Helen Lyne

writer, spoken word poet

Cats have feature roles in some of my fiction. The following extract is from a short story entitled, I do not Understand.

I-do-not-understand-cat… That Saturday I got home at about nine thirty, changed into my nightdress and turned on a police drama on TV. Someone got shot and people screamed. When the scene changed to the detective’s office, the screaming continued. It wasn’t from the drama. It was coming from next door. I turned off the television.

It was a woman’s voice. Marie-Paule’s. There were loud thumps and the sound of crockery and glass being broken. If my husband was still alive, he’d have gone and banged on their door. My heart raced at the foolish thought that I should do the same. I wasn’t that brave. Geoff was a big man. Marie-Paule was no bigger than me. As for Nicole – a five-year old. I reached for the phone near the front window. The screams were intensifying. Fury or fear? My finger was hovering over the first zero when I saw a car, lights twirling, pull up outside next door. A police man and woman got out and crossed the footpath. Heavy banging on the front door added to the crashing and screaming from inside. Suddenly there was silence. Well, not exactly silence. I could hear a murmur of voices and then nothing.

I was still standing with the phone in my hand when the police car left. Not a sound from next door. I went to bed and tried to read. I fell asleep long after midnight.

The next morning, bringing my coffee onto the back veranda, I found Nicole sitting in her pyjamas on the top of the steps going down to the grass. Sylvie was sitting by her side, licking her chest. I smelt urine.

“Good morning, Nicole. Good morning, Sylvie.”

Nicole acknowledged my greeting by ducking her head and hunching her shoulders, almost as if expecting a blow. I sat down beside her. The smell of urine was stronger. Her pyjama bottoms looked damp. Suddenly, Sylvie licked her forepaw and rubbed it over her face.

“Oh look, Nicole. Sylvie is starting her Sunday bath. She’s using her paw as a face washer. She likes to do it here when it’s sunny. And do you know what she likes to do next?”

Nicole didn’t look at me, but her shoulders relaxed and she shook her head.

“She likes to come to the bathroom door and watch me have my bath. She doesn’t come in. She just sits there and stares. I think she’s checking to see that I wash my pyjamas properly.”

Nicole snatched a look at me to see whether I was joking.

“Perhaps if you had a bath, she’d come and look at you too.”

I added, playing it safe, “Of course cats don’t always do what you expect them to and they can’t be made to do anything. Would you like to try and see?”

Nicole looked at me speculatively.

“And then Sylvie can have her breakfast and you and I can have some toast and hot chocolate.”

I wondered why on earth I was creating this confection of partial truths. A responsible adult would have gripped Nicole by the hand and walked her firmly back to her parents. I was not that sort of responsible adult. I stood up and held out my hand.

“Would you like to try?”

Sylvie had stopped licking herself and seemed, like me, to be waiting for Nicole’s answer. Nicole looked from one of us to the other. She stood up and slipped her small cold hand into mine. I hoped against all probability that Sylvie would come to the bathroom door. She occasionally did so when I was taking a shower and her breakfast was late. I never have a bath.

I filled the tub with warm water and opened a packet of bubbles that someone had given me two Christmases ago.

“Can you undo the buttons, or would you like me to?” I asked.

Nicole shook her head and tackled the buttons. She fumbled and took a long time with each one. I had the impression she rarely undid them herself. I sat on the edge of the bath and waited. She pulled off the top and hesitated.

“We’ll pop your pyjamas into the bath and give them a bit of a wash and then I’ll pop them in the dryer and they’ll be all warm and cosy to have breakfast in.”

Nicole turned her back to me and pulled down her pyjama pants. Naked, she turned towards me and held up her arms to be lifted into the bath. There were no bruises, no marks whatsoever on her body. I was starting to think this was all getting beyond me. I suppose she was the right weight for her age but I found her heavy and was afraid of toppling over. I got her into the bath, tossed her pyjamas in too and sloshed them around. She giggled at the little waves. I stood up and was about to say I’d better tell her parents where she was when she pointed a foamy finger towards the door. Miracle of miracles! Sylvie was sitting on the threshold.