He is elsewhere.
The rooms are much smaller without us in them. I move our chest of drawers away from the bedroom wall to check for fallen jewellery and find a huge brown spider last seen a month ago, nesting in the radiator pipes.
This is your room now, I whisper. You must pay the rent.
In the kitchen, I wrap the plates I want to take with me in newspaper and stack them on the worktop. I open the cupboards, thinking of washing-up that still has not been done, hair matted in the shower drain, all the pitiful tears and promises made… The mess will go mouldy and he will cough and gag as he deals with it. He will not have learned anything, despite listening. I think I am beyond anger, somewhere in the eerie realm of apathy.
There is not much I want from the living room. I stand at the fireplace, perusing our collection of found objects on the mantle. Behind an empty record sleeve I discover a stack of council tax bills, unopened. I turn the record over, appreciating the cover art. He bought this standing in the line waiting for another band, outside the venue, but he has never played it aloud. We do not own a record player.
I lift the limp head of a flower we have let die. I’m sorry, I say, we should have cared about you.
I regard our other ornaments of nostalgia. What use do either of us have for a rusty bicycle gear? Or two red flags, stolen under cover of night, from the eighteenth hole on the nice part of town? Or a shark’s delicate egg-pouch, black and salt-dusted, plucked from the pebbles under Brighton pier?
I bring the pouch to my nostrils and imagine I smell sea foam… I see the sky as it was then, making a great matchstick silhouette out of the pier. Our shoes crunching on the rocky dunes; the joint, fragrant on my glove fingers, and scarf pulled close.
He has the egg-pouch in his hand. He is yelling something along the lines of: ‘That is utter bullshit! You’re absolutely lying, there’s no way this thing came out of a shark!’ He is waving the pouch around like it’s an outrage. He shouts to a woman walking her dog, ‘A shark egg?’ She flinches as he gets close. ‘How is a shark supposed to fit in this?’
And I can barely stand for laughing. Later he, outside the car, emptying sand from his boots, me in the passenger seat, jotting down a few lines about strong wind coming off the surf, and car doors slamming; the pink clouds comparable to a bar at closing time when no one wants to leave, and something about love in the distance, like thunder, oncoming.
I put down the egg pouch and have a smoke break out front. Children have left their shoes in the street and they’re playing on the grass. I count four cats perched on four different garden walls. A neighbour calls out in greeting and I smile back without really looking. Hoping she cannot remember the week we moved in, when she offered to spare us a few recycling bags and we declined. Hoping she cannot smell the alley down the side of our house where the blocked drain floods, and all the food scraps we fail to catch in the sink come spilling out to turn rancid on the path.
I flick my filter over the fence, onto next door’s lawn. I close our door on the cul-de-sac and the house vanishes with me inside it. We should never have lived here, among such nice families. We have hurt this place. Trodden our dirt into the carpets; greasy pizza box stains; turned the pristine bathroom tiles orange. In his study, in the desk drawer, there is a crystal ashtray overflowing with roach ends. He thinks his indoor smoking is a well-kept secret but he is careless. I have known all along.
I move to the back door and take the heavy green curtains in my hands. The rail is loose in the wall; one strong tug and they could fall. I realise mine will be a botched disappearance, a paradox of vanishing. I want it to be like I was never here at all. At the same time, I want him aware of my absence like a deep bruise aching on the bone. In the calm of a hollow house, in the privacy of a closed mouth, I can admit that I want him hurting.
Movement. I turn; outside on the patio sits a cat with patchy fur, no collar, whiskers drooping at the tip. We are not strangers. She is waiting for an invitation. He never lets her inside—he kicks his slippers to shoo her away. He is adamant we will never leave food out for her. ‘It’ll just come to expect it.’
I open the back door and the sound of it scares her—she scurries under the bushes. I kneel and hold out my hand, waiting for the tiny, wet press of her nose investigating my fingers.
Nice to meet you.
When she trusts me, I step back inside, and a moment later she follows.
We go room to room, exploring. She, sniffing everything at nose height; I, presenting from the doorways, as if this is an open house and the cat is interested in buying.
And this is the bathroom… The cat finds an empty toilet roll and bats it into a corner. She emerges with spider webs draped across her back. No bath, I’m afraid, but you’ll manage, I’m sure.
At the top of the stairs, we pause to inspect the skirting board. I sit cross-legged on the carpet like a child. This is where his sister got sick. The cat doesn’t say anything. She is enjoying the carpet, kneading it with her claws. Where we found out, I mean. His mum called. His mum never calls. The cat accepts a gentle scratch under her chin.
He was fine at first, but then he said he couldn’t breathe. I told him, It’s all right, darling, it’s going to be all right, and went to make him a cup of tea. I heard him yell and, when I returned, found him clutching his hand to his chest, slumped beneath the hole he’d just made in the wall. I called him a stupid bastard and rolled him into my arms. He wouldn’t cry in front of me.
The cat allows me to stroke the length of her body. With her yellow eyes on me I feel we have known each other our whole lives. There is something beautiful about not having to find the words. It is acceptable for me to abandon her here, with no explanation. I will never have to say out loud what she means to me. I am not expected to explain that of course I still love her, but it’s not what it used to be, we both know it; and she will never call me a coward for leaving like this, and it won’t end in me screaming, ‘I just can’t stand the sight of you anymore!’ knowing I have no real reason for feeling this, it being just one of those terrible things.
She bores quickly of our bonding and totters down the stairs. Now I am the one who follows. In the living room, she settles on the worn sofa cushions, and I know by the sight of her there—a detail from the life we should have had, but out of place in this one—that it’s time for me to go.
She watches me gather myself; fetching the plates in newspaper, my case for contact lenses, a house plant. I take the unheard record off the mantel and tuck it under my arm. These songs will be a comfort to me, in this new time. They are the only ones left untainted.
I turn to my old friend. She does not look hurt. She does not look happy. Something is stuck in my chest—as if I have tried to swallow an entire potato without chewing it. This is an image he coined in a bout of man-flu last year, but I won’t allow this thought to carry me off to happier memories. Perhaps hating me will make it easier for them, the cat and him.
I say, I’ll leave the door unlocked. Don’t feel you have to stay. The front door completes its full swing closed, the lock clicks, and the cat, with my whole life around her, vanishes.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
VIVIENNE BURGESS is based in London/North East and holds a First Class Honours in English with Creative Writing. Her short fiction has been published online by LossLit and 356tomorrows, and in print by Cuckoo Press and Brunel University London Press.