The snow had not stopped falling all morning and Amanda stood at her window studying the street. Flakes of frozen filigree were drifting down like feathers and the skies were oppressive with dark clouds. Although mid-day, it could have been early evening for all the light that filtered from above. The street was deserted and a smattering of the automatic lamps struggled to displace the gloom, the snow reflecting the eerie yellow illumination. Thankfully the wind had blown itself out, but the cold was still bitter and the weather gave no sign of relenting. No one would choose to be out in these conditions, but Amanda had no option, she had to buy food.
I'll go to the supermarket on my way to the Denison's, she decided. Robert Denison was her new boss and had invited her to dinner with his family to welcome her to the town. She'd only been in the job a week and had been lucky to find the flat. The rent was low and it was an easy walk to the town centre, but it had one drawback. It belonged to the undertaker and was above the funeral parlour. Whether she entered the building from the front or the rear, she had to pass the Chapel of Rest to reach the door to the flat. But this year she'd become inured to death.
Dad had been the first, finally giving up the fight against his cancer. Mum and John, her husband, had been killed in that car accident only five weeks later. She'd been lucky to escape with just bruising, but she'd lost her unborn baby. The memories were still raw, but with a new job in a new town she hoped that life would improve.
It wasn't far to the supermarket and, as the snow had stopped, she walked. The car park would be slippery and she didn't want to risk a ding. She left a pair of shoes in the car so she could change from her rubber boots before she set off for the Denison's. She wouldn't like someone traipsing snow through her home. The snow had stilled the town and few people were in the streets. She passed one pedestrian in Market Street. Like her she was avoiding the drifts that had built against obstructions. Two people were skirting the square, but as she entered it she saw a single line of footprints that marched on a diagonal across the open space, to pass the War Memorial and its statue. The footprints rejoined the compressed snow at the opposite corner. There was not one of the usual Saturday market stalls. The stall holders would have looked at the weather and written off the day's business.
Not wishing to venture into what seemed to her uncharted wastes, Amanda followed the narrow trampled lines around the perimeter of the square. She pulled the collar of her coat up as she turned into Railway Terrace and stared with apprehension at the treacherous surface that led up the hill. Halfway up the incline she slipped and reached out to the wall of a shop to steady herself. She regained her balance and pressed on. As she entered Robertson's supermarket and walked into the warmth of the store she breathed out in relief.
It was snowing heavily again when she left the store. Along the street snow was drifting into doorways and blocking the access. On the footpaths it was still building, and the beaten paths were disappearing. In the square the brave diagonal line was no longer visible and the edge of the kerb had been obliterated.
She was cold and her boots were enveloped in snow by the time she reached the undertaker's parking lot. She'd loaded her shopping into the car, changed into her shoes and set off for Aston Close.
The evening passed quickly, although when she'd met the Denison's children thoughts of the child she had lost threatened to overwhelm her. It had been a challenge to suppress her tears, but the moment passed. As she prepared to leave Maggie pressed her to stay the night.
'This is not a night to be driving around on your own,' she said.
This had been Amanda's first social engagement since her father's death and, although Robert and Maggie had been considerate hosts, she was tired out. For the moment the thought of breakfast with the family was too daunting. She preferred to be alone.
The hands of the clock above the town hall showed ten minutes to midnight when Amanda passed. It was still snowing and the town was eerily quiet. The roads were icy and she was relieved to reach the undertaker's yard without a mishap.
She parked on the concrete apron at the rear of the funeral parlour and let herself into the building, her shopping in her left hand. As she unlocked the door into the tiny entrance hall of her flat she noticed, through the glass panel in the door to the Chapel of Rest, the open coffin. In it was the body of a young woman, who looked about her own age. Two electric candles burned weak and feeble, to show a face that glistened in the dim illumination as if it was a wax mask.
The hairs on the back of Amanda's neck bristled and she slammed the door behind her with a rush. She fumbled for the light switch in the dark of the stairwell and as she found it, one of the handles of the overfilled shopping bag slipped from her grasp so that some of the packages tumbled to the wooden floor with a crash. The noise was strident in the darkness.
She flicked the switch. A flash shattered the blackness for an instance, and then was gone. The hallway closed round her, the dark more dense after the brief spark of light, and for the first time since she'd moved into the flat, Amanda felt uneasy.
Not a glimmer of light filtered through to the depths at the foot of the stairwell. An irrational feeling that she was not alone germinated and overcame her reason. It flared, feeding on itself until her limbs were heavy with semi paralysis. Her breath rasped loud in the dark stillness and, near to panic, she reached out and ran her fingers down the wall until she found the handrail. She fought to curb her breathing and forced herself to a natural rhythm as she struggled with her fear.
The blackness was total. Amanda could see nothing and made no effort to retrieve the fallen groceries. She clutched the bag in her left hand, and held the rail tight in the other as she stumbled through the litter of packages at her feet. She shivered and crept upwards by feel alone, one slow step at a time.
The door to the lounge-room at the top of the stairs was closed, as she had left it. Amanda eased the handle and there was a faint click as it unlatched. A muted thud came from inside the flat and she paused with door ajar.
She held her breath, certain there was an intruder. Bile rose in her throat and she fought, but failed, to control the tremble in her hands.
After a year of adversity, this was the final straw, and she became angry. No one was going to ruin her new life. She lowered the shopping bag to the floor and rummaged in the remnants of her purchases for something to use as a weapon. Her fingers closed on a metal cylinder and she tested the weight.
Quivering with apprehension she swung the door wide open, her right hand locked firmly round the steel can. The lounge-room was black and her apprehension grew to dread as she felt for the switch. Light flooded the room and she blinked to stem the blindness before she stepped through the doorway to peer round the space through narrowed eyelids.
Everything was as she'd left it.
She closed the door behind her and crept over to the kitchen. The fluorescent flickered three times before it struck and lit the room with its harsh light.
There was nothing out of place.
Amanda crossed the room, opened a cupboard below the sink and searched for something more useful to defend herself. As she groped through the shelves, she turned sideways to keep the door in view. When she stood up, she clutched a small saucepan with a heavy copper bottom. Not brilliant in the weapon stakes, but better than the tin of beans she placed on the worktop. She returned to the lounge-room and, with a little more confidence, flung open the bedroom door.
In the anticlimax her resolve began to slip away and she fought for control.
She moved round the bed to the wardrobe and pushed the door to the end of the track where it slammed against the stop. Her clothes swung in the draught, but they were all that she could see and she slid the door closed again.
Back in the lounge-room she faced the bathroom door, the last room in the flat. Sweat beaded on her forehead, her heartbeats strong and loud in the stillness. She grasped the door handle, hesitated and took a firmer grip on the saucepan.
Certain now that she was not alone, she opened the door with caution.
A maniacal squeal returned to shatter the silence. A high pitched echo reverberated in the bathroom to be followed by the tinkle of bottles on the vanity. That in turn was followed by a crash as something heavy fell to the tiles of the floor.
With a fear filled jerk Amanda swung the door wide. Close to panic she pulled the light cord. The shower curtain was drawn back to expose an empty void. A quick glance was enough to show that there was nowhere for a person to hide.
At the window, the curtain fluttered in the cold draught that came through the gap she'd left at the bottom of the frame. The distant sound of the town hall clock striking midnight broke the silence and she gasped, startled by the unexpected chimes.
Amanda slumped against the door jamb as her breathing steadied and the shaking in her limbs diminished. She felt weak. As she regained her composure she began to think that it was all in her imagination. The squeal could have been outside, somehow amplified in the peace that the blanket of snow had brought to the town.
She'd almost convinced herself when she noticed the bottle, lying where it had fallen beside the plinth of the vanity unit, and she bent to pick it up. A preternatural screech broke the silence as her fingers closed on the glass and a flash of steel grey shot forward. Amanda felt the cut on her flesh and snatched her hand away with speed that matched that of the disappearing grey . She shot backwards, to ricochet against the cold tiled wall.
Her heart raced.
The saucepan clattered unnoticed on the floor.
Her legs turned to rubber.
She collapsed against the wall and crumbled, until she was sitting on the edge of the bath, nursing her bleeding left hand, eyes wide open and unfocused.
The first touch of cold slime on her ankle was so faint that for a moment it did not register.
It came again and her heart resumed its frantic race. In terror she looked down to see two green eyes return her stare and a glistening tail that curled round her leg.
She reached down, scooped the half-drowned bundle of grey fur onto her lap and stroked the back of its bedraggled head with a finger. Within a minute it was purring.
As Amanda's pulse and breathing began to return to normal, the wetness of the kitten's fur seeped through her skirt, cold against her thighs. The kitten looked up at her and rubbed its head affectionately against her hand.
Amanda took a towel from the rail and gently dried the sodden animal. She felt foolish and drained and a rueful smile curved her lips. The gash on her hand withered to a scratch and, once her heart had slowed, she reached for the fallen bottle.
In the kitchen she found a saucer and poured some milk. The kitten lapped greedily while Amanda searched for her torch and went to retrieve her groceries from the stairwell. No longer scared, she still took care to lock the door and secure the chain before she made a coffee and thought through what she should do about the new arrival.
The harshness of the telephone made her gasp. Her nerves were on edge still, and it was into the eighth ring before she'd recovered and picked the receiver off the cradle.
It was Robert Denison. 'Sorry to ring you so late, but I guessed you wouldn't be in bed yet. The weather's so bad we just wanted to make sure you'd reached home safely.'
Amanda replaced the receiver and looked down at the ball of damp fluff that was winding itself round her ankles. What was she going to do about the kitten? It must be hungry and she could hardly turf it out into the street. She looked through her cupboard and found a tin of sardines. As she opened it she wondered how the kitten had got in. It must have climbed onto the roof of the workshop to reach the bathroom window. Amanda looked across at the tiny bundle that now watched her with anticipation from the rug in front of the gas fire.
'It's all right for you,' she said and the kitten cocked its head. 'You've no idea of the fright you caused.' She piled half the fish onto a saucer and held it out to the tiny animal. 'Here you are, food. I hope you like it, it's all I've got.'
The kitten had no hesitation and, as she watched it eat, Amanda thought of other practicalities. She had nothing in the flat and wondered if there would be anything in the workshop. In the dust extractor there may be some wood shavings or even sawdust.
The door to the workshop led from the passageway besides the Chapel of Rest. Amanda hurried to close the workshop door behind her. She found a box lid, filled it with sawdust and hoped that the kitten was house trained.
The kitten had finished the sardines when she returned to the flat and it curled itself round her ankles in a show of affection. She gave it the rest of the fish, but it had eaten its fill and followed her into the bedroom. By the time she was in her pyjamas the kitten was curled on the top of the bed.
Gently she picked it up and placed it on the floor. 'We're not starting that,' she said and the kitten watched as she slipped under the duvet. Darkness engulfed the room and she felt the kitten jump back onto the bed, but she relented and allowed it to curl up against the small of her back. It was asleep long before her nerves recovered from the evening's trauma.
© Jim Ditchfield 2003