She sits in the chair by the window, letting the sudden early February sun warm her face. There is a red blanket draped across her lap, but it doesn’t bring as much warmth as the body of the large tomcat sprawled across her bony legs, purring. The sunlight ripples across his tabby coat as he breathes contentment in and out.
It has been a long winter. When she recalls her childhood, it is as though the balance of the year has been reversed. It seemed to her then that the summers were eternal, the winters between them only blips of darkness, like blinking in the glare of the sun. Now the summers barely seem to begin at all, yet the winters seep into her bones and make her ache and creak in a way that makes her feel very tired.
The cat stirs and rises, stretching and presenting his bottom for close inspection before slipping from her lap and disappearing. There is a cold patch where he has been lying: she can only afford to turn the heating on once a week. Today is not that day.
A few moments pass, then she sees the cat in the garden. He is old too, the fur of his muzzle streaked with grey. He sits in the sun and preens, his head lifting when a cloud moves across the sun and interrupts his sunbathing.
He is as surprised by the sudden flurry of dancing snowflakes as she is. For a moment he watches them with great golden eyes, then crouches low in the frigid grass, wiggling his rear end as he builds momentum for a pounce. He bounds across the garden, zig-zags and twists and sudden u-turns, like a lit firecracker in a tin. She smiles, watching, remembering when he was a kitten and everything fascinated him in that way.
The respite from his advancing years does not last long and he limps back towards the house. She rearranges the blanket across her lap in readiness for his return, but although she hears the cat-flap swinging on rusty hinges, he does not appear. Wet from the snow, he has probably crawled into the tiny space beside the boiler to warm up.
She watches the snow a while longer. In the distance, she can hear children playing, the reedy squeals and laughter. She remembers when her own children played in the snow, borrowing their father’s hat and scarf for the snowman. It doesn’t seem like so awfully long ago, but her hands were not wrinkled and liver-spotted then. She used to enjoy listening to children’s voices, but now she is quite glad they are no more than a distant sound; children do not say anything she wishes to hear these days.
Everything between then and now seems to have gone by so fast she hardly remembers most of it. Her children grew up far more quickly than she thought they would, no longer needing her to take care of them and then, later, no longer having time to take care of her. The last time she saw two of them was at their father’s funeral, and that was five years ago. She looks at the wedding band so deeply embedded in her finger they will have to cut it off her. Five years and it is still raw enough sometimes to make her cry.
The snow begins again, and she can feel the cold so deep in her bones it is almost a part of her. Tomorrow, she will put the heating on for a few hours, just long enough to dry her smalls. She flexes her fingers, permanently purpled with the cold, and listens to her knuckles crackle like dry wood. She remembers the roaring open fireplaces of her childhood with a shivery longing, but knows it would not help her now, with no one to chop the wood for her.
The sun is dipping westward, lighting the edges of the snow clouds golden, and she knows that the snow will be inches deep by morning. There is a rustle as the cat returns, arranging himself across her lap and settling down with an inscrutable huff of breath that could be contentment or disappointment.
Before he can lay his head back down to sleep, a movement outside the window catches his eye. A small bird, brown and dowdy, settles on a branch that hangs before the window. His tiny throat is working, his beak open, and the cat’s ears swivel forward, but the bird cannot be heard through the double glazing.
She leans forward and opens the window. The sweet sound of the bird’s song, at odds with his plain appearance, floods into the room like the promise of spring. She smiles and settles back in her chair, closing her eyes to enjoy the impromptu concert. The snow flurries in through the open window and settles on her eyelashes.
It will still be there in the morning, when the postman finds her.
Stef Hall is a country girl at heart. Born and raised in Norwich, England, she now resides in London with her musician partner, Paul, and their three bonkers cats. She tries to make up for the bustle of city life by procrastinating, walking slowly, and drinking far too much tea. Since early 2007, Stef has enjoyed publication of many of her short stories in anthologies and magazines, including Twisted Tongue and La Fenetre. Her current focus is to find a home for her first completed novel while trying to write the second before the characters take over her head entirely.