Sheila stood staring at the ruins as rain dripped from the hood of her borrowed cagoule. At her feet the water was mixing with the soot into a blackened mud, dripping and gurgling in a silence in which she could hear the cacophony of the night before. Flashing lights, wailing sirens, crying and the roaring of flames. It had been like some ridiculous television programme she would usually watch curled up with a glass of wine. She poked a nondescript blackened lump with her foot. It turned out to be a book and the pages smeared apart damply, their insides unburnt. A dictionary, nothing romantic. If life were a television programme it would have been something significant. If life were a television programme it would be A Clue, there would be A Moral Purpose and eventually, after fifty minutes there would be Justice.
She glanced back, hearing footsteps behind her. Col hadn’t got his hood up and his hair was plastered to his head. She would usually have teased him; his red cheeks and rain spattered glasses topped off by the flattened hair made her affection for him rise in her throat in a way that would usually have emerged as a laugh. Not today. She held out her hand and he took it, pressing his lips together in the half-smile people give when a burden of sadness must be shared.
‘We won’t be able to recover anything at all, will we?’ she asked. He shook his head.
‘They say it’s not safe to go in and there’ll be nothing worth getting out anyway.’ He looked around at the remains of the garden. ‘Wonder if Horace got out ok? I don’t think he was in the house.’ He called out ‘Horace!’ Horace!’
Sheila watched the rain falling out of a ruined gutter and pooling by the front door in the quiet, a car swished past, slowing to peer at the wreck of the house. To her relief, as the car drove on, there was a reproachful ‘meow’ and an ancient and very wet black cat emerged from the grass with an accusatory look. Col squatted down and the cat purred and butted his knee with its head.
He lifted the cat up, cradling it between his coat and his chest, ‘Come here,’ said Col as a deep purr rumbled out from under the jacket. He tickled the cat under its chin and looked up at Sheila and smiled, a watery smile, pale but with a ray of relief that not everything was lost.
‘Darling,’ she began, and he drew back, sensing a warning in her tone, ‘what are we going to do with him?’
‘I. Well. I don’t know.’ He looked down at the cat.
‘We can’t take him back to Mum’s place can we? And we don’t know when we’ll be sorted out. We may need to rent for a while.’
‘But we can’t chuck him out!’ Col’s voice cracked a little.
‘No, no of course not, but maybe Mrs. Dale…’
‘No! I mean, no. Why?’
‘You know why. And she’s always loved Horace. He spends half his time there already.’
Col sighed ‘I suppose you’re right. I just thought…’ he paused, and the sentence faded away.
‘I know, love.’
He looked down at the cat. ‘Always were a mercenary old thing weren’t you? Making big eyes at Mrs. Dale like we never fed you. Come on you silly animal.’ Sheila followed as he carried the cat round the corner to Mrs. Dale’s place. Her beautiful garden had butted on to theirs and Horace had worked his way into her affections in the way that only a personable cat can, rubbing his face on her knee as she tried to do the weeding and asking to come into her immaculate kitchen from the rain.
Mrs Dale opened the door and with exclamations of surprise, consolation and offers of help she ushered them into the kitchen, bustling to get the kettle on and biscuits out.
‘Well Mrs Dale, there is maybe something you can do for us, at least until we get ourselves sorted.’ Sheila said and Col brought the cat out from under his arm.
‘Oh Horace! The beloved beast. Does he need a foster mum?’
Col nodded. ‘I hope we’ll be able to have him back soon. But we’re going to have a bit of a time of it.’
‘Oh you are aren’t you dear. Of course I’ll look after Horace.’ She smiled at the couple and reached out and patted Sheila’s hand. ‘Of course if you need anything else just ask, this is no trouble, no trouble at all, it will be my pleasure.’
As they walked down Mrs. Dale’s path, Sheila gave Colin’s hand a quick squeeze and he sighed. They didn’t look at the burnt out remains of their modest little home, with the black sooty marks streaming up from each window like grotesque eye make-up. They avoided each other’s eyes and Sheila held her mouth tightly shut against the tears as she climbed into the drivers seat. Colin slid in next to her and briefly laid his hand on her leg and as they moved off, tried desperately to think of something to say, something optimistic or mundane, something not about the immediate future, or insurance policies, nor about past memories, nor about being sad, about Horace or home, he just wanted to say something boring. Something that was nothing, but he couldn’t think of anything so they pulled away in silence and tried not to look at their home.