Saturday, 24 February 2007

Eight and a Half Lives

There are spikes along the fence at the front of my house. At a glance, you probably wouldn’t notice them, but I imagine observant passers-by frequently wonder about their purpose. Roughly an inch long and made out of hard plastic, they’re not exactly lethal, but, if you put your hand on one and got your weight on top of it, you would almost certainly draw blood. I don’t live in a neighbourhood particularly notorious for its crime rate, but the local gypsy children have been known to climb into a couple of my neighbours’ gardens and steal their boats. However, I’ve seen these kids, with their gnarly, grubby hands, and, from what I know about them, the spikes probably wouldn’t provide much of a deterrent. Most people probably assume I’ve just got a very big, unruly dog.

When friends are visiting my place for the first time, I usually describe it as “the one that looks like a confused bungalow”. It was built into a hill overlooking a lake – or, to use the traditional East Anglian term, “mere” – in 1961, which means that it’s an odd-looking bit of architecture whose merits do not present themselves at first sight. If it were a human head, it would be one with a very big chin and its eyes on the action. The facade with the lake view is three-storeyed and big-windowed and looks down on a steep garden of about sixty yards, but you wouldn’t know it from the other side, which is boxy and blank-looking, and a few feet away from the second busiest road in my Norfolk market town. The previous owners called it the Upside Down House, and the name has stuck.

I told myself I wouldn’t live in another house next to a main road, after my most adventurous cat, Brewer, was killed on the street outside my last-but-one home, but I felt I could make an exception with The Upside Down House. A four-legged predator could have all sorts of fun and find any number of tasty treats in the gardens and wasteland by that lake, I postulated, and he would have little reason to venture in the other direction, since all he would find there would be a housing estate and a branch of Kwik-Fit. To even get to the road would require a climb of forty feet up a steep wall or a spiral staircase and a jump over a four-foot fence, or a circuitous walk of four hundred yards that would take him dangerously close to the guffawing men of the local Conservative Club, a pub with a habit of hosting bad David Bowie tribute bands, and a gaggle of geese who have gained a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. I remember how stunned I was the first time I saw The Bear and Janet scuttling across the street, and how, for a moment, I thought they were two other, less well-behaved black cats that just happened to look a lot like mine. But then I saw that familiar “You can try and stop me, but I am a wiry force of nature” look in The Bear’s eyes and I knew that this was war.

And there is no doubt that, since then, D and I have tried. First there was the new fence: five hundred pounds worth of carpentry that might as well have been an herbaceous border for all the obstructive good it did. “Have you thought of trying carpet gripper?” asked the burly man whom we’d employed to put it in place, when he’d passed the house a couple of weeks later. It was an interesting suggestion, but I wanted to stop my cats getting killed or maimed, and reducing them to limping invalids in the process would somewhat defeat the object. The plastic spikes – found by D after an exhaustive Google search – seemed to be a more sensible option: they would provide a nasty, preventative shock, but it would be unlikely that any subsequent amputation would be necessary. I had forgotten only one vital thing in my calculations, which is that the pads on The Bear’s paws are made out of a substance slightly more resilient than reinforced leather.

I have never seen The Bear scale the fence with the spikes on it, but I know from the frequent cat-sized landing sounds on my conservatory roof and his mysterious, sheepish appearances beside my wheelie bins that he does so, regularly. He’s an arthritic codger of thirteen now, who struggles with the leap from the floor to our kitchen island, and I fail to see how he can claw his way onto a jagged precipice three times its height. The details of his exact method will probably forever remain unknown, and can only be filed alongside such other Bear-related mysteries as The Mystery Of The Place That Is Very Warm And Comfortable For Long Sleeps And Clearly Somewhere In The Vicinity Of The Airing Cupboard But Where Human Eyes Cannot See and The Mystery Of The Place That Smells Of Cabbage And Death Where You Can Stay For Over A Month While Your Owners Panic Over You And Write You Off As Dead. I have learned, over the years, that if my oldest cat sets his mind on something, he will find a way to overcome his physical shortcomings and achieve it.

I have arrived at an acceptance about The Bear’s wilfulness now, but there was a time when I would let it trouble me, when I even went so far as to take it personally. D claims I was being overdramatic, but I think I had my reasons. When your girlfriend introduces you to her cat and tells you that he and her ex-boyfriend were “unusually close”, it’s hard not to approach such an animal with caution, no matter how moggy-crazed you are. When, three months later, you move in together with the same girlfriend, and said animal begins to defecate on your bedding with unerring accuracy and bad timing, you can surely be forgiven for reading a little too much into his actions. And, yes, in retrospect maybe I did go a little over the top by writing a piece for Time Out Magazine speculating about whether he was my soon-to-be wife’s former beau in feline disguise, but your mind can play odd tricks on you when your senses have been fogged by urine and you’re experiencing sleep-deprivation because your normal sleeping arrangements have been soiled.

In my further defence, I never properly had chance to get to know The Bear back in the early days of my relationship with D. At many points, I did not know whether he was destined to even be my cat. One week, it was decided that he would stay with the ex. The next, he was coming to live with us, after all. This to-ing and fro-ing went on for almost a year. It was not surprising that the poor animal’s much-discussed “painfully sensitive side” came to the fore – a side that normally manifested itself in an odd, low meeuooping noise: a sound that, before I got properly familiar with it, would send me rushing to the smoke alarm to replace its battery.

I’d always wanted to go out with a girl who loved cats. In terms of romantic pickiness, this is probably the male equivalent of a woman saying, “I’d always wanted to go out with a bloke who liked football and farting.” Nonetheless, my previous girlfriends had either been indifferent or allergic to my favourite animals. That D owned two cats was an unexpected bonus on top of all the other, more important things that drew us together, but it was a bonus I could spend considerable time fantasising about. As our relationship quickly flourished, I liked to picture my future self idly polishing a hardwood floor with a nearby Persian, as my friend Leo did with his aging, docile tabby, Tab Tab, or starting an important phone call with the excuse, “Sorry I cut you off – my cat just stepped on the receiver.”

“The problem is, one of my cats hates me,” said D. I was sure she was exaggerating, but, about four weeks after we met, I began to change my mind. It’s always a bit of a shock when, thirty seconds after setting foot into your new partner’s flat for the first time, you’re confronted with excrement, but any squeamish feelings I had about confronting my first Bear turd were drowned out by my fascination at quite how he’d squeezed it into D’s dressing gown pocket. “He must have… squatted sideways,” I said.

“Oh, that’s nothing. What did I tell you?” she said. “He’s an evil genius, and he’s on a mission to destroy me.”

Over the next few weeks, the nature of this mission was cleverly, gradually modified. Having cottoned on to the fact that, unlike D, I a) worked from home, and, b) slept in a fashion that did not resemble corpsedom, The Bear realised that the best way to get to his target was via the one to whom she was closest. Nights of uninterrupted rest became things of the past, as, via a series of ailing smoke alarm noises and furry face taps, Janet and The Bear trained me to respond to their every nocturnal need. It was undoubtedly nice to have furry scruffs around to massage when I was experiencing at a sticky, stressful point in a piece of writing, but I could not afford to get too relaxed. The next suspicious pool of liquid or brown stain was always only just around the corner. You know you’ve got a problem with a devious pet when you start pouring yourself a cup of tea and asking yourself, “Is it me, or does this water from the kettle taste slightly… oaky?”

I had to admit it: The Bear’s rage scared me. It rocked my smug sense of cat veteran’s wisdom. If only I’d felt he plain didn’t like me, it would have been so much simpler. But his acts of disobDnce and his tightly wound rebukes were spotted with acts of affection more intense than anything my previous cat experiences had prepared me for. These acts scared me more than the rage itself (and wasn’t that the way with master criminals, that it was when they were being nice that they were most intimidating?). They reminded me, if not of an overclingy girlfriend, then certainly of a needy male friend who you suspect, with a bit of encouragement, could start carving your name into his forearm. I had owned animals that had dribbled before, I had owned animals that had purred before, and I had owned animals that looked into my eyes before; I had just never owned one who did all three so deeply.

This affection reached its peak the day the Bear returned from his longest ever vacation: a month where he escaped to who knows where after contorting his small sinewy body through a three-inch open sash window. Early on the day of his escape, he had been purring on my lap, watching my computer screen, as I wrote the Time Out article about him, and his return coincided with the day of the article’s publication . At first, I’d mistaken the creature scuttling across the garden below our flat for some kind of weasel or stoat. I am pretty sure that both would have given off a more appealing odour than the one the Bear did, when, a few seconds later, I arrived at the front door to let him in. For the next three hours, he did not let me out of his sight or, to a large extent, his clawsy grasp - which seems to proof a long-held theory of mine that the amount of love a cat offers stands in direct proportion to how dirty it is at that particular time.

I often wonder where The Bear went for those four or five weeks. It’s possible, of course, that he just got stuck in a shed or garage, or a troubled old person smelling of catnip and damsons tried to kidnap him, but, when I think of that period, I like to think of a montage of images, soundtracked by The Byrds’ ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’: The Bear setting off into the early dawn, stopping at the all-night garage for a packet of Benson And Hedges, getting the tube to central London, sightseeing in Trafalgar Square, busking outside St Paul’s, moving into a flatshare with some hippies in Camden, falling in with the wrong crowd, getting embroiled in a bungled heist at an aviary, then, finally, being forced to sell his body in order to raise the funds to get the Docklands Light Railway back to Blackheath.

If the saying that cats have nine lives is true, I am certain the Bear must have used up at least three of these on his great adventure. On top of these, I can think of at least four other occasions that D and I know about where there was potential for a life to have been lost. These include:

1. The time at D’s old flat when he, along with D, got carbon monoxide poisoning.

1 And A Half. The time that he contracted asthma as a
result of said carbon monoxide poisoning.

2. The time when we lived abutting a thirty-feet wide river, in a house that did not have a bridge within a mile of it, and I woke up one morning, looked out the window, and saw him on the opposite bank, cleaning his paws nonchalantly.

3. The time when Shipley trapped him in a cardboard box and tried to suffocate him by sitting on it and – quite unnecessarily - banging on top of it like a hyperactive child.

4. The time when he was a tiny kitten and his original owner left him in a plastic bag with several brothers and sisters on the hard shoulder of a motorway.

5. The time when a giant terrormog ripped a hole in his throat.

Even at a conservative estimate, that puts the Bear on eight and a half lives. And then there are all the other incidents of which D and I have no knowledge. People say Liz Taylor is a “survivor”, and they’re probably right, to an extent. Like The Bear when he got allergic to fleas - and then, once again, when he got allergic to the treatment we gave him for the fleas - Liz has to cope with having all her hair fall out. And, yes, she’s had several failed marriages. But has she ever been caught in a wrangle with an irate muscovy duck, or had to be poked out of a hole in her own ceiling using a five-iron, or waddled camply past her peer group after being chased by a Chihuaha? I think not. What The Bear has taught me is the true nature of endurance – not soppy human endurance, with its grief and broken hearts and bank statements and psychological “hardship”, but the kind of endurance that involves hiding in a cupboard for three days, and walking around with a miniature life form sucking on your neck, without anyone knowing your pain. Each time he is knocked back, I am amazed at how quickly he is able to regenerate himself. And while I am sure that he feels those spikes and that fence keenly, just like every other hurt that blocks his oversensitive path, I am also sure that, when you have lived the life he has, they can be easily written off as a mere tickle on the face of existence.

The Simple Life

As I get older, I find that I am less and less of a holiday person. This is partly because, as an insomniac workaholic aviophobe, I view my leisure time as too valuable to waste on white-knuckled plane journeys and dubious sleeping conditions. When it’s time to go away, I don’t just pack my suitcase, I pack the mental baggage of past aborted inter-railing holidays, farcical encounters with bullying gendarmes, lightning strikes on planes, food poisoning and broken-down trains.

My anti-vacation stance dates back long before I lived in a house overrun with cats, but I find that pet ownership has only solidified my position. Each time D and I take our somewhat parochial annual break, we leave with high hopes. For almost two days, we’ll swim, hang around in museums, and marvel at being able to walk on grit-free carpets, without so much as a mention of Pablo, The Bear, Shipley, Janet, Delawney or Baby Bear. But on the second night, one of us – usually me – will ask, “Do you think the pusses are ok?”. For the next twenty four hours, our worries – “What if one of them has been locked in a shed?” “What if one was in a fight and needed to get to the vets to have an absess removed?” – will feed off one another, until, typically, before the third day is complete, we will decide to head home, assuring ourselves that we are not just doing this because we are terminal wimps, and that “Being at home without working is just like a holiday anyway.”

The way I see it, three days is the perfect amount of time for a holiday to work its refreshing magic without getting tiresome, and the exact amount of time I can humanly hold out without checking my email. It is also the amount of time one of our more moronic cats can reasonably be trusted to go before getting into a scrape or messing life up for its siblings. This was exemplified in 2001, when D and I returned from our honeymoon to find that, while we were away, someone had managed to flip the plastic catch that locked the cat flap from the inside. We hadn’t insured ourselves with an emergency litter tray, so the living room floor needed some serious detergent action after that, but all credit goes to The Bear, who we found sitting in the bath whimpering, obviously in the last stages of a drawn-out exercise in mind-over-bowel meditation.

When people tell me “cats are independent animals that can look after themselves!”, I can’t help but immediately wonder if they have actually ever owned any. Although I usually give mine wet food out of sachets once every day or two, most of their sustenance is in dry, biscuit form, and comes out of a plastic dispenser called - rather arrogantly, I think - the “Zenith”. (Zenith of what, exactly? Cheap tupperware pet food dispensers? Even more confusingly, its water-dispensing counterpart, made by the same company, is called “The Nadir”. Do the manufacturers know something we don’t? That dry food and water represent the respective high and low points of feline existence, for example? Or did they just like the sound of the words, and not bother finding out what they meant.) In theory, this will stay full for at least a week, but there’s always the likelihood that Janet will puke in the “trough” bit of it. This will inevitably result in The Bear, Baby Bear, Pablo and Delawney going on hunger strike, and Shipley staging a protest by tearing up every tissue box in the vicinity.

I am well-schooled in the early warning signs of Janet’s vomiting fits now. If I’m in another area of the house and hear a sound like a blocked waste disposal, it will usually be too late to avert disaster, but if I’m in the same room and I see him looking like he’s getting ready to re-enact the video to Break Machine’s ‘Street Dance’, I can frequently slip a bit of cardboard beneath his chin just in time. All my cats have been known to heave, but mostly only in isolated bursts, and with obvious causes. In Shipley’s case, an overambitious munch through a denser-than-expected paperback will sometimes result in digestion problems. Delawney might occasionally have a bit of trouble after gnawing on a past-its-eat-by-date mouse. The two Bears and Pablo, on the other hand, are largely dry-heavers whose regurgitation tends to be limited to spittle-flecked grass and plant leaves.

But, for Janet, vomiting seems to be just another fundamental part of day-to-day feline life, like eating, sleeping, or bringing twigs into the house via your bottom. He might be bulimic, but, given that he probably weighs more than most full-grown spaniels, I think it’s unlikely.
It’s not as if I can experiment with his diet, and get to the root of the problem that way, either. Where my other cats have their culinary quirks – Shipley is never happier than with his whiskers deep in a bowl of Heinz tomato soup – Janet’s tastes are strictly no-nonsense. I sometimes wonder if it’s because he was raised in a rough part of the East End. But The Bear hails from the same region and, while largely a plebeian eater, he did once have a heady, anarchic day where he ate a whole pop tart followed immediately by some broccoli. Janet, on the other hand, has never experimented in such cavalier fashion, and has only two favourite foods: wet cat food, and dry cat food.

Strangely, considering that he is the cat most liable to cause damage around the house while we’re away (his short yet surprisingly expressive tail has caused the demise of half a dozen items of crockery over the years), Janet is, most of the time, the one member of my animal family that I feel most confident about leaving to his own devices. Unlike Delawney, he has never had a noticeable “low” period. Unlike Shipley and The Bear, he has never lost a portion of his ear in a fight or reacted negatively to the introduction of a younger, feistier room-mate. Unlike Pablo and Baby Bear, he has never had anything unsightly growing on his skin. Both times I’ve taken him to the vet for non-jab-related reasons, he has miraculously recovered from his ailments by the time he has been coaxed out onto the examination table. Even his puking has a certain exuberance to it. His general okayness means he is often seen as a floater in the cat hierarchy, and I take his presence, and continuing general okayness, for granted. He, above all my other cats, is the one I can never imagine getting old or frail or needy.

But, sometimes, because of this very okayness, I worry deeply about Janet. Occasionally I catch him sitting on the balcony outside our kitchen and staring off wistfully towards the Somerfield supermarket on the opposite side of the lake beyond our garden. I wonder what he is thinking. The answer is probably, “Me see big water, may contain many swimming food, overflown by big flying food, me eat, if could swim and fly and put in yummy jelly, but big bright corporate logo in distance scare me”. On the other hand, he could be thinking about something surprisingly profound, like how long it would take to walk to the Norwich branch of Pets At Home, or why it is he has a nagging memory of once having testicles. Or maybe he is thinking about nothing. It is the latter possibility that plays on my mind.

I have no logical reason to suspect that Janet is brain-damaged, other than that he once leaped out of a third storey window in my old flat in Blackheath, London, in pursuit of a wood pigeon, and might have hurt his skull. Having seen the leap from an adjacent room but not reached the window in time to see Janet’s impact, I am not even sure if he landed on his head, and whether he landed on the concrete path below the window, or the flower bed next to it. He seemed a little woozy afterwards, but was pronounced ok after D and I rushed him to the local surgery. The lack of inherent common sense highlighted by the leap itself also renders any “before and after” analysis of his mental faculties somewhat moot.

But I still can’t help puzzling over whether something changed for Janet that day. When puke has been gushing out of your cat’s throat on a constant basis for the last five years, you tend to fall into the trap of viewing those five years as forever, but I sometimes ask myself whether he used to throw up as frequently before his fall, and every so often I conclude that maybe he didn’t. And wasn’t it a bit odd, when, a few days after his accident, I began to catch him in the communal garden of our flat, lying down companionably with a decrepit neighbourhood fox? “Is this the behaviour of a cat with all his faculties?” I ask myself, in one of my more doubtful moods. “And what about his obsession with head scratching? What exactly is it in there that he want me to get at?”

It could be that my less sanguine cats humour Janet as a human might humour a good-natured lunkhead, but how am I to know that they aren’t really seeing his antisocial dining habits and constant goofing around as the actions of the feline equivalent of a village idiot? The Bear, who has known him the longest, has, at best, had the kind of relationship with him that George had with Lenny in Of Mice And Men – the main difference being that Lenny did not surprise George by leaping off bookcases and landing on his back. For a while, the nascent Shipley looked up to Janet, but now, older and grouchier, he gets a tired look in his eyes when the older cat attempts to revive the play-fighting traditions of earlier years. Delawney has never really stood for Janet’s particular brand of low-brow humour, and keeps his distance, probably seeing his fluffy black mane as a rival to his own, and Baby Bear, while largely comfortable in her dumbo step-brother’s presence, often finds his neck bites get a little overenthusiastic. That just leaves Pablo, my one feral cat.

For the first year of Pablo’s residence in my house, I hadn’t been aware of any kind of relationship between him and Janet. Both cats were like the members of the Big Brother house that nobody notices in the first few weeks, but that always end up being in the final three contestants. They did their work in the margins. In Pablo’s case, this was possibly unintentional. After his initial burst of sidling affection to every cat in the house and the ensuing knock-backs, most of his waking days were spent making sure that Shipley wasn’t around to pounce on him. In the times Janet would jump suddenly onto the bed where Pablo slept, I could see Pablo quickly doing the maths in his hyper-aware semi-wild way (“black fur plus cat equals DANGER”).

Since then, though, a subtle closeness has grown between the two of them. Often, I’ll find them sleeping a foot apart in one of the lesser-used rooms of the house. An hour later, I’ll re-enter the room and notice that Pablo has moved a few inches closer to his big fluffy companion. More recently, they’ve started to nap in formation, splayed legs in perfect symmetry, fur touching fur, and while Pablo will wake up from these sleeps and act like he’s quite embarrassed by the whole situation, it’s obvious he loves it. Janet, meanwhile, seems finally to have found a friend who, if not quite as simple as him on the inside, certainly looks it on the outside. Either that, or he is so retarded that he thinks that, because Pablo is ginger, he must be that fox that he used to pal about with in Blackheath . Do either of these cats know what they are getting themselves into? Possibly not. Can cats, despite their colour blindness, see through to the characters of their colours? I think so. But maybe neither of these things are the issue. This is a love that transcends race, class, and quite possibly, sense.