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Kippers

A story about a lonely woman, her cat and a mysterious stranger

By Wilkie StewartPublished 3 years ago Updated 2 years ago 8 min read
Top Story - December 2021
10
Kippers

Fog cloaked the garden. When she opened the back door to let in the cat, the fog crept in beside the feline, to hang around the ceiling and the corners of the kitchen like a malevolent ghost. She shivered. She knew all about those.

Kippers was not his usual self. He liked to parade around until she got his food, but he was already stretched out by the fire in the sitting room. Poor mite, probably frozen. She put out his plate anyway, he would come back to it later.

She fried mackerel for herself, finishing the packet. No-one was there to criticize her figure. She loved fish and wondered if she had come from the sea. She had never met her mother. There was only one photograph of her in the house, its blurred features made insubstantial by sunlight. Daddy said she was dead, and they were better off without her. He was a cruel man, but he was dead too, and she and Kippers were all the better for that.

The fog remained all morning but a little after noon, it began to lift and by one o'clock the sun had broken through. She put on her coat and headed out towards the shops. She avoided the school, taking a longer route. She swung her blue bag as she crossed the avenue and walked down the towpath beside the canal towards the gloom of the town centre. Even in the sunshine, the boarded-up Woolworth's, and the tacky pound shops said things were ‘going to shit faster than a Labour government’. She laughed aloud at that. It was one of Daddy's favourite phrases.

A hand reached out from a litter strewn bush making her stumble and almost fall into the water. A bearded face emerged. "Woah, lady," he said, "I din' mean no harm."

She clutched her bag. The man wore an old coat caked with mud on one side. He had a hat, that might have been woollen, but looked like a nest. There was a rich smell. She stepped backwards on the path but then held her ground. It was daylight. This man was nothing but a vagrant. "I have no money," she said.

The man sat down on the grass and held his hands to his face. What was he doing? "I'm lost," he said. "I don't know who I am," he mumbled through his fingers.

Her own fingers twitched to open her bag and pull out her purse, but she knew that would be a mistake. It would mean she would be caught out in a lie, and you had to keep faith with those, or all would be lost. Not that Daddy had always been right. His lies had caught him out in the end.

She resumed walking, leaving the man on the towpath. She thought of Kippers, but the man was not a stray that she could take in, feed, and allow to loll in front of her fire. She almost laughed at the image in her head, the man naked and hairy like Daddy, curled like a cat on the sitting room carpet.

On the way back from the shops she risked passing the school. The children would be in classrooms now that lunchtime break was over, their faces wouldn't be laughing through the railings as she walked by. The road was silent, just a pair of magpies calling to each other as they hopped from tree to tree in front of her. The fog was coming back. She would keep Kippers inside tonight.

Along the canal

Except she didn’t. She let the cat back in, her plan to not let him out overnight forgotten. In the faint morning light, the grass was flattened where something had been lying. She hadn't cut the grass since last year. She'd need a scythe before she could get near it with the lawnmower. Something heavy had made a dent. Not a fox or a dog. It was too big. A man-shaped dent.

She closed the door and went to the kitchen window. It was cluttered with dead pot plants. As she moved them, she saw the scurry of spiders and beetles. Kippers leaped onto the counter to have a look.

In the trees at the back of the garden, she saw something that shouldn't be there. A vague shadow. A smudge in the garden landscape. Was it looking her way? Probably hunched in sleep. She turned the key in the backdoor to lock it. It was stiff from lack of use. It never occurred to her to lock it - she usually just slid the bolt. She made her tea. She loved it hot and sweet. Daddy had preferred coffee, stuff so thick she was sure that was why the edges of his hair curled, but tea was her drink of choice each morning, and last thing at night.

As the kettle whistled, she wondered whether the creature outside would wake, or whether it would sleep on, dreaming the whistle was a train, or a call to a family dog, or a shift change at a factory.

She looked again later having washed herself and dressed. The shadows weren't so gloomy, and she could see a man sitting against the wall. He was smoking. She worried about the ash. It was dry in there, with leaves uncleared from the autumn. There were ashtrays in the sitting room, no longer in use, should she take one out? The hat was the same as yesterday - she shuddered at the thought of the hair beneath it. Then laughed as a beetle crawled across the counter and Kippers pounced.

She turned on the radio and listened for a moment as a woman complained about bin collections. She switched stations until she found something classical. They had a pile of records that Daddy used to play. She liked this tune. It made her think of Wordsworth and rolling hills and sheep baaing in the evening air.

That night had been a long time ago. Another life.

The man outside was coughing. It was deep like something had lodged in his chest and he was racking to get it out. She filled a glass with water, and then changed her mind and filled a mug instead. She unlocked the door. Kippers followed but stayed on the step, while she crossed the grass. Her long skirt grew heavy with the dew.

He was still coughing as she approached. He took the mug from her hand and drank. He coughed more but it sounded better like something was moving rather than stuck. He drank again, peering up at her. When he was finished, he put the mug on the ground, and closed his eyes. She had a sudden urge to kick him. She turned away and went back indoors. She lifted the phone from its cradle in the hallway, then put it back down. She put on her coat. She would go to the library. Find something to read. When she got back, he would be gone.

tea

Except he wasn't. He was on the back step, the kitchen door ajar, feeding the cat from her biscuit tin.

She put her bag with the library books down on the kitchen table. The man looked up. "Thanks for the water," he said. For a moment she was thrown but of course she had given him some earlier.

"You've been in my house," she said. She had almost said 'Daddy's house'. How absurd that would have been.

He got up off the step and moved into the garden. "I'm sorry, it was the cat, I could hear it crying." As he spoke, Kippers slipped through the kitchen and into the sitting room as if to say this has nothing to do with me.

She lifted the biscuit tin and put it back into the cupboard where it belonged. She clicked the cupboard door shut. "I don't give him biscuits, it's not good for his digestion," she said, although she was unsure if that was true. Biscuits were created as digestion aids, weren't they? Someone (she knew who) had told her that. She looked around the kitchen. "Did you take anything for yourself?" she said. "Something to eat I mean?"

He might have blushed, his skin was dirty and red-looking already, it was difficult to tell. "You din’ have much," he said.

Why did he have to be so honest? Couldn't he just lie and say only a biscuit? Apart from cereal and the biscuits, she didn't keep much that didn't need defrosting or cooking from frozen. She had tried some recipes from a book of Delia's but when you are criticized so often you just lose the will to bother. "Would you like something?" she asked. "I have some ready meals – fish pie, cod in parsley, sweet & sour?"

They ate in the garden. It was cool but not cold. She put out the kitchen chairs and they sat at an old metal table that Daddy had used for his coffee. It was grubby. She put out a couple of trays so that the plates were at least resting on something presentable. Too late, she noticed a stain on the one she had given the man, but he didn't seem to mind. He had better manners than she did. Daddy said she ate like an animal. "We're all animals," she said.

"Yes," the man replied, "we all need to eat." She coloured a little. It was easy to forget that there was someone else there. He drank his glass of milk.

"You said yesterday you had forgotten who you are," she said.

"I have days like that," he said. He looked away from her and stared at the garden wall. "You have a hole." There was a gap where some bricks had come away. They were green with moss.

"It's been there so long I’d forgotten," she said.

"You live all alone?" he asked. There was something in his manner that seemed shifty, or perhaps it was just the question.

“You can’t stay here,” she said. She picked up the plates and returned to the kitchen to wash them. She heard him light a match, and then cough again. She carried some more water out and one of Daddy's ashtrays. It had a Guinness advert on it, a cheeky toucan. "You should give those up," she said. As she washed the dishes she wondered about the cost of smoking. Wasn't it expensive? She put the kettle back on the boil and made tea. She didn't ask if he wanted coffee. There was a jar of Daddy's favourite instant in the cupboard she wanted to keep as a memento. There was something comforting about that. Not that she would have him back even if it was possible.

She carried the tea out to the garden. The man was gone. She walked over to the breach and saw him walking up the avenue. As he turned the corner he didn't look back.

She sat and had her tea outside anyway. The ashtray was gone. She would phone the gardener they had used years ago. Perhaps he could tidy up and get someone to fix the hole. After a while Kippers came out and stalked through the grass towards the corner. He stared a long time at nothing and then jumped up onto the wall and over the other side.

Short Story
10

About the Creator

Wilkie Stewart

Writer of strange little tales living in Glasgow, Scotland. A former IT professional who loves literary fiction, poetry, Eurovision, art-house film, post-crossing, and comics. Walks daily with his camera when he can. @werewegian1 on Twitter

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