On Another’s Sorrow

Sometimes you witness something so sad, and yet so ordinary. You want to describe it and yet it defies description. Maybe you shouldn’t even try; and yet it won’t go away until you do.

Today I went shopping. At least, I had been into town ‘on business’ – how important that sounds – and dropped off at the supermarket on the way back for a sandwich and half an hour’s sit/unwind/read in the car before setting off for home.

Often, in car parks, you witness or overhear little dramas. People take it for granted that the parked cars all around them are empty, as mostly they are. In supermarket car-parks people come and go fairly rapidly, and supermarkets tend to bring the worst out in adults as well as children. I remember them having the same effect on me, in the days when I still had somebody to be unpleasant to.

Anyway, I was sitting there, ploughing through yet another chapter of my book on Mindfulness. Obviously not being all that Mindful because the shouting kept distracting me. Several cars down a woman with straight grey hair was berating a young-ish man in a wheelchair. I watched them through my open window, and through three or four other sets of closed windows, so it wasn’t terribly clear. None if it was terribly clear.

She had the rear passenger door open and kept bobbing in and out of the car. Every time she bobbed out again, she shouted at him some more as he sat there in his chair.

Don’t try to help. See what you’ve done now, you’ve spilled it! Look at this mess!

But he didn’t look. He couldn’t have done, really, his chair was parked too far back. He just sat there not looking at her with his head bowed.

She seemed to be taking ages over everything in a kind of petulance, dragging it out as if to prolong the agony of the punishment for whatever it was he had done.

None of your business I told myself sternly, returning my attention to my book. But she was still shouting.

When I looked again he was in the passenger seat, still staring straight ahead. No sign of the wheelchair. She was round the other side, still bobbing into the car and bobbing out again, and shouting. Then she was round the back of the car with the hatchback up, and shouting. She really is making a meal of this, I thought. It was a hot morning but the windows of their car were rolled up.

The keys – just give me the keys! She shouted. And then I do believe she locked him in. I heard that little electronic noise central locking makes.

Then she went off somewhere, pushing their empty trolley, very slowly and leaning on it, kind-of one-armed and oddly. I wondered if she was his mother. I began to wonder if there wasn’t actually something more wrong with her than there was with him. I wondered if she had been drinking and whether she was going to be safe to drive. The sensible thing would be to set off for home right now, before she could come back and decide to jam a bad-tempered foot on her accelerator and broadside my car on the way out. But I didn’t.

I expected her to park the empty trolley and return, but instead she was gone for ages, presumably back into the supermarket to buy a replacement for whatever had been spilled or broken. I looked through the line of car windows again and saw that the young man was crying. Or at least, it looked as if he was.

I don’t often bother to pray but I found myself praying, momentarily, or at least asking on his behalf. It was for some sort of blanket to go around him; some sort of shield against that woman’s loud bitterness; some comfort against the odds.

I remembered when my marriage to Ex was failing – all those half-silent, half-aloud arguments we had in public places – in pubs, in supermarkets, in the street. When it gets past a certain point you are so inward-looking, so consumed by the struggle it’s as if you’re invisible. I remember having this pointed out to me once. A man in a pub – a man I liked and whose good opinion I would have wanted – turned to me abruptly and said ‘You two – don’t force us all to take part in your disputes. Save them for behind closed doors.’

We should have done, but I don’t know whether we did. Good advice is sometimes impossible to take.

I just hope he got that blanket, the man in the wheelchair. I hope he got that shield.

(On Another’s Sorrow: Songs of Innocence: William Blake)

PAWS CROSSED FOR LITTLE ARF

I was just emailing my friend about Arthur, who isn’t very well at the moment. She emailed me back, you’re a sucker for an undercat – and I suppose I am. Poor Little Arf – he can’t breathe very well, he keeps sneezing and licking his lips, and his eyes have gone all small.

First I fed him and then I rescued him. He didn’t put up much resistance. Cats tend to revert to the wild when they’ve been straying for so long. It can take six months to a year before they even let you touch them, and longer than that before they let you pick them up. Sometimes, just sometimes, you never can. I fed a hideous old tomcat called Frodo for many years – as did the whole neighbourhood – but I only managed to stroke him once, when he was dying.

First you put out food for them and keep watch from indoors. After a while you go quietly out and sit, at a distance, just watching them eat, sending out kindness. I have sat on my back door step for fifteen minutes at a time, sometimes, watching a stray cat eat, saying a few words – just things like There you are, are you ok? What’s your name, then? Do you have a name? and getting no reply. I have sat on that step in the snow with no coat on because there wasn’t time to fetch one. I have sat in the rain and waited, making no sudden moves.

And sometimes I find that their name has arrived in my head. It was like that with Arthur. Could you be Arthur? Are you my Little Arf? I think he decided fairly quickly that he was. Of all the cats I have rescued, Arthur probably had the least to lose by giving up on the wild. When he came indoors I discovered that his two canine teeth had been snapped off at exactly the same level, as if somebody had kicked him in the face. Now the vet says he’s got a larynx like a cauliflower from repeated throat infections. He may need to be antibiotics for the rest of his life or it may be something worse but Arthur and I, we are hoping for the best. We are keeping our paws crossed.

So many years he was out there on his own, running around looking for food in all weathers. So very long before he came to me. I wish I could heal his past as well as his present illness. I wish I could go back and revise his little life, give him a second chance – to be young again, to sit by the fire; to curl up for a nap in the sun, well fed; to be loved as all cats should be.

Somebody once told me there is a special prayer or church service known as The Healing of the Memories. If only such a thing worked, and not only on cats: on people, on nations, on cities.

Update 29th November:

Hopefully Arthur is over the worst now. Still sneezing all over me, and the other cats, who are also sneezing, but there’s been no practical way of segregating him. He has started eating and drinking again, and got a bit of his “shine” back, and the others seem to be going through/have gone through a lesser version of – whatever it was. Most of the “cure” I suspect comes from purrs: lots and lots of time on the lap, and purrs. The laying on of hands.

Update 9th December:

Arf continues to improve, with the occasional splashy sneeze inches from Mummy’s face to remind her he’s still not quite better and requires an awful lot of fuss to make sure he doesn’t fade away again. He’s now back to head-butting me out of the way to get to a new plate of food. Out of the woods, I think.