It was Richard found Patricia collapsed on the doorstep.
She looked so peaceful she could have been asleep, but of course she was dead. Richard couldn’t see a breath.
He stood looking down at the prone body for a while and then called his wife from the kitchen.
“Never marry a man who’s bad in a crisis, girls,” she told their daughters frequently.
“Yes, Richard?” she said now. “Patricia’s dead.” “What?” “Patricia. Dead.”
Richard put a hand of comfort on his wife’s shoulder and started to cry.
His tears splashed onto the hall tiles in a way that would have horrified Patricia. Emma went to the door and looked at the body.
“I suppose it isn’t a surprise,” she said, and started crying too.
“Should we call someone?” “Not yet.” “We can’t just leave her out here.”
“No,” Emma agreed.
So it was that Emma and Richard took it upon themselves to move Patricia’s corpse into their living room.
Richard used the landline to call his work and Emma used her mobile. Emma lied and said that she was too ill to come in, and Richard told the truth: that Patricia had died and he was too upset to work. Then they sat in different rooms of the house for a while.
Richard continued drinking the glass of Scotch which he'd left on his desk the previous evening. He smoked four cigarettes in a row, not bothering to open the study window because he knew Emma was too sad to be angry with him. Emma had given up smoking some years before but she’d probably have one today.
Richard came out of his study to find Emma stretched out on the carpet beside Patricia, a strangle of snot dripping from her nose to the floor.
“Shall we cremate or bury?” she said, reaching out and stroking the velvet behind Patricia’s ear.
“I think cremation costs a bit.” Emma closed her eyes and took a breath.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Em?” “We should ring the girls.” “Yes.” “They’ll want to know.” Richard sighed. “OK. I’ll do it.”
He rang their eldest first. He told the story of Patricia’s death from his own perspective, chronologically, beginning with him rising from bed to get the paper. “Your mother is very upset. But as far as we know, it was painless.” There was quiet on the other end of the line. “Are you OK, kiddo?” he asked his daughter. “Yes.” “Feels like the death of your childhood, doesn’t it?” Richard said. “Dad?” “Yes?” “Maybe I should tell Elsa.”
Richard agreed with some relief. Elsa had a tendency to be over-dramatic. “Do you want us to come home?” Fran asked. Richard did a quick mental calculation of the cost of two train journeys. “Ask your mother,” he said.
Richard had many photographs of Patricia on his phone. He was fond of sending them to his daughters. He knew they missed Patricia since they left, and they liked receiving updates on how she was doing. He flicked through them. Patricia stretched out on the sofa in a patch of streaming sunlight. Patricia looking grumpily into the camera. Patricia gazing out of the window at snow. She was something really special.
Later when Emma finally emerged from the living room her face was swollen and heavy. She walked past him as though he weren't there and then he heard the sound of her peeing coming from the bathroom. She’d been lying on that carpet for a long time.
He looked around the empty kitchen and realised he was hungry. “What shall we do about dinner?” he asked when Emma returned. “It’s not dinner time.” “We didn’t have lunch,” said Richard, which was true. “Did you call the girls?” Emma asked. “Fran said she’d tell Elsa.” “I should have done it.” “Don’t be silly.” He hugged his little wife, small and shrinking with age now too. She shook against him. “How about a curry?”
Richard was in a mood of helpful suggestions. They ate their early dinner at the kitchen table because they couldn’t sit in front of the television with Patricia lying there in the living room. They were completely silent over the plastic containers except to request a second popadom or beer from the fridge.
Having finished eating Emma hung her chin to her chest and began heaving with sobs again. Richard washed down the rest of the basmati rice with a glass of red and wondered that anyone could contain so much liquid and so many tears. He rose and began loading the dishwasher.
“Richard,” Emma said. Richard stopped, turned on the hot tap, removed the dirty plates and take-away boxes from the machine, and began rinsing and reloading. He turned to show his wife how correctly he was doing it now, but she’d already retreated into the next room. Richard continued on with the chore, letting its futility seep into his mood and blacken it.
When he turned off the water the kitchen was silent. He remembered the soft clicking noise Patricia’s paws made as she crossed the kitchen floor. He had an idea that every contentment of family life had been written in that sound, and now that she was gone he’d have to go about finding each of them in something else.
Elsa called and asked them to wait until the weekend so that she could come back and say goodbye but Richard refused. “She’ll stink to high heaven by then.” “Please, dad,” Elsa begged, dramatically. “Elsa,” he said. “It’s only a cat.” But they hadn’t done anything about the body, curled in on itself on the living room floor. She had been utterly alone when she died, locked out at night on the doorstep because Richard had never got round to fixing the cat-flap.
Emma told her husband with uncharacteristic determination that she wanted to sleep with Patricia on the bed that night. “I’m not ready to say goodbye,” she said, and Richard agreed. He slept in his wife’s bed that night too, with Patricia cold and curled up at their feet. He and Emma held hands before falling asleep for the first time in years.
“She had a good innings.” “It’s a miracle she lasted this long, really.” “Mangy old thing,” Emma whispered. “Yes, dear?” said Richard. His wife chuckled into the darkness. They buried Patricia at the bottom of the garden the next morning. Then they walked back across the lawn to their empty home.