My friend Marian doesn’t like my cats. She doesn’t like the way they watch and listen to the things she can’t see or hear. When Marian comes round she sits on the edge of the sofa, watching them watching something else.
Tallulah Cat is thirteen now and not much, seen or unseen, interests her, apart from the nearest kneadable thing. Clara Bow is six. She watches most things.
Today Marian is on the edge of the sofa, Tally is asleep in her basket and Clara Bow is sitting by the fireplace, grooming her front paws. Now and again she looks up, and she and Marian regard each other with the same wary expression.
Marian says to me, ‘You have to let it go, you have to move on, I know it’s hard but for your own sake Edie, after all it’s not just you.’ I watch the words dribble from her mouth, over her chin, into an incontinent pool round her ankles. Soon the words will be up to her knees, and then up to her neck, and then there will be just the faint pop of bubbles, as Marian drowns in gently lapping syllables and vowels and consonants.
The dribble slows to a drip.
‘You have to stop blaming yourself.’
Tally opens her eyes and Clara Bow stops grooming, stretches, yawns, and walks towards the sofa. Marian shifts further towards the edge which, I think with interest, actually moves her closer to Clara Bow than if she retreated back to the cushions, where she would be more comfortable anyway.
Clara Bow stops just in front of the coffee table. She turns her head, tracking something, and she pads out of the room after it. Marian moves infinitesimally back towards the cushions.
‘Edie? Have you heard a word I’ve said?’
I’ve heard every word she’s said. I’ve heard them all dribbling down to her ankles and now I’m watching them seep into the carpet. ‘Yes. I have to let go, move on and stop blaming myself.’
‘You also have to get out of this house. Shut up here all the time with just – ‘ She nods towards Tally, who is watching her with sharp, aged eyes. ‘It’s not good for you, Edie.’
‘No. I expect not.’ Perhaps I could get a cat flap, like Tally and Clara Bow. A person flap. Perhaps I could use theirs, the doctor says I’ve lost weight. Then I could come and go, like they do, when I want, unremarked, unnoticed. No-one would have to scurry by averting their eyes, or meet my gaze with a steely resolve and a rictus smile.
‘Edie,’ says Marian, in a soft voice. ‘It isn’t your fault.’
It isn’t my fault, so now I must pretend it isn’t there.
Bless Marian. She is like one of those memes on Facebook. True friendship. Two toddlers standing soulfully in the sunset. A baby lion and a baby gazelle helping each other on the savannah. An old couple dancing like no-one’s watching. A middle-aged woman sitting on the edge of a battered sofa dribbling words to someone too crazy to care.
‘You know Helen wants you to go to hers?’
Go to my other child, and her children, with this in my luggage? ‘What have you brought us, Nana?’ Just wait a minute, darlings, and I’ll let it out.
‘Have you thought any more about the counselling? Or the relatives group?’
My name is Edie and I have raised a monster.
Marian leaves me, reluctantly, with Tally and Clara Bow.
Helen rings the following day. ‘Mum?’
More dribbled words. ‘Hello darling, are you all right, how are Stephen and the kids?’
‘We’re expecting you for Easter week. Stephen will come and get you.’ Helen can’t drive.
‘I can get the train. But I don’t know. You know, the cats.’ I can’t take the cats with me because Stephen’s allergic.
‘Book the cattery. I’ll pay for it.’
Clara Bow hates the cattery. Last time she hardly ate anything for the week she was there. It’s a lovely place, beautifully kept, and Tally always enjoys her holiday, but Clara Bow prowls round the house when she comes back, checking corners and cupboards, and declining offers of cuddles for at least a fortnight.
‘There’s no need, darling. I can manage that. I’ll ring them tomorrow.’
I can tell Helen they’re full, there’s no chance of places over Easter. Such a shame. No, darling, it wouldn’t be a good idea to bring the children here. There’s still, you know, the phone calls, even though I changed the number, and the letters, and the occasional personal caller. I never did Twitter but I used to go on Facebook, just to see photos of Helen and the children. Now, I never touch the computer except to order my shopping. I got a new email address and ordered under a different name just in case, you know, the delivery driver is one of the nutters. Although it’s the same bank card so I suppose that’s not as clever as it looks.
When I ring Helen back the next day and lie to her about the cattery, and tell her not to bring the children here because I’m still getting the calls and the letters and the odd shadow lurking behind the patterned glass on the front door, she says, ‘And you think I’m not?’
Helen and I had a row about moving. She and Stephen went as soon as they could, although one lot of house buyers pulled out at the last minute because…I don’t know, in case Helen is Typhoid Mary, asymptomatic but with a house capable of infecting the innocent with psychopathy. The sister, the brother-in-law, the nephew and niece may be gone, but their walls are coming to get you.
‘You could get a nice little flat. Near us.’
‘I couldn’t take the cats to a flat. Anyway, this is my home. Everything’s here. Your father. The two of you. All that time.’ Unseen and unimaginable now, your father and The Two Of You. An occasional faint echo, bouncing off the photographs.
Maybe I’m Typhoid Mary. Carrying it, unseen, unheard.
It wasn’t long before the press found Helen. They don’t really blame her. She’s only the sister, it wasn’t her fault. They’re just curious to know if she’s remotely normal and if she is, how come? The Tweeters don’t blame her either. They abuse her and threaten her and say her children should die because, you know, that’s what you do, but unlike Marian they know where the fault lies. Single parent. Widow maybe but, still, single parent. Benefit claimer. A user of psychiatric services herself, as ‘a close family friend’ confided to the Daily Eviscerator. Ah, Fluoxetine. This wasn’t one of the side effects they mentioned.
Perhaps not totally asymptomatic, then. I might be liable to spread disgusting, perverse desires and intent among the populace, but at least they’ll see me and my pills coming.
I’m assuming I don’t have to ask Marian if that ‘family friend’ was her.
Helen is angry about Easter. She feels we should Pull Together As A Family To Get Through This. I imagine Helen, Getting Through This, disappearing through a swing door into the sunlight with Stephen and the children. I wish her to have that so much it hurts, it squeezes tears from my eyes. Which is good. I didn’t think there were any left.
Marian turns up the next day. Helen has presumably asked her to be subtle and it takes her a while to figure out her approach.
‘So you’re going to get yourself out more?’
Even Tally looks at me reproachfully, able to see the lie climbing out with a hopeful expression on its face.
‘Good.’ Marian pauses, in an oh so subtle way. ‘You’ll be going to Helen’s then?’
Tally doesn’t even bother looking at her, as the question-that-is-a-lie parades round the room blowing a trumpet.
Marian carefully selects a facial expression to go with surprise. ‘Why not?’
I explain about the cattery.
‘I could pop in and feed them. If you leave instructions.’
Even the trumpet falters at that point.
‘There’s the litter trays as well. I couldn’t really ask you to do them.’
The facial expression freezes. Helen obviously hadn’t mentioned that.
‘Edie, she worries about you. A lot.’
‘Don’t you think, for her sake, for all their sakes…’
I do think, Marian. For all their sakes.
After she’s gone, I stand by the sitting room window, the bay that looks out over the front garden and the hedge and our neat avenue beyond. I don’t do it very often because now andagain things are dispatched to bounce off the shatterproof glass, or someone pops up and takes a photograph, but this afternoon it looks clear. It’s quiet. Dull red bricks are soaking up the sun, up and over garage doors are smugly still, grass verges sprout the occasional rebellious daisy. Clara Bow is in the garden, under the buddleia, looking up at the window. Looking at me.
I sense Tally’s movement behind me, and hear her soft growl. I strain to catch the echoes from the photographs, the years, but something is blocking them, muffling the laughter and the melody of innocence. Something left behind, and impatient with confinement.
When I look, Tally is alert, taut, eyes searching. I turn back towards the window. Clara Bow is up on the ledge, her face against the glass.
They both look straight at me.
They aren’t fooled.
There's a monster, for those who can see.