John often called his mother stubborn, but she’d show him.
Her son was the dogged one; not her. He’d been that way since he was a toddler, refusing to eat his greens and shitting all over the floor. Over the years it brought a refusal to clean his room and failing to get his sorry arse in before ten. Now he insisted she move out and come and live in his backroom, where he could keep an eye on her. Jean wasn’t stubborn; she just refused to do as he said. Still, he insisted on calling her every night; checking on her since the operation, prying if she’d changed her mind yet.
She gazed at dishwater clouds through droplets streaming down the glass. Closing the window, she shut out the drone of rain. Behind her, curled up on the back of the sofa, George released a pathetic meow of protest.
“Not like you were going out there,” grumbled Jean. She hobbled back to the worn out cushions and gingerly laid her wide frame back onto the thinned fabric. A pause during the painful descent allowed her a quick tickle under the cat’s chin. Gritting her teeth, Jean leaned back, raising her bandaged right foot onto the arm of the sofa.
It had been more ammo for John, the controlling little sod. She’d been getting along just fine by herself all these years. It took more than a minor operation to change that. Though not according to her son. The phone never stopped ringing. You could’ve died or You shouldn’t have been carrying that kind of weight. A large tin of cat food. How silly to nearly croak from dropping a tin of cat food on your foot. Still, blood clots don’t play around.
John could talk. Jean had been to the supermarket with him and seen the size of those sacks of dry mix dogs need. That and tinned meat? His mutt ate better than her. Drop one of those sacks on your foot and you might be trapped for days.
Jean wiggled her toes and grimaced. She had a clear view of her propped up foot. A crazy itch had driven her to ignore the doctor, and she’d pulled the bandage down just an inch to get a knitting needle in there for a good old scratch. The deep gash, where the surgeon had done all manner of poking around, lay dark and crusty, running down between her big toe and its neighbour. The flimsy butterfly stitches seemed to barely hold it together. Don’t they use needle and thread anymore? That’s the problem with people today: too afraid of a little pain.
“Pussies,” said Jean. “Pussies? Ah, there you are.”
Cara, her only female, snuck around the skirting board of the kitchen doorway. With continents of tortoiseshell on white, her furry body was the map of a distant world, with a country shaped like India between the eyes, lending the gentle lady a permanent frown. Cara stopped as something caught her eye, but after deeming it unworthy of enquiry, continued on, settling under the heater.
How could anyone want a dog? Beasts. All drooling and shedding. John’s dog smelled like a damp mop with a coat to match. It always tried to jump up at her, pushing with those dirty great paws. He likes you, John always said. Rubbish. It would rip out her throat given the chance, like all those poor children you see on the news killed by Pit bulls. Cats on the other hand never jumped on her without invitation. A tentative pad to test your permission before gently sliding into your lap for dozy purring. Such polite creatures. Who would want a dog? Who would want an overeager shaggy child when such elegance was on offer?
To think! John wanted her to give him a key. A key to her home. Letting that dog walk around, shedding hair on the carpet.
“There’s your sister,” said Jean to George, playfully pinching the cranium of her small, grey male. His tail curled in response, yet from his perch high on the sofa back, he watched Cara with little interest.
Her bigger male, Samson, a beautifully pale Devon Rex, had stayed in the kitchen.
Jean strained to hear over the television, but knew the familiar sound of the slender feline nosing the food dish across the linoleum. She sighed. Jean had certainly not developed a phobia of cat food after her little mishap; she’d just forgotten to fill their dish again.
She peered across the room to the phone on the bookcase, expecting it to ring. How can you look after three cats if you can’t look after yourself? she heard John say. She looked after her cats just fine. That was another reason she refused to move into his home; her babies would have to go. Can’t share a house with that canine monster.
“Just wait,” she called, settling back on the sofa. “Mummy just has to rest her foot.” Using the remote tucked between the cushions she turned the television up just enough to drown out Samson’s impatient game of dish hockey. “I’ll do it after this show.”
A sudden blare snatched Jean from her dreams, and her eye popped open, groggy regard seeking out the horrendous din.
A young man on the television, the sleeves of his T-shirt crudely cut to show off thick, tattooed arms like slabs of far rotten meat covered in dark moss. In contrast, the guitar that he thrashed was clean and white.
She felt along the sofa for the remote to turn the racket down, but failed to see it in the darkness. While the rain had continued, the hazy grey light from the window had slipped away. Only the harsh, twitching glare from the screen lit the room.
Fell asleep, she realised, finally finding the remote. God help my power bill…
Her fingers tightened around the remote, threatening to snap the plastic casing. Something had pounced on her chest and smashed the side of her head. Jean released a single hacking cough, dropping the remote to the floor as it slipped from her convulsing fingers. Her back arching, she stared at the dark ceiling, the television projection distorted across it to the cutting, ragged din of the guitar, the endless pound of drums, wailing, screaming…
Jeans eyes rolled up. Her bladder let go, soaking her body in warmth. Her injured foot, still managing to retain its place on the arm of the sofa, shuddered, the bandage slipping.
Emerald eyes watched from beneath the heater, and seeing nothing of interest, slowly closed back into the darkness.
The word slurred through Jean’s mind as the cold steel light of an unforgiving morning dragged her consciousness back, kicking and screaming.
I’m drunk. Must be.
One eye fluttered open against the invading sun. The other stayed closed and content, hidden and dozing in its bed. The light burned through her eye and into her head, her brain seeming to swell, squeezing against the inside of her skull. Jean groaned and closed her eye from the attack.
She remembered a time before John’s father: twenty-two, early sixties. Her elder sister, rest her soul, and a few of her friends had taken her dancing. Some of the local boys had a crate of cheap wine stashed behind the town hall, which, of course, had been readily shared. While she often reminisced over the remainder of that night, her psyche had buried the following morning deep. It came crashing back. Everyone remembers the first time they got rip-roaring drunk.
But I haven’t had a drop, Jean strained to think, recalling something about a shining white guitar in the dead of night.
Her tongue probed the back of her teeth, both feeling as furry as the backs of her babies.
Jean fought the sensation of her brain leaking out of an opened tin and forced herself up from the sofa.
Nothing happened. Her body refused to move an inch.
She opened her eye, inviting another solar blast to the retina. She winced…yet her face stayed slack, the flesh numb, like she’d been beaten to a pulp and only the few untouched patches stayed receptive. She blinked several times. Her right eye obeyed. Her left stayed dark.
No, she tried to say. Her lips quivered, and she released a subdued grunt. Spittle gathered at the corner of her mouth.
Jean released a long slow breath.
On the television a cartoon cat chased a mischievous mouse, attacking it with a frying pan and missing every time. The room had filled with the sound of raucous crashing and banging, all set to a swinging, merry orchestra. The cat promptly ran into the fist of an upright bulldog; its elastic skull expanding back as the lithe body continued on.
Jean attempted to reach for the remote again, hoping that a little quiet might help her think straight. Her hand defied, fingers barely trembling. Nor could she lift her head for a better view.
I think we’re in a spot of bother, old girl.
Her body didn’t feel weighted or tied down; it simply didn’t feel at all. Her right eye remained under her control, and she still had sensation in her lips, jaw, and cheek despite the muscles ticking against her will. She concentrated on moving each individual limb, rewarded only with a slight tingle in her right arm down to the fingertips. It had slipped off the sofa in the night and hung out at an angle over the carpet.
Movement under the radiator caught Jean’s eye.
Cara slid out from the narrow gap as if her spine was liquid and idly stood before the heater. The cat yawned, stretched, and sauntered across the carpet to the sofa. Fixing Jean in her amber eyes, like tiny, slashed pumpkins, she hopped up on the cushion.
“Maargh,” Jean gurgled, meeting the cat with her one working eye.
Cara mewed and gave Jean’s side a gentle poke with a front paw.
Drool seeped from the corner of Jean’s mouth as her lips flapped like a fish trying to find water.
“Maaamaarg.” She swallowed with some difficulty to avoid choking.
“Mew,” answered Cara and turned away, watching as George too leapt up onto the sofa, nestled between Jean’s motionless legs, and curled into a ball.
With her left arm lying palm up, and only the black leather band of her watch exposed, the passing of shows on the television and failing light from the window proved Jean’s only indication of time.
She coughed: a weak rattling sound from deep within her chest. After just a day, the parts that hadn’t abandoned betrayed with pain. Her lips had dried to thin, shrivelled husks that split with every gabbled sound. Her throat seemed narrow as a pencil and filled with dust.
You have to move. She’d stopped listening.
Cara and George had settled in for the duration of the day, and Samson remained out of sight. Little use they were. Even their usual company provided no comfort.
Speaking of company, where the hell is John?
How many times had he dropped by without so much as a phone call first to spoil her afternoon? If he knocked down the door holding a glass of ice-cold water, Jean considered she might take him up on his offer…
He’d love that; being right all along. This wouldn’t have happened if you’d been home with me. I told you to take it easy after your operation. I told you to give me a spare key. So stubborn.
She imagined a stroke: some blood clot that idiot surgeon had missed floating all the way from her foot up to her brain, blasting through her grey matter like a ricocheting bullet.
I can’t call for help, but I can use the television. Turn it up loud enough. Someone’s bound to complain; all the old busy-bodies around here…
She licked her cracked lips with a fluttering, useless tongue and gazed down the side of the sofa to the threadbare rug. With one eye and unable to lift her head, she focused on her hand dangling over the side. Faint electrical sparks of feeling still fired in the extreme of her digits. Jean concentrated, picturing a rubber ball lying in her palm. How many times had she squeezed fruit in the supermarket, testing the freshness?
Her fingers barely moved.
A twitch: her forefinger brushing her thumb.
Jean gave up and gasped in deep breaths. Her body did very little but lie rigid: eye staring thoughtfully at her outstretched hand like some homely Renaissance painting.
George stretched both front legs before lazily climbing to his paws. He surveyed the room for a moment, shot Cara a challenging glare, and ambled down from between Jean’s legs, heading for the arm of the sofa. After a short jump, the cat sat proud on the thin stuffing, watching Jean. He gave the loose bandage an inquisitive sniff.
Get away from there. Silly cat.
The drool had really started to flow from the corner of her mouth and slid down her skin like slime. Her thirsty lips quivered, desperate to soak in the balm.
George placed a front paw on the bandage, glanced back at Jean, and mewed.
Leave that alone!
The rough fabric caught in the feline’s claws. He yanked, and failing to get free, swatted Jean’s foot.
She tried to flinch, expecting a sting from the tender wound beneath. Nothing registered; her foot lost in the void, the connection severed by plundered neurons.
George’s tugging had worked the surgical tape free, and with one final swipe, he liberated his claw. The end of the bandage swept down, unravelling from the foot. George snuffled the pale skin, placing his paw against the deadened flesh. His nose explored the crispy scar of her incision.
Jean tried to prod the cat with her big toe, to cause him to leap from the sofa and slink into the kitchen. Nothing happened, and unhindered, the cat continued to poke and probe.
Stop it. George, stop it.
The cat repositioned to plunge its small face in between her toes. His paw pressed against the discoloured butterfly stitches. He licked the thin strips of binding fabric.
His tiny pink tongue rubbed against the patches of dry, brown blood and one particularly nasty spot where Jean had seeped an off-yellow ooze. He lifted his head and began to chat: a series of short, frustrated cries, jaws trembling.
Jean also released her own sound of aggravation: a deep gurgling from the back of her parched throat. The slightest movement would send the cat scurrying; she’d done it enough times when one of her pets had grown too keen. Samson had always been the worst for that. The boisterous big male would turn innocent play into a battle, eager with tooth and claw. A firm swat would send him on his way.
She took a deep breath, hoping to make enough noise to at least distract the cat. Her dangling fingers convulsed, and her mouth opened and closed, thirsty lips squeezing against each other over and over. Her eventual noise, distorted by her slapping lips, was the cry of a baby.
George struck the bridge of her foot, caught a stitch in a hooked claw, and tugged it away from the operation site. The adhesive clung for a second, creating a tent of skin that in turn pulled at her barely-healed wound. Yet no pain blasted through her sliced tissue; nerve endings were switched off to the fresh ripping of the laceration. Blood gathered slowly in the small reservoir formed by the opened gash.
“Mew.” George, having ditched the scrap of medi-strip from the stitching, spied the glistening ruby within the desiccated folds and promptly began a steady lapping with his quick tongue.
Jean’s eye widened. “Mamamama!”
The cat tilted his head for a better angle and reaffirmed his grip, tearing yet more of the stitching away. The strips hung from his claw like shreds of flayed skin. Disturbed further, the deep laceration gave up more of its crimson nectar, encouraging George to delve further still. A trickle of blood escaped the zealous notice of the cat to meander down Jean’s foot, soaking into the remains of the week-old bandage.
“Mew?” came another quizzical call from the floor.
Jean looked to the side.
Cara stared up from the base of the sofa, appearing disgruntled with George’s actions due to the scowl created by the pattern on her face. Eager for attention, she turned on the spot beneath Jean’s outstretched hand; fur tickling the tips of the old woman’s fingers.
The phone blared.
Without so much as a glance, George bolted from the sofa and across the carpet, out of sight.
Jean’s phone, a beige unit on the bookcase, continued with its harsh chirp. John was the only person who ever called; for his nightly check in on how she was coping, to ask how her foot was healing.
Jean’s mind cried out. She reached out and grabbed the phone with a phantom hand and screamed into the receiver. That pesky plastic handset; the times she’d raged at filthy Indian callers trying to sell her internet and phone plans. She’d take it, take it all. Spare a moment. Be interested to hear more. Agree to terms and conditions.
Just send someone!
She’d lost count of the shrill calls of the phone. How long did John usually wait? She had no answer machine or voicemail or whatever they call it now. She always answered, just to break up her evening with discussing John’s dismal love life or that goddamn stupid dog she always heard barking in the background. He’d realise, surely? The one time she didn’t answer. Certainly, he’d follow that. He’d jump on a chance to prove his point.
She listened to the rings until they stopped.
A dysfunctional mind worked much like a computer. No matter how many wires were severed, that tiny battery-powered component kept track of the time and made appropriate changes when it logged on.
Having been left alone by the cats, Jean’s endless pursuits to grab the TV remote had grown monotonous. The descending darkness and comforting chatter from the television had lulled her back into a fretful sleep, eventually disturbed by the gentle persistence of dawn from the window. She opened her eyes , blinking away the grime. Another day, this one smelling more like old piss than ever.
Staring at the ceiling, she tested her functions. Her fingers twitched and curled, better than yesterday. If her arm would obey, she believed her chances of actually clasping the TV remote had greatly improved. Now she tried her voice, hoping some audible cry may have come available. Her lips flapped, and a weak gargle escaped from her withered throat.
Why hasn’t he come?
This was all John ever wanted, and not answering the phone was like a gold-leafed invitation.
The volume of sensation had been turned down a notch. Jean feared the stroke had been but an initial attack from her rebelling nervous system. Had further pops and severance taken what little she had left?
No. This is…this…
She drew a laboured, papery breath. Her eyelid felt like a razor blade, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. At least she could still half-see.
Cara and George sat hunched on the arm of the sofa, their glossy backs to her. Her bare ankle sat between them, vanishing among their curling tails and bobbing coats. Jean breathed deep and unleashed an almighty groan to try and shift them from their roost. The resulting pathetic gargle did little to stir the felines.
Cara licked her paw and swept it back over her head, smoothing down an ear, which sprang straight back up.
Jean squinted at the top of the cat’s nodding head. Cara seemed to have smeared something over her ear: a dark, wet substance slicking the fur.
A fibre of entrenched muscle in her foot twinged. With nothing but a numbed ocean from the neck down, this insignificant, tiny hook had still snagged in the depths and somehow made its presence known. Yet still no pain, just an indistinct tug.
Jean feebly cried out once more to shoo them away. Her dangling fingers twitched and coiled in useless animation. Her wretched gargle drew the attention of George, who lazily looked back over his shoulder, surveying her with cold, green opalescent eyes.
Between her pets, Jean’s foot remained propped up on the worn fabric of the sofa arm. She started at it for a moment, unsure what to make of the destroyed flesh that still stood upright on the thin cushion. Her first thought was that of a chicken carcass. After a hearty roast, Jean would take great pleasure in peeling thin scraps of meat from the spread leftovers, plucking shreds from the narrow, greasy bones. The carnage, which George now returned to, had a more vibrant palette: from the black tissue deep within the gaping wound, stark against the shiny clean bone, to the rich cherry blood that dribbled down her pale skin, escaping the cat’s attention in places and drying to patches of rust.
Jean released a long, croak; one eye staring, the other still closed.
George and Cara had worked through the site of her operation, obliterating the stitching and tearing into the succulent meat within. Tooth and claw had snipped through tendon and nerve with a precision to make her surgeon jealous. With the pets having eaten most of what lay between, her big toe had been separated from its neighbours, leaning a good few inches away from the cluster of grimy digits. It stood like a nearly-eaten cocktail sausage on an ivory skewer; the cats had reduced it to nothing more than bone and a few tenacious scraps.
Jean listened to her breaths snap in and out and gazed at the ceiling.
Another ghostly tug pulled from the darkness. How a sinew must scream with pain when chewed through. Jean just felt another slight twang and an odd release: bones sliding further apart perhaps, free from their sallow moorings.
The phone started to ring.
Please, Jean begged, turning her gaze to that taunting beige handset. It had to be John. Please!
Close to her left ear, drowning out the trill of the phone, came a low, throbbing purr.
“Murgh?” cried Jean, trying to turn her head to the direction of the noise. Her working eye swept back and forth, her fingers twitched and scratched.
A slender paw with neat, short grey hair landed daintily on her chest, just below her throat; claws like ivory splinters nestled within the fur. Azure eyes peered at Jean, set within a wrinkled face under gremlin ears. Samson, the Devon Rex, sat upon her like a night hag, reminding her of the stories her grandmother had told her as a child: dream demons crushing your chest while you slept.
Cara and George continued to feed, digging into the widening bloody chasm before the larger male inevitably chased them aside.
Samson dipped his head, staring at Jean. The tip of a single fang protruded from under his lip.
Jean closed her eye, her mind reaching out for the blaring phone with a telepathic hand, yanking it from the cradle and screaming into the receiver.
She cried out from a warm touch to her lips, snatching her back to reality.
Samson had pressed his paw against her mouth; the soft skin of his pad surrounded by tickling fur. Jean met his eyes, whimpering. The cat pushed further, like he tried to quiet her.
The phone obliged. The television played on, the banal chatter from the women on screen drowning out the satisfied lapping from George and Cara.
How long? If John decides to leave right now…how long would it take him?
Jean looked back to her pride and joy: the beautiful short-haired Samson. Now his eyes seemed cold, the triangular face and large ears more like a goblin than a sleek feline.
The first pinch of his claws stabbed at her lower lip, a slight hook catching on her flaked skin.
Jean grimaced, pulling back her trembling lips, brandishing her teeth.
Samson looked down and, not one to be denied, struck once more. His claws poked through her dry skin, fastening into the flesh.
After the lack of sensation over the last few days, the pain exploded through her face, knocking her dizzy. Blood pattered from the tiny incisions as Samson, leaning forwards and toying with her lip, pulled it back and forth, opening the gashes further. Jean issued a long, garbled cry between her clenched teeth and tried to pull back from the cat’s hold. Samson clung on, stretching the parched lip further still. The skin cracked, feeling like a sheet of paper had been swept across her mouth, cutting the corners.
“Gargh!” cried Jean, failing to think through the sparks of agony flaring through her head, and snapping her teeth at the cat.
Samson leaned in to delicately lap at the blood spilled across her chin.
During Jean’s slumbers, the sofa had started to bob on gentle waves, the currents turning her around while she floated. Sounds drifted across the dark ocean: voices, gunfire, music. Cats fighting, their alien cries and yowls piercing her skull. Claws scurried across the carpet. Fur brushed her cheek.
Jean wailed through the hurt. A ring burned around her mouth; a clown smile of hot coals. Her throat threatened to collapse in a cloud of ash and flakes at the slightest touch. She fought to open her one good eye.
Cara and George both lay scattered on the carpet on their sides, basking in the warmth from the still burning heater. Samson sat perched on the arm of the sofa, a living gargoyle, next to her mangled foot.
Jean stuck out her tongue, seeking the source of the excruciating pain around her mouth. Samson had sliced her up pretty bad before she’d passed out, but surely a few cuts…
At the end of the sofa, the male cat began to groom himself, licking his paw and dragging it across his wet, sticky fur.
Jean tried to find the withered husks of her lips. Her tongue probed over exposed teeth, arriving at the ragged, pulpy mess past her gums.