For 83-year-old Bill Jensen, recently bereaved, an unexpected visitor brings a terrible gift.
Bill Jensen was 83 years old.
He had lived in Durban all his life with his wife, Jennifer. When they had first met, back in 1958, she had joked that she would never be able to marry him, as then she would always be known as Jennifer Jensen, or Jen-Jen. That was, oh, sixty-three years ago now, but he would never forget it….
That remark, and that sparkling smile, almost as if daring him to prove her wrong. Well, she had been wrong, but over the last sixty-three years she had been right about almost everything else.
She had been right that their first child would be a son, and that he would grow up to be an engineer like his father. She had been right that their second child would be a daughter, and that she would grow up to be a teacher like her mother. She had also been right, sadly, that both children would leave the country and settle somewhere else. It was a wrench when they left, and the frequent visits, the long telephone calls, the letters and postcards and pictures posted on Facebook were just not the same as having them nearby.
Had she been right about selling the house and moving into a retirement Home? It was a pleasant place, quite big, with plain lawns and simple gardens. It was what they wanted, they told each other, as they sat and talked over tea in the mornings and their afternoon cake. From their patio, you could almost see the sea.
But she had definitely been right when she told him one day, not too long ago, that the pains she had been getting were serious, and that she should see a specialist. He wished she hadn’t been right about that.
It was difficult for him to sit next to his Jen-Jen in her white hospital bed, looking at her white face on the pillow, her thin hand clutching his. His Jen-Jen was all he had, and she was all he had had for a long time.
Bill wrestled with his thoughts. He knew she was in pain, he knew there was no cure. One moment he wished it could be all over, and her suffering would end. But that would mean that his own suffering would begin. Sixty-three years is a long time to spend with one person. You get to know their laughter, their breathing, their secret smile. How would he cope on his own? He would be alone, completely alone. For the first time in his life.
In the morning, the nurse found Bill, sitting upright, fast asleep next to the bed, holding Jen-Jen’s hand. She had to wake him very gently.
“Mr Jensen?” she said. “Mr Jensen?” She lifted his warm, red hand off the cold, white hand of his wife. “I’m sorry, Mr Jensen,” she said. “I’m so terribly sorry.”
The next few weeks must have passed, but Bill Jensen didn’t remember anything very clearly. He recollected his children coming back for the funeral, and mourned the fact that they had not come back when Jen-Jen was alive. People around him were very kind, very busy. He felt himself being swept along in this race of activity, of organisation, of sympathy. And then it was all over, everything was done, everyone had left. He saw his children off at the airport, and the Home’s bus brought him home.
It was dusk when he got back to his front door. The door looked just the same. His flat looked just the same. Why did they look the same when everything else was so different? The room echoed a little when he walked in. He sat in his easy-chair as he had done every night for so long, and looked at her chair, standing empty now. Who was he going to talk to? Who was he going to wrangle with over the TV programmes?
He did not eat, it seemed pointless to make a meal for one person. He stared at the television, not seeing the pictures or hearing the sound. He went to bed and hardly slept, lying staring up at the ceiling. What was he going to do now? He was eighty-three. How could one start all over again at eighty-three?
It was hardly light when he got up the following morning to put on the kettle for coffee. Coffee for one person. He stood staring at the kettle while the steam came out and it switched itself off. He didn’t even know that he hadn’t moved until he woke from his daze, to find the water in the kettle had cooled. He switched it on again.
And then he heard the noise. It sounded as if someone was trying to push something through his letterbox. He went into his tiny hallway and opened the door.
There was a cat on his doormat. A grey tabby, with clear eyes and white paws. The cat twisted its head to look up at Bill, and then looked past him into the flat, as if to ask whether he could come in. Without even thinking about what he was doing, Bill stepped back and the cat walked past him, warily, looking up at him every so often as if to ask if what he was doing was alright.
“Come in, Kitty,” said Bill, still in a daze. “I’ve just been making some coffee. Would you like some milk?”
This seemed to be acceptable. The cat jumped on the kitchen counter, sniffing at the tap, the sink, the kettle, the coffee-cup, the sugar basin. Bill filled a saucer with milk, and the cat came a little nearer, first a little shyly, then eagerly. The two of them drank together in companionable silence.
Bill stretched out a tentative hand. The cat shied away a little, but soon returned to the saucer. After a few tries, Bill managed to stroke his fur. The cat butted his hand. Almost as a reflex Bill picked the cat up and buried his face in its fur. The fur was soft, and the cat smelled dusty, but the animal did not resist, his body was warm and, deep down, there was the faint rumbling of a purr.
And so the adventure began.
Bill took a walk that morning to the corner shop, where he bought cat food and cat litter, with – as an afterthought – something for his own supper. On his way back, the Home’s bus-driver saw him and offered him a lift:
“Can I help you with those heavy bags, Mr Jensen?”
“No, I’m fine, Michael,” Bill called back, lifting a hand and attempting a smile. The bus driver went past, looking back in his rear-view mirror.
‘Looks like the old boy is going to be all right,’ he thought to himself. “I was a little worried about him.”
The cat was sitting on Jen-Jen’s chair when he let himself back into his flat. He took this as an omen. Jen-Jen had sent the cat, to look after him. She did not want him to be alone.
He called the cat Jensen, simply because he could not think of any other name. Jensen Jensen. It fitted, somehow.
All day, Bill talked to Jensen. He told him about Jennifer, and the things they used to do together. He told him about their first holiday together, when he pretended to be a gondolier in a row-boat, and had fallen in the lake. He told him about the time that his son had been rushed to hospital with a burst appendix, and how he and Jen-Jen had sat in the hospital waiting room, tense and unspeaking, until the danger had passed.
Jensen sat on the table-top while Bill worked on his hobby (making wooden jigsaws for kids), his paws tucked under his compact body, his eyes following Bill’s hands as they cut and sanded and planed the tiny pieces of wood. He was thin, but quite clean, and Bill did wonder sometimes, when he paused in his work, where he had come from.
That evening Bill poured himself his habitual whiskey and sat in front of the television and watched his regular programmes. At first Jensen sat perched on Jen-Jen’s chair, blinking at the television too, but after a while he got up, stretched, and jumped down. Bill held his breath. The cat walked over to the door and Bill’s heart sank. Jensen wanted to go out. He was going to leave. Bill stared, unseeing, at the television picture. He did not want to face another evening alone.
Then he felt a soft paw brush his arm and, with incredible grace, Jensen jumped up onto his lap, turned around once, and settled down. Very gently, hardly breathing, Bill rested a hand on his fur.
That night, Jensen slept on his bed. Bill did not sleep very well, but every time he made a restless move he would hear the deep vibrating purr from the wakened cat. He felt – almost – content.
He was making breakfast for the two of them three days later when he heard the knock on the door. It was the supervisor.
“Mr Jensen,” she began, trying to look over his shoulder, “I have been told you have a cat.”
“Er…” Bill began. She raised her voice.
“You know it is forbidden to have pets,” she said. “You are breaking the rules. You must get rid of it immediately.”
“It is not forbidden,” retorted Bill, with a flash of spirit. “There are no rules about pets on the property.”
“Mr Jensen,” she said, “You do not want to cross me. I hate cats. I will not allow you to keep a cat.”
“You won’t even know about it,” said Bill in desperation. “He will live indoors, I have a litter box, he keeps me company….”
“Oh yes?” she sneered. “You can’t prevent a cat from roaming. He will be a nuisance to the other residents.”
“No, he won’t.” Bill put up a last defence. “No-one in this complex dislikes animals. We all want pets….”
“Is that so?” she interrupted. “What would this place be like if everyone just did as they pleased, and we were overrun with dirty animals?” She stepped back. “Michael, please remove this cat.”
And then Bill saw the bus driver behind her, his face set.
“Yes, Mrs Braithwaite,” he muttered and shouldered his way past Bill. “I’m sorry, Mr Jensen,” he said. Bill put out a despairing hand to stop him, but it was too late.
Michael walked into the kitchen, where Jensen had been about to start on his breakfast. He looked up, startled, and then he tried to jump down. Michael caught him in mid-air by one leg, grabbed him round the body, then stuffed the struggling cat into a hessian bag. There was one last, plaintive, yowl.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” he said again as he walked out, not looking at Bill where he stood, white-faced and trembling, pressed against the front door.
“The nerve of the man!” said Mrs Braithwaite in a parting shot, as she turned to walk after him. “The next thing we know, this place will be a three-ring circus!”
Bill felt his way over to his easy chair and sat, staring at the wall. He felt as if, finally, his world had completely collapsed.
By the following morning the story was around the whole complex. Michael had taken the cat to be put down. Bill’s tiny rebellion had been crushed.
A few days later, Bill’s neighbour knocked on his door. She had been worried about him, he had seemed so listless and pale. His wife’s death had been a terrible shock, and then there was that dreadful business about the cat. He seemed to be shrinking, and yesterday, when he was sitting on his patio, he had looked so sad, so bereft, so lonely.
But there was no reply. And there would never again be a reply from Bill Jensen. In the early hours of the morning his heart had given up trying to make sense of the world. He had gone to join Jennifer, where she was waiting for him.
With Jensen in her arms.
This is a true story, although names and some details have been changed. I work in animal welfare, and I have been told myriad stories about cats that turn up, mysteriously, after a bereavement. The people who tell me these stories firmly believe the animal was ‘sent’ to them for comfort.
Unfortunately, most complexes have rules against pets, and I have dealt with far too many traumatised people who have had to give up their animals for euthenasia as a result.
Loneliness is the greatest pandemic of the 21st century, and this story is an appeal for some compassion.
The Health Benefits of Pets, read here
Having a pet combats loneliness, read here
To read more writing from Niki Moore, click here