Phoebe had come to live with her sister after her brother-in-law had died. Jenny had taken her husband’s death as badly as anyone would have after forty years of marriage and so she invited Phoebe to move in and occupy Jim’s place in front of the television. Of course, it wasn’t the same but having Jim’s sister near felt as if there was a little piece of him still around.
It was an old flint cottage in the village of Wappledown with two bedrooms. There had never been any children and they had lived there since their marriage in 1964. Jenny was from the next village along but Jim had grown up in Wappledown and now he was laid to rest in there too. It had been a perfect marriage but Jenny, ever the pragmatist, knew that there was one change she was going to relish; no red carpet.
It was difficult to keep the floors clean, especially in winter because you walked straight into the living room off the street but this wasn’t the only problem. In all the forty years, they had had two new carpets and they were both red. Jim had insisted on putting the cat flap in the front door and consequently, both cats would slither through it, usually during the night, with their latest catch.
Almost every morning, Jenny had to step over something unpleasant on the stairs or landing, something that Jim assured her was a ‘present’. This was an argument that she could never understand. If the cats wanted to give them presents, why did they unwrap them and just leave a little bit behind? Anyway, the vet had told them that the only reason that they left these particular organs – gall bladders - was that they were bitter to taste. In fact, he said, it was an act of great skill to be able to leave them intact whilst devouring the rest of the corpse; he likened it to eating a yummy piece of chocolate cake and being able to spit out a foul capsule from the middle without bursting it open. Jenny had been less impressed than the vet had expected her to be but it did, nevertheless, confirm what she had suspected; they were not ‘presents’, just leftovers.
So the carpet was red. Blood red. Jenny wanted a nice creamy beige, a colour to throw a little light into their cottage and she had waited forty years for it.
Phoebe, like her brother, was very fond of cats. When Jenny had asked her to move to Wappledown, she was thrilled because she herself had not been allowed pets in her rented flat. So, she was pretty horrified to see the card in the Post Office window: ‘Good home wanted for 2 cats, one black and white, one all black, both female, aged 9’.
‘How can you even think of it?’ she demanded of her sister-in-law.
‘Well, you know it was always Jim who was the cat lover.’
‘He’d be turning in his grave if he knew what you were doing.’
‘Look, I’m sorry that you’re upset but I’ve made up my mind and that’s it.’
‘But I could’ve looked after them! You’re making a mistake. I ...’
‘Let’s change the subject before we fall out. I’ll make a nice pot of tea.’
Phoebe realised that the conversation had ended but for her, the matter was not closed. Not at all.
Anger and grief surged around her body and her cheeks were flushing violently. She turned her head towards the front window, pretending to be watching the greengrocer across the road arranging his cabbages.
Things hadn’t been the same since Jim had gone. And now this. The funeral had been pleasant as far as funerals go, there were a surprising number of mourners given his advancing years but for Phoebe, something wasn’t right. She had knelt at the graveside long after everyone else had trickled away from the church, unable to accept that this was it. She had never married and Jim, two years her elder, had been her childhood companion and confidant in adulthood. He had looked out for her.
Phoebe had been restless at night time since Jim’s passing. For the first month, in her flat, she had paced up and down so much that the people down below were pleased to see her move out. Jenny was a sound sleeper (although Phoebe couldn’t understand how) so it never bothered anyone but herself.
One night, Phoebe was nearly at the bottom of the staircase when Sarah’s head popped through the catflap. In her mouth was a large, brown mouse. She sat in the armchair by the window and watched as Sarah tossed the shocked creature up into the air, let it begin to scramble away and then come down on it with her paw, quick as lightning.
She observed such rituals nightly whilst Jenny was asleep; sometimes both cats were engaged in the game, sometimes they called a halt to the proceedings and came to sit on her lap and purr. It was only during the day that Phoebe was conscious of her sleep deprivation. The nights she spent awake downstairs with the cats brought her closer to her brother. Sometimes, she got down on all fours with them and pushed a little plastic ball around with her fingertips. Sometimes, she was hungry and would go to the fridge looking for food although she had to be careful not to take too much in case Jenny became suspicious. She would share little morsels of cold sausages, bits of cheese or cake with Sarah and Minny; they were her family now. She talked to them quietly, told them not to worry, that she would sort everything out, that she was on their side now. She tried to explain how some people just didn’t understand and needed to be taught how things worked. She talked about the carpet. She said that they must make concessions, that it was a question of give and take. Between the three of them, Jenny, Sarah and Minny hatched a plan. In no time at all, Jenny would be able to have her new carpet and the girls would be able to stay and they would all live happily together.
Jenny woke up one morning with a tingling of excitement because this was the day that she would go and choose her carpet. The man on the phone had said that delivery would take around three weeks. This would give her time to find a home for the cats; if no one responded to the ad in the window, she could take them to the local rescue centre. She reflected that Phoebe had been taking it remarkably well. In fact, the subject of the cats hadn’t been mentioned since their argument and she was pleased because she had been so worried about her sister-in-law. It seemed as though the move had done Phoebe good, after all.
Jenny put on her dressing gown and slippers and headed downstairs for a wash and to make a pot of tea. As she passed her dressing table, she picked up a tissue. As she neared the bottom of the stairs, she paused as usual to look for the gall bladder; firstly, so that she could avoid stepping on it and secondly, so that she could pick it up with the tissue. Amazingly, there was none to be seen. She even paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked upwards to double-check. But no, there was definitely no ‘present’ this morning.
She put the kettle on and went to the bathroom. By the time she had come out, the kettle had boiled and she poured the hot water into their cat teapot. She would take a cup up to Phoebe along with her tablets. She hummed to herself as she thought about the day ahead, waiting for the tea to brew. She wondered what the chances were of getting Phoebe to come with her to the carpet shop; she rarely went out these days.
She poured the tea into bone china tea cups because it always tasted better to her than in grotesque mugs (like the cat mug Jim used to drink out of) and went to the front door for the milk. She added milk to the cups and put Phoebe’s on a small tray next to her medication and a small glass of water.
She took the tray upstairs, knocked quietly and went in to the room.
‘Good morning, Phoebe. How are you today? You’ll never guess what. There were no gall bladders on the stairs this morning!’
‘Good? Hah! I thought you liked them!’
‘No, I mean it’s good that you’re happy about it.’
‘So how about coming with me to pick a carpet today then? It’ll do you good to get out.’
‘Thanks for the offer but I’m rather tired. If it’s OK with you, I’d rather stay in bed for a while.’
‘Well, OK then, if you’re sure. I’m going downstairs for my shower now so give me a shout if you need anything.’
Jenny almost skipped downstairs, picked up the post and went through to the bathroom. She turned on the shower and whilst waiting for the water to run hot, she popped back into the kitchen. She’d left the milk out. She opened the fridge door.
She was going to have to cancel her trip to the carpet shop. She was going to have to call Doctor Simpson. And there she was, thinking that for once, the cats hadn’t killed anything during the night or left a gall bladder on the stairs. But now she’d found it now alright. It was in the fridge marked ‘do not touch’.