An extract from cross-over novel - The Girl in the Basement
© Dianne Bates
The moment he woke, he knew something was wrong. The clock on the wall read nine; not only was he late for work but nothing was moving in the rest of the house. The sky through his window was overcast, the air like a wet flannel on his face. He stumbled down the hall, bleary-eyed, and found her in bed. At first, he thought she was sleeping, but when she did not respond to his question, he peeled back the blanket to discover what he had always feared.
The cat padded into the room, mewing for its breakfast, its tail a plume of blackness. Ordinarily he would have booted it away: he hated its piteous pleading. But today he lifted it gently, and in the kitchen, put milk into its bowl and set it down to drink. It was too late to go into work and her hens needed feeding. He scattered their wheat, retrieved the newspaper from the front lawn, and trudged back inside. For a while, he sat in the front room, slumped in an armchair – her chair – staring ahead, his mind vacant.
Again the cat appeared, mewing. It weaved its body between his legs, rubbing against him and when he did not respond, leapt onto his lap. It was then, when he came to from his reverie, that he put his hands around its scrawny neck and squeezed, ignoring its writhing and the scratches it made on his arms, until it slumped limply.
For most of the day, he moved in a trance, unable to comprehend her death. He had known that it would come one day, of course, and he knew that the hacking cough of late was leaving her breathless and clutching at her chest, wincing with pain. But he hadn't known that she would die this day.
He returned to her room and did what he had not done since he was a small boy – he lay beside her. When he awoke and found that no, it was not a bad dream – she was still there and motionless – he brushed back a strand of grey hair that covered her eye. He traced the contours of her face with his fingertips, explored the landscape that was her wrinkled brow, her sunken cheek, her withered lips, her chin dinted and spiked with hairs. He did not weep. He had forgotten how to grieve. What he felt most was the sense of being, for the first time in his life, utterly alone in the world.
For the next few days, he followed his usual routine – went to work, paid bills, bought groceries, tidied the kitchen and greeted the neighbours as he came and went. On the third day, he withdrew all of his savings and closed his bank account, and that evening – late – he went to the pen up the backyard, and one by one, broke the necks of each of her five hens. Not one of them put up a fight as he picked them up: she had tamed them, treated them like babies.
On the fourth day after finishing his shift, he handed in his notice.
'I'll be sorry to see you go,' his boss said. 'You might be quiet mate, but you've been a good worker.'
Late that night, the boot packed with essentials, he carried his mother's body to the car, wrapped in a patchwork quilt she'd made, and, without a backward glance, drove away.