Serialisation of a story from 'Blessed are the Cracked' by Delphine Richards in 4 Parts.
Preamble - Tegwyn Takes Stock
It was completely dark and she knew she was dying. She was so sure of this fact, that she could feel the darkness pressing around her body, squeezing the life out of her with its unseen fingers.
It wasn’t just dark. It was black.
She had once been to art classes in the community centre. The tutor had said that there were no such colours as black or white. Black was just an absence of colours, he had said, while white was a combination of all colours that reflected the light.
Yes, that was it! Black was an absence of colour due to there being no light reflected.
He had been partly right, she thought. Black may not be a colour, but it did exist. She could verify that right now. She was surrounded by it in this prison.
The reason there was no light was... she pushed the thought away before her heart began to increase its rate. She had been calm for a long time and needed to stay that way. Otherwise, an increased heart rate meant she would use up more air...
It was because of the cat...
She passed a hand over her face. The sticky clamminess of her skin felt like a new experience. That was no surprise - she had never been in a dying situation before! She wiped her battered hand down her top; she still had her Home Help tabard on. She could feel the woven Llanefa Social Services emblem protruding from the breast pocket. Above that, her ID badge ambushed her fingers with its sharp corners. She tilted it upwards towards her face, eager to see if a trace of light reflected off its plastic surface. The badge felt strange - dusty but slippery too. She realised that the slipperiness was coming from her sore fingers. This must be what it was like to be blind, she thought. She again traced her ID badge, trying to make out the words ‘Kay Jones’. The indentations felt alien to her sore fingers. It reminded her of the time they had all gone to the Crystal Maze in Pembrokeshire. She’d had to put her hand into a darkened hole and describe through a radio link to the others what she could feel, while they, in the next room, tried to identify the object from a list they had on their computer screens. Trish had been there that day – it had been part of a Hen Party celebration. Not that you could call Carol, who was then 45 years old and embarking on her third marriage, a hen. Broilers, Trish had called them. Trish could always be relied on to provide the comedy. Or had been...
The darkness gave Kay another squeeze to remind her where she was. She wondered how long she had been there? It felt like several hours, though she had no great hunger or thirst... yet. Darkness had a way of distorting time and distance. She couldn’t even tell how far away from the walls she was. The only thing she knew for certain was that her arms and fingers hurt from the effort of trying to open the door. There was also a vague message coming from her bladder. She ignored it. Needing a pee was low on the list of problems.
She again started the unanswerable questions. Why had she parked in such a stupid place? Why had she moved the cat? Why had she felt guilty enough to come here?
Because she felt she owed it to Donald – that was why she had come here. He was such a nice old gent and it was her fault that he was so upset.
A silly thought struck her - she didn’t even know the cat’s name. She had only ever heard Donald calling it ‘Puss’ or ‘the cat’.
‘Don’t go near the cat!’ he had said so many times, ‘Leave it alone. It doesn’t like strangers.’
She had felt like saying that she wasn’t really a stranger. She had been Home Helping for Donald for eighteen months. She would have thought that the cat would have got used to her. And she should have got used to the cat. But that had not happened. At least she had not been overly allergic to it. Not if she didn’t go too close.
It used to lie on the cushion of the rocking chair and pretend to be asleep, but whenever Kay had glanced quickly at it, she would see that its eyes were only partly closed and the green irises would glint like marbles as it watched her. Its white feet were usually tucked underneath its body, but occasionally it would stretch out a paw, yawn and flex its claws meaningfully.
Kay didn’t think that it was the cat itself that made her wheeze, but its hair. The cushion had become so heavily covered in a layer of tabby hairs and dandruff that she could no longer tell what colour the material was. There had been a musty smell surrounding the chair. When she thought about it, she realised that the chair was a shrine to human senses – smell, sight (those green-marble eyes that followed her like the Mona Lisa’s), hearing (it growled at her when she dusted the mantelpiece – growled more like a dog that a cat), touch (of its horrible fine hair levitating at knee level) and even taste, the way she got that peppery flavour in her mouth when she had been too close to it.
She had been certain that her wheezing would improve if she could wash the cushion cover. But to do that, the cat would have to be moved and Donald would not hear of it. Each morning, when she went to Donald’s Sheltered Housing bungalow, she had checked the rocking chair, hoping to see an empty warm dent in the cushion, but every day, the green marbles had assessed her. She had tried to ‘accidentally’ nudge the chair with the Hoover, hoping it would jump off and go outside, but it had only opened its eyes wider and given a warning flick of its tail.
Kay had realised that she was actually scared of the cat. The blatant way it looked at her suggested that it would attack her if she crossed the boundary of its patience. She had even had a nightmare where the cat had leapt up and grown into the size of a German Shepherd and begun to eat her alive. From then on, she had stopped trying to get the cat to move, but she was sure that one day it would be outside, doing whatever disgusting things cats did, and she would be able to wash the cushion.
She had once confided in Trish about the cat. She had sympathised with her.
‘The thing is with cats,’ Trish had said while they warmed up in Zumba class, ‘is that they are so bloody sly. If a dog gets caught short and shits on the floor, it does it there, in the middle of the room. It more or less accuses you, I asked to go out. You left me too long. Deal with it! But a cat, it goes behindthings and underthings. It leaves its shit fermenting in places you won’t find for a few days – and when you do, it’s likely to be somewhere you don’t expect to find shit and you’ll put your hand in it. Cherie Blair said they were unhygienic creatures – she was right! If I was you, babes, I’d spray some air freshener or something at it...’
Trish was what they called ‘sassy’. And what Paul had called a ‘Swansea Jack’ - even though Trish had not lived in Swanseafor over twenty years. After the first time Trish had spent an evening with them, Paul had later said ‘She’s a typical Jack, isn’t she?’ It was a phrase that could be used in a complimentary way – the original Swansea Jack being a large, brave dog that had saved great numbers of people from drowning after a shipwreck - but Kay guessed that he had meant it in the derogatory way that Llanefa people spoke of those who were more forward and open than they were. In Llanefa, people of Kay’s generation and older were often stuck in a time warp when it came to social skills. The Stiff Upper Lip may have been the domain of the English, but the Stiff Mind was Llanefa’s alone.
A fresh wave of panic came over Kay and, for the hundredth time, she worked her away around the inside of her prison and hammered on the walls. Nothing happened and her fists hurt in a way that suggested that she had broken the skin.
She couldn’t see anything or hear anything - not even the sound of the traffic from the nearby by-pass. She hoped that meant that the road had been closed for some reason. But the part of her mind that screamed at her to find a way out, an air supply... anything – announced cruelly that the cabin was sealed. Airtight.
She continued to work her way around the walls, cautiously feeling with her feet in case she stood on the cat. Panic and hope blossomed together when she couldn’t find it. Had the cat found a way out? Reality was like a sharp thrust from a knife. Of course the cat hadn’t found a way out. The cat was dead! Hadn’t she sat in her prison listening to its slow purring and shallow breathing until it had stopped? She had even put out her hand to almoststroke it as it neared the end, but the thought that it could see her while she couldn’t see it had made her hand hover in mid air before returning to her side.
But, knowing it was dead didn’t stop her imagining that she could still feel the green marble eyes watching her. They said that cats could see in the dark...
‘Don’t be so fucking stupid!’ she whispered, surprising herself with the unfamiliar profanity. ‘Dead cats can’t see in the dark or anywhere else.’
Save your breath, babes. Trish’s Zumba class advice came to her. Good advice here too.
She slid down the wall and stretched out her legs. Something clingymoved against her calf. Kay screamed and leapt to her feet. The thing stayed with her leg for a moment, then fell away.
Slowly, Kay inched back towards it. She crouched on the floor, making cautious sweeping movements with her hand. She subconsciously held her breath and tensed her leg muscles ready for flight to ... where?
Cobwebs, she told herself without conviction. She continued to sweep her left hand from side to side. She could feel nothing but the gritty, dusty floor of the cabin. She exhaled and rested her right hand beside her and screamed again as her palm came to rest on the dead cat.
It didn’t move.
With some revulsion she felt it all over. It was definitely dead. She checked again, feeling the head, along the furry ridged ribs and down its tail. A sticky substance transferred itself to her hand. She pulled it away quickly and, for a second, the tail came with her before falling back on to the floor. Relief followed instantly as she realised that it had been the cat’s tail that had stuck to her leg. She kept her fingers spread out and slowly brought her hand to her face (it was surprising how difficult it was to tell how close her hand was to her face) and sniffed cautiously. It smelled of some kind of motor fuel. She wiped her throbbing hand on the dusty floor and then on her tabard – wincing while she did so.
If she had been religious, she would have thought the situation was punishment for her actions.
Donald had been furious! His normally placid manner had been replaced by a raised voice and wide-open eyes.
‘What did you do to it?’ he had nearly shouted, his almost-lost Scottish accent becoming stronger.
‘I just wanted to wash the cush...’
‘I’ve told you to leave it alone! How many times have I said that?’
‘I know. I’m sorry. I just...’
‘It’s not used to fast traffic. What if it tries to cross the by-pass? I just can’t believe you made it go out...’
‘I’m so sorry. I’m sure it will come back once I’ve gone.’
Kay had honestly believed that the cat would wait until she was out of sight before it slinked back.
Still crouched on the floor by the dead cat, she replayed it all in her mind. She had waited until Donald was on the toilet, then put on her Marigolds, covered her nose with her tabard and, before courage deserted her, quickly lifted the cat off the chair. It had been surprised for a millisecond. Then it had made a tortured sound while twisting its body and leaving a bloody scratch down Kay’s arm before she dropped it. It had kept up the noise while it ran into the kitchen, up onto the worktop and out through the window. Kay realised that she had never seen it on its feet before.
The next morning, (a bad day for Kay even before she crossed the threshold of the Sheltered Housing bungalow), Donald’s fury had been replaced by a quiet contempt in which he had asked her to leave his house. The cat had not come home.
Kay had been genuinely upset. She had always got on well with all her clients. She could understand that Donald was fond of the cat, but thought that the act of lifting the cat off a chair shouldn’t have had such a dramatic result. (Not knowing at that point that far more trauma awaited her on this, The Worst Day of Her Life.) She had wished she could have spoken to Trish about it, but that kind of thinking was not going to help...
Instead, she had carried on with her work, visiting the other three regulars on her list. The last one, Ethel Davies, lived fairly close to the only big supermarket in Llanefa. When she had said she needed milk and bread, Kay had gone over to get them for her. Coming out of the CutCost store, she had glanced across at the by-pass which ran steeply above the side of the car park. Suppose the cat had crossed the by-pass and was lying dead or injured at the side of the road? Donald’s house was not that far away from the road...
Taking the bread and milk back to Ethel, she had decided that she would drive along the by-pass in both directions.
She had driven at a cautious speed while apprehensively scanning the hard shoulder and grass bank for signs of a cat’s body. The grass was fairly short following its late summer cut and she had been certain that it would be easy to spot without having to pull in or getting out to check.
Coming back on the eastbound carriageway, her attention had been taken by the cluster of houses on the other side of the road. The by-pass had effectively divided Llanefa by cutting off a corner of the small town. The residents had been opposed to the plan when it was first made public, but there were too few of them to alter what the Highways Authority had decreed. In a bid to appease the dissenters, a pedestrian underpass had been created and joined the car park of CutCost to the lane that approached Llwyncelyn Drive and its neighbouring roads.
Kay had driven back to CutCost’s car park, locked her Renault Clio and set off towards the underpass. Although she had walked through it once before, she looked at it with new eyes – from a cat’s perspective – and had been disappointed that its smooth walls and overhead lights did not provide a suitable bolthole for an offended cat.
Two boys of about fifteen had passed her in the opposite direction. Although it was only lunchtime they were not in school uniform and had a guilty look about them. She was suddenly glad that she had left her handbag stowed under the front seat of her car. To the best of her knowledge there had never been a mugging in Llanefa and she had no plans to change that statistic by becoming the first victim. The boys’ hooded jackets and low-slung crotches of their jeans gave an impression that their bodies were too long for their legs. They had stared at her at intermittent one-second intervals as if wondering why someone from Planet Adult would be walking alone through the tunnel.
‘You haven’t seen a cat through here, have you?’ she had asked.
Their grunts had seemed to indicate that they had not seen a cat; that they were not absolutely certain what a cat was! They had loped away in the typical gait that teenage boys have.
Coming out on the other side, Kay had wondered where to look next. Llwyncelyn Drive had seemed an unlikely destination... She had turned around, about to give up the search, when her vision had rested on the grass bank running up towards the roof of the underpass. About a quarter of a mile further along and adjacent to the new road she had remembered that there was an old works service area that had been used when the by-pass was being built. Since the road had been finished, the service area lay abandoned with the remains of workmen’s cabins, rusty machinery and unidentifiable metal that resembled a pile of chicken bones pushed to the side of the plate at the end of a meal. Apart from occasional teenagers on mountain bikes, it would be a haven for the cat. It could probably even find mice if it was hungry!
As she climbed down the other side of the grass bank and made her way towards the service area, she had realised that there were more hiding places than she had imagined. Although the contractors had cleared away much of the equipment, a lot of debris seemed to have been forgotten and bore the wounds of eighteen months of neglect. Two old Portakabins with broken windows and no doors sat side by side on the stony ground. She had stepped in and looked under the remaining worktops and inside drawers. There had been graffiti everywhere. The words ‘Trish is Lush’ had given her a little start until she re-read and saw that it said ‘Tosh is Lush’. Kay had wondered how long she could expect to get negative feelings when she heard or saw the name Trish.
Some of the other equipment outside was small enough to check quickly – a cement mixer drum, an up-turned digger bucket, the remains of the outer fence stacked in a pile – and she soon exhausted her supply. The only other structure on the site was a windowless cabin about the size of a large walk-in wardrobe. It rested lopsidedly on the rocky ground and the door stood ajar by an inch or two. It looked like a very large safe or very small shipping container. She had suddenly remembered that the construction team had used explosives while building the by-pass. There had been opposition to that, too. This dark brown edifice must have been one of the secure explosives stores, she had thought. She had walked up close to it. The door had looked heavy and immobile. She had put her hand on the handle and pulled. To her surprise, it had swung easily towards her, the heaviness of it making her sway slightly as it creaked against her.
She had seen the cat straight away. Half curled at the back of the cabin, its leg at a strange angle. It had turned its head in her direction and growled weakly. It had tried to get up, but collapsed back on to its side with legs pedalling hopelessly in the air.
She would have to take it to the vet, she had told herself. She had stepped into the cabin and felt a familiar wheezing developing as she walked slowly towards it.
‘Puss, Puss. Come on, bach.’
As she had got nearer, the floor had given a sudden lurch and metallic bang. At the same time, everything went black as the door had slammed shut behind her.
...to be continued in Part 2