In which I have written a story

I was joking with someone that I didn’t want Charlie to become The Beast of Retford Moor, and proposed The Cat of Cullen Towers instead. And then that didn’t sound quite right, and Ghost Cat popped into my head, and anyway, now there’s a 500 word story. Both my cats are totally fine, btw.

The Ghost Cat of Cullen Towers

I should say at the outset that Cullen Towers is, in fact, a very ordinary, three-bedroom, mid-terrace house. The windows are sensibly double-glazed and locked, and the doors robustly bolted. It has no towers, wings, or mysteriously intriguing, huge oaken doors that open only with a long-forgotten key. But an Englishwoman’s home is her castle, and so – Cullen Towers.

I lived in the house alone. I thought, often, about getting a dog. But it wouldn’t have been practical.

It began, one day, with a flicker at the corner of my eye. Everyone knows that experience, I suppose. You walk into a room and see a shape where there shouldn’t be one.  You look again, to find the shape has resolved itself into a shadow, or a newspaper you left on the floor. So that was what I thought.

My eyesight isn’t what it was, so after a couple more flickers I just went to the optician. Varifocals, he prescribed. I’d known it was coming.

But then, a few days later, there was a more definite something. What had previously been a flicker took on a more substantial presence. Something, still of indeterminate size and shape, darted through a door. It probably was a cat, I thought. It was a warmish day, and after winter’s relentless cold and rain, I’d left the back door open for just a foretaste of spring to find its way inside. One of the neighbourhood cats had taken advantage, that was all.

I assumed the same cat was responsible for the dead mouse I found the following morning. I stared at the mouse for a moment, and then stepped over it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel up to tackling bodies in my slippers, and certainly not before I’ve had coffee. But by the time I was feeling a bit more fortified, it was gone. Had it still been alive? And come to that, how had it got there in the first place? The doors and windows were closed.

As I turned, I saw the flicker again. I paused, and then slowly turned back to look at where the mouse wasn’t. Instead, and unmistakeably, there was a cat. A tabby, still a bit faint around the edges, sort of blurring into the morning shadows. He stared at me in standard unblinking cat fashion. I stared back. We stared at each other.

He wasn’t real, I knew that. But. He wasn’t not real either. He sauntered over and wove around my ankles, and I felt the memory of soft fur. Then the mouse was there again, and I remembered hearing that cats bring their owners presents. I said, ‘Thank you, ghost cat’, a bit uncertainly because I’m not used to talking to cats. Or ghosts.

That was that, of course. I haven’t been out for a few days, now. Once a cat claims you, your soul’s not your own any more. I know that now.

The Nigella key

Written for A, who was complaining that I don’t make late night brownies in my nightie, unlike la Lawson. It’s like he hasn’t met me. Anyway.  This is the first short story I’ve written in forever and it’s obviously nonsense, but I did like the idea of the Nigella key.  I say it’s a cautionary tale, he says it’s an incentive to put a spare key under the doormat.

The Nigella Key

Sara woke up with a start. She lay for a few moments, wondering what had woken her, automatically reaching out to check the time on her phone. A little after 1am, and as she put the phone down, she heard a cupboard door in the kitchen squeak open. That bloody door! But she relaxed. It would be Matt, unable to sleep and unequally unable to resist a guilty, late night sugar hit.

Except that the warmth in the bed and the sound of breathing told her Matt was still in bed, next to her. So, what the fuck? She must still be half-asleep, mixing dreams up with reality. She listened.

She heard a drawer slide open, then gently rattle shut. Something that sounded like a cork coming out of a bottle. Seriously, what the fuck?

‘Matt’. She nudged him. ‘Matt! I think there’s someone in the kitchen. You need to go down and check.’

She could tell he was awake but he pretended not to be. He hated being disturbed, it made him grumpy all the next day if he didn’t get his eight hours.

‘Matt!’

He gave up pretending. ‘I can’t hear anything’.

‘Just listen’.

He buried his face in the pillow, but they both heard the next noise.

‘It sounds like… someone humming’, Sara whispered.

‘What sort of bloody burglar starts humming, for God’s sake?’

‘I told you, you’ll need to go and check!’

Sara switched on the torch on her phone as Matt swung his feet off the bed and reached blearily for his dressing gown. He glared at her as he left the room, muttering something under his breath. She heard his steps going down the stairs and treading towards the kitchen. There was a pause, then she could have sworn she heard him say ‘Nigella!’

Yeah, because that was likely. Sara looked at her phone again. 1.07am. Now she could hear low voices coming from the kitchen, and laughter. Definitely laughter. After a moment’s hesitation, she scrambled out of bed and edged her way to the landing. Soft light was leaking out of the kitchen doorway into the hall below, followed by familiar domestic noises. The fridge door opened and closed, the oven beeped into life. Ok, this was weird, but, Sarah judged, not dangerous. It must be one of their friends, although she couldn’t immediately think of anyone who had a key. Anyway, no reason not to go downstairs.

Matt was laughing again as she walked into the kitchen.

‘That’d be amazing!’ he said.

To Nigella bloody Lawson, who was standing there in Sara’s kitchen, large as life and twice as voluptuous. She was unmistakable, partly because, well, she was Nigella, and partly because she had an array of baking equipment on the work surface in front of her and appeared to be making a start on weighing out the sugar. She was wearing a nightdress. The words ‘lawn cotton’ popped into Sara’s head, not that she knew exactly what they meant.

‘Oh, hi Sara’, Matt said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to find Nigella in your kitchen at 1.13 on Tuesday morning. ‘Isn’t it great? Nigella’s just making some chocolate brownies’.

Nigella looked up from her weighing. ‘Lovely to meet you, Sara’, she breathed. ‘Honestly, it won’t be long. Don’t mind me’.

Sara stared. She walked out of the kitchen, looked at her phone. Back into the kitchen. Yes, Nigella was still there, but now she was asking where they kept the chocolate. She’d poured herself a glass of wine, Sara noticed. Nigella saw her looking.

‘Gosh, so sorry, hope you don’t mind? I always like a glass of wine when I’m cooking late at night. Have some?’ She held out the bottle towards Sara, but it was Matt who leapt up enthusiastically and got himself a wine glass from the shelf. He raised an eyebrow at Sara, who shook her head, so he just poured one for himself and sat back down.

‘Sorry’, said Sara. ‘Sorry. Can I just check something? You are Nigella Lawson, and you’re in my kitchen at stupid o’clock in the morning, making brownies?’

‘That’s right!’ Nigella laughed.

‘But – how did you get in?’

Nigella and Matt exchanged a conspiratorial glance.

‘Do you want to tell her, or shall I?’ Nigella winked coquettishly at Matt. He blushed. He bloody blushed!

‘She used the Nigella key’, he said, avoiding Sara’s gaze. The scent of melted chocolate started to fill the kitchen.

‘The Nigella…?’

‘It was under the doormat’, added Nigella. ‘It usually is.’

‘Under the doormat’, Sara repeated, blankly. ‘Right. Matt, can we have a word?’ She walked out of the kitchen, flicked the sitting room lamp on. More low voices, then Matt followed her into the room.

‘Are you all right?’. He was concerned. ‘Look, I can keep Nigella company, why don’t you go back to bed?’

Sara stared at him. ‘Matt, what is this? I wake up in the middle of the night and it turns out there’s a TV chef in the kitchen and you act as though it’s just normal? And she had a key? What the… I mean, I don’t get it.’

‘Well, I’ll admit I was a bit surprised she was actually here, I never in a million years thought she’d use the key. It’s just, you never know, do you? It’s a guy thing.’

‘It’s a guy thing to leave a key for Nigella Lawson in case she decides to pop round unexpectedly, in her nightie, and bake cookies?’

‘Brownies’

‘What-the-fuck-ever!’

‘Well.’ Pause. ‘Yes.’

In the kitchen, Nigella listened and smiled her cat-got-the-cream smile. She hummed to herself and poured another generous glass of wine. This was how it always went. The wives, or girlfriends, or partners, or whatever they called themselves, never understood. They never stayed for a brownie. The men did, though. And then, Nigella took them with her when she left.

And she didn’t even do the washing up.