Percy was curled up on Mr Hollister’s bed. Wendy sighed; she knew what that meant. She pulled the door to.
“Mr Hollister?” she asked. “Bill?” She pulled back the covers to reveal what she had expected: a face at peace masking an empty shell, of which the soul had departed. She had been a nurse long enough to know what a dead body looked like but she checked for a pulse anyway. His skin was cold to the touch.
She stroked Percy behind his ears.
The cat looked at her like she was stupid. He glanced at Bill Hollister’s body then hopped off the bed and sauntered to the door. He jumped up and pulled the handle, a trick he’d been able to do as long as Wendy remembered. The door swung open, Percy landed gracefully and without another look disappeared out into the corridor. There weren’t many places in the home Percy didn’t go when he wanted. The guests, for the most part, liked him, which always struck Wendy as strange seeing as he seemed to have a supernatural ability to tell when they were about to die. She wondered what would happen if Percy died. Would anyone know that he was going and keep him company while he crossed over?
What a sad day. She would have to make the call to Mr Hollister's family. He had a son who came to visit with his family every week. It didn’t matter how long people suffered for; it was always sad when they died. All they could do was try their best, and this they did.
Mr Hollister had been in a lot of pain but he had seemed bright yesterday, he had been playing chess with Mr Bannon and he’d won if she remembered correctly. She would tell his son that. She would give the same old patter about how he must have died in his sleep. Maybe he did? Maybe he woke up in the cold, dark night in agonising pain, his soul twisted in fear and anger at being ripped from the world he’d grown to love? Maybe Percy the cat was there to tell him it was OK? Maybe Percy told him that he had lived his life, and now it was over and his passing was as important as his birth, for that was the way the world worked? Maybe that had calmed Mr Hollister down and he had let himself drift away? Maybe he did die in his sleep. She felt herself welling up. Death was a natural part of life in the home; she knew she would be OK in time. She pulled the sheet over his face and checked herself. There were things to do when a guest died and the best thing was just get on with the nuts and bolts, the mundane, and remind herself that she had in her own way, made his last days as comfortable as possible. She closed the door behind her.
"JINX!” A walking stick clattered against a wall as Percy shot out of room 4 and took off down the hall. Why did the nice quiet ones always die and the meanest, grumpiest, cantankerous old men cling to life with their bitter wizened fingernails forever?
"Jesus, forgive me", she whispered. She wiped away the tears and braced herself. She would have to deal with room 4 as a priority as usual. She summoned up her most matriarchal voice,
"Mr Bannon!" He was up and pacing. He grabbed his cane up off the floor, still amazingly spry for an 82 year old. She thought it must be the pure hatred for the world that coursed through his veins that kept him going. “Jesus, forg… “
"Who'd the fucking cat murder tonight?"
"Mr Bannon!" She closed the door behind her. "Please don't shout out such things. Can you not try and find some sensitivity for a situation?"
"WHAT?" he yelled and brandished his cane at her. She spoke clearly and firmly,
"Can you please find it in your heart for just one day not to go yelling bloody murder for everyone to hear?” He glared at her. “It upsets the other guests."
"Who was it? " he accused. Wendy got the impression he thought that they were murdering the guests themselves sometimes.
"Mr Bannon, please let me do my job. If any of the guests pass away you will of course be told, but not before the doctor and the family. "
"It was that jinx-cat again wasn't it?"
"Percy offers a great deal of comfort to people in this home, we understand you are not a cat person, but if you cannot control your temper... "
The hatred in his eyes broke a little as he recognised the threat of medication. He didn't like to take pills; he said it interfered with his chess game. As much as she wanted to respect the guests wishes she couldn't help but think sometimes it would be so much easier to just dope them up with some Valium. ‘Jesus, forgive me’, she prayed. He looked sadder now and she felt the pang of pity she always felt, even for him. There was a look of broken pride that the guests would give her whenever she asserted authority. They had been independent people for their whole lives, and no matter how pleasant the staff tried to make their last days in the home, there were still rules. Old men didn’t like rules. Maybe she should be the one taking anti anxiety pills instead?
A stalemate hung in the air.
"Do you need someone to come and help you get ready?"
"I'll wash my own arse thank you very much Nurse Wendy. ” He spat out the words, but he dropped his gaze. He was defeated and Wendy felt the usual pangs of shame, she didn’t want to defeat him or break his spirit, but she needed him to follow the rules. "I'll be down for breakfast” he mumbled.
She turned to leave.
"Was it Bill?"
She turned back to him and hesitated. Her hesitation had been too long: he knew, so she nodded.
He sat on the bed. For someone who seemed to despise every living creature, he always seemed the most depressed by the deaths in the home. There were people who it was more important to inform though. She left Carl Bannon sitting on his bed.
Azreal; the swallower of souls, the angel of death, continued his journey. His work was done for another day. He had accompanied another soul to the other side. He had provided comfort when needed for a soul departing. He had done his holy duty. Then, he had to scramble for his life when an incarnate old git had tried to murder him with a walking stick. Scrambling for one's life did not fit with the grace of Azreal's image of himself and his holy mission.
So he was sulking.
In general the folks of this home had been good to him, they petted him, they relaxed in his presence and when it came to their time, he would go to them and smooth the transition; show them the way, show them path and help them to cross the cavern between life and death. Death was not a fun experience and he selflessly sacrificed a bit of his own happiness to guide them through it. It was a noble cause, it was a cause he'd been called to a long time ago, and he was proud of the work he did. Even the nurse, though she knew what it meant when he was there, though she understood that he was the harbinger of death, she still understood, she had respect, a fitting respect for a being on a higher calling than herself. Then that wretched, stubborn old man had appeared trying to stop his noble work, trying to catch him and kill him like he was some rabbit-hunting vermin. The nurses witnessed these attempts on his life but they seemed to accept this murderous, unholy rage as a personality quirk. Azreal still went to check on him, because it was his duty, a noble duty and one couldn't just decide who to help and who not to, based on your predilection, but really; a walking stick?
"Hi, Percy. " The home's oaf of a dog greeted him with the name he so despised. He stopped and gave the dog a look it deserved, uncouth animal that it was. “Sorry,” but then the canine doubled down on the insult, smirking as much as it's possible for a dog to smirk, "Jinx?" Azreal hissed at the dog and lunged. "Azreal, Azreal... Sorry, Azreal. " The dog wisely protected its face and Azreal ceased his attack. Why, of all the animals he should be given for company in this place, this mangy, sarcastic hound was chosen, he would never understand. But the creator moved in mysterious ways. Stupid beast. Scruff, they called him.
"What are you doing, Scruff?" He was now licking his nether regions.
"I've got an itch."
"You know, I don't always see your purpose, Scruff." The beast stopping licking it's behind and looked at him.
"I'm a dog Per…” Azreal flicked his claws, ”… Azreal. I'm a dog, you are a cat. I feel like your life would be a lot easier if you accepted that. "
"You wouldn't understand, Scruff."
"Who was it last night?" Azreal checked himself. Did he carry himself differently after his missions? How did this slob always know when someone had died too?
"You smell like death." The dog sniffed, “Oh,” he recognised the scent, “shame,” his head dropped, "I liked him. "
"It's not about that."
"What? It's sad."
"Its not sad, Scruff, it's life. Death is an important part of life, and when it comes to your time I will be there and you will understand. "
"Whatever you say, Percy." He did it on purpose. Azreal could take a swipe at that stupid sensitive wet nose of his he thought, but no, it was not becoming of him, that is what a lesser creature would do. Azreal, the swallower of souls, continued onwards.
“I’m not as good as Bill was.” It was the first thing Sarah had said to him throughout their game of chess. He had appreciated the silence. She was right; Bill Hollister had been the only person in the home who could give Carl a run for his money when it came to chess. Moreover, he’d won the last game they had played which made him reigning champion ad infintium. This didn’t sit well with Carl. The women tended to play bridge. Women did. Card games always came down to three things in Carl's opinion; luck, reading people and lying through your teeth. Women, in his experience, were better at all three. Chess was a purer game; strategic, demanding careful consideration and something else he could never quite place his finger on. Something beautiful though, something few people appreciated. He would have to find a new chess partner now Bill had succumbed to the darkness as so many had. He supposed he couldn't blame Bill for his absence but there was a part of him that always felt angry with them when people died. He felt like they had given up and not taken his feelings into consideration. It was a selfish thing to do, to die. Sarah was very good at bridge and he knew she was showing pity on him by coming to play chess today. But pity he could take; it was good to take his mind off things; off a murderous cat for one thing. Everybody knew the cat was the Goddamn grim reaper. Why people seemed to still think it was something worthy of affection he’d never know?
“I heard you tried to assassinate Percy again,” she said with a sardonic smile.
“Hmph!” he retorted. She was a slight cut above the rest, Sarah, at least she didn’t fawn over the little rat, and usually she was quiet.
“I think it’s nice.” She said as though the statement was self-explanatory.
“What’s nice?” He growled.
“It’s nice that he knows when we are going to pass on, that he comes to give us comfort. At least that’s the way I choose to see it.” She emphasised the ‘choose’. People were always telling Carl Bannon that he chose to see things in a negative way. He thought they ‘chose’ to sugar coat reality.
“The only comfort I’ll get out of that flea bag, is when I throttle him with the last of my strength and drag him to hell with me.’
She stifled a giggle. Sarah was all right, and that was saying a lot in Carl’s book. There was a pause in the conversation, and he wondered what she must have looked like when she was younger.
“Don’t you ever get tired?” She asked.
“Of what? Life?” And with a whisper of change, she looked old again; beaten down as they all were by the years. She looked guilty too, like she’d broken a taboo.
“Well, yes, I suppose so.” She looked down. He reached across the table and took her hand, she started, surprised.
“I never tire Sarah, and I won't tire of you. Thank you for the game of chess.” He gave her hand a squeeze and excused himself. The old girl was speechless. Carl felt rather proud of himself. There was a depressing acceptance of death in the home but he would continue fighting forever. Maybe that was why he felt so disappointed with people when they died. Death was the ultimate weakness; the fail, the last checkmate.
"How are you today Mrs Thomas?” Wendy liked Sarah, she reminded her of a Maggie Smith type; she always seemed to have a wistful expression on her face.
“Oh, I’m ok Wendy, as good as can be expected.”
“I saw you playing chess with Mr Bannon, I’m glad someone can still tolerate him enough to distract him from trying to kill Percy.”
“Oh don’t worry about Carl. You know, half the time he only yells because he can’t hear what you are saying.” She seemed distracted for a second.
“Of course, I suppose I should be more patient. It’s just that not all of our guests are as pleasant as you, Mrs Thomas.“
“Oh you do a wonderful job with us Wendy, cooped up in here with us decrepit relics. I do hope you get out and about and remind yourself life is not all about ageing and death sometimes?” Wendy supposed she probably should do that, but the truth of the matter was, that by the end of her shifts, she was generally too exhausted for much of a social life.
"You know when you’ve been married to someone as long as I have you forgive their little quibbles.” Wendy tried to hide her surprise. A lot of the guests had problems with dementia but Sarah had always been sharp as a tack. Gently, Wendy tried to remind her,
“No, I meant Carl Bannon, Mrs Thomas, from room 4.”
“Why of course you did, my dear.” She smiled. Then the smile dropped and she seemed confused. “I’m sorry, I’m feeling a little under the weather today.” She sat down on the bed.
“That’s Ok Mrs Thomas. Why don’t I get Dr Jefferson in to have a look at you, okay?"
“JINX!” she heard from the corridor and swung round to see a cane rattle past the door, quickly followed by a screeching cat and a growling dog. By the time she got to the corridor she found Scruff the dog growling at Mr Bannon and him talking to the bloody thing.
This was getting ridiculous.
“Mr BANNON!” She felt like grabbing him by his ear like a schoolboy. “What is it with you and the animals in this building? Scruff, go on.” She shooed the dog away and it stopped growling but didn’t move, man and dog not breaking eye contact. She wasn’t sure which one would bite first, but she felt that something irreconcilable was about to happen. “Kenneth!” She yelled for the closest orderly, who came running. “Can you put the bloody dog outside please?” She whipped round on Carl Bannon. This man would be the death of her.
“That hound looked like he was going to bite me, he shouldn't be allowed inside.” He sounded like a whiny child. She knew she wasn't allowed to take the dog’s side but she wanted too. She noted the cat was nowhere to be seen now.
“I’m sorry Mr Bannon,” she said carefully, retrieving his cane. “You seem angry today, are you sure we can't give you something to calm your nerves?”
She realised she had done it again. She had used medication as a threat. She shouldn’t do that, the medication was to help people when they were confused or upset. He wasn’t confused. Paranoid, obnoxious and bitter maybe, but not confused. His defiance waned again.
“No, I’ll be fine, I’m sorry.” Then the rage came back into his eyes as he looked behind her. She looked round to see Percy the cat with his head poking around the corner. She wondered if the cat was more trouble than he was worth? The animals had been brought in to calm the patients down and generally they did: everyone, except this one.
“Mr Bannon,” she handed him his cane and held his hand beseeching, "I have more important things to do right now, please stop trying to kill the cat.”
He didn't say anything.
She turned to leave.
“Nurse Wendy…” he asked softly. She turned back exasperated. He was looking at the floor.
“Yes?” she tried to keep the impatience out of her voice.
“Can you get Sarah’s family to come and visit?"
“Because you saw the cat by her door? Really?”
“I’m sorry.” He looked like he wanted to say more, to plead his case, but he knew it was nonsense. She turned and walked away. As she reached the end of the corridor, she looked back. He had pulled up a chair and was sitting outside Sarah’s room.
Azreal knew a losing battle when he saw one. The old cretin wasn’t going to move from his sentry post during the day, not today. He was a stubborn old sod. Azreal prowled the grounds instead. He needed to get some air. He didn’t understand why the Lord made his mission so difficult. Why was it so difficult to get some respect? He had a holy mission. He was on a holy mission from God, what did this mean old git have as his mission? Azreal had never seen him with a visitor. Not that the fact he didn’t get any visitors was surprising; Azreal wouldn’t visit him either if he weren’t divinely inspired to. But he did need to visit Mrs Thomas, she was in need of comfort and would be crossing over soon, he needed to be with her. He would wait until night. The old man might be stubborn but his age still meant he would nod off soon enough.
He supposed he had other things to take care of, he thought, as he saw Scruff tethered to a post outside.
“Good afternoon,” Scruff said, clearly deciding which moniker to mock him with, “Azreal.” He said it with a sneer. But it was better than the alternative. Stupid animal, if he had actually attacked the old man he would have been sent away. The only reason he was allowed here was because he was so docile. Azreal had never seen him actually growl at anyone before.
“I suppose I owe you a 'thank you’.” The dog snorted, playing coy. He wasn’t going to make this easy. “I wasn’t in danger.” Percy added.
“I just meant,” he really was an infuriating dog, “You put yourself at risk.”
“Hmph, didn’t really think about that.”
“Well you should. I’m a cat, I’m never a danger, dog’s are different, you could be perceived as a threat, I could see that not working out well for you.” The canine looked at him,
“You’re really bad at saying thank you, you know that Azreal? ” Azreal turned to go but thought better of it. He was after all, a noble angel, and even angels must show gratitude where it was due.
“When it comes to your time to cross over, “ he paused for effect, “ I hope I am there to provide comfort for you.”
The dog flicked his head and tried to catch a fly going past.
“Gee. Thanks, Percy.”
Azreal, once again, hated the dog. ‘Forgive me father’ he thought and turned and walked away from Scruff before he was tempted to swipe a freshly sharpened claw at his eyes again.
Dr Jefferson said Sarah had been suffering from a series of small strokes. Wendy had called her family in. Carl Bannon had stayed sitting by her door until they had arrived. When he saw them arrive he discreetly got up and went to his room. When the family had been with her for a couple of hours, Percy the cat had entered the room. Wendy went to shoo him out but as he jumped up on the bed Sarah seemed to brighten up and asked that he be allowed to stay. The family fussed over the cat and seeing how it seemed to comfort Sarah they too begged that he should stay. Wendy couldn't really object based on her superstitions and Sarah suffered a final fatal stroke a couple of hours later with her family by her side and Percy the cat curled up at the foot of her bed. It seemed to Wendy that everyone round here seemed to know when people were going to die, like it was the next step of the story that everyone could see coming, except her.
The next day she saw Mr Bannon sitting on his own at the chess table. He would play a move and then spin the board around and play the other side. She felt the familiar brush of Percy the cat against her leg, which made her realise she had been staring. She knew she should go and talk to the old man but the sight of him playing chess by himself broke her heart and something stopped her from stepping forward. It didn’t stop Percy the cat though who strode past her. She moved to stop him but he promptly jumped up on the chair opposite Carl Bannon. Her blood turned cold as her first thought was that she couldn’t deal with another death this week but the ridiculousness of the scene, of what looked like an old man playing chess with a cat, stopped her from approaching.
Wendy braced herself to save the cat once again but didn’t want to yell at the old man today; he looked so broken.
There was a pause as Carl saw the cat.
The two of them eyed each other and though it seemed comical, Wendy had, not for the first time, this sense of intelligence about the cat that she couldn’t quite fathom. Carl spoke a couple of quiet sentences to the cat. There was another pause and he spoke again but she couldn’t make out the words. He seemed calm though. Usually he threw his walking stick at Percy any time he caught sight of him.
Now Carl’s head sagged a bit and she feared he had dropped dead right at the table but Percy jumped down from the chair and sauntered out of the room and Carl raised his head and carried on with his game. She stepped towards him.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” she said gently. He looked up, distracted from his thoughts.
“Sorry, Mr Bannon, I was asking if you mind if I sat down?”
“Oh,” he gestured to the chair,” yes, by all means, it would appear I’ve won anyway.” He toppled the white king in a ceremonious manner and looked her in the eyes as she sat. All the malice and hatred seemed to have drained from him; he looked tired.
“Are you,” she hesitated, unsure of how to ask the question without giving away her superstitions, “feeling ok?”
“Ha,” he smiled and pointed at her triumphantly, "you; Nurse Wendy, are talking about the Jinx.” His laugh and sense of victory at her succumbing to his superstitions put her at ease as much as it irked her.
“Yes, well, I suppose I am.” She felt silly as he regarded her for a second,
“Do you play?” He asked gesturing to the chessboard. She nodded,
“Yeah, I used to play with my Dad, back in the day.” A million years ago it felt like now, before her Mum had passed away, before they had fallen out. She was glad she still had some pleasant memories of her father. "I suppose you remind me of him sometimes.”
“Grumpy old bastard is he?” He grinned and she laughed a quiet laugh.
“Well, yes, I suppose you could say that.” She started to set up the board. “You were right,” he looked up at her, “about Sarah,” she said. The family needed to be called. I didn’t want to believe it because…” She didn’t want to voice her opinion out loud but she knew what he thought and she couldn’t deny she felt it too. “Because of a cat, but…” she trailed off not knowing what to say. He didn’t have a reply either. “Can I ask you what you said to him?”
“Said to who?” he asked.
“Percy, just now, I saw you talking to him.” He looked at the board and she was worried she’d offended him.
“Well, I suppose you’ll think I’ve gone dotty talking to the cat.”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that.” She thought for a moment, “I don’t think the cat is the grim reaper like you seem to but he certainly does seem to be able to sense something. The scientist in me wants to deny it, but, the evidence sort of suggests…”
“I told him I wasn’t ready.”
Wendy cocked her head to her side. She didn’t say anything but she couldn’t help the awful thought that she didn’t know why he wouldn’t be ready, why he would still cling to life in such a way? It was a terrible thought for her to have and she knew it, but they were the thoughts you couldn’t help but have, when you worked with people like Mr Bannon who seemed to have no one and nothing to live for. He seemed to read her mind and changed the subject.
“You know why I love chess?” he asked. She shook her head. “It’s a game you can play and enjoy without winning. Many of my favourite games of chess are ones I’ve lost.”
“Even against yourself?” she asked.
She hesitated, not wanting to start the game for fear it would end the conversation.
“I’m sorry about Sarah.”
“Me too.” He replied.
She moved her queen’s pawn forward two spaces, and he smiled like he knew her whole game before she had played it. He moved his knight forward to cover the space in front the pawn and she knew she would lose the game but was interested in understanding why. Surely he couldn’t beat her based on her first move? She looked at the clock on the wall. She could afford to have a break and play chess with him. Out of the corner of her eye she spied Percy looking at him. He saw her looking and vanished round the corner, sending a shiver down her spine. Maybe he would listen to the old man’s request and leave him in this world for a little longer? She shook off the ridiculous thought that the man had talked to the cat and the cat was somehow responsible for his life and death and she looked back to the chessboard. How could she beat this man at chess?