Sooty waits in the hall, knowing the sound of my key in the door. He’s longhaired and handsome, with golden eyes and a dash of Persian somewhere in his ancestry. Feather-duster tail waving, he escorts me into the living room where Joan is watching telly.
She’s in pyjamas, in her orthopaedic chair. She’s always in the chair except when she’s in bed, or on the loo, or in transit between them by wheelchair. Three months ago, when her legs would no longer support her, her world shrank to these two rooms: the one where she sleeps, in which Liverpool Social Services have just installed a toilet and shower cubicle, and this one where she sits during the day.
She looks up and says, “Hiya, love”. Her blonde hair is mussed from sleeping. She doesn’t look sixty. Many months indoors, away from sun and weather, have left her babyfaced.
It’s Saturday morning, and I’m here to make her breakfast. It’s supposed to be done by a carer sent by Social Services, but the carer is late and Joan, hungry, has phoned me. I live a few doors along the same street, so I can be there in minutes.
She wants cheese on toast, with a cup of tea, “very strong, sugar, hardly any milk”. I go to the kitchen, along the hallway that’s too narrow to admit the wheelchair, down the two steps that Joan can’t negotiate, and put the kettle on. I used to think that if Social Services gave her a ramp and a narrower chair, she might use her kitchen again. But I know she won’t ask them. For one thing, she’d still have to wheel herself back up the ramp, and in the steady progression of the disease, her arms are already weakening.
The kitchen is shabby. Joan kept it spotless, but since she never sees it now, those who clean it – mainly me, and her family – pay little attention to its state. The lino is stained, the paint peeling. It’s not so much dirty, as cluttered with things Joan would never have left there herself: a wallpaper steamer in its box, an old office chair, a defunct computer and a dead fern on the kitchen table..
Sooty’s up on the counter and mewing as I put two slices of bread in the toaster. I go into the scullery and put food in his bowl, scoop lumps of shit from his litter tray and drop it in the bin outside. A good-tempered cat, he purrs and gets stuck straight into the food.
I melt cheese in the microwave according to Joan’s precise instructions (“I know I’m a fussy cow – you don’t mind, do you?”), slide it on to the toast and carry everything through into the front room. The cat, though he’s eaten well, sits upright on the seat of the vacant wheelchair, watching every mouthful with round gold eyes. Joan gives him a piece of cheese. I station myself on the sofa in the bay window, my back to the street and the morning sun.
Joan talks, I talk. I tell her my daughter has a hangover, my son’s going to his girlfriend’s house later, we’ve got a new kitchen door. Joan tells me she woke only twice in the night. “I think I’m sleeping better since they put the new bar on me bed, now I’m not frightened of falling out.” Falling is one of Joan’s biggest fears, along with crapping her pants. If she falls, she can’t get up. It’s happened more than once since her diagnosis; one time she broke her leg in three places, but felt no pain. She spent six weeks in hospital.
Much of her daily news is toilet-related. “Those Tena knickers are brilliant,” she tells me. “The first time I piddled meself in bed, I thought it’d all come out the side, but it didn’t. It’s like what the astronauts use.”
Joan says she can tell me anything, and I’m glad. I used to wish I mattered more to her. That was when she was a busy, hardworking, hard-drinking woman, who sometimes preferred to spend time with ‘the girls’, her old friends from the street, than with me, the newcomer.
“That cat misses you,” she says, as we watch Sooty cleaning his whiskers after the cheese. “He’s been looking lost. He waits for you.”
Joan leaves the house rarely, Sooty never. It has been agreed between us that when the time comes, I will adopt him. Sometimes she tries to make me promise I’ll keep him indoors, but I refuse. Our street is no cat paradise – a row of back yards, a tarmacked alley full of wheelie bins, another row of identical houses behind – but Sooty is fascinated by the world outdoors, sits for hours in the window, would certainly go adventuring if given the chance. I’m determined that he’ll have the chance, will taste freedom, even if his adventure ends bloodily on the tarmac of nearby Edge Lane.
In my pocket I have an ampoule of flea treatment, because Sooty’s been scratching. I pin him down, part the long hair on the back of his neck and squeeze toxic liquid onto the exposed skin. The cat leaps away when I release him and sits on the far side of the room, glaring.
“You’ve pissed him off, he won’t come to you now,” says Joan with satisfaction.
“Bastard cat,” I say. Verbal abuse of Sooty, and each other, is part of our language.
Joan says, “I’m going to our Ellie’s birthday party tomorrow. She’s nine.”
“That’s good,” I say.
“I’m not looking forward to it at all,” says Joan. “I’ll have to get up, get dressed, get in the car, which is fuckin’ hard work now. Don’t get me wrong, I love me grandkids, but I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“Tough shit,“ I say. “You’ve got obligations, stop whingeing.”
Although Joan doesn’t react, I feel bad at once. Not for tough shit, which both of us say often, but for stop whingeing. Not long ago, a relative told her to stop moaning. “That really pissed me off,” Joan told me afterwards. “I thought, you bitch. I’ve got this disease, I’m getting worse. I want to moan, I need to moan.”
Today, neither of us says out loud that I’ve dropped a brick. The cat continues to keep his distance and give me dirty looks. “He’s got a cob on with you,” Joan says. “Look at his eyes. Bitch, I’m not talking to you.”
Presently, I go home. I’ll be returning between nine and nine-thirty this evening, as I always do, to make a flask of tea for the night. Joan will spend her day in the chair, with visits from carers and family, laborious visits to the loo, snooze-time on her bed between three and four.
Through the day I think about that Stop whingeing. I think I should apologise, acknowledge I was wrong, bring it out in the open. Then I think, but it’s different when I say it, she always tells people I’m her best friend, she’ll take it from me.
My next thought is ugly. I think, Joan won’t say anything because she needs me too much, I’m the one who comes to her every day, sorts out the cat, makes her tea, sits with her, she won’t risk pissing me off.
And indeed, she says nothing. I say nothing that night when I go in. There’s nothing in her manner to show she’s upset with me. The routine’s just as usual. I go in at nine-thirty, Joan’s already in her hospital-issue bed in the back room. She sleeps naked, as she did when she was well. A glass of vodka and tonic is on her bedside table, five different sorts of pills, her cigarettes and lighter, her mobile phone, and the intercom/remote control for the front door. On TV, the small set mounted on a wall bracket at the foot of the bed, is I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here! I hate the programme, but watch part of it each night, Joan propped up in bed, I sitting beside her in the wheelchair, while our tea brews in the kitchen. “I hate that man,” she says every night, about one of the contestants.
Often the cat will jump on my knee for a cuddle and a stroke, but not tonight. “Look at him,” says Joan, pointing to where he stares down at us from the top of the wardrobe.” He hasn’t forgiven you”.
I’m a Celebrity finishes. The News at Ten comes on, I yawn and Joan says, “You can fuck off now, I need a ciggy”. She gave up cigarettes before her diagnosis, thinking the coldness of her right foot was down to circulatory problems. Once she knew it was Motor Neurone Disease she took up smoking again, with pleasure and gusto.
She won’t use a computer and doesn’t want to research the condition, but I do both. Average prognosis for MND sufferers is two to five years. Joan was diagnosed a year ago.
I get up, lean over the bed, give her a kiss and hug as I do each night. Her bare shoulders are fleshy and warm. Her chin’s bristly; it’s time for her regular facial wax. As ever, Joan says, “I love you,” and I reply, “I love you too”. The cat stares down from his watch-post. I leave, turning out the house lights, calling, “See you tomorrow!”, banging the front door shut.
Patience Mackarness lives and writes in Brittany, France. Her work has been published by Potato Soup Journal, Lunch Ticket, Lost Balloon, Spelk, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and elsewhere.