‘I met her gaze, knowing as I did that it was a her, not just any her, but you. Then as I moved forward, very slowly, socks sliding over the grey linoleum, you moved back towards the door, silent as a glance, and were gone.’
By Eilidh McCabe
Taken from With Their Best Clothes On: New Writing Scotland 36
Published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies
She came in through the cat flap not long after you died and I knew she was you. I was in the living room, stretched out on the sofa, staring up at the plaster flowers on the cornicing overhead.
There was a clatter through in the kitchen. Henry had been asleep at my feet all evening, so he wasn’t the culprit. He raised his head and swivelled an ear in the direction of the noise.
I thought, ‘intruder.’ I thought, ‘fine, let them rob me.’ I thought, ‘let them clean the place out.’ I thought, ‘let them gut me like a fish.’ Then I forced myself to my feet, because I was meant to go and look when there was an unexplained sound in my home. I trailed out into the hall and pushed open the kitchen door.
At first I was almost disappointed that I wasn’t confronted with a balaclava-clad intruder, knife glinting in the moon-striped darkness. Instead, what stood before me was a mirror-eyed, red-furred thing. Frozen over the upturned bin, face turned towards me. I met her gaze, knowing as I did that it was a her, not just any her, but you. Then as I moved forward, very slowly, socks sliding over the grey linoleum, you moved back towards the door, silent as a glance, and were gone.
From the window, I caught the white tip of your brush fading into the gloom of the hedge. I watched to see if you would return, then headed back through to the living room, where Henry was licking his paw in dainty disinterest. The photos on the mantelpiece smiled at me, flanked by the porcelain shepherdess and the brass carriage clock. I picked up the shot of the three of us at a Christmas market in Vienna. You were holding Julie, like a rugby ball in her thick winter clothes. She looked up at you, a chunk of your terracotta-coloured hair clutched in her little fist, on its way to her mouth. Your yellow-brown eyes met the camera, pupils narrowed to pinpoints in the glare of the flash. It was you in the frame, but it had also been you in the kitchen just minutes before. And it was you in the ground.
The next afternoon I was lying in bed when the phone rang. I ignored it. I wanted to make it to dinner time before getting up. But the ringing went on for so long that I became used to it, then worried that it might stop. I stumbled downstairs to answer it. Julie.
‘I tried your mobile but it was off,’ she said.
‘To save the battery.’
‘But what’s the point in having a phone if it’s never on?’
‘So I can use it when I need it.’
A pause. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘it doesn’t matter. How are you?’
‘I’m grand, love. Adjusting, you know.’
‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ Another pause. ‘I think a bit about her in the coffin. When she didn’t look like her.’
‘No, she didn’t.’
‘She wouldn’t have worn that, would she?’
‘No, I wouldn’t have thought so.’
‘It’s a strange tradition, don’t you think? To fill the body with embalming fluid and then have everyone come and look at it.’
I didn’t want her to go on. ‘Yes.’
‘So. When should I come round to sort through the stuff?’
I thought about the long day stretched ahead of me with nothing to do and no one to talk to but Henry. ‘Today?’
‘I can’t. But tomorrow.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want to come and stay with us? Or for me to stay there?’
I did want it. ‘No, Henry and I need our space.’
‘Right. See you tomorrow then. Before lunch.’
‘Turn your phone on.’
After I hung up I looked at the wallpaper for a while. It was cream-coloured, textured with raised, soft, spongy stuff that swirled across it like clouds of white midges. I put my fingernail into the centre of one of the soft parts and pushed down. When I removed it a perfect semicircular indentation sliced the surface in two.
I caught sight of a dark form moving outside the window. David from next door was in the driveway, shovelling snow, bundled up in his puffy jacket, scarf and woollen hat with his thick padded gloves that made him look like a lobster. He realised I was looking and waved one of his big fabric claws at me. I waved back. Why was he shovelling my driveway? This had never happened before. Oh, yes. It was because I was old. Old and bereaved. The elderly neighbour who needed everything done for him. He and Emma would have discussed it:
‘I’m just going out to shovel the drive, love.’
‘Oh, could you do next door’s at the same time? He’ll not be able to do it himself. And his wife just dead, too.’
‘Of course. Poor old soul.’
You’re no spring chicken yourself, David, I wanted to say to him. Well into your fifties, at least. I should point it out. But it would be very useful to have a clear driveway.
That night I laid a bowl of cat food in front of the back door and shut Henry in the living room so he wouldn’t eat it. I went for rabbit flavour; the others were all a bit fishy, and I wasn’t sure how foxes felt about fishy things. Then I sat down at the kitchen table with my camera, facing the door, and waited. While I waited, I leafed through your copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles from university, your small neat handwriting all over it. A trail of tiny pieces of yourself, left long before you even knew me.
I don’t know how long I sat there, my attention drifting between the printed text and those careful notes, made decades ago, when you were a different person. When you were still a person.
A noise made me look up and there you were, a long ginger thing unfolding yourself through the cat flap. You didn’t even wait for your hind legs to come through before you lowered your head and began gobbling the food on the plate. I reached for my camera slowly, very slowly, but not slowly enough, and you looked up and met me with your golden stare. Then you lowered your head again. I lifted the camera: snap, snap, snap. Trapping you. When you’d finished eating, you came forward into the room and started nosing round the bin. I leaned forward and snapped, just as you looked up and departed. But I didn’t care. I had got my shot.
The next morning I wrapped up warm and stepped out into the bright, cold air. I made my way down my snow-free drive and out towards the high street, where the pharmacy had a one-hour photo development service.
When Julie arrived I was sorting through the photos, laying them out side by side on the table. There was the star shot in the centre: amber eyes meeting the camera head-on. I placed the photo on the mantelpiece next to the one of you in Vienna. The resemblance was uncanny.
I heard her ring and got up to answer the door. She greeted me with a stiff hug.
‘How you doing, Dad?’
‘I’m well, pet. And you?’
‘Bearing up. Got some bits and bobs here left over from yesterday’s dinner—’ she raised a plastic bag with the faint outline of Tupperware showing through it, ‘just in case you won’t have time to make yourself anything this evening.’
‘Lovely, thanks. I’ve been eating well though.’ In fact I’d had cereal for dinner every night that week.
‘That’s good. Well, let’s go and get this done.’
We laid out your clothes on the bed and Julie chose what she wanted. There were a few dresses that would fit her, from before she was born. She folded them carefully and put them aside. I imagined they had been out of fashion for so long they had come back in, and would once again be suitable for a young woman like her.
‘Charity shop?’ she said, holding up a pair of pristine black heels, and behind her I saw you collapsing onto the bed and kicking them off, rubbing the back of your ankles, saying, ‘Last time I try to look smart for work. It’s not like anybody notices anyway.’
‘Charity shop,’ I said, and sat down in the spot where you’d just been.
At some point I realised Julie was crying. I hadn’t seen her cry at all, not even at the funeral. She probably didn’t feel comfortable crying in front of me. You had always been the one who dealt with that kind of thing. The emotional side. I stood up, walked over and stroked her shoulder, feeling like I was in a country where I didn’t know the language.
She was holding a fine silver chain with a bright shard of amber strung on it.
‘She wore this all the time,’ she said. ‘I would hold it while I was falling asleep.’
‘Yes, and wrap her hair around your fingers. Necklace in one hand, hair in the other. I’m surprised you remember. You were very small then.’
‘I remember more than you might think.’
We stopped for lunch and I cooked for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. ‘Cooking’ was a bit of an exaggeration, though – beans on toast, with cheese grated on top. My culinary skills never were up to much.
When I came through to the living room with the two plates of food, Julie was at the mantelpiece holding the new photo of you.
‘This fox came into the house?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Incredible!’ she said. ‘Has it come in more than once?’
‘Yes. I think Henry’s food attracts it.’
‘Not mangy, like a lot of city foxes.’
‘No, it’s very well presented.’
‘You should be careful with Henry though. They can kill cats.’
Of course you would never kill Henry, because you loved him as much as I did. But I just said, ‘Yes.’
Later, I ate Julie’s leftover pasta standing up in the kitchen, not bothering to reheat it. Plates were piled high in the sink and there was dark grease caked onto the surrounding tiles. How did you clean tiles anyway? Was there special tile-cleaning stuff? Forty years in this house and it had never occurred to me that tiles were a thing that needed to be cleaned. It always just got done.
When I was finished I sat down at the table with the camera, Tess, and a pen and pad for taking notes on your notes. I copied down my favourites verbatim, trying to replicate the curve of your letters as closely as possible. ‘Hypocrisy!’ said one of them, simply, next to an extended chunk of dialogue by Angel. You’d always been that way. Direct.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke up you were sniffing at my foot. Instinctively, I reached forward to caress your fur. Before my fingers even connected, your little triangular head flashed forward and snapped at my hand. I pulled back. Too late: the blood was dripping freely onto the floor, and you were gone, the cat flap swinging back and forth in your wake.
I stood up and ran my hand under the tap, watching the pink mixture of blood and water swirl away down the plughole. I closed my eyes and saw you sitting on the edge of the bed not long after Julie was born, your waist still thick, your tummy settling in a flap that came down from your broad hips, snatching the duvet around yourself as soon as you sensed me looking. ‘Why do you keep pushing me?’ you said.
Under the water, my wound was visible: two clear puncture marks and a row of deep dents between. But as soon as I removed my hand from the stream, the punctures filled up with blood, which overflowed onto my skin and obscured its own source.
I woke up in the middle of the night with the bite pounding beneath its plaster. There was ibuprofen under the bathroom sink. I stumbled up to get it, the sudden whiteness of the light when I pulled the string making my eyes ache. Two pills would do the trick. I washed them down with tap water slurped from my cupped hands.
The sun hadn’t fully risen when the wound started throbbing again. I brought it close to my face to inspect it in the weak light, peeling back the plaster. The area around it was red and raised, the punctures glistening with a translucent fluid. Definitely infected. I lay still, enjoying the hot rhythm of the pain. Then I turned over towards your side of the bed and the familiar back of your head, speckled white and grey with hair cut short as an animal’s fur. I reached out towards it and you flinched away. I closed my eyes and opened them and your hair was long and red, flowing over your pillow and encroaching on mine. You shuffled backwards into my arms, nestling against me so close that if I opened my mouth your hair would fill it.
Again I closed my eyes and then Henry was there, rubbing his stripy face against mine, leaving a faintly fishy trail where his damp nose and the corners of his mouth met my skin.
I pulled him under the covers and pressed him against my chest, but he was restless. He wanted his breakfast. I envied his appetite.
On the kitchen table downstairs was the spread I had laid out for you that time, just the once. A long shot. Toast, cake, three types of jam, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, yoghurt, honey, orange juice. More food than we could possibly eat. And you, silent in front of your heaped plate, not touching it.
‘How can I make you happy?’ I asked.
You looked up at me. ‘You can be somebody else.’
The food vanished. A set of muddy little footprints was dotted all over the kitchen floor; leading first from the cat flap to the bin, then to the table, then back to the door again.
I brought the pictures through from the living room. With my good hand, I spread them on the table, moved them around. The many sets of amber eyes shifted in front of me. All those times you said you’d leave. And then you did. But now you’d come back more beautiful than ever.
There were many hours to pass before your evening visit. The bite on my hand ached a warning to be careful this time, to be patient. To be different. And I would.
‘Amber’ by Eilidh McCabe is taken from With Their Best Clothes On: New Writing Scotland 36, published by ASLS, and is £9.95.