A life in cats

My childhood was filled with cats, of all varieties and many personalities – the tame and the feral, the disenchanted and the loving, the broken and the pampered. My grandparents, to this day, run a cattery and boarding kennels in the south; though it no longer falls under their jurisdiction to do so, they would take in stray dogs and cats brought in by the local council workers, and any concerned civilians. I grew accustomed to the sight of a cowering shadow in the back of the white van, specially painted with their company logo, for – when still able to do so – either Nanna or Granddad would go out on round trips of the county, picking up the abandoned results of a call-out, to bring back to the safety of the kennels. There were the dogs who snarled through terror-rippled lips; the cats with needle punctures in their necks, after being used for practise (or fun) by addicts. There were the raw bones and the foamy mange, the ticks and the fleas, the wide eyes and the dry mouths. These were the strays, the unloved animals; some were in much better condition, but bereft of a human companion all the same, if an elderly owner had passed away.

After a visit to the vets, the unfortunates were made to feel at home. There was no discrimination between breeds, except in terms of size – Granddad built everything by hand, and the sprawling outlay formed a warren of runs and kennels and hidey-holes, perches and scratching posts. I can close my eyes and remember it all, so – the moonlight slanting through the small-hole wire, licking off a wary eye peeking back at me from inside a boxy house. Heat emanating from the overhead red bulb on frosty days, and the fitted electric blanket lapping up in woolly waves to the Hobbit-hole entrance. No visitors allowed inside without permission, and then only to keep those who had once known owners accustomed to the smell and touch of humans. That being said, the kennel maids working for my grandparents were so easy-going, I was often allowed inside with them (so long as I kept myself a shadow along the wall) when they went to turn blankets and pick up litter, sweep the granite floors. Those runs and houses were spotless, with no cloth used twice, and each brush head disinfected between shifts, to avoid cross-contamination.

Feet bare on the pocked floor, hands by my sides – often crouched low, because I was learning to read, and had picked up on the fact that animals will trust you more when on their level – I waited. Reaching out a hand, I offered my fingertips to the little pale nose. This is how you must introduce yourself to a cat, with or without the aid of T.S Eliot; scent is the first port-of-call for bonding, and a cat will grant you leave to touch it if the situation appears non-threatening. No staccato sounds or movements, and I had somehow picked up on the fact that cats – like dogs – seem to dislike being stared at. Perhaps this is the real reason why I find it difficult to look anyone in the eye.

My grandparents took to breeding cats and dogs – British Blues and German Shepherds, respectively – and it was through this that I learned about pedigree and bloodlines. I have no preferences, except where personality and coat are concerned. Growing up around larger dogs (trained in the lower fields to perform for shows), I developed a respect for the canidae, if not as close an affinity as with the cats – dogs always came across as being rather wet, easy to read and to please. Slobbery tongues, prone to noise. The cats that wandered about the outhouses and bungalow, on the other hand, were evasive and mysterious as the twilight that made their eyes glow, the tapetum lucidum. They would disappear down sunstruck alleys, over fences into fields of lush green grass, and – try as I might to follow them around the corners of the world – I could never quite squeeze through. A slow, creeping hatred for my own form took hold around age 6-7, and I longed for the curved bones and dexterous spine of the cat, if only to walk where they did – to find those secret places.

Still, there was nothing stopping me from imitation, and I took to wearing the trailing black tail and tall ears, hinged to a headband, that my mother had made for my “cat dance” with the local troupe. What the neighbours must have thought about me hanging around in the bushes bordering their gardens, God only knows; but it was fun to jump out at my older sister when she walked up the drive with her bike, or to swat at her head with a lazy hand while lying along the low-slung branches of the gnarled oak in our back garden. Needless to say, she wasn’t impressed. But she also couldn’t climb.

It was on that oak that I taught my babies the fine art of elevation – or at least, that’s what I told myself, aged 7.5 years, the proud “mother” of two scraps of black ‘n white fluff. Chloe and Jess came into the family on the tail of my first cat, a rescue from the shelter, who was originally called “Blossom”; she would through no less than five names in the first week, before my exasperated mother clamped down and decided on “Zoey.” My heart breaks a little to think of her, those lean paws and the streamline tail, the tall ears and bright green eyes, which earned her “Gooseberry” (the third name.) Poor little mite was just over a year old, and had been with us for around six months, when a hit-and-run took her out in the pale morning. It was the day before we would move to the new house (my brother was on the way), and I came home from school expecting to pack the last of my books up – not the cold body of my cat in a cardboard box, to take with us for internment in the back garden. That was the first time I ever saw my father cry, in his quiet way. It’s never left me.

I have one photo of Zoey, eyes ablaze with the flash, stuck into my memory book. It sits alongside cut-outs of the innumerable pictures taken of the cats that would follow her – Jess and Chloe, the afore-mentioned babies, who were brought in to ease the sting of loss. I chose Chloe for the way she put that little triangle face to one side and mewed up at me, the first kitten to come running to the door when we went for a viewing of the litter. My sister chose Jess, curled up in half of a football, fast asleep and twitching her fluffy tail in a lively dream. They grew into crotchety sisters, with feline life imitating human art, and the four of us chased each other up and down the garden on long golden afternoons. Jess developed a habit of sleeping on the compost heap – not useful, given her semi-length coat – and would trail twigs and moss into the house with the sleepy wistfulness of her nature. Chloe was a bit dim; I’m sorry, that’s the only way to put it. She took to watching the washing go around in the machine and walked into the sliding back door more times than I count. Glass appeared to defy her perceptions; but the part that made my sides ache (and still does, in memory) came when she would sit back in stunned silence, before jumping up to do it all over again a minute or so later.

The Birmans were something else entirely.

I had started to collect Your Cat magazine, a monthly publication, the glossy pages of which filled up my childhood with author interviews, articles, problem pages, fiction, merchandise – all devoted, of course, to cats. I learned about kitty hygiene and territories, the various means of marking; and thence to cat shows and breeding, pedigrees, elaborating on what I’d picked up from my grandparents. The British Blues were friendly and loving, with large copper eyes and plush fur, rounded bones; but it was the Birman breed I fell in love with, caught between the pages of the 1995 June issue. An article-interview with a breeder, demonstrating how to wash her blue-point Birman kitten Willow, prior to a show. I was hooked. Those gorgeous baby-blue eyes and slate-coloured face were like nothing I had ever seen. The idea of a cat wearing a mask intrigued me, and I soon learned more about the “Himalayan” points of various pedigrees (usually comprising face, legs and tail.) But what really set off the picture, were those snow-white gauntlets and gloves on her paws. A cat wearing mittens? Too good to be true, surely.

Attending my first show in December (it would become an annual tradition with my father, cats being one of the few things we could agree upon and discuss at length), I was faced with reality – row upon row of it. Cages filled with every conceivable colour and point and coat, with personalities mixed as a bag of marbles. The names themselves are delicious to pronounce – Egyptian Mau. Norwegian Forest (or “Norsk Skaukatt”.) Persian. Siamese. Bengal. Tabby. And of course, the variations in coat markings – tipped, spotted, smoke, solid, cameo. These are the details that have never left me, despite all else I’ve lost grip on. My middle school Maths teacher once remarked that if my sums were anywhere close to the doodles and scribblings in the back of my exercise book – Nile eyes, scrappy poems – I’d be flying ahead. This seems to have been a life-theme.

Determined to become the youngest Birman breeder, by age 11 I was the proud owner (and exasperated “mother”) of a 12-week old Birman. Willow gave me a run for my money, with the sort of intelligence that defies gravity, and systematically reduces nerves to shreds. By her second week in the house, she had learned how to unlatch doors, reach the highest branch of the oak (usually before I was due in school) and had eaten an entire block of Cheddar, roughly the same size as she was. You’d have thought this would warn me off – but I recognized a kindred spirit when I saw it. That bratty kitten wasn’t about to grow up in a hurry, and into her adult life, she continued to give the run-around, by introducing live and half-alive mice to every room in the house.

Fern, her half-sister, turned up a year later. Fern was a sneak; there’s no other way to put it. Stealth lived in her little bones, and because she didn’t grow larger than a stoat, she could get into the sort of places her cobbier companions couldn’t. So we began to lose chocolate muffins and biscuits – listening for the sly munching, we’d find her wedged behind the sofa, wrestling a cake into her mouth as quickly as she could. The best moments came when she had already done the deed, and – when confronted – batted her blue eyes, and declared herself indignantly innocent. All the while, licking crumbs from her flaring whiskers and soggy chin.

The worst times came when she developed FIP, or Feline Infectious Peritonitis. A horrible illness, it generally strikes most cats before they turn four – Fern was three days shy of this birthday when she died, a wraith of her former self (and she didn’t have much to lose as it was.) My last memory of her is that little head resting on the rim of the water bowl in the garden, chin dipped into the water, mouth closed. She was too weak to drink. I took her in my hands and, dipping a finger to the bowl, drip-fed her. She died that evening, under a sky the colour of her golden-cream fur.

A long period of my life passed by without the presence of cats. Anorexia had rammed itself into me, to the hilt. I lived from day to day, barely able to function, let alone care for another soul. So when recovery glinted in dawn-hues on the horizon, and I landed my first full-time job in 2007 – finally well enough to work – how better to celebrate, than to re-establish contact with the feline world?

Kaiser was born of a seal-point Birman father and a silver tabby Persian mother. From the former, he took the beautiful Birman form and his red points; from the latter, the docile nature and gacky tear ducts inherent of certain longhairs. Already too long in the bone to sell easily, he nonetheless had the winning smile of a kitten who knows that his future lies outside the door – curling up in my lap when I sat down, cross-legged as ever, he began to purr.

Take me home with you. Take me home.

I’d had my eye on a four week old bundle of blue-point fluff; a half-brother of the lean, ruddy tom clambering up to paw at my neck. By the time he had started whispering sweet nothings into my ear, that unique kitten-speak of purr and mrrowl, I couldn’t remember why I’d had an aversion to red points before. Some of the cobby lads I’d seen on the show bench had put me off – staggering in their massive sweep of cream and apricot, they seemed at odds with the white socks and startling blue eyes of the breed. Kaiser was different. His fur, even into adulthood, clung low to his body in the manner of a Burmese; Fern’s coat had this texture too, and I do wonder if there are in fact two types of Birman fur, that I just haven’t read about to confirm yet; for it seems the other “type” falls into the “woolly mammoth” style, with less of a silken sheen than a hint of wadding.

Whatever the type, Birman fur sticks to any carpet like cotton wool. My mother forked out on a specially-designed vacuum cleaner, just to bring up those creamy guard hairs, which Kai was fond of scratching out when he’d been into the garden and collected a goodly assortment of detritus. Burrs, caterpillars, leaves, soil – the cat who had once refused to accept that the stairs had a connection with the ground floor, soon progressed into a mini monster with a vast territorial eye. His favourite tree was a somewhat stunted specimen, but its broad sweep of branches meant he could lie low for an afternoon, blinking in the sunlight and keeping a half-eye on the blackbirds, with their cunning beaks and sharp-shine feathers; the pigeons, with their docile skirling swoop over the grass, and the squirrels, who swiftly became his nemesis. Other cats, however, filled him with a fear that saw the monster become a wretched yowling soul, calling from the depths of Dante’s hell; I’d listen to the distant echoes ripple closer and closer, until at last, through the back door and hurrying up the stairs with a bonfire tail, he’d cower on Ma’s bed (or under mine), swearing under his breath. Hunkering down to peer at him, I’d be met by a pair of blue-black eyes, and a breathless little gasp.

Going to eat me, Mum.
No they’re not. You have to stand up for yourself.
But they’d still eat me.
Well, you could choke them on the way down.

He was a curious little tom, in all senses of the word. Wrapping himself around my neck, more boa than feather once he’d attained his full weight, Kai would whisper editing tips into my ear as I typed. If you’ve never had a cat insert fish-breath into a sentence, then you’re missing out on a crucial sensory trick. That being said, he did like nibble my hair thoughtfully, or bat at the strands when I paused to think-twiddle them around my fingers. Another quirk of his was less a curiosity than a cunning ploy to keep me young – or old, I never did work out which. When my alarm went off at 5am, I’d crawl around my bedroom with heavy-dark eyes and fumbling hands; he liked to move things just out of reach (keys, make-up, hair bands), while offering me breakfast from his own tray.

Go on, it’s good for you.
I can’t eat that. It’s yours.
D’you want to get up the hill or not?

This, while slipping out of the room with my access card dangling between his teeth. He had something of the canine spirit about his mouth. When Ma introduced him to helium balloons, it became a common sight to see the small apricot body proudly trotting about the house, a coil of shiny ribbon taut in his teeth, the red or blue ball of air bouncing happily above him – occasionally batting against furniture with a sound I imagine to be like sand sifting through an hourglass. Of course, one burst on him – it’s the old biker’s joke, you’re not in until you’ve come off, and got back on. Kai did get back on, though it took a few hours to convince him to come out from behind the sofa, to sniff dispiritedly at the sad little lump of jellied plastic on the carpet.

We bought him a new, extra strong balloon.

If I could be granted one wish, I’d have also bought him an extra strong heart. Things creep up on us without warning; what seemed solid and filled with forever comes apart with the weave of time or irrationality. No one could have predicted that Kai was born with a defective heart – certainly, his breeder hadn’t noticed any problems. I’d first put the raspy little cough, like dry snowflakes, down to his gacky tear ducts – maybe they were impeding his airways. But no, even when clear, he would occasionally put his head down and struggle. This came on with a suddenness that swept away all annoyances, irritations, concern for the world. I no longer called Ma’s house home, and the distance was all the more unbearable for it taking 2.5 hours to get back, a fair wadge of money, and repeated calls to my employer to actually scrape together some time off. I’d started to consider myself jinxed where Birmans are concerned, having already lost Willow to stomach cancer three years before (she had gone to live with my father and brother, to become queen of her own little territory of flower boxes and pristine lawns) and Fern, who had barely begun her adult life before fading out into evening. Still, she had clung on for far longer than the vet’s estimate, and so it was with Kai – fully a year after his diagnosis, he was still with my Ma, though creeping about the house like a little old man, rather than the proud strut of a boy with his string-tow toy. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t there at the end, though – in my selfish way – I would rather hang onto the memories of him, splendid in the sunlight of a windowsill, chittering at the flies and birds with that open-mouth staccato of a hunter. Or watching, waiting for me on the top step when I arrived home, back bent and legs weary from cycling; those ears would appear like twin shark fins, the blue eyes turned to black moons; his spine was a ridged mountain range. I’d hear the swishing tail slipper-slide against the wall. Forgetting my burning calves and thighs, I’d crouch low – lower – and prowl up on hands and knees to meet him –

Receiving a swat from a well-to-do glove for my trouble, and a fiend’s grin, before the red tail sailed like a flag in my face, as Kai dashed into my room to hide under the bed. He tended to forget that I could easily crawl in after (a necessity when he was a kitten, and prone to hoarding food), but I’d give him the goal, since he’d caused me to crease up after a long shift – something only a cat should attempt, and invariably pulls off. Shucking off my bag, I’d listen to him whickering under the bed, pleased with his joke; for a punchline, he’d sometimes dash back out in a whirl of cotton and teeth, to nip at my bare ankle, before plunging back down the stairs with the feet of an elephant.

I never did teach him the fine art of toe-walking.

This month marks a year since his death. The event itself was painful, something I don’t think on, because it stuns me to silence. My Ma called me at work. I remember how cold the bricks were at my back, leaning up against the wall on the stairwell. The wind was whipping leaves, great coppery wreathes. I’d known it was coming – she had warned me over the months, how much his health had deteriorated – but it had been the lengthy process of snakes and ladders. Each time we thought he might go, Kai would suddenly develop an appetite; when it seemed he might see another year, his fur fell away into tired rags. Running a hand over his back, Ma described it as a series of knots. His tail, that ostrich-plume sweep, became a blank exclamation mark. His eyes – those were probably the worst, apart from his heaving ribs. Ma said he would spend hours staring straight ahead, at nothing, at everything, at a world he was leaving, at the place where a cat goes to purr when in pain.

Oh yes, cats purr without pleasure, too; a grim smile of a sound.

My friends on Twitter were unique waves of comfort, keeping me afloat. I don’t remember much else about that day, except how my fingertips turned white when I went out for a walk.

It wasn’t a peaceful end for him. That thought alone turns me pale; heart failure is as shocking, as undignified and full of pathos as any death can be, and I wish to Whoever that I could –
At least have held him.

He sits in an urn now, on Ma’s mantelpiece, still lording it over the fireplace; in front of the rug where – sprawled out to catch the best of the heat, as only a cat can – he would disappear among the pale fluff, with only the occasional twitch of the apricot tail to break up the lines. Ma no longer lives in that house – over a decade, a divorce, my hospitalization, a staggered relationship and finally Kai’s death, she left the ghosts behind. In her new house, with its flag floors and stout doors, sprawling garden and sunswept views of fields, she has a man who has made her happier than I could possibly hope for, a dog and another cat. Arthur is a red point Birman. He has the lean lines of Kai, but the noseguard of a Norwegian Forest. His temperament is best described as Lord of the Manor, with teeth. Less malleable in cuddles – you can’t flop him in your arms, as Kai would loll with his head down – Arthur is nonetheless my Ma’s boy.

I miss the company of cats, for their furred presence and livewire chatter; the introspect of a rainy afternoon, curled up on my bed with a purring bookmark (Willow liked to save pages for me, with a twitching paw, flipping back over to point out useful quotes for school essays. That was her argument, anyway.) The fluid time of a summer afternoon, sprawling on a thin bed sheet with a warm lump at my back, to form a Yin/Yang. The whisper of paws denting an idea into snow, each step another thought

Maybe when I am grown into myself, as a writer, and have earned enough to establish a working space filled with what I’d like to keep about me – Art Deco designs and paintings in Tonalism, seats of cigar-coloured leather that creak with antiquity, a desk scarred by children’s pens and tattoos of old ink, large candles sifting streams of frozen time down wine bottle necks – I’ll own another cat. We’ll hunt each other through the sly shadows of a study, over thick-piled carpet, to perch side-by-side on the moonlight sweep of a bay window overlooking the monochrome lawn. Snow under lamplight, orange haze and talon-trees; blue shadows and the smell of white musk. We’ll watch the foxes hunt rabbits in a light dusting of new fall, breath turning silver against the black – and find our reflections in the glass, one cat, one woman, and a life-age mixed somewhere in between.

baby birman


2 thoughts on “A life in cats

  1. A beautifully-written and evocative piece; I don’t mind having spent my time on your thoughts, since they are based on real knowledge, powerful observation skills and sensitive awareness.
    Nostalgia tipped with pain.

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