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.


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