Short Fiction ~ Oscar Windsor-Smith
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
He was levelling a floor of quick-drying cement when the sounds burst in through the open front door. A screech. A thump. A vehicle stopped, engine ticking, and then moved on. By the time he’d hobbled to the scene the killer had gone.
The cat lay lifeless in the road. There was no blood, only unnatural stillness and amazing clarity in frozen eyes. Oblivious to listeners or echoes from uncaring walls; aware only of incomprehensible loss, at last Richard screamed.
They’d met a year ago, he and the black and white cat, soon after Beatrice entered the hospice for the final time. They must have shared some similarity of spirit, because the cat – a rag-tag bruiser bearing countless scars from living wild – had rushed to Richard and he had welcomed the cat like old friends reunited. He’d named his new friend Buster.
Richard’s spade sliced through firm turf, glided deep through loamy earth to clay and clinked on flint, to create a decent resting-place. He laid the still-warm body on a fresh white towel embroidered at one corner with a heart in red silk. Swaddling the soft material tight around Buster, he lifted the cat to his chest and then lowered him into the earth.
All too aware of racing time, Richard swiftly refilled the grave. He took care though over levelling the earth and cleared away all trace of spoil; the way Beatrice would have liked. The way she would have liked. Strange, how he felt able now to face that thought.
Kneeling again, steel trowel in whitened fist, Richard’s arm swept back and forth, levelling and correcting, smoothing and re-smoothing the tiny craters that kept appearing in the surface.
Later, dry-eyed and exhausted, the floor perfect, Richard closed the door and plodded up the echoing stairs to collapse into their double bed and twilight thoughts of Beatrice.
Fresh as the evening breeze she’d stood, flower print dress fluttering, body swaying to music on a scratchy record booming from speakers in the church hall.
Unaware that Richard was standing in shadow she’d bent forward to something out of his line of sight, speaking soft words he could not make out. Intrigued he’d moved into the light. She’d started, unbent and revealed the object of her attention: a black and white cat.
'Oh! You made me jump,' she said.
'You had me worried, talking to yourself.'
‘I was talking to the cat,' she said, indicating where the animal had been.
'I see no cat,’ he’d replied. ‘But I'd like to take your picture.'
Was that really how they’d met or could this be another cruel trick of his aging brain? Photography had been his hobby back in the day when she had written poetry. If the memory was true he must have that picture somewhere.
Awake now, Richard got up and searched every cupboard, every album and every corner of the cottage. Hours later, defeated, he collapsed back in bed. Sleeping fitfully, he saw Beatrice again, sitting beside him in their living room, a cat on her lap, another at her feet.
'Perhaps all cats were human once,’ she said, ‘who knows what happens to the souls of the dead?'
‘Perhaps,’ he replied without conviction.
'You should try smiling at them,' she said. 'Smile and watch their eyes. Once you have their trust, they'll smile back.'
'Feline faces don’t have the muscles to smile,' he argued.
'I don't know about that,' she said, 'but smile they do, you take my word.'
He had tried smiling at cats, when he’d thought Beatrice wasn't looking, but he’d never received the shadow of a smile in return, or indeed the courtesy of any response at all for his trouble. Not until Buster.
Richard awoke to dawn light sidling down the bedroom wall. He eased his aching back off the bed and shuffled downstairs.
The door was ajar although he was certain he had shut it. Inside something wasn't right. There were marks in the dry cement; a line of small dents in his smooth floor, a cat's paw prints, heading toward a closed cupboard door.
Richard tested the sole of his slipper on the new surface. Satisfied, he tiptoed forward and opened the door. The cupboard was empty except for old lining paper but fragrant with perfume that was Beatrice. He lifted the lining paper and drew it to his face, inhaling memories of the girl in the flower print dress.
Something fluttered to the floor. Through cloudy eyes he saw an envelope lying on the fresh cement.
Richard picked it up, heart thumping, raised the flap and discovered two photographs cradled within a fold of pink notepaper. The first image recorded Beatrice standing, laughing, in the church hall doorway. The second he could not recall having taken; in fact, he felt quite sure he had not. But there, in the same church hall doorway, close up and centre frame, sat a large black and white cat. And it was smiling.
In the white margin of the second photograph someone had written the words ‘Turn me over’ in blue ink. On the reverse, in the same ink and Beatrice’s distinctive hand, he read:
Please don’t break your heart
Endless time is on our side
Our love has nine lives
Oscar Windsor-Smith is an English writer from Merseyside, now resident in south Hertfordshire, UK, with fiction and non-fiction prose and a smattering of poetry published in diverse places, in print and online. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, most recently in the Departures anthology from Arachne Press. He graduated from the 4-year BA creative writing course at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2018, having specialised in screenwriting, but is returning to his first love, short and flash fiction.