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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Cat in the Coalhouse - Part 1

I think that, for everyone who has ever acquired a pet, there must be at least ten others who have found themselves acquired by a pet.  There have been quite a number of cats in my life over the years and not once have I ever gone out to purchase or choose a cat, they have always chosen me.  All animals are capable of tugging at the heartstrings, as a visit to any animal sanctuary will quickly confirm, but cats have it down to a fine art.

I can picture a particular example of this phenomenon as clearly as if it happened yesterday, and yet it goes back to the late 1970s.

It was a crisp, cool, Sunday afternoon in autumn.  I was halfway down the garden of our terraced house, keeping an eye on our rabbit as she lolloped around the rough patch of grass that we laughingly called a lawn.  We didn’t have a run for the rabbit, she was pretty well behaved and tended to stay on the lawn provided that we kept a careful eye on her.  This was largely because there was nothing remotely interesting to eat in our garden.  However, if your attention drifted for a second, she would instantly be on the next door garden, chomping cheerfully on Mrs. B.’s young vegetables and plants.

On this occasion, my attention did drift because of the unexpected arrival of the cat from the gardens that backed on to ours.  She was a lovely natured cat, mostly white with tri-coloured patches and it had been some weeks since we had last seen her.  She had appeared from time to time in the past and always seemed happy to have a bit of fuss and and occasionally to potter in and lie in front of our fire.  We had never fed her or actively encouraged her as we assumed that she was somebody in the next street’s pet.  As usual, she came and rubbed around my legs, purring loudly and I reached down and stroked her head.  It was nice to see her again after all this time, I had begun to wonder if she had fallen victim to the heavy traffic in the streets around our neighbourhood, a common fate of many of the local felines.  Our mutual admiration society continued for a few minutes and then she walked away a few yards, stopped and looked back at me.

There has been some debate in the media recently about whether animals can think.  I doubt that there would be much debate amongst pet owners on this subject, I’m pretty sure that they would agree that their animals not only think but can run rings around their owners whenever they feel like it.  Anyone who had any doubts about the thought processes of animals really needed to be with me in the garden on that autumn afternoon.  Without a doubt, this cat was thinking carefully about something.

After a minute or two, she headed off back to the gardens at the rear of our house and I went to retrieve our rabbit from a line of our neighbour’s hopeful winter greens.  As the light was fading and chasing a black rabbit in the twilight tends to be an overrated pastime, I caught her (with no little difficulty) and returned her kicking and grumbling (the rabbit, not me) to her newly-cleaned hutch.  I was just latching the hutch door when my eye was attracted by some movement at the bottom of the garden.  To my surprise, the cat was back, but she wasn’t alone.  Trailing behind her, in a perfect line as she trotted proudly up the garden path, were three tiny kittens.  I stood there in a state of absolute astonishment as this unexpected feline family swept past me and headed toward our back yard.  Each kitten was a miniature replica of its mother, mostly white (completely white in one case) but with some tricolour or grey patches.  Two were long-haired, little balls of fluff and one was sleek and short-haired, just like his mum.

I suppose that our house was a pretty standard design for a terraced house built in the late 19th Century.  The ground floor consisted of a front room (rarely used except for high days and holidays), an under-the-stairs cupboard, a living room (in which much of our life was spent) with a window that looked out onto our half of the yard and the gardens beyond, a long thin kitchen (again with a window looking out onto the yard) with a pantry at the end.  Sharing that end of the kitchen, with an access from the yard only, was the coalhouse or ‘coal hole’ as it was colloquially known.

Our coalhouse was no longer filled with ‘nutty slack’ but tended to be a repository for all of those things that ‘might come in useful one day’.   There were various gardening implements, items for use on the beach (bucket, spade, ball etc.), an occasional small bag of coal and various other items in the dark recesses that were probably there before we arrived and would, no doubt, still be there long after we had gone.  The wooden coalhouse door had seen better days and chunks of it were missing at the bottom where wear and tear and rot had taken their toll.

The cat, and her new family, made a bee-line for the coalhouse.  I watched as she slipped swiftly through the hole in the door, closely followed by each of her charges in turn.  I suppose that the whole episode had only taken a few minutes at most, but to me, as I stood there rooted to the spot, it seemed to have all happened in slow motion.  Now that the drama had unfolded, I simply had to tell someone about it (and I guessed that the rabbit wouldn’t be all that interested).  I rushed into our house in a state of high excitement.  Mum and my sister, Anne were engrossed in the Sunday afternoon film.  Dad was slumped in the chair with his eyes shut, ‘thinking’ as he put it (which always seemed to involve a good deal of snoring).  All were oblivious to the scene that I had just witnessed.  I rattled out my story and we congregated (those of us that were awake anyway) at the living room window.  There was no sign of cat or kittens.

Anne (who was only about eight at the time) was desperate to see the kittens but Mum insisted that we should leave them alone in their new-found home.  More importantly, she issued an edict that ‘those kittens were not to come into this house”.  I don’t think I have ever known anyone as soft about animals as my mum and it was unusual for her to take such a hard line but I’m sure she realised the havoc that kittens can cause (and that she would have to deal with).  In addition, we were going through one of our periodic ‘times of economic difficulty’ and, with a dog, rabbit and budgie to feed, she felt that the household budget was already stretched to breaking point.

With winter just around the corner, Anne and I stared glumly at our back yard and wondered just how long it would be before mum’s resolve would crack.


To find out if it did, see The Cat in the Coalhouse (Part 2)

You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks