I walk to work every day now. I notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving: birdsong; cream, pink, and peach blossoms on the trees and the ground; and once, a parade of quad bikes bringing up the rear of a funeral cortege. It’s the seventh week of lockdown, and with fewer cars on the road, the air is sweet and clean.
My new job is hectically busy because of COVID-19, and it’s a temporary one, so I’m anxious to prove myself. The day passes quickly, and I’m looking forward to walking home. This morning, it was warm and balmy but for a crisp chill that raised the hairs on my arms as I walked along shaded sections of pavement, but the morning’s blue sky has turned gunmetal; a chill breeze comes through the open windows, with spittles of rain on the glass.
‘Off home?’ Nichola fingers the silver charm on her necklace.
‘Yeah.’ I look up briefly before returning to my screen.
We met yesterday, sitting at adjacent tables in the staff kitchen. I ate chicken pasta salad; she ate tuna sandwiches cut into triangles. We stayed two metres apart observing the social distancing rules. Everyone does, but Nichola is particularly careful.
‘Do you like cats, Michael?’
‘Er, no. No, I don’t.’
Her green eyes narrowed and seemed to dissect me, as though expecting something better. I sighed inwardly, annoyed at having to explain myself.
‘What I mean is, I’m not an animal lover. But I don’t hate them.’
Nichola yawned, showing small, sharp teeth. She licked a fleck of tuna from the corner of her lips. ‘Maybe you haven’t met the right cat,’ she said.
‘Maybe I don’t fucking want to.’ I didn’t say this. I just shrugged.
‘You can’t get coronavirus from cats,’ she said.
I didn’t reply. I decided to swerve Nichola from then on.
Now her eyes are on me as I stand and pull on my jacket. Her silver chain tinkles faintly as she runs it across her lower lip.
‘Do you want a lift? It’s going to rain.’
I’m about to refuse when the room darkens, and long wet splats begin to hit the windows with increasing speed. ‘OK,’ I say, knowing that I sound resigned rather than grateful.
We meet in reception, as arranged, and Nichola goes ahead of me down the stairs. From behind, I see that her lockdown roots are showing, and the sight of her pale orange hair with thin white stripes emerging from the crown is unsettling. I’m about to say that I’ve changed my mind, that I’ll walk home in the rain, when she turns around. ‘
Michael, could we stop at mine first? I’ve got some cat litter that I need a hand with. Bad back, you see.’
‘OK,’ I say. ‘
Great!’ She jumps the last few stairs, landing silently.
The rain has eased and the sky has brightened by the time we reach her old Volvo estate. I hover by the passenger’s door.
‘Ooh, would you mind sitting in the back?’ she says, her face screwed into exaggerated apology. ‘Social distancing.’
At first, I’m annoyed at being relegated to the back of the car, but after a few minutes, I feel relieved. Nichola is one of those confident drivers who has no right to be: tailgating; switching lanes without indicating; looking away from the road to fumble with the stereo. She suddenly brakes and pulls over at a bus stop, causing a lorry to swerve and blast its horn. She turns around to face me and light catches the pale hairs on her cheek and upper lip. The exaggerated apology face makes another appearance.
‘Michael, would you mind getting in the back? It’s just… well, we’re not quite two metres apart.’
‘The back?’ I say genuinely baffled. I was in the back. She gestures with her head to the space behind me.
I get out of the car and back in through the door of the large open boot. I avoid eye contact with the people at the bus stop in their blue and white face masks, although I want nothing more than to join them. As Nichola drives away without indicating, I watch them enviously through the rear window. They’re free while I’m sitting next to a thirty-litre sack of cat litter in the car boot of a mad woman.
The volume of sound increases abruptly through the car’s speakers, amplifying Jenny Murray’s voice mid-sentence: ‘–woman and her cat. Why does it make her a crazy cat lady when a man with a cat is just a man with a cat?’ I close my eyes, wishing I could close my ears. I try deep breathing but the smell woody of cat litter, overlaid by something meatier and denser, prevents me. My eyes are stinging, my belly roiling. My mouth fills with saliva and I think I’m going to vomit, just as the car slows and stops. I open my eyes to see a cul-de-sac of shabby semi-detached council houses. I’m aware of Nichola’s torso through the rear windscreen as she opens the boot.
‘I just need to run in and use the loo,’ she says.
‘Great,’ I say to the empty cul-de-sac. I get out of the boot and stretch my cramped legs. Wanting the job done, I lift the sack of cat litter and carry it towards the house, almost tripping over a large tabby cat that slaloms slowly between my legs. Another – white with black and tan splotches – sits in the downstairs front window, its tail flicking slowly up and down.
The front door is ajar and the keys still in the lock. I push it with my shoulder, dropping the sack of litter onto the hallway floor. Then it hits me: the eye-watering aroma of piss and the meaty smell of cat food that’s but one digestive step away from being cat shit. I hold my breath and return to the doorway, inhaling deeply and trying not to puke.
I take out my phone, open Google Maps and enter my post code. I’m five miles from home. Fuck it, I’ll walk. I feel a burst of energy and wild happiness. Keeping as close to the front door as possible, I turn in the direction of the staircase. I hear nothing: no running water or flushing.
‘Nichola?’ I step back into the hallway. The door to the left of me is closed. Could she be in there? ‘Nichola, I’m going. I’ll walk the rest of the way.’
Wishing I had a face mask, I cover my mouth and nose with my hand, and move slowly towards the closed door. The white, black and tan cat from the window is sitting there, watching me, flicking its tail. ‘Fuck off,’ I mouth silently. I grip the handle and slowly open the door. Another cat is visible inside the room, black with white paws, crouching low, its tail moving laterally across the carpet, ready to pounce. Jesus, how many cats does she have?
‘Nichola?’ I enter the room, opening the door fully with my elbow. There’s no furniture, apart from scratching posts and climbing frames with levers and fluffy balls. A large, enclosed litter tray flanked by two smaller ones sits below the windowsill, and in the middle of the room, a white and green mechanism that appears to dispense cat treats is next to a water fountain. Eight or nine cats of varying sizes and colours occupy the room. There’s no sign of Nichola. I’m about to leave when I hear an arrhythmic scrabbling sound from the enclosed litter tray, accompanied by the sudden smell of fresh cat shit.
‘Fuck me! Jesus!’ I gag, pressing both hands over my nose and mouth. The flap of the litter tray opens outwards and a fox-sized cat emerges, pale orange with white stripes. I watch in fascinated revulsion as it stalks towards me, green eyes fixed on mine. It purrs loudly and begins to rub itself against my calves as though it knows me, then jumps upwards playfully. I yell in pain as sharp claws pierced my thighs through my jeans. The cat retreats and licks its paws, looking bored.
I retreat to the hallway – grateful for a sudden gust of air that comes through the open front door – and go arse over tit onto the sack of cat litter. When I right myself, the large, ginger cat is sitting by the open front door, looking out at the path. I keep my eyes on it as I call out again to Nichola that I’m leaving. Again, no reply.
The cat blinks and yawns, showing small, sharp teeth. It licks the corners of its mouth then jumps up, pressing its paws against the open door, slamming it shut. The hallway is dark now. The cat is barely visible, apart from the white markings on its head and neck and a small silver charm on a chain around its neck that tinkles faintly.
About the Author
Barbara Robinson is a Manchester-based writer with an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Writing School, MMU. Her novel thesis, Elbow Street, was shortlisted for 2018 Northern Writers’ Awards (Andrea Badenoch category) and longlisted for the Grindstone Literary Prize 2018. In 2016, her story Supersum was short-listed for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and published in Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 9. She has had short stories published by Confingo, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Cicerone Journal and has been listed on the TSS Best British and Irish Flash Fiction list for the past two years.