Sophie danced from foot to foot, wringing her clammy hands with excitement. Mum was home. She’d arrived home late last night, and now here she was, standing in the drawing room, carefully unwrapping something. Sophie didn’t know what was more exciting, Mum finally being home from the dig in Egypt, or the package she cradled in her hands.
It must be my present, Sophie thought, Mum always brings me a present.
Sophie glanced around. She hated this room with its antiques, old furniture and paintings, all arranged “just so” to show her aunt’s things off at their best. Sophie was only allowed in the drawing room on special occasions, and even then she was always under the austere gaze of her aunt, lest she be tempted to touch something. Sophie hated her aunt too, but since her father died, there was nowhere else to go when her mother was away.
When Mum was home, the house seemed lighter, full of fun and laughter as they raced each other through its rooms and corridors, making mischief which, under normal circumstances, would have Sophie’s aunt apoplectic with rage.
The last of the wrappings fell away to reveal a small, painted clay statue of a cat cradled in Mum’s hands. Surely it must be for her, Sophie thought.
As if sensing her daughter’s thoughts, Millie turned to face her.
‘Sorry Pumpkin,’ she said, ‘not this time. They made us leave early and there wasn’t time to go shopping before we left.’
Sophie’s face fell, a knot of disappointment in the pit of her stomach as tears blurred her vision. So that was what “deported” must mean, she had heard Mum and Aunt Sarah arguing about it the night before.
‘I’ll take you up to London next week,’ Mum continued, ‘and we can pick something out for you then.’
Sophie cried. She bawled and screamed and nothing her mother did could mollify her. No present. There was always a present. For the first time in her whole eight years of life, Sophie felt rage. White-hot, all-consuming, rage. There was no present. Turning on her heel, Sophie fled from the room leaving her mother calling after her in vain.
* * *
It was just after midnight when Sophie pushed open the heavy oak door and crept silently into the drawing room. Shafts of silvery moonlight shone through the leaded windows casting pools of cool light across the floor like ethereal searchlights.
Hefting the toffee hammer she’d stolen earlier from the kitchen when cook’s back was turned, Sophie stole towards where the statue stood on top of Aunt Sarah’s grand piano.
Dragging a richly upholstered stool from its place next to the fireplace, Sophie winced as the metal feet scratched across the highly polished oak floorboards. Soon though, she had positioned the stool next to the piano and scrambled up, coming eye to eye with the Egyptian cat statue.
Sophie smiled at the cat, the metal of the toffee hammer cool in her small hands. She was just calming the last of her scruples when a large, moth-eaten grey cat appeared suddenly next to the statue.
‘Major!’ Sophie hissed, her heart hammering in her chest – she hadn’t seen her aunt’s cat follow her into the room, hadn’t heard him jump onto the piano. She was sure she’d nearly swallowed her tongue in shock.
Major purred and rubbed his face on the statue, making it sway dangerously on its narrow plinth. Major looked squarely at Sophie and meowed.
‘Shhh!’ she hissed.
Sophie began to raise the hammer.
‘Sophie, what are you doing in here at this time of night?’
Sophie jumped. Swinging round she caught sight of Jennings, her aunt’s butler standing in the doorway, his thin frame wrapped in a threadbare tartan dressing gown two sizes too big for him, his wispy grey hair sticking up at various jaunty angles.
‘I, err…,’ Sophie stammered, sliding the toffee hammer behind her back. Had Jennings seen it?
‘Come on, back to bed with you,’ Jennings said, walking towards her. ‘And as for you mister,’ he said, turning his attention to Major, ‘you know you’re not allowed in here.’
Jennings swatted his hand at the cat. Major hissed and, skidding on the polished wood, spun round, his bushy tail catching the statue just the lightest of glancing blows as he slithered off the top of the piano. It was enough. Almost in slow motion, the statue rocked first this way then that before finally falling onto its side, shattering into tiny pieces amid a great cloud of dust.
‘Quick!’ spluttered Jennings through the dust cloud, ‘Bed! Now!’
Sophie, coughing through a mouthful of dust, sprinted for the door. Scooping Major up as she went, Sophie ran all the way to her room and dived under the covers with the old cat as the enormity of what had just happened descended on her like a huge, cold, dead weight.
* * *
The police had already been called by the time Sophie awoke, wreathed in sweat, from an unsettling dream about pyramids and strange cats. Major was nowhere to be seen.
A policewoman tried to explain to Sophie about Aunt Sarah’s accident – she’d tripped and fallen the full length of the main staircase, breaking her neck in the process. How Sophie’s mother had died the same night, apparently from suffocation but without a mark on her, she could not explain and so did not try. There were trained professionals for that sort of thing.
* * *In the cool shade of the old Summer House Major lay curled up on an old cushion. He was still a bit sore where he’d miscalculated his leap and Aunt Sarah had trodden on him as he’d tripped her down the stairs. It had been easier with Millie, she’d been drunk when he’d curled up on her face.
Major sneezed, the smell of ancient statue dust still tickling his nostrils. She would be pleased, he thought.
[edit: to improve change in POV towards the end of the story. Thanks to jdanetyler for mentioning it.]