top of page

8 Out of 10 by Daniel I Russell



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.


“Shit.”


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.


*******


Drunk.


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. </