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This Creeping Thing

November 1, 2011

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Robert Shearman is probably best known as a writer for Doctor Who where he reintroduced the Daleks in the show’s BAFTA winning first series in an episode nominated for a Hugo Award. But he has long worked as a writer for radio, television, and the stage. His first collection of short stories, Tiny Deaths, won the World Fantasy Award. The follow-up, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, won the Shirley Jackson Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Edge Hill Reader’s Prize. A third collection, Everyone’s Just So So Special, was published by Big Finish in July 2011.

For Susan, love was just something that crept up on her. There was no such thing as falling in love, falling simply wasn’t part of the process; the most Susan could manage would be an odd stumble every now and then. With Andrew there was no specific moment, nothing he did or didn’t do that convinced her he was the right one. But one night she was watching TV with him on the sofa, and it wasn’t as if they were cuddled up, it wasn’t even as if they were watching anything romantic, it was probably one of those cop shows he enjoyed and she tolerated–but she looked across to him at one point and realised there was a warmth inside her when she did so, something greater than affection. She was in love with him, she suddenly knew it, and she must have been for some time. She wondered how long, it might have been ages. It was funny, too, because she knew he loved her, and she’d been dreading that he might propose, she wouldn’t have known what to say–she hadn’t wanted to ruin what they already had, because even if what she felt for him wasn’t love it was still very nice: they shared the same bed and the same utility bills, it was all working so well. But now she knew it was love, she decided there was no point in waiting any longer, she told him they’d best get married, right there and then in the commercial break. The love–it had just crept up on her. And a year and a bit later, when she was in hospital, and the nurse with the beatific smile was telling her to push and to breathe and all manner of things she couldn’t have stopped even if she’d wanted to, and out came her baby son–and everyone congratulated her and the same nurse put the baby into her arms and said, “Don’t you just love him, don’t you just love him”… and all she could think was, you think love is a choice, it’s something you can decide. Obviously I’d love my son if I could, that would undoubtedly be the best thing all round, but it’s not looking very likely, is it–this ugly red mass of gunk and tears, he’s not exactly a heartbreaker. And just for a moment she felt a flash of hatred for Andrew, surrounding her like all the others, with happy tears streaming down his face, he’d been the one who had talked her into this, she’d managed to love him, didn’t he realise that was hard enough? She hated him even as she loved him, even as he loved their son, even as she didn’t. They called the boy Michael. And even Michael, Susan thought, maybe I’ll love him in time. It’ll just creep up on me. That’s what love is, it’s a creeping thing.

And it had been the same with Tom, the first time she’d laid eyes on him she hadn’t wanted Tom at all. Not that he was called Tom back then. The naming of him was clearly her responsibility; that night at dinner, her parents still preening themselves with the thought of the lovely gift they’d bought for their daughter, her father said, “Have you any idea what you’re going to call him?” And she’d shrugged, and said, “Tom.” Just like in the cartoons, it was the first thing she thought of. Her daddy looked a little disappointed that the new member of the household had a name that was so common, but he smiled, and said it was a good name, nice and solid, you knew where you were with a Tom. And her mummy just cooed and said, wasn’t Tom just beautiful, she loved him already, didn’t Susan just love him?

When Susan first opened the cat box and looked at the little ball of black fluff, it mewed up at her. It wasn’t a very forceful mew, more of a high pitched squeak. She could see it was very pretty, and it wasn’t that she had anything against the thing, but it didn’t seem much to do with her. “We got you a kitten,” said her daddy, obviously. “After the way you took care of that hamster, we thought you deserved a proper pet.” Even at eight years old, Susan couldn’t see the logic in that. The hamster had died, hadn’t it? Her success rate with animals was far from encouraging. She hadn’t actually killed it, not as such–she’d fed it, she’d changed the water in its bottle, she cleared out any pellets of crap from the cage–but these were all chores she’d fit in before she went to school and after she did her homework. Susan wasn’t sophisticated enough to put her thoughts into any order, but deep down she supposed that if a creature could be killed by starving it of love, then she’d murdered Hammie the Hamster good and proper. And now she was going to be let loose on something else. She couldn’t help but feel a bit irritated at the prospect.

And Tom did nothing to endear himself. He’d be waiting for her when she got home from school–and all day long at weekends!–mewing at her, following her about, this little bag of need and piss. It took him a good couple of months before he’d worked out the function of the litter tray, and even after he had (with Susan forced to clean up all the damp patches on the carpet, and take Tom and hold his face into the litter), it took even longer for him to perfect his aim. He was hungry, always hungry. “Tom’s old enough to be let out into the garden now,” her mummy said one day. “He’ll be scared, take him in your arms, walk around the lawn with him.” And so she did, reluctantly, holding Tom firm, his eyes wide, his head twitching back and forth as it took in this new world of clouds and birds and insects and rusting toys.

And he’d get lonely. “When you’re not here,” said Mummy, “he spends the day searching the house for you. I try to play with him, but he’s not interested. He knows whose cat he is, all right.” “Look at the way he watches you,” said Daddy, “that cat just adores you.” Susan thought it was creepy. She didn’t like the way Tom had taken to sitting outside her bedroom of a night, crying to be let in. “Go away,” she’d call out to him. If she opened the door to tell him off, he’d chirrup up at her and start to purr, and make a beeline for the bed. “You’ve got a basket,” she’d say, “it’s in the kitchen, next to the litter tray.” And she’d pick him up and take him downstairs and drop him there, hard, and push on his back until he slumped over. “Now go to sleep.” But he never stayed there, he sometimes made it back to Susan’s bedroom before she did. “He’s getting a bit noisy,” said Daddy one morning at breakfast. “Hard to sleep through all that wailing.” And for a second Susan thought that maybe he’d suggest giving Tom away, or at least chaining it down, put some restraints on it, something. But instead her parents suggested that maybe she should just let Tom sleep in her room once in a while. Mummy knew she’d said she didn’t want an animal on the bed, but he was ever so clean, he was always washing himself, and how could you resist a little love like that, didn’t you just love him? And Daddy just said he’d like a decent night’s rest. And Susan didn’t like the idea at all, but she was only eight, and what her parents said was law. So the next night she left her door ajar. In strolled Tom, so arrogant, as if he’d always had visitation rights, and he jumped up on to the foot of her bed, curled up, and didn’t stir again until morning. Susan thought Tom would disturb her, but he didn’t make a sound, and he occupied such a little surface area on the duvet, really, she hardly knew he was there. And so from that point on that’s where Tom slept every night, and it was funny how he did it–he was nowhere to be seen when Susan went to brush her teeth, but by the time she’d swilled the water and spat out the paste he’d materialised, already asleep on the bed, as if the sound of the tap and the scrubbing had summoned him.

And it was in such a manner, some eleven years later, that Susan lost her virginity. She was studying physics at the University of Kent, in the final term of her fresher year. She’d resisted the attentions of boys very well so far, they didn’t impress her much–so now they could go on student demonstrations and grow moustaches and smoke without their parents finding out, but they were just the same boys they’d always been, most of them popped home every other weekend so their mums could do their washing. She lived on the third floor at the halls of residence, towards the end of a long corridor of grey breezeblock and greyer carpet. One night David Parsons began to knock at her door. “Please, Susie, can we just talk? All I want to do is talk.” Susan didn’t like being called Susie, but David Parsons hadn’t the wit to realise that. He lived further down the corridor, they used the same student kitchen and she’d even once given him some of her microwaved vegetarian lasagne, but she’d hardly have considered him a friend. Earlier that day he’d made a clumsy pass at her as she was doing the washing up. Not many students bothered with the washing up, and there was a lot of it to get through, so she had to stand there with her hands in soap suds for quite some time whilst he made his feelings plain. “Go away, David,” Susan said now, “I’m trying to sleep.” “Okay,” said David. “I’m sorry.” But the next night he was out there again, knocking at the door gently and getting her name wrong. “It’s gone midnight,” said Susan, “and I’ve got a lecture in the morning about inertia. What do you want?” “I know I could be so good with you,” said David. “I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I just want to show you how good.” “Well, you can’t,” said Susan. “Can I just stay outside your room for a while?” asked David, and Susan said he could do whatever he liked, knock himself out. “Thank you,” sighed David, “I’ll be very quiet.” And he was quite quiet, but he would occasionally tell her he’d fallen in love with her, and read her John Donne. He was an English lit student, she knew, he’d obviously just reached the Metaphysicals. The next morning the atmosphere in the kitchen was a bit tense. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” said Chloe Klass. “Couldn’t you just let him in, what’s such a big deal?” Chloe was American and blonde and smoked roll-ups, she let every man into her room. So the next night when David came knocking, Susan opened the door. “Oh,” he said, obviously surprised. He’d brought a whole hardback anthology with him.

Susan made them both a cup of tea. He hadn’t much to say. “I’m going to sleep now,” she told him eventually. “Bye.” “Can’t I just stay?” he said. “I’ll just lie down beside you. I won’t disturb you.” “I suppose so,” said Susan, and she brushed her teeth, and got into her nightie, and to do that she had to take off her clothes, but she did it with her back to him, so it was all right. David got down to his underpants, got into bed. She lay there with her back to him, and he cuddled against her. And then she felt a little knocking, something hard and insistent just at the base of her spine, knock knocking away. “Are you going to do that all night?” she asked him, not angrily, merely curious. “I could get some condoms,” he said, “I’ve got some in my room.” “Fine,” she said, “if you want,” and he bounded up from bed so eagerly she thought he’d had an electric shock, he so rushed into his trousers he nearly fell over. He was back in a couple of minutes, a whole pack of condoms in his hand, and smelling of Old Spice aftershave all over. “Here I am,” he said a little playfully. And they had sex, and it was all right, actually, it wasn’t the best Susan would ever have, but it was far from being the worst. And afterwards David Parsons went back to his room, and he didn’t bother her much after that, so that was all to the good too. “Well,” said Susan to Tom, “so much for that,” and Tom, who’d moved from the end of the bed when the jolting of David’s body had got needlessly frenetic, and was now curled up on Susan’s writing desk, gave a little yawn and stretched in indifference.

Susan was fourteen years old when Tom died. Her mum was waiting for her in the kitchen when she came home from school. Her face was ashen. “There’s been a car accident,” she said. And she explained how Tom had made it out into the front garden, he’d tried to cross the road, he hadn’t made it. It was nobody’s fault. “Where is he?” Susan asked immediately, because she loved Tom now, she’d freely admit that. Sharing a bed could do that sometimes, it had just crept up on her. “He’s at the vet’s,” said her mum. “His legs are broken.” Susan demanded to know who had let Tom out the front door, she only ever let him out at the back, there was no road out back, and her mum said that no-one had let Tom out, he’d squeezed out of the window all by himself, it was nobody’s fault. What about the driver, asked Susan, the one who ran him over, the bloody bastard who ran him over, and her mum ignored the fact that Susan was swearing, she was clearly upset. There was nothing he could do, said her mother, Tom just came out of nowhere, indeed the driver had stopped the car and picked Tom up, he’d been knocking at everyone’s front doors trying to find out who the cat belonged to, Tom would have died right there in the road if it hadn’t been for him. It was nobody’s fault. And then Mum put her arms around Susan, and Susan didn’t want that at all. And Mum said she was going to have to be very brave, but Tom wasn’t going to be able to walk again, and he was in a lot of pain. The vet was going to put Tom to sleep. Put him out of his misery. “No,” said Susan. But it was the only thing to do, Susan had to be a grown-up, and her mum had only waited this long because she thought Susan might want to say goodbye, did she want to be there at the end? To see Tom one last time, and tell him she loved him, it was the humane thing, and it was nobody’s fault. It was nobody’s fault. “No,” said Susan. And she went to her room. Her mother eventually knocked on her door. “I’m going to the vet’s now, Susan,” she said. “Are you sure you won’t come? It’s up to you. But I don’t want you regretting… I don’t want you looking back and… It’s up to you.” And at last her mum shut up, and Susan heard the front door close, and the sound of gravel as the car drove away.

Dinner that evening was a sombre affair. “Well, well,” said Dad, “life must go on!”, and then he stopped talking, appalled at how callous he sounded. “It was all very easy,” Mum said gently. “Tom didn’t suffer at all. Just a little injection in the paw, there was nothing to it, it was very quick. He was even purring. Do you know that, he was even purring.” “What happens to the body?” asked Susan bluntly. Her potato held no thrill for her, she poked at it with her fork. “Oh, darling, you don’t want his body,” said Mum. “That’s not Tom, it’s just a shell.” “It’ll be at the crematorium, I’d have thought,” said Dad kindly. Susan asked, “Do you think he missed me? At the very end? Do you think he wondered why I wasn’t there?” And Mum tried to work out which answer would be the most reassuring. “I know he understood,” she said carefully.

And during dessert the tears started. They didn’t come easily, but Susan could feel the need for them, all that water welling up in her head, she had to let it out somehow. She could only cry if she forced it out, if she thought about Tom very hard, and scrunched up her face–and keeping that position hurt, it actually hurt, and there were so many tears inside her, she’d no idea. “That’s the idea,” said Dad, but he looked a bit embarrassed. Her parents told her she’d feel better after a good night’s sleep. She went up to the bathroom, she brushed her teeth. And she looked hard at her face in the mirror, that angry face, red now and blotchy. And she made a vow. She bunched up her hands into tight fists, glared at herself, furious that she was so unhappy. I’m not going to love again, she said. What’s the point? What good does it do? I’m not letting anything in ever again. And that made her cry once more, and she got even angrier, she tried to drown away the tears with tap water, she got into bed and tried to sleep.

She knew she should have felt some surprise to hear the mewing outside her door. She opened up. “Hello,” she whispered. Tom ambled in, no more rush now he was dead, jumped up on the bed, and lay down. Part of her thought she must be dreaming, that’s what her brain was telling her, but she wasn’t, of course she wasn’t. And she knew she mustn’t think about it all too directly, because although this was real, Tom was definitely there, purring away at her, this was fragile, she mustn’t ruin it, she mustn’t chase the little miracle away. Tom tucked his head under his paws. The legs that should have been shattered stretched out as he yawned. “You’ve had a long day, haven’t you,” Susan said, and stroked his tail–and Tom looked up as if to say, thank you for all the affection, it’s nice to see you too, but daytime is over, going to sleep now, night night. Susan sat up beside his sleeping body, stroking it ever so gently so she wouldn’t disturb him. And she understood with a little start that this was because of her love, her love had been so strong that it had brought Tom back, that it wouldn’t let him go. She’d never much wanted to love, it just crept up on her, but my God, she was good at it, look at what her love could do! It was a powerful force, this creeping thing. At some point she must have fallen asleep as well, her tears had exhausted her, and she’d have assumed she’d have simply slumped by her cat’s side. But she woke to the sound of a knock at the door, and the lights were off, and she was under the covers, her head on a pillow. “Susan?” called her mum gently. “Can I come in?” Susan sat up fast, looked desperately for Tom–and she couldn’t see him, he wasn’t there, he’d just vanished in the night, or maybe he hadn’t ever been there, she knew she hadn’t dreamed it but maybe she had, and her heart quickened in panic. And then she made out the mound of little black fur, still fast asleep, obscured by a hillock of duvet.

Her mother came in. “I just wanted to see how you were,” she said softly. And maybe it was because of the power she’d felt last night, but in a flash Susan could see how much her mother loved her, and how much that love was hurting, because her mum would have given anything to have made her daughter feel better but didn’t know what to say or do. She was aching with love for Susan, but her love was useless, it couldn’t bring back the dead, it couldn’t do anything, and she looked so very awkward standing there in the doorway, so polite, as if talking to a stranger–“Would you like any breakfast?” she asked. And Susan looked down at Tom, who stirred, blinked at Susan’s mother without interest. She couldn’t see him, so he didn’t care. Susan felt a rush of pity for her mum. “I’m fine,” she said. “What you said. Better for a good night’s sleep. I’ll be down to breakfast in a sec.” Her mother nodded bravely. “It’s all right, Mum,” said Susan. “Really. Come here.” And she got to her feet, and she opened her arms for a hug. Her mother looked surprised. But she came forward anyway, and Susan held her tight, “It’s all right,” she said again, “it’s all going to be fine.” And Susan didn’t know it then, but in that moment the balance of her love had shifted, she’d never quite feel for her mother in the same way again; from now on Susan would be the adult, she’d take care of her mother, not the other way round, the love would be more open and more expressive but somehow patronising too. It’d be the same love she’d show her all those years later, after her mum had had her stroke, and no longer was aware she was even in a hospital, wasn’t always sure of her own name, only knew that this confident woman standing by her bedside was her grown-up daughter who promised to protect her. “It’s all right,” she’d say to her mother, “it’s all going to be fine,” before turning to the nearest nurse and asking, “So, how’s my mother feeling today?”

Susan thought that Tom would be waiting for her when she got home from school, but he wasn’t. But that was okay, she believed he’d be waiting for her when it was time for bed. Still not a sign, but she wasn’t worried, she absolutely knew he’d be waiting for her once she’d washed. Even so, she took extra long brushing her teeth, just to give him more time to materialise. “Hello, Tom,” she said as nonchalantly as she could stepping back into her room, she knew the magic wouldn’t work if she gave it too much attention, she didn’t even look to see if he were there before she greeted him. Tom stretched lazily out on the bed, chirruped a hello back. And she kissed him on the head and went to sleep. She was happy. Happier now than she had been when Tom was alive: he was all hers now, and only she could see him, and he was proof of her love, he wouldn’t exist without it, it was good sometimes to have evidence that what you felt was real. “I love you,” she’d say to him each and every night, “I love you so much,” and these were things she’d never have said to him when he’d been alive. And Tom would flip over and show her his belly, as if to say, I love you too, mummy, and quite right too, now give me a rub. “We’ve been thinking,” said her dad a few weeks later. “We could get you another cat.” “I don’t need another cat,” said Susan, quite truthfully. “Not right now,” agreed Dad, “it’s a bit too soon.” “I’ll never need another cat,” said Susan, “I’m fine, I’m happy.” One night she overheard her parents talking about her. Her mother used the word ‘counselling’. “What’s to worry about?” replied her dad. “She’s not crying anymore. Frankly, I prefer her like this.” And her mother spoke softly, as if she were just a bit scared. “I just think she’s a heartless little bitch.”

Susan didn’t want to go away on holiday that summer. “Let’s stay at home,” she said. Her father took her to one side. “You’re growing up very fast,” he told her. “There won’t be many more family holidays. Indulge your mother, all right?” Susan kissed Tom. “I’ll only be gone ten nights,” she said. “I’ll be back home before you know it.” Tom looked supremely unconcerned, and Susan cried in spite of herself. The family flew to Spain, stayed in a hotel barely ten minutes’ drive from the sea. Susan had a room of her own, even the year before, on that abortive trip to the Cotswolds, she’d had to share with her parents. “You’d best not drink the tap water,” said Dad. “It’s coming out brown.” And he gave her some bottled water, and as she brushed her teeth that night at the bedroom sink it fizzed inside her mouth. When she lowered her head to spit out the paste Tom wasn’t on the bed, and when she raised it again he was. He preened himself as if acknowledging the round of applause earned by a spectacularly good trick. It began raining the next day, and Susan’s mother got food poisoning from something fish-like in a nearby taverna, and through the thin walls of the hotel Susan and Tom could hear her throwing up for days. “Thanks, Mum, thanks, Dad,” said Susan on the flight home, “I know that wasn’t what you were hoping for, but it was the best holiday ever.” And Dad was clearly touched, and said what a lovely young woman she was turning out to be, and even Mum looked pleased.

From that point on, no matter which bed she slept in, Tom was always at the foot of it. He was there when she revised in bed for her GCSE exams, he was there for her A-levels. He was there at that New Year’s Eve party when she was sixteen, and she fell asleep drunk on a pile of coats and teenagers in Jimmy Hall’s spare room, and woke up to find Jimmy’s twelve year old brother’s tongue down her throat. He was there when she lost her virginity to David Parsons. (“I could get some condoms,” David had said, “I’ve got some in my room,” and Tom coughed up a furball in disgust. “I know, I know,” she told Tom, whilst David was off fetching contraceptives and masking body odour, “but I’ve got to do it some time, let’s just get it over with.”) He was there when she first made love to Andrew, four years later, after he’d chatted her up in a nightclub. She didn’t normally go to nightclubs, and she didn’t normally respond to chat ups either, but he had been ever so sweet and earnest, she thought it’d be rude to say no. They went back to Andrew’s house, and she noted with satisfaction that at least the bed was made and clean. He kissed her on the mouth. “Not just yet,” she said. “I need to wash first. Can I borrow a toothbrush?” He looked surprised, but he found her one anyway. “All right now?” he asked amiably, as she came out of the bathroom, and she looked down at the end of his bed, and smiled. “I am now,” she said. And they had sex, and it wasn’t love, but it was at least loving. And although Andrew obviously couldn’t see Tom it was as if he could still sense something–whatever techniques he practised on Susan’s body, he always took care not to disturb the invisible cat nestling by his feet. Susan was really rather impressed. After Andrew had fallen asleep, she looked down at Tom, and gave him the thumbs up. This one was a keeper. Susan moved in with Andrew two weeks later.

And years later, in the hospital, Tom was even there too, and Susan had to laugh out loud at the sight of him, in spite of the ordeal she was going through, with all these nurses busying around her in their starchy white pinnies, they’d freak if they’d known something as unhygienic as a cat was on the bed. Tom was there as her waters broke and her uterus contracted and God only knows what else, she hadn’t read the book Andrew had bought about the subject, “Don’t you think, darling,” he’d asked gently, “you might want to do a little research about your pregnancy, wouldn’t that be useful?” And she’d thought, no, frankly, if this is the sort of thing my body’s going to go through I’d rather not have to study it as well, it all sounds very unpleasant, tell you what, Andrew, it’s not your uterine walls that are going to be bulging, why don’t you do the homework for me? Everyone in the ward was being so frenetic, so constantly reassuring, “push, that’s good pushing,” said the nurse with the beatific smile–to be honest, everyone was trying so hard to make her calm she’d have been quite panicked, if it hadn’t been for Tom, supremely indifferent to the whole childbirth process, blinking bemusedly at all the strangers making such a fuss, she’d look at Tom and then she’d relax. “Is there anything I can get you?” had asked the nurse with the beatific smile, just before all that pushing had started. “Yes,” said Susan, “I want to brush my teeth.” And the nurse had laughed, and said she wouldn’t need clean teeth for what she was about to go through, and Susan had had to insist, “Get me a bloody toothbrush, I want my teeth brushed now.” “I’m here for you, darling,” said Andrew above her, and that was nice of him, he could hover over her in his smock if he wanted, but it was better that Tom was there, really. “You’re doing really well,” said the nurse, and Susan felt smug, she hadn’t needed to study Andrew’s books at all, she was a natural. “Don’t forget to breathe, those are good breaths,” the nurse went on through that beatific smile. And then there was pain, and Susan wondered how on earth she’d got into all this. It had been Andrew, asking her all the time for a baby, “But don’t you think we’d be a good mummy and daddy?” he’d asked. On and on he’d prodded, knocking at her door, knocking away, and Susan knew she always gave in if people knocked at the door for long enough. “Okay,” she’d said, “we can have a child, but it’s your responsibility.” And he’d laughed, he’d thought she was joking, but she bloody well hadn’t been. And now everyone was congratulating her, sorry, she’d zoned out there, the baby must have been born when she wasn’t looking, how funny, she’d missed the whole thing. Beatific Smile was offering the baby to her, and she didn’t want to hold it, but her arms were rising automatically, she took it. “Don’t you just love him, don’t you just love him,” and all Susan could think was that she preferred her dead cat. And Tom was curious at last, he crept up the length of her body, and after what it had just been through Susan supposed that would have been quite painful, it helped that Tom had the light tread of a ghost. He stuck his face out at the baby, sniffed. And then something very odd happened. The baby stopped crying. It turned around, looking directly towards the invisible cat. It stared at Tom. It could see him. And Susan looked on in wonder, her new son could see her cat, it was a miracle, and she thought it would be all right. This baby was part of her, she could love this little miracle that had spilled from her stomach after all. And the baby extended one finger, slowly, thoughtfully. Then poked Tom in the eye with it.

“What shall we name him?” asked Andrew. He’d been asking the same question for months, and she’d always waved it aside, but now the baby was alive and real, it took on a new pertinence. “I don’t know,” said Susan. “Why do I always have to be the one who names things? You decide.” So Andrew decided to call him Thomas, after his father. “Not that,” said Susan. For the first few nights Andrew brought little Michael to sleep in their bedroom. Tom didn’t like that at all. His fur stood on end, he hissed. And, with as much dignity as he could muster, he jumped down from the bed and walked out of the door. “Tom!” called out Susan, to Andrew’s surprise, but he wouldn’t come back. By the end of that first week of motherhood Susan told Andrew she wanted her son in the spare room. “I’ve been to Argos,” she said, “I’ve picked up one of those baby monitors. Any problem, it’ll beep at us or something.” That night she brushed her teeth so hard she thought she might make them bleed. Tom wouldn’t settle at first, he lashed his tail and looked around warily. “It’s okay, the baby’s not coming back,” she told him gently, and rubbed his belly just the way he liked it. Even so, it was the best part of a month before Tom regained his composure, and curled up by her feet in the way he did when he was blissfully relaxed.

If Michael had any further ability to see his mother’s dead cat, he gave no sign of it. And by the time he was old enough for her to ask him outright, he’d found other distractions altogether–fizzy drinks and poseable toys and cartoon marathons on the Children’s Channel. He wasn’t a bad kid. Susan took care of him. She fed him and cleaned up his crap. And more besides, soon she was ironing his play trousers, rescuing toys from under the sofa, she was teaching him the alphabet, A for Apple, B for Bear, C for Cat. “You spoil him,” she said to Andrew. “Only because you don’t spoil him enough.” They’d take him to visit his grandparents every other weekend. His nanna and granddad just loved little Mikey, “Well, well, aren’t you getting to be a big boy!” Susan’s dad would say, and Michael would chortle, because he knew he wasn’t big at all, not yet, and Granddad would let him ride on his back as if he were an animal. One day Susan tried to speak to her mother privately, in the kitchen, whilst her father was pretending to be a giraffe. “When you had me,” asked Susan, “did you ever worry that you didn’t love me enough?” “No,” said her mother. Susan went on, “How can you make yourself love someone? When it’s what you really really want to do, but you’re not sure you’ve got it in you?” And her mother said nothing, just stared at her, then did the washing up.

“I’ve got something important to tell you,” Andrew said one day after he got home from work. He led her into their bedroom, and closed the door. He explained that he’d met this woman in human resources, and that they’d got talking, and one thing had led to another, and that he’d kissed her. He’d thought it was just a one off, but they’d been at it again; there was a park near his office, they went there in the lunch break, they’d sit on a bench, they’d chat, eat their sandwiches, then snog. “Are you in love with her?” asked Susan. No, Andrew said, and he’d never kiss her again, not ever, it was all over, he’d tell her the next day. It wasn’t an affair, only kissing, he was sorry, he was sorry. “I don’t see why you’re telling me,” said Susan. “If it’s all over.” And Andrew said he had to, this was important, wasn’t it? “Do you think I’d tell you,” asked Susan, “if I were out snogging people, or having affairs? I think I’d give you that little respect, I’d keep it to myself.” Andrew asked if she ever had had an affair, and she said that chance would be a fine thing, when would she find the time, she had his son to bring up and feed and tidy after, look at her, in her baggy T-shirt, no make-up, who’d have her? Who’d have her? Andrew said he was sorry again, but he felt something was very wrong between them. They’d fallen in love with each other so quickly, hadn’t they, they’d both been besotted with each other at first. But now things were different. He wasn’t even sure he liked her any more. And he was so scared of losing her. He was so scared he didn’t have a wife any longer. He burst into tears, he actually cried, and Susan knew she should feel pity or something, but all she could dredge up was contempt. Even then she knew if she just put her arms around him and assured him it was all right, everything would work out. But she just couldn’t. She told him she wanted to sleep on her own that night. He meekly retired to the sofa in the living room. She scrubbed hard at her face, washed all over, she felt dirty. Tom waited for her on the bed. “No, Tom, I don’t want you tonight,” she said. “Shoo!” And he wouldn’t move, so she kicked at him–she didn’t make contact, but he jumped off the bed all the same. She lay there in the dark. Soon enough she felt Tom work his way on to the pillow beside her. “Not tonight, Tom,” she said again. But Tom ignored her, he put his paws around her, he held her, he snuggled into her back. He was five foot tall, maybe, shorter than Susan, her legs stretched out further than his, he was furry against her skin, but it wasn’t too warm, and his tail wrapped around her and kept her safe. And Tom didn’t knock away at the base of her spine, he didn’t want anything from her, as they spooned he fell fast asleep, and then she was fast asleep too. In the morning she had breakfast with Andrew, and neither of them mentioned what had happened, but she gave him a forgiving smile, and the smile she got back was full of relief and gratitude.

When Michael was six Andrew suggested he be given a pet. “He’s a bit young, isn’t he?” said Susan. At that age she hadn’t even murdered her first hamster. But Michael wanted to skip hamsters altogether, he knew what he wanted, he wanted a cat. One Saturday they went down to the RSPCA. “Now, all these cats need good homes,” Andrew told his son, “because they’re not wanted.” “Why aren’t they wanted, Daddy?” asked Michael, and Andrew didn’t know. As Susan filed past the line of cages, all the cats pressed against the glass, crying for attention, crying to be loved. “I’ll wait in the car,” said Susan. “You should stay, don’t you want to meet the next member of our family?” “I’ll wait in the car,” Susan said. Less than half an hour later Andrew and Michael joined her, Michael carrying a cardboard box, all smiles. The cat he’d chosen to love was a young tabby, not as pretty as Tom had been. “What are you going to name her?” Andrew asked, and Michael looked into the box he was cradling on his lap, studied the cat inside solemnly, and said, at last, “Bubble.” “That’s a good name, isn’t it?” said Andrew. Susan agreed it was very nice. Andrew bought Bubble a scratching post, a couple of furry mice with bells on, a basket to sleep in, and a dinner mat with the words ‘A Very Fine Cat Eats Here’ printed on it. “For heaven’s sake,” said Susan, trying to laugh, “it’s only a cat.” “No,” said Michael. “It’s my cat.”

Michael set down Bubble in the centre of the sitting room carpet. “Go on,” Michael encouraged him, “explore!” But Bubble just boggled at the enormity of her new home. “She’ll adjust soon enough,” laughed Andrew. But Bubble didn’t. She would hardly touch her food, even when Michael helped, tried to feed her with a spoon like the books suggested. Bubble hid under the beds, she hid under the chest of drawers, fur on edge, eyes wide in fear–and wherever she hid, she pissed. And she howled in the night so piteously, and it made Michael cry. “What’s wrong with her, Dad?” he’d sob. Andrew called the vet, and was told that some cats just weren’t suitable for a young family, had the boy been pulling its tail, even in fun? Some cats just needed to be rehoused. And Michael wailed, saying that he loved Bubble, he couldn’t live without her. And he was sure Bubble would love him too, she’d get used to him in time and love him right back. Susan tried to reassure Michael, but she knew love just didn’t work that way. She knew that Tom was only protecting his territory. She’d never seen Tom outside a bedroom since he’d died, but now he paraded around the house like a general, always looking for the intruder. He’d spit in Bubble’s face, he’d swipe at her with his claws out. And whenever Bubble was chased away, Tom would look back at Susan, and purr, and ask to be congratulated.

There was a card pinned to the noticeboard in Sainsbury’s. Susan found herself reading it as the cashier scanned and bagged her shopping. It struck her as odd, but it wasn’t until she was home and had put away all the fizzy drinks and the cat food that she gave it serious consideration. And then she got back into her car and drove all the way back to the supermarket. At first she thought the card had been removed–maybe it had never been there in the first place?–but it had only been obscured by an offer for a second hand tumble dryer. ‘Pet Exorcist,’ it read, and gave a phone number. Susan copied it down. She went home and made herself a cup of tea. “Well,” she said out loud, “there’s no harm in just checking.” She called the number, and there wasn’t even a personalised answering message, which wasn’t very encouraging. I don’t have to speak after the tone, she thought, but then did. “I wonder if you can help me out,” she said politely. “Could you call me back?” And then hung up, thought for a bit, dialled again. “Hello, it’s me. Actually, when you do call me back, could you use my mobile rather than my landline? I’d rather keep this private.”

An appointment was set for Thursday morning. On the telephone the man sounded reassuringly old, but when she answered the door to him she realised he must still be in his twenties. “Oh,” she said. He was dressed smart casual, and carried a briefcase. His smile was polite and professional. “Please,” she said, “come in.”

“May I just wash my hands before we start?” he asked. And she directed him to the toilet. “Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked, and he shook his head no, and said it’d be better for all concerned if they didn’t prolong the moment. He knew this must be very hard for her, it always was. Then he closed the toilet door, and she heard the tap running, and she supposed he must have peed as well because there was a flush. He stepped out, smiled kindly at her, and said that they should get to it.

“Can I ask,” he said, “is he a sick cat?”

“No,” said Susan. “No, he’s fine.”

“I see,” he said. “That’s a shame. It’s always hard to euthanase a healthy pet.”

“It’s not that I want to,” said Susan. “But I can’t cope anymore.”

“I’m not judging you.”

“It was okay when I was fourteen,” she went on. “Having my little ghost cat. But now I’m thirty-three. And there’s a time I just have to grow up. Don’t you think? I have other responsibilities. Don’t I?”

“Really,” he said. “I’m not judging you. Where is he?”

She showed him into the bedroom. “He’s not here yet,” she said. “But he comes when I brush my teeth.” The man nodded. Susan hesitated. “Shall I go and brush my…?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

When she came back, Tom was on the bed, and the young man was opening up his case. “Will it take long?” Susan asked. “It’s just that my son gets home from school at four.”

“It’s all very quick,” he assured her. “And all very painless.”

She looked at the needle he was holding. “What’s that for?”

“We’ll just give him a little injection,” he said. “An overdose of tranquiliser, that’s all. And he’ll just slip away. It’ll be fine.”

“Oh,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting… It’s just that when you said ‘exorcism’, I thought you meant… You know.”

He just stared at her. “How else do you think I can put a cat to sleep?” he asked her. And she didn’t know.

“Do I have to watch?” she asked in a small voice. She was afraid she was already crying.

“It usually helps the animal to feel they’re in the arms of someone they love and trust,” said the man gently. “And it’s usually good for the owner too. It’s important that you were able to say goodbye.”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Besides which,” he admitted, “he’s invisible to me. So I’ll need you to show me where he is.”

She picked Tom up, held him close. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said. She wanted to tell him she loved him, but it was hard to do with a stranger there. “Now, Susan, I’m going to need your help,” the exorcist said softly. “We need to find a vein in Tom’s leg. That’ll be the kindest place to give him the injection. So you’re going to have to raise a vein for me, between your thumbs, that’s it. So I can get the needle in as accurately as possible.” She didn’t watch, but she felt him slide the syringe in close by her skin. She focused on Tom, stroking his head, making soothing noises, even though she was sobbing now, who could be soothed by sobbing? Tom began to purr. Then he gave a deep sigh, and put his head back, looking for all the world as if he were luxuriating in a drug fix. His eyes were wide open, and looked suddenly so very solid somehow. And Susan could tell him she loved him now after all, but there was no point, because he had gone. “I’m sorry,” she told him anyway, and kissed the top of his head, and her tears streamed down on to the dead invisible fur.

“He wouldn’t have suffered,” said the young man. “And, right at the end, he had you there to love.”

She paid him and he left.

She sat down in the sitting room to cry, but the crying was over. Bubble mewed at her for food. “Not now,” she said, and threw a cushion at her. She went back to see Tom, give him one final kiss. Then she went out to the garden shed, fetched a spade. She didn’t think she need dig very deep, Tom was such a little cat after all, but it felt good to be hacking away at the lawn, she was out there digging for over an hour, she raised blisters on her hands. When she was satisfied with the grave, and when one of the blisters had popped open and she really couldn’t dig through the pain, she went back to the bedroom to get Tom’s body. It was no longer there. Or rather, she couldn’t see it any more. She hesitated. And then she stooped by the bed, judging the place that she had left her cat, and scooped up a mound of thin air into her arms. She didn’t think she could feel any weight in them, but she pretended, she liked to pretend. And gently, ever so gently, she went outside, and laid down her imaginary burden in the hole, and covered it with earth.

Susan mourned for weeks. If any of her family noticed, they didn’t comment. Maybe they were afraid to.

And Bubble grew in confidence. She began climbing up the curtains. She killed her first baby bird, left its body in the kitchen. She ate a lot, and got bulky, undeniably bulky. Bubble would cry each night outside Michael’s door. “Please, Mum, can she sleep with me?” “No,” said Susan. Bubble didn’t care too much about the litter tray, and one day she pissed on the floor. “For God’s sake,” said Susan. “Michael, your cat’s made a mess again. Come and clear it up.” “I’m watching television,” called back Michael. “Now,” insisted Susan. “It’ll be over soon,” shouted Michael, “I’ll do it then.” She stormed into the sitting room, stood between her eight year old son and the cartoons he was enjoying. He glared at her. “For God’s sake, Mum, it’s only piss,” said Michael. “If it means that much to you, you clear it up.” “You’re a spoilt little shit,” Susan told him, and hit him hard across the face. The force of it knocked him off the sofa. Michael looked up at her, frightened, and too shocked to cry.

And, all of a sudden, love wasn’t a creeping thing, it came at her at a rush. She looked down at her son, cowering on the floor, and was overwhelmed by it. “Oh, Mikey,” she said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and she offered him her arms. And he could have resisted, and if he had he’d have broken her heart, but he didn’t. “Mummy, I’m sorry,” he said as she hugged him, and she had to remember what he was sorry for, it was only piss, wasn’t it, just piss. “I love you, Mikey,” she said, and she kissed him fiercely on the side of his head. “I love you, and don’t you ever believe otherwise.” “I know you do, Mummy,” said Mikey. “And I’ll never hurt you again. And I’ll never let anyone or anything hurt you again. Do you hear me? Not ever.” That’s the real power of love, not to bring back the dead, but to allow us to believe our lies so completely. That night Susan sat with Andrew on the sofa, and they watched a cop show. And in the commercial break she turned to him and said with a smile, “What do you think Mikey would prefer, a brother or a sister?” Andrew’s mouth fell open. She laughed at the sight of it, and then he laughed too. He was so excited by the idea that he abandoned the cop show altogether, they went upstairs and made love.

But in all the years ahead, she couldn’t love Bubble. She tried, and she failed. There’s only so much love a woman can feel.

One early evening the phone rang. “We’re sorry,” said a nurse, “there’s been a car accident.” Susan tried to get answers, but there was too much to take in. “I’ll be over straight away,” she said. But she’d only just put Jennifer to bed–and she’d loved Jennifer at a rush too, from the moment she was born she knew that love wouldn’t stop, and it never ever did. Susan didn’t know the neighbours well, but they’d always been polite, and when Susan explained the situation as best as she understood it they agreed to look after the toddler for a few hours. When she got to the reception she said, “I’m here!”, as if everyone at the hospital had been on tenterhooks waiting for her, and she had to give her name and wait for a doctor to come. “There was a head-on collision,” he said, a doctor that looked professional but was too young, why were they all too young these days? Both her husband and her son were in critical condition. Andrew had a lung punctured and a machine was helping him breathe, and Susan zoned out a bit after ‘punctured’, why choose a word that made her wince so? Michael had hit his head, there was possible brain damage. The bottom line was that both of them could pull through. Or either. Or neither. The doctor was sorry he couldn’t be more helpful. He told her this must be very hard for her, it always was, and he didn’t mind when she swore, he could see she was upset. They were in surgery now, but if she waited by her phone, they’d inform her the moment there was any news. So she drove back home again, her mobile phone on the seat, and she kept on taking one hand off the steering wheel to check the display, make sure she hadn’t missed a call. She only stopped when she realised it was dangerous, that road accidents weren’t just something which happened to other people.

She left Jenny at the neighbour’s house. She had no words for explanations right now. She sat on the edge of her bed. She held a phone in each hand, the mobile in one, the landline in the other. She felt sick. She put the phones down, went into the bathroom, she instinctively closed the door behind her. She threw up. She tried to take away the taste of the sick by brushing her teeth, but as she did so she felt a rise of vomit again, she leaned across to the toilet bowl and threw up bile and toothpaste. She brushed her teeth again. The taste didn’t go away.

And as she brushed, she had a thought. She stopped dead.

How great was her love? If Andrew died, if Michael died–and she felt sick again, even putting that into her head so bluntly, but she persevered–if her family died, was her love strong enough to bring them back? Was her husband dying now, were the doctors switching off his respirator, would he vanish from the hospital and reappear here? And her son. Would his ghost be as she knew him, or would it have brain damage? Could she love him if he were a ghost without a brain?

She realised she’d left the telephones on the bed. She wanted to go and fetch them. Maybe the hospital had been ringing, even as she’d been sick. She put her hand on the doorknob. And then took it off again. What if her husband and son were out there already? What if they were waiting for her? What if her love was that powerful?

And then another thought struck her.

What if it wasn’t?

What if she couldn’t love enough. What if she couldn’t bring them back, because she’d never loved them at all, not really, she’d just fooled herself all this time. It had all been just a lie, what she’d said, what she’d felt, everything. The only thing she’d ever given her heart to, it wasn’t the man she’d shared the years with, it wasn’t her own child, it was just a cat, nothing but a cat. And she’d open the door, and there’d be no-one sitting on the bed, and there never would be.

For the life of her she couldn’t work out which was worse.

In the bedroom, the telephone began to ring.

© Robert Shearman
Originally appeared in Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (Big Finish Productions, 2009)