Adam, once one of the beaten, church poor, had no serious religious beliefs, and had only attended church (for a friend’s wedding), once since he had left school, so he spent the rest of the morning reading a copy of Thomas Hardy’s, The Mayor of Casterbridge, that he had found, damp, but still readable, on a seat in Hyde Park, earlier in the summer.
At around 1.00 PM he heard the loud chatter of children as the Parsons family returned from church. He got to his feet and hurried across the room as he heard someone rap on his door. He opened it to find Mr Parsons standing in the hall.
‘Mr Sears, I feel I have to apologise for the behaviour of my children earlier today. They have been instructed not to disturb you by running up and down the hallway in future.’
‘They were playing,’ Adam said with a smile. ‘I wasn’t disturbed in the slightest, quite the opposite in fact. I always find something joyous in the sound of children’s laughter.’
Mr Parsons nodded, and smiled back.
‘I’m so glad you see it that way, Mr Sears. They are confined upstairs rather too much and they do tend to expend all that built up energy every chance they are given. They visit the park twice a week but I fear that is not enough to let off the steam that builds up.’
‘They are welcome to play in the corridor at any time, Mr Parsons,’ replied Adam. ‘Rest assured, I will never be annoyed by their presence.’
Mr Parsons nodded again. ‘Oh, by the way, if you spot a cat around the area, could you let us know. Our pet, Mr Dickens, appears to have disappeared again. It’s a regular occurrence, so I’m not particularly concerned, but the children do worry about him. He’s not supposed to go into the street but he manages to slip out sometimes, usually when the children aren’t as observant as they promised they would be when we allowed them to take the creature in. He’s a big furry ball of a thing. Mostly ginger with a white flash on his chest.’
‘I’ll keep my eye out for him,’ Adam said, looking to the staircase where Veronica and Catherine waited with hopeful faces.
Mr Parsons turned away.
‘Come along, girls. Mr Sears will let us know if he spots the escapee.’ He patted both girls on the back. ‘He’ll turn up, he always does.’
Adam closed the door and returned to his book.
While visiting the bathroom during the afternoon, Adam thought he heard a baby crying. He turned off the tap, waited for the drain to empty, then cocked his head to listen. The sound came again, faint, but clearer. Adam paced the bathroom pushing his ear against the marble tiles, here and there. He wondered what was on the other side of his bathroom wall. He paced out the distance from the back wall of the bathroom, past a short open space to the kitchen, then through the sitting room until he got to the doorway of the apartment. He opened the door, stepped into the passage and paced out the same number of steps, towards the back wall.
‘Ten paces short,’ he said, as he reached the painted brickwork at the end of the hall. Adam looked to the right and noticed a door, set into the panelling below the staircase. The glossy door was not locked and he opened it and stepped into the dark recess beneath the stairs. Adam squinted into the gloom and saw another door, this one much more substantial. He stepped forward and turned the handle but the door was locked. Adam retraced his steps and returned to his sitting room where he picked up the bunch of keys from the mantel, that his landlady had given him. He had taken the front door keys from the bunch so that he wouldn’t have to carry the unwieldy ring of keys in his pocket.
Adam carried the keys back to the door in the stairwell, selected one of the larger keys and inserted it into the lock. Luck was with him; he turned the key and heard the lock click open. Adam twisted the handle and pushed open the door. Daylight filled the stairwell and Adam blinked a few times as his eyes became accustomed to the light. After a few seconds acclimatisation, he stepped out through the doorway.
Outside, he found himself in a short, high walled garden area. To his left was what he assumed was the extended wall of his bathroom. In front was a paved area with an ash-pit dug into the left side. Facing him, cut into the high wall, was a roughly-painted, wooden gate that showed at least three layers of faded, flaking, paint that has been applied over the years. Along the wall, at the left-hand side of the gate were three, dented, metal dustbins. To his right was an iron built, timber-treaded stairway that led up to the back door of the apartment above. On the third step sat a large ginger cat. It stared at him through narrow, green eyes, flattened back its ears, and hissed.
‘Mr Dickens, I presume,’ said Adam with a laugh. He held out his hand in what he hoped was a cat-friendly gesture. Mr Dickens ignored the offer of a petting, leapt down from the step and ran into the house. Adam looked around his surroundings again, then followed the cat, locking the heavy door behind him.
Temporarily blinded by the darkness, Adam felt his way along the right-hand wall until he found his way back to the stairwell door. He stepped into the bright hallway, decided to leave the door ajar in case the cat was hiding in the dark, and walked back to his sitting room. As he entered the room, he saw the ginger cat watching him carefully from the dining table.
‘There you are,’ said Adam, aloud. He walked slowly around the table so as not to alarm the animal, stepped into the kitchen and returned with a small piece of sliced ham, which he pulled apart and laid on the tablecloth. Mr Dickens looked at the ham, then at Adam, and remained where he was. Adam backed away and sank into an armchair. He pointed towards the tiny pieces of ham. ‘Eat,’ he said.
The cat sniffed the air, then padded across the tablecloth and began to tuck into the unexpected treat. Encouraged, Adam got to his feet, walked slowly to the table, and made what he hoped was soothing noises. Mr Dickens turned his head towards him, then returned to the food.
Adam decided not to risk a clawing by attempting to pet the cat and instead took a step back. The cat ate another sliver of ham, then became stiff, its ears flattened against its head, the hair on its back stood on end. It stared at the open bathroom door, hissed twice then began to growl.
Puzzled, Adam looked to where the cat was staring.
‘It’s alright, puss, there’s nothing there.’
The cat obviously thought otherwise, and still growling, began to back away, never taking its eyes off the bathroom. When it reached the edge of the table, it turned and leapt in one movement. With a swish of its tail it hurtled out of the still open door.
Adam took one last look at the bathroom, shook his head, then turned and walked to the hallway. On the stairs was Catherine, she cradled a still-wary Mr Dickens in her arms.
‘Did you have him all the time?’ she asked accusingly.
‘Of course not,’ replied Adam, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. ‘I found him out on the back stair, near the ash pit. He must have got into the yard when the dustmen came and couldn’t get out again.
Veronica seemed appeased.
‘Well, in that case, thank you for finding him. We were getting worried.’ She ran her fingers through the thick fur on the side of the cat’s head. ‘You’re a very silly cat, going into the yard. There’s nothing there for you, not even a mouse.’ She grunted as she got to her feet lifting the heavy cat. ‘Let’s get you some dinner, you must be starving.’
‘I gave him a little bit of ham,’ said Adam. ‘Not much though, so he should still want his dinner.’
Veronica began to climb the stair. ‘Thank you for rescuing him,’ she said, without looking back.
Adam returned to his flat, picked up the two, tiny pieces of ham that Mr Dickens hadn’t eaten and took them into the bathroom where he dropped the meat into the lavatory and pulled the chain, flushing it into the drains.
Adam put the kettle on the kitchen stove and made tea, adding milk from the pan he had boiled earlier that day. He carried the tea tray to the big table, placed it in the centre and sat down facing the bathroom, wondering what the cat had seen to make it act in such a strange manner.
After two cups of tea and a wasted half hour, Adam decided that it was impossible to understand cat behaviour, and laughing to himself, pulled on his jacket, went out into the quiet street, and made his way to the Dog and Duck for dinner.
The three-course meal cost nine pence, twice as much as he used to pay at the Furling public house in Paddington. The meal consisted of a thin, beef soup, mutton, potatoes, cabbage and gravy, followed by a sweet, lemon pudding. At the Boar restaurant, just up the road, the cost for a similar meal would be a shilling. Adam decided that a shilling was too much to pay for his evening meal on a regular basis, and that he would eat at the Dog and Duck four nights a week, have restaurant food on Saturdays, before visiting the music hall, and dine at home on the other two nights.
Adam remained in the bar of the pub, drinking a decent ale, until eight o’clock, then made his way back home, breathing in the still clean, summer evening air. At midnight, the destructor, a huge furnace built to burn household waste, would start up at the refuse disposal yard and heavy industry boilers and ovens would be relit, ready for the new working week.
It was a relatively short walk home. When he arrived, Adam decided to sit on the top step of the stairs outside his apartment building to watch the world go by. With a full stomach and two pints of heavy beer in his stomach, he was as happy as he had ever been.