After he knocked, the visitor entered the house through a small narrow hallway. He ducked to avoid hitting his head on the low door frame. “Ara, Michael, it is grand to see you at last. Your brother told me you’d come up. How are they all down there in Turlough? They must be delighted to have you home in Mayo. How long has it been? Three years?”
Biddy, rosy cheeked and rotund, busied herself momentarily with the fire. “Here Michael, take a seat by the fire.” He chose the sturdier seat before he eased his well-built body into it. By his feet lay a small brown sheepdog. It had not stirred when he’d entered the room and now the visitor-weary beast barely lifted its head in acknowledgement. The black flagstone floor was bare, apart from the burning turf-ash gathering dangerously close to the dog’s coat.
“Don’t mind Spot. Push him out of the way. He’s used to that. He’s spoilt there by the fire.” The blazing fire and a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling provided the only light in the otherwise dim room. Biddy prepared Michael a cup of tea in a constant bombardment of a one-way conversation. “A grand cup of tea that is what is needed, isn’t that right? You don’t take that coffee stuff do you? Couldn’t bear to drink it myself. They say it’s the only thing they drink in London and that the tea-houses have disappeared. It’s a crime. What would we do without our tea?”
Biddy’s navy blue full-apron was torn and faded. It was held together over her large bosom with several safety pins. Under the window there was a kitchen table covered with a plastic flowered tablecloth. Biddy noticed Michael looking out. ‘Sure, it’s a grand day isn’t it? We could do with a few more and we’d be able to get the hay in.’ Biddy lifted a jug of milk from the sideboard and placed a splash in the bottom of a mug. On top she poured a thick black substance from the teapot. Michael watched with mounting horror. Without asking, Biddy placed two heaped spoons of sugar into the concoction, stirring vigorously before she handed it to him.
“There you are – a proper cup of tea. Not like that stuff you get in London!” “Thank you,” he replied, as he took the cup with some hesitation. Waddling to the cupboard on the other side of the room she gathered some packets of biscuits; digestives, custard creams and rich tea. “Now here we are somethin’ nice to take with your tea.” He took one. “Ah come on now Michael, you can do better than that!” It was not the words but the look of hurt which drifted across her face that persuaded him to take more.
“Your brother Jack, he’s still in the States isn’t he? Now my own brother Sean, well he was home from New York last year. The stories he had to tell us about that place, well, you can only imagine! Though he still misses Mayo.” She proceeded to speak about her family in great detail and when that subject was exhausted she talked about the neighbours, the weather and the farm. The tooting horn of a passing mobile shop drew her outside to replenish her stocks of sugar, tea and biscuits. It gave him a chance to look around. High above the fireplace was a mantelpiece upon which sat a small ornament in the shape of a black cat. He rose to examine it in more detail, intrigued by its exquisite features. It was tiny but beautiful. When Biddy returned, he said he would have to go.
“Ach now where are you going in such a hurry. Sure won’t you sit down and have another cup of tea, and looked now I have got Kimberlys and chocolate digestives and….,” she held out her treasures as she pleaded for him to stay. “No, really, thank you. I must be getting back.”
“Right you are then, but here,” she stuffed a Wagonwheel into his pocket, “you might get hungry later.” Once out of sight of the house he put his hand in his pocket and removed, not the Wagonwheel, but the tiny black cat. He smiled, before replacing it again. It was not till evening that Biddy noticed the cat was missing.
“John, John,” she called to her son who was in the next room getting ready for the pub. “Have you seen the cat?”
“The one on the mantelpiece – it’s gone. Have you taken it?”
“Sure what would I want that thing for?”
Biddy started to search frantically pulling out every bit of furniture, even searching in drawers. “Perhaps it fell into the fire,” suggested John as he entered the room. “Oh, Lord save us, if it has, the house will burn down or…..,” she searched the fire, pulling out the embers so that the dog had finally to vacate his position or risk certain burning.
“You’d think there would be something left of it, if it had fallen into the fire. But how could it fall? Hasn’t it been up there for thirty years?”
“Mother stop fretting, it’s only a stupid ornament!”
“It’s not a stupid ornament, it’s a black cat that has kept this house safe from evil!”
“Could someone have taken it?”
“Sure there was no one here today, only Michael, and what ….”
“Michael who?” interrupted John
“Michael Mulkeen. Sure isn’t he home from London?”
“Michael Mulkeen isn’t home till next week mother!”
“But he sat in that chair today and talked to me about Mulkeen’s and being in London and all. His brother told me he was home.”
“He told you Michael would be home next week for the Mayo-Galway match. You’re gone soft in the head!” said John as he grabbed his jacket and headed out the door.
Biddy sat by the fire and stared at the chair where the man had sat, whoever he was.