Back in those long ago days when I lived from bedsit to bedsit, I used to offer myself up as a house-sitter or cat-sitter or anything-sitter. I was very happy to drop everything just to live briefly in a place with a hot bath and a working TV.
There was a lady with one fat cat and an apartment so spacious that you had to walk miles just to locate him. Then there was the young woman – a friend of a friend of a friend – who I’d never even met but whose two tetchy Siamese I sometimes guarded while she flew all over the world with various men.
And then there was the little terraced house where I went one freezing winter week because the owners were escaping somewhere hot and had no one to feed their little black cat. I knew these people slightly. The man was called Roger and I was friends with his sister. His wife was expecting a baby in the spring and this was her last chance to fly. They’d been thinking they’d have to put the cat in a cattery, so were overjoyed when they heard I was free.
As they showed me round, they apologised for the mess, the lack of food in the cupboards, the fact that the handle came off when you turned on the shower. They showed me what to do when the heating went on the blink. “Sometimes it just clicks off for no reason,” Roger explained and he showed me how to click it back on again. They kept on apologising but I just laughed. They hadn’t seen my bedsit. I moved in on December 27 for seven days.
That week was cold – so bitterly, unrelentingly cold that everyone said it couldn’t possibly snow but they were wrong. On the 29th the sky turned blank and snow poured out of it. It fell so thick and fast through the day and the night that by the morning of 30th you couldn’t venture up the street without rubber boots on.
I didn’t mind. I had no plans, no parties to go to. I watched my way through Roger and his wife’s video collection and, snuggled up on the sofa with the cat, whose name was Shadow, I was perfectly happy – until the heating turned itself off.
I didn’t notice at first. But when I started to shiver and touched the fast cooling radiator, I went upstairs to where the controls were and clicked the dial that Roger had showed me. Click-click. Nothing. The boiler didn’t jump into life. Roger had said that sometimes it could be a bit temperamental, so I decided to go down and make a cup of tea and try again in 10 minutes.
It was very cold. The kitchen was so cold. Shadow wandered in after me, demanding food and even though it wasn’t her supper time I gave her some. She crunched it gratefully. Outside, the little light that had pushed its way between the clouds that morning was receding under a veil of snow – one flake then another drifting down, thinly at first then harder.
I tried the boiler again. Click-click. Still nothing. “Oh well,” I thought. “I’ll just have to hope it starts up on its own.” Roger had said this sometimes happened. I fetched a blanket and Shadow and I curled up and watched The Misfits.
By 11 o’clock, nothing had happened and the place was freezing and I’d lost count of how many times I’d clicked the dial. I did have a number for Roger and his wife’s hotel. But, even if I called them, what could they do? I decided to leave them in peace and maybe phone someone in the morning.
By the time Shadow and I went to bed it was so cold I could see my breath. But I filled two hot water bottles and, with snow still whirling in the black night sky outside, I fell asleep.
I don’t know what time it was that he woke me. Certainly it was the raw black middle of the night and I’d been asleep for some time. All I remember is opening my eyes as a small boy appeared around the edge of the door and stood staring at me.
I gasped. I pulled myself up in bed. I made a noise; I don’t know what, half a shout, half a moan. Shadow, who was sleeping on my legs, jumped about 3ft in the air. I snapped on the bedside light. He was there for a single second more and then he was gone. But it was long enough to remember him clearly – six or seven years old, skinny, longish hair, grey ragged clothes, a look of such misery on his face. But, oddly, I didn’t feel sorry for him. He knew that he had frightened me.
My teeth were banging. I turned on the radio and kept it on all night. I kept the light and the landing light on as well. And the next night I did the same.
In the morning, the sun was shining and the snow was melting and – of course – the heating was working. I never said anything to Roger and his wife. They live there still. And 10 years later that little boy reappeared in my first novel, Sleepwalking.
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