Katarina’s mother pulled the shutters tight and turned away from the window.
“There is nothing for you to see out there,” she said. “Go to sleep now.” She creased her lips up into a smile and crossed the room to where Katarina sat hunched tight on the bed. “Sleep darling.” She lent over and placed her hand on her daughter’s shoulder, the lightest of touches
“I can’t. I won’t be able to.” Katarina shuddered. “Mrs Malcolm…What do you think will…”
“Shh!” Her mother cut her off. “Just lie down and sleep.”
“Stay with me,” Katarina begged.
“Just for a while, but you must sleep.”
“Do you remember when I was little you used to sing to me? It was something about angels and their arms.”
“Shh!” Her mother glanced towards the window and shook her head. “I can’t, I mean it’s better this way.” She sat down on the edge of her bed and reached forward as if to stroke Katarina’s forehead, then pulled her hand back and instead seized Katarina’s hand and squeezed it tightly.
Katarina flinched but squeezed it in return. “But what do you mean? Why did they take her?” she asked. The images of Mrs Malcolm being bustled out of her house by four uniformed men were not going to leave her for a long time.
“That is nothing for us to worry about, darling. The police know best.”
They heard an engine spark into life and the crunch of wheels on gravel. Katarina felt her mother tense as they listened to the van drive off.
“What did she do?” Mrs Malcolm had seemed so quiet, small, smiley, safe, with a house filled with colourful knitted throws, a bobbly rug, cracked and wobbly teapots on shelves, a crackling fire, her cat, Ditto. That poor cat. Who would feed him now? Perhaps she should. Would the men have left him alone? They hadn’t looked like ordinary police. Their uniforms seemed somehow different, smarter perhaps though it was hard to tell in the dark.
“Can’t you do anything?”
“You are not to worry about it, you are not to mention this again!” Her mother’s tension was threatening to bubble over, but she smiled thinly.
“Sleep now.” There was to be no argument. She switched off the light and closed the door with a firm click.
Katarina lay motionless, straining to listen for anything that might give her clues about what was going on. She heard her parents’ voices, muffled by the wall and by the hushed tones in which they often spoke. She thought she heard a sob but she could not be sure. Finally, when the house was silent, she pushed back the sheet and blankets and slid out of bed. She crept to the window and opened the shutters. The dark hulk of Mrs Malcolm’s house sat there, forlorn and empty.
She heard the distant rumble of a night bus bringing the late-shift workers home from the industrial areas, a dog barking, perhaps in the next borough, and finally a faint ‘mew’. The cat. Ditto. She pushed open the window a crack. The ‘mew’ came again, this time clearer and more urgent. It sounded as if he was in trouble. His third call was distressed as if he was in pain, a cry that went right though her, begged her to come out and rescue him.
Pausing to be sure that there was no sound from her parents’ bedroom she felt for her shoes under her bed and tiptoed across the landing and down to the kitchen. There was a little cooked chicken left on the larder shelf; she would take it for him.
The backdoor creaked as she eased it open and she froze, a cold statue in the night, listening, watching. The moon was not yet full but it was bright enough to give her some vision. Her eyes were growing accustomed to the dark and she could see nothing to worry her so she slipped her feet into her shoes and ran from shadow to shadow along the hard dirt path that divided her house from Mrs Malcolm’s.
She stopped. Something or someone was moving ahead, low down against the wall of the house. How stupid she was to have come out. The curfew was on and if the authorities caught her both she and her parents would be in trouble.
Stabbing pains of fear shot through her legs as she pressed herself against the wall and she held her hand over her mouth to stop a cry escaping. Something brushed against her and she heard the ‘mew’ again.
Her shoulders slumped with relief. It was Ditto. “Hello boy,” she whispered. “Are you alright? Did they hurt you? Are you hungry? I’ll look after you now ’til your mum comes back.” She gulped slightly. Mrs Malcolm might not come back.
Ditto rubbed against her and she bent to stroke him but stopped. She could hear his purr but behind it the murmur of a car or a van in the distance. That could mean only one thing – the curfew patrol.
“Quick, into the house,” she said. She wanted to check he had a safe place to sleep tonight. She also wanted to see inside Mrs Malcolm’s house.