Penny’s blog is open!

I have finally taken the advice of all sorts of people that if I wish to be taken seriously as a writer I should have a web presence. Here it is – my blog, Autumn Leaves!

So far it contains four short stories. I shall be adding further work about once a week.

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I hope you enjoy what you read as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it!

Too late

‘Aniljaphur is so beautiful’ mused Rani, as she gazed across the bay towards the headland. The morning light seasoned the beach like saffron, and sparked and glinted from the ripples of the sea. The sand was virgin, unmarked, refreshed by the gentle scouring of the tide. The awnings under which a few tourists enjoyed an early breakfast were festive, their colours glowing in the sun.
“Like a wedding feast,” thought Rani, smiling to herself. It wouldn’t be long now, just eight days. She scanned the buildings along the sea-front, trying to catch sight of her husband-to-be, Faroukh. He was usually there first thing in the morning, making sure that everything was smart, that the staff were ready, that nothing would interfere with the comfort of his customers. Rani hoped that he would pause on the terrace, glance at her house and wave; he had often done so since they were betrothed. She would recognise his build, his stance, and imagine the smile on his face – although he was too far away for her to make out his features.
“Not that he’s perfect,” she added hastily to herself. Modern businessman though he was, Faroukh held some rather traditional ideas about the role of women. ‘Well, he’ll learn,’ she thought, and giggled quietly to herself over the shock he was going to have when he saw her on the beach later with his five year old cousin. “You can’t expect me to take care of Sanjay on the beach in anything other than a bathing costume. I need to be ready to fish him out of the water if anything goes wrong.” Thus she rehearsed her excuses.
Panjit Engineer was less enraptured by the day – and a great deal less by Faroukh Patel. He had spent a sleepless and angry night. For months he had worked long hours, completing his routine tasks as the local government engineer, clearing time in his schedule for the project closest to his heart, the culmination of years of scheming. He had planned carefully, cajoled suppliers for components, sweet-talked local businessmen into sponsoring the work and finally persuaded his bosses to support the extension of the tsunami early warning system as far as Aniljaphur. Today he had intended to start work on it. And now Faroukh….
Panjit had many legitimate calls made upon his time. He did not view tarting up the town for Faroukh’s nuptials as one of them. “This has nothing to do with jealousy of Faroukh,” he told himself – and, indeed, others. “It’s a matter of the public good. Life or death,” he muttered furiously, as he marched to the engineering depot to issue paint, brushes and overalls to his staff so that they might brighten the civic buildings.
Faroukh had come to him bright-eyed, smiling with camaraderie, seeking to persuade him that it would enhance the reputation of the town with the tourists if the town hall and police station were smartened up. Panjit had demurred; such jobs were best done out of season. He would have to cordon off areas of the town square, hindering the visitors.  “Then you should have done it last year,” Faroukh had said, nastily. “Our public buildings are a disgrace. I shall complain to the State Chief Engineer.”
“Do as you wish,” Panjit had shrugged. “I have my priorities given to me by the Chief himself.” Two hours later he had received a phone call, not from the Chief Engineer but from the Third Assistant, brusquely ordering him to attend to the painting of the buildings without delay – and informing him that the Chief Engineer was displeased that civic amenities had been allowed to deteriorate to the point at which they brought complaints.
The day wore away. Late in the afternoon Panjit went to check what progress had been made. The window frames of the Town Hall, now stripped of paint, showed areas where the wood had rotted and flaked. “We can’t paint over that.” He whistled through his teeth, then clucked with irritation. “You’ll have to fill the gaps and sand down before you can paint,” he told his crew.
“Quite right, too. I don’t want a shoddy job. But I know you’re a professional, Panjit.”
Faroukh. Patronising, bloody Faroukh. Panjit toyed with the idea of taking a swing at him. It would almost be worth losing his job to see Faroukh flat on his back. But then, Faroukh would probably duck and hit back. Panjit remembered from childhood just how hard Faroukh could punch. Sometimes life could be a real bitch.
Panjit grunted and turned his back. He imagined a sneer on Faroukh’s face, and his fists balled. “One day,” he thought furiously. “One day.”
The beach was still packed with tourists. Rani yawned. Looking after little Sanjay was fun, but there were things she would rather be doing. Still, he was enjoying himself splashing in the warm, shallow water. She waved and smiled at him from her seat under a brolly halfway up the beach.
She blinked. Her eyes seemed to be playing tricks. The horizon looked dark and fuzzy. “How strange,” she thought, trying to focus. She shook her head, as though to clear it. The fuzziness remained, indeed it intensified. Was that a roaring in the air, or was her hearing playing tricks on her?
No, she was alright. Everything else seemed clear and sharp to her vision, and the music from the nearby café tinkled with its normal tone.
People in the sea were waving their arms and shouting. Some of them were running back onto the beach.
Suddenly Rani realised. Her face and fingers felt icy, and her heart pounded. She leapt to her feet and ran towards the water, calling out to Sanjay as she went. Sanjay was staring out to sea. The wall of water was clear enough now, and racing towards them like an express train. Rani ran as fast as she could, banging and barging past terrified tourists as they fled from the wave. She snatched Sanjay into her arms and gasped as the tumult engulfed her.
It was black, and her ears were deafened by the silent cacophony of rushing water. She held Sanjay desperately tightly. She would not lose him, she wouldn’t let go no matter what. Holding him was the only action she could control as the force of the cataract spun her, accelerated her, tossed her from side to side.
Then her head was clear of the surface. She gasped a lungful of air and tugged Sanjay as high out of the water as she could. She heard him cough and felt him heaving, trying to rid himself of the water he’d inhaled. She caught sight of some buildings. Why, that was the supermarket! But that was two hundred metres inland! And still the wave drove on, still she was powerless to resist. She twisted over onto her back, with Sanjay above her so that his head would stay in the air. She could hear him shouting “Rani! Rani! I’m frightened!” Thank God. He was still alive. She would never have forgiven herself if he had drowned.
The blow to her head as the tsunami smashed her into a tree was shocking and final.
Panjit, senses dimmed by fury, only realised something was amiss when people came pounding up the hill towards the Town Hall. Then, amid the shrieks he heard the word “Tsunami”. Faroukh grabbed his shoulder. “You incompetent bastard, this is your fault. You should have installed that warning system. Rani’s down there with Sanjay!“ He gestured theatrically.
Panjit started to run downhill and then, as he rounded the corner, stopped. A great tide of mud raced past him. Tables and chairs from the beach cafes tumbled in the maelstrom. Bright awnings, like coloured sails, gave a macabre gaiety to the scene. “Mother of God,” he gasped as an entire shop floated stately before him.
He saw a struggling form, close to the edge. Holding tightly to a tree, he leaned out to try and grab it. The torrent tugged at him, wrenching his arm, but he caught the man’s hand. Every muscle strained with exertion, he fought to drag the man to safety. He could see the man’s face, desperate. A white face, a tourist.
The man sank from view. Panjit pulled harder, and then, like a cork from the bottle, the man came free of the flood as he found his footing.
“Get up the hill, up the hill,” gasped Panjit. “Don’t wait here; the water will rise higher.” The stranger stumbled off, climbing to safety.
Panjit looked back down the hill and crossed himself. The entire lower part of the town had been swept away. The last buildings had been demolished even as he had pulled the survivor clear. And still the water was pouring inland, as though it would never stop.
Panting, ears singing, Panjit followed the course of the wave, keeping as close to the edge as possible. Where was Rani; where was she?
The great tide seemed to be slackening a little as he made his way inland. There! There was another figure, a woman in a bathing costume, so fouled with mud that it was impossible to tell whether she was local or a tourist. She wasn’t moving. The current held her fast against a tree, caught in its branches.
Panjit couldn’t reach her. If she was alive, only God could help her; she was beyond the reach of man until the torrent subsided. Sobbing, Panjit struggled onwards.
About fifty yards ahead a small figure spun in an eddy. Maybe he could be saved; the current looked less fierce there. A tourist came pounding down the hill with a rope. Panjit pointed. The man with the rope nodded and together they ran towards the child. Panjit grabbed the end of the rope and knotted it around his body. His helper wrapped the rope around a tree trunk twice, then braced himself. Panjit gestured approval and plunged into the race.
God, it was strong! Even here where the full force was broken it had immediately swept him off his feet. Pointless to fight it; he must work with it and edge his way towards the youngster. But he must be quick; the lad was face down and not moving. Inch by inch, Panjit manoeuvred closer until at last he could grab the form.
In a sudden rage of strength Panjit plucked the youth bodily from the water. His stomach heaved. It was Sanjay, his sister’s child and Faroukh’s cousin. He prayed aloud as he fought his way towards the water’s edge.
As he struggled ashore, his helper grabbed the inert form and expertly began trying to resuscitate him. Panjit watched helplessly. He shuddered continuously. The other man looked up at him and shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid we were too late.”
“Keep trying. Oh, please – keep trying.” The words were a whisper, but the man heard them. He couldn’t meet Panjit’s eyes.
“It’s no use. I’m so sorry, but he’s beyond our help. I know – I’m a doctor” Then, shamed by Panjit’s grief he bent to the task once more. For several minutes he laboured. The body didn’t stir. The doctor stood up. He reached out to Panjit, took him in his arms and held him as he wailed.
Behind Panjit the sea had started to retreat, gurgling as it swirled and eddied. Panjit bent down, picked up Sanjay and cradled him.
“I must take him home,” he said.
The doctor nodded. “I suppose there’s a local hospital? They could probably use my help.”
“Yes. Yes, over there.” Panjit nodded to indicate the direction. “About half a mile.“
He trudged up the hill with his burden. As he reached the square he saw Faroukh at the centre of a bustling crowd. He had commandeered ropes, ladders, even lifebelts, and was organising groups of men to rescue those who could be saved. Ignoring the sight, he continued his desolate progress to his sister’s house, to lay his burden to rest and to grieve.
But even the bitter consolation of shared grief was to be denied him. As he wept with his sister that evening, there was a knock at the door. Two police officers stood there.
“Mr Engineer?”
Panjit stared stupidly at the men. “Yes?”
“Mr Engineer, I have a warrant for your arrest for obtaining money by deception.”
Panjit stared blankly at the senior officer who had spoken.
“Deception?”
“Yes, sir.” The officer’s face hardened. “We have had complaints that you solicited money from local businesses for a tsunami early warning system that was never installed.” For a moment the man’s professionalism wavered. “My wife was down there, you bastard,” he gasped. Then he straightened up, and stood very tall.
“You must come with us to the police station.”
The smell of fresh paint taunted Panjit through the whole, long night.

The Flying Dutchman

I had been riding for about three hours. The magnificence of the midsummer stars was fading as the sky ahead of me became grey. The solstice dawn was hurrying westwards to greet me and I still had five miles to travel. I opened the throttle gently until the needle of the speedometer touched eighty but there was no need. The world was still in shadow as I sped up the last rise to the summit of the headland.
I propped the bike on its stand, took off my helmet and breathed. The air felt cold and fresh. I could hear the sea sighing, deep, slow exhalations like a heavy sleeper. It was good to stretch after the journey, to stretch and allow the vibration of the road to ease out of my body.
Every second the light was changing, intensifying. Colour was creeping back. The grey of the eastern sky became pearl, and then peach. The springy seaside grass was just perceptibly green. No birds sang yet, no insects buzzed, but life was stirring all about me.
I watched the vapour draped like a robe across the horizon. Brighter and brighter. Suddenly there was a pinprick of intense gold in the heart of the mist. It grew and grew, a flood of fire pouring out across the water. The beat of the sea took on a louder and more urgent note, the cliff seemed to shudder under the impact of the waves and the breeze freshened, blowing hard against my face.
“In the morning, long before dawn, He got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. The words rang in my head, as though burned there by the light, or swept there by the wind. How strange. It had been many years since I had been in a church. The faith in which I had been brought up had faded. Grief borne unsupported had gnawed at my trust in God. I had never rebelled or turned consciously away, but I had lost the habit of belief.
The full light of day shone around me.
I was hungry. There was a transport café a few miles away. I suddenly wanted a fried breakfast more than anything else in the world.
Lingering over the last of my coffee and bacon, I planned the rest of my journey. It was the longest day of the year but I had far to travel and much to see.
The first milestone had been to watch the sunrise on the Yorkshire coast. The next was to lunch at a pub in the Peak District that had been the place where I had first met my wife. After that I intended to visit the chapel in Rochdale where we had married, and finally make it to the Lancashire coast to watch the sunset. There was plenty of time before lunch; the rush would come later. Meanwhile, I could do some sightseeing.
Uplifted by the sunrise, I trod the stones of York Minster in the morning. A choir was rehearsing. Glorious music in glorious architecture. How strange that joy and regret can mingle and how strange the result of that mingling, creating now a poignant delight and now revulsion, distress and despair. I needed clean air. I needed reality, not the perfumed solace of high art.
The bike throbbed beneath me as I raced towards the Pennines. Eighty, ninety, one hundred miles an hour. I was buffeted, exhilarated and yet despondent, dragging mourning for my long-dead wife with me like a cross.
There was a lay-by that I knew, a place where I could park the bike and walk across the moor to a pub. It was a dappled day, and I strode through sun and shade across the heathery turf. The sounds of the wilderness formed themselves into music in my thoughts, violin, penny whistle and guitar. Her music. I trod lightly, a dancer, threading my way precisely through the mires and little brooks.
Lunch was good, beer, bread, cheese and pickle. As I walked back to the bike I sang, bass to the shrill soprano of the skylarks. Just before I reached the road I stopped, stretched out in the sunshine and peered into the blue void. Without meaning to, I slept.
The sky was cloudy when I woke up, and I was stiff and tired. I had ridden two hundred and sixty miles in the last fifteen hours and I could feel every one of them in my aching muscles. Like a pilgrim, I set my will to continue; there were still many miles to cover.
The next forty miles were frustrating. Cars were double parked on every High Street and I was running late. Unpractised drivers clogged the roads. No matter how often I overtook one, there was always another around the next bend. Two hours had passed before I finally parked the bike in the little yard of the chapel.
It was quiet. The chapel stood apart from other buildings. The shouts of children playing on the nearby council estate reached me only faintly. The building was dingy. There were grilles over the windows, and rust had trickled from them down the cement rendered walls. The doors were locked, indeed more than locked. A beam had been nailed across them. The place had plainly been disused for years.
I glanced at my watch. Twenty past seven. Perhaps the traffic would be lighter now? Briefly I debated whether I should just head for the nearest place on the coast, to be sure of catching the sunset.
No. It had to be the place where she and I had stayed eighteen years ago. The place where dawn had been a magical awakening, and dusk a time when the spell of human attraction, of affinity, of close companionship – oh, go on, think the word, think the forbidden – of l-o-v-e, had fused us into one being. It was a risk, to insist on going there. I might miss the sunset. But if I didn’t see it in that particular place I had failed anyway.
It was already evening when I arrived on the sea-front of a small Lancashire resort. As fast as I could manage, I trudged up the headland at the north end of the town. In the municipal gardens the flowers glowed with exaggerated colours, smeared with orange light. A youth was stacking deck chairs. I gave him a grin as I passed and he glowered back. ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re laughing at?’ he demanded.
When I reached the summit, the sun’s disc was already half submerged. I watched, silently. It would have been nice to share the moment. Nice to have someone whose hand I could hold, someone with whom I could relive the experience in the future, someone who would understand. The light slipped beneath the water, leaving a sky ablaze with violent pastel shades. It was enough; it was a sort of consummation. It was, at least, all I was going to get.
I rode home down the motorway, weaving in and out of the traffic. I rode fast; very fast. The lights of the vehicles were a video game as I blipped the throttle, touched the brakes, insinuated my way between them. I could feel my face set in a gamer’s rictus of concentration that I couldn’t relax.
Then I was off the motorway, off the main road and into suburbia. I turned into the street where I live, turned into my drive and parked. The house was dark, the milk delivered in the morning still standing on the step. I hunched on the saddle and wondered – suddenly – whether it was worth dismounting.

The Thieving Goat

The goat lurches further up the hill, with my hair in her mouth. As though dragged I follow two paces behind. It’s not, of course, my natural hair that she has stolen; the nanny goat is just out of reach with the wig that I wear to cover my nakedness. Thank God I’d had a scarf in my handbag, so that I can preserve at least my decency if not my looks.
I cast a distracted glance at the café. Two old men in dark, rumpled suits sit hunched there, nursing cups of strong Greek coffee and surveying the street with infinite cynicism. Surely they must have seen the goat grab my wig, seen my desperate struggles to conceal the fact that I am as bald, almost, as an egg?
Fighting apprehension, I step towards the goat. She sidles away from me. Should I try to rush her? It feels risky. If she bolts I will never see my hair again. On the other hand, she might start eating it at any moment.
Perhaps I could pretend that I’m not interested? I look away, and take a few steps towards the pavement, trying surreptitiously to come behind her, out of her sight. I throw a would-be casual glance in her direction. She stares back, with a most knowing expression, a sneer in fact, upon her face.
Abandoning pretence I glare directly at her. She stares at me, unperturbed, insolent, and shakes the wig from side to side. I can almost believe that she is taunting me.
“May I help you?”
A man’s voice startles me – I have been concentrating so hard on the animal, that I haven’t heard his approach. The man is tall, 6 feet I guess, and wears a casual shirt and shorts. His hair has faded to a gentle grey and his dark brown eyes are humorous and kind. He carries a jute shopping bag. I hope fervently that he doesn’t realise the ugliness concealed by my scarf, then dismally realise that he can hardly fail to guess – the goat is, after all, carrying the evidence in full view.
I stand there, tongue-tied, while he continues smoothly “Would you like me to retrieve your property for you?” My gratitude for his kindness is tempered by an agonising doubt as to whether there was a hesitation before the word ‘property’. His English is excellent but the timbre of his voice tells me that he is Greek.
Anger at my ridiculous predicament prompts me to reply in Greek, “Ef haristo – thank you, that would be most kind.”
“I shall need to make Nana pay attention to me. I wonder whether you would mind moving away a little? Perhaps you might like to sit down at the café?
Obediently I move away, then halt.
“Can I buy you a coffee? Or a beer?”
“Coffee would be nice. Thank you.”
I sit down at the café. The old men glance briefly in my direction and exchange words. Their voices sound harsh and they interrupt each other apparently angrily, but I know Greece well enough to understand that close friends often speak to each other like this. My Greek is good enough to work out that they are wagering on whether my rescuer will retrieve the hairpiece. I perspire with embarrassment, and concentrate on watching the pursuit.
The man stands poised, alert and vigorous. The brilliant sunshine paints him with light. The muscles of his arms and legs are taut and well-defined.  There is a bunch of carrots in his hands. He doesn’t offer them to the goat so much as dare her to come and take them from him. The animal watches and hesitates, clearly tempted.
“Giving away your dinner, Professor?” jeers one of the old men. He and his companion cackle, and throw sly glances at me.
The goat suddenly tosses her head and turns to make off, but with astonishing speed my matador is beside her, grasping the tether around her neck.
“Parakalo? Please? You want to order something?”
“Oh! Two Greek coffees, please. Without sugar.”
I’ve missed the action. The goat is wandering up the street with a mouth full of carrots and my friend is approaching with a smile. My hair is nowhere to be seen.
He sits at the table, reaches into his bag and hands me the wig. It is damp and sticky with goat saliva, but seemingly undamaged. I feel dizzy with relief.
“Thank you. That was so kind. You must let me buy you some more carrots,” I babble, as I tuck the pathetic hairpiece into my handbag. He smiles.
“I’m afraid the market has closed now; but it’s no problem. I don’t really like carrots – I only eat them because they’re good for me; at least, that was what my mother taught me. By the way, I should introduce myself. My name is Agamemnon.”
“I’m Susan – Sue, that is.”
Agamemnon gives a little bow of acknowledgement.
“Where did you learn how to catch goats?” I ask.
“Oh me, I’m a peasant. I was brought up with goats and olive trees.”
I feel myself relaxing. What a pleasant person this Agamemnon is, I think. “It was very impressive. I’m so grateful.”
He smiles, says nothing and sips his coffee. “Without sugar; the best way. You are a woman of good taste.” His easy manner makes the remark a compliment rather than condescension.
“I can’t believe you’re a peasant,” I venture.
“Can you not? My roots are firmly in the soil. But there, I’m teasing you. My family are peasant farmers, but I am an academic. Sometimes the old skills come in handy, though. I dream occasionally of retiring to a patch of land with a few olives, a vine or two – and a goat, of course.” His grin is boyish, mischievous. I find myself grinning back.
“I’m a teacher. At least, I was; I’m not sure that I shall go back after my sabbatical.” I pause, but without the usual sense of unease that makes me hurry to fill a silence. “The gentlemen at the end table called you ‘Professor’. Is that right? Are you a professor?”
Agamemnon nods. “Professor of twentieth century music at Athens University. It’s my passion, my life.”
‘How nice,’ I think ‘to be able to speak openly like that about one’s deepest feelings. How satisfying to have a job that fulfils you like that.’
“This is a wonderful country,” I say. “It gives me such a sense of peace. The – continuity of human experience going back millennia. It’s tangible, somehow. When I am here, I can believe that something of me will transcend my physical death.”
Agamemnon looks intently at me. “And yet our modern nation was born in violence and warfare. The struggle for political freedom has continued to this day.”
I see anger and sadness in his eyes, faintly, like a reflection of things that happened many years earlier. I don’t want to pry, but I feel an impulse to draw closer to this man, who seems so open and yet enigmatic.
“I’m not sure that the violence matters. When I was in the city of Argos I saw that underneath the modern construction lie layer upon layer of earlier buildings. The site has been occupied continuously for four thousand years. Men and women have been living there, growing olives, trading, creating beauty, yes fighting sometimes, but also loving, raising children, caring for family. People very like me, feeling the same way, dreaming the same dreams, growing old, but passing on the flame to the young.” I stammer as I finish my speech, feeling unaccountably moved.
“You have been very ill, I think,” suggests Agamemnon.
Christ, how dare he! How dare he invade my privacy like this!
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken, it’s none of my business.”
“No, you’re right, it’s not.”
Why am I like this, becoming so angry when people want to know me too intimately? What possible harm could it do to talk openly to this warm, considerate human being about my struggle for life? Was this why Bob walked out on me five years ago – because I wouldn’t let him be close to me?
“Perhaps you would let me take you to dinner this evening to make amends?”
“Oh, no! If anything I should entertain you, to thank you for rescuing me from the goat.” What am I saying? A moment ago I was all set to stalk away at his impertinence.
“No, really, that was a pleasure. A chance to prove to myself that a few of my youthful skills remain.”
We sit together in silence for a few minutes. My agitation subsides in the face of Agamemnon’s tranquillity.
“I had cancer, breast cancer,” I blurt out. “The chemotherapy made my hair fall out. It was all so horrible. I hate talking about it.”
Agamemnon says nothing, simply reaches across the table and gently takes my hand. I am astonished, not at the gesture but at the fact that I do not immediately recoil. I don’t quite know what to do, so I do nothing. That is to say, I do not move, I am not aware of even thinking – but I feel, I experience. I take pleasure in the touch of another human being for the first time in many months.
Suddenly, I am talking; about the fear of death and of disfigurement; about the pain, and the sickness and the weakness that the chemotherapy brought. About the struggle to maintain my sense of self-worth, already battered by my husband’s desertion several years before my illness.
“I told myself that I had to survive for the kids’ sake – although they’re grown up now, they don’t really need me. I pushed them away, so that it wouldn’t be unbearable for them if they lost me; but I fought to live so that I could stay close to them. I felt very lonely.” I think of the desert I had inhabited, the self-imposed exile in Greece. How strange that I should consider it an exile! Until just minutes ago I had regarded it as a holiday, a convalescence, in a place that I loved.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve been gabbling too much.” I fall silent, my hand still enfolded in Agamemnon’s. I look at our hands. His is strong, with fine fingers. Mine is pale, bony, showing the ravages of the treatment. I look at his face. There is a hint of mischief in his eyes.
“Now you’re being English again,” he exclaims.
“And all the better for it!” I riposte; and somewhere between his teasing and my reply I realise, with joy and wonder, that lunch will be just the beginning.

Cats

Sue loved her garden. She loved the muted purple and green of the lavender, and the sweet buzzing of the bees mingling with the chuckle of water falling gently into the small fishpond. She loved its air of peace and serenity, even here in the middle of the city. True, it was neither as neat nor as well-stocked as she would have liked, but she had done what she could in the time left after work and looking after two teenagers.
She sat near the pond, a tumbler of gin and tonic on the table beside her, her eyes closed to intensify the feeling of the sun on her face; it was warm for a September evening. Some time she would have to finish her presentation for tomorrow, but not yet. And she’d better make sure that Guy had finished his homework. Oh, and bother, Damien had football at school tomorrow and his kit was dirty; he’d left it at school, in the kitbag, in his locker all week, only bringing it home this afternoon. Her eyes opened, the sense of peace dispelled.
Thea, the tabby cat, sat on the edge of the pond gazing into the water at the koi. She looked up and blinked at Sue, uncurled herself in a leisurely fashion, and strolled over. She stopped just beyond Sue’s reach and looked up expectantly. Sue patted her lap, and made encouraging noises.
“Come on then, Thea! Up you come!”
Thea stayed put, and raised a paw in the gesture that meant “Please stroke me.” Sue took a swallow of gin and tonic, and smiled. The ice-cubes tinkled in the tumbler, the lemon rubbed against her nose as she drank, and her hand was wet with the condensation on the glass.
Thea closed her eyes twice, slowly, and walked away. She pushed past the lavender, pausing to pat at a furry, tan bumblebee, and then leapt up the brick wall to perch on the top.
“Not bad for an oldie,” commented Sue.
Thea ignored her, sniffing carefully at her perch. Sue wondered whether a stranger cat had been into their garden. Thea waggled her haunches and sprang into the adjacent garden. Sue closed her eyes again. There’d been caterwauling last night, and Thea had raced out through the cat-flap. She’d been dishevelled when she came back in at about 11 o’clock; she’d seemed smug. You couldn’t help wondering what she’d been doing.
Sue drank the last mouthful of gin and tonic without opening her eyes, and imagined herself a cat. She crept through the bushes, staying out of the moonlight. The feeling of the shrubs against her fur helped her to know where she was. She could smell the warmth of a small mammal, and held herself completely motionless while she listened for the rustling that would tell her where it was. She was hungry, she wanted to tear through thick skin into the tender meat below, to feel the juices run down her chin.
And then she was distracted by a still more enticing scent, the musk of a tomcat. Her tail became erect with anticipation, with pride…
“Darling? Dinner’s ready. Are you cold? Would you like a cardigan?”
Sue opened her eyes. There was Clive, looking unnecessarily concerned. She smiled at him, took his hand and pulled him towards her, kissed him hard on the lips.
“I’m fine, just fine. Let’s go eat!”