flesh degloved to the bone. He thought of the ginger tom that had crapped on the old sod’s ashes, now butchered on the pathway. He looked into the cat’s odd, almost smiling face. Could it read his thoughts?
“He’s there every day, Col. He even sits in the place where Dad used to, you know?”
Was there something familiar in that proud nose? The unblinking green eyes which were a little too close together? Was it nodding at him? Did it disapprove of him in that unreasonable, arrogant way that the old man did?
“He came in yesterday morning and sat in Dad’s chair too! ‘Donald’, I said…”
“Stop calling it that,” Colin snapped, turning her by the shoulders to face him. “We’re not having a cat in the house, right? We’re not adopting a stray. You hear me?”
Lou eased back, frowning.
“What’s got in to you?”
Colin already had the box in-hand, tossing the blanket aside.
“Look I need this. And seeing as we’re not having a cat, you don’t either. That’s the end of it.”
There was no sign of the cat when Colin boxed up the fat tom, dumping it in the dustbin. He glanced around the garden. The increasingly nasty winds rattled the old fence. He felt cruel for what he’d done, the way he’d spoke to Lou; especially after all she’d been through. He recalled her concerns about the fence, about mending it at some point. At least, if he fixed some holes in it, it might put that vile creature off from coming back.
Colin pulled an old hammer and some nails from Don’s well-stocked shed. It wasn’t particularly easy work when it came to fixing up the gaps in the fence. Much of the wood was rotten and split whenever a nail was ran in. The wind was also increasing, making the structure flex and creak with each strike of the hammer.
Lou watched her husband’s well-intentioned, but sloppy progress from the warm comfort of the living room. He wasn’t a particularly gifted handyman, bless him. Her father could turn his hand to anything, whilst Col struggled to apply his financial education any further than a spreadsheet. Still, at least he was trying.
As the fence buckled and twisted, Colin began to wish he’d never attempted repairing it. No sooner had he attached panels over the rot, than the surrounding panels would buckle inwards and splinter away. It was almost hopeless. A support strut, which was weakening in the wind, threatened to collapse the more he hammered the structure, so he decided to abandon the project altogether. Stuff it. Donald’s savings would cover a new one.
Bending over to pick up his tools, he heard a strange, yet familiar sound. He momentarily froze, a strange sensation tensing up his neck. It was a warbling, nasally whine; like that of a baby, but aggressive. It was close.
Slowly, he glanced up.
Peering down on him from the top strut of the fence was the glistening black shape he detested. With narrowed eyes and pink mouth slightly open, the hateful animal seemed to be groaning at him.
“I know who you are,” he heard himself say. Was he going mad?
The cat snarled, as if in agreement. He recognised that face, those eyes.
“Never could leave us alone, could you, eh?” he shouted.
It arched its body, hissing loudly over the howling wind.
“You never liked me. Ever. Well, truth be known, I never liked you. With your mean ways and your insisting and bullying. But you’re still here, aren’t you?”
The wretched thing seemed to smile, leaning stiffly into the wind.
“Don’t tell me. Up there. They didn’t want the likes of you either, is that it?”
The cold eyes widened. Black lips withdrew, revealing long, yellow teeth. Colin felt sure it was going to pounce. He tightened his grip on the hammer.
Suddenly it snapped forward its awful head, spitting directly into Colin’s face. Without thinking, he hurled the hammer at the screaming creature, missing it entirely as it vaulted over his head.
The tool blasted through the fence, striking something behind with a dull thud. The entire structure quivered. Colin stumbled backwards, fumbling on his hands and feet, breathless. The dark, encompassing length of the fence folded towards him with a groan. Impassively, from the other side of the garden, the black cat watched on. As the dust cleared, it licked its paw.
It wasn’t easy for Lou to come to terms with another death so soon after that of her father, but at least she had some comforts. The house, in the end, wasn’t sold. There were simply too many memories invested there for her to needlessly move house. The garden, now restored with a new fence around the perimeter, also had an extra rose tree where Colin’s ashes were carefully rested. She’d tend to the plants, talking to them as if they were the loved ones whose memory they represented. It comforted her, and she didn’t care what the neighbours thought.
And it wasn’t as if she was alone; there was Donald, the contented black cat who would lazily observe events from the comfort of his own chair, some would say almost with a wry smile, if cats can do such a thing. And, perhaps, if they have a particularly good reason, they do.
Theatre Manager, Writer, Film Photographer & Printer, Reviewer, Reader. Secular biped mammal with own views. © Samuel Payne 2016