The shrill voice shattered the silence and chased away Johnny’s happy thoughts. With a sigh, he put his shovel down and hurried across the garden towards the back door. The day had hardly begun and this was already the third time he had to trudge up the stairs to attend to Paula’s needs.
Sometimes it was nothing more than to swat the odd fly or fetch a glass of water or scratch his wife’s back. Mostly, Paula just needed an ear to listen to her grievances and she was never short of those. The porridge lacked salt; the weather was too hot; and the mice, oh the mice! She could go on and on about the mice, gesticulating with her hands, rolling her eyes and moving the muscles of her face to illustrate how the mice were running and frolicking and mating in the ceiling.
Johnny had learned to look keen while his mind walked away and took refuge in rose gardens and rock-strewn riverbanks.
He had entertained hopes of becoming a farmer—rearing a few ducks and chickens, growing his own vegetables—and looking after the numerous rosebushes which surrounded this quaint, old house he’d bought prior to his retirement. He had dreamt of bringing his camera on long, lazy walks along the meandering stream and down to the inlet to shoot pictures of birds and butterflies and to capture the rich colours of the sunsets. But when Paula became bedridden he had to relinquish his dreams and attend to her instead. The maids he had employed to take care of Paula packed up and left one after the other. No one could stand her for more than a couple of months.
She wasn’t so grumpy at first. Even the neighbours had come to cheer her up and to share bits of gossip and chuckle over cups of coffee. But it wasn’t long before Paula frightened them away with her complaints and endless grumbling.
“Why me?” she’d ask. “Why? Why?” It was as if the neighbours were partly responsible for the stroke she suffered a year ago. At first they’d try to comfort her.
“At least you have Johnny,” they’d say. Or, ‘You’re lucky you’ve Johnny.’ She’d snigger or scrunch up her face as though the banana she was eating had turned into a lemon.
‘So you think Johnny would come running as soon as he’s called, huh? Why, half the time he doesn’t even hear me calling. One of these days by the time he comes up those steps I’d be dead. Dead, I tell you! Cold and stiff. Just mark my word!’ The neighbours started to feel uncomfortable around her. Their visits petered out and finally they stopped coming altogether
It was true that Johnny occasionally took his time climbing up the steps. In fact, the other day, after creeping up the stairs he turned back—like a naughty schoolboy—just before he reached Paula’s door. He didn’t know what came over him but he felt so light-headed and he had to suppress his giggles as he tiptoed down the stairs and returned to the kitchen to enjoy a mug of hot, black coffee and to listen to the radio.
|Mug designed by Frank|
If only Paula would leave him in peace. But ever since the neighbours stopped coming she’d become more fussy and critical. Now she wouldn’t even do her exercises like the nice lady physiotherapist had said she should. Instead, she made Johnny lift her legs for her, one at a time. Up and down. Up and down. What help is that going to do? She couldn’t be bothered to do her arm exercises either.
One morning Johnny thought she was doing her routine because he could hear her from downstairs. She was counting slowly.
‘Four…five…six…’ She sounded like she was raising her arms real slow.
‘Seven…eight…nine…’ She was supposed to do twenty arm lifts for each arm while holding a small can of peas in her hand.
“Ten…eleven…’ But when he came up, he saw her, as still as an old log, staring at a sparrow in the mango tree outside her window.
“Hey,” he said, startling her. “You’re supposed to move those arms. Not exercise your tongue!” She glared at him but said nothing.
One day her screams had him running up the stairs.
“Listen!” She said, her eyes shining like polished silver buttons. “Listen! There’s a whole army up there. What if they broke a hole in the ceiling?”
Indeed, judging by the loud scurrying noise and the heavy thump-thump sounds, the mouse population had multiplied. They might just tear a hole in the ceiling. Johnny wondered what would happen if all the mice fell on the bed. Would a miracle occur and make Paula jump out of bed and walk again? Or would he only have lots of cleaning up to do? He shuddered as he pictured a thousand mice raining down through a gaping hole in the old plywood ceiling. He could already imagine all the cleaning and washing he’d have to do not to mention the mending of the ceiling.
So it was decided that they should get a cat—something he hadn’t been keen about.
You couldn’t get cats to listen to you like you could dogs. Cats jump onto counter-tops and dining tables. They sleep in your bed, nap in your chair and make table legs and doorframes their scratching posts. They can’t even fetch sticks or balls like dogs could.
And you’ve got to get them litter boxes.
But a cat would help control the mouse population and also provide Paula some company.
A black and white tabby was procured from a neighbour, five minutes’ walk away. For several days peace reigned as mistress and cat entertained each other. Johnny was able to have a leisurely breakfast, work in his garden and, if he was lucky, he could even listen to his favourite radio talk show, Green Thumbs, without any interruption.
But soon the novelty of having a cat was wearing off and Paula was back to her old ways. One day when Johnny was summoned upstairs to scratch an unreachable spot on Paola’s back, he found both mistress and cat enjoying some snacks. Kitty looked up briefly from the cookie at her paws. Although Johnny had just changed the sheet, it was now dotted with crumbs and a long column of ants had come to join the party. No wonder Paula complained that she was always itchy.
Johnny scratched her thick and flabby back and applied Mopiko to several insect bites. She was turning into a fat and grumpy old lady just like his mother, he thought. The cat was getting fat as well. Johnny remembered reading somewhere about pets resembling their owners and taking on their traits. It must be true, he thought as he watched Kitty watching Paula.
“The cat should be catching the mice, not gorging on biscuits,” he said. So far, there was no evidence that Kitty had caught any of the mice. Johnny had been forced to buy a mousetrap. Several days ago he had put bait in the trap—a bit of dried cuttlefish which he had burnt to bring out the smell. He’d meant to place it in the ceiling but had left it on the landing and forgot all about it after being sidetracked by some emergency in the kitchen.
By the time he remembered the misplaced mousetrap, it was too late. The cat had one paw stuck firmly in the trap! He released Kitty, put her in the comforting arms of a tearful Paula and fetched a basin of warm water. Johnny washed the injured paw gently. When the paw had been bathed, the water was pink in colour.
“Poor Kitty!” Johnny said as he applied some medicated cream on the cut so it would not fester. “Poor, poor Kitty!”
After bandaging the paw he put Kitty on the bed, next to Paula. Then Johnny carried the basin of blood-stained water down the stairs and poured it onto a rosebush. Blood and bones were good for roses, he’d learnt in a magazine.
A few weeks later, Kitty had another accident. No, this time it had nothing to do with the mousetrap. That contraption had been placed in the ceiling. This time, Kitty had really tried to catch a mouse. Apparently, the mouse was on an upstairs window ledge and it had been tied to a string and the string was attached to the frame of the window. Kitty must have had pounced on the mouse, overshot the ledge and landed on an old rose bush below the window. Again, Johnny cleaned her and put some cream on her scratches before handing her to Paula. He carried the basin of dirty water downstairs and another rosebush had a good feed.
Several weeks later, Johnny came bounding up the stairs. Both Paula and Kitty raised their heads off their pillows when he came in. They had been napping and looked annoyed at being woken up.
“What are you grinning for? Am I dying?” Paula looked awful when she scowled. Johnny ignored the sneer and whipped from behind his back a women’s magazine, Paula’s favorite. Before Paula could close her mouth, Johnny took out of his paper bag, a fancy box of chocolates and a packet of cookies.
“For my darlings,” he said, smiling. He could afford them, the gifts and the smile. Just that morning, one of his miniature roses, Snow Carpet, was adjudged the best rosebush at the flower exhibition at the tamu. He’d won a small cash prize and the sweet young thing from Green Thumbs not only interviewed him, she also invited him to appear on her show so he could share his gardening tips with her listeners. He might just remind them that blood is a better rose food than horse manure.