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.

back into spit

It’s a difficult situation. Everyone’s tried persuading Edward to go to hospital. The manager, another resident, the domestic – even Ray, the gardener, standing in the doorway with a lawn rake in his hand.
‘Why don’t you just do like the gentleman says? He knows what he’s talking about. I should hope. What’s to be gained, hanging on like this?’
‘I am NOT going back into spit and that’s that,’ says Edward.
Ray looks at me and shrugs.
‘It’s a free country,’ he says. ‘‘I’ll be outside if you need me.’

Edward was only discharged a few days ago following a spell in hospital with pneumonia. Now it seems as if the infection is back and more widespread. All the red flags associated with sepsis are fluttering loudly around his bed: temperature, tachycardia, low blood pressure, low SATS and so on. The trouble is, Edward hated it in hospital. He couldn’t get any sleep. The nurses were forever bothering him. The bed was uncomfortable. It was too bright.
‘Well – no-one would book a holiday there,’ I tell him.
‘They certainly would NOT.’
‘But sometimes hospital is the only place to be.’
‘No, no, NO.’
I can see I’m going to be here a while.
‘I can’t just leave you, Edward.’
‘Why not? I’ll be fine.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
‘You could die, for starters.’
‘Nonsense! I’m fine. I’m a hardy old soldier, you know. I’m perfectly able to look after myself.’
‘When did you last get out of bed?’
‘A few days ago.’
‘So you haven’t been to the loo since you came back from hospital?’
‘Not really, no. But then I haven’t been drinking much, so there you are.’
‘Except a little wine, I see.’
‘Only a snifter. But one thing’s for damned sure, I am NOT going back into spit.’

I call Edward’s daughter, Jenny, using his ancient phone with the rotary dial. I explain the situation to her, then pass the handset over. He holds the phone slightly off to the side, staring at me as she speaks, shaking his head sadly.
‘It’s no good you keeping on,’ he says. ‘I’m not going back to that dreadful place and that’s that. I’d rather expire here in bed, in comfort.’
He hands the phone back to me. I try to reassure Jenny that I’ll do my best, and promise to call her again with an update.
‘Sorry’ she says, sounding tearful. ‘He’s never been what you might call easy. And to cap it all, our dog died this morning.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
She pauses to blow her nose.
‘Sorry,’ she says again. ‘But Dad’s got to understand – we can’t go on like this.’
The phone pings when I put it down.
‘Jenny says you’ve got to go.’
‘Does she?’
‘Yes. She told me she’s at breaking point.’
Breaking point!’ says Edward. ‘Women don’t break.’

Antoni the cook comes in, a huge figure in black and white check trousers, enormous rubber shoes and a blue plastic cap.
‘Oh – what now?’ says Edward.
‘My man!’ booms Antoni. ‘Mister Edward sir! What is this I am hearing? You are very very sick and you will not go to hospital? What is this nonsense?’
‘Why would I go back to hospital? I’ve only just come from there. They wouldn’t have let me out if they didn’t think I was well enough.’
I shake my head.
‘These things can happen quite quickly. You were okay then. You’re not now. That’s it.’
‘Can’t you just get the doctor out? I’m sure he could give me something?’
‘Yes he definitely can!’ says Antoni, putting two fingers to his temple and triggering his thumb. ‘This is what they do to stubborn old men who won’t do as they’re told. They shoot them like the sick horses.’
He looks at me and laughs.
‘I am not going back into spit and that is final,’ says Edward.
Antoni leans in to me and speaks in a lower voice.
‘What is this spit? To what is the meaning, please?’
‘I’m not sure. I think it’s an old army term for prison.’
‘Ah! I see! This is the brave soldier on the beach who carry his leg in his arms and he shoot with it.’
‘Something like that, yes.’
‘Well good luck to you sir!’
He pats me on the shoulder with a vast, floury hand, then taps the side of his nose a few times, and winks.
‘Come see me in the kitchen,’ he says.