They stole him and he won’t ever come back. Stole him and he won’t ever come back. Gone. Won’t be back. Thieves took him. Mine – no longer mine. Gone! Mumblings inside her own head – never heard in the outside world. They spoke to her clearly – there was nothing left for her, only emptiness.

She threw the pink slippers off her red swollen feet. Chilblains, almost frost bitten. Too many days and nights spent in an old drafty miners’ cottage. She stretched out, yawned, sprawled like the cat in her head. Sooty’s dead! but the fire was alive, that was something. The flames licked the hearth rug with their spluttering cinders. She liked to play a game where she tempted her feet into the fire as if it was a cool stream. Dripped them into the fiery furnace where the only heat pumped out of her impoverished home.

Sooty’s dead! she yelled aloud, but no-one heard. She was talking in her head yet didn’t know it. She bit into the remaining half of soggy dripping toast and peanut butter. A spark hit her pink panther slipper and in her delayed reaction she swept it away leaving a black sooty hole.

A knock at the door. She wasn’t used to knocks, to visitors at any hour. She wasn’t used to people. People usually locked her away. She crept towards the thick murky green curtain and spied into the outside world. If she looked out of the corner of her eye she could see who it was beneath the light of the street lamp – a hunched up figure in a dark overcoat. She bent down and crouched behind her favourite and only armchair. She stared at the torn leather backing, the frayed cotton underskirt. She tried to remember the Lords prayer or another prayer she once knew for protection. The footsteps marched away. She heard the crunching in the snow and then silence again.

Only the soft whisper of snowflakes falling from a black sky echoed in her world now. She breathed out gushes of air like a windmill trying to work again. She rushed towards the door and checked the locks. Make sure it’s all locked up. No-one can take me away from here, not if they can’t get it. Not if I don’t let them in. Then the tears welled up. If they hadn’t taken Sooty I’d be all right. He’d protect me. Cats are like that. They protect their owners. They don’t do anyone any harm. I’d be all right if I had my sooty here. The tears would go on for the rest of the night like a flooded stream breaking into a waterfall. They always did.

That was Sheila’s world. A place where people didn’t exist, not friendly people. Where the only souls worth talking to had fur or claws, where a knock at the door meant she may be taken away. Where her screams were silent, even to herself. Where the only solace had been taken away from her, where there was a fire and a miners cottage in a small northern town which most people walked by without noticing the thick black fog of loneliness and fear that dwelt within.

Dear Annie

I wish you were with me now. I am alone but I write poetry and talk to God. I wish I was dead sometimes. I wasn’t here when the man knocked, not really, so they can’t take me again. They told me the baby’s all right. They won’t give me back my baby. Sooty’s dead now. I was all right till they came along. The cottage is cold. I can’t keep warm. I stay up late. It’s 3 o’ clock now. I’m burning my yellow candle – the one you gave me. It’s cheaper than burning the gas. The oil is going to run out one day Annie. There’ll be nothing to keep us warm any more. No more trees. They’re all going too. I wonder if I’ll still be alive when all the oil and all the trees have gone. Do you miss me Annie or are you all right on your own? We had good times me and you, when you were alive. Don’t worry, I’ll be joining you soon. I don’t like it here. I got a rope and my medication so I can go when I like. I’m afraid at night Annie. I hear noises. I’m going out to look for Sooty. Maybe he’ll turn up sometime. Maybe they haven’t killed him yet. I prayed to God last night. He might help. There’s no-one else Annie. Only you and I can’t see you any more. Do you like this song? Can you hear it? I got to go out tomorrow – get some bread and milk. I don’t like going out Annie. They all laugh at me. People laugh at me. I don’t know why. I got to go now Annie. I got to go to sleep.

She put her strong steel pen down with the rest of her tools. It was all she had. Social services, doctors, nurses and psychiatrists had left her a long time ago now. She looked out of the dusty cobwebby window and spied another time. She often did this. Her mind leapt back or forwards a few years or centuries and she could see into these other worlds; places where miners had trekked back from the hills with their blackened faces or thread bare women had wept in the streets for their last child taken through TB or pneumonia. You had to be tough to live in this part of Yorkshire. Icy winds often blew in from the hills. Reddened faces crawled around the back streets or tore across the hills on bikes. She was used to the cold.

She instinctively placed the palms of her hands on the walls – cold, but warmer where the chimney stood. Tomorrow she would have to collect firewood. She touched the coldness then put her chapped hands roughly onto her cheeks. The walls were as cold as her icy skin. She missed fur.

I’m gonna find him. He’s not dead. They may have stolen him but he’s not dead. Not my Sooty. It was early morning, six thirty. She often went out at this time – less people about. Air was fresh. Trees blowing. Curtains closed. She felt the soft crunching as her feet wedged themselves into the milky snow covered pavement. Eyes watching her at every corner. The big eye upon her wherever she went. Snuggled up in her lemonade overcoat and rats skin boots she felt safe somehow. She carried a casket of peppermint tea in her rucksack, a couple of oat biscuits and a jar of peanut butter. She was used to carrying food around with her. It meant she would never starve, even in a crisis. Even when all the oil ran out and all the trees were dead, she’d always have her peanut butter oat biscuits and peppermint tea. And she was adept at building fires. It was all she could afford in the little miners cottage though she always said a prayer for every tree she burned.

Sheila walked the northern white streets in solitude, observing every flake, every eye upon her, every rustle of tree or crunching of footstep behind her. She was heading towards the hills. The paper boy, milk float, screaming baby from a far off street and homeless person’s howl in the darkness – sounds inside and outside her head.

I am watching you. Do not think you are alone. I will be observing you today to check you are not doing anything wrong. Did you remember to lock your door? Will you be safe? Is your house safe? What if someone threw a knife from the other corner of the street? What if a lunatic like you was to accidentally kill someone? What if someone breaks into your cottage and steals your last jar of peanut butter? How will you survive when the oil runs out? What will you do when all the trees have gone and there’s no more fuel? How will you survive you miserable little urchin?

The voices had got worse. She had no control over them. Usually she would turn back, lock herself up in the cottage and pray. The outside world was dangerous but she had to fight the voice. ‘Face the fear and do it anyway’- she read in the book. She was trying to do the exercises – scream back at the voice. Tell it to go away and just carry on. She wanted to get high up on the back hills – feel the wind on her face, the air – fresh air, not black soot filled air. There was none left to breathe in the cold miners’ cottage. She had breathed the last drop. Only molecules, particles of debris remained. It wasn’t enough any more. She needed oxygen high on the hills from the last remaining trees. She would hug and kiss the last trees and ask them to wait for her, surrender themselves to her to keep her warm next winter and the winter after that, so she would never be left cold.

The moon was still out, peeping behind a red and golden sky which told of a new story, a new beginning. She didn’t know yet which direction to take. There didn’t seem to be one, only empty air.

She thought of Sooty and all the people who had gone. The life she once knew and a place she’d never known. Like globules of water from a dripping tap she began to drip watery tears. Water onto frozen water. The snow started to melt beneath her huddled up body as the water dripped, dripped onto white. She didn’t notice the cold any more. Nothing except the icy cold inside her – gripping her like a frozen claw.