He picks her up at the same time every Thursday, when the curtains are drawn and half the street is asleep, sticky with heat. She re-touches her purple lipstick, then slips out of the front door to meet him by the lamppost at the end of the road. The car’s always warm – Harry keeps the engine running and the heat up. When she gets in next to him and shuts the door he drives on without looking at her. They don’t usually chat, so she examines her fingernails, tapping them gently on her bare legs, before tracing the yellow-green bruise on her right knee. His eyes flicker to it briefly, then refocus on the road ahead.
‘Rufus?’ Rob crosses the kitchen, peering behind each of the dining chairs. He hasn’t seen him all day and it’s past dinnertime. He rummages in the fruit bowl, looking for the back door key. Old receipts. And three hard, shrivelled satsumas. The key is underneath the third. Rob walks to the door and opens it. ‘Rufus…’ His voice is hoarse. He only has a fifty per cent success rate with getting the little guy to come in, anyway.
She can pick up the odd shape from the light of the streetlamps. A tall man in a dark tracksuit walking a very small dog. A torn black bin bag vomiting baked beans and paper on to the pavement. Harry takes the usual turning, speeding up a little. The houses fade as the streetlamps disappear. She presses her knees together and attempts to discreetly smooth her hair.
He gives it a minute then disappears back into the house to find his flip flops. He toes them on and ventures into the garden, feeling the slight breeze on his bare arms. Rob walks past the gnomes and the empty fish pond, down to the row of hedges that borders the fence. He finds Rufus in the usual spot, pacing up and down. Prowling for prey. The bird’s nest on top of next door’s hedge is mercifully out of reach, but it still draws him here every day. Rob rolls his eyes and slides his arms underneath Rufus’ belly, bracing himself for the scratches. They’re half-hearted today.
Half a mile later he pulls into a small, circular gravel car park and turns the engine off. Then he looks at her. He really looks. It’s not like with Rob. He takes his time. From her short, fluffy hair, to the small gold heart nestled in her cleavage. Over the strap peeking out of her dress. Her pale thighs. He opens his door and gets out. She’s happy to be led, so she meets him in the back.
Rufus rubs his head back and forth across Rob’s bicep as he carries him back to the house. Rob can’t help but wonder what Rufus actually does all day. On rare occasions he’s seen him with some of the other neighbourhood cats, but he doubts they meet to socialise. Rob snorts, picturing Rufus exchanging bird chasing tips with the tabby three doors down. Does Rufus ever get lonely?
A cat wasn’t his first choice of pet. Oh, they love the food and the shelter. But they’re so calculating, cats. Rob navigates past the laundry mountain as they make their way through the kitchen. Spending time with Rufus is more important. He can’t help loving him, no matter how limited the rewards are. He lightly rubs the fingertips of one hand through his soft black fur, tickling his belly. Rufus lets out a little purr, his heart beating against Rob’s hands.
His hands are warm on her skin. He picks the necklace up between a thumb and forefinger, twisting the heart, examining it. He doesn’t comment or ask where she got it. She wishes he would. He pushes her dress down to her waist and slides a hand into a bra cup and she’s lost. The cool metal of his wedding ring grazes her leg as he pulls her underwear down and off. Sometimes he leaves it in the glove compartment, but he’s not normally that considerate. She lies back and counts the new bruises that form while they move in the cramped space. Her head smacks a door handle and she snorts. He bites her shoulder. Not gently. She focuses on his scent – musk meets citrus shower gel. And the weight of him.
Rob falls into the tall armchair and pops the lever to bring the footrest up. He pushes his back into the floral fabric and adjusts Rufus on his chest, letting his back rest against him so they can both see the TV. He’s still small. They didn’t know what to expect when they adopted him. He fitted in one of Rob’s palms then. He can still cradle him easily. His fur feels like silk when Rob runs his hands over his sides.
Afterwards he goes outside for a cigarette. She asked if she could join him, the first time. He told her that her lungs were too young, too pure, for that shit. She uses the time to straighten her clothes. Reapply her lipstick – she’s not cruel enough to go home with smudges. Then she moves back to the front seat and fiddles with the radio. He lets her, afterwards. It’s no surprise that he’s more relaxed then.
He knows a surprising number of the correct answers to the quiz show filling the screen tonight. Rob likes to say them aloud, so they’re playing together. For a minute he lets himself wonder when Fay will be home, but then Rufus digs his claws into his stomach to use it as a springboard, jumping on to the floor soundlessly.
They sit for a while, listening to an old-fashioned comedy. At least she thinks that’s what it is. He lets out a quiet, half-formed laugh and she wants to ask him what’s so funny, but she knows better by now. He might answer her, but it’s fifty-fifty that he might give her that sideways stare, lips a flat line, before looking away and turning the keys in the ignition.
Maybe they should have a clear out. Rufus is making him nervous, traipsing the perimeter of the living room. He’s not worried about the piles of American literature books under the window. It’s when Rufus leaps on to the mantelpiece that Rob is drawn out of his chair. The cat manoeuvres through the ornaments and photo frames, but Rob knows Fay doesn’t like him up there. The last time she caught Rufus there, she shooed him away and picked up the frame on the far right. She froze for just a moment as she looked at Tom’s face, then went out for a long walk. She doesn’t like to talk about her brother.
She can’t follow the jokes coming out of the speakers. It starts to rain. Thick, heavy splats on the soft fabric of the roof. The drops come faster, as a rhythm that drowns everything else out. The noise in the car and the noise in her head. She lays her head back against the headrest and lets her eyes close.
Rufus is pissed off when Rob lifts him off the mantelpiece. This time the claws hurt and Rob flinches. That’s what I get for looking after you, is it? Rufus leaves the room without a backward glance and Rob trails after him. He always does. He can’t face him disappearing through the cat flap for the entire night. He finds him on top of the folded t-shirts in the kitchen. He really can’t take those upstairs now.
When she opens her eyes the car’s turning out of the car park and back on to the path home. It’s late. They pass only a handful of other cars. Even with the streetlamps, their passengers are a mystery. Without the radio and the rain, the only sound comes from the heater. A shiver runs through her in spite of it as they reach the halfway point. She fingers the bruise on her knee. Again, the action draws a glance from Harry. His eyebrows pinch together for a moment. These little injuries remind her she’s still alive.
He’ll get him some dinner. That’ll appease him. Rufus is only metres away, but Rob knows he can hear the can opening from the bottom of the garden. He must like this brand of cat food. It does promise to be ‘meaty and delicious.’ It smells like fish and vitamin tablets to Rob. He wrinkles his nose as he empties it into the bowl on the floor. Rufus is eyeing him from laundry mountain, making no move to come and eat. And she’s the same. Coming to the table late. Pushing her food around the plate.
When they turn on to her street she feels her stomach tense and swallows the unease. She usually does a pretty good job of it, she knows she does. But today when she lifts a hand to the car door handle she finds it’s shaking. She tries again, but can’t get her fingers to still. She lays them flat in her lap and takes a deep breath. She can’t bring herself to look at Harry. Can’t really care what he’s thinking.
Their standoff continues until finally, finally, Rufus comes down from his t-shirt tower and over to his bowl. He shoots Rob a look as he passes him, tail swishing forcefully towards his legs. Rob can’t please anyone. He leaves Rufus to eat and looks out of the window. He can’t make out the edge of the garden any more. It’s properly dark out now. Rob used to love nights in summer.
That first picnic on a June evening. She wore a polka dot dress. The dark green fabric brought out her eyes and he looked into them and thought about moving in together and getting married and making babies – at least three. She was beautiful that June. How many summers ago?
She prepares herself for another slow breath in but she’s halted by warm palms covering hers. Harry’s fingers are gentle when they squeeze hers. She can’t help but look at him in surprise. For once he holds her gaze.
Rob boils the kettle. It’s cool enough for a cup of tea. His hand hesitates as he moves to pull out a second mug. She should be back by now. He could be nice and make her a cup. Or he could leave her to it. Hell, he could leave the house altogether. But there are ties that bind him. They’ve got Rufus to think about.
Dazed, she waits until he slowly withdraws his hand. Pushing the handle down, she climbs out on to the pavement and makes the twenty metre walk back to her front door.
Rufus follows him back to the living room. Rob sits down and then her key is in the lock. Tea in one hand, he holds out an old string in the other. Works like a charm. Rufus starts batting at it instantly, adorably incensed. Rob hears Fay pause in the doorway but remains engrossed in the simplicity of the game.
Kathy Chamberlain moved to Swansea in 2011 when she embarked on her postgraduate studies. Her doctoral thesis consisted of short stories characterised by isolation and anomalousness, reflecting her interest in all things quirky. She’s a fan of circular narratives and plain style prose. Kathy teaches undergraduate classes in Creative Writing and English Literature.
Image: via Pixabay