I won’t say that Doris was asking for it — at least not what she got exactly — but the fact is that she really was the most annoying person.
I’d only been in the home an hour or so and she was at my door, poking her head and nose in.
“So, first day then?” she asked, knowing full well the answer.
“That’s right,” I said, trying to be as cold as possible; the last thing I wanted in this place was the interest, let alone company, of a doddery octogenarian.
“I’m Doris.” She hadn’t caught the animosity in my voice. “And this is Pickles.”
A ginger cat appeared at her feet, rubbing himself against her legs. My mood changed in an instant.
I’m 79 now, in the final straight, with all the aches and pains that go with it. It’s been an awfully long time since my childhood, but the moment I saw Pickles, I was back there and feeling nine again, in my heart. I remembered the day my mother brought Alfie home after finding him under an abandoned car. He was old, dirty, bedraggled and starving. We fed him and cleaned him up, and he soon became a loved member of the family. He was my best friend for the year that he lived with us, before dying of old age.
And Pickles was the spitting image of Alfie, right down to the little triangle of white at his throat. A flood of emotions washed though me in that instant: warmth at the memory of our games, of the exchanged affection, of associated happier times. Pickles may have sensed my affinity to him because he came straight into the room and jumped up on my lap.
“Ooh, he likes you …” Doris paused to elicit my name.
“Raymond,” I muttered, stroking the now-purring Pickles.
“Hello, Raymond. I’ll call you Ray. My Ray of sunshine.”
She giggled and took a step into the room. I gave her what I hoped was a withering look, but she seemed as blind to my facial expression as she was deaf to my tone.
“So, welcome, Ray.” She giggled again. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of you, won’t we Pickles?”
At the sound of his name, and as Doris patted her thigh, Pickles jumped off my lap and padded out. Doris threw me a grotesque smile — all yellow teeth and alarming, scarlet lipstick — before turning and following him. I missed him already.
The home is a small one — a detached house in the suburbs, with four bedrooms downstairs for the weak and disabled, six upstairs for both the more mobile and the bed-ridden. It’s quite a progressive establishment, as these places go; the floors are mixed, and pets are allowed, hence Pickles.
Later that first morning, I took a stroll through the house. I found that on my stretch of corridor, there were only two doors — mine and Doris’s. Mine was next to the top of the stairs, hers at the other end, before the corridor dog-legged to lead to the other four rooms. I would discover later that only two of these were occupied, and by two bed-ridden gentlemen.
In the early days I spent some time downstairs in the day-room, but the television was always on and my co-residents’ choice of programmes was so moronic — cheesy soap operas and reality shows mainly — that I soon gave up and retired to my own room with a good book or the radio, which I love.
The only problem with being in my room, though, was that Doris would always be around — no locks on the doors here.
“What’re you doing, Ray?” she’d chirp, invariably interrupting something good on the radio. I resisted throwing it at her because whenever she popped in, Pickles would be with her and the last thing I wanted was to hurt him.
“Listening to the radio, Doris, as you can see. Here Pickles!” And he’d trot over. That was my torture: having to put up with Doris’s unbearable presence just to have a few minutes of cuddles. With Pickles on my lap, reminding me of Alfie, I felt as if young blood were coursing through my veins again. I needed to have more time with him.
One day, when fish was on the menu for lunch, I promptly excused myself from the table and smuggled some upstairs. Doris was still in the dining room, so I went along to her room and put a little fish on the carpet just inside the door. I knew she fed Pickles only special biscuits for his health; once he got a whiff of what I had for him, he almost fell over himself getting to it.
I used the rest of the fish, which I’d wrapped in a napkin, to entice him along the corridor to my room. He finished it off in no time, licking his paws and cleaning himself. Then he got on my lap — purring away as always — kneaded my tummy for a while, curled up and fell asleep; I soon joined him in contented slumber.
I was woken by Doris calling along the corridor.
“Pickles! Pickles! Where have you got to, you naughty boy? Pickles!” She appeared at my door. “Ah, there you are. You had me worried. Has Way-Way been looking after you?”
I flinched at the “Way-Way”; Pickles wasn’t a child.
“Yes, I’m looking after him, Doris.” He was still fast asleep … or perhaps merely pretending, to avoid the attentions of his tedious mistress. “Let him stay here for a while.”
I don’t know whether Doris had cottoned on to what I was planning — that is, the eventual adoption of Pickles by stealth — or whether her sudden change of mood was merely a symptom of a certain degree of normally well-concealed senility. Whatever, she mutated instantly, from obsequious dullard to prickly, possessive harpy.
“Certainly not, Raymond. What a thought! Pickles is coming home with me. Right now. Pickles!”
Pickles reacted to the aggression in her voice by springing off my lap and scampering out of the room. Doris turned on her heel and was gone also, without another word.
In subsequent days, then weeks, Doris avoided me and made sure that I had no contact with Pickles — either by closing her door whenever she was in her room, or by taking him down to meals with her in a small plastic cat-carrier.
Not seeing Doris was a godsend, but not being able to stroke Pickles or have him on my lap was a hardship that only became more painful as time passed. I had few enough pleasures in life, and this was one I found I couldn’t do without. So I came up with another plan.
One day, with lunch-time approaching, I left my room, checked the corridor, checked the staircase, and set the trap. I stepped back into my room and closed the door, but for an inch or so. I stood there, peering out at the top of the staircase through the gap.
I heard Doris’s door open and her slippered feet shuffling towards me. She came into view and stopped.
“Whatever’s that?” she murmured.
She placed Pickles’ carrier on the floor and bent down shakily to pick up the £20 note I’d placed there.
Before her fingers had even touched the prize, I flung open the door, took two strides to reach her and shoved. I heard the bones snapping as she tumbled down the stairs, and there was a dull thump as she hit the wall at the bottom.
I picked up the £20 note but resisted taking Pickles — that would have been too obvious — although I did turn the carrier on its side, as if dropped, making sure to use the cuff of my pullover to avoid leaving fingerprints. Then I slipped back into my room, closed the door and sat in my armchair to wait, feigning sleep but with my heart pounding.
Shortly afterwards a scream came from downstairs — one of the staff, I imagined — followed by a growing commotion. There were footsteps on the stairs and the door burst open; I made sure I was hard to wake.
“There’s been a terrible accident, Raymond. Don’t be upset but … it’s Doris.”
“Oh, no! What happened? What about her poor cat? What’s going to happen to him?”
“We’ll see to that.”
“No. Let me. I’ll look after him. Poor Doris. Poor Pickles.”
There was an ambulance, police, questions, and eventually an inquest, but no sign that Doris’s violent demise was anything other than a tragic accident. I wore black for a while, for respectful effect. The manager of the home agreed that I should take charge of Pickles, if only for my emotional stability after such a shock.
And so here I am in my armchair, with Pickles on my lap purring softly away. He knows what I did, of course, but I’m sure he doesn’t hold it against me. After all, he eats nothing but nice things these days.
Perhaps I’ll change his name, though.
Yes, I think so. That’s what I’ll call him.