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How the Cat Woman Became the Giant Lady, Circa 1995

On Kimberley Road the boys of the neighbourhood used to play football in the street. Located in a mostly sedate warren of redbrick terraces built on the Sussex downs not far from the parish boundary of Brighton and Preston, Kimberley was just about quiet enough and along its lower stretch just about flat enough for such games, but when a vehicle came by the shout would go up—car!—and the match would disperse, lads scattering to the pavements, the ball coming to rest where the tarmac cambered to gutter, before immediately reforming in the vehicle’s wake. Sometimes an adult would emerge from one of the houses to move us on, and the game would shift a little way up the street, until some other interchangeably miserable old sod sprung up to push us along again: and so on it would ago.

Kimberley branched off the steep ascent of Ladysmith Road, and looped north-eastwards to rejoin Ladysmith towards the top of the hill. We might have spent an eternity playing that game of football, part of a larger game played against the residents moving us ever on toward the top, before scrambling back down Ladysmith to resume play at the bottom of Kimberley, an infinite loop of kick-ball and move-along-please, shouts of car and goal and on-me-head.

And sometimes the ball would shoot off the road to land in the front gardens of those houses. A new game would commence: whoever had kicked it astray would have to fetch it, while the rest of us hunkered down behind low front walls or the bumpers of cars, to watch from that safe distance as the lone boy ventured into peril. Sometimes someone would yell out—a snide move, alerting the whole street to the presence of the intruder, who would break out into a panicked run as the rest of us scattered laughing.

We knew who of our neighbours were friendly and who were not. The Green Man was the worst; impossibly old and gnarled, that grim figure would appear behind his net curtains to watch us as we played. If you looked at him, we said, and he looked at you, and your eyes met, you would turn to stone. No one doubted it. One time a lad named Gary had to fetch the ball from the Green House, and ended up in a tussle with the Green Man’s adult son. The rumour was that the adult son was a nonce, which was the worst thing in the world a person could be. In a school assembly we had been warned about strangers; it wasn’t so long ago that two girls had been murdered up in Wild Park, the Babes in the Wood. Later I would realise that the killer’s son had been in our class at school, perhaps in that assembly. A toddler in Liverpool had been tortured to death by two ten-year-olds not so long before; Gary’s mum, I remembered, blamed the film Child’s Play.

Further up the road lived the giant lady. Her name was Deborah. You would not, most of the time, have thought of Deborah as a giant; I think only we children ever understood what she was, because if you saw her walking around Kimberley or Coombe or Ladysmith Road, as we sometimes would, she would appear of more or less normal height, albeit quite tall for a woman. Very tall people develop a habit of adjusting themselves to fit the world, and Deborah was an expert in that manoeuvre. She lived alone at number 63, a few dozen houses up from ours—I have looked it up since on Google Earth, zoomed in from the green-blue dot of the planet to the aerial view of the red slate roofs of those buildings, and that, I have concluded, was the number on her door. She must have moved to the area a few years after my parents bought their own house on Kimberley, back when couples without substantial backing from their parents and on lowish-to-middle incomes could still buy houses in our town, because I remember my mother mentioning her, which was how I learnt her name, although why some fragment of gossip about that particular neighbour would stick in my eight or nine year-old head is beyond me. She was not, at that point, the giant lady—that moniker came later. At the time she was just the cat woman.

One day in some endless August of my eighth or ninth year I struck the ball with uncharacteristic gracelessness, on the outside of what my dad had liked to call my cultured left foot, and it cannoned high and leftwards to disappear behind the front wall and pampas grass of Deborah’s garden. The game’s noise died in an instant, and I felt my shoulders slump as if my body had registered the disappointment before my mind had recognised it. Gary swore the loudest.

“Danny has to get it,” he said. In our group it was Gary who set the tone and made the rules: we all instinctively looked to him for direction when direction was required. Already the others were retreating to cover. The abrupt silence filled my ears like so much feedback from an amp. All focus had narrowed onto me: the windows of all the other houses were eyes through which the adults of the neighbourhood gazed down at me, assessing me: all of them, I was certain—each and every one. I was trapped by that assessment. I was stuck.

The front gardens of those houses on Kimberley are small, the back gardens narrow but longer; if you go on Google you can see for yourself. But on that August afternoon in 1994 the front yard of number 63 began to stretch and twist and elongate in some nightmare version of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. The street, my friends, the memory of the game, receded behind me, and in that vast garden of pampas grass and rhododendron, the paving stones dotted with the cat statues that had furnished their owner with her first nickname, a cold gloom settled on my shoulders. In that chill I felt my ears burning as if someone was talking about me; and knew, in my bones, that everyone was talking about me. I saw the football innocuously settled next to an empty clay plant pot beneath the sill of the house’s front window, near the wall adjoining number 61, across that unbridgeable gap. From the path inside the front gate it seemed impossibly distant. Every step I took toward it, I knew, would push it further away. Still, I had to move. As I crept forward I dared not look up from my target out of the certainty that if I gazed into the window of the house a face of blank and arresting horror would stare back at me. If I looked at that face, and it looked at me, and our eyes met, I would turn to stone.

After an eternity I reached the wall and with slippery-fingers picked our tattered football up. I remember how damp its rubber felt, how its seams were studded with grit, and how heavy it seemed, as if the force of gravity in that garden was multiplied, and the ball, possessed of a strange wilfulness, wanted to evade my clasp. I closed my eyes and the air escaped me; I hadn’t known I’d been holding my breath. From the street I heard the muttering of my friends, as if someone had just dialed them back up a notch. I wanted to run back in their direction but immediately found that such movement was beyond me. Each step I took back towards the gate required quite deliberate force, as if I had had to learn to walk again, as I later would. Here, memory inserts its own false artefacts; or else in that telescoping moment I felt some premonition of what fate had in store for me. Each step toward the gate, I knew, would push it back as it had pushed the ball, and I would never close that distance. I have had dreams since in which I am yet to close that distance—the gate always remains some awful stretch away.

It was as I reached the path that I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the open front door.

“Hello, Daniel,” said the cat woman, and it was then that I finally broke into a run. Her head, I saw, in the fragment of a second in which I had looked in her direction, appeared to lightly touch the ceiling of her hallway.

I couldn’t have told you how she knew my name. I still can’t.

In 1995, a month before my twelfth birthday, I was hit by a car at the bottom of Coombe Road, between the Video Magic and the Dillons newsagent. Coombe Road was steep and busy—at its top it passed the top end of Ladysmith, and was accessed from Kimberley by a flight of slippery steps that cut between house numbers 45 and 47; our school lay opposite the mouth of the steps, and at its bottom, beyond the old factory buildings in which were manufactured a continent’s supply of false teeth and the abandoned diamond works, Coombe joined the busier junction of Lewes Road. In my memory the car thundered out of nowhere, but it’s likely I had simply been away with the fairies, as more than one of my teachers had on occasion said of me. I broke both my legs, my left foot, fractured my right wrist and my right elbow, and was knocked out cold, this last fact doubtless a blessing. The driver did not stop and was not caught.

People kept talking about how lucky I was. It drove me up the wall: I didn’t feel lucky. After leaving the children’s hospital up on Dyke Road, a place that on some nights in deep despair I thought I would never escape, I found myself locked in at home. School was off the cards. My friends came round to sign their names in coloured pens. They all thought I was lucky, because I did not have to go to school; and perhaps for the first few weeks I rather enjoyed that fact. But being stuck at home all the time quickly became tedious, and before long the tedium began to madden me.

Because time, like the garden of number 63, had begun to twist, and turn, and elongate. Every day was the same and the samieness first weighed on me, then invaded me, then acquired, for a while, the qualities of a nightmare. I read a lot. My mother got me films from Video Magic, and before long I started to test the limits of what she would allow me to see. To my astonished delight I would find those limits much wider than I could have imagined. I remember Steve Curry’s gurning smile, leering down from a high shelf from the box of IT—a vision that had enraptured me perhaps a year before; I had seen that cover before the accident and had pestered my mother to let me watch it, to get it out on my behalf. In response to this she had tried to convince me that if she borrowed an 18-rated movie to let a child watch it, she would go to prison and the social workers would take me away, but she was smiling as she said this. Later, feeling sorry for me, we watched it together, all two hundred and forty minutes of the bloody thing. Stuck at home, in near constant pain, I joined the Losers Club and explored the small town of Derry, Maine. Soon after that I read the book, all 1,116 pages. Perhaps that convinced my mum that I had the stomach for such fare. We also watched Child’s Play. My mother didn’t go to prison, and the social workers didn’t take me away. Nor, to my knowledge, did I kill anyone.

I was never much good for football after the accident; too much exertion and all the old pain, silent awhile, would cry out. My foot especially. The body remembers.

That spring when I was stuck at home went on and on. The summer passed me by and I knew that I was missing out. And what a time to miss out on: the end of primary and the start of secondary school, the dispersal of old friendship groups and the formation of new. Isolation can do funny things to you. Of course, my friends could visit; but their games and gossip, perhaps inevitably, had begun to recede. They had left Coombe Road for secondary schools dotted throughout town: Varndean and Dorothy Stringer, which shared a campus, Falmer and the Cardinal Newman Catholic school over in Hove. Gary went to Stanley Deason over on Wilson Avenue by East Brighton Park, where the football team he played for with his cultureless right foot trained on Wednesday nights for matches on the Saturday. I read a lot. I watched films with mum. We followed the school curriculum from home, sort of. I saw kind and well-meaning physiotherapists and slowly, step by step, learnt to walk again.

My mother might have let me watch all manner of horror film, but I would soon learn that she did not like it if I wandered out of sight. I wouldn’t recognise that fact for a while, because for those interminable months I couldn’t have wandered out of sight if I had wanted to. But slowly, step by step, I began to venture further: down to the end of the back garden on crutches; up along the small front path, made to twist and turn and elongate by my condition, to the front gate and the road beyond. Eventually, as my mother looked on, I went a little way up the pavement, then returned, exhausted. A sense of immense triumph would quickly give way to a kind of shame: how pathetic did you have to be, to take pride in such a feat? At first I didn’t want to go very far myself: I was afraid, not, as my mother thought, of getting struck by some vehicle thundering out of nowhere, but of getting stuck. I would reach some point beyond which I could not call for help, and trip. I would find myself trapped as I had found myself trapped first in the hospital and then at home. I might seem very close to home and yet it could still be far too far away. I knew then how small distances could contain infinite space: how a small segment of time might contain an eternity. I understood the terror that nestled in the daylit spaces of the world.

My friends still came by, of course, and played nearby, and lived nearby, and I would watch them kick the ball about, or have water fights, or play Bulldog or It or Knock Knock & Run, and know that I had fallen out of that circle; or had been knocked out of it, driven out of it, by that car from nowhere. Then some adult would spring out to move them on, and the game would move a little further up the hill, away; then again, a little further on; then on again. I didn’t mind.

Still, I was gaining, or regaining, confidence. I remember most clearly an occasion on which I found myself outside number 43, Gary’s house, though the curtained windows were dark—perhaps they were on holiday. The thought of that empty house, all the stuff and clutter of their lives lying peculiarly dormant in their absence, struck me as quite inexplicably sad, the sort of sadness that lodges in your stomach and leaves you feeling queasy and uneasy until, unnoticed, forgotten, it finally dissipates, but not without leaving some unrecognised, colourless, persistent trace of itself behind. I couldn’t have told you how or why. I was wondering what it would be like if I broke into the gloom of their house to wander about in their absence when I realised I had come this far without my crutches.

The realisation unbalanced me; my hands shot out to grip the gate. I was short of breath. I closed my eyes and felt my heart in my ears; my healing wounds gave a sudden pulsation of their old agony, as if to remind me of my infirmity. I swallowed, and opened my eyes, looked back down the street to see the vast and impossible distance I had covered without the crutches, and smiled. I wondered where my mother was, what she was doing. Since the accident she had often hovered nearby; on several occasions I had noticed her watching me from the kitchen or the stairwell when I had thought myself alone. I glanced across the road; some shadows shifting in one of the parked cars might have been the turning of her head. But the shadows continued to turn and offered up no face. I had wandered far, out of the ambit of her gaze.

This thrilled me. Perhaps I would go a little further.

Step by cagey step, I made my way up the road, counting the houses as I went: numbers 45, 47, 49, where I paused for breath; numbers 53, 55, 57.

“Hello, Daniel.”

From the doorstep of her house, Deborah smiled up at me as if she had been waiting there all along, her eyes concealed by the blue-stained glass of the lunette window above the open door. A shadow I only belatedly recognised as a cat curled around her legs once, then disappeared inside. The feline statues dotted through the garden appeared to regard me. At the periphery of my vision they seemed to shift their postures and adjust their positions, stone become sinuous. My throat had never felt so dry.

“Hello,” I didn’t say.

“You look thirsty.”

The top of her head, I saw, as that force drew me down the steps, appeared to touch the ceiling: surely a trick of perspective.

“Would you like a glass of lemonade?”

I bought my first pair of VR goggles six weeks ago, out of idle interest, to pass the time in lockdown. They are clunky and uncomfortable to wear, but after ten minutes playing a game of pingpong, against a friend of mine who moved to Australia twelve years ago, I felt like I was simply playing pingpong. The physics of the visuals and the vibrations from the handset were enough to fool the brain. The other night I dreamt I was wearing some much lighter, sleeker version; perhaps I wasn’t wearing anything at all. I had logged onto some advanced offspring of Google Earth, to walk those roads of my childhood, with their South African names: Kimberley, Ladysmith, Mafeking. On Coombe Road a car thundered out of nowhere and the screen went black; a moment later, I respawned on Kimberley to watch a gaggle of boys chase a football up the street. (Even now, I think, they are chasing a football up the street.) I passed our house and from the corner of my eyes saw the hunched figure of my mother tending flowers in the front garden, but for some reason could not look at her directly: my neck might have been locked in a brace. Instead I was drawn forward step by step on some slow but inexorable track. I counted the houses as I went. I’m in pain now as I’m writing this—I’m always in pain, a kind of ambient pain that occasionally erupts into the foreground to leave me bed or sofa-bound. But in that dream I was not in pain, and my realisation of that painlessness filled me with elation. I passed the Green Man’s Green House and noticed that the green guttering that had furnished him with his name was now white and the net curtains were gone. I passed Gary’s place at number 41. Number 53. Number 57. 59.

Of course that force that drew me up the hill let go as I stopped outside number 63. Over the long bladed leaves of the pampas grass I saw the statues of cats dotted through a front garden that contained infinite space. Against the adjoining wall, a deflated football lay sad and damp. It was very important, I realised, that I did not look at the windows. I must not look at the windows. But still my gaze rose. The front door, I saw, was open. Then I tripped on the step; and, tripping, fell awake in shock, suddenly short of breath.

What did I see, in the stairwell of number 63 Kimberley Road?

It is easy, now, to explain it away. I was dehydrated, on a sweltering August afternoon. Isolation can do funny things to you. Perspective can play tricks on you. I had spent months indoors, reading comics and watching horror films. Perhaps the combined effect of these elements was enough to fool me. I mentioned that the car that knocked me down outside the Video Magic on Coombe Road was red—I have looked up the models common at the time, and any number of them might have been the one. Perhaps it wasn’t red. Memory edits, of course; it also interjects. My mother might have let me watch horror films, but she could be funny about sex: when she taped the American basketball movie White Men Can’t Jump off the telly for me, she went through it carefully recording over the sex scenes with random snatches of broadcast. Wesley Snipes and Tyra Ferrell would be heading to the bedroom, then CUT: how about a cup of Nescafe Gold?

Perhaps the car wasn’t red, though eyewitnesses confirmed my memory, if eyewitnesses can be said to confirm anything. Perhaps what I thought I saw in the stairwell of number 63 really was the product of exhaustion, dehydration, and heat.

I don’t know why I entered the cat woman’s house. We had, after all, been warned about strangers in school, some years before and on occasion since—the threat did not dissipate, it was a constant thing; but I suppose I did not think of Deborah as a stranger. I knew her name, and had heard my parents talking about her. We would often see her out and about, walking alone in her slightly awkward, hunching way, and sometimes she would smile at you before you could look away, and however odd she seemed, she wasn’t threatening. She wasn’t the Green Man or his awful adult son. She was—odd, yes, in a way that no group of children would ever fail to notice, but never hostile. And she knew my name. That gave her power.

First she offered me a glass of lemonade. By this point we were in the kitchen, or she was in the kitchen and I was standing in the hall outside, the glass tinkling with ice cubes as it was passed through the open door by a delicate, near-skeletal hand. I hadn’t noticed quite how thin she was before: I remember trying hard to prevent my shock from registering in the muscles of my face. I remember her smiling as I drank. There was such a sweetness to her smile—I remember that. There was what seemed to me, aged twelve, a certain youthfulness, though until then she had seemed old—though in the same sense that my mother was old and not, for example, the Green Man. It was as I drank the lemonade—the very sweetest, most profoundly replenishing refreshment I have in all my life consumed: no nectar since has ever tasted so sweet—that I first looked at her—at her face, I mean—direct. There were deep bags beneath her eyes and her skin was very, very pale. Had I noticed this before? I didn’t think so. She did not look well. As I inhaled that glass of lemonade she watched with what began to seem like peculiarly rapt attention, as if my consumption of the drink excited her. I think in retrospect she may have just been pleased to help, pleased to talk to someone—anyone, even a child, a boy; isolation, as I knew myself, can make you quite peculiar. You grow thirsty for contact. But aged twelve something in that attention disturbed me, and disturbed I pulled back. I started to say something, but the words died in my throat. “I need—” I began.

“The bathroom?” the cat woman supplied.

I grasped what she had offered, and nodded.

She smiled. “Up the stairs,” she said. “It’s the second door on the right.” And she smiled again.

I must have put the glass down somewhere—perhaps I dropped it.

Upstairs, behind that second door, I couldn’t pee. After a moment I sat down on the toilet seat and closed my eyes. The house around me, Deborah’s house, which felt like some strange facsimile of my own, possessing, as it appeared to possess, an identical layout beneath the surface adornments of that stranger’s life, seemed so hushed it might be listening: it must take a certain amount of effort, a certain exertion of will, for a house to be so quiet.  I was sure that downstairs Deborah herself was listening, and could hear every minor sound I made. The gleam of the handle and the lock below it on the door seemed to listen. The individual chips of the yellow woodchip wallpaper of the bathroom seemed to listen, as if the chips themselves were little ears. The panels of the door seemed to warp and leer towards me. It was clear that I had to escape, though the route back outside, full of peril, would surely twist, and turn, and elongate. If I closed my eyes, then quickly opened them, perhaps I would find myself in the bathroom of our house at number 17; attempting it, I found this new nightmare not so readily permeable. Before I could berate myself for my stupidity in landing myself into such a situation, like a fly happily invited into some spider’s web, I stood, and flushed the toilet, and unlocked the door, and with a determination and confidence I did not actually possess hauled open the door and stepped back onto the landing. Whereupon I stopped short at once.

She was, I thought, floating. Deborah was floating in the stairwell, and high, close to the ceiling, the crown of her head seeming to brush the ceiling where a stray stretch of spiderless web hung in the gloom. Presented with a sight quite straightforwardly impossible, the brain, so easily fooled, quite freely invents: glitching, it must interpolate. But of course she was not floating—that, too, was impossible.

From the middle of the stairwell, beyond the banister, the giant lady smiled down at me. I have never forgotten that smile. Behind me lay what I knew to be the master bedroom, its door ajar, the three inch gap of which was dark. If I retreated into that room, that lair, I thought, that would be it for me, for keeps: I would never escape. Beside me, the bathroom that was resolutely not the bathroom of my own home presented another obvious dead end. Next to this door, along the landing, stood the door to the back bedroom. If I opened that door, I knew, I would not find myself in my own bedroom. The three options all tempted me, but I knew they were not options at all. There was one way out.

So I charged ahead, unaware of the pain in my bones, unaware of my impairments, keeping my gaze low, along the landing, round the turn of the stairs and past the startled figure of the giant woman in the stairwell. Unbalanced, she stepped to one side, and seemed to—retract. I think of the retractable ladder up into the loft of our house sliding out and then back into itself; she appeared, out of the corner of my eye, to telescope awkwardly down. It was a juddering motion, and in my memory it appears to have comprised several discrete procedures, hastily performed. I knew that if I looked at her, and she looked at me, and our eyes met, I would turn to stone. If she touched me, I would die. That none of this could possibly be true mattered not a jot: I was stuck. I could see the path back up to my street, so close and yet so fatally distant.

I tripped on the final step as Deborah said something behind me. There was real pain in her voice, I remember that much, though the words were lost on me. As I flailed forward time again began to twist and turn and elongate; I hung in the air like a basketball player—perhaps white boys can jump after all. But this was no jump; nor was it falling with style. I hit the ground. The carpet scarcely cushioned the fall. Blind with pain, I scrambled to my feet, then glanced back.

She was no longer the giant woman—though when you are a child, of course, all adults are giants; and I think that at that age I was younger than my years. Deborah was not a giant, but simply tall, hunching, startled. I remember the sheer bewildered hurt in her expression, the distress. It appalled me—the thought that I had caused it appalled me. That looming face, pale and sad, has never left me. I have seen it, out of the corner of my eye, upon the heads of strangers in town; then, turning quickly, focussing, the appearance dissolves, to be replaced by some other, unrelated visage. I have seen it in my dreams. In the dream when I am walking up Kimberley Road and see my mother in the garden I know that if I stop to look at her directly, and she turns to look at me, it won’t be my mother gazing back, but that face of pallid hurt.

Up on the street I collapsed against the car parked outside Deborah’s house. That car, I know, could have belonged to anyone. Just because it was parked outside Deborah’s house did not mean that it was Deborah’s car. I can’t remember its make or model, but I remember the August heat emanating from its red, red body, though that redness would only impress itself upon my thoughts much later on. Memory edits and interjects—sometimes it joins dots where there are no dots to join.

I don’t remember getting home. I remember my mother’s fury and the phrase worried sick, worried sick repeated endlessly, but not much else. Later, I remember telling Gary, and I felt like I was confessing a secret, as if this was a matter of awful shame. He didn’t laugh—he listened sympathetically. Then, later, I realised that everyone knew; and so the cat lady of number 63 became the giant woman.

Two years later, after my mother met the man who would become her second husband, we moved away, first to Roundhill then, two years after that, to Surrenden, where the houses cost several multiples of a place on Kimberley Road and children do not play football in the street. Once, returning home from college, I looked up to see my mother looking down at me from the third floor living room. I remember I was short of breath, tired, and fed up. It must have been 1999 or 2000. The April sunlight caught the window, and for the briefest moment my mother’s gaze seemed pale and sad.

I never saw Deborah again—I kept my distance; perhaps she kept her own. But on Google Earth, if you zoom down on to Kimberley Road, you’ll still see a red car parked outside number 63.

About the Author

Seán Padraic Birnie is a writer and photographer from Brighton, England. His debut collection of short stories, I Would Haunt You if I Could, was published by Undertow Publications in 2021. His work has appeared in venues such as Black Static, Litro, BFS Horizons, Shadows & Tall Trees, and The Dark, and is upcoming in Interzone and Best British Short Stories 2022. More of his work can be seen at seanbirnie.com.