Well this all began last Thursday night, when Mr Litlove went out on the tiles in London with his old school buddies. A great time was had by all, and naturally Mr Litlove was home rather late. I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible to go to sleep whilst waiting for one of the home party to get in, and in any case I had news. In fact, due to the miracle that is the smartphone, Mr Litlove knew it already and it was equally the first thing he told me once he stepped across the threshold: his grandmother was slowly fading.
This is undeniably sad, but his grandmother had enjoyed 96 years of splendid life and was already anticipating the ‘great reunion’ that she believed lay ahead of her. This should tell you something about the wonderful spirit which had kept her buoyantly alive for so long. In her shoes, I’d be calculating my chances of landing in some celestial dormitory with a bunch of people I’d hoped never to clap eyes on again. So anyway, we chewed this over for a while and finally got to bed in the small hours. Mr Litlove was restless in the night – apparently there’s nothing like a lavish meal for making you hungry a few hours later – and so by the time we reached morning, we all felt a bit the worse for wear.
During the day and into that Friday night we were experiencing the wild winds that had plagued the rest of the country. We lay in bed listening to them buffeting the sides of the house and howling through the trees. This is becoming a regular occurrence at this time of year: the year before last we had our television aerial fixed; last year we rebuilt the garden fence with steel posts inside it, and so we went to sleep joking about having a good night – there was surely nothing left to fall over or fly loose. And so we were quite unprepared when the phone began ringing at some ungodly hour.
My first thought was that surely my mother-in-law wasn’t ringing us to say that Mr Litlove’s grandmother had died? Surely she wouldn’t have told us now? Years ago when I was pregnant with our son and Mr Litlove was working away half the week in Leicester, his car had been stolen, joy ridden, and left to burn. For some reason, the police rang my mother-in-law in the small hours, who utterly forbade them from contacting me and risking some measure of shock. Instead I heard the news mid-morning from Mr Litlove, who had spent a long time trawling the streets in his vicinity wondering how come he couldn’t seem to recall where he’d parked his car – until the police finally caught up with him.
Mr Litlove was obviously having some trouble wading to the shores of consciousness and reaching the phone that is on his side of the bed. When he got there I heard him groan and start stabbing at the buttons on the phone. It was a recorded message from the company that runs the security system at his office, alerting him to a possible intruder. Except of course, the security system is hopelessly neurotic and rings us reguarly in heavy rain, or thunder and lightning, or sometimes for no obvious reason at all. The wind shrieked outside and Mr Litlove returned to bed. About fifteen minutes later, his office mobile phone started ringing; the next link in the security chain. When this happened for the third time towards 3am, expletives were exchanged. I’m sure experiments in torture have been conducted along similar lines. Mr Litlove had to get up at 6am to go rowing, and he said that by then he was quite glad. I had fallen asleep towards dawn and woke with that drugged feeling you get when your deep sleep comes too little too late.
When Mr Litlove returned from rowing, we regarded one another blearily.
‘Let’s do nothing today,’ I suggested.
‘I’ve got to take the cat to the vet,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘Then that’s it for me.’
The cat. Whom I find harder to love as he gets older. Imagine a querulous and demanding elderly relative who gazes with worshipful eyes on the master of the house and treats you like a servant girl on a Mississipi plantation: this is our current ménage à trois. Well, over Christmas I had noticed that Harvey seemed to be scratching more than usual. He has allergies (to what we are not sure) that we usually notice as small granular lumps in his fur. Even though he was already taking his steroids, this was one gritty cat we had on our hands. Worse, the relentless licking made him smell truly revolting. I thought he should go to the vet, but Mr Litlove did not. He thought the grit was scabbing and that the steroids were doing their work. By the end of the second holiday week, he was changing his mind, and then finally he had booked an appointment.
When he returned from the vet he rushed in saying: ‘You were right. You were right. You were right,’ without any provocation. This alarming use of the most conciliatory card in the marital deck made me realise I would not like what was coming.
‘It’s good news and bad news,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘He’s got fleas.’
‘How can he possibly have fleas?’ I asked, instantly feeling itchy.
It turns out that our village is the epicentre for an outbreak of Darwinian fleas who have learned to embrace central heating and resist certain kinds of flea repellent. We have been through fleas once before, 20 years ago in fact, when we were living in the cottage with our previous cat, Boris. I had a vivid image of Mr Litlove’s bare feet on the carpet with a sort of haze in the air around them, which on closer inspection turned out to be a zillion insects leaping for joy at the sight of human transportation. Fleas are awful. They are to soft furnishings what a nuclear accident is to the surrounding landscape. Endless attempts at clear-up operations in the awareness that the extent of the damage will only become apparent many months later. And this is to say nothing of the political fallout.
I looked at the cat, who did not wish to meet my eye and account for the company he had been keeping. I looked at my husband, who did not wish to meet my eye and account for the extra ten days of flea-egg-shedding that our cat had used to the max. Instead, we began on the housework, vacuuming and spraying every surface the cat had covered, washing all our linen and the clothes we’d been wearing over the past few weeks. I went out to buy some new pillows and pillowcases and when I returned, my mother-in-law had rung to say that Mr Litlove’s grandmother had indeed passed over during the night while our phones had rung so futilely. It was a little spooky.
I wondered what the good news was that Mr Litlove had brought back from the vet? I think he believed the good news was learning I’d been right (while under the circumstances….) but we do now have a cleaner house than usual, and I like to think of Mr Litlove’s grandmother enjoying her triumphant reunion with her husband, with her eldest son, with her parents and her brothers and sisters, with her many friends, and the full unbroken night’s sleep we had last night was wonderful.