The lawn looked superb. The grass, trimmed half an inch high from flower bed to flower bed, was glossy and verdant and grew evenly across a surface unmarked by daisies, buttercups or any other alien intrusion. Gordon stood on the patio, one hand resting on the handle of the lawnmower, admiring his work with pleasure yet not blind to any faults. The edges were a little ragged – he’d trim them tomorrow – and if this heatwave continued he’d have to get out the sprinkler. There was always something to do. He cleaned the mower blades carefully and carried the machine back to the garden shed where it took its accustomed place among a lifetime’s collection of tools, equipment and assorted bits and pieces.
Gordon had always wanted a perfect lawn. Three years ago, when he decided he’d dreamed for long enough, he set about creating one. What a job that had been! The old lawn had to go first, so he hired a machine from the garden centre and peeled away the turf in neat strips, exposing rich subsoil and writhing earthworms which squirmed hastily back into the security of the dark before they could be seized by the birds that watched the activity from a cautious distance. The turf strips were carried off next day by a grateful young couple who’d bought one of the new houses on the edge of the nearby village, their gardens as yet little more than boulders and trampled earth. Now the real work began. Gordon dug bonemeal and manure into the soil and waited patiently for weeds to appear before rooting them out mercilessly. When he was as confident as he could be that the nascent lawn was no longer threatened by dandelions, couch grass or thistles, he raked the surface level, staked out lengths of twine and divided the earth into blocks onto which he could sow the grass seed evenly. He spent much of the next few weeks tinkering with the flower beds or seated on the patio, reading, close enough to the lawn to deter even the most avaricious starlings. When he saw the first pale tips appear through the soil’s surface he enjoyed the same glow of achievement he’d experienced as a child, growing mustard and cress on damp blotting paper and watching a carrot top sprout in a saucer of water. The first time he mowed the lawn he felt he’d performed an act of violation.
There’d been a lot more work since then: feeding, watering, reseeding here and there. The effort, he considered, had been worthwhile; he had his perfect lawn and now derived as much satisfaction keeping it that way as he’d had in creating it.
Gordon left his gardening boots at the back door, walked into the kitchen, washed his hands and retrieved from the oven the casserole he’d prepared after breakfast. He enjoyed cooking, discovering new recipes and tastes. Molly had been unadventurous about her food; for her sake he’d tolerated forty years of tough meat and watery vegetables. The kitchen – through choice – had been her domain and the house her responsibility. The gaudy oven gloves he used had been hers, and the two tea towels were reminders of the fortnight they’d spent each year in the same rented cottage in the Yorkshire Dales: a destination far enough from their isolated Ross-shire home to be adventurous, yet similar enough to be reassuring. He’d considered throwing them away but in the end decided that a tea towel was just a tea towel.
After lunch, which he ate while listening to the radio, he washed the pots, dried them and put them away. The remaining casserole went into the fridge to keep for supper. He spent a further thirty minutes listening to the radio before putting on his cap and walking boots and heading towards the woodland that bounded one side of the village. He enjoyed walking.
Gordon put away the edging tool, picked up the secateurs – the roses were crying out for attention – and emerged from his shed in time to almost collide with Cathy Morrison, the dark-haired girl who delivered him eggs and milk twice a week. She recoiled with shock at his sudden appearance, then smiled broadly.
“Hello, Mr Grant. How are you today?”
“Not so bad, lass. Not so bad.” He spoke slowly, as if every word was a secret revealed, and twisted his cap awkwardly in his hands.
“Your garden’s looking beautiful. You’ve been putting some work into it.”
“Aye.” He paused, his expression grave. “There’s always something to be done. The secret’s to do a little every day; that way you keep on top of the job.” His gravity evaporated, replaced by a wicked grin. “Housework’s the same. I don’t know why you women make such a fuss about it.”
Cathy laughed. “You’re a tease, Mr Grant. It’s about time you met my mum. I’m sure she’d have something to say to you.”
“Och, no. Last thing I need at my time of life is a woman giving me what for. I’ll stay here in peace.”
The girl laughed again and handed him his delivery. “Enjoy the peace. I’ll see you next week.” She left him with a wave.
Cathy intrigued him. She was eighteen and still lived with her parents, which in this day and age seemed to him amazing. What’s more, he reckoned from their weekly snatches of conversation that she’d no boyfriend: a fine-looking lassie like that, and always so friendly and cheerful. The first time they’d met – about this time last year, he thought with surprise – he’d been working in the garden, adding new Alpine plants to the rockery. She’d strolled to the back of the house, as though seeking an old friend, outlined the delivery round her parents were establishing, and in a couple of minutes got more words out of him than had anyone else in the previous two years. Then she’d bent to pick up the bag dumped casually at her feet, leaving him dazed by the glimpse of lacy white knickers revealed tantalisingly briefly above the tight black trousers all the girls seemed to wear nowadays. The image stayed in his mind a long time.
He’d tried to analyse his feelings and got nowhere. She was a pretty girl, but she was just that – a girl. There was no lust involved. Molly was the only woman he’d ever wanted, and the only one he’d ever been with; he was proud of that, although it wasn’t something you boasted about. They’d enjoyed a quiet love life, in the days before everyone talked about it so much and worried about whether they were doing it enough, with enough partners and in enough different ways. They’d satisfied each other, but it was only natural that he should occasionally wonder, especially now Molly was gone.
The roses could wait another day, he decided. He cleared his mind with some heavy digging in the vegetable patch, enjoying the exertion. Gordon was fitter now, at sixty-seven, than he’d been twenty years earlier. Molly had been a long time dying: almost a year as an invalid, tended unstintingly by a husband who in all that time was rarely more than fifty feet away from her. He’d fretted throughout his weekly trip to the supermarket, returning anxious and breathless to fuss around her pillows and smooth her blankets, filled with guilt by his absence. One morning she’d simply not woken. The day after the funeral he’d walked twenty miles through the hills beyond the village, returning in the dark, soaked to the skin and exhausted. He’d done the same the next day, punishing his body. After three months he could go the distance with ease; he’d cut his daily walk to five miles and begun work on the lawn.
The vegetable patch was fine. Gordon put away the fork, took off his gardening boots, stepped into the kitchen to wash his hands, and leapt with alarm at unexpected movement. He took a couple of shaky paces back to the door, which had been open all morning, and peered beneath the table to the source of his fright. The cat which emerged from there examined him for perhaps a millisecond before seating itself in the middle of the floor and beginning a leisurely wash.
The animal lifted its head from the paw being groomed, stared dismissively, and returned to its task. Gordon watched with fascination, outrage and amusement vying for dominance, his sudden bark of laughter startling the cat more than his earlier, half-hearted attempt at expulsion. He offered a saucer of milk. The cat accepted it cautiously, then lapped noisily. When the saucer was drained, the cat gave Gordon half a glance of acknowledgement and dashed through the doorway into the garden, jumped over the fence and was swallowed up by the woods.
“There’s gratitude,” Gordon muttered. He wiped spatters of milk from the tiled floor, rinsed out the saucer and placed it in the sink.
Gordon had forgotten about the cat until he saw it the next day, observing him furtively from high up in the apple tree. The cat accepted milk for a second time, and again the following day. By the fourth day it condescended to eat the few scraps Gordon put down. He watched it with curiosity.
“You’re a bit of a mystery, eh?” he ventured. The cat looked up in reply then turned back to its scraps, sating an appetite that owed more to easy availability than hunger. “No collar, but you’re somebody’s all right.” The marmalade coat was too sleek for a stray. And it didn’t stay. After taking what it wanted the animal faded into the woods and wherever it had come from. Gordon had to admire its cheek.
The supermarket was still a weekly ordeal. Gordon usually pushed the memories to the back of his mind, shopped quickly and escaped thankfully. Not today. He stared in bewilderment at row after row of tinned cat food; photogenic felines clamoured for attention and gaudy labels promised unimaginable gastronomic delight: turkey in a rich jelly, beef, chicken, salmon… He picked a dozen tins at random, added them to his trolley and queued guiltily at the check-out. Back home, he put away his purchases in their allotted places and created a niche for the cat food in an underused store cupboard. The tin of “gourmet rabbit ’n’ lamb” he left out, eager to see if the contents lived up to the promise of the wrapping.
The cat arrived promptly at one o’clock and stared impatiently at Gordon, who was halfway through his own lunch. He abandoned his meal to open the tin and spoon the meat into a newly purchased red plastic cat bowl which he placed in front of his guest with a flourish.
“Get stuck into that,” he urged. “There’s milk when you finish.”
The cat sniffed the bowl suspiciously, circled it a couple of times and sniffed again. Investigation complete, it backed away and looked up reproachfully at Gordon, who retrieved the bowl, sniffed the sickly pink contents and guffawed loudly. The cat watched impassively.
“You’re right, puss,” Gordon assured it. “I’d not eat that stuff either.”
He scraped the glutinous cat food into the bin, rinsed out the bowl and refilled it with half of the remainder of his own meal. Both ate heartily. Afterwards, instead of making its usual dash for the door, the cat swirled around Gordon’s legs while he did the washing up, then followed him into the lounge and paced back and forth until Gordon had switched on the radio and settled into his chair. It jumped into his lap, found a comfortable position and purred hugely, stopping only to stare accusingly whenever Gordon ceased his stroking. At two o’clock, as though remembering an appointment, the cat jumped to the floor decisively and sauntered out of the room and the house.
Neither Gordon nor Molly had cared much for television. The cinema had been their great love: a dream world encompassing everything from sprawling Hollywood epics to monochrome British comedies. In its great days they’d made the trip to town twice a week, confident they’d enjoy whatever was showing. Times changed, as did tastes and values. Their attendance became sporadic in the Seventies and ended in the Eighties when they discovered video and amassed a collection that soon filled several bookcases. Every evening they watched an old favourite or a new acquisition – Bogart, Sellers, Tracy, Garland, Guinness, Kelly – while sitting hand-in-hand. When Molly became too ill to leave her bed he’d moved the television and video upstairs. He never watched them now – even the plethora of TV gardening programmes – although everything had been returned to its original place. He preferred the radio. Its chatter soothed him almost as much as the hypnotic purring of the cat and the soft warmth of its fur.
The beast was still an enigma. Cathy had been delighted the first time they’d encountered each other, although the cat had greeted her initially with regal reserve. Its hauteur dissolved quickly – how could it not? – and Gordon experienced unexpected jealousy as she cuddled the unresisting animal to her bosom. Which of the two he envied most he couldn’t say. Cathy had promised to look out for the cat on her round, but no clues to its origin were forthcoming. The postman was equally unhelpful. Gordon didn’t care. He admired the cat’s sturdy independence and was content to share whatever time he was allowed.
Molly would have loved the cat. The knowledge deepened the regret he’d suppressed all these years, for a pet was the one thing he’d denied her. “We’ll get something when there’s a kiddie to play with it,” he’d assured her. Years passed, children never came; buying a dog or a cat was an admission that they never would. After a while they were too set in their ways to countenance the upheaval a pet would bring. If only he’d known.
He guffawed as the cat scrabbled at the pattern on the lounge carpet, Molly’s photograph smiling down on them from the mantelpiece. Everything about the cat was perfect: the delicate sculpture of its face; the fluid lines of legs and spine; the precise grace of its movements; the occasional comedy of its washing. He could have watched for hours, given the opportunity. Instead, he made the most of the minutes, waiting for the moment when the cat would break off whatever it was doing, gaze into the distance, then dash for the door.
Autumn was hard work – there was no doubt about that – but Gordon wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The vibrant colours, the harvest, the scented tang of bonfires, misty mornings and crisp afternoons: he loved them all. And he enjoyed the work. There was always something to do, unlike the winter when he became a bored prisoner, unable to fool himself that his body responded as well as it had ever done or that ice was no problem. The winters were definitely longer than in his youth, whatever they told you about global warming.
He raked the last of the leaves into the smouldering fire, put away his tools and retreated into the savoury warmth of the kitchen. Chicken today: the cat would enjoy that. He had another treat, too. After weeks of hurrying nervously past the enticing windows of the pet shop, Gordon had finally summoned enough courage to enter an amazing new world. The things you could buy animals! Blankets, coats, bowls, tanks, cages, baskets, huge numbers of toys and any amount of food: even special chocolates… He’d felt quite miserly leaving with no more than a tinkly bell encased in a rubber mouse, although he was certain that the cat would be delighted.
When the cat failed to appear, Gordon tried to be philosophical.
“Silly old fool,” he told himself. “It’s probably got bored with you, and who could blame it?” But he stayed indoors the rest of the day, pacing restlessly between the lounge and the kitchen, from where he stared into the garden, hoping to see the cat scramble over the fence and hurry across the lawn.
Next day, the cat still missing, Gordon had no appetite for lunch. Cathy attempted to reassure him with a squeeze of his hand and a cheerfulness that fooled neither of them: no, she’d not heard of any accidents; yes, she’d certainly ask around; no, she didn’t think there was anything to worry about. But Gordon did worry. His walk that afternoon kept him close to the village where he explored every overlooked nook and cranny he could find, his right hand continually straying to his pocket and the comforting bulk of the rubber mouse. He ignored the curious looks and the wary glances his presence provoked in the villagers. That didn’t matter at all.
His hunt continued next morning, moving into the woodland then back to the village. The cat must live here somewhere. Could its owners have moved away? Perhaps it was locked up to stop it straying? Or it could be trapped, lying injured somewhere and in pain. If only he had a clue. He left notices in the post office, the village shop and the community centre. No-one was able to help.
Gordon abandoned his search after two weeks. There was too much to do in the garden to waste his time looking for a silly cat. He could feel the winter drawing closer every day, and if he didn’t get the work done now he’d regret it later. There was lots to be done indoors, too. Molly would never have let the house get in such a state. He’d start tomorrow, he promised. Today was too much effort, and he was so tired. He sat in his comfortable chair, staring at Molly’s picture until he fell asleep.
Outside, the first flakes of snow fell on the lawn.