That’s my cat, Little Juan, also known as Small, because he is! My words today were Quirky, Elicit, and Shocking, and I have used a second of the ‘ridiculous first lines’ to start the story off.
“I may have accidentally sort of adopted five cats.”
Joe stared at Sarah, momentarily lost for words. He was used to her quirky lifestyle, her Boho chic, her multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-cat house with fairy garden and half-finished nude statues – leftovers from her sculpting craze – and even her job as a life model at the local uni. He didn’t think there was anything left she could spring on him, but seriously…
Joe knew he was clutching at straws but the words were ambiguous, if he believed they were. He tried not eye the picnic hamper over her arm and the faint and very familiar sounds coming from within.
“Well, Carrie said her Aunt’s cat, Mittens had had kittens and she couldn’t keep them and if no-one took them they were going to the vet to be put down and she was desperate and I have all this room and I love cats and they were so very cute and I promised I’d help Carrie out and…
A particularly mournful whine issued from the hamper. Sarah popped it onto the kitchen table – already festooned with her latest mania, a whirlwind of decoupage necessities – snapped the lid open and smiled beatifically as five bundles of fur scrambled over each other to be the first out of the hated prison. With a sinking feeling, Joe watched her face, and accepted that they now had five more cats. A vibrant ginger male tried diligently to shove a white sibling onto the floor whilst three black and white variations staggered purposefully toward a pot of glue and started scattering the piles of paper clippings in every direction after Sarah removed the potential meal of the glue-pot.
“Aren’t they just adorable?” she crooned and Joe nodded resignedly, helping her remove the little fluffballs onto the floor where the piddling and pooing commenced.
It was truly shocking, Joe reflected, how oblivious Sarah was when it came to real world situations. He already knew it would be he who remembered to change the litter trays, search outlying corners for stray ‘offerings’ and make sure the little cuties got the right amount of feed. Left to her own devices in the past, Sarah had blocked the loo by carelessly tipping litter tray contents into it on a regular basis, been completely bamboozled by the ‘strange smell’ which turned out to be several days worth of offerings left under the sink by her elderly tabby who was all but a perfect circle from being overfed. The crafty beast had soon cottoned on to the fact that if he made enough of a nuisance of himself Sarah would feed him. He did it constantly, not to mention the titbits which he could elicit from Sarah’s plate at meal times. Seeing him trying to get off his back, like a turned turtle, was both horrifying and guiltily amusing.
A couple of days later, Joe’s agency sent him out to fill in for staff at a local nursing home. As he trundled about, delivering mid-morning snacks and drinks, he paused before a closed door. It was unusual to see any door shut in Appledays, not even the owner hid away. Joe gently rapped his knuckles against the polished wood, listened and heard nothing. A passing carer, looking approachably efficient in her apple green uniform with apple-shaped name tag, shook her head.
“Wouldn’t bother. She never opens her door. Only creeps out to grab her meal trays when no-one is around.”
“No idea. Sorry, I have to give Mr Belling his bath.”
Joe pondered, rapped on the door a couple more times and had to admit defeat before his beverages got cold. Still, finishing his round and dropping the cart back to the kitchen, he felt an itch to know more about the hermit of room 53.
He got lucky. Shift over, he was heading to the office to clock out and see if they wanted him for another day when he bumped into Clara Diller, owner and head honcho at Appledays.
“Do you have a moment?” he asked.
She paused, eyed him, clearly dredging her mind for his name, gave up and settled for a winning smile.
“Joe” he offered, “Just been told I’ll be covering for Sharon, for three months?”
“Ah, Joe, of course. What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering about the lady in 53? I’m told she never leaves her room, or opens her door.”
“I believe that’s so. Poor lady, a very sad case. I can understand her withdrawal from society. We do like to allow our clients to choose their lifestyle as much as possible so we do not disturb her.”
“May I ask what happened to her?”
Clara gave a furtive glance up and down the corridor and pulled Joe into the alcove created by a set of external doors.
“We’re not supposed to discuss patients with temps, but you are clearly a proper carer in the truest sense of the word. Anna Davies, room 53, came to us a year ago. Aged 72 she had been running a rescue for cats at her home. No-one knew she had the beginnings of dementia as she is alone in the world. A proper cat-lady, they were her friends as much as her charges. The house was a little dilapidated, the electrics not what they should have been, her burgeoning confusion meaning she avoided contact with people who might have helped her out, and something sparked a fire. It was out of control before she or anyone else knew anything about it. The firemen rescued her at the last minute and she was hospitalised with smoke inhalation. Sadly, though thankfully there were only three cats at the house during the fire, the animals could not be rescued. When they finally told her, she became convinced it was all her fault and simply stopped speaking or interacting with anyone.”
“That’s tragic!” Joe exclaimed, but later he was sure, even then, the germ of an idea had begun to sprout.
Over the next week, Joe began wooing the silent presence in room 53. Every morning and afternoon he dropped off a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits on a tray outside the door and called cheerfully.
“Tea’s up, Mrs Anna.”
The staff were amused when every day passed with no response, no tea drunk or biscuit nibbled, but Joe was sure he could make a difference. He was right. The following Monday a note was trapped by the upturned, empty teacup.
‘Mrs Anna belongs in The King & I. Just Anna, and I prefer Earl Grey.‘
Joe bought the tea out of his own money and his idea crystallised around a pretty flowered china teapot he spotted in a second hand store. He bought it, borrowed a tea-cosy from his nana and set to work with a will. For two weeks he dropped off the tea in the teapot, under the cosy, and alternated the items on the plate. Sponge cake and cucumber sandwiches were acceptable and vanished quietly. Garibaldis (‘Squashed fly biscuits, I think not!’ read the note) and fish paste (Really, young man?) got the desired reactions. When he had three solid weeks of interaction under his belt, even if the door remained firmly closed, Joe was ready.
On the final Saturday of the month he ambled along, barely able to keep a grin off his face. He was surprised but pleased to see Anna’s door cracked, just a little. He did not presume to step inside, simply following his normal routine, calling that her treats were outside, very gently setting the tray on the table by her door. He walked away with an ‘I’ll be back in a half hour, Anna’ and slowed, waiting. He heard the door creak open a little, the rattle of the teacup in the saucer and then a slight squeak of surprise.
“Young man! Come here!”
Joe turned, schooling his face and took in the almost poker-face breaking sight of a delicate fairy of an elderly lady with a fluff of white hair staring at the ball of furious white fluff that had shot out from under the tea cosy and up her arm to sit spitting with venom if not power on her shoulder.
“Where on earth did you get that, Anna?” he inquired.
“It certainly isn’t mine!” she responded sharply, “Take it away and…”
It was that precise moment when the kitten tried to climb inside the sensible, high-buttoned neck of her blouse, failed, tumbled down her front and was caught by her surprisingly fast hands before it could thud to the floor. It fixed huge blue eyes on her pale green ones and purred fit to bust.
“I’ll get someone to take it to the local shelter.” Joe offered, reaching for the now curled up and falling asleep beastie she held gingerly against her chest. Her hesitation was all he needed to know he’d done the right thing.
“Will he be rehomed?” she asked, her voice rusty with disuse, her eyes now on his, looking for reassurance.
“I expect so. I don’t think they put them down.”
“Are you sure?”
Joe didn’t think she was aware of how she was now curling the little furball protectively to her, slightly turning away from Joe.
“Not really, but there’s no-one to care for him here…”
It was enough. Anna, straightened her back, lifted her chin and she was suddenly in command.
“Young man, do you have a name?” This seemed to be an after-thought, as if her lack of social interaction caused the need to know someone’s name to come as a surprise, and Joe supplied it quickly, “Joe, I want you to go fetch me kitten food, a litter tray, a water bowl….”
The list went on for some time and Joe almost skipped down the corridor as Anna vanished back into her room, her absorption with the kitten causing her to forget to shut her door, her voice low and crooning as she rocked the little miracle worker in her hands.
Rounding the corner he stopped short, confronted by a crowd of staff led by Clara. He was about to go on the defensive when they broke into quiet applause and several stepped forward to shake his hand, including Clara.
“You are a natural, Joe. Thank you on behalf of Anna, who will no doubt never say that to you, obsessed as she will be with that creature. I would like to offer you a permanent position; let’s face it, I’m going to need someone to run round after Anna and her new acquisition!”
Later, walking home on a cloud of happiness, Joe had a sudden thought. What on earth was he going to tell Sarah?!