The Uncanny

The Uncanny. 1977. dir. Denis Héroux. Watched on YouTube so you don’t have to.

Okay. I know how this looks. ANOTHER film with You Know Who. AND Donald Pleasence. (By the way, do you have ANY IDEA how long it took me to go back through that last film write-up and change the spelling of Donald’s surname from Pleasance to Pleasence? Yes. A VERY long time. And yes, I DO know about the ‘Find and Replace’ function. So why didn’t I just use that? I DON’T KNOW.

The thing is, as well as having the obvious attractions of Peter & Donald, this film is apparently a portmanteau, which is essentially four short films in one. I’ve always liked these, because if one’s no good you’ve still got a chance with the other three. And if NONE of them are any good, it’s bad luck, and don’t bother getting a scratchcard at the off licence. The other thing is, it’s a film about cats. And if you have a film with Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence AND cats, you’re guaranteed a hefty pay-out.

I dedicate this write-up to Solly, best cat in the world, flattened by a car on Christmas 2019. If you’re reading this, Sol, I really don’t mind if you come back to haunt me. I miss your funny, Mask of Zorro beard, your crazy eyes, your devastating back paw rake. RIP (which is cat for Runaround in Peace).

*

Opening: The Rank Man with the Gong. Which isn’t an attractive title for anyone, but the pay was good and he had a pass for the staff canteen.

0:23 A quote from a Ted Hughes poem about cats. Very literary. Beats any of the other title sequence quotes I’ve seen to date. Augurs well (if you like Ted Hughes). And you like the word Augurs.

0:47 A splurge of blood, plucked violins, harpsichords (the most catty of instruments, apart from the oboe), and then the blood morphs into the head of a cat with blood on its fangs. That’s what Solly used to look like when I played hide & seek with him, Solly on the landing, me on the stairs, recklessly jabbing my hand in and out from under the towels we’d put on the bannister to dry. (God – I’m going to be sobbing all the way through this review).

0:50 More pictures of cats, some without eyes. More harpsichord. The director’s right – there’s definitely something baroque about cats. But here’s the thing – I can’t take cats seriously as agents of the devil. These pictures all look so booootifuuuwwl (NOTE: a love of cats can make you speak like an idiot).

1:17 John Vernon’s in the cast! I have a very dull and pointless story about John Vernon! And I shall tell it at the end of this review.

1:44 Favourite name in the credits: Harry Waxman. He should totally work in a beauty salon.

2:07 I’m sorry, but none of this slow-panning across cat pictures makes me feel any differently about cats, despite the spooky music. If you don’t watch the film, tune in for the opening credits. These pictures are lovely! SOOOO cute… and definitely not putting me in the mood for a horror film. Which was rated X when it came out – which I think meant it was for dog lovers only .

2:09 Opening scene is captioned: ‘Montreal – Present Times’. Present TIMES? Wouldn’t it be TIME? Present Times sounds wrong. I’m more on edge now than I was with all the cats.

2:15 Panning along some railings at night – to a black cat! Lying on the pavement by some railings, looking completely lovely & innocent. The soundtrack is someone playing purring noises on a flute. Sweet.

2:40 Cuts between the cat and a lighted window. The cat. The window. The cat again. The window. And I fully expect to see the cat in the window by this point. Yes, they ARE that quick.

2:49 Peter Cushing peers out through the blinds! I don’t know who’s more cute – the cat or the Cushing. (Now THAT’S a title for a film).

3:07 Close-up on the cat’s eyes. Looks pretty healthy to me. Obviously getting enough Omega 7. Doesn’t look possessed, despite the crazy, flutey purring.

3:21 Peter Cushing comes out of the house. The house number is 1310. God but the streets are long in North America.

3:35 He’s carrying a tatty briefcase under his arm. He looks anxiously up and down the street before he opens the gate. That black cat has probably got previous form, going for his trousers or something.

3:49 He turns round when he hears a clattering of dustbin lids. (I confirm – cats CAN be clumsy. I was watching one walk along the top of a fence once. When it noticed me watching it stopped, then carried on walking without taking its eyes off me, missed its footing and plunged with a yowl off the other side).

4:23 Peter Cushing (Wilbur Gray) takes ages coming down a long flight of concrete steps. It could really do with a Joaquin Phoenix Joker dance, but all Wilbur does is anxiously look behind him a few times as he walks down. If anything it’s more like a 70s Health & Safety video. At the bottom there’s a jumpscare when a guy puts his hand on Wilbur’s chest and asks for a ‘match’ ‘I’m so sorry – I don’t smoke,’ says Wilbur, then hurries on. The smoker doesn’t seem bothered. He sprints away up the steps – nailing the lie that smoking’s bad for your chest.

4:40 Wilbur carries on walking the gloomy streets of Montreal – present times. I hope they’ve invested in some better street lighting in the last 40 years, otherwise I’m not going.

4:55 Almost five minutes in and all we’ve had is Wilbur walking and looking anxious. At this rate I’m guessing each little film must be about two minutes action and ten minutes commuting.

Whilst we’re going on a walk with Wilbur, there’s probably time to tell you about something I saw yesterday over the cemetery. I was out in the late afternoon, taking spooky shots – the usual stuff – sunset behind a statue of Jesus, a tree that looks like the souls of the damned etc. I saw a woman walk past, followed by a cat. Its tail was straight up, so at first I thought it was remote controlled. ‘What – are you taking your cat for a walk?’ I said. ‘Not exactly,’ she said, ‘but he’s a total wuss and won’t go out on his own.’

Back to the film.

5:05 Wilbur presses the bell of a gothic looking house numbered 51. So that really WAS a long walk.

5:15 Ray Milland opens the door! So it was worth the walk. Ray’s character is called Frank (thanks as always to Wiki).

5:34 Guess who’s looking up at Frank’s lighted window? That’s it. Lil’ Cutey Flutey. There’s a good girl…

5:49 Wilbur goes through into the living room. A big fluffy white cat snarls at him from the chaise longue. I have to admit, big fluffy white cats can be like that. High maintenance. I’m gonna guess this one’s called Princess. Or maybe The Eviscerator.

6:09 It’s called Sugar. I suppose because it’s white and sweet but too much of it will give you diabetes.

6:55 Frank is the publisher who’s considering publishing Wilbur’s book. It seems that Wilbur’s last book was about flying saucers, so it’s a niche imprint. I’m guessing the portmanteau aspect of the film will be Frank & Wilbur going through the examples Wilbur has used in his book to illustrate the essentially evil nature of cats. But he’ll have to balance it out with a chapter on recommended toys, healthy diet, that kind of thing.

7:17 Close up on Sugar’s apoplectic face as we segue into the first story. Captioned ‘London – 1912’ (not 1912 Times, then )

7:23 Joan Greenwood (Miss Malkin) is examining something through a magnifying glass. Someone knocks and she says ‘Come!’ in that richly fruity voice. Wonderful. (NOTE: If I was casting the perfect voice for a cat, it would be Joan Greenwood. Or Fenella Fielding, obviously. Maybe Eartha Cat… sorry… Kitt). Miss M has a lovely tortoiseshell & white cat on her bed. You don’t see many of them. (The T&W, not the bed. You see a lot of beds. Well, I do. I’ll end there). Beautiful. (I’m SO far from being scared at this point).

7:29 Actually she’s got a LOT of cats. We seem to have dropped into a live action remake of The Aristocats.

7:30 Susan Penhaligon (Janet the maid) shows a Mr Wallace into the bedroom. Miss M is wearing so much white makeup, her nightgown and the bed so white, it’s like Wallace has come to visit a giant talking cake.

7:44 Wallace is a solicitor and has come round with new copies of the will. Janet busies herself with some linen to earwig the conversation. Miss M tells her to go away and feed the cats. Janet picks one up like she’s taking out the trash. She goes down into the scullery (I’ve no idea what a scullery is and I have no intention of looking it up) followed by about a million cats.

9:14 Meanwhile, Wallace asks Miss M if she REALLY intends to cut her nephew out of the will and leave everything to the cats. She does. He’s wasted enough money as it is. He sounds like a cad and a scoundrel and I think I know which way THIS story’s going.

11:47 Janet manages to sneak one copy of the new will from Wallace’s bag, and overhears the combination to the safe (behind a cat portrait, natch) where Wallace is putting the original. For a minute I thought Miss M. was showing Wallace the safe combo on her iphone – but this is 1912. So it would have to be a Blackberry.

12:06 The caddish nephew Michael is played by Simon Williams, which is perfect casting. He’s in a posh restaurant swigging champagne and straightening his moustache with Janet. Well, she’s just swigging champagne. His moustache isn’t THAT big.

13:30 Michael reads the will that Janet gives him – then rips it up – with some effort – even though it’s only two sheets of A4. She tells him there’s the original still – in the safe. ‘But you know the combination?’ says Michael. ‘No – I don’t’ she says. ‘But I know where she keeps it…’ Michael says he’ll marry her and they’ll both be rich. Janet’s eyes widen as big as Sugar’s. And that’s pretty big.

13:55 Janet sneaks into the house. The tortoiseshell & white (god – I wish it had a name – a short one – like Sugar, maybe) watches her from the landing. Janet takes off her outdoor gear (which makes it sound like she’s been skiing or something), her boots &c, then sneaks up the stairs. Miss M is asleep in the cake – I mean bed. Janet sneaks the Blackberry from under Miss M’s pillow, finds the combo, opens the safe… Meanwhile, the T&W (there, that was quicker) jumps on the bed and wakes Miss M., who sees what’s happening and sits up. ‘You’re a wicked, wicked girl, Janet,’ she says. (Which I’m tempted to use as my ringtone).

17:10 But before Miss M can ring the police, Janet puts a pillow over her face. When Miss M stops struggling, Janet turns round to grab the will. Miss M sits up again, touches her shoulder… and that’s the signal for all the cats to rush in.

18:25 Janet is focused on the will, though. When she reaches down for it, a fake cat paw rakes her hand. (It’s so obviously a toy paw on the end of a stick, but I suppose there’s a limit to what an animal trainer can do. With that budget. In these trousers).

19:09 She hurries out of the room onto the landing. There’s a lovely shot of cats peering down at her through the balustrades. That’s TOTALLY what Solly used to do! And it was my own stupid fault if I paused on the stairs and reached my hand through…

20:06 So of course Janet falls to the floor and all the cats pile in. (I’d love to read what Susan Penhaligon thought about shooting this scene. I bet she had to dab tuna juice behind her ears or something. Meanwhile suffering lots of stuffed cats being chucked here and there). But she manages to break free and barricade herself in the scullery (see above).

21:12 Janet moves some tin pots, and for a minute I wonder if she’s going to fashion some cat armour (like in Iron Man – but obviously there were no cats in that as far as I’m aware). Then settles down to bandage her wounds.

22:11 Next morning, all the cats are still staking out the scullery (THEY know what a scullery is. How many exits it has etc). A milkman comes with milk in a watering can or something. Then letters get delivered – by someone else, I’m presuming. The cats rip the letters to shreds. Why? I don’t know. But it’s probably all junk so no harm done.

24:05 Michael arrives in a hansom cab. And he is handsome, so… that’s a fit. His moustache looks more like the kind of oil stain you get when you’ve been working on your motor and inadvertently swipe your mouth (like I’ve EVER done that). A policeman strolls by in a cape. There’s the sound of an owl or something going too-wit too-wit, but maybe that’s the policeman. That’s probably not a cape – that’s his wings. Michael tells the driver to drive on. Don’t blame him. Flying policemen are so unpredictable.

24:40 Janet sees him go. She’s getting desperate, stuck in the scullery with no idea what it does and nothing to eat but stale bread. She starts licking her wounds. Quite literally. Ack. Don’t sculleries have TAPS?

25:16 It’s the following morning. Janet is REALLY hungry now. I’m guessing she’s gonna have to brave the cats to escape. Although – before she does she puts some cat meat on some stale bread to have as a kind of emergency bruschetta.

26:33 Oh dear. It’s now the morning after THAT and Janet is STILL trapped in the scullery. After all that cat food she probably needs the litter tray. Her hair looks amazing, though. They call it Cat Punk.

27:02 A church bell tolls in the distance. Is this a sign from God she should go? Maybe – but she also smothered her employer, so it might have an alternative reading.

27:30 She picks up the bread knife ready to make a run for it.

28:07 Outside the scullery in the … erm … outer scullery? The cats have made a real mess of the place. It’s like they had a cat rave or something. The thing that bothers ME the most is that every single picture on the wall is tilted, which is weirdly methodical. Anyway, Janet heads up the stairs. Is she going to risk getting the will? If she doesn’t, she’ll have eaten all that cat meat for nothing. Let alone the smothering thing.

28:28 Where have all the cats GONE? They’ve even hauled a pair of knickers out of a cupboard. Have they no SHAME? (TV film idea – ‘When Cats Go Bad’)

28:46 She hears an echoey voice in her head – it’s Michael saying they’ll get married and be very, very rich. Which gives her the confidence she needs to go upstairs and get the will despite the killer cats. But she’s got a bread knife, so…

29:09 I mean – seriously – WHERE ARE THE CATS? Janet goes into the bedroom. Not a sign. I’m thinking they’re planning something, like balancing on each other’s shoulders, wearing a tall mac and pretending to be a detective. (You can tell I’ve had LOTS of experience with cats).

29:43 The phone rings! But it’s not a cat – it’s only Wallace, wanting to speak to Miss M. He’s tried texting her Blackberry but nothing.

30:04 When Janet reaches down to get the will, the fake cat paw scratches her again and she drops the knife. That’s when she looks up and sees that the cats have eaten Miss M (which is a fate often talked about and here given bloody proof). It looks like the special effects team took the Turkey carcass from the staff christmas dinner and put it in the bed, but I’m no expert. Janet runs out of the room screaming. A fake cat paw reaches out to trip her up. She falls down the stairs. It’s another cat pile-on. The phone keeps ringing, which the cats interpret as a dinner bell.

31:46 Michael is in the office with Wallace. They decide to go and see why Miss M isn’t picking up – and call in at the police station on the way.

31:51 The police break into the house. They take a step back, appalled at the dreadful special effects – poor Janet, that wicked wicked girl, sprawled like so much cat meat at the foot of the stairs. Michael goes on up to Miss M’s room. Sees her in a similar condition on the bed. Sees the will on the floor, which is much more to his liking. Close-up on the face of the T&W, with an expression like – ‘just you try it, mate’. The soundtrack at this point is a strangely jaunty piccolo. Shrug. But it’s enough to annoy the cats. One of them leaps on his head and takes a chunk out of his neckerchief. And it’s enough to kill him! It took about a thousand cats to put Susan Penhaligon down but only one for Simon Williams! I can only think it’s because she was a working woman and much fitter.

33:49 Final close-up of Wallace, looking in disgust at the cats gnawing the parson’s nose off Miss M on the bed. But c’mon. Wallace is a family solicitor. He’s seen worse.

33:50 And we’re back with Frank & Wilbur. So half an hour in and that’s the first story done. If there are four, they’re gonna have to be a lot shorter. (Do the math, people).

33:54 Ray Milland – sorry – Frank – is trying to explain what really might’ve happened to Miss M. Sugar is sitting on his lap while Frank absent-mindedly strokes it in the way you might play the Irish pipes for the first time. No wonder Sugar looks bug-eyed. Although – turns out – he looks like that because he needs to go outside to relieve himself.

34:32 Long shot of Sugar about to squat by the side of the house. Another cat joins him (the one from the beginning of the film? but this one has white paws…). Wilbur watches from a window, and freaks out when he sees them face off – but by the time he calls Frank over, the black cat has gone. So Frank REALLY thinks Wilbur is crazy. ‘Let’s talk some more about your book,’ he says, wearily. When they sit down to discuss the next short film – sorry, chapter – we see more cats joining Sugar outside…

35:36 This segment is about a girl and her cat, called Lucy. They’re not both called Lucy. The GIRL is called Lucy. I don’t know what the cat’s called. (That was unnecessarily difficult). The opening shot is of a girl (not a cat) in a knitted cap with ear flaps, staring out of a car window, with a cat in a basket on her lap. Caption says ‘Quebec Province 1975’. Which sounds VERY formal.

35:43 Jaunty, jazzy soundtrack. Hope that means this isn’t a ‘funny’ short. But you often get funny ones in these portmanteau films. Think of the feuding golfers in ‘Dead of Night’. Although – actually – even THEY creeped me out.

35:58 Lucy is being driven by her mum, I guess. Her mum’s wearing driving gloves. I immediately distrust her. Although it could be worse – could be surgical gloves.

36:19 They pull-up outside a big house with a bratty looking girl in pink staring out of the window. She would NEVER wear a knitted flappy ear hat, or have a cat in a basket on her lap. Some things you know almost immediately.

36:30 Actually it’s not her mum, it’s Nora Mason, Town Welfare Department. She’s here on official business, delivering Lucy and the cat to Lucy’s aunt & uncle, Mr & Mrs Blake, a pair whose acting is as good as you might expect from two people who stepped straight out of a 70s knitting pattern.

36:51 The cat’s called Wellington. ‘Well – that IS a surprise!’ says Mrs Blake, flashing a sharp look at Nora Mason, Town Welfare Department.

37:22 Angela, Lucy’s cousin, shows Lucy to her room. Lucy asks Wellington what he thinks of it. ‘Well – it’s hardly Un Sanctuaire Inviolable, but I suppose it’ll do,’ he says. No, actually. I made that up. Lucy says that Wellington says he ‘likes it’. Angela gets the best line of the film so far. ‘Cat’s Can’t Talk!’ She delivers that line like Christopher Walken or someone. Puts SO much into it. Edgy stuff. Really makes up for the parents.

37:34 Angela says she’ll show Lucy the room SHE has. ‘It’s bigger than yours. That’s because I belong here,’ she says. I can see they’re going to be besties.

38:00 Downstairs, the parents discuss the whole dead-parents-killed-in-plane-crash-but why-didn’t-you-tell-us-about-the-cat scenario with Nora Mason, Town Welfare Department.

38:14 Upstairs, Lucy unpacks her suitcase – basically a photo of her mum, fifteen knitted flappy eared hats and some hefty books on Magic, Tarot and Ritual Witchcraft.

38:50 Mrs Blake doesn’t like the books, but Lucy says she can’t get rid of them because they were her mum’s.

39:11 Downstairs in the kitchen, Mrs Blake puts out some food for Wellington. There’s a great deal of twittering from somewhere. Maybe it’s a policeman.

39:31 Actually – no. It’s birds in a birdcage. You’d never get a birdcage big enough for a policeman. Although there’s always prison, I suppose.

39:48 Angela is jealous of the fact that Lucy has a cat. ‘But Lucy hasn’t got a mummy, and you do,’ argues Mrs Blake. Good job that Nora Mason, Town Welfare Department, wasn’t there to see the look Mrs Blake gives Angela at this point.

39:53 ‘If you and Daddy were killed in a plane crash, could I have a cat then?’ Like mother, like daughter.

40:00 Back upstairs, Angela smiles mysteriously at Lucy, whilst twirling the propeller on a toy plane. Then she snatches Wellington from Lucy. But Wellington hisses at her and runs back to Lucy. (Fast moving scene, this).

41:24 The two girls are in the summer house painting Wellington. I mean – doing paintings OF Wellington. Although I wouldn’t put it past Angela. Lucy takes the paintings and goes to show Aunty Joan, leaving Angela alone with the cat. The soundtrack? Sneaky bassoons.

42:16 Angela chases Wellington round the summer house. ‘I won’t hurt you,’ she says, in the tone of voice someone would use as they levered shells into a shotgun. Wellington spills some red paint on the floor, just as Mrs Blake comes in. Which doesn’t seem too bad, except Mrs Blake is obviously someone who can’t stand mess of any kind, especially when it looks like blood. ‘If he does it again we’ll just have to get rid of him,’ she says. All of which goes some way to explaining Angela.

43:16 Angela is up in the playroom taunting Lucy with the toy plane, swooping it down on her saying ‘You haven’t got a mummy! You haven’t got a daddy!’ Good job Nora Mason, Town Welfare Department doesn’t see any of this.

43:55 Cut to: Later – Lucy running outside in a happy mood cuddling Wellington. Angela is staring down from an upper window. She’s maddened to see her dad play with Lucy. So after he’s gone inside to iron his cardigan and learn his next lines, Angela opens the window and revs up the model plane – which turns out to have something like a motorbike engine on the front, and not quite the innocent wind-up affair you first thought. Actually it’s more like a Reaper drone.

45:34 She uses it to attack Lucy & Wellington. Lucy runs into the summerhouse just as the plane crashes into it.

46:47 Lucy tries to tell Mr & Mrs Blake what happened, but Angela interrupts and says Lucy was just playing in the mud. Mrs Blake orders Lucy upstairs to change. ‘It wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for that cat,’ she says. Mrs Blake lights a Dunhill International. ‘Why don’t you go outside and play?’ she says, trembling. ‘I have something to discuss with your father.’ I’m guessing it’s not soft furnishings.

47:00 Mr Blake perches on the back of the sofa. He’s wearing the cardigan. They discuss getting rid of the cat. ‘The vet gave me the address of a place in town where they do it quietly and painlessly,’ she says. The Quebecian Cat Mafia, or something.

47:37 Heartbreaking shot of Wellington being driven away. He’s holding a placard up to the window. HELP! (or may as well). Lucy looks for him. Angela explains where he’s gone. ‘To be made into dog meat.’ Honestly – that girl. She’s MUCH worse than Janet. (I bet you’d forgotten about Janet. ‘You’re a wicked, wicked girl, Janet,’ – sorry, that’s my phone).

48:31 That night, Mrs Blake sneaks into Lucy’s room and takes away all the magic books. Takes them downstairs to burn in the fireplace, along with the picture of Lucy’s mum. None of this augurs well.

49:36 Lucy wakes up. Hears Wellington crying. Lets him in. ‘Angela will tell her mum! What are we going to do…?’ Wellington goes to the book of spells that Lucy keeps under her pillow. Opens it for her – to the page with the talisman free gift. Taps it and winks at her (I might be wrong about that bit). ‘Of course!’ says Lucy.

51:08 She goes downstairs with the spell book under her arm, Wellington runs on ahead, rubbing his paws (which makes running difficult, but he’s a cat, so…).

51:30 Angela is in her bedroom watching people get shot on TV. Is bored of that, so turns it off and goes to find Lucy to torment. Wanders outside. Policemen – sorry, OWLS – are too-witting in the trees. Sees a light on in the summerhouse and heads for that. Finds Lucy drawing a pentagram on the floor with Wellington back from the dead sitting by her. (It’s at this point I’d hurriedly re-evaluate my whole idea about Lucy and try to make friends, but Angela being Angela…)

53:25 ‘Don’t step into the circle,’ says Lucy. So Angela smiles and steps into the circle. Lucy makes an incantation and suddenly Angela can’t leave the circle. Wellington is almost clapping his paws at this point. Lucy carries on the incantation. Angela shrinks. Wellington licks his lips.

53:51 NOTE: During all this cod-Latin, I’m sure Lucy says ‘Angela naughty nose’. But I’m not a wizard. Maybe that’s a real thing, and not to be read out loud, please.

55:02 ‘Why! You’re no bigger than a mouse!’ smiles Lucy, nodding to Wellington. Angela tries to run away but a giant fake paw knocks her back. She shelters under a giant candlestick. Then runs under the couch. The giant fake paw swipes at her again, knocking her towards a mousetrap set with cheese. (I’ve seen better special effects at the local panto). She picks up a paintbrush to defend herself – all the while dangerously close to the mousetrap (just sayin’). Fights Wellington quite bravely, I think, given how small she is, and how big he is, and how blunt the paintbrush is.

56:31 Mrs Blake comes back (from seeing the Cat Mafia people). She sees the light on in the summerhouse and heads there.

57:17 Angela scores some blood with the paintbrush. But Wellington hasn’t given up. He pins her down with his giant fake paw.

57:40 Mrs Blake is fast approaching, so Lucy decides to finish Angela off by stepping on her. There’s a sound effect I’m guessing they created in the foley studio by recording someone eating celery.

58:10 ‘Why can’t you be more like Angela?’ says Mrs Blake, wiping up the blood. ‘She never puts a foot wrong…’

58:20 Back to Frank and Wilbur. Frank is basically trying to say that Wilbur’s book doesn’t seem to be a good candidate for the non-fiction section of the bookshop. Wilbur is getting even more twitchy. Sugar yowls outside and he jumps so high he almost leaves his tweed. ‘It’s only Sugar!’ says Frank. Try telling that to the endocrinologist.

59:10 Frank lets Sugar in. Tells it to go on a diet (well that’s rich). ‘They prowl about just as they please,’ says Wilbur, whose book is all about cats, by the way. So…

59:38 Now we’re into the Case of Valentine De’ath. Which I happen to know involves Donald Pleasence. So we’re into the BIG cats finally. ‘It was the cat that did it!’ says Wilbur. Spoiler alert.

59:48 Cut to: A skull, and the caption ‘Hollywood 1936’. Which seems harsh, but I know things were difficult then.

59:59 A woman in white (Marilyn) is strapped to a table in a dungeon. Medieval people stand around whilst a sinister figures comes down the steps in slippers, just like me when I’ve had a few, i.e. heavily and slowly.

1:00:13 It is Donald Pleasence as Valentine De’ath! Dressed in fabulous garb (sorry, I couldn’t stop myself using the word GARB – it’s the clothing equivalent of ‘scullery’). He’s wearing stripy puff sleeves, a leather skull cap and sniffing a rose. Only DP could pull that one off.

1:00:22 ‘Now.’ he says. ‘Do you consent to be my bride?’ (I wonder if this is where they got the idea for Love is Blind?)

1:01:01 She doesn’t consent, so VD lowers a swinging blade onto her – slowly, of course. He needs plenty of time to emote. Just when it draws blood, the director says ‘Cut!’ Which is hugely funny of course. I bet the screenwriter punched the air at that point. Yes! Finally hitting my stride…

1:01:26 John Vernon plays Pomeroy (dreadful name for an actor of the calibre of JV). I’m guessing Pomeroy is the producer or something. Italian, anyway. He wants the director to re-shoot, because Marilyn wasn’t authentic enough. That’s rich, coming from Pomeroy, who looks about as authentic as standing a sofa up on its end and giving it a line (sorry, JV).

1:01:42 Hang on! It looks like poor Marilyn really IS dead! (She was such a bad actress she couldn’t even make dying for real look…erm… real).

1:01:45 A detective interviews Pomeroy in his office. The detective says there was a mix-up in the props department. (What? They used a genuine Giant Pendulum Blade instead of a Fake Giant Pendulum Blade? How big IS that props department?)

1:02:10 The detective lets them off the hook. It’s an easy mistake. Now all they need is a new leading lady. VD sneaks in the office – now dressed in a three-piece pinstripe with polka dot tie and a rose in his lapel. (Just so you know). Turns out, the leading lady who got filleted was actually VD’s wife. VD has a little speech at this point. Does what he can with it. Dear Marilyn…yaddah yaddah…. always the professional… yaddah yaddah…. Meanwhile, Pomeroy and the director stand left and right looking at him as if to say ‘Even Donald Fucking Pleasence can’t lift this script.’ I’m guessing. There’s even a little moment’s silence when he finishes, to mark the passing of their careers.

1:02:53 VD suggests a replacement: Miss Hamilton (Samantha Eggar). Pomeroy looks at her with his monocle in. (He’s wearing the monocle; she hasn’t borrowed it off him). ‘The likeness is amazing!’ says Pomeroy. ‘Only younger,’ says VD.

1:03:42 ‘She looks GOOD!’ says Pomeroy. ‘But can she ACT?’ (I don’t know. Can YOU?)

1:04:35 Cut to: Miss H. arriving at VD’s house. ‘Alone at last!’ he shouts, waving his arms and crossing his eyes in that wonderful way DP has. They cosy up. Miss H reveals that VD switched the rubber blade for a real one. Then she sees his cat. She loves it (you can tell because she says ‘puddy cat’). Turns out it used to be VD’s ex’s cat. Which doesn’t augur well for Miss H. (I know, I know. I’ve overused the word AUGUR. But this is a film that has a lot of augurs. In fact, it’s got more augurs than cats. And THAT’S not a sentence I thought I’d ever type).

1:05:42 ‘What’s his name?’ says Miss H. ‘I don’t know!’ says VD. ‘I call him Scat!’ Then he shouts at it… ‘Scat! It’s the cat gut factory for you tomorrow…’

1:06:16 VD carries Miss H upstairs to bed. Scat puts its paws over its ears & eyes. About five minutes later, Miss H is trying on the ex-wife’s clothes whilst VD lounges in bed lubricating his moustache with the tip of a finger. (His own finger). ‘Oh VD,’ says Miss H. ‘I love you!’ Which is pretty broadminded of her.

1:06:46 Outside the house, a policeman too-wits in the trees. VD & Miss H are sleeping in bed, VD with an eye mask on. A cat cries out downstairs. VD gets up to investigate. He’s wearing pyjamas monogrammed V.D. It’s probably got a special velcro pocket for antibiotics.

1:07:11 Downstairs, he finds out that Scat has given birth to lots of kittens – or a scattering. When VD reaches out to touch one, he gets swiped with the fake paw. He carries the basket out of the kitchen. ‘What are you going to do with them?’ says Miss H. ‘I shall find them some foster parents’ says VD. Maybe he’s going to phone Nora Mason, Town Welfare Department.

1:08:01 …but offstage we hear the sound of a toilet being flushed, so I’m guessing he didn’t. ‘What about the mother?’ says Miss H. ‘I’ll see about her tomorrow when I get back from the studio,’ he says.

1:09:04 VD is on set doing a swordfight whilst Miss H reads a comic. Meanwhile, Scat has infiltrated the building, creeping along a beam. Scat judges the angle between a winch and VD’s head. I wonder if we’ll see a couple of fake paws untying a knot at some point. Or maybe drawing a complicated plan of the security system.

1:10:12 Actually what we DO see is the cat nibbling through a rope holding a lantern. The rope obviously has cat meat smeared on it (I could totally be an animal trainer in the movies).

1:10:35 The lamp falls, missing VD. The fake cat paw clicks its fingers. Aw snap.

1:10:41 Back at VD’s house, he sees Scat and chases it round the house, falling over, tumbling head first into plant pots, the music very Keystone Cops, Miss H waving her hands about. Apparently this film ‘didn’t do well at the box office’. Hmmm.

1:11:52 Miss H uses a clockwork mouse to tempt Scat out so they can catch her. VD stands on a chair ready with a giant net. But he fails. (I’m sorry – that sounds a bit flat. But what can I say? This scene is more of a wind-up than the mouse).

1:13:00 They both drive off to the studio again, leaving lots of traps around a saucer of milk. Scat notices a vial of poison on the side. Shakes his head and tuts (he didn’t, but he totally shoulda).

1:14:00 Miss H is in costume on set, ready to shoot a scene where she goes into an Iron Maiden. VD has to hold the rope that stops the door swinging shut. If I was Miss H I’d ask SOMEONE ELSE to do that job. And if I was the studio’s insurance agent, I’d DEFINITELY ask someone else to do that job. But the scene doesn’t work as Miss H can’t scream realistically enough. ‘They’re real spikes!’ says the director. ‘Yeah – but the back of it pushes out, so…’ It’s like she’s arguing to make the set more dangerous so she can be more authentic. Which is dedication, I suppose. Emphasis on DEAD.

1:15:20 A guy holds up a clapperboard ready to shoot another scene. Apparently this is a Hemorrhage Productions movie called Dungeon of Horror. The clapper board is bigger than the guy, just so we get a chance to read it.

1:15:55 Miss H screams in the middle of the scene. She’s noticed Scat wandering around in the background. Pomeroy takes VD aside and says he wants to recast. VD says he’ll stay behind tonight and go through some scenes.

1:17:00 Whilst VD takes off his makeup in the dressing room, Scat wanders around backstage, figuring out how to rig the Iron Maiden. That degree in mechanical engineering wasn’t wasted, then.

1:17:59 It’s time for VD to re-rehearse the scream scene. She gets in the Iron Maiden. VD says remember ‘…the spikes are coming for your EYES!’ He starts to close the door. ‘EEK!’ says Miss H. She’s been reading too many comics. ‘You sound like a mouse’ says VD. Which ties in with Scat (you can tell I’ve done media studies – I’m all over this shit). He tells her to come out so they can swap places. ‘Now! I shall show you what terror means!’ he says. Scat watches from overhead, rubbing his fake paws. VD gives a masterclass in looking horrified (I think I’m ready to take that class). They swap places again. She sees the cat – screams! ‘Perfect!’ says VD. Scat jumps on his face, he lets the door swing shut. Pulls the door of the Iron Maiden open again (sound effect – like punching a bucket of hair cream…and I should know… )

1:20:48 VD chases Scat around with a halberd (I bet you’re impressed! Halberd! I don’t know what a scullery is, but…). There’s the sound of a distressed cat off screen, so I’m guessing he caught Scat with the halberd. (What language am I even SPEAKING now?)

1:21:19 Pomeroy comes onto the set in the morning. ‘How did your rehearsal go, eh?’ he says. VD is sitting in his makeup chair with his back to him. ‘What’s the matter? The cat got your tongue?’ says Pomeroy – then takes a breath. Because he can see Scat backing off with a prop very much like a tongue. So the halberd WASN’T effective. (Stop saying HALBERD).

1:21:45 Back to Frank & Wilbur. Frank’s even more dubious about the project. He thought he was getting a nice little Christmas HOW TO book about cats. But THIS? Wilbur is totally wired about the book, though, says it’s all here… ‘Years of research… evidence from around the world that cats have been exploiting the human race for centuries.’ Wilbur leaves his manuscript with Frank and says he must get home as he doesn’t like to be out after dark. (Newsflash – it was dark when you started, mate).

1:22:52 Frank stands to get Wilbur his coat, leaving the manuscript perched on his chair by the fire – something that Sugar notices straight away.

1:23:36 Wilbur leaves the house, watched by a tree load of cats. He hurries down the road. Cats pop up everywhere. They must all be on some WhatsCat group or something. He gets mugged on the steps, wrestles with a fake one at his neck, falls back down the steps. Close up of his face. DEAD.

1:25:10 Back at Frank’s place. He’s pawing through the manuscript (sorry). He keeps looking down at the pages, up again slowly, down again… a low growling noise … I’m not sure if it’s Sugar or Frank’s bowels. He carefully folds the manuscript, puts it back in the briefcase, and throws the briefcase on the fire.

1:26:44 Close up of Sugar – who looks so cute & cuddlesome I don’t CARE if he’s part of a worldwide cat conspiracy.

1:27:05 Frank fetches a saucer of milk and puts it down for Sugar. ‘I can’t deny you anything, can I?’ he says.

Closing shot of Wilbur’s dead face out in the street – with cats dancing around in the background. Then a quote from a poem by Lytton Strachey – ‘you can’t trust cats’ (I’m paraphrasing) – and that’s it!

The End

So what’ve I learned?

  1. If your surname is De’ath, don’t make it worse by calling your son Valentine.
  2. Never hide in the scullery. No-one knows what it is or does and no-one cares.
  3. If you must keep cats, why not keep a dog instead.
  4. If you think your deceased sister was a witch, don’t make it worse by burning her magic books.
  5. Don’t let Donald Pleasence work the rope.

Now – as promised – my boring John Vernon story.

I found a book on acting, back of the shelf. It belonged to an American girlfriend of mine. We used to live together, but eventually split up. When she was younger she used to live next door to the Vernon family, and they lent it to her when they knew she was learning to act. And she never returned it. It was ‘An Actor Prepares’ by Konstantin Stanislavski. A tatty paperback, of no great value, except – the inscription on the flyleaf. ‘To my great friend John Vernon. Long may his talent reign’. Or something. I felt uncomfortable having such a family heirloom in my possession. And I couldn’t send it back to my girlfriend as we’d broken off contact. I knew that John’s daughter Kate was also an actor, so I contacted Kate’s agent, asking if I could send the book to them, to be passed on to Kate, because I thought she would appreciate it. I made it clear I wanted nothing back. They said fine, send it. So I did, and that was it. To this day I don’t know if they got it or it was lost in the post. In retrospect I should’ve said can you send me an email just to say you got it, but by that time it was too late to ask without sounding weird.

True story.

You’re welcome.

(Maybe it needed a few cats…)

the cat came back

I saw a cat that looked like you
and wondered if it might be true
that nurse who scanned the chip was wrong
and handed me a different dead cat all along

but how could that be? a chip’s a chip
I can’t imagine she’d have trouble with it
it’s just – you looked exactly the same
and nuzzled my hands when I said your name

Solly was really a brilliant cat
if Death could be tricked he’d be up for that
sneaking out from under their cloak
leaping to life from the side of the boat

but black and white’s a common kinda pattern
from Kathmandu to downtown Manhattan
and I felt the stab of last year’s sorrow
when I saw he lacked a mask like Zorro

canned

There’s a sound like someone managing two sharp turns of a rusty bolt, then a cat walks in – or rather, rocks from side to side, easing its hips.

The cat is ancient, its fur clumpy and all over the place, like someone tossed a tiny black and white throw in the washing machine then slung it over some sticks to dry. The cat’s eyes burn fiercely, fixing it to this life. I imagine if it blinked, the whole thing would simply vanish in one, final, dusty meow, and the little black and white throw would gently settle onto the rug.

‘Twenty three’ says Agnes, pre-empting the obvious question.
‘Wow! Twenty-three! We had a cat that was nineteen and I thought THAT was old. But twenty-three…’
The cat stares at me: Say twenty-three again – I dare you – I double-dare you… I hear in my head.
‘Where did you get him?’
‘The cemetery.’
‘The cemetery?’
‘He was about one they reckon, with his head caught in a can. The fire brigade had to snip it off. It was in the papers. When I read about it I went down to the shelter. He was furious with everyone of course. But I spent some time there, sitting with him, just talking about this and that. And he seemed to come round. And when I asked if I could adopt him they said yes! And here we are!’
‘So what did you call him?’
‘Guess,’ she says.
‘I don’t know. Lucky?’
She shakes her head.
‘Snippy? Beans?’
‘It was a tin of cat food. I don’t suppose he’d have tried so hard if it was an old tin of beans.’
‘No. You’re probably right. I don’t know, then. I give up.’
‘Tintin!’
‘Of course.’
‘Actually I didn’t call him Tintin. The girls at the centre did. But it seemed to stick.’
‘Like the can.’
Agnes doesn’t respond to that; Tintin certainly doesn’t.
‘YOU’RE SITTING IN MY SPOT!’ shouts Agnes suddenly leaning forward. ‘THAT’S WHERE I LIKE TO JUMP UP!’
She sounds so cross I actually flinch. For a second I think she means I’ve inadvertently taken her place on the sofa. But – jump up? The last time Agnes did any jumping up was maybe the Marquee Club in 1962.
‘That’s what Tintin’s thinking,’ she says, relaxing back again. ‘But don’t let him bully you. Now then – where were we…?’

call me the cat

Frances. Francis.

I always default to thinking es like the er in her / is like the im in him. You’d think it would be quicker than that by now, but either because I don’t come across the name often enough for it to stick, or because I’m a robot and no-one thought to tell me, the fact is, that’s the rubric I’m doomed to run through every time I come across the name. (In a similar way sometimes when I think right or left, I get a strong mental picture of a prefab classroom – a door on one side, a piano by the window – because when I was an infant the teacher told us that was the way to remember it: the piano on the left, the door on the right. Although, thinking about it, did she mean her left or our left? In which case, I’ve been getting it wrong all these years.)
The point is, Frances (es like the er in her) is sitting by the open window, staring out at me as I walk down the steps to the front door.

‘Hi Frances!’ I say, waving cheerfully. 
She doesn’t respond.

I’ve been warned what to expect. Before coming out that morning I’d phoned Cara, the next of kin listed on the notes. Cara was worried.

‘Frannie’s dementia’s usually fine. I mean – unless you knew her you’d barely notice. She gets a bit muddled sometimes and she can get a bit riled up. This week, though….’
‘Why? What’s been happening?’
‘Apart from me she has carers going in twice a day. She got cross with them and threw them out. Wasn’t taking her pills. Was getting in a state. Wouldn’t see me. Then she had a fall out of bed. The ambulance picked her up but she refused to go to hospital. And then the next day when I went round I found she’d barricaded herself in. I called the doctor, who said she might have a UTI, so that’s why you’ve been called. She seems to have calmed down a bit, but she still won’t let me in.’
‘Okay. Shall I see you there?’
‘That’d be great.’

Frances’ house is opposite a broad, rising sweep of woodland. A faint blush of green is just visible, spreading through the bare trees. Early morning walkers are striding purposefully up the paths, their dogs running on. The morning smells fresh, sunshine on frost and moss and damp tarmac. Everyone seems invigorated. Even though it’s early, a couple of neighbours have brought camping chairs out onto their porches. 
‘Is she alright?’ one says, shielding his eyes from the sun.
‘Here’s hoping.’
‘Give her our best.’

Cara hasn’t arrived yet, but I decide not to wait – especially as Frannie has seen me and would wonder what I was doing, hanging around in her front garden. 
I walk up to the window.
‘Hey Frances!’ I say. ‘My name’s Jim. I’m with a community health team. Your GP has asked me to drop by and see how you are.’
I pull my ID badge forwards on its elasticated cord. She looks at it, but doesn’t focus.
‘Oh yes,’ she says.
‘Are you able to get to the door, or shall I use the keysafe?’
‘Just a minute.’
‘Okay. But it might be easier if I use the keysafe….’
Too late. I wonder if she’s decided to let me in or strengthen the defences at the front door. Either way, she begins the slow and painful process of getting from the edge of the bed to the hallway. It would be easier to ask one of the trees behind me to lift up its roots and make its way to the door. 
‘Are you okay, Frances?’ I shout through the window.
‘Just a minute!’ she snaps, then carries on.

I move to the porch, and wait. 

After five minutes, during which the grunting and swearing from inside the house gets progressively louder and more emphatic, there’s a sudden fumbling of latches, things clattering, bolts being thrown. The door judders in its frame a little. Then again. Then nothing.
‘Can you do it, Frances?’
‘No. It’s stuck.’
‘Oh. Well – shall I climb through the window and help you?’
‘Alright then.’

I put my bag and folder down, and walk back round to the window. It only opens so far, and there’s a great clutter of things just the other side. Luckily I find enough of a handgrip to haul myself up onto the ledge, breathing in, squeezing sideways through the gap, then twisting into a desperate, tip-toeing contortion, release my grip, give a last second jump, and land with a thump in the middle of the room. 
There’s an enormous cat just ahead of me. It sinks down on its paws in alarm. The cat is ludicrously furry, like a sheep or a huge duster, or maybe one of those rollers you see in a car wash. 
‘S’okay! S’okay!’ I say, putting out my hand. Which the cat takes as an attempt to grab it, so it runs away in double-quick time. I can’t see its paws, so it looks more like something being snapped away on an invisible piece of elastic.

Frances is supporting herself against the wall. I help her back to the bed, then return to open the door and get my bag. At the same time, the doorbell rings.
‘Is that Cara?’ I say, struggling with the latch.
‘Jim?’ she says. ‘Is that you…?’
The latch finally gives. I throw the door open.
‘Hello!’ I say.
Cara frowns, tilts her head to one side and points at the unopened keysafe.
‘But… How did you…?’
‘I came through the cat flap.’
‘You what…?’
‘Yeah. Well. Sometimes it’s handy being small.’


the cat knows everything

Gary’s shown hostility to health care professionals in the past, and the record says we’re only to visit in pairs. I’m a little early meeting up with Lisa, so I park up outside and take the opportunity to finish off some notes on the laptop. I’ve just settled in to start writing when Gary’s door opens and a woman steps out. She’s tall and pale and pinched looking, wearing a green and black nylon tracksuit, her long hair dragged back in a ponytail. She takes out a fag packet and is just about to have a smoke when she sees me, sitting there. I wind down the window to tell her I’ve come to see Gary and I’m just waiting on my colleague, but before I can say anything she shoves the fags back in her pocket, walks backwards into the doorway, and maintaining eye contact for as long as she can, slowly shuts the door.

It doesn’t augur well.

Lisa turns up ten minutes later. I’d trust any of the team to go on a difficult visit, but if I had to choose, Lisa would be it. The Italians have a word for how she is: sprezzatura – a kind of nonchalance or ease, wearing her skill lightly, with great warmth and humanity, as if it’s really nothing and no trouble at all, and what was it that needed doing, now, and suddenly it’s done, and everyone feels better.

‘How’s it going there, Jim?’ she says, padding along the street. ‘Have you been waitin’ long?’

We go together through the terrible little garden, knock and wait. There are sounds from inside. An exchange of light and shadow in the frosted panes above the door. A clattering of the lock, and suddenly the door opens.
A bare chested man, his eyes squeezed shut, his smile as wide and flat as the Man in the Moon.
‘I expect you’re wondering why I’m half naked?’ he says. ‘Only I was just having a carton of cherry and raspberry squash, and I didn’t want to get any on my t-shirt.’
‘No. That would stain, right enough,’ says Lisa.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘You’d never get it out.’

There’s a steep, bare board staircase just behind the man. The woman I saw earlier is crouched at the top, peering down at us on all fours.
‘Don’t listen to him!’ she shouts. ‘He sees ghosts!’
‘Okay, now! That’s interesting!’ says Lisa. ‘So… is yer man through in this room, or … ‘
‘Ye-es,’ says the man, stepping to one side and knocking on the door. ‘I say Gary? There are two lovely nurses to see you.’
Show them in but keep Jackie out.
‘Righto.’

The man pushes the door open and nods for us to go through. Meanwhile, Jackie has started coming down the stairs, slowly feeling with her feet for each tread whilst her face stays as fixed on us as a steadicam.
‘Now, now, Jacqueline!’ says the man. ‘Gary doesn’t want you there.’
Jackie gives a petulant scream, sits down on the step and folds her arms.
‘After you,’ says the man.
We step into the room.

It’s hot as a sauna – the foetid, barrelling kind, where you fling urine on the coals instead of water. I wonder how long Gary’s been lying on his bed like this, his teeth grey and claggy as if he’s been snacking on ash. It’s like we’ve stumbled into a mausoleum, where the occupant took up early residency for want of anything better to do, and his stuff got chucked in after him. There are two posters on the wall: Jimi Hendricks leaning back from a guitar solo; The Beatles all in a line.
‘Wha’d’ya want?’ says Gary.
‘Hello there!’ says Lisa, offering him her hand. ‘Nice to meet you, Gary. This is my colleague Jim. We’ve been asked to come see how you’re doing.’
‘How’m I doing?’ he says. ‘I’m NOT doing.’
‘What’s troubling you today, then, Gary?’
‘I can’t keep nothin’ down. I feel sick all the time. I’ve got no energy. I’m wracked with pain. Is that enough for you?’
‘That’s enough for anyone,’ she says. ‘You poor thing. Let’s see what’s what, then. I’ll just do your blood pressure and whatnot and see how that is, and Jim here’ll take a wee bit o’blood, if that’s okay?’
‘I don’t care,’ he says. ‘You may as well. I’ve got to go to the toilet first, though.’
He nods in the direction of a commode whose pot has been removed so it can fit over a bucket.
‘Do you need a hand getting out of bed, there, Gary?’ says Lisa.
‘I’ll be alright, thanks,’ he says. ‘If you wouldn’t mind stepping outside for a bit.’
‘No worries.’
We leave him to it.

Out in the hall the bare chested man has gone and Jackie is nowhere to be seen. Instead, an ancient black and white cat yowls as it approaches us from the living room. I’m guessing it’s blind because both its eyes are white. It feels its way along the wall, one paw at a time. I crouch down and hold my hand out. The cat stops, sniffs the air, then moves in my direction. When it gets closer I see that its tongue pokes out to the side, too.
‘Poor wee fella!’ says Lisa.
I stroke the cat. It starts purring – a deep, rumbly sound – his tail pointing straight up, as if he’s absorbing the affection and transmitting it somewhere.
‘The cat! The cat knows everything!’ says a voice at the top of the stairs.
Jackie is there, staring down at us again.
‘Oh – they do, though, don’t they?’ says Lisa, smiling up at her. ‘Cats. You’re right there, Jackie. They certainly do.’

Solly

Solly was a supercat
with a mask & gloves & pointy beard and all that
getting into the usual scrapes
that supercats in capes
the world over do
like hiding in bamboo
and unexpectedly leaping out at you
like sitting at the tailiest top of the tallest wall
and calmly looking down on us all
like going out in the rain
and coming straight back in again
or snoozing under the rhubarb
in the overgrown backyard
watching the finches giving it some
round & round the feeder in the shady viburnum
Solly was a chancer, a pawsy, floorsy advancer,
a sofa surfer and tall grass prancer
a sunlight finder, dinner reminder
an expert in the art of the happy head-nuzzle
the underbelly scruzzle
the mid-eared scraggle
the reverse flick & lazy lick
the no-way-are-you-getting-me-in-that-carrier trick
the fully hypnotised pet
curled up as small as a medium-sized cat can get
cradled in our daughter’s arms
as she softly sings her charm
rocking gently from side to side
locking eyes
young woman, young cat
and how happy he is and we are for that
how he reaches up slowly to touch her on the chin
with the claws of his paws all carefully drawn in

P1080042

 

the works

There’s a builder’s truck blocking the mews. It’s up on hydraulic stabilisers as the driver operates the winch, dropping off enormous bags of sand and gravel, the engine labouring as the next load gets taken up, the back of the truck lurching with the sudden change of weight. I can’t imagine what building project would require such a massive delivery – maybe one of those basement excavations you read about, an underground pool and cinema and gym, perhaps. A lift shaft to a cocktail bar and viewing platform at the earth’s core. Whatever the reason, the contrast with the ancient backstreet couldn’t be more extreme. Two hundred years ago these would have been a row of stables with offices, lofts and basic accommodation above; now they’re a mixture of chi-chi businesses, full-scale conversions, and the cobbled street curves down right and left not to straw and manure-heaped gutters but expensive planters, artisanal signs and cutely painted old bikes with geraniums in the basket.

We’ve had to park at the far end by the equipment van that’s here to deliver a hospital bed. They could only have beaten us by fifteen minutes and yet they’re already half-way through. Once again I’m in awe of their efficiency and sheer work ethic, like scaled-up ants in yellow jackets. A hospital bed is no light thing. It comes in sections, of course, but the main frame is pretty heavy. A feature of the flats in these mews is a steep and narrow staircase running straight up from the front door – no doubt originally to a hay loft. To make things even more awkward, the house we’re visiting has a stair lift, so really there’s hardly any room at all to get the bed in. When we stroll up, though, they’ve already got the frame delivered, and all that’s left are the mattress, a cantilever table and a few other bits and pieces.
‘What did you do – commandeer the truck?’ I say to one of them, who is so red-faced I want to lean in and loosen his collar.
He laughs, slicks his antennae back.
‘Maybe you could take the table?’ he says.

The whole thing is something of a rush job. The GP had visited George late last night. George is a ninety-five year old man with a recent palliative diagnosis who has declined rapidly and unexpectedly straight into an End of Life scenario. He was refusing hospital, so the GP had prescribed anticipatory meds, made referrals to the District Nurse and Palliative teams, and to us for urgent review first thing in the morning. Katrina had gone straight there from home and was busy by eight. By nine she’d phoned in to make her report: it was bed care only, so George needed a hospital bed with pressure mattress and slide sheet to be delivered the same day, with someone to be there to help with a pat slide; George needed care support four times a day, double-up; he needed pads, pressure cream, foam lollipops for mouth care – the works. I said I could meet Katrina there at lunchtime to get the whole thing done.

George’s wife Valerie greets us at the top of the stairs.
‘Forgive my hair,’ she says, patting it. ‘I must look a fright. But as you can imagine I’ve had quite a night.’
Both Valerie and the flat have the shocked look of something hit by lightning. Everything is essentially as it was – the pictures, the chairs, the collections of antique pill boxes and books, the Moroccan rugs and tables and lamps, the family pictures on the walls – everything so perfectly placed and orderly the housekeeper must have a tape measure in their pocket. But the furthest end of the flat – the main bedroom end – has a sprawled, disrupted appearance, with a wreckage of discarded packaging, plastic strapping and so on spilling across the hallway, whilst through the open door the sound of construction and the movement of heavy furniture adds to the feeling of emergency. The noise from the builder’s truck outside sounds like a fire engine.
‘What a business!’ says Valerie. ‘But you know, everyone’s been so kind. We really are most grateful.’

There’s a large tabby cat staring at me from the middle of the living room rug. It’s as perfectly groomed as Valerie, and I half-expect it to reach up with a paw and pat itself delicately on the head, as she did.
‘Grammaticus is very put out,’ says Valerie, walking over to him. ‘He’s nineteen, you know? Like us – old and worn out. He can’t tolerate the fuss.’
She bends down stiffly and painfully, scooping him up to cradle him in her arms, just exactly as you would a baby, pressing her nose to the top of his head, rocking him up and down, swinging her hips a little from side to side. He maintains his stare, making little adjustments to accommodate the motion.
‘He looks good for his age,’ I say.
‘Do you think?’ she says. Then – still rocking the cat – she looks off towards the window. Down in the street, the noise from the builder’s lorry has eased. It sounds as if all the deliveries might have finished, and instead there are shouts and raucous laughter, the plaintive whining of hydraulic legs being lifted, the off-kilter clattering of a concrete mixer.
‘Good God,’ says Valerie. ‘When will it all end?’

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.’