By Cath Barton
The storms had not cleared the air. Half-asleep, I walked slowly through the town dragging my feet, my nostrils assailed at street corners by wafts of dampness. The dogs were barking up on the hill but the streets of the town were empty. There was a half-eaten tray of chips in the gutter, the oily paper flapping like a dying bird, ketchup smeared across it like a bloodstain.
People more sensible than me were probably sitting in darkened rooms, conserving what energy they had left. No air conditioning was working now, but some people would have found an old paper fan, or improvised if they still had books. Ah, to have been sensible. I had not thought to hold on to any of the old things. I had lived for the moment, taken my pleasures, believing in the infinite possibilities. And now?
I had one last task which took me out on the streets when everyone else had fled them. They knew, as I did, that tomorrow the dogs on the hill would be silent and it would be the turn of the birds of prey, the buzzards, the sparrow hawks, the red kites which circled already above the town, silently waiting. Tomorrow it would be their time and they would descend in a feeding frenzy. It would not be pretty, but I would not know anything of it when it came. No-one would know. Afterwards the birds would retreat, sated, to the treetops and the mountain places. And then?
For myself, I would go now to the house of falling waters and pick the pink petals of the bergamot flowers to make tea for the old man as he had asked me to do. One last favour, he had said with a sad, cracking chuckle. I had neither laughed nor smiled. I had not laughed or smiled for a very long time, not since before the beginning of the end. But I knew that the reason I went to see the old man, took him flowers for his tea, was because he had not allowed himself to be cowed like all the others.
He had even kept his old cat. The cat was grey, was called Merlin and allowed me to stroke him. Because I was not like the others either, the old man said. It had been many years since I had seen a cat. Merlin had a velvet coat and a purr like a night train heard from afar across a summer lake and I loved him. Perhaps I loved the old man too. And if I did? It was too late for any harm to come of it.
At the house of the falling waters I was very close to the dogs. Their barking was so loud. But once I had descended and was inside the old man’s house I could no longer hear it. Neither could he, but I think Merlin sensed it because he was unusually jumpy, until I stroked him and he calmed down. Then I made tea with the pink petals of the bergamot and poured it into china cups. The aroma was sublime.
There was an old metal biscuit tin in the old man’s kitchen. It had a picture on the lid of skaters on a frozen lake. I prised open the lid, thinking it might be a sort of musical box. There was no skaters’ waltz but there were inside the box two bourbon biscuits. A final treat.
I put the china cups which I had filled with the tea onto a tray. Then I put the two bourbon biscuits onto a plate and placed that on the tray too. I knew that we had time for this, time to enjoy this last meeting, this last sharing of food and drink, with the old grey cat Merlin beside us.
We sipped our tea. The old man smiled at me but I dropped my gaze. Our little slurps and Merlin’s soft purrs pushed at the dense air. It felt so heavy now that I wondered if there would be a final storm but the old man said no. The biscuits were exquisitely sweet, Merlin’s fur unforgettably soft and the old man’s final words unbearably tender. I did not look back as I left. The door clicked behind me and, as simply as that, it was over.