‘You cat looks exactly like ours. That same splodge of white on his back, like someone threw a paint brush at him.’
The black and white cat slowly raises his head and orientates himself to my voice, his eyes tightly closed, as if he understands the insult – and would like me to see that he understands – but chooses not to respond, conserving his energy instead for the more important things in life, like sleeping. The moment passes; he gets back down to it.
‘He’s a funny old thing,’ whispers Derek. ‘A cussed creature. Does what he likes. Much like me.’
I’m glad about the cat. I mean – I like having animals around anyway, but in Derek’s case it’s a definite advantage. I’d been given plenty of cautionary notes about Derek beforehand. His new diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, coming at a time of family problems generally. His self-discharge against advice. Self-neglect. Resistance to help. I’m calling round this morning ostensibly to dress a wound on his foot, but there’s more to it than that.
‘Of course, you are the boss of you,’ I’d said to him when he eventually answered the door. ‘You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. So long as you understand what it is you’re refusing, and what the consequences might be, you’re perfectly free to say no.’
It’s a speech I’ve used before, the verbal equivalent of putting the gun on the floor and backing up a little. It’s okay. I’m on your side.
‘Yes’ he said. ‘Well. Obviously.’
He talks softly and quickly through a fixed smile, his head tipped back and his eyes half-closed. Maybe it’s a combination of his illness and his natural character, but the effect is peculiarly unsettling, as if he’s using his very last reserves of sociability to maintain a pleasant appearance, like a light bulb connected to a failing generator, flickering on the edge of darkness.
I didn’t expect I’d make it over the threshold, but he’d shown me through to the sitting room, and that’s when I saw the cat.
‘He’s lovely’ I say.
‘There are foxes in the garden,’ whispers Derek. ‘They seem to get along.’
I ask him about his time in hospital while I bandage his foot.
‘Dreadful’ he says. ‘Jabbed and prodded all hours of the day and night. No explanations. No introductions. Bullies and fools the lot of them. I’d had enough. I walked out. Probably should have stayed. So long as they leave me alone. I don’t care.’
He smiles down at me.
‘How does it look?’ he says.
Derek’s wife Barbara comes in and although she seems perfectly pleasant the atmosphere changes. He shrinks a little into himself. She unpacks her shopping bags – sandwich packs, bags of crisps, milk, snacks. ‘Don’t mind me,’ she says.
‘We won’t,’ says Derek.
There’s a knock on the front door and Barbara goes to answer it.
‘Oh God’ says Derek.
Barbara shows someone in, a tall, brisk woman with an armful of files and folders and a blue NHS lanyard round her neck.
‘Oh! Hello there!’ she says to me.
‘I’m Jim from the community health team,’ I say, ‘come to dress Derek’s foot.’
‘Great!’ she says. ‘Excellent! Well – I’m Ruby, the social worker. Do you mind if I put my stuff on the counter?’ She unloads her files and things amongst the shopping, then turns to Derek, looming over him, supporting her weight with both hands on her knees, her ID card swinging in the space between them. She speaks slowly and loudly, for some reason.
‘Hello there, Derek. I’m Ruby. The Social Worker. Lovely to meet you.’
Derek leans away, his smile even more ghastly.
He draws back his foot.
‘Just let me get this last bit of tape on…’ I say.
‘We’re done,’ he says.