There is no milk. Anyone could have seen this coming and yet, evidently, no one did. It’s the reason the kitchen is empty at 8.15am: both my sons will have come downstairs for coffee, discovered the lack of milk, and returned to their rooms to sit, arms folded, until somebody does something.
The cat comes through the flap, walks to the cupboard, and miaows. It is difficult to know whether anyone else has bothered to feed the cat, and the cat is no help in the matter. The cat is a practised liar.
“Are you sure?” I say.
“Miaow,” says the cat. I open the bin, and find an empty packet of cat food sitting right on top.
“Would you like to change your story?” I say.
“Miaow,” says the cat.
“Fine,” I say, knowing from experience how far the cat is prepared to take this. I pull out a box of dry food and fill the cat’s bowl.
“I fed the cat,” my wife says, entering the kitchen behind me.
“I don’t care,” I say. “I’m going to keep giving it food until it explodes.”
“There’s no milk,” she says.
“I know,” I say. “I’ll go.”
“Will you also get bread?” she says. I open my mouth to speak.
“How dare you,” my wife says.
“I haven’t said anything,” I say.
“You rolled your eyes,” she says.
“I can’t control my eyeballs,” I say, reaching for my coat. “It’s too early.”
“Bread,” she says.
The bread shop is shut. I peer through its windows, thinking how this will sound like a lie I made up.
When I come home half an hour later, the kitchen is silent, except for the sound of the dog eating the cat’s food, and the rhythmic thunk of the tortoise doing circles around the table. I take the milk out of the bag, and fetch myself a mug. My wife comes in.
“Did you get the bread?” she says.
“The bread shop was shut,” I say.
“Oh no!” she says. The middle one enters the room, relieves me of the milk and the mug, and makes himself a coffee.
“But then I got talking to someone on the corner,” I say. “And we talked for so long that when we were done the bread shop was open.” I produce a loaf from the bag, wrapped in white paper.
“Another Acton story,” I say, fetching a mug, and the milk. The cat comes through the flap, crossing my path on its way to the cupboard.
“Miaow,” it says. The middle one opens the cupboard for cat food.
“The cat’s been fed,” I say. “Twice.” The youngest one walks in and takes away my mug and the milk.
“Are you lying?” says the middle one to the cat.
“That cat is a professional liar,” says the youngest.
“And a bully,” my wife says.
“And a coward,” I say. The cat does not fear the dog, or the tortoise, or being caught in a lie, but it lives in mortal terror of strangers. If the doorbell rings it will run through the flap and live outside for the rest of the day.
“Miaow,” says the cat.
“To be fair, the dog ate the cat’s second feeding,” I say. “And for all I know, its first.”
The middle one fills the cat’s bowl partway. The cat lies down, spreading itself across the floorboards like a stain. I prod it with my stockinged foot, and the cat seizes my big toe and bites it. I pull my foot back, but the cat is still hanging from it, hooked like a mackerel. In the end I have to take my sock off.
“That was an error,” I say.
“My business partner is coming for a meeting,” my wife says. “Can someone tidy up the coffee area?”
“Not yet,” I say. “I haven’t even had a …” The doorbell rings. The cat shoots through the flap.
I make my wife’s business partner a coffee, in the mug I have just fetched for myself.
“Thank you,” she says. “Must be nice, all of you working from home.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“Can I have a coffee?” my wife says.
“Uh-huh,” I say, controlling my eyeballs.
“What’s that thing by the door?” my wife’s business partner says.
“It’s a cat scratching post,” I say.
“I’ve never seen a cat in here,” she says.
Looking across the garden, I see the cat glowering at the house from beneath a dripping bench. When he catches my eye, he backs further into the shadows.