Outside the light was fading. It had been a while since the last mourner had closed the front door behind them. Kathy Hargreaves sat in the front room, truly alone for the first time in her life. Her mam had been old, but Kathy had loved her. She’d cried when the doctor told her it was too late for surgery and that all she could do was prepare herself for this moment. Kathy had tried, but the seven weeks between diagnosis and death had been and gone. She had no plans.
The woman from the Housing Department was all facts. Now her mam had left her behind, the money Kathy had got to look after her was over. The new rules said the house was too big for Kathy and she’d need to pay more rent or leave the one place she called home. Forty three years ago she’d stood at the front fence, squeezing her head between the hedge and the wooden palings, watching other children play, wondering why they didn’t ask her to join in. All the years of school, then work and going out, getting married and having families; the moving away and the coming back, in cars, taxis and hired, black limousines, sometimes laughing and sometimes crying was a life that Kathy Hargreaves had never been asked to join in with. The memories made her eyes itch, but she stopped herself and signed the document agreeing to end the tenancy that the woman waved at her; of course, Kathy didn’t read it, but she knew she would be alright. There was the bit money from the Co-Op plan after all and she could easily get a job as a care worker in a home, because of her experiences looking after her own elderly. So she did.
The neighbours were helpful; some offered to store the furniture, but Kathy shook her head and gave most of it away. Her cousin Joan said she could come and live with her and the kids, but that was no good; Kathy hated noise. Instead, she packed what she wanted or thought she’d need for her new place and spent her last free time thinking about what would happen next.
Kathy had always believed she could make things happen. In the past few years Janice Leech from across the road, their Social Services key worker David Edwards, Susan next door’s dog and now her mam had all died; Kathy remembered wishing death on all of them at some points. Janice and her big mouth, Edwards with his snide comments about the need for scrupulous hygiene at all times, the incessant barking on Sunday mornings and her mam’s daily demands and ingratitude; Kathy had wanted rid of them all. Eventually she had got what she wanted. Frustrated, ageing and alone, Kathy recognised and feared her powers, as she had always done.
As a girl she would place curses on the other children; if someone handed round the sweets, but didn’t offer her one, she’d imagine it sticking in their throats and a coughing fit would ensue. The games the others played without her would be spoiled or curtailed by an unexpected tumble over loose slabs on concrete pavements; grazes, bruises, cuts and sprains had Kathy’s signature across them. In her late teens, lovelorn and timid, she’d take the implied rejections of the boys and men who ignored her in pubs and night clubs as heart-breaking sleights. In revenge she’d imagine the cruel swain taking a slap to the face for being forward with his hands on the dance floor and it would happen. Never in her life had Kathy ever thought to use her ability for good; loneliness, rejection and bitter experience taught her to relish the other person’s pain rather than develop her own joy. As time passed, Kathy developed a secret temper. In private, she flew into rages, held grudges, pursued vendettas and cast spells, of a kind. At weddings, she deliberately dodged the bride’s bouquet. From the age of 12, convinced no man had ever looked at her admiringly, her hatred of being noticed, observed and scrutinised overtook her longing to be seen.
None of this seemed obvious to Keith Mirren when Kathy called in to his Cliff Top Café on Causeway Road, asking about the advert for the upstairs flat to let that he’d placed in the window. Keith and Patricia had lived upstairs from the cafe for years, before inheritance had moved them to his parents’ old place; a bland 1950s bungalow with asthmatic central heating. To renovate this bequest and increase the profile of the café by developing a gourmet menu, they needed the cash a tenant would bring in; Kathy was the only one who showed any interest, forcing their hand. Keith and Patricia viewed Kathy with vague unease as she moved in; her sullen, blank looks and monotone voice. Above all, her life reduced to the contents of a pair of worn suitcases that she insisted on carrying upstairs herself, as Keith and Patricia chewed pastries in their deserted café late one Sunday afternoon in autumn.
From the start of her tenancy, for about three months, Kathy adopted a steady routine; mundane, repetitive, familiar. Weekday mornings saw her leave on the 7 o’clock bus from the harbour wall, returning at 5.30, except on Fridays when she’d arrive by taxi, burdened with a supermarket shop. She said hello to anyone who spoke to her, but did not initiate conversation. She never ventured out in the evening, to walk, to eat or drink, except for Saturdays, when she’d call in to The Victory for two large glasses of white wine in the lounge, returning to the flat by 8, to send the usual, flickering, reflected images from the TV screen across the ceiling, above the frayed hem of the curtains.
Patricia, sympathetic and intrigued, thought about calling to ask Kathy out for a drink, round for a meal or just have a proper chat some Saturday early evening, but always stopped short. She agreed with Keith, who’d decided Kathy wasn’t the sociable type and wasn’t worth bothering with so she concentrated on the sketching that she’d taken up as a hobby three years before. As a schoolgirl, Patricia had loved drawing and painting, but that seemed so long ago. Yet, soon her skills returned. She’d leave Keith in charge of the café on quiet afternoons and walk around the bay, making rough pencil or ink sketches of the coastline. At home she’d transform these seascapes into naïve, slightly anodyne watercolours that she’d frame and hang, with an optimistic price tag, in the Cliff Top Café. It almost seemed like a bistro with paintings for sale.
Following Kathy’s arrival, Patricia’s art began to change; inspired by the bland inscrutability of her tenant’s features, she started to paint portraits. In brutal oils. Vivid orange. Violent purples. Almost ashamed of the results and her rough technique, scared of upsetting the local people and customers she’d based her work on, she stored the completed canvases in the closet in the hall. While Patricia painted, Kathy worked hard, developing a fierce resentment for her line manager Fiona Dalton, who repeatedly called her Cathleen or Katie and tried to get her to change shift patterns without adequate notice or reason. In the absence of other targets, Kathy nurtured her ire to the exclusion of most other thoughts. Perhaps it was this sharply focussed hatred that caused her to leave her keys in the line manager’s office on a raw, rainswept day in November. Locked out of the flat, in tears of fatigue and rage, she cursed her boss, wishing death on her, before collecting a spare from Keith, who was about to lock up.
By mid-December, Fiona Dalton was on long term sick leave; chronic fatigue, blood in the faeces, rotting gums. She wasn’t coming back and Kathy heard the news of Fiona’s departure from work and imminently from life in a staff meeting on Christmas Eve morning with blank detachment, accepting responsibility for another death without guilt or comprehension; so began her holidays. Arriving back home, she found a card on the mat from Keith and Patricia, wishing her all the best and inviting her to dine with them the next day, to spare her the ordeal of lonely anonymity, as this was her first year alone since mam had gone.
Noon on Christmas Day, she called at the Mirrens’ bungalow. Keith took her coat and placed it in the closet, then ushered her to a seat, from where Kathy said little, avoided eye contact and drank steadily; sweet vermouth from a half pint glass, a third of a bottle of neat Pernod, a large dark Rum and then to the meal. She ate methodically and, predictably uncommunicative, appeared to be heading towards a catatonic state. Patricia and Keith exchanged concerned glances, but the situation seemed to resolve itself as Kathy announced she must go home around 4. Ushering her to the door of the lounge, Patricia observed from the edge of the room, while Kathy went to retrieve her coat from the hall closet. It had fallen from the hanger and lay across what she discovered were several paintings, most of them in transparent, protective sleeves.
As Kathy postponed the rescue of her coat, she skimmed through the collection of canvases, noting the paintings were grotesque cartoonish caricatures, lampooning and deriding local residents, each one bearing the signature of Patricia Mirren. Only one painting was framed; it was of her. Kathy. It wasn’t an insulting portrait; perhaps the jowls were thicker and the hair a shade greyer than Kathy imagined she appeared to others. Compared to some of the others, the brushwork showed restraint and care. Rage still boiled through Kathy; someone had been looking at her. Kathy hated being observed. Her secret artistry discovered, Patricia stayed mute with shame when Kathy lurched through the front door, portrait gripped tightly under her arm.
In bed that night, Kathy wished death on another woman; she fantasised agony. The painting of her had caused such fury as she had never known before. Teeth set in hatred, she repeatedly imagined the immediate pain wracked departure from this life of the woman who had caused such unhappiness for Kathy, then closed her eyes.
Two days later, noticing the curtains closed in late morning as they opened the café after the Bank Holiday break, aware that Kathy had not been seen since she left their bungalow on Christmas Day, Keith and Patricia let themselves into the flat. They found Kathy in bed; still, cold and holding in her arms the portrait Patricia had painted of her.