‘I think we’ve got rats,’ Steve says. He’s mostly hidden behind the grocery bags he’s carrying in, so he doesn’t see Owen flinch. Hopefully.
‘Yeah?’ Owen asks, aiming for casual.
Steve stomps into the narrow kitchen of their apartment and hefts his armload onto the table. ‘I heard something in the kitchen last night,’ he frowns, digging around in the paper bags. ‘Couldn’t see anything, but I got us…’ He holds up the sachets of rat bait. ‘Figured it can’t hurt.’
‘Sure thing,’ Owen shrugs.
That night he waits until Steve has gone to bed, then goes around gathering up every single one.
He lies awake in bed, listening intently. Elsie’s quiet, but he knows what to listen for: the creak of the floorboard, the tiniest shuffling along the skirting board, and then the faint rasping of her climbing up the string he’d tied to his headboard’s metal rail. He rolls onto his side, reaches out a finger to heave her up onto the mattress. They grin at each other, before he produces a tiny serving of last night’s roast, unwrapping it carefully. She sits on his handkerchief — a picnic-sized blanket to her — and tucks in with relish.
‘You know,’ he says, watching her eat. ‘If you told your dad about me, I could leave parcels for all of you.’
‘Y’know,’ she counters, her mouth full. ‘If you told Steve about me, you wouldn’t have to fret so much.’
‘I don’t fret,’ he pouts.
She rolls her eyes. ‘We know not to eat rat poison, you idiot; it smells terrible.’
‘Fair point,’ he concedes. He’s still glad he did it, though.
She starts in on a pea, chomping it like an apple.
‘Steve’ll think I’m nuts,’ he continues. ‘Or think he’s gone nuts.’ Owen doesn’t tell her he sometimes wonders if he himself has in fact gone off the deep end; if she’s a hallucination, well, there’re probably much worse ones.
‘Are you all warm enough?’ he asks. ‘It’s getting cool for me in the mornings, so…’
She nods at him over a chunk of roast potato. ‘It’s fine. We’ll make the big move into the kitchen soon, to be near the hot pipes.’
‘Moving east for the winter?’ he smiles. She tilts her head inquiringly, still chewing.
‘Like birds,’ he clarifies. ‘Flying south in the winter to get away from the snow.’
‘Birds are terrible,’ she says absently, licking gravy off her fingers. ‘Cats are worse, though.’
She finishes her last mouthful and he rests his hand out. She clambers on, settling in his palm, her weight slight but comforting.
‘What’s ‘report for duty’?’ she asks.
Owen freezes. ‘Where’d you see that?’
‘On a letter with your name on it,’ she says pointedly. ‘Stuffed down the back of a drawer.’
He shuts his eyes. Sighs. ‘That’ll teach me for helping you learn to read, won’t it?’
‘What’s it mean?’
He forces himself to open his eyes, to meet her unwavering gaze. ‘Means I’m going to have to go away for a while. A few seasons, depending on what the damn birds and cats on the other side of the world are doing.’
She flinches, but squares her shoulders, folds her arms and glares. ‘Were you gonna tell me?’
‘I haven’t even told Steve yet. God.’
She pokes his thumb. ‘So now you got two secrets to tell him, then.’
The laugh startles out of him. ‘Christ.’ Then something shivers up, and his eyes sting. ‘I’m sorry. I’m…I’m really sorry.’
They look at each other, both of them wobbly.
She takes a deep breath, nods. ‘I’ll get you some thread, then.’
‘If you’re going on a big move. To bundle things up with.’ Her chin is high, decisive, daring him to scoff.
‘Thank you,’ he murmurs, heartfelt. ‘Thank you.’ He makes a mental note to borrow an entire damn bobbin from their sewing kit and “accidentally” lose it behind the dresser.
He keeps it with him, the slender twist of bright blue, all through training and into his first deployment. He loses it somewhere during one long night’s march through the squelching mud and hissing rain, and his grief is a wave of overwhelming regret…until a letter arrives from London.
There are pages and pages of Steve’s neat copperplate about the neighbourhood, work, their apartment. Then on the last sheet, pencilled in jagged, careful print: Stay away from cats, and underneath, Steve’s copperplate: P.S. I’M TEACHING HER TO WRITE! 🙂
© 2020 | Tom Burton