The man in the brown hat sat down at the end of the bar, held a solitary finger up to the barman then let his head drop with all the weight of the world's problems, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. At the other end of the room, a small group of men in similar suits in varying shades of brown and grey sat around a small table, nursing whiskey sours and half-pints of beer.
“Should we ask him to join us?”
The oldest one (although at 36, he would object to being referred to as ‘old'), Frank, shook his head. “No, Marcus, let’s not. I think we should leave him for a while, he’s had a rough few weeks.” The other men murmured in agreement. Frank always knew the right thing to do, the right thing to say, and they all looked to him for guidance from time to time the way they used to look at Bill, who now preferred to sit alone at the end of the bar getting steadily drunk by himself. Frank took a length sip of his beer, licked the froth from his lips and placed the glass down on the table, his paw-like hands leaving prints in the condensation. He and Bill had known one another since childhood, learned how to ride their bikes together, made girls cry in the playground by breaking their toys then made them cry in the dance halls by breaking their hearts. Hell, they’d even had their first beers together. They were like brothers, but recently Bill had started to act differently and seemed to spend more time drinking after work than he had before.
“Rough few weeks?” Jack piped up. “I’ll say. He’s behind on his work, even though he gets in earlier than everyone else and stays until after the cleaners have left - his desk is a mess, they won’t go near it.” The only one of the group to work on the same floor as Bill, Jack was a quiet man with a stern demeanour, but his eyes softened sadly at the thought of his colleague. The men sat in silence for a few moments, staring at their drinks. How were they supposed to deal with this change in their friend? These were men for whom an emotional outburst meant a firm handshake or a slap on the back. None of them felt emotionally equipped to advise or sympathise with a man whose world was falling apart.
Frank loosened his tie. As much as he wanted to go over and lay a hand on Bill’s shoulder, he knew that it was best to leave him alone; Bill had always been the calm one, the wise one, the one they turned to for advice, and in his absence Frank had become their stalwart. But who could be there for Bill? He had always played his cards close to his chest, even with Frank. “It’s Nora.” He paused, and rubbed his neck. “She’s sick again.”
They all knew what he meant. Since the birth of their daughter Sophie, Nora and Bill’s relationship had been under strain both financially and emotionally, and while Bill had stepped up his performance at work and earned a promotion with a hefty pay increase, Nora’s emotional state had worsened. At Frank’s birthday party a few weeks after Sophie was born, Bill ended up driving his wife home early after he found her sitting on the bathroom floor in tears, surrounded by every bottle and jar from the cabinets. Their doctor suspected that it was post-natal depression, but Bill had seen Nora with Sophie and knew that it couldn’t be that; she was imaginative, creative and joyful with Sophie - most of the time. No, he knew that it must be something more. He’d seen glimpses of it before they were married, flashes of the dark lows she went to alone in her head, and though he’d never admit it to anyone, it scared him.
“What was it this time?” Jack asked. He had seen Nora at her not-quite-worst, but what he’d seen was bad enough. There were times he’d been round to Bill’s to drop off some papers and had to carefully step over the mess in the hall where she ‘hadn’t found the time’ for the housework; or just for an impromptu drink after work, only for Bill to put his key in the door and have it slammed shut in his face by a wailing Nora. Without knowing specifics about her condition he was sure of one thing - her erratic behaviour was one day going to take its toll on Bill, or worse still Sophie. Jack and Frank had both been approached on separate occasions to look after Sophie while Bill drove Nora to stay at her mother’s house in Kent for a few days, and though she had been too young to remember anything at that time, she was five years old now and impressionable.
Frank removed his glasses and set them down next to his drink. Bill had called him in the early hours of the morning, wearily and drunkenly explaining what had happened that evening and although he mostly kept people in the dark about Nora’s behaviour, Frank knew that if the phone rang in the middle of the night it would more than likely be Bill calling to get something off his chest. The only safe time to talk was at night, when she had worn herself out after an outburst and her medication was in full soporific effect.
“Okay, I’ll tell you it how Bill told me. So he gets home last night - he stayed a little late, as ever. I think he must have left here a little earlier than we did last night, because I remember him coming in but I don’t remember him being here when we left. Anyway, I guess he gets home, steps in the door and the house is a tip.” Around the table, the men murmured in agreement. “He tells me he calls out to her, ‘Nora!’ he says, but she doesn’t answer. He gets to thinking the worse, you know? You would too, if your wife was a kook like her. So he calls out again and this time Sophie comes running up to him. He told me, ‘Frank’, he said, ‘Frank, would you believe it’s 10 o’clock at night and the girl hasn’t been bathed? She’s running down the hall to me when she’s supposed to be sleeping!’ I told him I understood - I mean once in a while it’s okay to let them stay up a little later, but you know with Nora that this ain't the first time. Then he tells me the next part. Oh boy.”
Frank took a long sip of his drink, guiltily relishing the attention of the men hanging on his every word as he relaid the humiliating events of his best friend’s previous evening.
“Come on, Frank, what’s the next part?”
“Yeah, quit playing with us!”
“Alright, calm down, I’m getting to it,” he said, glancing over at Bill who was still sitting forlornly at the bar, and wondering whether he could hear him. “So he hugs her and starts to ask her about her day, she says ‘Daddy, we had a tiger here this afternoon, it had tea with us!’ Well, fellas, may I drop down dead now if he didn’t start to well up at that part. More of her mother’s bullshit, as he called it. So he asks her what she meant, and she starts rattling off some nonsense about a tiger knocking on the door, coming in the house and staying for tea. That’s when Nora comes into the hallway, looking a state. How’d he describe her? That’s right - he said she had that dead look in her eye, like she’s slipped down into the depths where she can’t be reached, like she’s in shock but the trauma’s all made up. Anyway, she’s there, vacant as ever while Sophie’s talking about a tiger eating all the food and drinking all the water from the taps - I mean, would you believe the stuff this kid is coming out with? Then little Sophie says ‘Mummy said he can come back any time!’ He said to me, ‘Frank,’ he said, ‘Frank, the kid’s been home all day and she hasn’t had a damn thing to eat. She’s hungry, she’s grubby, she’s tired. She’s five years old.’ So he tells her to go put on her clothes, shoes and coat and wait in her room, he’ll take them all out to get something to eat.
"With her upstairs for the time being he starts it with up Nora, but she’s still got that distant look in her eye. So he just goes past her, goes into the kitchen and sees the cupboards just obliterated - I’m tell you, empty boxes, plastic bags and containers all over the floor, crockery and cutlery tipped onto the table and the teapot just lying there on the floor. Looks like a bomb hit it. He hit the roof. ‘What the hell happened here? I thought you were taking care of the food shopping, I gave you the cash to go to the supermarket, why didn’t you go? Why is everything out of the cupboards? What did you do to Sophie?’ Boy, she got really mad at him when he said that last one, raised her hand like she was gonna slap him hard in the face but she was too slow, he grabbed her wrist and pushed him away from her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him rough-handle Nora, but I tell you, it certainly shook him, because I know Bill and I know when he regrets something. She wasn’t hurt, he says she just sort of stumbled back and tripped onto the floor, but she was fine. She’s sitting there among the boxes and the crockery, and he keeps asking her, ‘Why didn’t you feed my girl? What’s gotten into you? Where is your mind, Nora?’ She starts crying, I guess, and he’s less harsh with her, but losing his patience quickly. So he says he held her shoulders and looked in her eyes, real focussed this time, and asked her to explain what happened. She stops crying, gets this sort of child-like smile on her face, and this is what she told him: ‘Sophie and I were just sitting here playing tea-parties’ - what a thing, to play tea-parties with a child when you can’t even feed her for real! - ‘and the doorbell rang, Bill. Oh, would you believe, the most beautiful tiger, just standing there, asked to come in for tea. So Sophie and I, we invited him in and oh he ate so much! All the cupboards and the water and beer and oh but not Sophie, no he was lovely to her.’ Can you imagine it? So Bill’s sitting there, listening to his wife’s nonsense, and tries again, says to her he wants an explanation. She starts saying the same story and this time Bill’s had it, he shakes her and tells her firmly that if he doesn’t get a straight answer, he’s taking Sophie away for good. That’s when she starts crying again but it’s differently, like kind of silent, deep sobs. He said they hardly made a sound but she looked like she was in real, proper pain. She says, ‘I can’t, Bill, I - sometimes it just - I can’t…’ So he holds her for a few seconds, and then he notices on the window sill outside there’s a ginger tomcat, just walking back and forth on the sill. He says to me, ‘Frank,’ he says, ‘Frank, I’d never noticed it till that moment, but she doesn’t look like the same woman anymore. I took a good look at her face when she closed her eyes, and she’s aged more in the last five years than any of us have put together. It’s like the things that other women consider to be simple household chores, well, it’s like there’s some big, emotional decision behind each movement, as if just functioning day-to-day is a complex manoeuvre that she can’t deal with.’ Remember how care-free and beautiful and happy she was at their wedding? Well I think that Nora is slipping further and further away.”
The men sat solemnly, saying nothing for a solid minute before Marcus broke their silence.
“So, Sophie just made up that tiger thing?”
“No, well, Bill said that later that night he was tucking Sophie into bed when he tried to get more out of her about the afternoon’s events. She told him that the ‘tiger’ came to the door - I’m guessing it was that tomcat - and it just sort of ran in, and then her mother was startled by it and dropped whatever it was that she was holding, I guess the teapot or something. Sophie asked if the cat was a tiger, and Nora just got carried away with the story - it seemed to make Sophie happy, and whenever Sophie’s happy Nora doesn’t seem to notice anything else around her, including the time, the fact there’s no food in the house, or her child’s night-time routine. She did something like this before, don’t you remember?” He was met with blank looks all round. “Yeah, that time there was the spider in the bath, and Bill got home and found Sophie hiding under her bed in tears, Nora nowhere to be found. ‘Daddy, mummy said there’s a monster in the bathroom that wants to eat me!’ Where was Nora? Well, you know her fear of spiders and all those creepy-crawlies, right? Nora’s gone down the street, she’s sitting in the church of all places. Totally round the bend. It’s like she can’t see things for what they really are, like everything’s a nightmare. It must be hell to live that way, I mean, imagine seeing a cat as a tiger! You’d be terrified to move. I’m telling you, fellas,” Frank sipped his drink once more, “She’s really losing it, this time. I think this whole thing with not looking after Sophie properly is gonna be the straw that breaks Bill’s back. She’s going to ruin that little family of theirs unless they get this under control.”
More nods and murmurs of agreement followed until Peter, the youngest of the group and arguably the quietest cleared his throat.
“You know, it’s so weird that you’d tell us that story tonight.”
“Well,” he said, “just this morning he asked me if I knew of anywhere he could buy a cat.”