SHE WAS IN THE HABIT of taking her daily walk first thing in the morning. The air was still clean at that time of day and few cars passed along the road. Some mornings she could manage her whole half-mile circuit without a single vehicle passing. She liked the freshness of the smells. The field on the other side of the road exuded a warm, comforting reek when the sun shone, like that ancient woollen sweater her grandfather had worn for gardening. The combination of the steady slap of her feet on the pavement and the melody of scents from the field and the neighbourhood gardens had a tranquillising effect on her. The walk steadied her so that she could face the day.
One day, however, the mood was tainted. It was the day she found the cat. It lay dead in the middle of the road, stretched on the chevrons that marked out the safe-crossing point. She stopped on the pavement, looking at the animal for any sign of life. It was a short-haired tabby, but she could not recall seeing it at any of her neighbours’ houses. There were so many cats around here. She walked over to the crossing point and examined the cat more closely. It was quite dead; eyes half-closed, mouth open just a fraction to show its teeth. She had no appetite for picking it up. Although it looked whole there could be unseen wounds or expelled body fluids on its underside. She decided to continue with her walk—a circuit that brought her home by a different route—and hoped that the cat would have disappeared by the time she drove past on her way to work.
An hour later she sat waiting for a gap in the traffic, and nosed her car out onto the road. The tarmac around the safe-crossing point was splattered with reds and pinks. What was left of the cat’s body was now in the middle of the carriageway, and had clearly been driven over several times. She felt a strange sensation in her mouth. It wasn’t that bitterness she sometimes experienced when she was about to vomit, more like a trembling she could almost taste. She veered to make sure that she would not drive over the cat. Even though she was confident she had avoided it, it seemed to her that the car juddered very slightly, and that somewhere, just on the edge of audibility, there was a crunching of bone.
There was no trace of the remains when she came home from work. Perhaps the Council had sent someone out to clean up the mess.
Later that evening, at the kitchen table, she asked her husband and daughter if they knew of anyone in the neighbourhood who owned a tabby cat. ‘Those people with the speedboat have one,’ her daughter said. ‘At least, I saw one sitting on the boat the other day.’ She poked at her chicken salad, and forced her fork into a sliver of iceberg lettuce.
‘Oh. Right.’ She looked over at her husband for reassurance. He was raising a forkful of chicken to his mouth. ‘Should I go and ask them if their cat is missing?’ It was, she suspected, the right thing to do, and her husband was a good man who could confirm this.
He didn’t answer her immediately. ‘I suppose so,’ he said at last. ‘It would be kindest, don’t you think? If it’s missing and… they have children don’t they?’ He ate his piece of chicken and stared at her, chewing steadily. She had the oddest feeling that he would not swallow until she acquiesced.
The people with the speedboat lived in one of the big corner houses. It had been a show home when the development was first built. Since these new people had moved in they’d built an extension over the garage, and had the garden altered so that there was more driveway and less grass. A 4×4 and a hatchback were parked in the driveway, along with the boat. The man of the house was outside hosing the 4×4 as she approached. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops. His legs were very large and tanned. She didn’t think she’d ever seen such immense legs. The calves were shapely, in a way that reminded her disturbingly of her long-dead mother-in-law. The old woman had favoured heavy denier tights in American Tan, and her great calves had flared out from delicate ankles in way that was somehow obscene.
The man didn’t seem to notice her walking up his driveway. She spoke, but she couldn’t hear her own voice over the hiss of water from the hose, so she edged around the 4×4 until he couldn’t help but see her. He glanced at her, unsmiling, and continued hosing. After a moment he twisted the nozzle of the hose and the water stopped. ‘Yeah?’ he said.
‘I’m sorry to bother you… I live just up the road…’ She pointed vaguely in the direction of her house. ‘I was wondering… do you have a tabby cat? I mean, is your cat missing?’
‘Yes. And no.’ The man nodded towards his house.
She turned and saw a tabby cat sitting on the inside window sill of the front room. ‘I’m sorry… I… it’s just…’ she said, but the man had twisted the hose back on again, and turned back to his 4×4.
Less than a month later, on her morning walk, she found another cat killed at the roadside. This one must have been thrown clear by the car that had hit it. It was lying close to the edge of the road, near the grass verge, for all the world as if it was having an early sunbathe. It too was a tabby. She decided she must move it. The idea repelled her, but the mental image of the animal being crushed by passing cars was worse. For a brief moment she entertained the idea of returning home and asking her husband to do the deed, but that seemed to her to be a craven course of action. Besides, in the ten minutes it would take her to run to the house and persuade her husband, the cat could be run over and it would all be in vain. She bent down and worked her hands underneath the cat. It was still warm, and when she lifted it up it hung limp in her hands. Close up she could see the beauty of the animal’s markings, an intricate pattern of rich shades—caramel, black and lion-gold. The tail dangled pitifully, for all its handsome loops of colour.
She stood for a moment, wondering what to do with it. A rare early morning car drove past. She was conscious of the driver turning to stare at her as he passed. One option was to set the cat down on the grass verge. No one would drive over it there. But this road was well used during the day, by mothers pushing buggies, and retired people walking their economical little dogs. The sight of a dead cat might be distressing to them. She could carry it home, and leave it in the garage until she had established who owned it, but that would mean this morning’s walk would have to be abandoned. She felt more in need of its sedating effects than ever. The Council had planted a bank of shrubs on one side of the pavement—fast-growing, no-nonsense plants that seemed to have been bred for utility rather than beauty. She could set the cat in there, shaded by the bushes and out of the sight of casual passers-by. If someone in the neighbourhood was missing their cat, surely they would go out searching? They might well find it, if they looked thoroughly. That was the solution. She laid the cat down under the shrubs, wiped her hands on her jacket, and continued with her walk. From now on, she decided, she would take evening walks.
This time she didn’t mention the dead cat to her husband and daughter. They breakfasted together as usual, and then went their ways. She promised herself that she would keep an eye on the house with the speedboat over the next day or two. If there was no sign of their tabby then she might have to approach them again. Perhaps the wife would answer the door, if there was a wife. She’d only ever seen the man of the house, outside attending to his vehicles in his shorts. There were sometimes children’s toys on the driveway—expensive looking pedal-cars, the sort that were miniature versions of adult sports cars— but she could not recall seeing children playing.
When she returned home from work the next evening she let herself in through the back door. Her daughter was in the kitchen, leaning against the fridge. There was something in her mouth.
‘Oh, are you eating already?’ she asked. Her daughter opened her mouth. There was a king prawn curled on her tongue. ‘Is it frozen?’ Her daughter did not respond, but closed her mouth and sucked, like a child with an ice-lolly.
For a moment she thought she could taste the prawn in her own mouth, and felt the nausea rise in her throat. The very idea of it, pale and cold and foetal, made her gag.
She still felt queasy as they ate their evening meal. She picked at her tortilla wrap, discarding the filling and shredding the tortilla itself. She forced herself to eat it, shred by shred. Her husband munched on regardless, looking over her shoulder and out the window. ‘I suppose I should tackle the garden,’ he said, between mouthfuls.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s running a bit wild.’
Their daughter stood up and leaned against the window frame with her back to them. She was wearing a wool cardigan so fine that every bump of her spine was visible. ‘I like it the way it is,’ she said. ‘You get butterflies and all sorts.’
Her husband changed into shorts and a summer shirt to mow the lawn. She rather wished he hadn’t. His legs were very slender and almost hairless. They did not look their best when he wore shorts. It was peculiar, because at those times when she saw him naked, in the privacy of their bedroom, she was always struck by how well proportioned he was. There was an elegance in his slight build that was not apparent when he was clothed, and particularly not when he wore shorts. Men, she had long thought, did not fare well in the summer. Women could carry it off, but men were somehow diminished by their shorts and T-shirts. She recalled her discomfort at the unconscious way her husband displayed his horned toe nails in his sandals when they holidayed abroad.
There was something different about evening walks. She wondered if it was the exhausted air that made them melancholy. Every day of her life was much the same, undoubtedly, but in the early morning anything seemed possible. By evening all possibilities had proved illusory.
Something on the pavement caught her eye as she returned from this walk. Was it a butterfly wing? She stopped and looked. It could be a scrap of butterfly wing, ragged and flat against the tarmac. She blinked, and realised that it was merely a scrap of coloured foil—a Creme Egg wrapper, in fact. For some reason her mistake made her feel uneasy. It was almost as if the litter really had been a butterfly wing, and had somehow been transformed before her very eyes, like a trick.
Her feeling of discomfort grew as she walked past the house with the speedboat. There was no one about, and no sign of the cat. The hose lay curled in loops on the driveway beside the hatchback.
She slept badly, and during one of the many periods of wakefulness decided that she must speak again to the man with the speedboat. A shadow of anxiety followed her through the day. She found it difficult to concentrate at work as she rehearsed what she might say to him. When she got home she remembered that this was the evening when both her husband and her daughter would be late home. It was a relief. There would be no need to prepare a meal, or make conversation. She drank a cup of black tea to try and calm her mind, and then forced herself to walk down the street to the house of the man with the speedboat.
He was mowing the lawn tonight. Both of his cars were gleaming, so he must have felt they did not need another wash. As usual he was wearing shorts, but she was relieved to see that he was wearing trainers instead of flip-flops. Trainers were safer for lawn mowing, although she could not help but think about how hot and clammy his feet must feel inside them. He was not wearing socks. She guessed that this was probably for reasons of style, but it disturbed her. Her own feet, in cotton-rich socks and walking shoes, itched at the idea.
He released the throttle on the lawnmower when he saw her walk up the drive, but he did not switch it off. It trembled on the tiny lawn as it idled. She could not help but look at his legs. They were tanned a beefy red-brown, and they gleamed slightly, as if he had smoothed body cream onto them. Did men do such things?
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I called with you a few weeks ago, do you remember?’ He made no response. ‘About the cat,’ she added.
‘What about the cat?’
She felt her face heat with awkwardness. ‘I know I asked you before… this must seem very silly… ‘
The man sighed, like someone whose patience was running thin. ‘What about the cat?’ he repeated, but his tone this time was almost offensive—as if he was talking to an idiot.
She took a deep breath to steady herself. You are not a fool, she thought, you are an educated woman. Almost certainly better educated than him. ‘I found a tabby cat by the roadside a few days ago,’ she said. ‘It was dead,’ she added, just in case there was any doubt as to her meaning.
‘Probably ours then,’ the man said. He turned back to his lawnmower and revved its little engine. She watched him as he pushed it over the grass, away from her. The tendons in his plump calves shifted under his skin as he pushed.
She walked along her usual route. The slap, slap of her feet beat the same rhythm as the pounding in her head. She glanced over at the shaded margin of the field and felt a flare of pleasure at the glimpse of some or other red toadstool growing from under a tree trunk. Which would it be? Fly Agaric? She would look it up in her nature book when she got home. On a whim, feeling that she must take some extraordinary step this evening, she climbed over the fence into the field to inspect the toadstool more closely. She walked over the rough grass of the field, stumbling once on the uneven ground. As she got closer to the spot she realised she had been mistaken. It was not a toadstool she had seen, but a scrap of red plastic—a wrapper from a Babybel cheese—caught in the lowest branches of the hedgerow. She struggled back across the field towards the road, recognising the anger that was rising in her like bile. In a perfect world there would be fairytale toadstools in every shadow, and the pavements would be gilded with butterfly wings. She must keep walking, slap, slap, slap, until her mind was calm again and she could be sure that it was safe to blink.