FLINT ROAD - short story
This morning, Marianne went back to Flint Road. She didn’t feel nervous in an empty house even though it’s detached, set back from the road, and at some distance from any neighbours. Upstairs in the two bedrooms it seemed particularly stuffy and she opened the windows, anxious that when she came to sell or let the house, black mould would have started to creep across the walls. Years ago, living there with Ruth, she would never have worried over such things.
The only stick of furniture left behind was the rocking chair that once belonged to her grandmother. Everything else in the house she and Ruth had divided up; taking turns to choose. She remembered how even then, while knowing Ruth was leaving her for someone else, she’d still put Ruth’s choices first, knowing the items she had a particular fondness for.
Marianne pulled the rocking chair nearer to the window and sat looking down over the garden. They’d always let it grow wild, but now in late April the garden truly was a wilderness, all shades of lush green. Through Ruth, she’d come to appreciate birds and insects and…just nature. Together, late in the evening, they’d watched every kind of small animal; badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, even a mole on one occasion. Once Ruth was convinced she’d seen a lynx but it turned out to be a harmless black feral cat. They’d called him Percy.
But now something needed to be done out there, decisions made. Marianne’s relationship with Ruth had lasted a very long time. Within a year of it finishing (Marianne was the one left behind) she’d embarked on a new relationship which went well at first. It was a relief to be part of a couple once more and she genuinely liked the woman. In time she assumed that this liking would grow into love. But do you know, she’d used up so much emotion and energy in the longer relationship, after a few months Marianne realised she had nothing of any value to give to someone else? Intimacy was the chief stumbling block. She’d shared all her secrets once before. Really, ALL her secrets. During that long relationship she’d learnt to trust. They’d shared one another’s past histories and on discovering each point of similarity their bond grew deeper, at least on Marianne’s side. The similarities were good but when you’re in love, differences can be even more interesting.
‘I’d never enjoyed walking till I met you.” Or music festivals, or red wine, or holidays in Scotland, voting Green and of course they adopted Percy. Marianne had never owned any animal before and if asked would have said she preferred dogs or even Spider Monkeys. This last wasn’t true but Marianne liked to make Ruth smile.
Percy missed Flint Road. He was never truly Marianne’s cat; his affections always lay with Ruth. From that same back door, Marianne often watched the two of them out in the garden; years and years of Percy hiding behind or in or under the holly bush and Ruth singing a little song to herself and strolling past the bush as if she had no idea that Percy was there. Percy leaping out, front paws in the air before pelting up the garden and back to her.
“Clever boy.” Ruth stroking the cat from the top of his head, along his back to his tail. Percy looking up at her with adoring green eyes.
Marianne had always imagined cats to be heartless creatures but Percy changed that opinion forever. Sometimes Ruth tried to turn the tables on him by suddenly stopping in front of the holly bush and shouting ‘Boo!’ Percy refused to be either surprised or alarmed. He’d step out from his hiding place and award Ruth a disapproving stare as if she’d committed an act of bad taste. Which made her laugh. “Sorry Percy,” she’d say.
Yes, Percy had loved Ruth, and the garden, and the house with its wide windowsills and dark corners on the stairs. And Ruth had loved Percy and yet she hadn’t taken him with her.
She’d said, ‘Marianne, I can’t bear to leave you on your own.”
When Marianne and her new lover decided to share a flat together, Marianne put Percy into a cattery, just for a month. She reasoned that time on his own in a different but safe environment would make the eventual change of home easier for him. There’d be a chance for memories to blur. She reasoned as if Percy was a child she’d parted from his mother but if she’d assumed that the cat would forget Ruth or Flint Road, she was wrong.
Percy came back from the cattery a little bewildered but he didn’t appear too traumatised. The flat, about a mile away from Flint Road, was small but with a pretty garden and several established shrubs for Percy to hide in. As directed by the cattery she kept Percy indoors for a month. In that time, he dramatically lost weight. It was as if he’d been holding on in the expectation that Ruth would eventually come for him, as if he couldn’t believe in her desertion.
Percy is only a cat and yet even these memories remain so hard for Marianne to recall.
It was a relief when the month passed to finally let him out in the new garden. Marianne felt sure that once Percy went outside he’d start to thrive again but on the second morning there was no sign of him anywhere. They searched. They called. The new partner assured her that the cat would come back in a few hours. She offered all manner of consoling opinions on feline behaviour although she’d never owned a cat herself.
He didn’t come back. Marianne went through the streets calling his name and banging on a cat food tin with a spoon. The new partner wanted to join her but no; Percy would never show himself to this relative stranger.
Days later, as a last resort, on an old friend’s advice, Marianne returned to Flint Road. She stood at the open kitchen door and called for him. It was a still morning just after seven. She saw the long grass at the end of the garden shiver and then the shiver began to head in her direction. Finally, Percy burst out into the open and raced towards her. Afterwards she told the new partner, “He looked so hopeful. His eyes such a bright green and grass seeds hanging from his whiskers.”
When Percy realised it was only Marianne, he’d slowed, stepping towards her at a much more dignified pace. She’d closed the inner door and once he was in the room she quickly shut the back door. He fought her when she tried to lift him into the cat basket. He wriggled and scratched and growled furiously as if he saw her as an enemy. A week later he disappeared again. Marianne came straight back to Flint Road but Percy wasn’t so easy to catch. On four consecutive days she returned and finally from hunger she tempted him back into the house. This time when she put him in the basket he didn’t struggle which upset her even more.
Sitting in the rocking chair gently rocking herself, Marianne feels like an elderly female character from a horror film or a Bette Davis movie. She should have hung on to one of their straight-backed dining chairs. A less comfortable chair wouldn’t have encouraged her to relax, to daydream on lighter topics, put off the moment of locking up for a final time.
Back at the flat, the new love (who was never really a love at all) has gone. Marianne and Percy are happier. He goes out in the small garden now and doesn’t try to escape although Marianne thinks that if he heard Ruth’s voice calling him, even at a distance he’d be off without a backward glance. Marianne wouldn’t blame him. If she heard Ruth’s voice calling for her, she too would answer the call.
Thinking about Ruth is still so painful. She has to make an effort every moment of every day to resist the need to cry. Her heart truly continues to feel broken but, with difficulty she is making some sense of her life. She won’t look for someone else. She’s tried that and it didn’t work. Nor was it fair to use another person to heal a wound. For seventeen years Marianne lived with Ruth and was happy on most days. Having a love that lasted so long is pretty good for a lifetime. Not everybody gets that much. Marianne closes the windows and goes downstairs, leaving the rocking chair moving slightly. The sun has disappeared behind what Marianne still thinks of as ‘Percy’s holly bush’. She has been in the house for hours. In the kitchen she’d made herself a mug of tea. She’d brought biscuits with her but now it’s time to leave. She washes out the mug and returns it to an empty cupboard. She allows herself one last look at the garden. None of her friends know that she still owns this house. If they did, they would tell her to ‘get rid, cut ties, move on’.
About to turn away, she notices a shiver of movement running though the long grass at the end of the garden. She holds her breath, fearful of being disappointed. Percy emerges. He doesn’t hurry. If a cat can appear thoughtful, that is how he appears. By the time Marianne has reached the open kitchen door, Percy is already there, his tail held up in greeting.
She steps aside and lets him enter. In passing he rubs his head against her knee. “What are you doing here?” she says. “Your dinner’s at home.”
Ignoring Marianne, Percy leaps onto a windowsill. For a moment he looks at her and then he turns to stare out into the darkening garden.
Marianne leaves behind the packet of biscuits, retrieves the mug from the cupboard and places it next to the kettle. She gathers up her carrier bag and jacket, debating on whether to close and lock the kitchen door. She decides to leave it wide open. There is nothing here to steal.
From the set of Percy’s ears, the slightly raised fur on his back, Marianne can tell that the cat is aware of her every move. Is he waiting for the inevitable? For her to gather him up and return him to their shared half-life? She reaches a decision that is so obvious, she could easily laugh or cry with relief. As if the cat is a child she reassures him; “Wait for me,Percy. I’m coming back.”