Back in the days when I drove a cab for a living, I sat and watched a cat get beat up by a bird one morning.
I say it was beaten up, in truth, it was just sort of knocked around and chased for a bit, but whichever way you look at it:
I saw a cat, being assaulted by a bird.
Maybe I'd better tell you exactly what happened?
I'd been working all night, ten hours or so, up until about five thirty in the morning. Hunger got the better of me until I had to give in and grab a sandwich and eat it somewhere quiet.
I found the perfect spot, a beautiful place in Liverpool called Sefton Park.
Now Sefton Park is always beautiful, but early morning, sun coming up, blue sky, and a light mist rising off the dew makes it extra special. The place takes in a willo-the-wisp look to it, grey and green with a tiny gap in-between. Just occasionally, if you are lucky, you’ll see a fleet footed fox splashing a dash of red across the dew dropped grass. A deft dash of paint on canvas from the old master.
That morning I sat, door open, with nothing but the sound of morning yawning birds and a cooling engine for company. I was sniffing my sandwich (I wasn't going to leap straight in) when there, just out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cat sitting under a tree watching me. It was maybe thirty foot away, a little tatty, with the look of a beast that has never really found a lap to relax on.
I smiled at the cat, but he didn’t smile back.
Cats can be like that.
He was sitting and staring, when out of the tree, a massive blackbird swooped down and knocked the him over.
Poor old puss jumped up, hopped around sideways a couple of times and then stopped and stared at me. Now I am no expert on cat body language but I know for a fact that cat was saying,
"What...the hell... was that?"
I smiled and shrugged and said out loud,
"You must be in his spot mate."
The cat didn’t reply, he just glanced around and then regained some composure and sat back down. It was then, just as he nestled his bum back into its spot, the bird came down and did it again. This time, hit and run wasn’t good enough, this time it did a bit of pecking and flapping its wings at poor old puss, who in turn, desperately tried to get away, and failed miserably.
Puss rolled and tumbled as the bird slapped and flapped a blur of yellow and black. The only sound I could hear was the rustle of the grass, and the beat of wing, until finally, the bird flew back up into the tree.
Puss took a couple of steps away and sat back down. He was looking even more confused and maybe a tad embarrassed, I guessed if he’d been wearing glasses they would be twisted half around his head and that he would have scrambled to put them back on his nose to restore his dignity.
But cats don’t wear glasses, so he didn’t.
I broke off a piece of sandwich and held it out to him. I waggled the titbit and “puss pussed” a welcome until eventually he wandered over. Each step slow and nervous, until he sat about five feet away sniffing the air. I tossed him some tuna and he ate it and did that cat thing of not looking at you, but looking at you closely.
I tossed him some more tuna, just a little short, and this bridged the gap between us enough for him to wander over and offer a nuzzle on the back of my hand. He stood and stared at what was left of my sandwich, pushing out his bony ribs to make a point, and I gave him some more.
Eventually, when he’d had enough of me, he licked his lips, looked at the park, thought cat thoughts, then wandered back to the tree.
I swear he almost sighed as he did so.
I felt sorry for him and said out loud as he went:
"She's not worth it."
But he didn't listen, cats never do, he just sat back down under his tree and went back to watching the world.
It was only later, when I was driving home, that I thought of the old lady and her husband who I met many years before when I a policeman.
It was late night, probably about three am, maybe a Tuesday, maybe a Wednesday, but definitely midweek. Now I think it would be fair to say that where I was working wasn’t a hotbed of crime. St Helens is more Mayberry than Hill Street, so any job that came out on the radio was seized more as a means of staying awake, than an opportunity to battle the forces of evil.
A report came in from a neighbour reporting shouting from the house next door. I was the first car at the scene and after some banging on the front door I was surprised to be met by an old guy, about mid-seventies, wearing a pair of too big trousers, and an old gray vest. The trousers had once made up part of a brown suit, but now they bunched over his belly like a Christmas cracker and his vest bore the color of a thousand hot washes with one black sock rubbing up to it.
He ran his hand through thinning hair that looked like it hadn’t woken up yet, and then told me everything was okay and the neighbor had been mistaken.
“It doesn’t work like that,” I said as I looked over his shoulder into the house, “I have to check everyone is okay, so step aside and it’ll only take a second.”
His hand scraped his hair again and it rose and fell like his chest until finally, he sighed, and let me pass. I smelt beer on his breath as I squeezed through the door, but once inside all I could smell was polish, leather, gas fires, farting dogs and the family that had lived there for fifty years or more.
I went into the living room; it was one of those that are full of brass, rugs, and photos of grandkids in university gowns who never phone but expect a card every birthday.
I looked around, and saw that over in the corner, almost forgotten, sat on a chair, was a sparrow of an old lady. Thin pink flannel dressing gown clutched tight to her throat, two tiny furry slippers peeking out from its hem. The skin on her hands was wrinkled and brown and looked like half scraped wet wallpaper, bunched over bone.
Those wallpaper hands were clutching a tissue to her nose.
It was red with blood.
The old guy had followed me in. I looked at him, his eyes flickered with sadness and shame.
Before he could speak I already had my hand on my handcuffs.
“You’d better put your coat on.”
He nodded and did as he was told.
I drove him the three miles to the custody suite. He didn’t speak all the way there, and to be honest, neither did I.
The custody sergeant heard the story, then politely asked the old guy for his details. The old guy stood still, did as he was told and called us both “Sir” more times than he really had to.
At the cell door, as I waited for his shoes, the old man asked his first question of the night:
"What happens now sir?"
“I’ll go get a statement off your wife, then I’ll interview you, then the sergeant decides what to do with you.”
" I'm sorry son." He said, and for the first time his voice cracked.
"Don't be sorry, we'll sort it out."
"I just snapped."
"Don't tell me here, we'll talk about it on tape."
"There is only so much you can take."
“Don’t say any more, I’ll be back soon.”
“Go easy on her.”
I shushed him again and closed the cell door; and then drove out to see his wife. When I arrived she had dressed and had fashioned her hair into one of those cotton candy blue styles that only old ladies have. I followed her into the living room and she gestured for me to sit, and then offered me tea. I declined and pointed to the chair opposite for her to sit, in that way that only cops do in other people’s homes.
Like they own it.
"So what happened?" I asked, pulling out a pen, all business with an eye on the clock,
"It's my fault."
"No, you mustn't blame yourself love, it's easy to blame yourself, you've been assaulted, nobody should have to put up with that,” even though I meant what I was saying, I’d said it a thousand times, and it probably sounded like it.
"No, you don’t understand. Really, it is my fault, I started it, I always start it... he lets me hit him. I batter him, really beat him... I've done it for years,” she paused, looked at the clock even though she had nowhere to go, and then said softly. “I hate him for it, I hate myself for it. I don’t know what happened tonight… but he hit me back for the first time ever.”
To say that that wasn't what I was expecting would be an understatement.
I was dumbfounded; I looked at the blank statement, up at her, back at the statement, and then realized I hadn’t even clicked my pen yet.
She told me they had three kids, four grandchildren, they had been married for fifty plus years, that she loved him, that he loved her, and that he had never raised a finger until that night.
She told me that he had come home from the pub and fell asleep in the chair, that she had woke up and come down and that they had argued and then she had slapped him, then punched him, then slapped him again.
Just like all those times before, and then this time, for the first time ever:
He had slapped her back.
“I called him names, terrible names.”
I looked at my pen for some help, but it just looked back at me and shrugged.
"I deserved it, I wish he'd done it years ago,” she shook her head and then lifted her chin. “I'll not make a complaint, I'll tell them I walked into a door, you can’t make me say anything I don’t want to.”
There are times when you are a copper, and I am sure many police officers will have felt this way, when you just don't have a clue what to do next. As I sat there that night on that couch looking at that little old lady who could have passed for Tweety Pie’s grandma... I did not have a clue what to do next.
I can remember staring at my statement forms for a minute or two, and then finally scribbling down some stuff about her not wishing to cooperate with the police. With hindsight, I maybe should have locked her up for assaulting him, she had just confessed to it.
I knew that wasn't going to happen, I just didn’t know why.
I told her I was going to go back to the station to speak to her husband. She didn’t follow me to the front door. As I stepped out into the street, I could hear her sobbing behind me, right until the door clicked shut, and I stood alone and watched the sun coming up.
At the time Merseyside Police Force had a zero tolerance policy when it came to domestic violence. It was an excellent tactic of everyone being arrested and interviewed at the very least. We aimed to protect the weak, and charge the aggressor, and I used to feel that I was doing good every night I pulled on the uniform, and stood up for the people who had no one else to stand up for them.
But back at the police station as I sat opposite that gentleman, that gentle, gentleman, in the interview room that morning, just me, him, a duty lawyer and a tape recorder that picked up the solicitors every yawn in stereo. I felt like reaching across the table and giving the old man a hug.
He was ashamed, tired, and he looked very, very, old.
I gave him a lift home so that he wouldn't have to wait for the bus in his vest. As we drove I told him what his wife had said, I told him he didn't have to put up with it. I told him about various charities that could support him, and his wife, to find different ways to communicate without violence and I tired, oh god I tried, to explain his life could be better than it was.
He didn't say that much back to me, he just stared out at the passing view thinking about the passing years.
As we pulled up outside the house, I killed the engine, and tried again.
“Please let me help you.”
He shook his head, looked at his front door, and said:
"I've put up with it for fifty years, and there's not many left to go now. I'll be okay son, thanks for your help."
He then got out and walked up the short path, then disappeared inside.
The cat under the tree made me think of him, the cat could have just walked away and found another tree to sit under but didn't. Something made it go back, sit down, then wait for the next onslaught from the angry bird.
It had the whole park to sit in, a thousand other trees, all better than that one, but that tree, with that bird, was where it had to sit.
Strange things cats.