It takes Heather nearly twenty minutes to summon the courage to pick up the rabbit.
Bella’s eyes are caked with yellow crusts; they are red-rimmed, weeping and almost closed. Some form of conjunctivitis? Why couldn’t it have held off a bit longer? Tomorrow the neighbours will be back and little Minnie will knock on Heather’s door, asking for her pet.
She has already phoned the vet’s surgery. ‘Any chance you could make a house-call?’
‘No, I’m sorry.’ The reply was polite – hiding, perhaps, the receptionist’s amusement at the request. ‘You’ll have to bring her in.’
Heather crouches outside her back door beside Bella’s hutch. Every few minutes, she takes another look, trying to convince herself that Bella’s eyes look a little better. They don’t. She tells herself that another day won’t make any difference.
Bella gazes at Heather through half-closed eyes and gives a sad little bleat. Heather knows she has to do something.
How do you pick up a rabbit, when you’ve barely touched a living creature for five years? When the most you’ve done is brush fingers with a shop assistant as she gives you your change? Or forced yourself into a few unavoidable handshakes at work, the memories of which still make you shudder?
She extends a forefinger and pushes down the latch. A cold wind whips up a pile of leaves by the shed, plays with them for a few seconds, then moves away.
Bella does not realise she has a way of escape. Or perhaps she is too ill and miserable to move.
Heather kneels on the damp concrete. A raindrop chills her cheek. She notices that Bella’s water dispenser is empty. Whatever else I am, she tells herself, I’m not heartless. She reaches to detach the clip. Bella moves her head so her nose grazes Heather’s finger.
Heather pulls her hand away.
Animal warmth, produced by respiration. She remembers it from school, twenty years ago. The breakdown of glucose, by the action of oxygen, to produce energy, some of which is given off as heat. With carbon dioxide and water as waste products.
Bella needs more than water, she needs medical treatment – possibly antibiotics. Heather has no right to deny her this. She pulls open the hutch door. It scrapes against the frame, giving a groan. There’s a pungent smell of faeces and urine.
Bella’s large white shape overflows like liquid through the open door. She lolls, half-in, half-out, showing no inclination to move further.
Heather extends a finger to touch one ear for less than a second – no time for any heat to flow. Bella gives another cry. Heather focuses on the mucus-gritted eyes, the red streaks in the cornea, the cloudy grey iris. She knows, then, that she will do it.
Five minutes later, she is sitting at the kitchen table with Bella on her lap. She swallows the vomit in her throat and forces herself to sit still, to allow the warmth from Bella’s body to flow into her own.
Nestled against Heather’s chest, Bella is getting hotter by the second. Impossibly, almost obscenely hot. Heather slackens her grip. Bella’s organs slide around inside her velvet skin. She is melting. Drops of liquid rabbit soak into Heather’s pink cotton t-shirt and run down between her breasts – an incongruous reminder of sweating during sex.
She gazes at the second-hand of the clock above the door. Its downward journey is silent. On the way back up, it gives a click with each second. She remembers sitting, years ago, in the middle of the night, watching that clock – feeling the rhythmic suction on her nipple gradually lessen as sleep came.
Closer inspection reveals that Bella is not, after all, melting, but has urinated over Heather’s chest, so that her t-shirt is wet all down the front.
Bella, more comfortable now, settles herself snugly in Heather’s arm-nest. A sneeze escapes her nose, which stops twitching.
‘No, my girl – don’t even think of going to sleep!’
Heather deposits Bella on the table-top, where she sprawls, inert. The back door is shut, the window open only a crack. She gets up to go the bathroom, pulling off her top on the way. A quick sponge-down will do for now.
As she hunts for a clean t-shirt in her bedroom, Heather hears a thud from downstairs. Dropping the garment, she hurries down. The back door stands several inches open – and Bella has gone.
She shakes her head to clear the panic. Rabbits cannot open doors, any more than they can melt. It must have blown open. Bella has spotted a chance of escape and fled.
Heather grabs a tea-towel. Clutching it to her bra-clad breasts, she runs out into the garden, calling, ‘Bella, Bella!’
She sees a white flash in a flowerbed, then the rabbit has vanished and she is left shivering and exposed..
There’s a call from over the fence. It’s Ambrose, to whom she has hardly spoken for over a year, since the day he touched her.
‘Hang on.’ She hurries indoors to retrieve the t-shirt, then runs back outside, pulling it on.
Ambrose is looking into her garden. ‘Can I help?’
She explains about Bella, and Ambrose says he’ll come over. He vaults the fence, landing beside her. His green shorts reveal sturdy brown legs knotted with muscle.
For a time, last year, she and Ambrose had got close. He had just lost his fiancée, Flo, in a tragic accident on the motorway. Heather understands his loneliness and grief. She has been on her own for five years.
After twenty minutes, they have found nothing. The faint sun is slipping into a low band of cloud. Once the light is gone, they will have no chance.
As they drift towards the house, Heather struggles with tears. ‘I feel so stupid, leaving her on the table. I should have checked the door was properly shut.’
‘These things happen.’ His tone is calm and warm.
She tenses, fearing for a second that he is about to take her hand. But he doesn’t.
‘Minnie will be so upset. She trusted me with Bella.’
‘Little ones can be very forgiving.’ They are in the kitchen now. He adds, ‘Let me make you some tea.’
Heather sits down and Ambrose fills the kettle and puts teabags in the pot. He remembers where she keeps her mugs.
Don’t ask me, she begs him silently, to explain. Don’t say a word about last year. Let’s find Bella – that’s all that matters…
‘I’ll go out in my car,’ he says, putting down his empty mug. ‘Try a bit further afield. Want to come?’
‘No thanks. It’s very good of you.’
‘Not at all.’ She can smell the sweat from his warm body. It’s not unpleasant.
He gets up to go, showing, for the first time, some recollection of what happened before. A hesitant look, a slight wrinkling of his milk-chocolate brow. He’s her own age, or perhaps a year or two older.
She opens the front door. He folds his body into the seat of his red Mazda and growls off, leaving her staring at the gravel drive in the porch-light.
Heather hears no more from him that night. She can’t sleep for fretting about Bella. What, she wonders, are the statistical odds against her being mown down in the darkness? It’s a quiet neighbourhood – that will count in her favour. But there will be animal predators as well as cars.
She dozes in snatches of ten minutes or so. In the early hours, a screech of brakes disturbs her. Has Bella just been squashed beneath someone’s wheels?
The silence that follows is strangely comforting. Heather has a sense that the worst is over, that there’s no more anyone can do. She lies still, aware of her body generating warmth. She imagines herself as a white rabbit, stretched out by the roadside. Or as…
Just after seven, the doorbell rings. Ambrose is standing in the rain, holding a covered box. Heather pulls on her dressing gown and runs downstairs to let him in.
He places the box on the table and removes the cloth. Inside are two tiny rabbits – one white and one dark grey. Babies.
She swallows and turns away. ‘Coffee?’
‘Yes, please. Hope you don’t mind?’
‘No trouble.’ She spoons instant granules into two mugs.
‘About the rabbits, I mean.’
Ambrose is hiding something, she can tell. Has he seen Bella’s flattened body by the roadside, blood on her snowy fur?
He says, ‘I thought you could offer Minnie a baby rabbit, in place of…’
Her voice comes out sharper than intended. ‘How can a new rabbit take Bella’s place?’
‘Of course it can’t. But it shows you’ve tried.’
She pours milk into his coffee, slaps both mugs down on the table. ‘Why two of them?’
‘They came as a pair. Brother and sister. The white one is the female. If I hadn’t taken the boy, they were going to… you know.’
‘Nicki won’t accept two rabbits. Certainly not a male and a female.’
Ambrose picks up his mug, sips his coffee. Turns his head – is he trying to hide a grimace? She remembers that he takes two sugars.
‘I thought maybe you’d like one of them yourself,’ he says.
‘Just an idea. It would be company for you.’
‘I don’t need company. And I don’t like rabbits.’ She takes a swig of her coffee. She has made it much too strong. Ambrose is doing well to drink it.
‘Never mind. I’ll take him back.’
‘Can’t you have him?’ she asks.
‘I’m moving soon, into a flat. Can’t afford to keep this place.’
A vast empty space opens up inside her, in front of her. She teeters on the edge of it. ‘No! I mean… I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll miss you.’
‘I’ll miss you, too.’
Silence. Once the coffee is finished, Ambrose lifts the rabbits out their box and they sniff the table-top where Bella sat yesterday.
The second-hand clicks its way up the half-minute. Heather’s throat feels so tight she can’t breathe. The sense that Ambrose is waiting for something grows too strong to bear. She scrapes back her chair, runs out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
The photo is under her pillow – faded, stained, one corner looking as though a rabbit has nibbled it. She picks it up, pads downstairs and holds it out to Ambrose.
Eyebrows raised, he takes it. One of his fingers briefly brushes hers. He studies the image for several minutes, then passes it back.
She puts it down on the table and the grey rabbit sniffs it.
‘Yours?’ asks Ambrose, his voice soft.
‘Yes. My daughter. Bethany.’
‘Bethany.’ He repeats it slowly. ‘A beautiful name.’ He raises his eyes to hers, asking.
She nods. ‘Five years ago.’
He moves his head slowly, side to side. ‘How old was she?’
‘Four months, to the day. One morning, when I went to her, she looked just normal, asleep. But when I touched her, she was…’ A long pause. ‘Cold.’
Ambrose’s brown eyes liquefy.
Heather thinks of Bella, yesterday, melting in her arms. The grey rabbit chews a corner of the photo. Ambrose pulls it gently away. He holds Heather’s baby to his chest, to the warm skin beneath his blue denim shirt.
He asks, ‘Is that why you can’t…?’
‘Touch? Yes. Not for more than a second. It’s the warmth I can’t bear.’
He continues to hold the photo to his body. His other hand, his left one, is stretched out on the table. The baby rabbits explore his long brown fingers.
Very slowly, as the clock hand taps its way up another half-minute, Heather extends a finger and touches the back of his hand.
And leaves it there, long enough to feel the heat.