Today I thought I'd share with you an excerpt from the beginning of The True Story of a Not So Crazy Cat Lady which is currently available in both paperback and eBook. Enjoy!
They came into my life, quite by chance, the same week as my husband walked out of it. I’d dragged myself out of the house to stock up on ice cream, chocolate and DVD rentals and although it was May, the sun seemed about as enthusiastic with life as I was. Alone in the corner of the supermarket car park, I heaved the bin bag of clothes Richard had left behind from the boot of my car and dropped it into the charity bin, dusting off my hands as though that meant he was out of my life for good. It was then that my attention was drawn to a cardboard box sitting amongst the puddles, almost buried beneath a mountain of recycling encircling the glass bottle bank. Rats, I thought as it shuffled and I backed away but then, quite unmistakably, the box meowed. Frowning I pushed aside the rubbish, lifted the box lid and found myself nose to nose with five kittens. One was white, another grey, two were cinnamon coloured and the last was a spotty mix of everything. They looked up at me unsure and afraid, and I stared back, already falling in love all over again.
Less than two months later I opened the cards on my twenty-ninth birthday to find that there was a cat on the front of all but one. I smiled and stood them in a line along the kitchen table then took another sip of coffee and looked over at my laptop as it made a number of irritated beeps. Bea was standing on the keyboard, her tail held high as she looked back at me with large innocent eyes. But innocent she most certainly was not. Of all the kittens I’d acquired that May day there had been only one boy. Modi I’d called him and like Bea, he was predominantly cinnamon coloured. He was also well mannered and hassle-free, two things his sister was not. Although the runt of the litter, what Bea lacked in size she made up for in spirit and once she realised I was eating toast she made a dash for my knee, knocking over the birthday cards on her way. I didn't put up much of a fight and broke her off a small piece, then I stood the cards back up trying not to notice that I was two shy from last year. Sophie had been my best friend for years and bridesmaid at my wedding. Richard had once promised that this year I'd spend my birthday in Venice, but as I sat alone at the kitchen table I couldn't help but wonder if right now the two of them were there together. I shook my head, telling myself not to think about such things, and surrendered the rest of my toast to Bea. It was time to go to work.
My cottage sat on the outskirts of a small village perched on the edge of the Peak District, surrounded by grassy hills and dry stone walls. The day looked warm beyond the French blue painted windows and I called,
‘See you later guys,’ as I picked up the car keys and opened my front door. ‘Be good,’ I smiled as five pairs of eyes looked back at me from various vantage points of the kitchen.
I walked towards the gate, an azure blue sky overhead, and then climbed into my rumbly old Citroen CV, the roads still quiet as I headed into town.
Squeezed in between a florists and Harper’s Bookshop on the main street, Brambly Antiques had an elegant black shop front with gold lettering and two storeys of red brick above. Inside, the exposed beams were lime washed white, the terracotta floor blanketed in Persian rugs and the room abundant with treasures from throughout the ages. Ramblers and tourists were already strolling down the town’s cobbled streets as I opened up the shop and suddenly I felt hungry to get stuck into some work.
‘Hi Harriet, sorry I’m late.’
‘No trouble,’ I said as Charlie arrived ten minutes later and shrugged off her jacket. Charlie had olive skin and dark hair and at twenty-three, had been working for me for almost twelve months.
‘Lovely day isn’t it? And of course, happy birthday!’ Charlie pulled a purple envelope from her bag followed by a small box.
‘How cute!’ I said, this time faced with a litter of kittens as I opened the card. Inside the box was a pair of cat silhouette shaped earrings and I smiled. ‘Thank you.’
Charlie was the sort of girl who loved buying gifts and looked pleased with my response. I stood the card on the counter and she asked, ‘Up to anything special tonight?’
‘I’m cooking dinner for my family.’
‘All of them?’ She looked impressed. ‘That’s quite a gathering.’
‘I’m looking forward to it,’ I smiled. ‘There’s a lot of catching up to do.’ Having hammered in a nail, I picked up a painting and hung it on the wall, squinting as I nudged it straight.
‘So where did you nip off to last night?’
I stiffened, surprised Charlie had guessed that anything had been up. ‘Nowhere special, dentist appointment,’ I spluttered, my gaze lingering unnecessarily on the painting. The last thing I was going to tell her was the truth. I'd only agreed to go on the date to stop Lou nagging. The phone rang and I dashed perhaps a little too eagerly towards it. ‘Brambly Antiques, how can I help you?’
‘Sis' hey, it’s Ryan. Happy birthday!’
‘Thanks, how are things?’
‘Well, I’m ringing because Karen can’t come tonight.’
‘Oh what’s up? You know you can just say if she hates my cooking.’
Ryan laughed. ‘No, she’s feeling rough. She’s got a cold, lost her voice, the works.’
It was common knowledge that Karen didn’t get on with her husband’s side of the family, with the exception of my mum, and I wondered whether she really was so conveniently unwell or not. Either way I wished her my best and told my brother I looked forward to seeing him later.
‘I’m just going upstairs Charlie,’ I called as I headed for the wooden staircase in the corner of the room. I was trying to avoid further interrogation and Charlie knew it. ‘You okay with everything down here?’
‘Sure,’ she said.
The treads creaked underfoot as I bypassed the first floor full of more antiquarian curiosities and climbed to the second. My workshop was light and airy compared to the rooms below but as usual it was a mess. I could already hear voices downstairs as I walked over to the sash windows and heaved them open, welcoming the sunshine in, and for a minute I gazed down at the street below and then glanced over the rooftops of the buildings opposite, just able to glimpse the turrets of the castle on the other side of town. I'd known the view since I was a child, when the workshop belonged to my father.
Turning back to the room I looked at the mound of newly acquired stock stacked in the corner. Every weekend I went to local flea markets and car boots, on the hunt for unique treasures that people were throwing out, unable to see their potential as I did, and I rarely went away empty handed. Last Sunday had been no exception and amongst the goods I'd returned with were old baskets, copper pans, books and silverware. I crouched and lifted the lid of a vintage trunk, surveying the damage that years of neglect had inflicted. It had to be late nineteenth century and I frowned as I caught sight of a label stuck inside the lid and tried to read the handwriting. It had once belonged to a Madame Jeanne Hecquet from Paris and I pondered how it was that it had come to be in the middle of England. A little tender loving care would be required before the trunk was ready for the shop but I had seen worse.
Beside it sat a heap of enamelware and I picked up the nearest pitcher. It was a little rusty and chipped in places but once the dust was wiped away I knew it would look charming downstairs, perhaps displayed with some flowers in. My gaze then ran over a copper kettle and the ornate frame of a mirror before stopping on a painting. I leant forwards and picked it up. It was a landscape, the sky moody above a large majestic lake, and my eyes wandered over the surface of the canvas as I remembered the last time I had visited the Lake District. I'd been to many countries and places but nowhere for me had matched it. Richard had always been disparaging, unable to see what I did. To him it was just the place where he had grown up, nothing more, but if there was one thing I thanked him for, it was introducing us. The painting was shrouded in a crude frame and the glass was ill-fitting, but its housing for the past goodness knows how many years had at least kept it safe. I took it back to my desk and propped it up against the wall. Then I reached for a bottle of cleaner and a heavy copper pan.
By the time Charlie took her lunch break I had polished a set of six copper pans and a whole host of silver flatware, and I carried them downstairs where I set them down on a table. An elderly woman was deliberating over a coffer across the room, whispering with her friend, and having returned to the counter with a handful of books which needed pricing, I looked towards the door as it was pushed open. The man who walked in was tall and blonde, a few years older than myself with a smile that made me wish he had been sitting opposite me last night. Slowly he began to peruse the room and I looked back down at the book, but before I had chance to jot the price inside the cover he was standing in front of me.
‘Hi,’ he said. He was even better looking up close.
‘Hi,’ I repeated.
‘The tapestry hanging up behind you; is it French?’
‘Flemish,’ I said. ‘Fifteenth century.’
He wanted a closer look and before I could say personal space he had skirted around the counter and was standing next to me. I subtly shuffled backwards until I felt something behind my knees.
‘It depicts the Sybil of Cumae,’ I offered. ‘Here, you see?’
‘Yes, yes,’ he murmured, looking across at me with another smile and he only looked away after I did first and immediately I wished I hadn't. I started reeling off some other facts, not to sound smart but to fill the slender gap between us with something other than an awkward silence, completely unaware that the woman interested in the coffer had crossed the room and was trying to get my attention.
‘Excuse me?’ she tried again in a meek voice.
This time I heard her and as I span back to the room my fingertips brushed the man's thigh. I couldn't believe it. I felt like such a clumsy fool and I didn't need a mirror to know that I had instantly turned an unattractive shade of crimson. I clenched my fingers into fists, and biting my bottom lip I looked back at him.
‘I'm so sorry,’ I spluttered.
He didn't say anything but it was clear from his expression that he was amused. I asked the ground to swallow me up but as the seconds on the grandfather clock ticked loudly by in the otherwise silent room, it seemed I'd have to make it out of there on my own. I looked down, my face screwed up in agony and at last sidled out from behind the counter.
‘How can I help you?’ I asked the elderly woman, trying to keep my voice level. She had all the characteristics of a mouse, from her rounded shoulders to the small hands which clutched her handbag tightly. She opened her mouth to speak but it was her friend beyond her shoulder who answered first.
‘We'd like to know your best price on this?’ she said curtly, her voice masculine and her expression stern.
She was the shape of a diamond but lacked the elegance of one and when I gave my answer she rebuffed it with a snort.
‘I don't think so Julie, not for that.’
Julie glanced from me to the coffer and then back at her companion with fidgety lips as though she wanted to speak but daren't. I could see it in her eyes that she wanted to say yes but her friend was already walking away, directing her towards another chest that was far inferior in quality and was reflected so in the price tag. ‘This one's much better,’ she stated confidently.
Julie knew she was obliged to follow but didn't.
‘It's a lovely piece,’ I smiled, leading her back to the original coffer in question. ‘It's made of oak and the craftsmanship is superb.’ I lifted the lid so that she could look inside and I watched as she gently ran her fingers over the dark wood. ‘It's likely Elizabethan as you can tell from-’
‘It's not as nice as this one,’ Julie's friend interrupted as though determined she would be the one to decide.
Julie pulled back her hand like a child whose fingers had been caught in the biscuit tin and like a spurned hound, she peered over her shoulder before loyally, albeit with great reluctance, thanked me for my assistance and caught up with her companion.
I closed the coffer lid, unsure whether to be amused by the pair or not, and then sensed that someone was standing behind me.
‘I'll take it,’ the blonde guy said as I turned around. ‘Could you hold it until next week?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
He left a deposit and a smile and when the doorbell rang again it was Charlie returning from her lunch break.
‘Hello, I'm back,’ she called but then stopped in her tracks as she saw me perched on the bottom tread of the staircase, lost in my thoughts. ‘Are you all right?’ she frowned.
‘Yes, I'm fine,’ I lied as I stood back up and walked over to the counter and the books that still needed pricing. I knew she didn't believe me. I was a bad liar but I was incapable of putting what I felt into words even if I had the courage to talk about it out loud.
‘Nothing,’ I said, offering her the most convincing smile I could muster. ‘The tapestry's sold by the way. A man's coming back next week for it.’
When I got home I could see Modi lounging in the garden, soaking up the late afternoon sunshine, and I knew the others wouldn't be far away. I unlatched the gate and suddenly they appeared, dashing towards me like I was the pied piper playing their favourite tune. I appreciated the greeting.
‘It's good to see you too girls.’
Flicks was a meek white cat and loved to sleep in the most unusual of places. From the looks of her fur, speckled with compost, the wheelbarrow was currently her favourite spot to kip. Coco had undoubtedly spent the afternoon playing in the garden shed amongst the stacks of plant pots if her cobweb covered head was anything to go by. She was an adventurous sort and her fur a spotty mishmash of browns, white and ginger, almost as though she were wearing camouflage face paint. Then there was Mona, named so because she loved her food and didn't stop moaning until she got it. She had a beautiful long grey coat and dewy eyes that never failed to win me over. Bea was hungry too but as usual one step ahead of everyone else, including me. I heard the shopping bag at my feet fall over and then saw, not to my surprise, her ginger tail poking out of it.
‘Hold on there you,’ I said, persuading her out and then picking the bag back up. ‘We're not inside yet.’
Modi was still climbing to his feet, stretching as though he'd been in that spot amongst the geranium's all afternoon, but by the time I unlocked the front door he'd caught us up. Excitably they circled my feet as we crossed the kitchen, their trust in me outweighing any fear of being trodden on, and then once I'd filled their bowls I continued on into the living room alone.
Having dropped into my chair I listened to the silence and my gaze bore into the vacant chair across from me until tears blurred it into obscurity. Richard had been there, in the back of my mind all day. Like every day. No matter how hard I tried I missed him. I was supposed to hate him after what he'd done but still I closed my eyes wanting to hear his voice. If I tried hard enough I almost could. I pretended I could feel his breath on my face, his hand in my hair, unable to imagine replacing him with someone else as he had done me. With a deep shaky breath I wiped the moisture from my face with the back of my hand and then opening my eyes felt, against all the odds, a spark of amusement lighten my load. Suddenly sitting in Richard’s chair and looking back at me, was Modi. I got up, walked over to the chair and sat down on the carpet then reached out with my fingertips and stroked his head, smiling as he nuzzled back into my hand. His fur was so smooth and as his chest slowly rose and fell beneath my hand and he looked back at me with large yellow eyes which seemed to gaze deeper than the surface, I felt a surge of love for him which had beaten back my tears more than once before.
‘What would I do without you?’ I said as he reached out towards my face with a paw as though trying to dry my cheeks.
Modi gave me strength at times like this like no person could and I knew that as long as he was there, I'd be okay. He was the man of the house now and I just hoped that unlike his predecessor, he would never abandon me.
Copyright (c) Catherine Walker 2014