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The following evening the poster went up. They had pinned one on the telephone pole at the end of our terrace.
There was no mention of a reward, which was disappointing.
I asked Bella for copies so that I could put some up in the town.
Then I wandered down to the shop where Tammy works.
Tammy was monitoring the changing rooms.
“Here, Tammy, guess what, those new neighbours of mine have gone and lost their cat.”
Tammy likes cats, she asked how long it had been missing.
“Oh, a couple of days. Anyway, I have a poster here and I was wondering if you would put it up in the shop window?”
Tammy said, in what came across as a rather irritable tone, that she was sorry, but big chain stores didn't do that, they didn't put those sort of posters in the window.
“That's not very community spirited is it?” I said.
She did have a good idea though.
“Try the vets, the local veterinary practices, they'll put a poster up in reception.”
It was nearly midday and I knew that that's when Tammy took her lunch hour.
“Hey, Tammy, let's go over the road and grab a coffee and some cake.”
“I don't know Zeta, I mean, I was going to nip home, put some washing on and grab a quick sandwich.”
“Well, forget that,” I told her, “you need to get a life! We haven't had a good gossip in ages. I'll go and order the coffee.”
Then I hurried off before she could make any more excuses.
When I reached the till with the two cappuccinos and slices of walnut cake, I realised that I didn't have any money on me.
Then Tammy came in.
“I've ordered some cake for us, will you pick up a couple of napkins when you pay Tammy?”
I said, hurrying to secure an empty table by the window.
When she sat down, she took one look at the cake and said, “I'm allergic to nuts.”
“Since forever, Zeta, remember that time my face swelled up like a balloon, when we had that Chinese takeaway, because of the cashews?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot, that was really funny, you looked like a puffer-fish, I'd never seen anything like it.”
Tammy didn't look amused.
“Anyway, I'm sure they will change it, it's not been touched.”
Tammy wouldn't take the cake back to the counter though. She's like that, never wants to make a fuss or stand up for herself. So I ended up eating her slice as well.
"So, how was your weekend with Graham?” I asked, out of politeness, although I didn't actually care, well, not unless they had had a huge row and broken up or something.
“Oh great,” she said, beaming at me in a really nauseating way,” we just hung out, watched movies, had fish and chips from that new place on the corner, that sort of thing.”
“I heard that it was really grubby, the chip shop, apparently, environmental health has been in there making a fuss. Someone saw a rat.”
“Funny, my dad never mentioned that,” she said.
“How was your weekend Zeta?”
“Ruined by the bloody neighbours. Christ, the noise of their television blaring out! Then there's been all this drama about the stupid cat.”
There was an awkward silence while we sipped our coffee. Tammy didn't seem interested in hearing any more about the neighbours.
“So, no interesting gossip to impart?” I asked.
“No, not really, my parents are planning on moving though.”
“Far?” I asked, hoping that it would be.
Unfortunately not. Tammy said that they had their eye on one of those new houses.
“What new houses?”
“You know, just as you leave town, where that field was.”
I knew where she meant. That characterless close of flash, modern, ugly concrete, houses. All very expensive, solar panelled roofs, that sort of thing.
“Why, what's wrong with the one they're in?”
“Nothing, they just like the idea of a new place, and well, mum's heard through the grapevine that, three doors up from them, someone has put in a planning application to convert two of the houses into accommodation for homeless people.
“Well, you know, mum's worried.”
“About what?” It wasn't really a question, I knew only too well what Tammy's snob of a mother would be worried about.
“The drugs, drinking, needles all over the place, that sort of thing.”
“Or, it might really benefit people having to live out on the street, Maybe it would give them a chance to get back on their feet, get a job, help turn their lives around. How about that scenario? Has your mother bothered to consider that it might actually be a good thing for the community?”
Tammy wriggled awkwardly in her seat.
Anyway, it's not all about that.”
“No, mum just wants to move somewhere further out of town, where it would be quieter.”
“So, is their house already on the market then?” I asked.
“Well, they had better sell it fast before the application becomes common knowledge. There's nothing like news of some homeless junkies moving into the street to drive the price of houses down.”
Tammy looked worried.
“It's not definite, it could just be one of those rumours that go around, it probably won't happen anyway” She insisted, unconvincingly.
“So what estate agents have your parents put their house with?”
“Marsden Properties, I think, I'm not sure.”
“That's where my neighbour Bella works.”
Tammy seemed slightly rattled when I told her this.
Then she insisted that her lunch break would need to be cut short so she could help with the new window display.
“That's not on,” I told her,”Your lunch hour is an hour, you shouldn't put up with it.”
“Well, I also have to nip to the chemist and get a few things.” She added.
“Not a pregnancy test I hope!”
I was just teasing her, I love winding Tammy up, it's so easy. She went all red in the face and told me not to be stupid, she just wanted to buy some make-up.
It's not like Tammy to call me stupid and she seemed genuinely annoyed, perhaps I was onto something.
“Well, that's good isn't it, I can just imagine how your mum would react to the idea of a baby being born out of wedlock, or watching you waddling down the aisle massively pregnant.”
“I'm not pregnant Zeta, so just stop going on about it.”
Then Tammy left in a huff.
Tammy really needs to lighten up, I thought, or she'll end up like her hideous frump of a mother.
The walnut cake had been really sweet, I felt sick and wished I hadn't eaten it.
So I rushed home, put two fingers to the back of my throat and threw up into the bathroom sink.
Then I decided to wander round to Angie's to tell her all about the missing cat, and I wanted to make everything alright after our fall out. I hated it when we've argued.
Angie wasn't angry, she acted like nothing had happened.
“Hey Zeta, guess what, I've just won five hundred pounds.”
Angie spends forever on her laptop, gambling. I've no idea how much money she loses, I only ever hear about the wins, it's an addiction.
Her whole life is run online, banking, shopping, gambling.
“I'm going to put two hundred into your bank Zeta, so you can go out and buy some more of those big black baggy clothes to hide away in,” she joked.
Then there was a knock on the door and it was the supermarket delivering her groceries.
I put them away for her, which took ages because she had ordered enough food to feed a family of five for a month, all comfort foods, cakes, biscuits, pizza.
Her cigarettes were dropped around every couple of days by the corner shop.
“Guess what Angie,” I said, once I had made some coffee and sat down at the table with her.
“The neighbour's have only gone and lost their cat.”
“A few days ago. I told them, letting it out at night when you have just moved to an area was a big mistake.”
Angie said it would probably find its way home soon enough.
“Are you psychic then?” I said, joking.
“Well, no, but it's bound to isn't it, or someone will find it, have they put a poster up?”
“Yup, no reward though.”
“Yeah, if they want to increase the odds of getting Ginger back, that's what they should have done. You're a gambling woman Angie, you know it's true”
“Hmm,” Angie said, looking worried.
“I've been helping them look for it, we've scoured the park, nothing.”
“Why have you got involved? I thought that you didn't like your neighbour's or their cat.”
“Well, I don't, but you know, it's upsetting for the kids isn't it.”
“I thought you didn't like them either.”
“Well, little Luca's alright, he's quite cute.”
Angie lost interest in talking about the cat.
“So, what have you been up to then Zeta, anything exciting?”
“Like what? What possible excitement am I likely to have experienced?”
“Well, I don't know.”
Angie was just making idle chit-chat and it was getting on my nerves.
“This place is a dump Angie, nothing ever happens here. I did have a coffee with Tammy though”, I had to sit there while she stuffed her face with two whole slices of cake, it's a miracle she stays so slim!”
Then Angie asked if I was eating enough.
“You're as thin as a rake Zeta, I can still make out your bony little frame under all those clothes.”
“Let's not got there Angie, let's not end up arguing again.”
She knew what I meant, let's face it, we both had weight issues, probably best to avoid the whole subject.
“Guess what, Tammy's mum wants to move because there's talk of a planning application for a house for the homeless three doors up.”
I knew this snippet of gossip would get Angie going.
“Stupid, stuck up bitch, that's typical, she's got her bloody great big house, why shouldn't those poor bastards have a roof over their heads, what's her problem.”
“Well, she thinks it means that the street will end up littered with hypodermic needles and people off their faces on drink and drugs.”
“Bloody hell, I hate people like her.”
“Also, she thinks it will affect property prices, that's why she wants to sell up fast.”
“I'm going to write to the local paper.”
That rumour has it that there is a planning application for a house for the homeless on Elm Tree Terrace and that we should all rally around and support it.”
“They're not going to print an article just based on rumour.”
“Of course they bloody are Zeta, they're desperate for any stupid story. Christ, last week's headline was, DOLPHIN SIGHTED OFF PENINGTON BAY. That was it, not even a picture of a dolphin, just one of the cove. I mean, really, how amazing is that, some idiot saw a dolphin. A story about the plight of the homeless and the need for better community care is going to go down a storm. I'll even give them a title CONTROVERSIAL HOUSING FOR THE HOMELESS, PROTESTS PLANNED, and then a blurb about Elm Tree Terrace, the speculation and resident's fears. They will love it!”
“Oh Angie, you're so right,” I said, laughing, and I knew Angie would send something in, one, because she loves writing to the paper about various local issues and, two, she hates Sandra, Tammy's mum, as much as I do. Apart from that, Angie does really care about the homeless, I guess, for someone who can't bear the idea of going outside, not having a roof over your head is a genuine nightmare.
We both sat smiling for a few minutes as we imagined the look of horror on Sandra's face as she read the article.
Then we got to the inevitable question.
“Has Ruth been round?”
“Oh Angie, change the record, will you! Yes, I only saw her a few days ago!”
Neither of us wanted a re-enactment of my last visit, so we dwelt for a while on how Angie would word her letter to the paper, and then talked about how much rubbish there was on television.
Angie wanted me to stay and have something to eat with her, but I made my excuses. She was probably just planning on sticking a ready meal in the oven.
When I got home, I made myself a tomato sandwich and sat in front of the television to watch the news, there had been another terrorist attack, this time in Paris. Bastards, I thought, and then I threw my half-eaten sandwich in the bin and went out
into the yard for a smoke.
There was a light on upstairs in what I assumed was the boy's bedroom, the smaller one at the back of the house.
Ray was downstairs shouting at Bella, loud enough for me to hear every word.
“Well, it's alright for you, you've got a fucking job, I'm just hanging around here waiting for the bloody phone to ring. There's no work, no one's got any sodding money in this stupid little town. It's all full of fucking scroungers like that bloody nutty bitch next door!”
I reeled with shock.
“Be quiet Ray, the windows open, she might hear you.”
“I don't care if she fucking does.”
“Look, Ray, we've hardly been here a month, something will turn up, you've put that ad in the paper, it just takes time. The phone will start ringing soon enough.”
Ray was far from placated by Bella's little pep-talk.
“Yeah, probably be one of your bloody family spoiling another evening. Especially that sister of yours. Hasn't she got anyone else to talk to for Christ sake!”
Then he did an exaggerated mocking impression of Bella's voice.
Oh, Ray, it will all be fine, let's go and live by the sea, think about how great it will be for the boys, you'll get work, Ray.
“Look, Ray, I'm just saying.”
“Well, don't, keep your stupid mouth shut if you haven't got anything intelligent to say!”
Then a plate came flying out through the kitchen window and smashed in the yard.”
“Stop it Ray, the children!”
I went indoors and closed the back door.
It must have been awful for Almado and Luca, lying upstairs listening to the row, Christ, what an obnoxious git.
It was hard to get to sleep that night. Ray's aggression had really disturbed me.
The next morning he still seemed to be in a bad mood.
As I lay in bed, I could hear them out front.
“He can walk to bloody school on his own now, he knows the way, stop mollycoddling him for Christ sake. It's only through the park.”
“I just like to know that he's got there safe, that's all.”
“What the hell do you think is going to happen to him? Do you imagine some weirdo is lurking behind the bushes just waiting to leap out and grab him! Stop being so bloody paranoid Bella!”
Almado looked worried.
When I walked over to the window I could see his hunched figure hurrying through the park to school, anxiously glancing from side to side.
Bella had Luca in the pram and was watching Almado. She looked tired and deflated.
For the first time, I wished that it had been one of Ruth's days to visit, I really felt I needed someone to talk to other than Angie or Tammy.
When I left the house, later on, to buy cigarette papers, Ray was outside painting their front door. As I closed my gate, he looked up.
“Oh Hi, I hope the colour meets your approval,” he said, smiling.
Which took me by surprise. Not only because I now knew what he really thought about me, but it was also the first time he had tried to engage in any conversation.
I just glanced at his door and said, “I've never liked that shade of green.”
Ray laughed, amused, which was even more confusing, it was as if he was trying to be friends. Had he guessed that I had heard him and Bella rowing, and what he had said about me? Did he care, was it possible he actually felt slightly embarrassed, it seemed unlikely.
When I got back, I was glad Ray was no longer outside. He had finished painting the door and it was left open so the paint could dry.
At school closing time I decided to wander on down through the park.
There was the miserable figure of Almado heading in my direction, intermittently kicking the gravelled path.
He just looked up at me with a mixture of suspicion and dislike.
“How was your day at school?”
“OK.” He said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Any news about your cat?” I asked.
“Oh dear, that's sad, isn't it?”
“I don't like it.”
I didn't really know why I was bothering to talk to Almado or why I had decided to wander through the park to meet him. Maybe I did feel sorry for him.
As we approached the cottages, Ray was leaning against the granite wall of their house with a bottle of beer in his hand.
He looked over at us with a strange expression on his face.
“Get inside Almado!” He said sharply.
Then he gave me a looked which implied I owed him some kind of explanation, which I ignored.
As I stood outside in the yard I could hear Almado getting the third degree from Ray.
“What did she want?”
“What was she talking to you about?”
“Well, it must have been something, what did the nosy bitch want?”
“Nothing, she was just asking about the cat, that's all, she just wanted to know about the cat?”
“Nothing else, just that, just the cat?”
“Yes, I didn't do anything wrong, I just said we hadn't found him.”
I finished my cigarette and wandered back indoors and apart from the muffled sound of their television, it was a quiet evening.
The next day was dry and sunny. I went out early while it was still quiet, before the school run.
After that, I just hung around wondering what to do with myself.
At one point I looked out of the window and saw Ray leave his house dressed up in a suit and carrying a briefcase.
I'd never seen him in a suit.
I wondered if he had a job interview, he would hardly dress like that to visit a building site.
He was only away for just under an hour and then I heard the squeak of their front gate and the door slam shut.
The bank, I thought, has to be, the smart suit, trying to look all business-like. I wondered if he had been to see if he could get a loan.
At just after three o'clock I wandered over to the park and sat on a bench by the fountain until I saw Almado.
“Hi, Ali,” I said.
He pretended not to see or hear me.
“I came over to the park to sit in the sun.”
He looked at the ground.
“Do you know what, I think I can hear a cat meowing.”?
That got his attention.
“Well, I'm not sure, I think it's coming from somewhere in the bushes.”
Almado glanced over to the shrubs nearby.
“I don't hear anything.”
“Maybe I imagined it.”
I stood up.
“We could have a quick look if you like,” I said softly, squatting down to match his height.
Almado looked worried, I could tell he wanted to go with me but felt he shouldn't.
“It won't take a minute, what if it is Ginger, what if you were to find him, your dad would be really proud of you.”
So Almado followed me as I inched my way through the rhododendrons.
Then he heard the noise, the faint mewing of a cat.
There was a plastic bag with something inside it.
We crept over and there he was, Ginger, thin and weak with hunger.
Almado looked at me, astonished.
“Poor thing!” I said, “quick Ali, let's pick him up and hurry home with him.”
I grabbed the handles of the bag, Ginger slid to the bottom.
“Shouldn't we carry him properly?” Suggested Almado.
“No, he might struggle.”
The truth was, I didn't want to hold him. I didn't want to feel the limpness of his bony body. He was hardly alive.
Ray was in the garden oiling the gate hinges.
“Daddy, daddy, look what we found!” Almado was running towards his father breathless with excitement.
Ray looked from Almado to me, confused.
“He's in the bag daddy, Ginger, he's in the bag!”
I handed it to Ray.
“Christ, the state of him!” He said, and then asked where the nearest vets was.
It was only a five-minute walk from the cottage, so I gave directions and watched them hurry away. Ray had taken Ginger out of the bag and had him in his arms.