I knew something was amiss as soon as the car approached Aunt Melody's street. For starters, there was a great deal of people out and about, far more than was usual on that street at that time of night. Then there was the strobing lights of the emergency vehicles, the sight of which set my stomach clenching in fear.
I could not form a coherent thought at all. I absently paid the lovely driver, who had regaled me with tales of his fifteen month old baby daughter, Fleur, on whom he was doting every second of his spare time, throughout the drive over and who had kept my mind off my worries for the time it had taken to complete the journey. I thrust whatever notes I had in my purse into his hand. He began to protest that it was too much, but as I clambered out of the car in an ungainly fashion, I told him to buy his daughter something nice from me.
A neighbour of my Aunt, whom I knew more by sight than association recognised me and made her way through the throng of people outside Aunt Melody's house.
"I'm so sorry" she said, her face a picture of misery, "it's your Aunt".
"Is she...?" I asked, unable to complete the question
"I'm sorry, but yes she is" the neighbour, Valerie, I think her name was, confirmed, her eyes cast down to the ground.
"What? What is it?" I demanded, sensing there was more to come.
"It's not for me to say, really it's not" the poor woman said as tears sprang into her eyes. "Your parents are here, perhaps you should ask them?" she suggested, backing away from me and wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of a rather stylish and no doubt expensive jumper that fitted her trim frame like a second skin.
I made my painful way towards my Aunt's house, the press of people parting wordlessly upon seeing my invalided condition. I felt several pats on my back and shoulders and heard muttered condolences from people who obviously knew me as my Aunt's neice and who had probably seen my comings and goings through the years. I didn't have the strength or the voice to answer any of them.
My father espied me at the gate at the end of the property's footpath. With agility and alacrity I would have never guessed he still possessed at his age he made his way towards me.
"What are you doing here?" he asked brusquely.
"I was worried about you and mum when I could not get hold of you on the 'phone" I answered. "What happend to Aunt Melody?"
"I'm sorry, darling," dad said gently. "It looks like she fell down the stairs and hurt herself too badly to call for help"
"Oh, no, Auntie!" I cried and burst into tears. My father, a gentle soul who in spite of being married and raising a daughter, was never good with tears. However, this time he came up trumps and wrapped his arms around my shoulders and held me gently until I had cried-out the worst of my initial shock.
I saw my mother as my father releasd me from his embrace. If it were at all possible, she had added twenty years to her age in the period since I had seen her last.
"Dad? What aren't you telling me?" I asked, as I hobbled uncertainly towards my mother. "What else happened here? Why are all these people here and what happend to mummy?" I burbled as fresh tears slipped down my face.
"I'm sorry, honey," Dad said as he and mum embraced quickly. "It looks like your Aunt... " He couldn't say the words. I suddenly had an awful feeling I knew what it was he was trying to say.
"Oh, no, please... not that!" I cried. "I TOLD you!" I screamed at my mother, pointing an accusatiory finger at her. "I told you there was something wrong!"
"I'm sorry! I am more sorry than you can ever understand" my mother sighed, not making any attempt to defend herself against my anger and tears. "You were right and I was wrong. I should have listened to you. After all, you knew my sister far better than I did."
"How long?" I asked. "How long did she lay there all alone and helpless?" I was fighting to hold down the hysteria that was threatening to overwhelm me. "How fucking long did my Aunt, your sister, lay at the bottom of those stairs, mother?" I said in a calm, even tone of voice that I didn't recognise. "How fucking long!"
"There's no need to swear" dad interjected.
"Just answer the goddamn, fucking question, someone!" My voice was rising as my anger and grief swelled. "How long did Aunt melody lay dead on that bastard floor before you found her?!" I demanded.
"We don't know, exactly," dad conceded as mum wept in to a handkerchief he had helpfully handed to her. "We think it may have been as long as three weeks" His voice tailed off to a whisper, his incomprehension at how he and his wife had come to this state of affairs compounded by a growing sense of guilt and shame.
"Oh my God!" I cried. I suddenly felt very light-headed and slightly nauseous and my vision began to blur and darken. Before I realsied what was happening to me I had fallen into a dead faint. Were it not for the rapid reactions of a couple of the younger male neighbours there might well have been a second fatality that night as I very nearly impaled myself on the white painted pickets of Aunt Melody's fence.
Taking full advantage of the commotion around him, Bruce slipped away unnoticed, the remains of the old lady's hand dangling from his firmly clenched jaw. Although there was little meat on his treasure, he would enjoy gnawing on the bones and making his way through the hardness to the life-giving marrow at the core. He found himself a new, sypathetic home in which to reside, miles distant from his previous one. Nobody missed him and he missed nobody either.
When I came round I was back home in my own bed.
"Where's mum?" I asked my father who was sitting in an oversuffed chair I'd rescued from a rubbish pile several years ago and restored.
"She's resting at home. This has been incredibly traumatic for all of us" he said earnestly.
"I'm sorry I shouted" I said, clasping his liver-spotted and heavily veined hand in mine. "And can you ever forgive me for swearing like a navvy?" I asked as a pink bloom suffused my neck and cheeks.
Dad laughed a throaty chuckle.
"I always knew you had it in you, girl," he laughed, "and I always thought it would come out long before now with one or other of those blokes you've been with" he admitted, his eyes moistening with mirth.
"Well, I've always tried to be a lady" I giggled "but it hasn't always worked so well" I added with a wink and a smile.
"No doubt, no doubt" dad said, his voice losing its joviality.
"Honey, there's more I have to tell you, about your Aunt" he said, all traces of mirth and laughter completely absent from his voice now. "I don't want to say anything, but rather you hear it from me than hear it elsewhere or read it in the newspapers" he said solemnly.
"Daddy? What's wrong? What do you mean?" I asked, suddenly afraid all over again.
In a halting voice that dropped to little more than a papery whisper at times, he told me of the full horror of that house; of what my dearely beloved Aunt had endured. On first examination it appeared that Aunt melody had lived for quite some time after her fall and may have been awake and fully conscious for some or all of the time, there was no way of knowing. I hoped and prayed that that was not the case and that she had passed peacefully and painlessly into the next life.
But it was what the cats had done to her; to her corpse that really horrified me, which is why dad opted, over my mother's wishes, to tell me about first. I wailed and cried and beat my fists against the walls, my own chest and hit out and kicked inanimate items of furniture out of soul-deep anguish and disgust and sorrow for my poor helpless Aunt. I had nightmares for months afterwards and developed an overpowering aversion to all things feline ever after.
I have never really got over losing my Aunt, although Mother Nature would in all likelihood have taken her from this world within a few more years anyway. It was the manner of her passing and what happened to her poor helpless body that troubles me constantly.
As per her will, her wish was to buried alongside her first husband, which we gladly complied with. Her will also made me the sole beneficiary of her entire estate, which made me, if not a wealthy woman, at least a comfortably-off one.
There was, though, one sticky point: Aunt Melody stipulated in her will that, as part of the terms of my inheritance, I was obliged to give a home to any cat that came looking for one. It took a long court case and lots of clever legal wrangling to get that clause overturned, I can tell you! I'm sure, given what happened to her in her last days, Aunt Melody would not have minded in the least.
NOTE: this story was inspired by my coming across an online article about a woman who had died and been partly consumed by her cats. Here is the link to the newspaper story for anyone interested: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/reclusive-woman-eaten-by-pet-cats-as-body-lay-undiscovered-in-home-8759326.html