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Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest

Fiona Mcfarlane The Night Guest
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Excerpt from book:

1
 
 
Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said “Tiger.” That was natural; she was dreaming. But there were noises in the house, and as she woke she heard them. They came across the hallway from the lounge room. Something large was rubbing against Ruth’s couch and television and, she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair. Other sounds followed: the panting and breathing of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with enormous noses. But the sleeping cats were weighing down the sheets at the end of Ruth’s bed, and this was something else.
She lay and listened. Sometimes the house was quiet, and then she only heard the silly clamour of her beating blood. At other times she heard a distant low whine followed by exploratory breaths. The cats woke and stretched and stared and finally, when whatever was in the lounge room gave out a sharp huff, flew from the bed and ran, ecstatic with fear, into the hallway, through the kitchen, and out the partially open back door. This sudden activity prompted an odd strangled yowl from the lounge room, and it was this noise, followed by louder sniffing, that confirmed the intruder as a tiger. Ruth had seen one eating at a German zoo, and it sounded just like this: loud and wet, with a low, guttural breathing hum punctuated by little cautionary yelps, as if it might roar at any moment except that it was occupied by food. Yes, it sounded just like that, like a tiger eating some large bloody thing, and yet the noise of it was empty and meatless. A tiger! Ruth, thrilled by this possibility, forgot to be frightened and had to counsel herself back into fear. The tiger sniffed again, a rough sniff, thick with saliva. It turned on its great feet, as if preparing to settle down.
Ruth sent one courageous hand out into the dark to find the phone on her bedside table. She pressed the button that was programmed to summon her son Jeffrey, who would, in his sensible way, be sleeping right now in his house in New Zealand. The telephone rang; Ruth, hearing the creak of Jeffrey’s throat as he answered the phone, was unrepentant.
“I hear noises,” she said, her voice low and urgent—the kind of voice she’d rarely used with him before.
“What? Ma?” He was bumping up out of sleep. His wife would be waking, too; she would be rolling worried in bed and turning on a lamp.
“I can hear a tiger, not roaring, just panting and snorting. It’s like he’s eating, and also concentrating very hard.” So she knew he was a male tiger, and that was a comfort; a female tiger seemed more threatening.
Now Jeffrey’s voice stiffened. “What time is it?”
“Listen,” said Ruth. She held the phone away from her, into the night, but her arm felt vulnerable, so she brought it back. “Did you hear that?”
“No,” said Jeffrey. “Was it the cats?”
“It’s much larger than a cat. Than a cat cat.”
“You’re telling me there’s a what, there’s a tiger in your house?”
Ruth said nothing. She wasn’t telling him there was a tiger in her house; she was telling him she could hear one. That distinction seemed important, now that she was awake and Jeffrey was awake, and his wife, too, and probably at this point the children.
“Oh, Ma. There’s no tiger. It’s either a cat or a dream.”
“I know that,” said Ruth. She knew there couldn’t be a tiger; but she wasn’t sure it was a dream. She was awake, after all. And her back hurt, which it never did in dreams. But now she noticed the noises had stopped. There was only the ordinary outside sound of the breaking sea.
“Would you like to go and investigate?” asked Jeffrey. “I’ll stay on the phone with you.” His voice conveyed a serene weariness; Ruth suspected he was reassuring his wife with an eyes-closed shake of the head that everything was all right, that his mother was just having one of her moments. When he’d visited a few weeks ago, at Easter, Ruth had noticed a new watchful patience in him, and a tendency to purse his lips whenever she said something he considered unusual. So she knew, from the funny mirror of Jeffrey’s face, that she had reached the stage where her sons worried about her.
“No, darling, it’s all right,” she said. “So silly! I’m sorry. Go back to sleep.”
“Are you sure?” said Jeffrey, but he sounded foggy; he had already abandoned her.
Jeffrey’s dismissal made her brave. Ruth rose from her bed and crossed the room without turning on any lights. She watched the white step of her feet on the carpeted floor until she reached the bedroom door; then she stopped and called, “Hello?” Nothing answered, but there was, Ruth was sure, a vegetable smell in the long hallway, and an inland feel to the air that didn’t suit this seaside house. The clammy night was far too hot for May. Ruth ventured another “Hello?” and pictured, as she did so, the headlines: “Australian Woman Eaten by Tiger in Own House.” Or, more likely, “Tiger Puts Pensioner on the Menu.” This delighted her; and there was another sensation, a new one, to which she attended with greater care: a sense of extravagant consequence. Something important, Ruth felt, was happening to her, and she couldn’t be sure what it was: the tiger, or the feeling of importance. They seemed to be related, but the sense of consequence was disproportionate to the actual events of the night, which were, after all, a bad dream, a pointless phone call, and a brief walk to the bedroom door. She felt something coming to meet her—something large, and not a real thing, of course, she wasn’t that far gone—but a shape, or anyway a temperature. It produced a funny bubble in her chest. The house was quiet. Ruth pressed at the tenderness of her chest; she closed the bedroom door and followed her own feet back to bed. Her head filled and shifted and blurred again. The tiger must be sleeping now, she thought, so Ruth slept, too, and didn’t wake again until the late morning.
The lounge room, when Ruth entered it in daylight, was benign. The furniture was all where it should be, civil, neat, and almost anxious for her approval, as if it had crossed her in some way and was now waiting for her forgiveness, dressed in its very best clothes. Ruth was oppressed by this wheedling familiarity. She crossed to the window and opened the lace curtains with a dramatic gesture. The front garden looked exactly as it usually did—the grevillea needed trimming—but Ruth saw a yellow taxi idling at the end of the drive, half hidden by the casuarinas. It looked so solitary, so needlessly bright. The driver must be lost and need directions; that happened from time to time along this apparently empty stretch of coast.
Ruth surveyed the room again. “Ha!” she said, as if daring it to frighten her. When it failed to, she left it in something like disgust. She went to the kitchen, opened the shutters, and looked out at the sea. It lay waiting below the garden, and although she was unable to walk down to it—the dune was too steep, and her back too unpredictable—she felt soothed by its presence in an indefinable way, just as she imagined a plant might be by Mozart. The tide was full and flat across the beach. The cats came out from the dune grasses; they stopped in the doorway, nuzzling the inside air with their suspicious noses until, in a sudden surfeit of calm, they pa

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