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Hindsight and other beasts

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Image by Angeles Balaguer from Pixabay

In hindsight, the interview was too easy.

In hindsight, the money offered was too good.

In hindsight I should have left my stubborn pride behind and run when it all went to ratshit.

I KNOW!

But I didn’t.

What can I say? …..

In my defence, I was brand new to the area, and unaware of the rumours and history that were about to slap me in the face. I was also in a perfectly primed state of desperation, having spent the week post-house-move living in an alligator swamp of tension, my parents thrashing their way through boxes, and snapping at me if I so much as tiptoed through to the fridge.

I’d just poured perfectly good milk down the sink, so that I could wave the empty container at my harried mother and dodge out to buy some more. I was high on escape and fresh October air when I saw the card in the corner shop window. It seemed like a sign… from a god that wanted to save me….

URGENT

HOUSE SITTER WANTED

SAT 29 – TUES 1ST NOV

EXCELLENT REMUNERATION FOR THE RIGHT CANDIDATE

(01326) 487539

Honestly, I thought the job would be taken, as those dates were this coming weekend. But desperation was like a bull at my butt, driving me to phone. And the old lady who answered sounded twice as desperate as me as she rattled through the details and wound up with a squeaky plea…

“You’ll do it? I’ll pay you. £100 for the 3 nights. In cash. On my return.”

I guess she took my happily stunned silence for doubt, as she quickly added…

“£150?”

So yes, I lost my little mind, agreed in a snap, and wrote the details down as she gave them, in biro, on the back of my hand.

And just like that, with barely a protest from my distracted parents, I found myself stood two days later on the front step of Hawthorne house, my rucksack on my shoulder, loaded with books and a couple of changes of clothes, facing three glorious days away from my parents… to read, and home-school myself, and care for a house.

Oh, what a house. It was like a beautiful old wedding cake – white, with curls of fancy moulding along the top, and trailing twists of ivy around the windows and door. I reached for the brass bell.

DING DONG.

Wow, it was so quiet here, tucked back from the road, and shielded by trees. I hitched my bag up further on my shoulder, feeling a rush of nerves and excitement. I was like some convict who’s managed to bust out of the main gate and is about to dodge into a shelter. It felt good, if a little jangly.

DING DONG.

Should I try the knocker? A brass eagle head with a sharp beak. It made a light..tap, tap…

The door opened, just as I was reaching for the bell again, and there in the dim hallway stood Mrs Finnegan, peering out at me through tortoiseshell glasses, hands clutched together in front of her, like twitchy little mouse paws.

“Hello, I’m Carla,” I said, setting my shoulders back.

She nodded. Well, flinched. Then she opened the door fully and turned on her little slippered heels. Which I took as a sign to follow her, into the entrance hall.

I stood there, like a large, out of place statue, as she busied herself by the hallway table. She clinked around in the key dish, and rustled around in overnight bags, lined up between the table legs.

“Should I take my boots off?” I said, my voice bouncing around louder than I intended.

I gestured down to my boots, and her nose scrunched, shifting her glasses up and down. Then she shuffled over, pinched me by both elbows and said, “Are you a cat or a dog person?”

“Uh….” I did not want to fail any test. I wanted to stay in this house. I wanted this job.  “I thought it was…house sitting…But, no probs. Do you have a pet? I love…pets. I…”

Mrs Finnegan shook her head once, and glared at me through her thick glasses.

“Both? Either?” I smiled awkwardly. “How about you?”

Her mouth crinkled with clear displeasure, as she waited for an actual answer. Oh shit, I was skewering myself by trying to sit on this fence.

“Cats?” I said. “Cats.”

Her nod was so quick that I could have missed it if I’d blinked.

“Instructions, keys, everything you need you shall find over there.” Her head twitched marginally towards the hallway table.

And before I could gather my questions together, she’d swapped her slippers for tight little shoes, hooked her bags over her elbow and was scuttling down the path to…where was she even going?

I still stand by the fact that at this point, this was all a great deal. I was living the dream. A dream that lasted two and a half days before it turned. A dream that looked like… reading her plentiful instructions, finding out that really I only had four rooms to care for, as all the other doors were locked. That I could help myself to the fruit cake in the tin. I could drink tea from her fine china, if I was careful (I’d be BILLED FOR BREAKAGES).

I could lie reading on the flowery sofa, under three blankets. The house was old and chilly, and I was not going to risk making a fire. Particularly as Mrs Finnegan’s instructions said:

NO FIRE DAMAGE

NO WATER DAMAGE

YOU WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL BREAKAGES

FRUITCAKE IN THE TIN

Overall, I was snug, smug and happy as a rabbit. I’d read the instructions over and over, and there was truly nothing to do. No cleaning, other than cleaning up after myself. No plants to water. I was just a burglar prevention?

Then boom, of course, some dreams are too good to be true. Some interviews are too easy, like I said. Why wouldn’t everyone in the world want this job? I’ll tell you why.

Saturday (dream). Sunday (dream). Monday (oh hell, it’s HALLOWEEN).

Monday Morning, aka Halloween morning, I was still floating along, on a breakfast of toast, butter and strawberry jam, some light history reading ahead. Monday afternoon, and I was still coasting along, on a lunch of beans on toast, one last stretch of read-as-long-as-I-want ahead of me.

Monday, 6pm and I had closed the heavy curtains in the lounge, put the tasselled lamps on, and was tucked on the sofa in blanket land. Cue time to pop Carla’s cosy dream bubble.

Scritch, scratch…Scritch, scratch.

That’s what I heard, coming from the fireplace.

I propped myself up on my elbows, and put down my copy of The Starless Sea.

Scritch, scratch.

My jaw tensed and my blood iced in my veins. I prayed to the house-sitting gods that it was a bird, that was going to fly back up and out of the chimney in just a moment.

I watched the fireplace intently, and quicker than my tense little brain could really fathom, there came an explosion of cats. A yowling, howling ball of black fur and white teeth, and paws and claws, and green eyes and …CHAOS. More cats than I could count. Darting out of the chimney and racing across the rug. Clambering up the curtains and swinging from the lampshades, like I was in a nightmare cartoon. Twenty? Thirty? Sooty prints everywhere. Cats everywhere. I stood up on the sofa, paddling the cushions under my panicked feet, screaming.

One scrabbled its way up the back of the sofa and thwacked my butt with its paw, claws snagging in my jeans.

“Hey! HEY!” I unhooked it as gently as I could. It swiped again, little hell fiend, and I leapt off the sofa, a blanket still clutched under my chin, like I was a partially dressed ghost.

I ran for the door, and slammed it shut, but not before a little snake of them shot through and round the corner into the kitchen.

I listened in shock, one ear pressed to the lounge door, breathing hard, one eye trained on the kitchen doorway.

My brain thudded. Sure, birds have nests in chimneys. But cats?

I KNOW.

What the hell?

Through the lounge door I could hear them still yowling, like they were on fire. And mixed in with their awful nightmarish sound was the equally disturbing sound of Mrs Finnegan’s ornaments crashing onto the tiles below the mantelpiece.

A yowl came from the kitchen, and then the tinkling smash of fine china.

I hurtled into the kitchen, and there were a pair of black cats, one sat in the sink, batting at the tap. And one up on the counter, by the toaster, neatly positioned behind my unwashed teacups, paw positioned to push another off the edge.

“Hey, HEY!” I said, hands on hips, taking up the full doorway. “Do NOT. I repeat, do NOT do that.”

It looked at me, with its bright green eyes, and swiped. I lunged to catch the cup, missed, and slipped sideways like some goalie having a very bad day.

I landed on my hip, and before I could push back up, I felt the poking weight of both cats, pinning me down, one on my shins, and one on my shoulder, like a very sharp clawed parrot.

I froze.

The shoulder one wrapped itself around my neck, like a stole. It  yowled in my ear, nipped at my earlobe, and then started purring.

That’s when I should have run. Called my parents? Called the police? Mrs Finnegan hadn’t left a contact number in the instructions – WHY MIGHT THAT BE! Sneaky little mouse. Who owned a hell house.

But no, I was not going to be beaten by the challenge. And I was NOT going to be paying for damages.

Let’s just say, I did not get a nanosecond of sleep that night.

I gathered my iron, and girded my bones, and steeled my brain. And I transformed myself into the greatest hell-cat warden of all time. I toga-fied myself up in a blanket, and then knotted another as a cape, so that their needley little claws wouldn’t hurt when they clamped onto me – which they did. They leapt from lampshades and launched from cupboards. Furry menaces.

I bundled the china up carefully into yet more blankets, and stashed it into any cupboard that had a round handle and would defeat the little felines.

I ran back and forth, as they put on the taps and tried to flood the kitchen, flood the bathroom, start the fire and set light to the rug. Gods above they were A LOT. A chaos pack of mess.

I left their sooty little footprints, as evidence for when Mrs Finnegan got back.

And as morning came, and I sat with my back to one of the locked doors, one of the little cats curled up in my lap, I vowed that I would defend myself.  I had cared for the house. I had even cared for the cats, dishing out milk in saucers to try and pacify them at midnight. I had done my best. I had kept my side of the deal. Let her say otherwise!

So it was that I was lying in a righteous slump on the top landing, where I had a good vantage point, when Mrs Finnegan peeped in the next morning, sometime around 9am.

I sat up, shaking the cat lightly from the crook of my arm.

“Oh,” Mrs Finnegan said, looking up.

“Oh indeed,” I said, standing up, clutching my blanket cape shut, like a knight that has fallen from her horse, but is undefeated.

Mrs Finnegan put her bags down, changed into her slippers, and shuffled towards the lounge.

The little cat at my side vanished, like black mist clearing. I rubbed my eyes. This was NO DREAM. I had things to say, things to square, and I wanted my payment.

I marched down the stairs, the blanket catching under my heel, and nearly tripping me. I swished it over my shoulders as I strode into the lounge.

“My china?” Mrs Finnegan said, hands dabbed to her mouth.

“In the cupboards. Mostly.”

“Some breakages though, I’m sure.”

“You can take them out of my £150.”

“I said £100.”

I shook my head.

“That’s ok, dear,” she said, and pushed her glasses up on her nose, and scurried over to the curtains. She fingered them with her twitchy little hands. I winced at the sootmarks and the dragging rips.

“We’ll add up the damages, and you can work it off on Saturdays,” she said, reasonable as a fake vicar.

Wow, the nerve. “It is not my fault that your house is infested with hellcats,” I proclaimed.

“Cats?” she said, looking around her, and scrunching her bony little shoulders up under her ears. “Is that what you’re going to tell Janine and Peter?”

I froze in my blanket armour. Had she met my parents? How did she know their names?

“Yes. Welcome to the area, dear. Let’s hope you last longer than my last tenants. Oh, they were such complainers…until they weren’t.” She leant forward and pushed her glasses up her nose again.

“So, I’ll see you Saturday, yes? We have some work to do.”

That was my interview for my second job.

Week 16

It’s nearly Halloween. I don’t do scary. I don’t read it. I don’t watch it. I’m a scaredy puss. So this is as Halloweeny as I get…

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