It was the smell that woke Sarah. Its scent wafted through the cracks in the wall, as her mother lit her first cigarette of the day. There wasn’t any need for an alarm clock, as this event was her signal to rise. The stench of the tobacco was everywhere. Its willowy trails permeated her clothes, her books, even her skin and hair. Despite keeping the bedroom door shut, it managed to sneak its way in, but its odour was nothing compared to that of cats.
The pounding of her mother’s fist on the wall roused her, and she slipped from beneath the bedclothes. The room was freezing, and when she pulled back the thin curtains, the glass inside the window was transformed into a crystal spider’s web. Shivering, she touched the pattern and watched as the ice melted beneath her fingers.
“What is it, Sarah?”
The whisper from the bed made her draw back her hand.
“It’s ice, Brian,” she smiled at her little brother. “It’s going to be a chilly winter this year.”
“Oh, no,” he groaned, and pulled the covers back over his head.
Though ten-years-old, the memories of past winters were fresh in his mind, and the nights of bone-numbing cold couldn’t be erased. The cottage was a tumbledown affair, built in a time before insulation or central heating. It was tiny in comparison with modern standards. On one side of the building there was a kitchen, which also served as sitting room. A small hallway led to the two bedrooms and an ancient bathroom, where the plumbing was salvaged from another age. There was no boiler and consequently no hot water, other than to boil a kettle on the old stove in the kitchen. This was Sarah’s first task of the day, once she’d brought breakfast to her mother, to boil enough water to wash them both.
“Stay there,” she patted the humped shape under the covers. “I think there’s some eggs in the larder, I’ll call you when they’re ready.”
“Thanks, Sarah,” came the muffled reply.
Since the cottage was small, she had to share a room with her brother. Although he could be a bit of a pain at times, she didn’t mind. They were used to respecting one another’s privacy, when it came to dressing or undressing. With two small single beds, there wasn’t much room to move. An old tea chest, her mother found, served as their wardrobe. What little clothes they had were folded inside, and despite Sarah’s attempts to clean away any evidence of its cargo, the black grains of tea managed to get in their clothes and had to be shaken away like the husks of dead fleas.
Slipping her school jumper over her nightdress, she walked into the hallway. It seemed colder here, and she hurried towards the kitchen, hoping to find warmth in the fire’s dying embers. The smell felt like a smack in the face, when she opened the door, and she drew back in disgust. She waited for the shock from the acidic fumes to pass, before attempting to go in. Her mother, aware the night would be a cold one, allowed her menagerie of cats to sleep indoors. Most were feral strays, which the confines of the room terrified, and they’d shown their displeasure by the amount of faeces and pools of urine lining the stone floor. Tired from numerous attempts to escape, they’d settled down in front of the fire or on top of the table. Once Sarah appeared they arose en-mass, arching their backs and yawning. Some mewed piteously; others narrowed their eyes and hissed.
Holding her hand over her nose, Sarah tiptoed across the room, trying to avoid the puddles on the stones, but it was difficult in the half light. She felt the wetness on the toes of her worn slippers. Flinging back the curtains, she threw open the window and picked up a broom.
“Out,” she ordered the last of the stragglers, who unlike their comrades refused to make a bolt for freedom. “Out, I said,” she swung the broom at the nearest group hitting a ginger tabby, who snarled at her before heading for the window.
Once they’d disappeared into the bone-chilling mist outside, she’d no choice, but to let the window to stay open. The fumes burned the lining in her nose, as she placed the kettle on the stove. As she waited for the water to boil, she started cleaning up the floor. Using an old newspaper, she managed to pick up most of the faeces, but the smell was too much on her delicate stomach, and she decided to leave the rest for her mother to deal with. The water from the lone tap in the sink stung her hands like needles of ice, as she washed away the dirt of the cats’ droppings.
Taking two eggs from the larder, she placed them in pot of water to boil. Brian would have to eat his breakfast in the bedroom, as there was no telling what germs were floating about in the kitchen. The kettle bubbled, so she placed some teabags in a pot and filled it. While she waited for it to brew, she took the loaf of bread out of the larder and tried to cut it on a small board on her lap. There was no way she’d use the kitchen table, not until it was scrubbed clean, and this would have to wait until after school. It was difficult to cut the loaf, and she wondered for the millionth time, why her mother insisted on buying the uncut bread. Sarah’s life would be so much easier if she’d buy sliced bread. The old rusty fridge yielded nothing more than some sliced ham, and this was curled and dry around the edges. The packet said it was still in date, and it she used to make sandwiches for her brother’s lunch. Sarah never took anything other than a slice of bread and butter. She rarely felt hungry, and if she did, she could eat it quickly before anyone saw the huge chunk. An assortment of paper bags was crushed into a dresser drawer, and she chose the cleanest two to wrap their lunches. God forbid, they should have cling wrap like civilised people.
The eggs were bubbling when she finished, and she’d forgotten the cold streaming through the open window, as she scooped them out of the pot. Making two small cone shapes from old newspaper, she placed an egg in each. Picking up a spoon and a slice of bread, she carried them back into her bedroom.
“Here you go, lazy bones,” she tapped her foot on the side of the bed.
Her brother emerged from beneath the covers.
“Don’t think I’ll be doing this every day,” she warned. “The bloody cats were in all night and the kitchen stinks to high heaven. Can you manage?” She asked, as he tried to balance to eggs.
“Yeah, no problem,” he tapped on the top of the egg.
“O.K., don’t get shell everywhere, or you won’t be able to sleep tonight if it gets into the sheets.”
“Hey, Sarah,” he called, and she turned back. Waving the egg-filled spoon at her, he smiled. “Look at me, I’m like a King.”
“Well, hurry up, King Brian,” she laughed, “You’ll need to have a wash before school.”
A harsh, racking cough from the room next door signaled her mother’s discontent at being kept waiting for her breakfast.
“Excuse me, my lord,” Sarah whispered, bowing to her brother, before hurrying away.