......Gran and her cat were part of each other. That's the way it seemed to me anyway. Whenever I went to visit her it was invariably attached to her in some way. If it wasn't curled up in her lap in a furry ball as she sat in her old armchair, then it was winding itself in and around her legs as she pottered about her little cottage. How she managed to avoid tripping over it, I will never know.
......The cat never had a proper name; it was just Puss. At least that's all she ever called it; it was always, "Here, Puss, come to mummy," or "Does my pretty Puss want his dinner then?" and "Oh, look at my clever little Puss, he's caught a mouse," so I guess Puss it was.
......As for being pretty - well, you never saw a mangier creature in your life. He must have had a very mixed heritage, because Puss appeared to be composed of about half a dozen different breeds. I couldn't really describe his colour, but if I was pinned down, I suppose I would have to say it was a sort of muddy brown with dashes of ginger, grey, black and the odd touch of dirty white thrown in as an afterthought.
......No, pretty he wasn't. Puss was downright ugly in fact. He only had one eye, the result of a ferocious fight with another cat. That wasn't the only battle of his career by any means, as was evident from his chewed and torn ears, his various scars, the bald patches in his fur and his half-severed tail. A real bruiser he was. You could tell he had earned himself a reputation among the neighbourhood feline fraternity, because all the cats in the area gave him a very wide berth when he was on the prowl. Even small dogs would cross to the other side of the road when Puss was abroad.
......Another thing he wasn't is little. He was massive. There's no other word. The fact that Gran fed him better than she did herself was no doubt contributory to this. No cans of Whiskers or Felix for Puss. Oh no! It had to be fresh fish and the tenderest cuts of meat, chicken and liver for "my little Puss." Cooked just so too, mark you, I swear it made my mouth water when she was preparing Puss's meals.
......Gran was getting on a bit and not in the best of health, but she always put the cat's welfare before her own. I was forever berating her about it, but she never took any notice. "But he's such a helpless little pussy cat, who would look after him if I didn't?" she would say.
......Helpless! I ask you! She seemed to ignore that Puss was single-handedly responsible for decimating the local bird and rodent population. The garden was littered with the half-eaten corpses of slaughtered sparrows and mice. If ever there was a cat that could take care of itself, it was Puss.
......You have probably already worked out that I didn't much like Puss. It's not that I'm not fond of animals; don't get me wrong; I love them as much as the next man. It's just that Puss wasn't the most likable of animals. And, well - the thing is - Puss didn't like me.
......I know that sounds a bit neurotic, perhaps a touch paranoid, but it's true. Puss really did not like me. Don't ask me why, I never did him any harm. You only had to see his reaction whenever I went to visit Gran, which was more frequent as she grew older and more infirm, to know what I mean. He would raise his battered head from Gran's lap and that solitary green eye of his, glaring with tangible malevolence, would fix on me, while from deep in his throat would issue a snarl of such vehemence it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
......"Bless him, he's saying hello to you, the little dear," Gran would say.
......To me it was more like he was saying, "This is my patch, get off it or I'll scratch your eyes out."
......All the time that evil eye would be on me, watching my every move like I was a big juicy mouse and he was just biding his time before he ripped me to pieces.
......I tried to be friendly to Puss, but he wouldn't have it. Many are the scratches he gave my hand when I reached out to stroke him. To this day, I bear the scar from the time he sank his teeth into my thumb when I failed to get it out of his range quickly enough. It was agony; I thought he would never let go. It wasn't until Gran persuaded him with a piece of best beef that he relinquished his hold. "Oh my, you naughty Puss," she said, "He must be ready for his tea."
......Naughty Puss, indeed. His teeth were like razor blades. My thumb was in bandages for a week.
......It was one Saturday afternoon when I called at Gran's to make sure she was all right that I found her lying on the kitchen floor. Puss was at her side, lapping up the last remnants of scattered food. As I entered the room, however, he abandoned the sloppy mess and began to hiss and snarl at me with much more than his usual rancour. When I rushed to Gran, he leapt onto her stomach and perched there, arching his back and growling threateningly at me. Then, when I knelt down to help her, it was as if Puss went crazy, howling like a banshee, lashing out with his paws, and biting angrily at me. He would not let me near, it was as though the cat had taken it upon itself to guard and protect Gran from any further harm.
......Finally, out of desperation, I dashed to the broom cupboard, got a mop, and held the spitting, demented creature at bay with that while I bent over Gran.
......At first, I thought she was dead but as I put my head closer, all the time warding off the cat with the mop, I detected a faint breath. It was obvious what had happened. Gran had been making Puss something to eat when the damned cat had weaved itself around her legs in excitement, as it often did at the imminent arrival of a meal. Gran had turned from the cooker, forgetting about the cat, and fallen over it, landing flat on her back on the floor. I was always warning her that something like that would happen one day.
......She was lucky she hadn't split her skull. However, she was unconscious. I tried calling her name and patting her face, but got no response. Meanwhile, Puss was becoming ever more vicious in his anxiety to drive me away from Gran. A couple of times he almost reached me, it was only by some dextrous parrying with the mop that I kept him at bay. In the end, he resigned himself to sinking his teeth into the head of the mop and to angrily shaking his head back and forth. I was only glad it wasn't me he had a grip of.
......Realising I needed an ambulance, I drove Puss into the lounge using the mop as a prod and closed the door on him. With the frenzied animal out of the way I rushed to the phone and rang the emergency services. I then returned to Gran and did my best to make her comfortable while I waited. Meanwhile in the lounge, Puss meowed in frustration and scratched furiously at the door, still determined to get to his mistress. Anyone would have thought there was a caged lion in there. Fortunately, by the time the ambulance men arrived he had subsided into silence. I don't know how I would have explained the row to them, had he kept it up. No doubt he had finally worn himself out and gone to sleep.
......Just before leaving in the ambulance with Gran, I cautiously opened the lounge door. I knew Puss would be all right, as there was a cat flap in the back door and he would be able to come and go as he pleased. Then we were off, sirens blaring, while the medics worked to revive the still unconscious Gran and I sat watching helplessly.
At the hospital, I was ushered into a waiting room where I paced the floor, feeling slightly guilty, as if it was my fault Gran was there. That's the funny thing about hospitals: you always feel that you are to blame for the condition of the patient. Eventually, after I had leafed through all the out-of-date magazines and consumed two cups of insipid, machine-vended coffee, a doctor came to see me.
......Apparently, Gran had suffered a minor heart attack, brought on by the shock of her fall and it was lucky I had got to her when I did. They had managed to bring her round, but she was still very weak and they would be keeping her in for a few days. The doctor told me I could go see her for a short time, as long as I didn't tire her out too much.
......Poor old Gran looked so frail and vulnerable lying there with all the tubes coming out of her. The over-large hospital gown made her seem shrunken and ancient, as if she had been turned into a mummy. I barely recognised her. I didn't know what to do or say, you always feel so useless in these situations, so I took hold of her hand and said hello.
......She opened her eyes and smiled weakly. She said something, but her voice was so low and feeble I could not make out her words.
......I put my ear closer to her mouth and softly asked her to repeat them, "Take care of Puss for me, won't you?" she said.
......Would you believe it? There she was, just back from death's door, and all she was concerned about was that dratted cat.
......Of course, I promised that I would, though cat-sitting was the last thing on my mind at that moment. After that, she appeared to suddenly look less ill, as if a weight had been lifted off her. The lines left her face, she visibly relaxed and the mummy was replaced by the Gran I knew. She sighed, closed her eyes and within a few moments she was asleep, a contented smile on her face.
......Shortly after that, a nurse came and told me I would have to leave Gran to rest.
......The next day, before going to the hospital to visit Gran, I decided I'd better keep my promise. So, on my way to her house I stopped off to buy a tin of cat food. I know it wasn't what he was used to, but there was no way I was going to fuss about making him his usual fare. It's Kitty Chunks for you or nothing, my boy, I thought.
......When I got there, Puss was sitting in the kitchen near the cooker as if he had been waiting for me. He must have learned some manners, because he didn't even snarl at me. Instead, he meowed in a tone that said, "What kept you? I'm starving."
......I opened the can, found a dish and spooned the evil-smelling contents into it. Placing the dish on the floor, I stood back, expecting him to tuck in with his usual gusto.
......I was wrong. Puss took one sniff at it, turned his nose up in disgust and commenced to howl in complaint. The noise was awful; it set my nerves jangling.
......I said, "I'm sorry, I haven't time to mess with you. If that isn't good enough for you, go and get yourself a tasty mouse."
......It was as if my voice electrified him. He ceased howling, stiffened, gave me a look like the devil and in a blur of motion pounced through the air.
......I hate to admit it, but I almost screamed.
......Like a dog with a bone, he had closed his mouth on my leg, gripping it like a vice. It was torture. His saw-like teeth biting deep into the flesh, he shook his head back and forth, resolutely attempting to take a chunk out of me.
......I had to get him off me. I reached down and took hold of him, meaning to pull him away. That made things worse. He bit down harder and wrapped his legs around me, his claws adding to my torment. At a loss what to do, I tried shaking my leg about in an effort to dislodge him.
......I must have made a weird sight, hopping about Gran's kitchen frantically waving my leg about. If there had been anyone there to witness it, they would have thought I was performing some kind of ritual dance.
......I swear I did not mean it to happen this way, but I was desperate. The pain was incredible; I was maddened by it. I had to do something.
......After trying every other way I could think of to get the maniacal cat off my leg, I resorted to the only option left to me. I went to the wall, drew back my leg, and banged Puss hard against it.
......At last, he let go.
......I limped away to examine my leg. There were two rows of holes, streaming with blood, where the cat's teeth had held me, and numerous scratches from his claws. I found a cloth, dampened it and bathed the wounds, then fastened a tea towel around it as a bandage.
......Only then did I turn to Puss. He was lying stretched out on the floor where he had fallen, I didn't have to go to him to know he was dead. There was a red mark on the wall and his head was matted and bloody.
......I honestly did not intend to hurt him, believe me.
......There was nothing I could do for him and visiting time would soon be over, so I left him there and hurried to the hospital. All the way there, my mind was churning over, trying to think of how I was going to break the news to Gran.
......A nurse met me at the door to the ward. I could tell by her face what she was going to say. Gran had died a short time before. She said it was totally unexpected, she had improved considerably since I'd seen her the day before, they had even considered sending her home soon. Then, without warning, she had suddenly passed away. It was almost as if she had let go, as if she had decided she did not want to live any more. It's sometimes like that with old folk, she told me.
......There was one odd thing, the nurse said as she took my arm and led me away, just before she died she cried out. It was difficult to understand her, but it sounded like the same word repeated over and over. Something like, "Puss, puss, puss, puss." Did I know what she could have meant?
......I buried Puss in Gran's garden, under the tree he used to sharpen his claws on.

Copyright Scorpio Tales 2002. All rights reserved.

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