Hide and Seek, by Jude Winter


Hide and Seek

 

The deer carcass had been found in the fork of an oak tree, nine feet above the

ground, cleaned to the bone. Paul spent Saturday night under the tree, still, quiet and

watching; seated between the exposed roots, his flask propped up beside him. Over

the year, he had introduced various additions to these night-time vigils: cushions,

fold-up stools, soup and sandwiches, until he had realised that comfort was not what

he required. Huddled between hard roots, sustained by bitter coffee alone, the arrival

of a panther felt imminent – he started with each crack of a twig, enthralled.

He had been coming to this spot for a few months, after numerous reported

sightings in the area. All of the same cat: black, sleek and rippling; long, lean and low.

Just the language thrilled him: on a Sunday afternoon, in broad daylight, the

cat had unwound languidly and strolled past onlookers on the nearby golf course,

magnificently unruffled… A group of dog walkers had seen the panther gliding

through the woods, the sun dappling its liquid coat, supremely indifferent to the

consternation… In a world of its own…clear as daylight…bold as brass.

He had never caught a glimpse.

He poured another cup of coffee and checked the time on his illuminated

watch (gradually over the last year all his accessories had been replaced with suitable

nocturnal models). Only midnight. He was relieved that no other big cat hunter had

come down here tonight. He usually avoided the really obvious locations – those

central to the discussions on the internet forums – he had no wish to meet others. He

knew some enjoyed the camaraderie. He preferred to hunt alone.

The night passed. The first few hours were interspersed with signs of hope: the

sharp cracking twigs that caused him to stiffen back into the roots proved to be a roe

deer; the guttural cough that had him reaching for his camera – a badger; and the

screeching yowl towards the end of the night was identified as the pale shape of an

owl on a branch above him. The period around dawn was the most slow – he could not

have retrieved any useful thoughts from his suspended mind – and when it started to

rain at about 5 o’clock, he gathered his possessions back into his rucksack and

scrambled up the sticky slope to his car.

He knew his wife would be upstairs – blackout blinds pulled shut, sprawled

out as sole occupant of their king-size bed. He made his way into the kitchen, emptied

his flask and left it to soak, rinsed and dried his sandwich box, and put the kettle on.

He always waited until his wife was up before retreating to the bedroom; she had said

something about preferring it that way.

He decided to check the code on the data entry system he was developing for

the estate agents in town. There was just one section he needed to reconsider. He

retreated to his back office, turned on the spotlights – there was no window – and

tried to get to grips with it. By the time Laura came downstairs, he was too involved

in general improvements for sleep or conversation. His wife poked her head in, newly

showered and smiling. She stroked the back of his shoulders, kissed the top of his

head, laughed at his fruitless night and his unintelligible code and told him to go to

bed. Through his grainy sleep-deprived eyes he noticed she looked much happier than

usual.

*****

Paul had started searching for alien big cats at the same time Laura had

stopped leaving the house. He could accept the two events were linked but avoided

examining the connections too closely, he had always found that life progressed more

smoothly if certain mechanisms were allowed to operate unobserved.

The day his wife renounced the world was the same day he had allocated for

his tax returns. They were lined up all over the table, spreadsheets, receipts and files

full of folders. He was ignoring them until after breakfast. Recently he had tried to

persuade Laura to do the books – a little job while she was off sick – but she had

laughed grimly,

Do I look like a woman who needs a little job?”

He really hadn’t known how to answer. Facing her in her coffee stained

bathrobe with her stringy hair and waterlogged eyes he would have to say that, yes,

she looked like a woman who needed gainful employment; anything to tempt her back

from this official action in the netherworld. But he had said nothing and borrowed Tax

Returns for Dummies from the library.

If he were not already escaping the signs of Laura’s bad night, he would have

had his breakfast in the living room or in even bed, but bits of her anguish were

shredded all over the house: the twisted bedding on the sofa, the trail of abandoned

cups and glasses, the magazines with pages torn out and the topical books with the

tortured spines. Avoiding eye contact with his accounts was the easier option.

He was reading the local paper, holding it up to shield his eyes from the

spreadsheets, propping it against the box file whenever he needed his hands for toast

or coffee. He had just finished the front page when Laura appeared.

Changed your mind about my accounts?” he stammered, groping for words

and tone. When they had first met Laura had teasingly accused him of being better at

talking to computers than people; and now even the wrong emphasis on a sigh could

send her into attack.

You think I should just get on with it, don’t you? Get back to normal?

Forget?”

No, sweetheart, it’s just good to see you dressed.”

I’ve been up most of the night trying to persuade myself to get back on my

feet, put the mask on and go out in the world. I know that’s what you are waiting for

and I know I should, but I can’t bring myself to do it.”

Everyone said it takes time. Don’t rush it. Your school understands – there’s

no hurry.”

Whenever he tried to force her extreme emotions into the constraints of

everyday language, it infuriated her. She did not want to be repackaged but how else

was he supposed to handle her?

You don’t understand, Paul. You’re not listening. I don’t want to get back to

normal. I don’t want to get on with life.”

He turned the page on his paper and stared at the headline closer and closer

until it blurred, ‘The Beast is Back’. He realised that Laura was waiting. He took her

hand; it was long fingered and cool.

Say something, Paul.” She pulled her hand away.

He read the first paragraph ‘There have been two more sightings of a pumalike

cat by the church in the village of …’. A puma yowling on a dry stone wall, its

pungent odour, its eerie scream. He just wanted to hunker down in the mossy

churchyard; get the lay of the land. Hide away from his wife with her savage misery

and untamed hair and her trail of raw regret for their small soft dead son.

I did a lot of thinking last night, Paul. Are you listening?” He nodded, choked

back to reality. “I’m writing to my work this morning. I’m resigning. The head

teacher’s got my work covered until the end of the summer term anyway.”

Laura, the mortgage. My business is only just paying its way.”

Paul, you are not listening. I said I am not going back out there again, I’m

decided. We’ve got the money we had put away, we don’t need it anymore. It’s not

just some flippant decision, I can’t do anything else.”

Whatever feels right for you. We’ll cope.”

The artist’s impression showed a sneering beast, saliva dripping from its jowls.

It’s not that I don’t want to work. I just don’t want to go out anymore. I don’t

want to get on with things all brisk and businesslike when Thomas can’t do them

anymore. He should be trundling down the road, gawping at diggers and stamping in

puddles and chasing birds and holding me up when I’m in a hurry. I don’t want to do

it on my own. I don’t want to pretend he never happened, do you understand?

Paul moved his square hands up her arms, hiding the veins. “You don’t need to

pretend anything, Laura. I’ll look after us for as long as you need.”

As he accepted sole custody of their lives, Paul wondered if the puma was on

its own – surely even a naturally solitary animal would sometimes require a mate.

*****

The church yard was bordered by a yew terrace. A puma had been spotted on

two occasions, retreating into the darkness of the ancient evergreens. In the graveyard,

an elm had been scored with claw marks, and in the church’s tiny stone porch a

severed deer leg had been found. A young boy had seen a large golden cat lounging

on a gravestone and his mother, in the same afternoon, had watched a tawny cat with

long curving tail, pick its way gracefully along the rough stone wall which surrounded

the graveyard. There had been no sightings for more than a year but Paul wanted to

return here: it was the site of his first night’s cat hunting.

He sat on a mound overlooking the graveyard and the yew terrace. The

combination of a huge moon and a distant row of streetlights illuminated the pale

stone graves. Most of the headstones were indistinct, smoothed with time and blurred

by the faint light into gentle arches. But Paul could make out a carved cherub, a cross

entwined with ivy, a stone bird of some kind. A tiny coffin shaped stone caught his

eye; he considered it for some time, forgetting even to breath, before turning his focus

outwards. The yew trees, silhouetted against the moon, cut off the view abruptly.

Although he was watching he realised he was no longer waiting. He was quite certain

that he was alone.

The noise of people leaving the pub on the other side of the village reminded

him of other Saturday nights. He packed up his rucksack and left the churchyard. The

roads were empty and he drove in silence. He saw a fox, an owl and something which

might have been a stoat or a weasel, he wasn’t good on small predators. Hadn’t been

good on predators in general until his son had died and his wife had gone crazy.

As he approached the outskirts of town he stopped at a crossing for a limping

woman with a grim expression carrying just one shoe, she did not check the road or

acknowledge his presence. After that his attention was taken up avoiding the drunks in

the market square: a couple argued in his headlights, and some teenage girls with

shiny hair pushed each other towards his car and shrieked. A very young boy in a

football shirt threw a bottle into the road and some older men with thick necks and

shorn heads hurled each other off the kerb in a friendly fashion.

Turning into his estate, the streetlights were infrequent and the houses were

mainly unlit. Finally acknowledging his need to be home Paul relaxed on the empty

road, no longer vigilant. He accelerated for the straight stretch before his turn-off,

consciously enjoying the drive. He began to fiddle with his radio seeing the road

ahead only as unformed darkness, when something pale and gleaming leapt into the

corner of his vision. He braked needlessly – she remained on the edge of the road,

moving with a gliding motion, in long graceful strides. He stopped the car and

reversed until they were once again level. Laura, sleek and unconcerned, crossed to

the front of the car, her blonde hair gleaming in his headlights. He wound down the

window, shouted her name; and his wife gave a long lazy smile which suggested that

the Saturday night streets had always been her natural environment.

I needed to get out of the house.”

You took your time.” He said and was amazed to hear her laugh.

Well you haven’t been that much fun yourself, with your non-stop big-game

hunting.” She began to open the door. “You’re back early. Catch anything?

He didn’t answer, just sat grinning like an idiot as she sprung into the car.

2100 words

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014