Aunt Melody had always loved cats. Not just the real thing, mind, but cats in any sort of representation be it picture, figurine, tacky plastic toy or nasty knitted thing she picked up at some table-top sale or from a charity shop. Over the course of my lifetime – forty-two years and some – Aunt Melody had gone through more than a dozen assorted moggies of all sizes, shapes and colours. She had also gone through two long-suffering husbands and several would-be life-partners who, upon realising that in Aunt Melody’s scheme of things her cats always came first, not unreasonably found this level of inattention a tad too much to swallow and soon departed. If Aunt Melody was hurt or upset about the change in her circumstances she barely showed it to me or any other member of the family.
Admittedly, some of the creatures were cute. Hell, I’m not a cat-lover by any means, but there is something inherently appealing about a cat’s face. It is, after all, how they manipulate their way into people’s lives. Isn’t the saying that cats choose their owners and not the other way round? If that’s true, then Aunt Melody was the most popular cat lover in our small corner of the world. At any given time there were upwards of a dozen of the animals roaming her spacious home.
Not that all of them could be called cute by any stretch or definition of the word. There was an old tom, an overweight beast of a cat the size of a badger Aunt Melody had named Bruce after the British entertainer Bruce Forsythe. This creature ruled the roost over the majority of the assorted rabble. He was nothing special to look at, just your average black and white-furred animal. It was his eyes, though, that set him apart from the other cats. They were larger than normal, a piercing green that seemed, to me at least, glow with malevolence. He and I never got on and he had taken to avoiding me whenever I called round. I was fine with that but, even so, I swear I could feel him glaring at me, even if we were not in the same room! If I’m being perfectly truthful, he actually scared me a little, though I could not for the life of me have said why exactly.
"My darlings," Aunt Melody was fond of saying with an affectionate smile on her still-attractive face, "take care of me. Who needs a man to muddle things up?" she added with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, having recently learned that I was getting serious about my latest guy.
"Auntie," I sighed with mock exasperation, "there’s loving cats and there’s loving cats. Do you really need to have so many of the…," I paused momentarily, choosing my words carefully, "creatures" I appended quickly. "Really, one or two, even three at a push, should suffice for most people"
"If I didn’t take the darlings in, sweetie, what would happen to them?" she asked, her pale-blue eyes peering at me over the rims of her stylish spectacles. "A cats home!" she enunciated disparagingly. "They are not homes, dearie, they are slaughter-houses, that’s what they are. I can’t allow that to happen". Her voice, as it always did when we got onto this subject, had more of a steely edge than I was used to hearing from her.
"They are not all like that, Auntie" I offered carefully. "Some of them do make tremendous efforts to rehome the strays that come their way. It’s a very sad fact of life that not all strays can be rehomed. Indeed, Auntie, not all cats want to be rehomed"
"Which is where I come in!" she cried triumphantly, grabbing a scabby-looking tortoiseshell and hugging the pathetic creature to her ample bosom. "Without me, Boris here," she said, holding the shivering creature up for my inspection, "would have ended up in feline Belsen and would have assuredly been put to death for no other reason than he had no-one to care for him"
It was, of course, an exaggeration built around a kernel of truth, which Aunt Melody knew that I knew, but we danced this dance on a semi-regular basis and we knew the steps off by heart. My response at this point was to make no response at all, thus allowing Aunt Melody her ‘victory’.
"My concern, Aunty, is that one day these cats will be the death of you" I said after allowing a suitable time to pass to allow her to savour her Pyrrhic victory. "You are not getting any younger, you know."
"It’s lovely that you worry about me so, darling, it really is, but you really shouldn’t. I may be in my eighth decade but I’m still fitter and more mobile than many of my contemporaries" she said proudly.
It was true, too. Aunt Melody was a few months shy of her eighty-fourth birthday and still trotted down to the shops three or four times a week. She played bingo at the church hall Wednesday and Friday evenings - and won more than she lost! – and after more than thirty years she was still an active member of the local W.I. branch in town. Occasionally she volunteered at a charity shop whenever they were short staffed. Even so, I had noticed that she was slowing down, her steps becoming more faltering and her increasing reliance on the sturdy walking stick that she had resisted using becoming more evident with the passing months.
"I know, Aunty, I know" I said, a smile in my voice as I rose to my feet. I crossed the cat-cluttered living room and wrapped my arms around her bony shoulders and hugged her as tightly as I dared. She had never been a big woman; dainty and delicate would best describe her, and age had shrivelled her slender frame to that of a porcelain doll.
"I love you too much to lose you" I whispered into her coiffured hair.
"I love you, too, darling" she replied, patting my hands. "You’re a good girl for coming to see me" she told me, taking my hands and kissing the fingers. "You run along now and see that man of yours." She grinned and winked at me as a pink flush suffused my neck and cheeks.
"I’ll see you next week as usual" I told her as opened the ugly modern uPVC door that the council had installed a couple of years previously. The beautiful solid oak door that her second husband had fitted at some considerable expense lay rotting somewhere at the bottom of a landfill site out of town, which rankled with me. They never even gave Aunt Melody the option to dispose of it in her own way. Progress, huh?
The accident that kept me hospitalised for nearly three weeks could have cost me my life. Thank goodness for car seat-belts. My boyfriend – now ex-boyfriend - walked away almost unscathed. A few bumps and bruises and a cut to his left cheek that somehow enhanced his handsome features rather than harmed them were all he took away from the high-speed crash that left me with a left leg broken in three places, internal injuries that resulted in my spleen being removed and multiple cuts and bruises. I was unconscious for almost forty-eight hours and that bastard didn’t even bother to hang around to see if I was going to survive his boy-racer stupidity. Thankfully, when the police prosecuted him for dangerous driving the court took away his license to drive for two years and he lost any chance of claiming on his insurance for his totalled four-thousand pounds of pride and joy. Sometimes, there is justice in the world!
The elderly woman had woken this morning not feeling too well. She had an elevated temperature and felt a little nauseous and dizzy. She managed to complete her morning ablutions and was about to make her way downstairs when another wave of dizziness left her clutching gratefully at the handrail. She drew in several deep breaths as the attack passed. Feeling well enough to continue her descent she stepped down off the upright...
... and placed her foot directly onto the small bundle of fur that was curled-up and fast asleep there. The frightened kitten leapt up, a hissing ball of fur and claws, which unbalanced the old lady. With a small cry of surprise and fear she fell forward, tumbling down the stairs, scattering more cats as she went.
Her head connected firmly with a step, which rendered her immediately unconscious, luckily for her. She did not feel the pain and agony of her brittle bones breaking as she crashed against the walls and stairs. She lay in an unnatural position at the foot of the stairs, blood oozing from her ears and mouth, her breaths slow and shallow, the sound of mewling cats seeping into her unconscious.
When I was well enough after my extended stay in hospital I rang Aunt Melody. The first time I rang there was no answer, which didn’t concern me greatly. The second time didn’t cause me any worry either. However, when I called for the third time in the week I returned to my own home, not to my parents’ place, which is where they had insisted I stay when I left hospital, I did begin to worry. It had been over four weeks since I had last spoken to Aunt Melody, the longest time that had happened in more than ten years. Mum was dismissive of my concerns.
"Your Aunt has always been a bit flighty" she said airily, as though gossiping about a neighbour and not her own sibling. "She’s probably off on some cause or other, you know what she’s like" she added.
There was a ten year age gap between my mother and her big sister, a gap that, as they had grown, had become insurmountable. Mum and dad had met at school, married at eighteen and had me when they were barely out of their teens themselves. Aunt Melody’s first marriage was already rocky and headed for the divorce court by the time I came along. When the Grim Reaper intervened and took Dennis Slater at a relatively young age Aunt Melody was left with a large Victorian house, a fully paid-up mortgage and a generous Civil Service widow’s pension, courtesy of the unspectacular years of service Dennis had given to one of the less controversial government departments. It was around that time that her obsession with rescuing her feline friends began to really take root.
"She's eighty-fours years old!" I retorted more sharply than I intended down the telephone handset. I certainly never usually spoke to my mother, either of my parents, like it normally, such was the level of my anxiety. "And you know she relies on her walking stick more than ever these days" I added less stridently". I was using a stick myself by that time, hobbling around clumsily and knocking into things... and people. "I know how she feels" I said, ruefully.
Still sounding unconcerned and unconvinced Mother said that she would ask father to drive around to Aunt Melody's house later that day as he and she were busy in the garden. I wasn't especially happy about it, but it was a compromise of sorts and as I couldn't go myself, I had to accept what was on offer. After extracting a promise from my mother that she would ring me straight away after seeing Aunt Melody we said our goodbyes and I replaced the handset in its cradle. It was time for my medication, which I took with a cup of tea. Sleep took me away from my concerns shortly afterwards.
I awoke with a start, the orange glow of the streetlamps illuminating my darkened lounge. I felt disoriented and confused for several moments until my head cleared and I remembered where I was. I had fallen asleep in my favourite chair and there was slight stiffness in my neck where I had slept awkwardly. I rose carefully to my feet and eased the various aches and stiffness out of my neck and limbs. As I did so my eyes glanced at the beautiful antique pendulum clock that hung on the chimney-breast wall. A shaft of orange light caught the clock-face at just the right angle for me to read the time perfectly.
Almost eleven-thirty! I had been asleep for more than three hours. I had not realised how tired I was. On the heels of that thought came the memory of Aunt Melody and my mother's promise to ring me. The telephone was on a small coffee table right next to the chair I had fallen asleep in so, if it had rung, it would have been near-impossible for me to have not heard it. Even so, I did check to make sure, using the ring-back facility and established that the last call I had received had been a little after nine o'clock that very morning, from mother as it happened.
My immediate thought was not why hadn't mother rung me, but had anything happened to her or dad? Neither of them were youngsters, although both were surprising fit and healthy for a couple of septuagenarians. Even so, things happened, unexpected things so, even though the hour was late, I dialled their number.
She slipped from unconsciousness to eternal rest without regaining full awareness. Brief agony-filled moments sent her body hurrying back to the sanctuary of oblivion rather than face the reality of the injuries she had sustained in the fall down the stairs in a vain attempt to protect her from herself. A younger body might have had the reserves of strength and stamina to survive such a fall with its accompanying damage, but her elderly frame was no match for what had been inflicted upon it. Before darkness fell that fateful day the last spark of light left her eyes and the death rattle in her throat sounded obscenely loud in the quieted house.
There was no reply at my parents' house, which was not just odd, it was unheard-of. Mum and dad had for as many years as I could remember retired for the night religiously between ten-thirty and eleven o'clock every night except on those most rare occasions when they went out for the evening. I felt a small bubble of apprehension begin to form in my stomach as I considered what to do next.
In spite of my insistence that they have one, mother and dad refused point-blank to have a mobile phone, claiming that it was an unnecessary expense that was unjustified, and, besides which, neither of them would have a clue how to operate the thing. Even so I had personally bought a very basic model and tried my best to explain how easy it was to use. I swear it was more stubborness than lack of comprehension on either of their parts that left me frustrated with their apparent lack of understanding. However I left the phone with them in the hope that one or other - or both - of them would be curious enough to try to use it. If they had they had never rung me and to the best of my knowledge the instrument was still on the side-table where I'd left it. As I dialled the number I offered up a small prayer of hope that it was switched on and had charge in the battery.
There was no answer, which sent my anxiety level soaring. What to do next? Out of desperation I rang Aunt Melody's number again, not expecting it to be answered, which, of course, it wasn't. I was stymied; not being able to get in touch with my Aunt was one thing, but to not be able to contact my parents was another thing altogether. Something, quite obviously, was very amiss. I sat down heavily in my chair again and as I fought to suppress the rising feeling of panic, I forced myself to think things through rationally.
The death-house was a babble of mewling and cries of a dozen or more feline voices, all raised in protest at their captivity and lack of food or water. The older, more resourceful, animals had learned that they could, if they were careful, drink from the lavatory pan whilst one or two others found the dripping tap in the bathroom more to their taste. However, in all things, they all deferred to the large, mean-looking black-and-white tom, Bruce.
It had been days since any of them had been fed. The two-legged creature that had previously fed and cared for them had lain unmoving for several days and had taken on the unmistakable aroma of carrion. Bruce circled the dead body, niffing cautiously at the nose, the mouth and the ears, his pink tongue darting out delicately, like a sommelier tasting a fine wine. He mewled loudly as his empty stomach growled with hunger. The large animal sniffed along the immobile body, his nose twitching constantly. He reached the unshod foot, twisted grotesquely out of its normal position. Another rumble of hunger rippled through his body and he mewled again. Tentatively, he licked the cold flesh, not particularly liking the taste. However, his hunger overcame his reluctance after another lick or two, before he opened his mouth and delicately nibbled at a softened, pale-fleshed bloodless toe.
Mum and dad had probably stayed over at Aunt Melody's, I reasoned, although that didn't explain their failure to answer my 'phone calls. I could not shake the feeling that something was dreadfully amiss and that I was wasting precious time sitting on my butt trying to figure it out. Although I couldn't drive anywhere myself, there were a dozen and more mini-cab services at the end of a telephone line who would, for a fee, transport me anywhere I damn-well pleased. The yellow pages pointed me in the direction of the alphabetically prominent Aardvark & Abba Mini-Cab Car Hire Service which, in spite of my troubled state of mind brought a smile to my lips. A young and chirpy-sounding receptionist promised me earnestly that a car would "surely be with you in less than fifteen minutes, ma'am", which brought a second smile to my face in as many minutes.
I dragged on a pair of house slippers to wear just so that I had something on my feet. The alternative was going barefoot, which was never going to be an option. I pulled a coat around my shoulders and waited looking through the picture window that overlooked the street for the cab to arrive. I heard the sharp toot of the car horn as a sleek-looking car with an indistinct logo drew to a stop at the kerb in front of my home. I made sure I had my house keys in my pocket before tucking a crutch under my arm and hobbling carefully towards to street door.
The handsome black driver courteously held the door open for me as I settled myself awkwardly in to the back seat. He handed me my crutch and smiled pleasantly when I thanked him for his help and gave him the address to which to take me. I'd noticed as I hobbled down my footpath towards the car and the logo I had seen from my window became clearer that it was a stylised representation of an aardvark standing atop a pile of vinyl records, of course. How could I have not guessed?
Once he had overcome his initial reluctance to touch the dead flesh, the cat known as Bruce soon put that reluctance aside as he sated his hunger by consuming two whole toes. Seeing their erstwhile leader feasting on the remains of their one-time saviour more of the mob of felines began to show an elevated level of interest in what he was doing, some becoming emboldened enough to explore other exposed areas of flesh.
The scream that rent the air brought neighbours running from houses several streets away, such was its awful, horrified nature. Several of the men brought firearms and other weapons with which to beat off whatever attacker had caused such a sound to be made by the terrified woman. Her husband, shocked into immobility and silence by the sight before his eyes and his wife's panicked reaction stood open-mouthed, willing his mind to deny the scene before him.
As soon as the street door had swung open a veritable swarm of cats had fled the house. Unfortunately his wife had taken lead and had seen her sister's corpse lying in an unnatural position at the foot of the stairs. It was not that sight that had prompted her to utter that ear-piercing and terrified scream, however. It was the sight of a large black and white cat perched on her scrawny chest indolently chewing on what could only be a hand: her - Melody's - hand. If he was perturbed by the awful noise he gave no indication of it for the cat, Bruce as was, continued to chew on a mutilated finger.
I knew something was amiss as soon as the car approached Aunt Melody's street. For starters, there was a great deal of people out and about, far more than was usual on that street at that time of night. Then there was the strobing lights of the emergency vehicles, the sight of which set my stomach clenching in fear.
I could not form a coherent thought at all. I absently paid the lovely driver, who had regaled me with tales of his fifteen month old baby daughter, Fleur, on whom he was doting every second of his spare time, throughout the drive over and who had kept my mind off my worries for the time it had taken to complete the journey. I thrust whatever notes I had in my purse into his hand. He began to protest that it was too much, but as I clambered out of the car in an ungainly fashion, I told him to buy his daughter something nice from me.
A neighbour of my Aunt, whom I knew more by sight than association recognised me and made her way through the throng of people outside Aunt Melody's house.
"I'm so sorry" she said, her face a picture of misery, "it's your Aunt".
"Is she...?" I asked, unable to complete the question.
"I'm sorry, but yes she is" the neighbour, Valerie, I think her name was, confirmed, her eyes cast down to the ground.
"What? What is it?" I demanded, sensing there was more to come.
"It's not for me to say, really it's not" the poor woman said as tears sprang into her eyes. "Your parents are here, perhaps you should ask them?" she suggested, backing away from me and wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of a rather stylish and no doubt expensive jumper that fitted her trim frame like a second skin.
I made my painful way towards my Aunt's house, the press of people parting wordlessly upon seeing my invalided condition. I felt several pats on my back and shoulders and heard muttered condolences from people who obviously knew me as my Aunt's niece and who had probably seen my comings and goings through the years. I didn't have the strength or the voice to answer any of them.
My father espied me at the gate at the end of the property's footpath. With agility and alacrity I would have never guessed he still possessed at his age he made his way towards me.
"What are you doing here?" he asked brusquely.
"I was worried about you and mum when I could not get hold of you on the 'phone" I answered. "What happened to Aunt Melody?"
"I'm sorry, darling," dad said gently. "It looks like she fell down the stairs and hurt herself too badly to call for help"
"Oh, no, Auntie!" I cried and burst into tears. My father, a gentle soul who in spite of being married and raising a daughter, was never good with tears. However, this time he came up trumps and wrapped his arms around my shoulders and held me gently until I had cried-out the worst of my initial shock.
I saw my mother as my father released me from his embrace. If it were at all possible, she had added twenty years to her age in the period since I had seen her last.
"Dad? What aren't you telling me?" I asked, as I hobbled uncertainly towards my mother. "What else happened here? Why are all these people here and what happened to mummy?" I burbled as fresh tears slipped down my face.
"I'm sorry, honey," Dad said as he and mum embraced quickly. "It looks like your Aunt... " He couldn't say the words. I suddenly had an awful feeling I knew what it was he was trying to say.
"Oh, no, please... not that!" I cried. "I TOLD you!" I screamed at my mother, pointing an accusatory finger at her. "I told you there was something wrong!"
"I'm sorry! I am more sorry than you can ever understand" my mother sighed, not making any attempt to defend herself against my anger and tears. "You were right and I was wrong. I should have listened to you. After all, you knew my sister far better than I did."
"How long?" I asked. "How long did she lay there all alone and helpless?" I was fighting to hold down the hysteria that was threatening to overwhelm me. "How fucking long did my Aunt, your sister, lay at the bottom of those stairs, mother?" I said in a calm, even tone of voice that I didn't recognise. "How fucking long!"
"There's no need to swear" dad interjected.
"Just answer the goddamn, fucking question, someone!" My voice was rising as my anger and grief swelled. "How long did Aunt melody lay dead on that bastard floor before you found her?!" I demanded.
"We don't know, exactly," dad conceded as mum wept in to a handkerchief he had helpfully handed to her. "We think it may have been as long as three weeks" His voice tailed off to a whisper, his incomprehension at how he and his wife had come to this state of affairs compounded by a growing sense of guilt and shame.
"Oh my God!" I cried. I suddenly felt very light-headed and slightly nauseous and my vision began to blur and darken. Before I realised what was happening to me I had fallen into a dead faint. Were it not for the rapid reactions of a couple of the younger male neighbours there might well have been a second fatality that night as I very nearly impaled myself on the white painted pickets of Aunt Melody's fence.
Taking full advantage of the commotion around him, Bruce slipped away unnoticed, the remains of the old lady's hand dangling from his firmly clenched jaw. Although there was little meat on his treasure, he would enjoy gnawing on the bones and making his way through the hardness to the life-giving marrow at the core. He found himself a new, sympathetic home in which to reside, miles distant from his previous one. Nobody missed him and he missed nobody either.
When I came round I was back home in my own bed.
"Where's mum?" I asked my father who was sitting in an overstuffed chair I'd rescued from a rubbish pile several years ago and restored.
"She's resting at home. This has been incredibly traumatic for all of us" he said earnestly.
"I'm sorry I shouted" I said, clasping his liver-spotted and heavily veined hand in mine. "And can you ever forgive me for swearing like a navvy?" I asked as a pink bloom suffused my neck and cheeks.
Dad laughed a throaty chuckle.
"I always knew you had it in you, girl," he laughed, "and I always thought it would come out long before now with one or other of those blokes you've been with" he admitted, his eyes moistening with mirth.
"Well, I've always tried to be a lady" I giggled "but it hasn't always worked so well" I added with a wink and a smile.
"No doubt, no doubt" dad said, his voice losing its joviality.
"Honey, there's more I have to tell you, about your Aunt" he said, all traces of mirth and laughter completely absent from his voice now. "I don't want to say anything, but rather you hear it from me than hear it elsewhere or read it in the newspapers" he said solemnly.
"Daddy? What's wrong? What do you mean?" I asked, suddenly afraid all over again.
In a halting voice that dropped to little more than a papery whisper at times, he told me of the full horror of that house; of what my dearly beloved Aunt had endured. On first examination it appeared that Aunt melody had lived for quite some time after her fall and may have been awake and fully conscious for some or all of the time, there was no way of knowing. I hoped and prayed that that was not the case and that she had passed peacefully and painlessly into the next life.
But it was what the cats had done to her; to her corpse that really horrified me, which is why dad opted, over my mother's wishes, to tell me about first. I wailed and cried and beat my fists against the walls, my own chest and hit out and kicked inanimate items of furniture out of soul-deep anguish and disgust and sorrow for my poor helpless Aunt. I had nightmares for months afterwards and developed an overpowering aversion to all things feline ever after.
I have never really got over losing my Aunt, although Mother Nature would in all likelihood have taken her from this world within a few more years anyway. It was the manner of her passing and what happened to her poor helpless body that troubles me constantly.
As per her will, her wish was to buried alongside her first husband, which we gladly complied with. Her will also made me the sole beneficiary of her entire estate, which made me, if not a wealthy woman, at least a comfortably-off one.
There was, though, one sticky point: Aunt Melody stipulated in her will that, as part of the terms of my inheritance, I was obliged to give a home to any cat that came looking for one. It took a long court case and lots of clever legal wrangling to get that clause overturned, I can tell you! I'm sure, given what happened to her in her last days, Aunt Melody would not have minded in the least.
Note: this story was prompted by my coming across an online article about a woman who had died and been partly consumed by her cats. Here is the link to the newspaper story for anyone interested: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/reclusive-woman-eaten-by-pet-cats-as-body-lay-undiscovered-in-home-8759326.html