By Adam Macqueen
The house felt different with only one of them there. It wasn’t a lack of noise – that was never an issue, given the way the pipes in the old place clanked and the doors squeaked and the floorboards creaked and the old lady next door had her telly turned up so loud you could follow the evening’s entertainment from The One Showright through to the News at Ten through the wall and know if there was anything worth bothering to switch on your own set for. It was more that every sound took on a different quality: in the absence of Maddy clattering about the kitchen, or tapping on her laptop at the table as he took his turn making the evening meal, and they caught up on each others’ days in a companionable wine-glugging hubbub, things seemed to echo in the emptiness with a significance they didn’t deserve. More than once Greg paused the TV to marvel at things he couldn’t believe he had never noticed before: the click of the thermostat and the hiss of the hot water cylinder as it made itself ready for the evening bath that Maddy never took but insisted she might want to one day; the way the fan on the cooker racketed on for the best part of a quarter of an hour after he had switched it off and withdrawn his sad single dinner of battered fish and oven chips; the shuddering roar with which the fridge-freezer periodically announced it was still busy doing what fridge-freezers do.
Everything felt different, too. Although he automatically went to his usual spot at the left hand end of sofa, where the sagging cushions had moulded themselves to the ever-increasing mass of his buttocks and the coffee table was positioned at optimum foot-resting distance (close enough to provide decent support to the calves and ankles, not so close that Maddy would complain about having “your dirty socks where we put our food”), without her reassuring counterbalance at the other end, gradually pivoting to the horizontal as the evening wore on, somehow he couldn’t get comfortable. Even the cat, who usually splayed himself out in the warm space between them, seemed to have found better things to do with himself. Greg had heard the flap going a couple of times through in the kitchen, but he hadn’t seen him all evening.
And there was a draught he had never noticed before, which played insistently across the back of his neck however high he stoked the wood-burner. So persistent was it that he eventually gave in and went upstairs to swap his work pullover for the scruffy old hoodie that was reserved strictly for round-the-house-and-even-then-only-when-Maddy-would-let-him-get-away-with-it, pulling the hood so close around his face and tying the drawstrings so tight that on catching sight of himself in the bedroom’s full-length mirror he felt obliged to essay a brief impersonation of a hijab-wearing woman so breathtakingly racist he was quite glad Maddy wasn’t around to see that either.
He kept checking his phone throughout the evening, but there was nothing from her, which was disappointing but not surprising. She’d said she’d be putting in the hours, trying to get as much done each day to ensure her stay up north was as short as it could be. “After all, it’s not like I’ll have anything else to do in the evenings, is it?” she’d told him over her half-packed suitcase. “I specifically asked work to find me a hotel with a pool, or at least a gym, but they’ve booked me into some tiny little place in the middle of nowhere. So I’ll just be sitting on the bed watching telly and stinking the place out takeaway pizzas every night, probably.”
“You never know, they might have a porn channel you can put on expenses,” he had joked, earning him a t-shirt flicked viciously in his direction and the entirely unjustified complaint “now look what you’ve done, I’d just folded that up.” The memory prompted him to pick up the remote control and thumb through the Babestation channels, but even that wasn’t the same when Maddy wasn’t in the house: it took all the thrill out of it.
Finally, with Emily Maitlis offering him the same depressing grimness he had just watched on the news only at greater length and with added arguing, he decided he might as well get an early night himself. Which of course was the point when Maddy decided to call. He slid the green icon across his phone with his thumb as he finished brushing his teeth, and answered with a fresh bright smile: “How is it?”
A frustrated sigh. “Even worse than I thought. It’s like they’ve had no one managing the place for months. God knows what Damien was up to.”
Greg clenched the phone between his cheek and his shoulder as he leaned over to switch on the bedside lamp and arrange his glass of water and reading glasses the way he liked them. “Well, they said he’d let things get out of hand, didn’t they? That’s why they got rid of him.”
“Yeah, but they let him carry on messing things up for another six months after his first written warning. They’d have saved a hell of a lot of work if they’d parachuted someone from head office in then, rather than let him go on making everything even worse.”
He smiled, counting back the months in his head. “By someone, d’you mean you? I can imagine how you would have felt if we’d had to cancel Greece so you could head for the frozen north.”
She gave one of those grunts, just the right side of non-committal, that long-term couples employ when they can’t be bothered to argue but aren’t in the mood to concede a point either. “At least it wouldn’t have been quite as frozen then. It’s bitterhere.”
“Yeah, it’s got chilly here, too.” The bedroom felt about ten degrees colder than the downstairs, with the log burner pumping out its miasma of heat. He might have to wear pyjamas tonight.
She responded as if she had read his mind. “And I haven’t got you to warm me up in this big strange bed.”
He grinned, shucking off his shoes and working his belt loose. “Likewise. I won’t know what to do with the whole bed to myself.”
“Oh, I’m sure Grumpus will keep you company. Is he missing me?”
“I don’t know: he’s not speaking to me. Maybe that answers your question. I’ve not seen him all evening.”
“Has he eaten his dinner?” He could hear the twist of anxiety in her voice. The cat was very much her department, and now he was old, she worried about him constantly.
“I think so. I put it out for him.”
“Can you check?”
He sighed. “Hang on.” With his trousers already undone, he needed to slide out of them before going anywhere. Divested, and even more aware of the chill on his bare legs, he padded back out of the bedroom and across the landing to the top of the stairs, from where, once he flicked the light on, he could just make out the cat’s bowl in the hallway below. “Yeah. All gone. Looks like he’s licked it clean.”
Relief and affection mingled in her response: “Big fat greedy catpuss.”
“He is that.” Greg flicked the light off and scuttled back to the bedroom. The cat had arrived from the rescue centre as Teasel, which perfectly suited a tiny tabby kitten but not so much the vast thuggish tom he had grown into as the years went by. Now, at the grand old age of fifteen, he rejoiced in a number of names, most of them lengthier than his given one, few of them complimentary. Lumpus Grumpus, they called him most frequently: Grumpus or sometimes Lump for short. He was, as observed, very much Maddy’s cat, but Greg was quite fond of him in his own way, and Grumpus, provided Greg understood his position as an equally subservient member of Maddy’s pack and never attempted to challenge it, was usually willing to put up with him too.
“Oh, hold on, here he comes now.” Greg could hear the soft click-clack of claws on the tiles downstairs. The cat could seldom be bothered to withdraw them, preferring to live in a permanent state of battle with jumpers and soft furnishings instead. “Must have heard us talking about food.” Keeping the hoodie on for the moment – it really had got freezing – Greg lifted the duvet and slid beneath it, propping himself up on one elbow to continue the phone conversation.
“Probably been out hunting.” From Maddy’s voice he could tell she was settling down at her end too.
“That cat’s never been hunting in his life,” he scoffed, pulling the duvet up tight and wrapping it round his shoulders. With the hood still pulled tight around his face, it felt agreeably like being cocooned.
“Has too. Remember that mouse he brought in and let go in the kitchen, and it ran in behind the cupboards and we never saw it again?”
He chuckled. “He probably ordered it in. Got a Deliveroo. Or Uber Eeks.” It was a pretty weak pun, but he was glad to hear it raised a laugh at the other end. The sound of claws, briefly muffled on the carpeted stairs, redoubled in volume as they crossed the polished boards of the landing. Right on cue the bedroom door, which they always left ajar because otherwise Lump just sat outside meowling all night, creaked open. There was a pause, and then the bed quivered violently. “Bloody hell, Lump! Did you hear that? He just jumped up and practically catapulted me off the other side of the mattress!”
“At least you’ve got company,” grumbled Maddy.
“I suppose he does at least function as a decent hot water bottle,” he conceded. And indeed, he could feel the heat coming off the creature as it settled down, pressing into the small of his back.
“Give him a stroke from me.”
“Will do.” He reached an arm backwards until he found warm hair, and twisted his fingers through it. “God, his fur’s getting manky in his old age. Are you going to be there all week, d’you think?”
“At least, I think. Sorry.”
“Not as sorry as I am. Is the hotel decent, at least?”
“It’s ok. Bit weird. I’ll tell you about it when I get back. Is that Grumpus I can hear?”
“What, the asthmatic wheezing? It’s not me!” Greg redoubled his rubbing of the hairy body behind him, and the rumbling growl grew louder in response. “Be surprised if I get any sleep with that racket going on. Might have to shut him out in the garden.”
“Don’t you dare!” she admonished, but they both knew he was only joking. Or at least, half-joking. A nasty odour seemed to have entered the room along with the cat, bad enough to have Greg turning his nose further towards the fresh air on the opposite side of the bed as they talked. Smelled like something decomposing. Bloody thing must have been in the bins.
“I should go. Early start tomorrow,” Maddy was saying in his ear.
“Don’t overdo it,” he told her. “And don’t forget to eat properly.”
“Oh, no danger of that here,” she assured him. “But I need to get on top of the paperwork by the end of tomorrow: I’m calling a team meeting for Thursday. I’d better get my head down.”
“Alright. I love you.” The smell was getting worse, he was sure of it.
“Love you. Sweet dreams. Speak soon.” She rang off, and he put the phone down and scooted it as far as he could along the polished top of the bedside table. He had read something about microwave radiation ages ago, and even though he knew it was probably rubbish – it had been in the Daily Mail– he had kept his phone well out of reach while he was sleeping ever since.
That was when he saw Grumpus. The cat was on the far side of the room, beneath the chair strewn with the clothes Maddy had thought better of taking with her. It was transfixed, back arched, the hair all along its back standing up like bristles, its tail a bottlebrush. Its ears were pressed back to its head, mouth open in a terrified hiss, eyes wide as they stared past Greg at what was behind him.
It took Greg a paralysed moment to make sense of what he was looking at, to reorder the scene in his mind, to put the pieces together. And in that moment, a long arm – a dark-coloured arm that looked almost, but not quite human, reached over and past him, pressing him down into the pillows and at the same time stretching out a long, clawed finger to switch out the bedside light.