The Cats have excelled themselves. Not content with hibernating away from the cold weather, (normal positions on a cold night, J against one leg, E against the other, each with head pillowed on a shin, me pinned and wakeful) they’ve been out hunting overnight. The garden is crisscrossed with catly footprints.
Generally speaking, Jules is the hunter; when he first moved in he used to bring things in to teach Elton and Dusty the rudiments of the art. First dead, then maimed, then live and kicking, prey of various kinds were offered up as training aids as he considered their skills increased. D and E were nicely brought up before they came to slum it with us, and didn’t know one end of a mouse from the other unless it had catnip in it. Dusty proved a keen whipper-in and cornerer, but wouldn’t deal with the actual killing; Julian lost interest quickly once the creature was actually dead and never ate them, surprising considering he’d lived rough for a while; Elton watched bewildered, but would generally consume part of the prey item once Julian had dispatched it. (Though I did see him once pounce on a mouse that julian had forgotten about that was trying to sneak home to its nest. Elton, on the sofa facing the wall, mouse in middle of living room: Elton executing 180° turn in mid-air and landing with precision, with mouse under his paw. I don’t know who was more surprised; me, the mouse or Elton.)
Now all of this I can put up with, though live rats stuck behind radiators leave something to be desired. I am resigned to Julian bringing us a christmas robin, to half eaten corpses on tha hall floor… but today…
…today there is a dead mouse in the toilet.
A: “Do you think it drowned? Jumped in to escape?”
Visions of the cats perched on the toilet seat, trying to scoop the mouse out, mouse paddling frantically. I haven’t inspected closely but it’s missing an ear, which suggests Elton’s involvement, so probably includes inept dropping of prey. I rather hope it didn’t drown.
Me: “We’d have heard splashing wouldn’t we?”
A:”There was a lot of crashing and banging in the middle of the night – I thought it was you.”
Fortunately we are a two-loo household. A drew the short straw and donned rubber gloves to deal with the corpse.
Julian is fast asleep in his basket on top of the tumble-drier in the kitchen, and Elton is sulking about not getting a third breakfast.
That’s what happens when you live with carnivores.
There’s been a skip outside a house up the street for a couple of weeks now, gradually filling with rubble from demolition, then off-cuts of wood, then spare bits of insulating board. Each time we walk past we automatically check the contents and think, can we use any of that? Untreated wood gets hauled out and put n the stove, and we’ve been considering the insulating board for a couple of days, when this morning I spot… a furry foot.
“No!” I cry in anguish, “you can’t do that!” and I pull hard, and there is a rather unprepossessing brown bear in a grubby white dress with sailor collar. She is semi stiff with frost, and not exactly clean. A immediately names her Elsie, and we carry her home to defrost.
It always upsets me when perfectly good bears are left are left at roadside shrines for accident victims. Bears should be comforting the bereaved, not sacrificed on altars. And those bears you see grimed and polluted, tied to the radiators of HGVs and waste disposal trucks, presumably rescued from waysides and bins, but what a way to treat a bear – couldn’t they be sat on the dashboard?
“Time for an Alton Towers moment”, A says as I strip off the sailor-dress ready for a spin in the washing machine.
“What’s Alton Towers?” asks Elsie, embarrassed to be caught in her under garments – only her feet and arms and head have fur; the rest is plain white cotton, like a nineteenth century wax doll. Elsie’s head is over large, the dress has to come off downwards.
“Whee…!” says Elsie, and that’s all we hear from her for about an hour.
Elsie is recovered from the wall of death and put on a radiator to dry out, none the worse for the adventure. Hilary Behr (prof) who is on the radiator too, sniffs disparagingly. She once wrote a thesis on the teddy bear in popular culture with the subheading prop or icon, which she will make available to this blog if the public make enough fuss; and she has regular comments to make about what she calls marketing opportunities.
“What’s a marketing opportunity?” Elsie asks, and “will you turn me over now, this side’s done.” She is still minus the dress, which is in the washing machine now, but may need bleaching.
“Careful, or she’ll have her paws under the table.” A says, heading off to bed. She can talk, she is personally responsible for a small raft of rescue cases that sit on her window sill together with ghastly zombie bears that she has been given by devoted students at various points in her teaching career, and hasn’t the heart to dispose of.
“Lets get one thing clear,” H Behr (D Phil) says, “This is a charity case, as in going in the next charity bag, this radiator isn’t big enough for another bear.” There is a chorus of approval from the radiator, where Liberty, Jezza, Eric, Sylva, Ron, Buffy and Jake gently warm their stuffing.
That’s the trouble with stuffeds. Give them a name and they’ll take a personality, a political outlook and an entrenched attitude to other toys. There is a subtle jockeying between the stuffeds and the knitteds. I think the knitteds, led by Eric the dinosaur are currently in charge. The Cats of course treat them all with contempt; although they never tangle with them, they know which are their toys, and which are Toys… I think it’s much the same as when cats chase squirrels, they always do so at the exact speed the squirrel is going, so that they run away, but they don’t get caught; so no one has to work out whether they are actually prey or not.
“You do know they aren’t real?” Julian asks, as he tries to get between me and the laptop. I recoil from his whiskers and encourage him off. He settles himself to sleep with his shoulder against my thigh, muttering “not another bleeding stuffed,” as he gets himself comfortable as only a cat knows how.
The continuing saga of the cats who have owned me. Earlier episode here
One of the things about Hattie, (we rarely called her Harriet) was that she had a ritual of staring out of the window every morning, which we attributed to her ‘checking outside was still there’.
It turned out we were right. When we moved house the first thing she did in the morning was look out of the window, and she screamed, and ran to the other window and screamed again. Completely unconcerned at being in a new house, she was horrified that Outside had Changed! It took several days before she recovered.
The demise of Zappa and the move to neutral territory did something to improve relations between Hattie and Morph but they never became friends. Morph, despite his laid back adoration of his humans rather despised Hattie’s despot tendencies and she knew herself to be queen empress and thought him beneath contempt. It wasn’t a peaceful home, we had the bottom half of a house, with massive basement, on the corner of a very busy road. I feared for the cats, but they had no interest in going near the traffic, and the back garden at least had a high wall (until a drunk drove into it). We had to make the garden from scratch and Hattie would come and help. Morph would sit on a windowsill and gaze at us in horror. Hattie disappeared several times while we lived there – she was adventurous and was gone for three days in heavy snow, and two one summer – that time she came home with no voice and a wound to her neck and throat – a very close call that kept her home for a long time. Hattie adored visitors, and was especially fond of our friend C who would move in while we were on holiday, and once spent Christmas with us – Hattie was surprised and delighted to wake Christmas morning and find us and C there, and I heard her holding a lengthy conversation with C on the way to her breakfast, using a vocabulary of chirrups and murrips she never used to us – I can’t help wondering what she had on her mind.
We were broken into on roughly a six monthly basis in this place, which did nothing for Morph’s nerves, and he used to literally climb walls, wailing at what he imagined were doors (weirdly, we had been round the property before it was converted and there hadbeen doors where he did this) – we called this ‘importuning arbours’ from a quotation used by (I think) Ruth Rendell in a Wexford book, when he or Burden mutters
such closets to ransack such arbours to importune.
Never tracked down where it’s from but I’m guessing a Jacobean revenger tragedy by Myddleton or someone.
Morph’s nerves caused him to hide a lot and he spent part of every day under the covers in my bed, lying as flat as he could… he got sat on regularly. As he was double jointed he could get into the tiniest spaces, he once spent a week behind the built in fridge, eventually coming out for a peice of stilton – he loved smelly cheese.
Eventually we could stand the strain of living in this house, lovely though it was, no better than Morph, and owing to a death in the family inherited enough money for a deposit and moved swiftly to our beloved current home, a mid terrace 1920’s house in a quiet street with a middling sized garden backing onto a railway cutting. The cats thought they had died and gone to heaven; Hattie regularly went peacefully to sleep in the middle of the lawn. (I say lawn – patch of grass would be more accurate).
Harriet was a mighty hunter, and brought us in daily mice, birds and rats. In the first week we et her out she killed three enormous rats, too big to get through the catflap. We once saw her sitting apparently completely relaxed beneath the bird feeder, then as a sparrow landed, she leapt up vertically, smacked it and landed, with the bird dead of a broken neck at her feet. Surgical strike by Harriet Jump Jet. We gave her a round of applause, then moved the feeder higher. She bounced up and down under it for a few days before admitting defeat.
Morph only ever caught one mouse, it was the smallest thing I ever saw – about the size of the first joint of my thumb. We reckoned Morph must have been sleeping with his mouth open and the mouse ran in mistaking it for its hole… Morph was very proud of himself.
Not long after we moved, we were joined by a third cat and completed this particular dynasty.
Madge (Her Majesty Magdalena Montmorency Mountjoy) was found up a tree during a rain storm in the garden next to where I was working. The guy living there was up a ladder trying to persuade her down as I arrived for work. I offered assistance and between us we got her to ground level, at which point she ran in hysterical circles shrieking, and running up and down the fire escape. I managed to gather her up, and as she did not resist, took her into the office, dried her with paper towels, fed her milk and dropped her in my pending tray where she went to sleep. By lunchtime the rain had stopped and I let her out to see if she remembered her way home. She started the circling and screeching routine again, so I left her in charge of my desk and went home for some cat food. She ate happily and went back to sleep, this time less conveniently in my in tray. At the end of the day, I tried again to convince her to find her way home, without any joy. So I plonked her in the back of the car, and drove home, with a friend’s story of their cat getting loose in the car and sitting on the driver’s head with paws over her eyes, at the forefront of my mind. I needn’t have worried, Madge perched herself and peered inquisitively out the windows, and let me gather her up without any concern when we arrived home.
Explaining to A that we had a visitor, I shut Madge in my room with food and a litter tray. We weren’t planning on her staying, I was sure she had a home, close to the office and I just needed to put up notices. We developed a theory that Madge had tripped up her old lady once too often, and left home in a huff when the staff stopped working for her. At any rate she worked out how to turn the door handle and came out to introduce herself to Hattie and Morph. Morph was thrilled, but Madge swore at him, and he never ever forgave her. In the end, no one claimed her, and for a month or so, every visitor who came over the doorstep had her virtues paraded as we tried to find her a home. we didnt think three cats and only two laps would work Then I noticed that this sunny animal was looking gloomier and gloomier and we decided we were being mean and should just adopt her. Morph wasn’t pleased, and Harriet refused to acknowledge her existence. We settled for an uneasy truce, with Madge very much knowing her place, and almost never getting lap. In fact on one occasion when she was having a cuddle, Morph came in, gave her a look and said ‘Keck‘, I don’t know what this means, but it clearly was not kind – Madge slunk away immediately and didn’t show her face for a couple of days.
By this time Morph was getting quite old, and was loosing it a bit. We would be sitting in the living room and these terrible tragic wailings would be coming from the hall (King Lear, we called it) if we went out and checked Morph would immediately stop and make cheerful noises. Then one summer night we came back from dinner with a friend and went up the garden for some air with Morph toddling at our heels. I looked down, and said there’s something not right with this cat. He was swollen up like a balloon. we tossed a coin for who was going to risk their driving licence (we’d walked home, as we’d been drinking) and raced to the vet. It turned out that he had a tumor which had started bleeding, and there was nothing to be done.
Harriet now ruled unopposed, and took up Morph’s wailing duties, and was just as cheerful if interrupted. She really was magnificent, this tiny scrap of a cat, ruling the entire street. No cat dared cross her path, they would cower away form even a look. She even kept the local foxes in order: she was asleep on the garden seat one day when the ancient dog fox woke her up by sniffing at her, she leapt up swearing and boxed his ears.
Harriet didn’t last much longer than Morph, becoming increasingly fragile and her kidneys beginning to go; none the less, in her final hours, she chased a piece of cellophane around the hall, frightened a neighbouring cat into caniptions and received visitors graciously. That cat had style.
Harriet’s death left Madge an only cat, and she could hardly believe her luck. She had always been a disgusting pig about food, taking vast bites and scraping what wouldn’t fit in her mouth off with her paws. She stopped doing this and we realised she had been golloping her food because if she didn’t Hattie took it off her. Not having to fight for her food she became quite ladylike. It took a long time to convince her she was allowed to be cuddled and no one was going to say Keck ever again.
Sadly this late dawn was not to last. Aged only thirteen (Hattie and Morph had both made it to eighteen) she was diagnosed with lymphoma and went down hill very rapidly. I spent her final day hand feeding her kitten milk drop by drop off my fingers, which she thoroughly enjoyed, although every time I got up to go anywhere she tried to follow me.
So for the first time since I was eighteen I had no cat. For three months I couldn’t bear the idea of another animal, but the house, although a great deal cleaner, felt very empty without a small furry body bundling up to the front door when I got home from work, so we soon started looking for a new feline family. But that’s another story.
I was going to call this dancing with cats, but decided it was derivative, and inaccurate! Spurred by the sad demise of my next-door-cat Cundy, a cat of great age and fortitude, who will be much missed by her family, and generations of schoolchildren and commuters who have been indelibly marked by her engaging manner and sharp teeth…
So I thought I would write about all my cats. So if you are not a cat person, you can stop reading.
My earliest cat memory is the arrival of Tiptoes, when I was two or three, Tiptoes was ‘my’ cat, only he wasn’t; my cat was Timmy and Mum was passing Tiptoes off as Timmy because Timmy had been run over and she felt I was too young to understand, so a replacement was swiftly found. He didn’t look much like Timmy either, Timmy was mostly tabby, and Tiptoes had much more white on his belly and feet. My memory is of a woman arriving with Tiptoes in a basket, and Mum saying how lucky we were that she had ‘found’ him. I think I thought she had actually kidnapped him, and had only brought him back reluctantly. I definitely smelt a rat, as it were. Tiptoes was very good with us children, and I don’t remember him ever having a cross word. In age he got very stout and lazy, but I loved him. I was very much reminded of him by Judith Kerr’s Mog books.
Next up was Leroy, who arrived from a school friend as my sister Rosi’s cat when I was about fourteen. Leroy was black and shiny and full of bounce, and was named after the Queen song Big Bad Leroy Brown; which Rosi hoped he would grow into, but he was always a bit of a stay at home shy thing, apart from disappearing for three days and then wandering in very casually. Leroy had brittle bones as a kitten and broke each of his legs in turn, one of them twice. We were terribly worried the vet would think we were abusing him. Leroy adored my dad, but it wasn’t reciprocated, and he settled into devotion for my mum, which left Rosi catless. I don’t think she minded much.
When I left home I was briefly gardenless and therefore catless, although my landlady got kittens for her son, (Gin and Tonic… I wonder what became of them?) just before I moved on.
So my first grownup cats were Zappa and Wolfie. Zappa was named for her lightning stripe tabby markings, and for Frank Zappa, and Wolfie for Wolgang Amadeus Mozart, showing my cultural diversity there! They were disappointingly unenthusiastic about music given their namesakes; they both cowered from any rock music, and Zappa was given to stalking the radio if there were choirboys, and hitting it if there was harpischord music. Wolfie left home for two weeks in the middle of a snow storm, and was found by the diligence of my neighbour Melissa who knocked on every door in every street in a half mile radius, long after I had given him up for dead. He wasn’t a bit grateful, and swaggered about with a ‘bad boy’ expression for days, and took to hanging about with a gang of young cats in the neighbourhood, (I never thought they really did that, but it turns out TopCat was based on fact!) and Melissa once found several strange cats in her living room, apparently having a meeting, Wolfie was one of them. Wolfie had an endearing/infuriating habit of leaping at you from the backs of chairs, regardless of whether you were walking away, cooking, whatever; and then digging in his claws to hang on. Not a good trick when the person launched at has just got out of the bath. Wolfie didn’t last long, he was too adventurous, So Zappa was briefly an only cat, which she grew to like.
Zappa had opinions and liked to get her own way. If she thought you should get up in the morning she would place a delicate paw on your eyelid and flex her claws very slightly as though planning to prize your eyes open. She once putted A’s watch into a glass of water, in a bid to get us up. It worked, but there wasn’t any breakfast!
Zappa & Wolfie were the offspring of a next-door cat who was known only as Mother. Subsequently I moved into that house, and assisted in getting Mother spayed after I hand reared (and failed to rear in one case) a brood of 5 that she refused to feed. We gave her a name at this point, Alice, which didn’t seem to make her any more inclined to love her kittens. Alice had a habit of sitting with her feet in her food bowl to show you how empty it was. Unfortunately she liked putting her feet in other bowls too, and there was a bit of an environmental health issue with a pumpkin pie one Hallowe’en… At the point we moved in, she had 3 kittens still at home, 2 from the final litter (Nelson and Lafayette) and 1 from a previous one (Midnight). What she thought about having her daughter back to add to the throng I don’t know. Lafayette was crazy and lived in the basement except when we were alone in the house, when he would occasionally come up for company. It later turned out that all the cats were using the basement (which was unfit for human habitation) as a latrine. We spent an uproarious time cleaning it out, including finding a Gladstone bag completely full of urine. We boarded up the door, and Lafayette had to cope with more company.
Alice and her brood, and her human family, later moved to Wales, where Lafayette became a prodigious hunter and only came home if the weather was really cold.
Then Cecil joined us. Cecil Robert McDuff, long name for a small cat, another Tabby & White, was found in a telephone box by A’s middle daughter. He lived with us briefly, but got a bad case of adolescence and joined the gang that Wolfie had founded. Zappa disliked him, and once threw him off the bed and across the room, although she would occasionally wash his fur… just enough to make a clean patch for her to rest her head on and use him as a pillow. He allowed this for some reason, but one night he went out on the razzle and never came home. I hope he ran away to sea- it would have been just his style.
Then there was Edie. We adored Edie. She was a tortoiseshell, and beautiful. We first met her screaming hysterically on our doorstep. we thought she must have recently moved to the street and got confused, so we sent her away. I feel so bad about that. A week later, I was home in bed ill with flu, and I could hear a cat crying, and saw her on the other side of the road, at someone’s door, and then the local Tom came and boxed her ears, and she rushed across the road into our basement area. I staggered down from the third floor and went to see what was going on. it was pouring rain, and she was cowering in our coal hole. I persuaded her out with food and discovered that the collar she was wearing said ‘My name is Snowball, my home is nowhere, please look after me.’ I was distraught that she had been living rough on our incredibly dangerous road for a week. And now she wouldn’t trust me. We spent a week with both the front and back doors open at every opportunity trying to persuade Edie through to the back garden where she was at least safe from cars and toms. It was cold too! Zappa looked very much down her nose at Edie initially, claiming that she was all fur coat and no knickers, and a painted madam and all sorts. Edie was a charmer though, and Zappa was putty in her paws. Once we had convinced Edie we wanted her to stay, she set about converting Zappa and soon they were playing NATO tank exercises up and down the stairs. Edie had obviously been brought up with radiators, she would lean on the gas fire and there were regular singeing smells and a startled Edie would rush away smoking. She never learnt. We didn’t know how old Edie was, but she was quite mature, and she and Zappa used to lie lovingly in each others arms in an armchair. I was glad of this because Edie wouldn’t tolerate sitting on a human lap, she was terrified of being picked up, and the best we could manage was that she would sit beside me with a paw on my knee and purr and purr. We did eventually manage proper cuddles but she had clearly been traumatised.
Edie had admirers. There was Vernon, who loved her so much he sat all day in the rain and gazed at her while she sneered from the window sill; and it might have been Vernon, or some other cat, who brought her a pigeon: Zappa held the steps to the basement area like Horatio at the bridge while Edie ate it, then the admirer was sent packing. Vernon actually moved in briefly – that all day in the rain convinced me he didn’t have a home, but he was long-haired, and didn’t suit A’s asthma, and the girls teased him dreadfully. He went to live with a friend, and was teased just as much by her two resident felines, but at least she didn’t have asthma.
This happy partnership sadly only lasted a year, Edie was run over on the road behind our house, but not before she had converted a friend of A’ s who had previously had a phobia of cats. Saint Our Edie, as she is still known in our house if one of us maunders on about her qualities for too long.
We were worried about Zappa following Edie’s demise, she spent part of every evening around her supper time staring down the garden, looking for Edie; so when A’s eldest broke up with her boyfriend and moved home to her dad with two cats, one of whom retired under the spare bed and refused to come out, we offered him a home. Morph had had too much trauma in his young life, bought from a market stall, coming from a broken home, split up from his litter mate Chas, who had gone with the boyfriend, then introduced into a house with a boxer puppy; he was in the depths of a nervous breakdown, and guess what? retired to the basement. We got him out by putting his food bowl on a higher step every day, and then gradually taking it through to the kitchen. Zappa took offence at him, and he at her. She made a ritual of chasing him up and down stairs every day, and she wasn’t playing as she had been with Edie. It was also clear that they were competing for my attention, they were both fond of A but there was a battle going on to be my chief cat. Shortly after we got Morph clear of the basement, we took on another cat.
This was Harriet, and she came from a guy further down the road who ‘collected’ animals. She and her brother were allowed to play in the street, and we were concerned about them having seen cats come and go about every 3 months, including the glorious Gloriana who used to drape herself round my neck in the garden. We went and asked if we could have Harriet. No arguments were proffered and she had a collar round her neck the second she was in the house. Fortunately for everyone, Harriet decided A was the woman for her, and didn’t try to usurp either Zappa or Morph.
Harriet settled in and wasn’t going to run away from Zappa, unlike Morph. Morph wanted to be her uncle but she wasn’t interested. It was a pity really, if they had ganged up a bit Zappa would have calmed down. Sadly we never had the chance to find out how this would have worked out, Cats don’t last long in New Cross and Zappa was run over on that @***## road, aged only 7, a few days before we were due to move house to somewhere marginally more peaceful.
I’m only half way through this tribute to the felines in my life, but blogs are meant to be short and sweet, and this is over 2000 words, so watch out for part 2 at a later date.