A really strange thing happened at work today. Odd things often happen at Chatsworth Lodge, home for those with senility and related conditions. By odd I mean old men scaling the neighbours fence and escaping into the suburbs, people having clothes on backwards, and finding someone’s false teeth down the toilet bowl (every morning). So when I say really strange, I am talking something truly out of the ordinary, even for Chatsworth.
In the four years I’ve been working the night shift I’ve become friendly with several of the residents, and though I shouldn’t admit it, one in particular was my favourite. A 104 year old called Margaret – “call me Peg” she’d say to me, almost daily. She was a delicate person to look at – her fine white blonde hair was pulled into a loose bun, and her skin was porcelain white, almost translucent as though the colour had faded from it over time. This was in startling juxtaposition to her blackened teeth when she smiled. “Too many of the bad habit” she’d say. She hadn’t smoked in over a decade, but her two front teeth bore the remnants of too many cigarettes drawn in between the gap in those teeth. She still sucked air through the gap when thinking.
She found it difficult to sleep so we’d often have a cuppa and a chat before she went to bed, and it was the chats more than anything that were interesting. When she wasn’t so lucid the stories would be confused and often end with her being angry at me for no reason. When she was lucid they were tales of decades past, how she’d outlived all her family, and the adventurous life she had led. But there were those nights where she was somewhere in between – telling stories so vivid with detail you would find it hard to doubt they were true, but the content was so fantastical that they couldn’t be.
She would tell tales of her childhood, growing up in Egypt – she was of a “colonial” sort of age. She would describe amazing places that even knowing little about history, didn’t seem quite right. Occasionally she would remind me she was once a Goddess. Almost weekly she would tell me how she missed her life as a cat. Working with the elderly so long you get a sense of when you should just humour them, and so I would sit and listen to her stories of her life as a cat.
“Sometimes” she once told me, well actually several times “I spent so many hours chasing a mouse through the palace that I ended up completely lost!”. She would then laugh and shake her head at the memories. She would often end her stories with “I was so young then”. Several times she had told me about the year of her birth “oh my dear, mother used to say that it had been a wet summer, the river was so swollen. Everything had been teaming with life!” her eyes seemed to glow as she spoke, as they did when she was excited. Not sparkle, but really glow. I usually put that down to the lighting and my tiredness. “Of course now you call it something BC, 2000 BC, 3000 BC, I lose track. All these silly names for things.” She used to say this sort of thing so often that I did once check her records, which is how I knew she was 104.
This past week Peg had been really quiet and reflective. Her stories a little forlorn, about people she missed – like her deceased husband Patrick who had moved into Chatsworth with her but passed away within a year. Sometimes her thoughts were of people she known during the War. I asked her gently if it was the Second World War or the Great War and she looked at me like I was crazy “The Romano-Persian Wars of course!” she said with some irritation. I, of course, apologised for my mistake whilst she muttered “how can people so easily forget the fall of the Sassanid Empire!”
Last night she was she was looking paler than usual, which was almost impossible and only really noticeable when she smiled her blackened grin which now seemed like a black hole sucking in life. As I took her up to her bed she gently gripped my arm and told me “I think this is it dear. Time to start a new adventure.” I nodded and smiled an understanding of what she meant. I popped her into bed and she settled under the stunning, almost regal quilt she had brought with her when she moved in – it was covered in intricate patterns that looked vaguely Egyptian to my untrained eye.
She smiled her off colour grin at me and muttered “well I shall see them all again soon, he still owes me dinner.”
“Patrick?” I asked. She frowned at me like I was stupid.
“No dear, Anubis. I shall have a few words for him when I see him!”.
I smiled and nodded again as her eyes fluttered closed and her breathing became shallow. I went back downstairs but made a note to check on her in an hour.
An hour later and, this is where the strange comes in, I opened her door and could hear something odd. No snoring, no breathing, not even the death rattle that I had prepared myself to expect. I could hear purring. I opened the door wide so that the light from the hall was cast over the bed, on which sat a cat. The bed was otherwise empty and had been stripped. The used bedding was piled neatly in the laundry basket and the pillows and folded quilt were just as neatly piled on the bed – on which the cat sat. It was a beautiful white animal, so white that it almost seemed to glow in the poor lighting. I checked the room as the cat watched me, and found that all of Peg’s clothes and her beaten up suitcase were gone, as were all her toiletries and personal belongings.
As I walked towards the cat it stood in anticipation and meowed at me. I was just reaching out a hand to it when it shot out of the room and down the stairs, I chased after it only to watch it launch itself out of an open downstairs window.
By the time the Manager arrived in the morning I had written a full report on the situation. We had a meeting, we both checked everything in the room again. The only evidence of Peg’s existence was her quilt, and the records we had on file. In fact we pulled the records and went over them, and even in doing so I questioned myself as to whether I had imagined Peg completely. At the Manager’s request I put the quilt down in the office and added to my report a full description of the cat. It was clear that she didn’t believe a single word that I had said, but was obviously unsure as to where Peg had gone and why anyone would, potentially, have taken her.
I left at the end of my shift and thought for a moment I saw a flash of white fur running from the driveway. As I walked home I reflected on the situation and no matter which way I sliced it, I figured I was pretty much fired.