by Judy Darley
The landlord shows us the code to unfasten a padlock leading to our own square of garden. “Always keep it locked,” he tells us. “Even when you’re in here.”
Christopher and I smile and promise, dazzled by the lush strip of lawn and sunshine-glimmered pond. A scarlet goldfish bobs up, goggle-eyed with amazement, I presume, because it hasn’t seen people for so long. Our new apartment has been empty for more than a year, and the rent is low as a result. We’ve chosen to enjoy our good fortune, rather than ask why that might be.
“This is Reginald,” our landlord says. “Be nice to him and he’ll be nice to you.”
I crouch down for a closer look.
“Don’t put your fingers in the water,” the landlord warns me hurriedly. “He doesn’t like that.”
“Should we feed him?” I ask, moving my hands away obediently.
The landlord shrugs. “He gets what he needs from what falls in. Likes a bit of chicken though, if you happen to have any spare.”
“Chicken?” Christopher exclaims. “I thought fish ate…” He wavers, uncertain. “…Fish flakes…”
“Oh, well, that’s a bit cannibalistic, isn’t it?” The landlord sniffs disapprovingly.
We have the apartment at the top of the house. Downstairs is divided in two: one half occupied by a young girl, and the other by a man with a beautiful Siamese cat. The cat’s name is Geraldine. Overhearing to the man telling Geraldine about his day, I giggle to myself as the cat yowls its replies. ”They’re sweet together,” I tell Christopher. “It’s like the perfect relationship.”
In the middle of our first night in the apartment I’m woken by a shrill scream. The sound shoots through me, driving me up and out of bed.
Christopher yawns and turns over. “What’s wrong?”
At the window I see only the blackness of the garden, like a duvet hiding the stubble and secrets of all who lie in wait there.
“Nothing,” I say, and come back to bed, curling up and warming my cold feet against Christopher’s calves.
The next day a frog corpse is spread-eagled beside the pond. One leg is missing.
“Someone told me they shriek. I didn’t believe it,” I say to Christopher. “Bet it was Geraldine. She might seem docile, but cats are stealthy killing machines.”
Christopher grimaces, picking up a trowel. I suddenly understand that he’s about to sling the cadaver into the pond.
Reginald floats to the surface, blowing bubbles as he sieves the air.
“Don’t, Chris! How would you like to share your home with a carcass?”
“Oh, for heaven’s…” Christopher exclaims, but deposits the dead frog into the compost bin instead.
The movement seems to alarm Reginald. He flutters his tail agitatedly, storming laps through duckweed.
“Poor Reginald, what a night you must have had, witnessing that horrific murder,” I say sympathetically. Reginald slows in his circuits. He ogles me steadily, mouth agape, and then slides into the greenish shadows at the bottom of the pool
I come home with some raw chicken thighs, and roast a couple for Christopher and myself. A third I slice into tiny bloody pieces.
“You can’t be serious,” Christopher says. “The landlord’s crackers. What goldfish eats chicken?”
I glower at him. “Reggie’s been through a lot. He deserves a treat. And why wouldn’t he like some chicken? They eat flies – chicken’s just a different form of protein.”
Christopher shrugs, retreating from the kitchen. I put down the knife and pick up the saucer of shredded meat.
Down at the garden gate, I enter the code to undo the padlock and stroll inside, re-securing it behind me as the landlord insisted.
All is still for a moment. A light breeze is wafting through the bougainvillea that climbs in lurid pink swathes over the fence. I kneel on the gravel path next to the pond, peering into the gloomy depths.
No flash of scarlet breaks the stillness. I look at the saucer I’m holding, wondering what to do. A speckle of poultry blood has spread across my thumb. Without thinking, I dip it into the water to wash it.
The speed with which Reginald appears makes me jump. His head bumps my thumb and I whip my hand out so fast I almost lose my balance.
“Reggie, you startled me,” I exclaim, my heart thundering. I chuckle at my own panic. “Guess you’re hungry.”
I drop a sliver of chicken into the pond, but Reginald only watches me with his unblinking eyes, lips gently parting and closing, parting and closing.
I look down at my hand and realize I’m dripping blood – my own this time. I must have caught it on the gravel when I reached out to regain my balance.
I leave the saucer at the side of the pond and go upstairs to clean my wound.
That night I hear Geraldine yowling. “What do you reckon? An argument with her beloved?” Christopher murmurs, and I laugh, despite the uneasiness making my breath quicken. My thumb aches in rhythm with my pulse.
Early in the morning, a thudding at our door wakes me. I shuffle downstairs, and find Geraldine’s human standing there. His face is pale, his hair tufted in hillocks. I suspect he hasn’t slept well.
“Have you seen my cat?” he asks. “She’s a Lilac-point Siamese called Geraldine. Geraldine always comes in for her breakfast at six, but I haven’t seen her since last night!”
“Oh dear!” I exclaim. “Maybe she’s in our garden.”
He shakes his head, going even whiter. “She knows not to go there. I made sure of that after what happened…” His voice trails off.
I stare at him, wondering what he’s on about. “I left some chicken last night that might have tempted her in.”
“Let’s go and have a look, shall we?”
I push my way past him and pad down the alley in my slippers. With him half-hyperventilating at my shoulder, it’s difficult to get the code right and I need three attempts.
At last the gate swings ajar.
I have just moments to make sense of the scene before our neighbor sees what I’m trying to take in.
A plate of half-gobbled chicken. A splatter of blood that’s sprayed across the gravel. A mass of waterlogged and creamy golden fur draped midway into the garden pond.
And Reginald, resting at the surface, eyeballing me with something very like satisfaction.
Judy Darley is a British fiction writer, poet and journalist whose work appears in magazines and anthologies and in her debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. Sky Light Rain, her second collection, will be published by Valley Press in autumn 2019. Judy has shared her stories on BBC radio, as well as in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church. You can find her at http://www.skylightrain.com and https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.