In Passing - A Short Story
She never did know his name. It wasn’t as if they’d ever really spoken. Theirs had been nothing more than two worlds colliding during a moment of crisis; his crisis, rather than hers.
She pulled back the curtain to get a better view of the street and sat down. This could take some time. Her slipping joints weren’t up to spending too long in one position. The hearse was parked outside his maisonette.
She knew what lay beyond the front door. The nylon carpet with the orange swirls that travelled from the hallway to the living room and spread to the bedroom like a nervous rash. The wilted sofa in blue draylon she never dared sit on and the curtains that didn’t have enough hooks to allow them to hang straight.
Then there was the kitchen. The Formica topped table with the tapered legs and the saucer feet. The inadequate square of work surface and the scratched steel sink, the ancient stove that stood alone at the edge of the space where nothing fitted; all of it spotless beneath the age and the tarnish. You could have eaten your dinner off the floor.
She wondered what had happened to the cat. It wasn’t a thought that bothered her for long. She’d never liked animals. She never let her daughter have a pet in all the years she’d lived at home. She rebelled as soon as she married. The rebellion took the form of an old English sheepdog that bit everybody who went near it. It was a mad thing. There’d been something wrong with its brain. It proved she’d been right about not having pets in the house.
She thought about her own kitchen. It was clean enough, but not that clean. She considered a cup of tea. Just a few more minutes here, first. The undertaker had gone inside. It wouldn’t be long now. It had started to drizzle. A few of the neighbours stood outside in a huddle, their faces set in expectation of a spectacle. To them this was not death but street entertainment.
She thought they could have paid him a bit more attention when he was alive. That’s when it would have counted. It had been years now since he’d moved into the area, a place where everyone knew each other better than they knew themselves. Most were related through generations of marrying across the street. Weddings, christenings and funerals were generally local events. They gave a new meaning to street parties. Nobody ever moved away. This street was your birthright. If you were born here, you’d be carried out from here. Whether this was a blessing or a curse was nobody’s consideration.
They were not the kind of people who questioned life, which was why nobody had taken to the stranger when he moved into the maisonette. They paid him no attention until now, all these years later, when they were about to carry him out, feet first in the cheap wooden box he’d spent years paying for in weekly instalments. Now, suddenly, he was part of the community. For the first time of not trying, he was the centre of it.
It was a few summers ago now. She couldn’t remember how many. Time had little resonance in her widowhood. It was just a matter of waiting out the days. One generally bled into another until they were indistinguishable. As she grew older, the years bled in just the same way.
She’d been washing up when the knock on the door came. She pulled her hands from the water and flicked the suds from her fingers before reaching for the towel. She was still in the process of drying her hands when she answered the door. He was standing on her front step. His eyes clouded beneath his deep brow, his mouth a thin line of anxiety. He held out a mobile phone and thrust it at her, jabbing the air with it.
She dropped the towel without meaning to as she took the phone, which was surely what he meant her to do. She didn’t know what to do with it. She’d never had cause to hold one before. He pointed to it. Uncertain of what he meant, she did what she’d seen people in the street do with them. She put it to the side of her face and said hello. She wasn’t sure if she was holding it the right way up. She didn’t know if she had to press anything.
‘Hello. Can you hear me?’ It was a woman’s voice down the phone. It was foreign sounding. She had a strong accent, but she was clear enough. ‘Hello?’ ‘Thank goodness.’
The woman’s voice was precise, with textbook English. ‘I wonder; could you help my brother, please. His English is not good enough to ask you himself.’
She nodded, before remembering she had to speak into the phone. ‘Yes?’
‘My brother tells me you have been kind to him. You are the only one to acknowledge him when you pass in the street.’
‘Well, we don’t speak as such, but a friendly nod never does any harm.’
‘You are the only one to do this, which is why he has asked me to ask you for help.’
‘It is our mother, over here in Poland. She has died. My brother would like to come for the funeral, but he is worried about his cat. There is nobody to feed it for him. He will be gone for three days. He wondered would you be kind enough to feed the cat for him?’
‘Three days? Yes, I think I can manage that.’
He remained on the doorstep, his eyes wide with questioning. She nodded and smiled as she handed the phone back. He nodded and smiled in thanks, with gratitude.
Twice a day for the next three days, she crossed the street and unlocked the door to his maisonette. She crept in like a guilty intruder and tipped the dried food into the waiting bowl. She had no idea how much a cat would eat, but every time she returned the bowl was empty and the cat stared accusingly. There were three litter trays lined up against the wall: one for each day. The cat used them accordingly.
She wondered how it knew to do this. She decided that cats were strange and distant creatures who showed no love. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would keep one in their home out of choice.
On the fourth day, there was another knock on the door. He stood on the doorstep with a bunch of yellow carnations. Flowers hadn’t been necessary.
Such an extravagance for such a small thing, she remembered, as she watched the undertakers carry the box out through the front door of the maisonette. Today would have been brightened by the sight of a flower or two, but there was not a floral display in sight. It was a flowerless funeral. Perhaps that was what he’d wanted. Or perhaps no one had thought.
She wondered about his sister. Was she waiting at the crematorium? Had his death been sudden and unexpected? She’d seen nothing in the paper.
The rain turned to mist as the hearse pulled round the corner. The neighbours disappeared into a house three doors down. There was nothing more to see. She used her arms to push herself up from the chair and stifled a yawn. It was time for that cup of tea.
She felt a strange sensation around her legs as she filled the kettle. She turned off the tap and looked down. It was the cat, curving its body around the contours of her calves. Having caught her attention, it sat down on the kitchen tiles and curled its tail neatly around its front paws, as if to keep them warm.
‘I must have left the bedroom window open,’ she said. ‘It’s the only way you could have got in.’ The cat blinked. It opened its jaws to meow, but made no sound, then wiped its tongue around its lips as if to invite further comment.
She put the kettle on the stove and stood in the middle of the kitchen, no longer alone. She thought before crossing the room, careful where she trod, so to avoid the cat. ‘I must have a tin of mackerel somewhere at the back of the cupboard. I suppose you’d like that.’ The cat purred, and as she peeled back the lid of the can, she hummed a small tune to herself.