beatrix splutter

Agnes lives in the last of a series of two-roomed cottages that tail off into the privet at the far end of an obscure cul-de-sac. It’s a dead-end, deeply shaded, out-of-the-way kind of place. The kind of place you’d imagine outlaws to live – at least, a very suburban kind of outlaw, with mobility scooters instead of horses.

I pass a strange duo sitting outside the first bungalow: an elderly man and his equally elderly cat. The man has no teeth, which makes it look as if his flat cap is a plunger that’s been pressed and driven the upper half of his head further down into his neck. He’s liberally smacking his lips as he concentrates on rolling a fag, one long and skinny leg crooked over the other and spasmodically kicking up and down, no doubt in time to his heartbeat. The cat is sitting on its haunches on the rusted patio table beside him, so fixed on the fag-rolling it’s like he’s waiting for the old man to finish, and pass the cigarette to him.
‘Morning!’ I say as I walk past.
The old man nods and waves the half-finished fag in the air. The cat merely turns to stare, in one smooth, arrogant slide, and an expression that seems to say: Don’t distract him.

Agnes’s cottage is so stuffed full of junk there’s almost no room for Agnes. She’s installed in bed in a living room with just enough space to move from the end of the bed to the commode. The whole scene is like a burrow, poorly lit by a low-wattage lamp on the shelf above her that casts a febrile, enclosing kind of light. Agnes smiles at me as I introduce myself. She’s like a Beatrix Potter mouse in a bonnet and nightie, twitching her whiskers as Doctor Magpie hops in and starts flapping around, trying to figure out whether any of her problems are new or not, and what’s to be done.

An hour or so later, when I’m walking back along the path, and filling my lungs with fresh air, I can’t help wondering if I’ll see the old man and the cat again. And yes – they are there, in exactly the same position. The old man is still smoking, tipping back his head and releasing such a quantity of smoke you’d think each cigarette would be vapourised in one, deep drag. The cat has already heard me coming, and draws a bead as I walk past the gate.
‘Alright?’ I say, and then: ‘Nice day’
The man raises his cigarette in the air in the same way as before, except now he accidentally disturbs a quantity of ash into his lap. He curses, uncross his legs, leans forward, and begins urgently smacking his trousers clear. The cat watches him, then turns to look at me again, this time with an expression that seems to say: You made him do that.