A Problem of Cats

Elise was twenty – barely – and she’d been a nanny for almost two years. She supposed that wasn’t an awfully long time, but she’d been around kids for a lot longer than that. She liked them. In general, they were easier to deal with than adults. Honesty and a sense of playfulness usually did the trick, but she wasn’t above bribery where circumstances demanded it. She considered herself good at her job, and she mostly enjoyed it. But right now she wasn’t enjoying it. Not at all.

“Kate?” She called cautiously. She’d left the little girl sleeping, curled around a scruffy giraffe and deeply lost in dreams. Now the bed was empty, the cover oddly deflated, as if she’d simply popped out of existence beneath it. “Kate?” Elise tried again, hearing a tremor in the word. She hurried to the window and checked behind the curtains, even though she could see they lay too flat to the wall to hide anyone, even a mischievous toddler. The window was latched and locked, rain chasing lazy streaks against the glass. “Kate!” She opened the cupboard and ran a hand quickly over the coats and dresses, then hurried out of the room. “Kate!”

No one in the bathroom, no one in the spare bedroom, no one in the hall closet. She looked at the master bedroom door with a sick feeling in her belly. She wasn’t panicking, not yet. But she was imagining the mess a small girl with inquisitive hands could get into, unsupervised among the perfume bottles and pill packets and secret bedside table stashes.

“Kate,” she tried again. “Where are you? C’mon out now – it’s afternoon tea time!” No answering call, no giveaway giggle from an unsuspected hiding place. She crossed to the master bedroom, braced herself for the carnage within, and jerked the door open, Kate’s name already on her lips.
The bedroom was empty, the duvet smooth and unrumpled, the cream carpet unmarked by grubby hands or feet. Elise took a hesitant step inside, and dropped to her knees to check under the bed. Nothing. She opened the door to the en suite, peered into the bathtub and even under the sink, feeling the first clawings of panic. Kate hadn’t been in here. But she wasn’t anywhere upstairs, and how could she have got downstairs without Elise seeing her? She’d been drinking her tea in the kitchen, just off the stairs. She couldn’t have missed her. She jogged out of the bedroom and headed for the stairwell, stopping to glance into Kate’s room, just in case she’d somehow reappeared, the blanket swelling up around her once more. The bed lay stubbornly empty, and when Elise called the girl’s name again she could hear fright in the word’s ragged edges. She took the stairs two at a time.

The front door was still locked – there was that, at least. She checked the cupboard under the stairs, and was heading for the kitchen when she heard keys in the door, and froze. Aggie? Surely not. She was never home from her lunches til at least five, and it was only three. So that meant – she spun and tried to force a smile as the door opened and Robert came in, brushing water off his hair and blinking through his rain-splattered glasses.
“Hi!” She called, aware her voice was too bright, too false.
He frowned at her, and took his glasses off, rubbing them absently against his shirtfront. “Hi, Elise. Everything okay?”
“Yep, yes – all good!” She swallowed, forced herself to slow down. “You’re home early.”
“Migraine.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I’m going upstairs to lie down – can you make sure Kate stays quiet?”
“Yes, yes, absolutely. Will do.” She avoided his gaze as he put his glasses back on and looked at her curiously.
“Right, then. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Alright then. Hope you feel better!” She could feel sweat on her upper lip as he nodded uncertainly and started up the stairs. God, he probably thought she was on drugs or something. But that was fine, she could deal with that, as long as he didn’t realise his daughter was bloody well missing. She hurried into the kitchen, searching silently now, too scared to call Kate’s name. How could she be gone? It was impossible. The house was locked, she always kept it locked, it was a safe neighbourhood and all, but you just never know, so she always locked the doors when she was home with just Kate, so no one could have got in, and anyway she’d been right there, right there in the kitchen, she’d have seen if anyone came in the front door orthe kitchen door, so unless fricking Spiderman had stolen her out of a locked window – her panicked thoughts cut off abruptly as Robert called from the stairs.
“Elise?”
He knew. God, he’d figured it out. He’d seen the empty bed, or he’d seen through her babbling, or he’d just guessed it – it didn’t matter. She was screwed. She stumbled into the hall, feeling lightheaded. “Yeah?”
“Do you know Kate’s out in the playhouse in her pyjamas?”
She felt blood rush to her face in a confusion of relief and embarrassment, and although she opened her mouth to answer, she had no words. She just stared at him as he hung over the banister, looking pale and weary. He stared back at her for a moment, then, unexpectedly, smiled.
“She got away on you, didn’t she? She’s a right little escape artist when she wants to be. Don’t worry about it. She’s done it to me, too. Just bring her back in and get her warmed up – and best not tell Aggie, alright?”
She nodded her agreement dumbly as he straightened up. She’d never warmed to him – he was cold and formal, and she knew he came home after she’d put Kate to bed, and in the mornings he was gone before she’d managed to get Kate dressed. She’d never imagined he’d be a particularly involved father, but something in his smile now made her think differently. Or maybe it was just the fact that he’d not only found the runaway girl, he wasn’t blaming her for it. That made him pretty much her favourite person in the world right now.
He patted the railing, and nodded, almost to himself. “She’s a problem, alright.” Then he turned and headed back up the stairs, and his sudden movement released Elise from her paralysis. She ran for the back door – and, later, she’d tell herself that she’d been mistaken about the deadlock being on, that she’d locked it then unlocked it herself, in her dizzy relief, without realising what she was doing. Because it couldn’t have been locked, Kate couldn’t have locked it behind her. So it hadn’t been. Of course it hadn’t been. She wrestled the door open and ran across the wet grass in her socks, seeing the shadow of Kate’s head moving inside the wooden playhouse. She dropped to her knees outside, ignoring the damp soaking through her jeans, and the kiss of cold rain on her neck.
“Kate? Honey? Are you okay in there?”
“Hi, ‘Lise,” the little girl called back. “I’m visiting with the cats.”
“Okay.” Elise tugged the half-size door open and peered in. “Are – christ.” Because Kate was always talking to imaginary things – even more than most kids – but there was nothing imaginary about the five cats sprawled around her on the painted pink carpet. Three of them were enormous toms, and they all had the vaguely scrappy look of life-long strays. The closest, a tabby she-cat with half an ear missing, bared her teeth silently, and Elise drew back a little. “Ah – Kate, you need to come out, okay? Really slowly. It’s like a game – you have to not scare the cats when you move, alright? It’s like – it’s like an obstacle course.”
“They’re not scared of me,” the little girl said, and as if to prove her point she put her arms around the big ginger tom sitting next to her and hugged him. He half-closed his eyes in an expression of long-suffering patience, and leaned his head against her cheek. “They’re my friends.”
“Okay, that’s good. But you need to come inside, okay? It’s afternoon tea time.” And I’m going to have to de-flea this whole bloody place. And probably you, as well.
“Can’t we have it out here with the cats?”
“No, sweetheart. We don’t have any afternoon tea food for cats.”
“We could give them some milk. Would you like that, Chester?” She addressed the last to the ginger cat, who headbutted her gently and got up. As if on his signal, the other cats rose to their feet too, and Elise drew back instinctively. The way they looked at her – as if she were the intruder here. The stroppy she-cat that had bared her teeth slipped out of the door first, flicking her ears against the rain, and padded softly across the lawn, coat oddly indistinct in the grey day, as if she were more a memory of a cat than real. The others followed her, until only the big ginger tom remained, still standing next to Kate. He pressed his nose softly to her cheek, and gave Elise a disdainful look when she squeaked in protest. Kate just giggled and stroked his back clumsily. “I wish you could stay,” she said, a little sadly, then she waved as the cat stepped out the door. He and Elise stared at each other for a moment, then he faded into the garden, his shoulders rolling like a streetfighter’s, and was gone.

Elise watched him go, then extended her arms to Kate. “C’mon, sweetheart. Let’s get you inside.” Kate came to her obediently enough, and it was only as she was carrying the girl into the house that she realised Kate wasn’t damp at all. The rain must have stopped just when she crossed to the playhouse. That must have been it. What else could it be?

#

And if that had been it, she probably would have stayed. For all Robert’s coldness, and Aggie’s inconsistency, and Kate’s habit of talking to trees and rocks and ponds, it was a good job. She liked Kate – loved her, even. The pay was decent, and no one asked anything crazy of her, not like some other jobs she’d heard of. But that was only the first time Kate vanished. Elise learned to check the playhouse before anywhere else, and sure enough the little girl would be in there, sometimes just with the big ginger tom, sometimes with an incongruously fluffy black and white one as well, sometimes with others. But always the ginger one. And that sort of thing gets to you, after a while. The puzzle of the locked doors, and the girl suddenly outside beyond them. There was an explanation, obviously, but Elise could never find it, no matter how many nights she lay awake watching the shadows cast by the orange streetlights drawing odd shapes across the ceiling. No matter how many times she checked and double-checked doors. And it gave her an uncomfortable, unsettled feeling, as if the world wasn’t quite how she had thought it to be.

And then – the cats. The damn cats. It wasn’t enough that they seemed to have formed some sort of club, with the playhouse as its headquarters. No, they started turning up elsewhere, as well. At first she thought it was her imagination – after all, cats of a colour tend to look pretty similar, if you don’t know them. But no – Kate would run to them at the park, and the big ginger tom would headbutt her just as he had in the playhouse, and the fluffy one would look on. Or the ever-present ginger and the tabby she-cat with the torn ear would be on the wall opposite the cafe, basking in the fickle winter sun while Elise bought an overpriced babyccino and wished she could sneak a shot into her coffee, because if nothing else deserved a tipple, being stalked by cats did. And they’d be sat, the ginger tom and one of his buddies, ignoring the pigeons, outside the craft centre, or ambling across the supermarket parking lot like a couple of drugstore hoods. But she might still have managed even that. Called it coincidence or her own over-stressed imagination, if it hadn’t been for the holiday. The holiday in Menorca, in the little rented villa, nothing posh or over the top, but not far from the beach, and with a little private pool and an outdoor kitchen. Elise had been looking forward to it, and not least because she was starting to worry that she was actually becoming obsessed with the damn cats. She looked for them everywhere. It had become so that if she didn’t see them, she couldn’t relax until she spotted them. So the idea of a week in the sun, floating Kate around the pool or building sandcastles on the beach while Robert sat on his computer and Aggie sipped sangria, sounded perfect.

Until the first morning, when she walked out to the pool hand-in-hand with Kate, and the little girl raised her hand and waved.
“Hey, Chester,” she called to the ginger cat, and he dipped his head in reply from where he sat comfortably on the terracotta tiles of the outdoor kitchen’s roof.
Elise quit the day they arrived home, found a house share on the other side of the city, and adopted a small but fierce dog from a local shelter. Eventually she stopped looking for the ginger tom and his fluffy sidekick, but she never quite trusted any cat again.
#
After the drama with the cat-phobic nanny, Robert decided a change might be in order. It hadn’t escaped his attention that Aggie’s lunches were becoming longer, more frequent, and more liquid. Or that the temazepam boxes were being replenished with an alarming frequency. So, with a mix of cajolery and bribery, he persuaded her that a house in the country would be fantastic for everyone, and before the summer was over they were arguing over whether the room over the garage, with its window looking out over green fields and stone walls, was best used as a home office or a workout studio. Aggie won, and Robert acquiesced gracefully enough. From here, he could commute on the train as easily as he had by tube before, and he had time to work on the way. He started to consider home as the place he didn’t work. And that was nice.

Kate, meanwhile, had discovered a wilderness in the garden, peopled by butterflies and beetles and fabulous things, and a gate in the wall that led to grazing sheep and walking tracks and wild secret places. She ran wild herself, barefoot on the grass and rough paths, loving the mud between her toes and the sun on her head. There was magic everywhere, and the only thing she worried about was whether Chester would find her here. But he did. He always did.

He always would.


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