Erica threw her handbag on the kitchen table, narrowly missing the stained teapot and one of Suzie’s seven cats that lay curled against it. She hated having to come to her sister’s sty and was never sure whether the taint of ammonia in the air was emanating from the litter tray or Suzie herself.
‘Cuppa?’ Suzie asked, slurping from the huge, lopsided mug that she had made at pottery evening class.
Erica tapped her hot-red nails on the sticky table and sighed. The tea was always lukewarm and sprinkled with cat hairs. She ran a hand through her sleek, highlighted bob and sighed again. Why didn’t Suzie ever open the bloody windows?
Erica’s arrival had drawn the other cats to the kitchen and they were slowly circling their owner’s tent dress and Jesus sandals.
‘You should get a cat-flap.’
Suzie raised her grey, spider-leg eyebrows. ‘They’ll get run over if they go outside . . . Whoops, I think I’ve put too much milk in your tea.’
Hairy and milky – Erica experienced an unpleasant little gastric reflux.
‘I won’t be a minute, just have to feed the pets,’ Suzie said.
Erica watched through the window as Suzie went into the tiny back yard, her hair a thin, dirty cape over her shoulders. When the food arrived, the rabbits in their cramped hutch poked their heads through the straw but quickly burrowed under again. The chickens were obviously hungry and pecked quickly at their food. Suzie had said she knew their beaks were chipped from the flagstones but there was no way she could afford to have it turfed over.
Suzie shut the back door and picked up the mugs. ‘Let’s go into the lounge.’
The only light in the passageway was the spectral green from the terrapin tank, the undersides of its inhabitants’ shells like tossed pancakes against the glass. As they entered the lounge, a loud clattering made Erica jump. She gasped, and the thick air of the closed-up room caught in her throat.
‘What the hell – why is there . . . a crow. . . in a cage? Is it injured?’
‘No, it’s absolutely fine.’
Erica watched as the crow flapped and crashed against the metal bars, feathers flying, floating, joining the pile at the bottom. The crow stilled its panicking long enough for her to notice its coal-black eyes; she was sure she’d seen the same terror on her grandmother’s face as she lay in hospital, dying.
‘I got it yesterday, from the yard.’ Suzie smiled. ‘I caught it.’
‘You caught it?’
‘Yes, I crept up on it from behind, so, so quietly. Then I threw a blanket over it, scooped it up and shoved it in the cage.’ Suzie took a gulp of her tea. ‘It was a bit of a fight, I must say. It didn’t seem to want to go in.’
‘Didn’t seem to . . . I don’t understand –’
‘No, you never did understand anything about animals. Look, it’s mine, okay?’
Erica thought of the cats, rabbits, chickens, terrapins and crow, and felt a pain deep inside. It was not these godforsaken creatures that should be caged. It was her sister.
She pushed Suzie hard, the tea sloshing everywhere as she fell onto the sofa.
‘Don’t you dare move!’ Erica shouted.
The rotten window took a few slams of her fist before shuddering open, but the cage door was no problem. As the crow flew towards the window, its wing caught the side of Suzie’s stunned face.
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