The cat purrs as it winds round the woman’s thick ankles, mia vecchia, mia cucina, mia sedia. My old woman, my kitchen, my chair. Usually Valentina purrs in smoky Italian but sometimes the old women doesn’t know the right words to give the cat or is too weary to bother. The woman learned a little Italian late, mostly from a phrase book and CD. Then picked it up again, online, even later. So they won’t get dementia, supposedly. Valentina is a bright cat. She definitely recognises latte, formaggio and gelato. Probably ucelli, birds. Maybe trovi il topo, find the mouse. No sense in teaching a cat words like ristorante and aeroporto.
To conserve energy, the woman keeps their lives simple. She skips non-essentials like maintaining a worm farm, recycling and vacuuming. Cat hair clings to her clothing, floats through the dark narrow house. These days Valentina, who sleeps sopra il letto, on the bed, has to walk up a ramp or be lifted.
The woman sits in the front doorway to drink her cuppa. Ucelli? Of course Valentina sees the birds. Magpies cock their heads in greeting. The crested pigeon. Raucous koels in spring. Rainbow lorikeets chattering in the bottlebrush bush on the footpath in late November. Corellas performing acrobatics on the power lines in December. A few dozen squawking now, in mid-February. Where has the old bench seat from the old car gone? She can’t remember when she last sat on it. No broken umbrellas either. She can’t remember throwing them out but she must have.
Today the old woman has to walk up to the IGA to buy a tube of biscuits and milk for tea for the volunteer who weeds the tiny backyard twice a year. Milk lasts almost a week. A tin of cat food lasts two days. The cupboard has to be kept stocked for emergencies. She doesn’t mind Martin Luther King’s I have a dream mural on King Street. She and Valentina have their dream too. But the murals with flamingos and tropical foliage painted in hot colours make her feel hotter. Thinking about all those ladders and poles and spray cans is too much in this heat.
What’s the matter with plain brick walls? Her grandfather had an awful poem by Joyce Kilmer on his wall. I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree. A tree that may in summer wear, a nest of robins in her hair. How was her orphaned grandfather to know what was kitsch when he didn’t finish year eight? Poems are made by fools like me but only God can make a tree. You prefer trees to graffiti, don’t you, Valentina? With global warming we need lots of shade, don’t we? But more trees might attract more corellas and that would be noisy. Graffiti is like tattoos. The news says tattoos have gone out of fashion. One hundred per cent twaddle.
The cat rests in the plaid shopping trolley on the way home from the shops. The old woman walks in the narrow street rather than dragging the trolley around the paperbark trees that block the footpath. She leans on the trolley to take the weight off the knee that has not been reconstructed.
When she returns home she sits down to rest before she takes the bowl of fish pieces from the fridge and places it on the lino. Il pesce. The deep sea mackerel looks silvery and delicious. Valentina doesn’t give a rats that it comes from a tin. They don’t buy Snappy Tom with its sexist assumptions. Valentina is not a tom. Whiskas is not gender specific. Everyone their age has whiskers.
The woman never opens tins for herself. If you have pasta, a splash of olive oil, chilli and garlic you never go hungry and today she has frozen peas as well. She puts a pot of water on to boil. She bought an electric tin opener for Valentina’s birthday years ago but it won’t open tins with rings to pull. She worries about cutting her finger to the bone opening cat food but what can she do? Valentina turns eighteen tomorrow.
With stiff fingers, the woman wedges one lens back in the frame of her glasses. If she doesn’t have glasses on, it’s hard to see well enough to fix them. Should get a spare pair the next time they’re at the chemist. Valentina washes her face with her paw.
The woman uses her cane to hook the bowl on the floor and pull it towards her chair, rinses it, fills it with water and replaces it. One bowl each per day makes the washing up easier. Valentina used to tip-toe among the piles of unwashed dishes and cutlery. The woman picks up the cat. Valentina rubs her face along both sides of the woman’s chin, marking her. Mine.
Don’t. You smell fishy, dear. The woman unhooks claws from cloth. Valentina turns and takes the pose of the hare, facing the tellie, purring, while the woman smooths her fur. Sherry and biscuits with cheese while they watch the news. Valentina usually prefers her formaggio senza biscotti. Cheese without biscuits, but she is not interested tonight. The woman remembers tasting Jerez the year she travelled overseas. Hessian something? Hessian Bag? Burlap Bag? Dry Sack? Could it have been called that? Such a stupid name. The cat has fallen asleep. Bank rate rigging case dropped. Another refugee dies on Manus. The demands of friends of the gun lobby. Big corporations and billionaires who don’t pay tax. Insider trading. Mis-use of tax-payer funded entitlements. Increased demand for food delivery including online supermarket orders. Wake up, Valentina! We can have groceries delivered without going to the store! All she has to do is fill out a form online and she will be able to turn her thoughts to more important things. She should have arranged grocery delivery when Massoud’s corner shop closed. In an emergency Valentina’s vet would probably visit. And just last month the old woman’s GP had recommended a locum who would bulk bill a house call. Fewer things to worry about. Not many decisions left.
Valentina wants a late lunch at the fish markets for her birthday treat tomorrow, after the crowds have gone. Twice a year they splurge. Outdoors next to the water, the old woman will eat cooked tiger prawns and Valentina will eat raw snapper. Sea gulls will hover, scolding the mangy grey cat at their table.
* * *
After their birthday lunch, the old woman catches her reflection in the streaky bathroom mirror. Another spot on her blouse. Her birds’ nest hair. The sea gulls are right. Any vet would look at Valentina’s dull fur and her age and agree to give her Nembutal. An end of life guru might or might not help a rational old woman with a knee who hasn’t bothered shopping for pills overseas. How to get the right end of life potions? How to pick the right date? Now that online shopping is set up, they are both excited about choosing fancy groceries that will appear by magic. But they need to go before there are more broken bones, before heart attacks and strokes, before dementia, before one of them is locked in a nursing home or hospital, before one of them has to die of loneliness.
Every day vets end miserable lives. They are not strangers to medically assisted euthanasia. The old woman Googles the vet’s home page: cats of all sizes our speciality. Tiger prawns. She will order a tiger costume online, become a cat of a certain size. She Googles, turns the screen to show Valentina: la tigre. First she needs to make an appointment with the vet. Give him time to get used to the idea. Then book the house call. In four months it will be cool and a tiger suit will feel cozy.
Julie Chevalier writes poems and short fiction about contemporary issues, art and social justice. Darger: His Girls won the Alec Bolton Prize and was short-listed for the Western Australian Premier’s Prize and Newcastle Poetry prize. This piece has been performed by an actor at Spineless Wonders’ Little Fictions.