Susan Moggeridge called out for Virginia as soon as she got home. She would scuttle from room to room and if it was summer, from house to garden, until she had located her companion. The thought of coming home to find Virginia injured or gone was too upsetting to bear. She hung her mackintosh on the peg by the door of the cottage. It had been a demanding day. Councillor Gambling had needed humouring after a lengthy Council meeting about overcrowded graveyards. The local journalists had gone away with the idea that body snatching would soon be rife in Lewes and it was going to be reported in tomorrow’s newspaper. Gambling had resorted to a string of wisecracks, beginning with a pun about having a “coronerary” heart attack and ending with one about digging himself a hole. It had been left to Susan to laugh at all of them. ‘I’m taken for granted, I really am’, she had told the office. But in the administration of the Coroner’s records for the Town of Lewes she was meticulous and indeed was quite an expert when it came to death. It had been she, when the weather had been unusually hot one summer and several of the white freezer trucks that picked up dead bodies had malfunctioned, who had come up with the idea of employing a small army of ice cream vans to take their place. It was also Susan who had noticed when her colleague, Harriet Dolphin on the neighbouring pod, had died, when everyone else in the office had thought she was merely asleep after a hectic morning of pre-awayday meetings. Susan had put a cosmetic mirror in front of Harriet’s mouth to see if she was breathing and then raised the alarm when no mist had formed. She had received plaudits from three managers; one senior, for her efforts. These she had printed out and stuck to her fridge with magnets.
It was nearly autumn in Rodmell. But though the temperature had dropped, the sun in certain parts of the garden was still strong. Virginia was outside on the lounger, in one of those sunspots, with a smile on her face. Not all cats had her expressiveness, her elegance, her long, sleek hair and dark green eyes which were only half open most of the time. But they opened suddenly the moment she heard the handle go down on the kitchen door.
‘Oh, my darling there you are,’ cried Mrs Moggeridge. She moved assertively for a short woman, almost marching across the lawn on her stout legs. ‘Have you been sunbathing?’
The cat responded by stretching its entire body in an arc and then relaxing again. Mrs Moggeridge stood on tiptoe to glance over the fence, then folded her skirt under her and sat down next to Virginia. ‘Have you missed me?’ The cat yawned, then stared at her as if she was a necessary inconvenience. ‘Yes you have. We’ve missed each other, haven’t we?’
Up the road half a mile, though Susan was unaware of it, a car had run out of petrol. The driver had seen the sign for the village a little too late, then had been forced to turn round in a field, almost skidding into a ditch. It was lucky the car had stopped just as he had reached the village pub and he had managed, with the help of a local patron, to roll it onto the paved area near the porch.
When Phillip had caught his breath he walked in through the low front door, stooping as he did so, and almost bumped into a hanging basket of flowers. ‘Do you have any vacancies?’ he asked the landlady. ‘Car’s died.’
‘No, dear, we’re full up at the moment,’ she replied. But she gave him a napkin with the address of a local bed and breakfast written on it in black biro. Number five, it said, and there was a map next to it with two parallel lines, five squares and a dot. He hadn’t expected such friendliness. In London no one wanted to talk to you, let alone call you “dear”.
He walked down the lane trying to see the numbers on the cottages but the gardens were long and the walls high. Every house seemed to have a thatched roof and all looked immaculate enough to be boarding houses of one kind or another. He was in awe of the flowers overflowing from the bricked gardens, though he wasn’t sure of their names. Honeysuckle came to mind. But the smell…the smell was like perfume or better; better than anything you could buy over the counter in Harrods or Harvey Nichols. He had the idea of counting the houses and when he had come to the fifth one along he walked through an archway created by an evergreen bush, continued up a winding path and knocked on a wooden door. A short woman with blue button eyes answered.
‘I’m looking for a place to stay,’ said Philip.
‘Oh, are you lost?’
‘Yes. Well, the woman at the…Scottish name…Abergavenny Arms, said you might be able to put me up.’
Mrs Moggeridge let out a little laugh. ‘Did she? Silly girl!’ The man was silent while she continued giggling. She looked him up and down. He was well washed and smelt of a dry, woody aftershave. He was wearing black-rimmed glasses and carried a leather briefcase. All of these things pointed to refinement and civility.
‘I seem to have run out of petrol. There’s no garage. I had a conference today, you see, then when I was driving back…I’m never any good with maps.’
Mrs Moggeridge stopped giggling. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘come in. You can sleep in my husband’s room.’
‘Won’t your husband need it?’
‘I doubt it.’
‘How much do you charge?’
‘How much will it be for the room?’
‘Oh, dear!’ She started chuckling again.
‘But aren’t you a landlady?’
‘No, no! Goodness, no!’
‘Oh, I am sorry. I think I’ve made a mistake. I was supposed to go to number five,’ he said, prodding the napkin.
‘That’s Fleur. She’s all full at the moment. Students. Well she’s only got two rooms and they’re very small. One of them’s an attic. The floorboards are broken and they’ve had rats. But you’re welcome to stay here with me.’ Phillip supposed these country villages were all full of people who had retired and were desperate for company. He’d have to pay her something, but now he was tired and it was easy to accept her invitation.
Inside the cottage it was light and spacious; he had assumed it would be dark and small, and there was a chintz sofa and a grandfather clock that told the correct time. He was led into the kitchen where at once he noticed two enormous china bowls on the floor, one brimming with water, the other containing what looked like finely chopped steak.
‘I see you have a dog.’
‘A cat. She is a bit on the large side but I don’t mention it within her hearing. I have to buy everything for her from the dog’s range at the pet shop.’ She pulled out a chair and gestured to Phillip to sit down, then bustled around him with teapots and cups.
At that moment the door opened and the subject of the conversation entered, appearing quite unsurprised at the visitor’s presence. She jumped gracefully onto the mahogany sideboard and seated herself between two ornamental blue plates so that she was above both humans and looking down at them. She tilted her head upwards and sniffed Phillip, then stared at him intensely, as if she wanted an explanation for something; something he was guilty of but had forgotten.
‘I think my poor little angel’s hungry. She’s shy because you’re here but usually when she wants something she gets up on her hind legs and she puts her little paws up just like this.’ Mrs Moggeridge raised her arms to her chest and did an impression of a cat that made her look more like a squirrel. Phillip responded with a polite smile. Old bag’s been living alone for too long, he thought. I suppose she thinks I’m her new best friend. Then something red and still caught his eye on the mat underneath the cat flap.
‘Oh, I think it’s got a mouse.’
Mrs Moggeridge leaned towards the door. ‘Oh, dear, we don’t want any mice.’ She pulled out a drawer, put on a pair of rubber gloves quite clinically, bent down and picked up the punctured carcass between thumb and forefinger. “Out, out, out!” she cried, and the offending thing was whisked away into the evening and disposed of in an outside dustbin.
The cat regarded the performance with an air of amusement then turned its attention back to Phillip.
‘It’s got very long hair. I suppose you have to brush it every day.’
‘Oh yes, it takes hours. We don’t like the comb, do we darling, only the brush.’
‘What’s its name?’
‘Like the author?’
‘Exactly. We get a lot of tourists here, even at this time of the year, mostly Americans, because of the Woolf connection.’
‘Yes, she used to live at the house across the lane.’
‘I didn’t realise. How interesting.’
‘She died here too. It’s a sad, sad thing when someone so talented wants to do that to themselves.’
‘Oh, yes, she…drowned, didn’t she?’
Mrs Moggeridge wrinkled her nose.
‘Wasn’t there a film about it?’
‘Yes. We do get a lot of people just coming to see the river. Have you read her?’
‘Not much. I think she’s a bit overrated frankly. Yes, a bit slow. Not enough action for me. Still, I suppose that kind of thing always entertains a small percentage of the population.’
The cat, who had been licking an upturned paw, stopped abruptly and fixed him with an unwavering stare. If Phillip hadn’t known better he would have called it malicious.
‘Virginia, of course, has her own room. Mine is at the top of the stairs and yours will be on the left. View of the garden. Perfect now but we did have a few problems with the fence. The man who lived there before never used to mend it so we complained. Not a good response.’
‘Won’t your husband mind me staying?’
‘Goodness, no. He only visits occasionally. He’s in a home; Seagull’s Heaven. Just down the A27. Sometimes his batteries run out, you see. He needs irrigating and I just can’t bring myself to do it. Anyway, as I was saying, our neighbour, nasty man, got quite militant. He took it out on Virginia. Of course, everyone in the village was on my side. He was a bird man. He thought Virginia was trying to get at his budgerigar. She wasn’t, of course, she was only having her little game. She plays little games, you see. She runs after them like this.’ And Mrs Moggeridge did an almost balletic impression of Virginia running and swiping the air with a paw. ‘Anyway, one day she came back in quite a state, soaking wet and crying. She wouldn’t leave my side for days.’
‘Who knows. Who knows what that cruel man did. Anyway, we have a new neighbour now; Crispin, he restores stained glass windows. We get on very well indeed.’
What happened to Mr…’
‘Dunnock? He moved away.’
Mrs Moggeridge opened the fridge door to get some milk for the tea and Phillip couldn’t help noticing that it was full of meat, mostly poultry, which looked as if it had been freshly caught as it was still feathered. She continued to busy herself around the kitchen and then suddenly, with no warning at all, did a little pirouette and slid behind her guest. He felt a light pull at the back of his neck and tightened his shoulders. A cold finger slipped inside his shirt and down his back, causing him to shudder and jerk his body round instinctively. His collar snapped back into place immediately and the woman withdrew her hand. ‘Your label was sticking out,’ she said, ‘I have a thing about labels. They have to be tucked in.’ She breathed in sharply and sighed.
Phillip fingered his neck. ‘I’ll do it myself next time.’
Mrs Moggeridge pursed her lips tightly. ‘Oh, dear, did I scare you?’ she said. ‘I’m watching you, you know, I’m behind you.’ And her giggle was like a half-formed hiccup. ‘Just a joke, just a joke.’
Phillip attempted a casual smile but his mouth twitched at the corners and gave him away. He was aware that his heart was beating slightly faster than it had been. I won’t have to endure her for much longer, he thought. I’ll go to the pub and by the time I get back she’ll be in bed with her Ovaltine. He stood up.
‘I think I’ll go for a walk. Get a bit of exercise.’
‘It doesn’t look like it did in the film. Very bare and no weeping willows. It’s twenty minutes down the lane. I’ll leave the key under the flowerpot.’
Phillip walked out of the cottage, back through the hedge and down the lane. He passed the house of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The gate was firmly locked but he could see a garden with a wrought iron chair in it, shaded by an elm tree. He shivered, unable to forget the cold fingers against his neck. As he was a Londoner he was not used to such intimacy with people he had only just met and he had a vague feeling that she had done it just so she could touch his skin.
After twenty minutes he was still walking and there was no sign of a river. The fields were marshy and uneven. He had already slipped into a clump of nettles and was becoming irritable. He bent down to scratch an ankle and when he looked up he could see that he was alone except for a few sheep and an abandoned tractor. Twenty minutes along the path she had said. He checked his watch. There was a chalk hill in the distance and a windmill. But he couldn’t see or hear a river. He continued to walk, not wanting to give up. Perhaps the “river” was one of the streams on either side of him. But they were too dry and shallow. You couldn’t throw yourself into one of those and expect to drown, even if you had put rocks in your pockets. Then all of a sudden he came to a bare promontory. He climbed it quickly, expecting to be disappointed but there, revealed at last, was the river. It was wide and deep and powerful and the wind had created a stripe along its back. It surged forward as if its mission was to engulf anything in its path that resisted. Phillip sat down on the bank respectfully, carefully avoiding the white rocks and stones around him. And then the strangest thoughts filled his mind. He wondered what had happened to the neighbour who had assaulted the beloved cat. Had he really left the village, or just disappeared? Perhaps he had visited this very spot. Perhaps he had fallen in accidentally. Perhaps he had been pushed. He’d have been dragged under by that tide in no time at all. Phillip put both hands behind his head protectively. He looked behind him. Mrs Moggeridge could have been there, she could have crept up, put her hands around his neck and… But why was he imagining such ridiculous things? She was just a lonely old woman. He stood up, turned around and hurried back up the path.
Reluctant to return to the cottage while his hostess was still awake, Phillip made a detour. He wanted to feel he’d made the most of the country experience. He passed an old army bunker and a church and saw more shades of green than he had in a long time. Of course as it was a small place it wasn’t long before he found himself back at the Abergavenny Arms; it seemed to be the hub of the village and therefore the natural end to his tour. There was a comfortable leather sofa which made it hard to leave so he ordered four gin and tonics, one after the other, and downed them swiftly. By the time last orders were called he was feeling mildly disorientated. He found the cottage again only by recognising the weather vane sticking up from the roof. ‘I’ll sleep on the sofa,’ he said to himself. ‘I’ll leave as soon as it’s light. Avoid her altogether.’ He ran his fingers down the wall in the hallway but was unable to locate a light switch so he staggered into the kitchen, throwing a half-eaten packet of crisps and some Alka Seltzer onto the table.
Suddenly, he heard a deep gurgling sound close by. It was quite rhythmical and was getting faster. He looked around the kitchen, still trying to focus through the gin and half darkness. Then his eyes found the source of the strange, churning noise. Just between the vegetable rack and the back door was the cat. It was crouching down very low on the tiles, lurching forwards at intervals, retching.
At that moment Mrs Moggeridge rushed into the kitchen.
‘What have you done?’ she demanded, glaring at Phillip.
‘Nothing,’ he replied, slurring his words, ‘I’ve only just got back.’
She turned on the kitchen lights and ran to the cat.
‘Look at her. She’s in agony!’
‘I’ve only just seen her,’ said Phillip, quite dazed by the lights.
‘You’ve been drinking!’
‘I was going to help. It was throwing up when I got here.’
The enraged woman’s pink face turned grey, she turned and looked at the pills on the table and her whole body stiffened. ‘What have you given her?’
‘Nothing, nothing at all. Look, it had a mouse earlier. It’s probably just bringing that up. Or a fur ball.’
‘You’ve poisoned her!’
‘I’ve done nothing of the sort!’
She pushed him away from the cat with a shove that sent him reeling. He managed to recover slightly and grabbed onto her wrist and there they stood for a few seconds, strangely entwined, like two lovers holding hands, swaying, until Mrs Moggeridge broke the link with a strong tug and Phillip lost his balance completely. He staggered backwards, banging his head on the sideboard, and in his few remaining seconds of consciousness tried to grab onto the back of a chair. Instead he seized only air and plunged head first into the cat’s water bowl. Mrs Moggeridge was far too busy tending to Virginia to notice his plight. It was only the cat who watched with its bright eyes as Philip lay unconscious, face down in the bowl, water filling his lungs. And, cradled in protective arms, the cat seemed to recover briefly from its ailment and glanced back at the drowning man with a look of curiosity, followed by satisfaction.
© Ava Carpzov 2010