A great black bird is circling over Hampstead, as Katherine Mansfield confronts a difficult diagnosis in this story from Lucy Caldwell
The kitten is dying – this morning she’s certain of it, almost certain. After it overcame its terror of being separated from the other furry balls in the grocer’s boy’s basket, it had played contentedly in her room – leaping from square to square of sunlight on the carpet, stalking flies. Its eyes bright, its pointed ears twitching. Rolling over and over its too-large paws, lunging up at the tasselled end of the braided tie-back that holds the curtains, a joyful flash of orange. But lately it has been listless, crouched in a corner, not able to make the jump into the hatbox that she lined for it with scraps of fabric. It has stopped making its comical, exaggerated attempts to groom itself and it doesn’t startle, not even when the wind comes down the chimney and makes the fire snap to attention like a flag. Now it is crouched in the corner, eyes sunken. She picks up a half-open horse chestnut from her desk, slips the gleaming mahogany nut from its spiked husk – rolls it across the floor. The kitten doesn’t acknowledge it – doesn’t even flinch.
She draws her shawl more tightly round her shoulders. For all that the September day is mild, she has two pairs of stockings on and a hot-water bottle at her back. She is still chilly. I am living under the draught from the wings of a great black bird, she thinks, who is circling, circling – deciding whether or not to settle, and I am so frightened that he’ll settle on me …
“Go to blazes,” she says aloud. “Go to blazes!” She ignores the glass of cold, greasy milk that Ida and Jack have conspired to declare she must drink every mid-morning and mid-afternoon; reaches past it for her silver tin of cigarettes instead. Lights one – the defiant scratch and phosphorus flare of the match. With the smoke, she draws a made-up sigil in the air. Then she flicks the dead matchstick in the direction of the fire, but it falls short. She gets up to retrieve it and drop it in – retrieves the horse chestnut, too. Kneels and nudges it at the kitten’s paw, but the creature will not be provoked into batting at it. She scoops it up and sits back down. It is trembling under its fur.
I knew this would happen, she thinks.