by Mandy Taggart
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The first time they lived on Charlotte Street, years ago, Laura and Enya agreed between them that Laverty, the butcher on the corner, kept a lion in his back store. Enya was six at the time, and delighted by the idea.
It was obvious, when you thought about it. That was why Laverty’s van spent so much time parked with open doors on the street outside, two sullen sons in overalls hauling plastic crates to and fro. That meat was definitely not being carried out of the shop, to supply restaurants and caterers. That meat was coming in, to feed Laverty’s lion. He – it had to be a he, for the mane – lounged the days through, just out of sight, in the cool humming spaces behind Laverty’s award-winning black pudding and Enya’s favourite Chinese chicken.
They kept it up for ages. Laverty’s lion was their totem, a conspiracy that carried them through the early months and subsequent years. Enya’s new school, Laura’s job that just about covered the mortgage on their two-bedroomed terrace. She’d paid the deposit with money Granda had left her. She was so proud of herself.
A fixer-upper, the agent had said, and Laura bought tools and learned how to fix it. She sanded floorboards and tiled the bathroom. She built wardrobes, bedframes and a life for the pair of them, sixty miles from everybody who’d said she would never cope in the Real World. Laura was twenty-four at the time.
She isn’t twenty-four any more. She’s thirty-five, and trudging home from work under the drizzle: back to Charlotte Street, her home once again. Wondering where all that energy came from, and where it went.
Across the road, Laverty’s shop lies shuttered behind steel. Closed two years now, the neighbour told her, after Laverty retired and the sons weren’t interested. Some resourceful vandal has covered the spray-painted obscenities across the shutters with neat squares of white, each one topped with a smiling face in acid yellow. A van swishes past, and Laura feels something in the air shoot free, like the blockage in a straw. When she looks again at the opposite pavement, Laverty’s lion is waiting for her.
He’s smaller than they imagined: little more than cat-sized, but with a definite mane, scraggly and biscuit-coloured, and an indolent yawn showing a set of canines as sharp as they ever could have hoped. Laura crosses between the cars, under the indifferent gaze of a pair of pensioners outside the pub. She bends towards the lion.
“Pussy, pussy?” she asks, for want of anything more representative. The lion raises his tail in greeting and winds himself round her legs like a housecat.
Laura doesn’t think. She reaches down and smoothly hoists the lion under her coat. A warm weight along her arm, bones beneath damp fur, only a glimpse of dingy pelt before he disappears. He doesn’t struggle. Laura feels him stiffen, but no claw spikes the coat’s fabric, no teeth rip the tendons out of her arm.
She struggles one-handed with keys and bag until she and the lion are safely behind her closed front door. Then she brings him out and sets him down on the coffee table. The lion remains benign. He lifts and replaces his paws, snuffs at the steamy mark of his pads on the glass that tops the wood.
Laura marvels at the breathing presence of him, the way she once marvelled over Enya. Here he is, solid as life, if not quite so large. Admittedly a poor specimen, his mane little more than a clump of chewed-looking tufts, like a toy left out in the rain. But she’s transfixed by his round-pupilled eyes, and even more by his miniature testicles that swing behind him as he bounces off the coffee table and begins investigating her sofa. She’s gone mad: that much is obvious. But it amuses her to see the level of detail that her madness has supplied.
Enya should be here, to see him sniff with tender snout around their living room. Laura hauls him away from the splintered skirting board, so that he won’t hurt his nose. She’s been back for six months, and needs to fix the place up all over again. The tenants ripped the washbasin from the wall, burned half of the floorboards in one bedroom, and disappeared in the middle of the night. She hasn’t bothered going after them.
“Working in Greece,” she replied to enquiries after Enya from Alice, the only neighbour who remembers them from the first time around.
She considers. Thankfully, it’s the weekend: a long one, at that, for the bank holiday. She has three days to deal with the arrival of Laverty’s lion. This is just as well, because whilst Laura is pouring a restorative glass of wine, he lays a steaming heap of dung in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“Have you no pride?” she asks him. But there’s nobody to groan at the joke.
She scoops up the mess with cardboard and newspaper, knots it inside many layers of supermarket bags and carries it out to the black bin. She can only imagine the effect it’s going to have on the local tomcats and foxes. After disinfecting the floor, to the consternation of the lion, she sits down with her wine. The lion leaps onto her knee and she feels again the weight of him, catches his scent like heated stone. Clearly, she won’t be able to simply pretend he isn’t here. Which he isn’t, of course.
“Ah now,” she says. “Where didn’t you come from?”
She combs her fingers through his knotted mane, strokes his fur and feels him luxuriate, warm like sand between the toes. She nuzzles his bony back, holds him still until he squirms and gives a tiny roar of protest.
She doesn’t want any dinner herself, but pulls a pack of chicken livers out of the freezer and defrosts them in the microwave. They go slightly over, their edges congealing into greyish-pink sponge. The lion comes running when Laura experiments with the air-kissing sounds that summoned the pet cats of her childhood.
She scrapes the livers into an old takeaway container and sets them before him like a sacrifice. The lion circles twice and finally deigns to lap, crouching with his head lowered between his shoulders. When he looks up again, his chin bristles spiked with blood, she marvels once more at the vividness of her mind’s conjuring. That meat is certainly disappearing before her eyes. But where is it going, in the Real World? Is it still there, soon to begin rotting and attracting flies? Did she eat it herself?
He rubs at his face with the clumsy side of a paw. She thinks of the cat colony, years ago, on a certain Greek island that she’s never gone back to, although perhaps she should have done. Prickle-whiskered denizens of a restaurant yard, they lay singly and in groups all along its warm perimeter wall. In holiday memories, there’s always a wall. Like Laverty’s lion, these were knobbly, untended creatures. They turned their bellies to the sun as Laura and her friend Nina ate calamari at a white plastic table, running uncertain fingertips beneath words in a phrasebook, wanting to ask for the bill.
“Poso kani? How much? That might work.”
They repeated the words under their breath, trying to hold them in their heads long enough for the waiter to come back.
“It sounds like ‘pussy cat’,” Laura said, indicating their company. “That’ll remind us.”
And then the waiter replied in English anyway, and they were mortified.
She makes a bed for the lion out of old towels, and shuts him in the utility room for the night. She sits in bed for hours, an unread book on her lap, listening to him yawp and groan: yowling in treble down the waste disposal for want of a waterhole. Should she let him out, to hunt miniature zebras in the back alleys? But then she might never see him again. That’s the trouble, when you try to pen a wild animal.
When she wakes at dawn, all is quiet downstairs, as if a dream has passed.
Later that morning, after scrubbing the floor, Laura is in the pet shop as soon as it opens, the reluctant lion shut back inside the utility room.
“A litter tray,” she says, “for a big cat.”
“A large cat?” The teenage assistant barely looks up.
“A small big cat. Poso kani?”
She carries her purchases out past the rows of small-animal cages, with their earnest occupants. Enya was once promised a hamster: but Laura pushes that thought away. A ginger-and-white one sits up to watch her pass, and she briefly relishes the departure of her sanity. Who knows: perhaps in a moment he might begin strumming the bars of his cage like a harp.
“Hello,” she says, tapping the cage, but the creature flinches and skitters away. She feels a pang for all beings that live with the primal terror of being plucked away into the sky. She wasn’t far off being a prey creature herself, not long ago.
“Are you really here?” she asks Laverty’s lion, when she gets home. He turns his back on her in disgust, and sits like that for ten minutes.
Over the long weekend, she gets used to the care and feeding of Laverty’s lion. He takes mercifully well to the litter tray. She goes to the supermarket and buys a basketful of chicken livers.
“Good for the blood,” she tells the checkout woman, although she didn’t ask.
Like all cats, he yearns to look out the window, so Laura sets a wide-leafed geranium on the sill, goes out and buys a net curtain, just in case. She doesn’t think that anyone else can see Laverty’s lion, but it isn’t a theory she wants put to the test. Voile, it says on the curtain’s packaging, but it isn’t fooling anybody.
Together, they watch the evening passers-by along Charlotte Street, a cushion held ready to drop in front of the lion's face at the first alarmed glance. But there are none.
The bank holiday ends. She calls in sick on the Tuesday. Her boss sounds sceptical, but Laura has more urgent things to deal with. With her extra day, she leaves the lion alone for the afternoon, to test him. She walks the streets worrying that people will see it in her, just as she used to sit in school and worry that her thoughts could be read in cloud-shaped bubbles above her head. When her mother was at the hinting stage of finding out that teenage Laura was pregnant, she told a story about a man whose secrets showed on one half of his face, so that anyone who knew how to look would be able to read them. Laura, still not quite grown out of her cloud-bubble fear, instantly confessed.
Jason should have been like that when she met him, years later. It would have saved a lot of trouble. Or maybe she was always able to read him, but chose not to.
As she turns back onto Charlotte Street, she looks over the road and sees Alice from the flats, bearing down on her window. And what a window. The flimsy pole that supported the voile has fallen, or been dragged down. Laura can see the tilted line of it, the netting dropped in a pile. Laverty’s lion is strolling in centre stage, the geranium butted to one side, as Alice barrels on along the pavement. There’s no way she could miss him.
Laura makes a risky dash across the street, and arrives by the window at exactly the same time as Alice.
“Lovely day, isn’t it?”
She hears the crack of hysteria in her voice. She manages to manoeuvre things so that Alice is standing with her back to the window, whilst the tiny lion circles the flowerpot.
Alice narrows her eyes.
“We could do with the sun, sure enough, after the month we’ve had,” Laura tries, again. But Alice must see something in her face because, slowly, she turns herself around and gapes right in through Laura’s window.
Laura follows her gaze, frantically rehearsing her explanation. “A rescue cat,” she’ll say. “Persian, they said, at the shelter. His last owner clipped him that way, poor creature, but it’ll grow back. Yes, he’s quite something, isn’t he? Looks exactly like a— ”
But she looks back to find Alice unperturbed.
“Your geranium looks grand and healthy, so,” she says, as Laverty’s lion presents his rear, tail raised, flaunting an insolent pucker at the street. “I’m no use with greenery.”
“It’s a miracle mine has lasted so long,” Laura says, watching the tuft of the lion’s tail dislodge a petal, sending a scarlet drop flickering down to the sill.
Well, there’s her answer. She tugs out her keys and Alice goes on her way. Safe from the world’s eyes, then. Just not necessarily in her own head.
The poso kani was the beginning of Enya. The day after she and Nina had eaten calamari, Laura was back at the white plastic table, waiting again, but not for the bill this time. Nina didn’t mind. She took a notebook and went wandering the shores, writing poetry to the ancient sea. She was going to read English at university.
Laura’s soul had no business getting poetry in it. The cats skirted her ankles as she sat on, waiting for Christos to finish his shift. The sun lay aniseed-warm on her shoulders and a pack of boys raised cheers and ruction on the steps, calling across to Christos with gestures that were easily translatable, even without the phrasebook.
And all the while the cats hunkered like spirits along the cooling wall, beneath the tables and the white plastic chairs. One kitten, spindly and whip-tailed, ventured away from its tattered mother and sported with the strap of Laura’s handbag, until it remembered it was a wild thing and bolted away from her beckoning fingers. She was glad to have helped it forget itself for a while.
Christos showed her around the island in a polite, but perfunctory, sort of way. It was interesting enough. There was a church on a hill where only men could view the treasured frescoes.
“Why not women?”
“A woman was sinful here, once. A long time ago.”
“One woman, only once? What about redemption?”
But she couldn’t explain the word to him, and the phrasebook didn’t help.
Everyone thought that Laura had called her girl after an Irish singer, but Enya was named after a Greek chorus. The scoop of bay where Laura conceived her was a cradle of black volcanic sand. Christos had a tiny radio that crooned some refrain of tragedy as they lay together. Enya, Enya, Enya, soothing her until she closed her eyes against the furious sky and let Christos lower his body onto hers.
Afterwards, he kissed her cheek, polite to the last. She knew she was only one of many, but she didn’t care. As they walked back up the beach, sooty sand from the centre of the earth fell away from the backs of her thighs.
She never heard Enya’s song again, and replayed it in her mind so often afterwards that she couldn’t even be sure any more that those were the words.
When she gets past Alice and into her house, the lion is waiting, unvanished. Over the weekend he has grown plumper, a new plushness to his coat. They could live like this, Laura thinks. She’ll ask to work at home two days a week, to keep him company. He can help her, nipping misaligned staples out of paper reports with smart snaps of his teeth.
For now, he chews on the tuft of his own tail while she hauls washing out of the dryer and folds it up. When she comes back with a fresh load, all the clothes are strewn over the utility room. She moves about, picking them up and refolding them. Surely she didn’t toss them around by herself?
“I’m sure of nothing any more,” she tells the lion.
Just before Enya was born, she arranged tiny vests and sleepsuits that once had been hers to dry in rows over a wooden clothes horse. She set the horse by the window in her own bedroom that now had all its teenage trappings stripped away, passed on to charity shops and narrow-eyed cousins, right down to the posters from the walls. She’d made her bed, her parents told her. When Laura knocked the clothes horse, and it concertinaed down to the dusty floor, she sat down beside the tumbled sleepsuits and cried. A failure in motherhood before she’d even got started.
But she heaved herself back to her feet, forgave herself, and carried on. Two weeks after the birth, her mother offered to mind Enya for an afternoon. Laura paced the streets for half an hour, and that was how she realised that she needed the tiny, dark-eyed creature as much as it needed her. They were together, now, linked by something so fragile and precious that it bound them more securely than iron chains.
After that, she felt her chin lifting a little bit higher every day. She did her exams in the end, with the help of her sacrificial mother, got decent passes and never bothered with boyfriends, as if any would have been interested. University was out of the question, but she got herself to the local college. And afterwards, with everyone expecting her to stay where she was, she found herself a job and made a home sixty miles to the north, in an anonymous town that she’d grown to love. Her parents didn’t understand.
“You could have got a job like that round the corner,” they told her. “You’ll soon be back, once you’ve seen the Real World.”
But it didn’t matter. They were a unit, Laura and her girl. She’d made her bed, and it had turned out to be a good one. It stayed that way for three years.
“And then I screwed it all up,” she says to Laverty’s lion.
The lion flops down and folds one front paw over the other, paying attention.
Jason arrived at her work one day, on a motorbike, of course, with a delivery from the printers.
“I’ve a kid,” she told him.
“So get a babysitter.”
She couldn’t believe he was interested: proud of herself in all ways but one. And she was weary. He’d seen that in her, she knows now.
“You have to look these things in the face,” she tells the lion.
Jason didn’t take to Enya at all: would only come to the house after she was in bed. Laura should have shown him the door for that on its own. But hadn’t her parents always told her that she and Enya were too wrapped up in each other?
“Chill out,” said Jason. “You’ve never been young.”
Gradually, she stopped fixing things up in Charlotte Street, a half-painted playhouse sitting abandoned in the back yard while she and Jason lay on the sofa.
“You can call in sick in the morning,” said Jason, turning up at midnight and rolling a joint for each of them. “Don’t get middle-aged before your time.”
It felt like sun on her shoulders.
He disappeared for days, stopped returning her calls, and she was desolate. He’d ripped a hole in her life and filled it with himself for a while, then he’d left her with a blank space that hadn’t been there before.
“Needed to sort my head out,” he said, when he came back. “There’s nothing for me here any more. We could have been together properly, but you’ve a kid, you know?”
She soothed and promised. Enya would be so good, so quiet. She wouldn’t pen him in. Laura would manage everything. He could park his motorbike in the back yard. She’d haul that old playhouse away. She would build them a double bed.
But there was another problem. People in this town who were out to get Jason, even though he had done nothing wrong. Hard cases, he said.
“So go to the police.”
“For fuck’s sake,” he said. “Easy to see you’ve never lived in the Real World.”
Not long afterwards, she and Enya walked past the pet shop. Enya was chattering about her tenth birthday, tugging at Laura’s arm, trying to pull her in through the door towards the promised hamsters. The disbelief on her face at Laura’s new excuses of smell and mess. The betrayed lower lip. The make-up that Laura had bought her instead.
She makes herself remember how angry she was at Enya’s disappointment, even though Enya had no way of knowing they’d soon be leaving Charlotte Street, and that Jason had barely agreed to Enya, never mind an animal. Or that Laura was already believing her spoilt, over-petted, too much used to having her mother to herself.
“There you are,” she tells Laverty’s lion. “You’re hearing it all, now.”
The lion raises his head and stares her full in the face. That’s the difference between predator animals and prey, she realises. The predator looks you in the eye.
She rented out the little house on Charlotte Street. The job that Jason had been promised fell through, so they lived on the salary from Laura’s new job while he ran errands for people, mostly late at night. Still a delivery man, she suspected, but no longer carrying printed flyers and business cards.
Those were the years when she lost her pride. People kicking the door at three in the morning, strangers in the bathroom, midnight flits from house to house. She tried to keep the worst of it from Enya, but the girl was growing up, and had ears and eyes.
“Getting to be a big girl,” leered Jason.
She was let go from her job. Social services got involved. Plans were drawn up about Enya, and still Laura stayed. She was committed, she told herself. Jason needed her. He was a fixer-upper, but he would come right in the end.
Enya packed her bags and went to Laura’s mother at fourteen and a half. Laura watched her do it with relief. That was one of the secrets on the turned-away half of her face. The slam of her parents’ car door, Enya’s face skimming away behind glass, and how it felt like freedom.
Laura didn’t try to keep in touch. She’d lost the strength for fighting, burnt herself out trying to prove points about the Real World. Besides, how could she stand up for herself, when she hadn’t stood up for Enya?
“Poso kani?” she asks the lion. “Too much. It cost me far too much.”
Laverty’s lion trots into the kitchen and stands, waiting. Laura sighs, opens the fridge door, and pulls out a pack of chicken livers.
“What do you want?” she says. “Blood?”
After a thing like that, you could decide that no amount of penitence was enough. You could take your first slaps from a man and almost welcome them, cowering with your back against the mould-blackened bathroom wall. In punishment, there’s always a wall. You could be threatened for money, because your new town has hard cases all of its own. You could ask if there might be another way of paying. You could lie down on your back and close your eyes, feel weight on top of you and try to block out the tinny radio music that begins playing in your head, but it never goes away. And after everything, that could be what turns you, sends you running out the door. You can punish yourself, but you can’t punish that song.
She pulled herself up and moved back to the shell of her house on Charlotte Street. Found a new job, just at the point of despair, and set about the long process of fixing things up once again.
Half of her worried that Jason would follow her: the other half was disappointed when he didn’t. She found out why, one evening, watching the news. The hard cases had caught up with Jason at last. He would never come after Laura again, either as a hunter or as a lover.
When she called her parents, they told her that Enya had packed her bags once again.
“Happy despite you,” said Laura’s mother.
“Can I have her number?”
“What would you do with it? You never contacted her while that man was alive. Do you really think she’ll want to hear from you now, just because he’s dead?”
She got the number in the end, but had never dared to use it.
“Because Mam was right,” she tells Laverty’s lion, back upstairs on her bed. “I don’t think I’m forgivable. Do you?”
But her confessor has fallen asleep on the pillow.
The next day, dressed for work, Laura stands over Laverty’s lion, sleeping as if rolled in pastry in the sunlight that slants across the bedclothes. So beautifully tended, the small boneless belly turned to the morning light, vulnerable in his tiny majesty. He opens his eyes, holds up his head to be scratched, and something comes over Laura that feels like fear.
“Get lost,” she hisses.
She cuffs him across the bed, refusing to meet the shocked eyes looking up at her.
“Leave me alone!”
She roars it, right into his little face. Then she spins around and stalks away.
She shudders behind her desk for half the morning. Her stomach is threatening her. At eleven, she closes down her computer and walks out.
When she arrives home, Laverty’s lion is waiting for her. Wary, in a corner, his tail tuft drooping, but still there.
She pours wine and knocks back two glasses, never taking her eyes off him. Fumbles the third and watches it smash across the kitchen floor. Laura drops to her knees and shuffles, trying to shoo the curious lion away from the spreading liquid, the shards that would cut his pads and his tongue.
“Get away. Go! You’ll hurt yourself.”
She feels a sting, looks down and sees a deep cut, curved like a smile, across her knee.
Laura pushes herself sideways and back, until she’s leaning against the wall. The lion follows, stepping delicately around the dangerous places. She should simply have led him away from the glass, not tried to chase him.
She tugs at the lion’s mane until his head is next to the cut on her knee; sees him tense as he catches the smell of her blood.
“You want it? Go on, then.”
He stretches towards her, slowly, a low rumble starting in his chest, nostrils huffing in and out, the muscles shifting under his coat. The lips draw back, and the tiny lion licks his teeth.
“Come on,” she whispers.
He leans forward and begins tongueing the blood. Not ravenously: but tenderly, carefully, his tongue like the fastener on a child’s sandal. Cleaning her as if they belonged together, as if she were one of his own.
Enya answers the phone the second time she tries.
“I was thinking about Laverty’s lion,” Laura tells her. “Do you remember him?”
Three days later, the view from the coffee shop is of drab, peeling walls, shuttered windows, and the travel agency across the road. Travel agents should always set up in the dourest parts of a town.
At five to four, Laura opens her handbag and releases Laverty’s lion, to roam free in the wild world. She smiles at the triumphant way he departs, stalking with head high amidst the oblivious shoppers. She doesn’t wait to find out whether Enya can see him as well, because it doesn’t matter. He’s exactly as real as they needed him to be.
She wants him to turn around and roar, like an epilogue, but he keeps on walking, his tail tuft held proudly aloft. When she looks back, a taxi has pulled up in the street outside, and a tanned, bare arm is pushing open the door.
Mandy Taggart lives on the north coast of Ireland. She received the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award in 2012, and has previously been shortlisted for the Lightship One Page Prize and the KWS Hilary Mantel Award. Her short fiction has been published widely in print, audio and online. She is currently working on her first collection. Follow Mandy Taggart on Facebook and Twitter.
Born in San Francisco in 1970, Austin Granger has worked as a baker, house painter, naval radar operator and camera salesman. He first began to photograph while studying philosophy in college as a way to get out of his head. Preferring to use traditional film cameras, Granger has come to see his photography as a spiritual practice—a way in which to shape his life and enrich his relationship with the world. He likes motorcycles a lot too. View more of his work at Flickr.