The figure appeared while she was in the kitchen, brewing coffee. She could hear Jem and his friends in the sitting room making a fuss of the kittens, but simultaneously she heard water lapping as if a thirsty animal drank nearby. The figure said nothing, did nothing, for the time it took the coffee grounds to slide off the teaspoon as she gazed, and then it was gone.
Emily shook her head a little, to clear her vision, and put the mug on the tray with the others. The water sound had faded to a murmur in her ears, very like the tinnitus she had occasionally, which her doctor kindly told her was only to be expected at her age. She even clattered the teaspoons against the sugar bowl as if to exercise the lingering presence in the room, the feeling of terrible sadness, of something unspoken that struggled to be said.
She filled the mugs and stirred the coffee. It was a long time since she had seen anything so baffling, so upsetting. As she carried the tray through, lifting a kitten deftly out of the way with a gentle foot under its stomach while she balanced briefly on the other foot -- a pity Dr. Bellrose couldn't see her do that at her age -- she wondered if she'd been looking at any article in the papers about Egypt recently. It might account for that swathed figure, motionless under its wrappings, but it wouldn't account for its distress.
They didn't bury them alive in ancient Egypt, did they? And surely the mummy wrappings were very organized, less disheveled?
"We think we have the right one. What's this one called?"
The daft object held up for her to name stared at her for a moment with huge, clouded blue eyes, and then twisted both ways in Jem's hand and dropped to the carpet where it shook itself and staggered off to be pounced on by a sibling lying in wait under the coffee table.
"Skywalker is his name at present, from running up curtains and people, he doesn't mind which, but it's only a milk name. You'll probably want to give him another when he comes to you and you get the chance to study him. He's one of Arletty's and I warn you he has her appetite, she eats anything from spiders to sushi and" -- Emily, sitting down, fended off the exploring glove of an elegant cat, the Arletty in question, sitting on her chair arm and tapping the plate on the tray -- "she licks the chocolate off biscuits."
Arletty, displeased either at being frustrated or at having her habits mentioned, switched her tail which became at once the focus of three pairs of kitten eyes doing their best to take in more reality than they could manage. Skywalker, emerging from the ambush under the table, ran upward on the chintz cover of the chair to reach his mother's tail. Jem and the girl watched, fascinated, as he dabbed at the moving object. Emily dealt out mugs, sugar and biscuits.
"Just how many do you have?" The girl, looking round her, might well be confused, for Emily had mustered both available kindles of kittens, and some of the cats sensed food and had come in. The question was almost the first time she had spoken and Emily was encouraging in reply.
"It depends if you count the kittens as part of the wildlife and, when I know I'm going to lose them, I tend to think of them as visitors only." She gestured at a large, slightly disagreeable-looking cat, mostly black but with a white patch over one eye, who sat on the low windowsill gazing aloofly out at the village street. "That's Makepeace. He doesn't really like anyone and he puts up with me only because I feed him. I wouldn't do that," she added to Jem who had got up to offer a bit of biscuit. "He has no feeling whatever for biscuit and might take a bit of your finger by mistake."
Jem drew back in exaggerated caution, making the girl laugh and Makepeace flick an ear. Emily thought, they don't know each other well yet, but Jem ought to do her a power of good. He's a nice-looking boy with a lot of confidence, just the thing to bring her out of that shyness. It can't help her that her complexion's not good, she has to wear braces and there's all that thin, drippy hair. If they're going to be brother and sister, so to speak, Jem might give her some of his confidence. She looked as if she needed it and then...people said Emily chose quaint names for her cats but it would be hard to come up with one more calculated to repel than the one this girl's mother had wished on her. Treasure, indeed! Jem had looked very demure when he'd introduced her. "Treasure Schlumberger. She's from the States and staying at Herne Hall with her grandmother who says she can have a kitten if you've one to spare."
The trouble with the girl, of course, was that she looked more Schlumberger than Treasure. Emily introduced another cat, Daisy, who now came in to check on her own kittens; the girl put out a hand with chewed nails to stroke her, and Emily wondered how she got on with a beautiful TV star mother.
Emily took a saucer and poured milk into it, at which signal Arletty left the armchair, avoiding Skywalker in a graceful arc, and waited as the saucer descended. For a moment Emily stopped still as the water lapped in her ears again, but the sound resolved itself into Arletty greedily imbibing before Daisy could get her pretty nose stuck in.
"When is the wedding to be? The village is getting quite excited over it."
Emily had a feeling as she spoke that the question was not welcome. Jem shrugged as if his father's wedding had nothing to do with him. Treasure glowered, as if she wished her mother's wedding would never take place; as far as Emily could remember, this marriage to Ken Cryer would be Zephyr's third, and she wondered which of the first two had been the one to Schlumberger which had produced this awkward child. Treasure, however, was the one who answered.
"Mom keeps changing her mind. She wanted it to be this month but one of her astrologers said it's not lucky. She's discussed it with the caterers all the same."
"Marquee on the lawn." Jem grinned. "Bet it'll rain."
"She wanted to have the real wedding, with a pastor, in the village church, but your father" -- Emily caught the slightly hostile emphasis -- "said your church is uptight about divorced people marrying in church anyhow, and also if they did get some pastor who'd do it, it'd get swamped by TV and the paparazzi, so she's thinking again."
Emily picked up the saucer the cats had licked clean, and mopped up a trail of milky paw marks from Skywalker's having run across it in pursuit of his mother's tail. She came up flushed with stooping and inquired, "Surely you have to give plenty of notice for weddings? I've heard it's not easy to fit anyone in at short notice. Haven't the banns to be read in the church?"
"Mom will fix it. She'll just turn on the charm and everything will happen the way she wants."
Emily, offering a plate of biscuits with one hand and fending Arletty away with the other, thought the bitterness in Treasure's voice must come from long experience. Adolescence, already a bad time for getting on with parents, loaded the girl with a problem not inflicted on everyone. At least Zephyr wouldn't see this drab child as a future rival, so she might be spared a bit of sniping there; of course it might irritate a lovely woman that her daughter wasn't something to show off. Emily didn't see Zephyr West -- no wonder she had called her child Treasure -- as a compassionate figure.
"And Dad will turn on his charm and cancel everything out." Jem turned from regarding the little front garden and the road, in silent collusion with Makepeace, and Emily wondered if the rivalry between the two was really about which had the more glamorous parent. Ken Cryer was a rock star, not given to snorting cocaine or hurling TV sets from hotel windows, but a quiet, pleasant soul; he might live in the local manor house fitted out with every security device under the sun, and employ what Emily had been pleased to learn were called "heavies," but he was very well liked in the small town. People were proud of their celebrity. How would two of them be coped with? Emily had already gathered, out shopping, that there was a resentment such as Jem was showing, at any possible takeover bid by the newcomer.
As Treasure began to reply -- and really Emily had never seen an uglier set of braces in any mouth -- the church clock at the comer of the street chimed, a solemn sweet sound that made Treasure took at her watch and jump up.
"Oh my stars! Mom said to be back at noon. That woman is coming to fit me with that horrible dress. Jem, how do we make it in time?"
"No problem. Mel will scoot us back. Only a few miles, and the horrible dress won't dissolve by the time we get there."
"I wish." She explained to Emily, earnestly, "It has hills all over and it's yellow like puke."
Silently, Emily sympathized. If Zephyr West was not actually cruel, dressing a plain girl with a sallow complexion in yellow with frills made her seem so. Treasure was struggling now into a denim jacket, very much more her style. Jem, sallow and angular as she was, looked already her brother, in jeans and identical jacket, although his thick mousy hair contrasted with her straggling dun locks.
He came to plant a kiss on Emily's cheek. "Thanks for the coffee and the cat show. I forgot to say, Buster sends his love. He gets on very well at the Manor but he does miss this place and all his aunties."
"Get your father to let you have another -- Celsius and Fahrenheit will be ready to leave when Skywalker does. No, let me or he'll pull the threads." Emily bent to lift Skywalker who had started up the back of Treasure's jeans as she made for the door. The absurdity of her own remark struck her as she considered the carefully ripped and frayed surface from which she was removing the kitten. "It's been very nice seeing you both and I'll let you know when this one," she waggled Skywalker's paw as, firmly gripped, he rolled his head back to look at her upside down, "is ready to leave."
Jem got Treasure out down the brick path with a guiding hand on her back, and her not shrugging him off argued that despite the hostility, they had achieved some accord. Parked illegally on the yellow line outside her hedge, Mel Rees, one of the "heavies" with whom Emily was great friends, stood with the car door already open, glancing, not at his passengers, but all round at anyone who might be observing them, just like a bodyguard in a film. Emily supposed, as she waved goodbye with Skywalker's paw, that there might conceivably be those who wished Ken Cryer and his son harm -- although she could not imagine what cause they could have -- but surely they would never come to a little place like this in pursuit of any dreadful purpose.
As she watched the car accelerate smoothly down the lane, Emily shook her head to free her ears from the noise of water again. If this went on, she was going to bother Dr. Bellrose till he came up with something useful.
Copyright © 1998 by Jill Staynes and Margaret Storey