Stephen's hesitation lasted only for a moment but Hugh had noticed and cursed himself. Cat-smell meant 'home' to him. Camellia, he admitted, had been right. No-one else could bear it. And there was this horrible contradiction. The only people he wanted to invite back to Thorncombe were people he liked - and they were the very people he least wanted to offend.
But Stephen was stepping forward.
“Do you like cats?” Hugh asked.
“Love them,” said Stephen, triumphing over nausea. “Perhaps not this many at once . . . . . But I am, indeed, very fond of cats.”
Out of politeness, he wondered if he should stroke one but couldn't see any he was prepared to go near, let alone touch. Mostly, they were emaciated, their coats dull and their spines showing ridgey under their fur. Some had oozing eyes. Some were old and barely able to move and these watched and glared, warning that they'd fight if he came too close. Some were young though, with a bit of liveliness left. Of these a couple were taking it in turns to chase a pipe-cleaner across the floor and three more were playing catch-tail round saucepans.
Hugh swept an almost flat, doormat style cat off a chair.
“Sit down,” he said. He was apprehensive. “The tea’s ready. I made it before I showed Sam round. I thought you might be cold when you arrived.”
He fetched tea-cups and saucers and a tea-pot neatly wrapped in a stained, hand-knitted cosy from the back of the AGA, where they had been keeping warm, brought them over to the table and set them next to an enamelled milk jug.
It was, no doubt, very kind of Hugh to have tea waiting, very welcoming, thought Stephen, sipping the luke-warm, sludgy brown liquid. It was so bitter it worked backwards, taking moisture out of his mouth instead of adding to it. He tried not to wince and wished Hugh hadn’t been so well prepared.
Hugh poured milk for himself, took a gulp and slammed the cup onto its saucer.
"You can't drink this!" It was awful. "I thought this was what Camellia would do! She left me to it." He stopped and looked so deflated and dejected, Stephen decided to take over.
"Don't worry," he said, taking both their cups to the scullery and tipping the tea into the sink. "It was kind of you to be ready like this. I appreciate it."
Then he lifted one of the covers on the AGA, tested the weight of the kettle and set it to boil again. "Where do you keep the tea?"
Hugh smiled weakly; grateful. Whatever was Camellia thinking? To abandon him like this? Well, he knew. She wanted Rosemary for Christmas. But the sheep had slugs in their wool and there was no-where to put the cattle and there was far too much to do in the drawing room and Rosemary had never liked cats but in the spring there would be lots of lambs for the children to see and he might have bought another donkey by then. Perhaps a dog.
He pointed sadly to a cupboard in the dresser. Stephen reached for a caddy - then took his hand back quick. A finger was bleeding. He looked round at Hugh but Hugh was thinking; hadn't noticed. So he peered into the gloom, grabbed a spitting cat away from her nesting kittens and dropped her gently to the floor where she went and crouched under the table and swished her tail. Stephen left the door open so she could go back when she wanted and made the tea.
They'd just started drinking it, and Hugh had gathered himself enough to be offering a fur laden scone, when Stephen thought he heard a distant, sharp cry. Hugh didn't seem to notice. Stephen listened more, and tried to answer Hugh's questions about Clapham and America without looking too distracted while, at the same time, concentrating on the sound. For a few moments - nothing, then . . . there it was again . . . distantly but definitely, a cry - in the house.
"Do you think Camellia would like us to take her some tea?"
Hugh stared at him a moment.
Stephen heard something crash.
For a moment, Hugh said nothing, startled because he had been interrupted. Then he smiled, glad of the excuse to go and see if she could be persuaded to join them.
“Good idea,” he said. “I’ll take her mine.”
* * *
To continue - Fifteen
For the post before this - Thirteen