He’s crying upstairs. I can hear the quiet snuffles between the echoing thuds of his footsteps on the bare boards – newly stripped of their carpet.
I could go to him, try to comfort him, but there’s been a lot of tears and a lot of hugs this weekend and, I guess, now that we are at the end of things he might need this moment alone. Besides, down in the hallway I’m furiously blinking back my own tears as I look into the stripped kitchen.
‘Must not cry, must stay strong. For him.’
It’s a daft idea, not only because I’m utterly failing to stay dry-eyed but also, because he knows I’m sad, that this is hard for me too.
Clump, clump, clump on the naked stairs, he’s coming down. The only items left to remove are Rufus and Moriarty. They have been his constant companions these past few days – more than St F and I – but now they too must leave.
‘Shall I take the cats outside and give you a minute?’ I ask. He raises his gaze to mine, his brown eyes soft with unembarrassed grief.
‘No, I’m good,’ he whispers. ‘Let’s go.’
Stooping, we grab a cat each and step outside. Rufus under one arm, he fumbles the keys from his pocket to lock the door behind us. Uncertain of how to be at this momentously awful moment I say, ‘I bet that’s the wrong key.’ I’m right, it is.
‘That’s the backdoor key he,’ smiles, holding it up for me to inspect. Unfortunately it’s near-enough identical to the other key on the ring and I know, from experience it’s always that one that comes to hand first. shifting Rufus’ weight slightly, he turns back, inserts the second key in the lock. And turns it. He is now locked out of his childhood home, the place where his mother raised him and his sister.
‘You’ll be here when I get back?’ he asks, placing Rufus on the ground before turning for the gate. I nod. He strides to his car, head up, shoulders squared and gets in and drives away. Rufus immediately takes up station on the doorstep. He wants to go back into the house but he can’t. The keys are on their way back to the council offices. Rufus, Moriarty and I are technically trespassers now.
I try to persuade the old cat to come home to St F’s, next door, but he won’t, he won’t leave the doorstep of the house that he’s visited almost every day for the last fourteen years. Moriarty won’t leave Rufus so I am forced to leave alone.
Keys returned, he comes back and I make coffee. Strong, black, with an entire plantation’s worth of sugar in it. We swap stories – he talks about the RAF and I tell salty sea stories. We laugh and joke until St F comes home from work. There’s a pause after we hear her car pull up, turns out she’s spotted Rufus on next-door’s step and gone to get him. Rufus isn’t happy about this but he deigns to be enfolded into the arms of our guest and spreads ginger fur across the man’s trousers, shirt, chin … Moriarty sits on the windowsill outside, occasionally glancing in at us but, mostly, he’s casing the garden for mischief, for some furry or feathered creature to come within range. Thankfully the local wildlife has got wise to him and he remains on the windowsill.
Back in next-door’s garden – Betty’s garden – humans and cats take a last tour, a last look at view across the valley.
‘Goodbye, old friend,’ he murmurs into Rufus’ ear after hugging St F and I and thanking us for our help and then he’s gone. His family’s last link with this village, broken. His car stuffed to the roof with salvaged belongings. He’s gone. His sister has gone. Their childhood is cast adrift from its moorings and now exists only in their memories. ST F and I stay in the garden a little longer and face up to the fact that Betty too has finally left us. Completely and irrevocably. Only Rufus is not convinced. He sits on the steps and miaows.