coffee & cats

Magda bangs the horn with the heel of her hand, the force of it pushing her back into the seat.
‘Fucking hell! Would it kill you to indicate? How we supposed to know what you going to do at roundabout? What do you think I am? Fucking mind-reader?’
She drives on.
‘My father used to be traffic cop. He made it big thing to learn. He say to me “It doesn’t matter if it’s one, two, three o’clock in morning and no-one on road for miles. You make manoeuvre, you indicate. Because this way it becomes automatic habit, and you do it whenever you drive, without thinking.’
She’s forced to give way to an oncoming car.
‘Jesus fucking bastard! Sorry – I know is bad to swear. But please! Where these people learn to drive? Fucking CLOWN school?’

* * *

One of our carers has gone sick, so I’ve been asked to help Magda out with a double-up call. It’s to Rita, a very elderly and frail woman who has deteriorated significantly in the last few days. The regular care company don’t have capacity to pick up the increased calls yet, so we’ve stepped in to bridge the gap.
‘Rita is lovely woman,’ says Magda, pushing her enormous sunglasses up into her bleach blonde hair. ‘But then you see, I only do lovely womans.’
She jabs at the keysafe with one hand and retrieves the keys without even seem to look, everything so slickly done it’s like watching a stage magician.
‘Rita has lovely cat,’ she says, opening the door. ‘But she is grumpy in morning, like you. Helllloooooo? Rita? It’s the carers, darling. Good morning. We’re coming up there…’

I follow her up the stairs into a large, dimly lit sitting room with a hospital bed at one end. Rita is lying in the bed, surrounded by cushions and bolsters, the mattress raised in the middle to crook her legs up. She turns her head to the side to smile at us, the skin beneath her chin spare and slack, her whole body giving the impression of a generalised falling away, as if life was a tidal force leaving her now, declining with the last phase of the moon.

Almost immediately there’s an imperious yowling sound, and an enormous black cat stomps into the room behind us. The cat is wearing an expression so furious you could simply draw an X with a marker pen and be done. She advances into the middle of the carpet, sits on her haunches with an audible plump, licks her lips once, and waits.

‘Here is cat!’ says Magda, to avoid any confusion. ‘I’m sorry, I forgot already. What is cat called?’ she says to Rita, who manages to say without any interruption to her smile that the cat is called Juniper.
‘Juniper? Huh. I thought was Jupiter. Juniper? Like berry? Is this what you call it, berry?’
I nod.
‘They use it to make gin,’ I say. ‘I think that’s where the name comes from.’
‘Juniper?’
‘I think gin is short for ginevere or something. Dutch maybe. Which means juniper.’
‘Huh.’
She turns to Rita.
‘You like gin, Rita? Is that why you name your cat Juniper? Maybe you have other cat called vodka?’
Rita closes her eyes and shakes her head imperceptibly.
‘No worry,’ says Magda. ‘Let us sort you out, darling…’

* * *

After Rita is freshened up, the sheets changed and everything taken care of, Magda plays with the cat whilst I write up the notes. Magda knows where Juniper’s toys are kept; straightaway she fetches a small plastic fishing rod with a crinkly bee on the end of a string and dandles it in the air above Juniper’s head. Juniper swats at it – a little half-heartedly, it seems to me, flashing me looks now and again as if to say: Look – I’ve just got to attend to this damned bee business and I’ll be with you directly.
‘What is matter with you today, cat?’ says Magda. ‘Is my friend here distracting you? Is that what it is? Hmm?’ She gives up, tosses the rod on the sofa, and subjects Juniper to one more colossal stroke of the head and neck – so vigorously that as a matter of survival, Juniper has to stand and brace herself with her front paws, raising her tail straight up in the air to deflect the energy into the ceiling.
Magda picks up her bag to go.
‘I love this funny cat, Rita,’ she says. ‘We have cat back home, Puszek. But he is farm cat. Like baby tiger, you know? Puszek is so big now he drive the tractor.’
Rita bats a skeletal hand in the air.
‘Okay, darling,’ says Magda, taking Rita’s hand and squeezing it. ‘You take care now. We see you later. Okay? Okay. And don’t worry. We put key back in key safe.’
Juniper jumps up onto the bed, and immediately begins paddling on the duvet with its paws.
‘Good girl,’ says Magda. ‘That’s it!’

* * *

On the way back to base we stop off for a coffee and something to eat. We take five minutes to drink it in the car before setting off again.
‘How old are you?’ she says, giving me a sideways look, twisting the lid off her cup and blowing across the top of it.
‘Fifty-six.’
‘Fifty-six? Jesus Christ! You could be my father!’
I shrug.
‘You don’t look fifty-six,’ she says, biting the end off a croissant and chewing vigorously. ‘What you do before this job?’
‘Well – I was ten years in the ambulance. Before that I was teaching English in a secondary school for a couple of years. Before that I was temping. Different companies, some for a couple of years. I worked for a publishing house in London. A warehouse, office jobs, a couple of bars. I went to university, did English and Drama there.’ I shrug, helplessly. ‘That kind of thing. You know?’
I want to tell her I tried acting for a while, but I imagine it would just add to the generally dispiriting account of my career to date, so I leave it out and sip my coffee instead.
‘You travel?’ she says.
‘No. Not really. I wanted to.’
‘No travel? What about drugs? You do drugs?’
‘Some. Not much.’
‘Hmm,’ she says, finishing the croissant, smacking her hands clean and turning the engine over.
‘You’re telling me, not much. Come, now. Done. Let’s go.’

please welcome on stage…

Buddy Holly is sprawled on the back of the sofa, Eddie Cochrane is staring down at me from the top of the wardrobe, and Elvis Presley is lying on the floor with his paws in the air, waiting to be tickled.
‘That’s so Elvis,’ I tell Pat, leaning in.
‘He’s still quite kittenish,’ she says. ‘You wouldn’t think he was twelve.’
Elvis grabs my hand with his front paws and rakes me with his back, but keeps his claws retracted. His mouth gapes, his eyes deepen to perfect circles of black, and his ears flatten.
‘He loves that,’ says Pat.
‘He totally looks like Elvis’ I tell her. ‘Maybe in his cape years.’
‘I thought about making him a cape once,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t want him swallowing the rhinestones. He eats most everything else.’
‘Okay. Enough now, Elvis. What about you, Pat? How are you feeling today?’
‘Oh I’m alright,’ says Pat. ‘I’m always alright. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.’
‘I think it was because you fainted and broke your hip.’
‘Yes but – these things happen.’
‘Do they know why you fainted?’
‘I got up too quickly. Eddie and Buddy were fighting and I had to sort them out. Next thing I knew I was staring up at them, and when I tried to get up my hip was agony.’
‘Did you have a carelink button then?’
‘No! It’s only since. No – I had to crawl to the phone. It was only on the hall table but it may as well have been the moon. Luckily Ian across the way has a key, so the ambulance didn’t have to break the door down.’
‘That’s something anyway.’
‘I was in hospital for ages. It was torture. My poor cats. I was worried sick.’
‘Did Ian look after them?’
‘No. He’s allergic. If he sees a cat on the telly he sneezes. No – they had to go to a cat hotel, out in the country.’
‘Sounds lovely.’
‘It wasn’t. It cost me an arm and a leg. And I don’t know what they spend the money on because it certainly isn’t food. They were half starved when I got them back.’

I can’t imagine any of these cats half-starved. I struggle to imagine how Eddie Cochrane makes it up to the top of the wardrobe without a hoist.

I run through the usual observations, blood pressure, temperature, SATS and the rest. Everything checks out. Pat’s blood pressure drops a little when she stands, but not precipitously, and ever since the accident she knows to do things slowly, in stages.

‘I’m guessing you like rock and roll then,’ I say, taking the pressure cuff off her arm and nodding in the direction of Buddy Holly, who’s sitting staring at me from the kitchen with such a fixed expression on his face I feel unaccountably possessed by the urge to walk over and open a tin.
‘Not particularly,’ says Pat. ‘I got them all as kittens, and they were so funny, I could just see them jumping around on stage, playing guitar.’

James the First

Rosie is more confused than usual, according to Rosie – the other Rosie, I mean, the one who lives at the end of the road and comes in most days to help. The fact that her husband Jim has the same name as me only adds to the confusion. He’s amiable enough, placid as an old turtle who swapped his shell for a corduroy jacket. If Rosie Two hadn’t introduced him as her husband, I’d think he’d tagged along by mistake. When she asks him to fetch in Rosie One’s address book from the kitchen, he wanders back in, flicking through a photo album.
‘Look at you in front of the Sphinx, Rosie!’ he says. ‘Well, well.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ says Rosie Two, and goes to get the address book herself.

Rosie One is sitting in her armchair, held in place by an enormous, ash-gray cat. The cat stares at me, its head bobbing up and down and its eyes pulled wide in time with the vigorous strokes. It extends its front paws onto her lap, presumably to spread the impact.
‘Poor Jonesie!’ says Rosie One. ‘I fell on him, you know. Squashed him flat! Broke my fall, though, didn’t you, Jonesie? Hey? You broke mummy’s fall, didn’t you? You clever thing!’
‘Tripped you up, more like,’ says Rosie Two, striding back in from the kitchen and handing me the address book. ‘That cat. It’s an absolute monster. Anyway. There! Karen’s number. The next of kin. Apparently.’
Jim Two has drifted over to the bookcase, tutting and exclaiming as he makes his way along the shelves with his head crooked so far to one side his ear is practically on his shoulder.
‘Well, well!’ he says, carefully sliding a book out. ‘Who’d have thought!’
‘Jim!’ says Rosie Two. ‘You’re supposed to be making breakfast!’
‘Am I? Oh, right,’ he says. ‘Absolutely. Of course. Breakfast. Yes.’
And he wanders away in the opposite direction to the kitchen with a book in his hand. Rosie Two goes after him.
‘Nothing’s the same since my darling husband died,’ says Rosie One.
She’s looking at a portrait on the sideboard, a broad-faced, smiling man in a white naval uniform.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘What was his name?’
‘Jim’
‘Jim? Not another one!’
‘Well,’ she says, turning back to me. ‘My Jim was the first.’

polaroids of pets and their owners

1.
Geoffrey has two cats. Suki is a heavyweight, silver grey affair, sprawled on the seat of Geoffrey’s four wheeled walker like a luxuriously furred but rather bedraggled cushion, one paw draped over the side, an expression on her face of the purest hatred for the world and everything in it, especially Harry, the kitten. Harry is as hyperactive as Suki is inert, seemingly on a mission to destroy the bungalow, in such random bursts of activity it’s like watching a film that slows one minute and speeds up the next. Harry attacks the curtains, my bag, a pile of rubbish, the TV cables, winding himself up for each assault with a tensioning wiggle of his hips, whipping his tail from side to side, then skittering across the carpet – this time to take out a little stuffed dinosaur, rolling over and over with it, coming to a stop on his back with the dinosaur in its teeth and front paws, brutally pedalling it to death.

‘He’s having a funny five minutes,’ chuckles Geoffrey from his riser-recliner throne, King of Catland, packets of fishy favours to hand on the cantilever table.

But I’ve already been here ten.

2.
‘Are you okay with dogs?’
It’s an article of faith to say yes, because Leila’s brindle staffie Frankie is hurling himself against the baby gate so violently you’d think he hadn’t eaten in a week and a leg of mutton just walked in the door. Before I can answer either way, Leila unlatches the gate and Frankie bursts out. I stand my ground and ignore him – and, thank god, it works. In fact, it’s extraordinary how quickly he changes mode: from Hound of Hell to Snuffly Chump.
I scraggle him behind the ears, and he seems to like that. Then suddenly he’s reminded of something, and hurries off into the sitting room.
‘Oh no,’ says Leila. ‘Wait for it.’
There’s a plaintive squeak or two, then Frankie comes trotting back into the hallway to sit at my feet with a blue ball clamped in his jaws.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ says Leila. ‘Him and that ball. I wish I’d never got it.’
Frankie bites down on it twice in quick succession, to emphasise.
‘It was funny the other night, though,’ says Leila. ‘He fell asleep with it in his mouth. Then he started dreaming, doing that spooky eye-rolling thing they do, twitching and jerking, and then the ball squeaked, and woke him up, and scared the bejeesus out of him. He fell off the sofa and the ball squeaked some more and he dropped it and ran behind the curtains. I thought that might’ve cured him. But no, he was straight back on it. Poor ol’ Frankie. He’s like me – an addictive personality.’

a cat and a dog

a cat

Anna’s bed is in the bay window, the sunniest spot in the house, a light breeze filtering in through an open window, gently filling and turning the curtains. Anna’s asleep, curled up on her right side with one hand crooked under her head; sunlight illuminating the linen sheets and multi-coloured crochet square throw with such intensity it’s as if I’ve been staring at a beautiful painting for so long I’ve found myself suddenly transported into it.
Aside from the bed, the rest of the living room is just that – a room for living. There’s a baby lying on its back in a baby gym, reaching up for the fabric toys hanging overhead, waving his legs and gurgling happily; a toddler, standing on the sofa with her arms draped over the back, staring at me with wide, brown eyes; their mother, kneeling on the carpet, talking into the phone crooked at her neck whilst she folds laundry from the trug, and then her mother, Anna’s daughter Jean, standing in her dressing gown in the doorway, smiling, overseeing everything, cradling a mug of tea.
To add to it, a plump tabby cat strides into the room with her tail in the air. The toddler on the sofa jumps up a little, points to the cat, says Dat! and looks at me even more intensely.
The cat raises its chin like a butler in an over-starched collar, looks right and left, gives one, long, imperious yeowl, then collapses at my feet and stretches out, using her claws on the carpet to increase the bend, until she’s one languorous curve from the tip of her tail to her nose.
Dat! Dat! says the toddler, bouncing up and down on the sofa cushions.
‘Molly!’ says Jean, shaking her head and laughing.
And for a second, I’m not sure which is which.

a dog

Getting in to see James this morning was like trying to solve a giant, unwieldy puzzle. His carer Leila was delayed, some kind of bus trouble, apparently (We didn’t crash she said Thank God! But he is learner driver I think and he clipped mirrors and we all stopped for a long time and eventually I said no, no, no this is not good I have place to go so I asked them to let me be free please, and he did, and so then I ran and jumped on number 5, and change at river…). Meanwhile, Wendy the scheme manager wasn’t answering the intercom button or her phone. Two other residents had come outside already, one to smoke, one to chat. Both had asked if I wanted to go in and I’d said no, thanks, but James’ door is locked so it won’t do much good. They tell me where they saw Wendy last, and that segues into what a great job she does, and how the fish and chip supper went last night. It’s a nice block. Everyone looks out for everyone else, like a vertical village, people coming and going, or hanging around, mostly. Even the contractors working on the underground garage are cheerful and friendly, raising their coffee cups and smiling, more like actors than electricians, sauntering over from the on-location, TV catering wagon in their laundry fresh check shirts and utility belts.

The main door opens again and this time I see Wendy, waving her phone from the mezzanine floor that overlooks the lobby.
‘Can you come up here?’ she calls out to me. ‘Barry’ll let you in to see Jimmy. Sorry about the intercom. They’re working on it… or so they tell me!’
She says this on cue, just as the contractors are passing through the lobby. They smile and raise their coffee cups again, and exit stage right.

I go up – but I don’t have to wait long before Barry appears, an elderly man so immaculately turned-out I can imagine his Spotlight photo in the casting directory alongside the contractors.
‘This way,’ he says, jangling a bunch of keys and pressing the button for the lift. Then he turns and calls out ‘Fred! Come on, mate! We’ll go without you!’
‘Come on Fred!’ I say, then I turn to Barry and ask him who Fred is.
‘You haven’t met Fred?’
‘No.’
‘You’re in for a treat.’
We both turn to look at the archway that leads from the TV room out onto the mezzanine. I hear him before I see him, a deep, wet, resonantly lumpy sound, like an old British motorbike firing on one cylinder. Then I feel him – or I think I do – the thump of him through the springy floor. The lift arrives behind us, the door pings open but we both ignore it, waiting for Fred to emerge through the arch. And then he does – a gigantic black labrador, his tongue lolling out, hauling himself along on arthritic hips, one vast pad after the other, his head bobbing up and down with the effort of it all.
‘Come on, Fred!’ says Barry. ‘Good boy! Let’s go see Jimmy! Hey?’

syracuse & the duck

Jennifer Syracuse is my name of the day – the year, probably. A private detective kind of name. The name you’d give to that character in the book who crashes in on page three, lights things up and drives all the way to the big reveal.

These days, what with one thing and another, the brandy bottles clinking in an unbroken line from sometime back in the fifties out to an empty bottle on a windowsill; the falling away of friends and family connections; the piling up of clutter until even the long-case clock strains to keep its face clear – these days, Jennifer Syracuse is lighting up the world a little less, and the big reveal has long since flattened out into something longer, looser and more predictable.

‘When you see a duck have its head cut off you know you’ll never eat pate again. The way the feet waggle – d’you know? They keep on waggling.’

She looks up at me from where she’s sprawled on the ottoman.

‘Do have a seat,’ she says. ‘You make the place look untidy.’

If you can ignore the heaps of clothes and books and undifferentiated clutter, it’s a pleasant enough flat. The french windows are standing open, and sunlight filters in through a thicket of wisteria, giving the place a sleepy, soupy feel. There’s a gigantic chocolate coloured cat on the only other seat clear enough to sit on, sprawled as luxuriously and definitively as Ms Syracuse.

‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘I’m happy standing.’

‘I mean – how could anyone eat an animal?’ she says, ignoring me. ‘Take cows for instance. Now – don’t they remind you of the women’s institute? Fat old matriarchs marching around, jabbing you with their elbows. They’d look darling in a flowery hat, though, you have to admit. And then you get the young calves in the background, jumping up and down, wondering what all the fuss is about.’
‘I like cows,’ I say.
‘How could one not? I was brought up in India, for heaven’s sake! D’you know – the other morning I sat up in bed and found myself talking Hindi! I haven’t spoken a word in seventy years, and there I was, completely fluent! It passed, of course, but I’m convinced it’s in there somewhere. I just need to learn how to get it out.

When I steer Jennifer towards the reason for the visit – her numerous falls, weight loss and general decline – she adopts a serious expression and struggles into a more upright position.

Would you keep your voice down! Please!’ she hisses, then leans forward and waggles her fingers for me to meet her halfway.

That bitch upstairs listens to every word,’ she says, then satisfied I’ve got the message, winks slowly in a lopsided way that threatens to extend into an extemporary sleep, comes to herself again, acknowledges me with a start, and taps the side of her nose.

‘What d’you want to know?’ she says, and collapses back on the ottoman.

a cussed old cat

‘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.