‘A Rose By Any Other Name’ was first published in Ethereal Tales in 2010.
“So where did you find him?”
Sue glanced across at the marmalade cat. “I think it’s a her.”
“Well, where did you find her?”
“To be honest she’s a bit of a mystery. I came home one evening and she was sitting in that window, looking out at the house across the street. The only thing I can think of is that she got in through the bathroom window that we always leave open, though I don’t know how she managed that. I mean, it’s on the first floor and there’s no trees near it or anything.”
“How odd. Is she nice? I mean affectionate?”
“Hmm.” Sue stooped to pick up the cat and then dropped her almost immediately as claws raked her flesh. The cat leapt out of range onto the windowsill where she circled for a moment before stretching herself out in the midday sun.
“So what do you call her?”
“Rose.” Sue rubbed her arm and grimaced.
“Nice. But a bit old fashioned. What made you think of it?”
“I don’t know. It just seemed the right name for her.” Sue looked across at Rose who stared out of the window. “I think Tim chose it anyway.”
“What’s that?” Tim raised his head from the cricket on the television where England were struggling on nine for one.
“You came up with Rose’s name.”
Tim shook his head. “I thought you thought of it. Rose, well, not sure I like it. Like some crabbed old spinster, sitting in a bath chair, waiting to die. Oh, for ……..”
“Nine for two.” Tim buried his face in his hands.
“Nine to two?” Sue asked, puzzled, and then her attention was caught by a movement outside. She lifted the net curtain and looked out across the street. “Oh, look, there’s people moving into that empty house at last.”
“Really?” Sue moved sideways so her friend could see. “Oh, a young couple.”
“She would look really pretty if she hadn’t cut her hair so short.”
“And dyed it pink. And those earrings. And he’s got longer hair than she has. I hope they don’t play loud music at all hours like the house next door to Mrs Frampton.”
“Oh, yes she’s had to call the police a couple of times now…” and the two women’s conversations slipped into the slow, stagnant eddies of village gossip.
“I really don’t like these books.” Stuart said.
“I know what you mean.” Brea ran her fingers along their spines. ‘Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs.’ ‘To Light a Silver Flame-Practical Witchcraft for the Millennium.’ ‘The Wicca Handbook.’ ‘Raising Hell: A Concise History of the Black Arts and Those Who Dared Practice Them.’
“If sometimes unintentionally somewhat ridiculous. Listen to this; ‘Restoring Nature’s Magic in Home, Health and Beauty Care.’”
“Sounds like ‘Cosmopolitan’ for witches.”
“Hmmmm. Did the estate agent say who had owned this place?”
“Someone called Rose, apparently. He said she was an old dear, lived alone, that kind of thing. Died a couple of months ago and her daughter, who lives in New Zealand just wanted to get shot of the place.” Stuart placed the lamp stand he was holding in the corner of the room by the full bookshelf. “I think that’s the last of our stuff.”
Brea gazed around at their paltry scattering of possessions. “It didn’t take to unload the van, did it?”
“I guess that’s one advantage of being penniless. You travel light.” Stuart flopped down on the sofa. “I know you don’t agree but I think it’s a real bonus that we got all this furniture with the house. Otherwise I’d be sitting on the floor right now.”
“A dead person’s furniture.”
“Well, there’s no danger of her wanting it back then.”
“You’re sick.” Brea punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Come on, we’d better introduce ourselves to the neighbours. They’ll want to know who they’re going to be twitching their curtains at.”
“They’re coming over.” Sue dropped the net curtain and the two women immediately turned their back to the window and took an inordinate interest in a framed lithograph that hung above the fireplace.
“Who’s coming over?” Tim raised his head from the television as the doorbell rang, and he looked from Sue to her friend and back again. “Shall I get it?” he asked rather redundantly, as he struggled out of his armchair. A few moments later he stepped back into the room. “May I announce our new neighbours?”
“Oh, you have a cat. I love cats.” Brea moved over to the window and tickled Rose under the chin. Immediately a deep throated purr echoed around the room. “Have you had her long?”
“No, not long. A couple of months.
“Thought we’d better pop over to introduce ourselves.” Stuart’s gaze wandered to the TV. “Good game?”
Tim grunted, and Stuart nodded understandingly.
“Did you know the lady who lived in the house before us?” Brea asked to break the silence that had fallen.
“Not well. Kept herself to herself, if you know what I mean. Didn’t want to talk to people. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but it doesn’t hurt to be friendly. I don’t think I even knew her name.” Sue looked at her friend for confirmation and received a small nod.
“I do like your cat.” Brea said, with a small note of desperation. “He’s a lovely colour.”
“You think so? I’ve never really liked orange myself. I think bright colours can be so vulgar.” The two women looked pointedly at Brea’s hair, and Sue was about to speak when her friend cut across her.
“Didn’t the lady, well the lady whose house you’re moving into, she had red hair too. Well not red. More orange, like the colour of marmalade.” They all looked at the cat that basked in the autumn sun that came through the window.
“Stu thinks she may have been a witch.” Brea said, laughing. Stuart looked up from the television with a small frown.
“Oh no, not a witch. That’s silly. But she was odd.” Sue replied.
“Knew I had forgotten something,” Stuart said as he wandered back out to the van. When he returned clutching a kettle he found Brea standing by the occasional table in the centre of the room, gazing down at an open book.
“Fancy a coffee?”
“What? Oh sorry.” But Brea did not move from the table. Stuart dropped the kettle onto the sofa where it bounced gently and moved over to look over her shoulder. “Another weird book?”
“What’s a familiar?”
A familiar? Well it’s animal that people believed witches would put their spirits in, in order to travel around, or do, well I dunno, what witches do. Shapeshifting, I think they used to call it.” Stuart read the heading of the chapter that Brea was looking at. ‘A path to immortality through your familiar.’ “All complete rubbish of course.”
“The book was just sitting on the table, open at this page. Almost as if it’s been put there for us to find.” Brea said. But Stuart had already gone. Brea moved across the room to look at a photo of a woman with vibrant red hair that hung above the mantlepiece. The picture intrigued her; there was something wrong, something missing in it though she couldn’t say what. A thought danced on the margins of her mind, eluding rational thought and then…
“Of course, said Brea aloud, still looking at the picture as Stuart clattered coffee cups in the sink. His head appeared around the door way. “What?”
“This photo. I worked out what’s wrong with it.”
“Oh?” Stuart joined her.
“Yes, look at the right hand of this lady. Do you see?” Brea continued, as Stuart peered closer. “She’s only got four fingers on her right hand. Well, three I suppose, if you don’t count the thumb.”
“Oh, yeah. How odd. Do you think this is a picture of Rose?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know, I think I preferred the old neighbour,” Sue said as she watched Brea and Stuart disappear through their new front door. “At least she was quiet. Not barging into people’s houses like she owned the place. And all that nonsense about witches.” She turned to Tim, rendered oblivious by the cricket and met only silence.
“Sometimes I think I might as well not exist,” Sue said to Rose who stared back with a Sphink like inscrutiny. Eventually Rose yawned, and stretched out her front right leg. Her paw was elongated, so each claw was separate. One, two, three, four claws, Sue noted and frowned. Surely a cat was meant to have five, the same as humans had digits.