“Lie down and die, why don’t you!” Clydie James shouted at a large black dog that had begun barking at her in the street.
It was late afternoon, with heavy silver clouds looking bigger than cornfields, and presently it began to rain. Big round drops fell, still in the sunlight, on the hot tin sheds and sidewalks of the little town of Faraday. A hen and her string of yellow chickens ran in great alarm across the road, whilst the dust turned river brown.
“Nobby!” An old man called the dog’s name, and – to Clydie James’s relief – they both disappeared.
After everyone had gone inside, Clydie James stood still in the middle of the road, getting as wet as the little birds bathing themselves in the fresh puddles.
She wore a wide-brimmed hat of faded green canvas, on which she now enjoyed the drumming of heavy raindrops. She inhaled the odour of newly dampened soil, sighed at the nebulous crowd of memories that swirled nostalgically in her mind then headed back to her house. With its endless, white-painted picket fence and first-floor balconies, a haven to retire to.
Inside, she spotted a stamped envelope on the doormat. Her heart quickened as she recognised the curve of the blue-inked writing. Penny!
She dried herself off and made tea, then sat under a bower of roses on the rear porch, listening to the rain and smelling the wet lawn. “Merlin!” she called, and a ginger tom appeared and gazed at her through black slits in his pale-yellow eyes. She poured dark, fragrant tea into a small white china cup with pink rosebuds and added a dash of milk from a matching jug. She cut a corner from a ham sandwich and offered it to the cat, which it gratefully wolfed down.
‘Dearest mama,’ she read, ‘I know you will be sorry to hear this, but Victor and I have decided to part. As Charlemagne had his knights, so Victor has his women, though far less gallant, and indifferent to any hurt their attention to him may cause me. For his part, he has no conscience, least none that I can detect, and I, for one, am tired of the abuses he heaps upon me, spending nights away on the flimsiest of excuses.
I know this will come as a shock, mama, but our parting will be made legal forthwith. Lily and Frederick shall stay with me and may visit Victor at weekends, with arrangements made by the authorities. It will be hard for me on my own, so I wonder if we may come to live with you, mama? You have a large house, and it must be lonely sometimes. Please write soon with your thoughts. Much love, Penelope.’
Clydie James’s lips compressed. Her daughter always signed her name ‘Penelope’ when she wanted something from her. And this was a big ‘ask’ indeed!
She was suddenly startled by Merlin jumping onto her lap. He looked into her eyes, his were like gold sovereigns, she thought. Maybe he sensed something was wrong? She stroked his soft orange fur.
Overhead she heard a sound like a door slamming and jumped, causing Merlin to leap off. No one was in the house. Ah, perhaps she had left a window open? Though there was almost no breeze. The rain still fell in vertical lines.
Upstairs, she wandered through neat, high-ceilinged rooms appointed with antique furniture and deep carpets. No windows were open, and all seemed in order. She went into her study and looked at a wedding photograph of Penny and Victor on the wall. She could understand why women found him attractive, he was a handsome devil all right.
Then she heard a miaow and turned to see Merlin. He must have followed her upstairs. Then his back arched and he hissed at something behind her. She turned to an empty room.
“Hi, Merlin, don’t be silly, boy, there’s nothing there!”
Still, the cat hissed, crouching down lower, his back arched higher and his ginger fur beginning to stand up on end. Suddenly Clydie felt freezing cold, like the time she had once got into a huge tub of iced water in Norway. The cat was backing towards the door, hissing, whilst his eyes flickered backwards and forwards across the room behind her.
On impulse, Clydie reached out and snatched the wedding photograph down. She laid it upside down on the desk, suddenly feeling something warm and soft against her leg. It was Merlin, rubbing himself against her and purring. The room felt normal again.
Without turning the photograph over, Clydie put it in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet. She decided to prepare the guest rooms for Penny and the children. She guessed that one way or another, Victor had got what was coming to him.
Taken from the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural
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