THE LION AND THE LOFT
BY Kay Sexton
I had shopping bags in both hands when I saw the lion. It seemed impossible. A lion, walking slowly up the back path towards the kitchen door. I dropped the bags and ran to the door. In trying to turn the key I knocked it out altogether and had to scrabble on the floor for it. My breathing was loud and uneven. Emily was asleep upstairs in her cot … wasn't she? I'd left her asleep while I ran to the shops. I crouched by the door, asking God to let everything be OK. Then I stood up. The lion had disappeared. There was nothing on the path. My legs collapsed with relief and I clutched the door handle, sobbing. As I straightened up I saw it through the glass panel. It was on the other side of the door, separated from me by half an inch of wood and a pane of glass. Its yellow eyes were cold. Its mane was dark. I backed away ... then I ran. Wilkins the cat ran too, streaking between my legs and vanishing into the front room.
I ran upstairs to Emily. She was asleep, her starfish hands curling in the underwater current of her dreams. I grabbed her from the cot and shoved my bedroom door shut, but what was the point? If the lion got through the back door, interior doors wouldn't hold it for more than a second. I could hear whimpering but when I looked at Emily she was calm. It was me. I was whimpering.
I remembered the loft.
I tucked Emily securely under my arm while I grabbed the pole, hooked it through the latch and pulled down. The collapsing ladder used to terrify me – I had hardly been in the loft since we moved in three years ago. Now I skipped up the ladder and hauled it up behind me.
It was dark in the loft. With the hatch closed I couldn't tell where lion was, but that didn't matter. We were safe. We had water in the hot water tank and there were bags of my old maternity clothes to sit on. It might take a few hours, but we'd soon be rescued. Then I remembered I'd put my mobile on the kitchen table when I went shopping. I'd wanted an hour to myself without Mum checking on me or Emily fretting.
I was glad I had a watch with a light. The water tasted odd and the clothes were uncomfortable to sleep on. We napped, more than slept. I tore up an old shirt to make nappies for Emily, and I found an ugly ceramic garden urn that my grandmother had given me. With a couple of bin-bags emptied out and placed inside it made a passable toilet. I had a packet of mints in my jeans pocket and they kept me going, and Emily was still breast-feeding. We stayed there for two days.
I placed a bundle of clothes each side of Emily whenever she slept, just in case she learned to roll. I felt I was being a good mother in awful circumstances – like some pioneer woman in the Wild West. I wondered how the lion had got here. Had it escaped from a circus? I'd have known if there was a circus in the area though. Was one of my neighbours keeping exotic pets? We were mainly middle class single parents. I knew drug dealers were rumoured to keep dangerous animals to enhance their street reputation, but I couldn't imagine a heroin supplier in our Victorian terraced cottages.
The phone rang. I was sure it was mum. She'd come round if she couldn't get hold of me. I wondered how to warn her about the lion. If it had escaped from a travelling show the police would be all over here like a rash by now, but everything was quiet, except my stomach; which rumbled all the time. So the creature must belong to a private owner who wasn't willing to get in trouble by admitting it was missing. But why would it stay so quiet for so long?
Then I remembered the shopping bags. There was a big chicken that I'd planned to roast for Easter weekend. I'd bought bread, bacon and yoghurt for breakfast; lion heaven. I tried to guess how long the beast could exist on my groceries. They were lazy, I remembered that from animal documentaries, and the lionesses did the hunting. It was probably sitting down there waiting for its next meal to appear. It wasn't going to be me or Emily. I hoped it wouldn't be mum.
I kept sliding the hatch down so I could see the landing, but I'd left the bedroom door open and the lion could have been in there, or downstairs. I would only know where it was if I actually saw it. I was starving by now and my milk was starting to dry up. I would have to go down soon, but I didn't want to. It wasn't just fear. In the warm dark with Emily, in our nest of soft clothes, I was oddly happy. I sang nonsense songs and the baby gurgled and kicked her sturdy feet. We nuzzled together in the gloom and slept like animals, avoiding dreams and ignoring shedules.
I heard mum knock on the door. She doesn't have a key. When Jon was here he didn't like her walking in, 'as if she owned the place'. Since he left, when I was five months pregnant, I've wanted to keep my privacy. If I let them, mum and dad would turn me back into their little girl and I'm not. I have a little girl of my own. I thought about yelling, but that would have frightened Emily and mum probably wouldn't have heard me anyway - she's rather deaf.
The police turned up about three hours later. Then I had to yell. I shouted through the slightly open hatch and they bellowed back through the letterbox and eventually they understood me.
They sent a man into the house with some kind of dart gun. After he'd checked all the rooms he told me to let down the ladder. When I came down I was shaking and crying. He took Emily from me and went downstairs. A woman, a policewoman I assume, came and talked to me. She told me there was no lion. I took her to the kitchen and showed her the shopping. She said the cat had eaten it.
They say I had a breakdown, only a minor one, probably brought on by stress. My therapist says that the final straw was going out shopping without Emily; he thinks the guilt of leaving her alone tipped me into delusions. I see her three times a week, supervised visits, but I'm never allowed to be alone with her.
I look at my neighbours differently now. Was it you, I wonder. Did your lion escape?
How did you get it back? Because there was a lion.
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Kay Sexton has an overdeveloped work ethic and a fig tree in her garden. She finds it hard to reconcile the two. In the past 12 months she has been published by E2K, Literary Potpourri, MiPo, Pierian Springs, SaucyVox.com, Smokelong Quarterly, The Sidewalk's End, Thought Magazine, Wired Art for Wired Hearts and Yankee Pot Roast. Her work has already been accepted for publication in 3 anthologies to be published in 2004 and she has a quarterly column at www.moondance.org. The fig tree is also flourishing. Contact Kay.