LET HER IN
Short story by Helen Monks Takhar
All Imogen wants is peace and quiet from her new home. The next door neighbour, and her cat, have other ideas.
The keys jangle in my fingers, the fob carrying the overwhelming cologne of ‘Dale’ at the estate agents. I’ll be binning the yellow plastic rectangle the second I’m inside, a moment that can’t come quickly enough.
The rapid sale the previous owners wanted feels like a deserved stroke of luck. I’ve waited too long for this day, to have a home that’s mine, not Mum’s. Perhaps that’s why I’m overthinking the reluctance of the lock, panicking as it remains stuck, becoming slightly desperate now on hearing movement next door. I’ve bought this house to decompress alone, not to make friends with the neighbour now emerging onto her doorstep.
“Always was a bit sticky. Annie and Jake used to give it a good wiggle.”
I show the woman – about my age but in one of those jumpers people like her wear, white with an incongruously youthful band of primary colours across the chest – a tight smile.
“Berenice. Everyone calls me Bernie,” she gives me her hand over the wall. I awkwardly offer my left hand, my right hand still gripping the key in the lock.
“Imogen.” I shake the key vigorously, not so her palm.
“Welcome. I was going to drop round a lemon drizzle and some fizz once I knew you’d –”
“Don’t. Please.” The door finally releases.
“Oh,” I hear her say, as I kick it shut behind me.
Miraculously, the movers have done as I’ve asked. The boxes are in the right rooms, though I’m confident there will be breakages. The house seems smaller than I remembered from the viewing, dirtier too. I imagine Mum seeing the place anew with me, “My house was better. You should have kept it. You said you would.” I tell her that as always, she is right, but I couldn’t stay there and see her in every corner, every shadow even after she finally died.
There may be no Mum here, but there are smears of ‘Annie and Jake’ everywhere; sentimental marks on a doorframe documenting their offspring’s growth, an indelible scratch of coral nail varnish on the bath’s enamel, and clusters of black and white cat hair edging the kitchen’s skirting boards. I clean everything.
The sun falls. Exhausted, I pour a dash of gin, perhaps more than a dash, and cover it with a dribble of tonic, hoping I’ll feel a great deal more at ease soon. I curse the knock at the door just as the tumbler reaches my lips.
“Wasn’t sure if you drink, or eat cake, or…” It’s call-me-Bernie, now proffering an untidy bunch of homegrown roses, “Well, hope you’re not allergic!”
I’m obliged to relieve her of the ragged bouquet.
“Don’t worry! I took the thorns off. Anyway, let me know if you need anything. My youngest’s just left for uni, so…well, I’m always around! Have you met Opus yet? She’s the –”
As she’s halfway through her sentence, I simply close the door. My life has been dominated by caring for Mum. Now I’m free, I don’t need an empty nester single mother to drain what’s left of me. I all but run back to my drink, but halt in the kitchen with a gasp.
A dark shape in the gloom outside my French doors. Snake-yellow eyes sit on fat black cheeks atop a padded white chest. A huge cat waits for me to open my doors. ‘Opus’, I presume.
I yank the doors open, but instead of scaring, the cat moves to slip past my legs, “Bugger off!” I find my shin meeting the heft of its belly. I push the creature back but all it does is look at me, as though waiting for me to come to my senses. I grab the nearest thing to hand and find myself chucking the rest of my tonic at it. The cat barely flinches, eventually strolling back to the bench, climbing up and dropping back over the fence.
I drink my gin, then another, then head to the late night shop for more, where I also buy lemons. By the light of the moon, I rub the fence with their skins, hoping to deter the cat at its source.
The first morning in my own home, time for the inaugural use of my ‘bean to cup’ coffee machine. I sense Mum twisting in the earth at the cost of it. My first attempt takes ages and doesn’t taste as good as I’d hoped, but nevertheless I take it outside to sit on the bench in the early autumn sun simply because there is no Mum to stop me from doing so. I take another disappointing sip and tell myself it will get better in time. Everything will. I close my eyes to the sun.
An almighty thud next to me. My eyes snap open just as the cat plonks its fat arse next to me, bringing with it an indignant waft of citrus.
“No, no, no!” I want to throw the coffee into its entitled eyes, but the cat is now plodding its way to my French doors, “No you don’t!” I leap up.
“Opus! Opuss-cat!” Berenice rears her head over the fence, “I’m sorry. She’s just so used to coming over,” she dangles a scrap of chicken, “Come away now.” Reluctantly, it heaves its weight back to the bench, then scrambles back to her.
“Keep it out of my garden.”
“I’ll do my best.” Berenice disappears, but not before doing a poor job of hiding her woundedness that I’m charmed neither by her nor her overfed pet.
Later, I buy strips of plastic spikes to cover the length of the fence. I hammer all afternoon, then wait with a gin by the French doors. It’s after dusk when I see white paws clambering over. I step outside, ready to enjoy my victory.
I’m greeted by thunderous purring.
The cat rubs its cheeks ostentatiously on the spikes before carefully dropping onto my bench before making its approach to my doors. I slam them shut just in time, my rage watched placidly by the corpulent feline until I drop the blinds on it.
I tip the remains of a tonic over a large shot and before I know what I’m doing, put the bottle in a thick plastic bag. I use an empty gin bottle to smash the smaller vessel until small, curved daggers poke through the plastic.
Before bed, I check outside. The cat has gone, for now. When it doubtless returns, it will know how little it is welcome. I set my alarm for an early start.
Not yet dawn. The fence, illuminated by my phone, tells the story of the night. My bowl of white soap suds turns dirty pink as I remove all traces of the cat’s bloody struggle back to safety. It’s still dark when I carefully clear the bottle shards from the bench. The perfect crime.
A noise. A subdued, agonised mewling. On the other side of the fence, the cat bleeds alone. I hear my Mum asking if tending her for so long robbed me of all compassion for anything and anyone. I don’t answer her.
I distract myself, clumsily making a coffee that tastes burnt. I tell myself again it will get better in time. In my kitchen, the wait for sunrise feels long.
A sudden sense I am not alone.
A smudge of black in the corner of my eye, then another on the kitchen top. A brush of something against my foot makes me yelp, then shudder to my feet. A rat, young and brazen scurries up the plug of my coffee machine to join its revolting siblings, coming forward to touch heads before sticking them variously in my new sugar bowl, butter dish, and open bread bin. I sicken, knowing now why the previous owners had been keen to sell quickly, why they invited next door’s cat inside daily, and perhaps what accounts for the creature’s girth. Nausea rising, I open the French doors and stumble outside.
A light on in next door’s kitchen. Has Bernie rescued Opus or discovered her too late?
When the shops open, I buy a bottle of prosecco, a lemon drizzle cake, a bouquet of thornless roses and a roast chicken. I leave the chicken at the French doors, everything else on Bernie’s doorstep and hope, in time, I might show her, and myself, I can be better.
A version of this story first appeared in Sunday Express S Magazine in 2021