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Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Cat in the Coalhouse (Part 2)

In the last instalment, The Cat in the Coalhouse (Part 1) I recounted how a neighbouring cat suddenly appeared one Sunday afternoon, proudly leading her new kindle of kittens to take up residence in his family’s coalhouse.  Despite our entreaties, Mum decreed that “those kittens were not to come into this house”.  Now read on…

Over the next few days, the antics of our new feline family took over from the television as the main source of entertainment for our household.  Frequently, during the course of the day, and particularly in the evening, the Mother Cat (MC) would appear through the hole in the coalhouse door and set off across the neighbourhood gardens, reappearing some time later with something she had scavenged from a dustbin somewhere or with an unfortunate mouse or small bird.  She clearly had her work cut out, feeding her growing brood.

As for the kittens, they would tend to appear in the late afternoon/early evening.   MC would keep a sharp look-out as they dashed wildly around a small area that covered the top of our two gardens and across our joined back yards (ours and Mrs. B’s).  Play fighting and what seemed like an endless game of ‘tick’ seemed to be their main pursuit but they also enjoyed stalking (unsuccessfully) the occasional insect and each other.  However at the first sign of anyone approaching, the whole family shot straight back into the coalhouse, with MC bringing up the rear.

In my mind’s eye, I felt sure that there were four kittens in all (and said so in the last instalment) but digging out some photographs for this post (and checking with my sister) I found that there were, in fact, only three.  In my defence, it seemed a lot more at the time!

As each day passed by, the weather continued to deteriorate.  It was certainly getting colder but we assumed they were keeping reasonably warm in the coalhouse (we didn’t dare open this in case we scared them away totally).  For the first few days the crisp autumn sunshine gave a spring-like quality to the daytime but there was no denying the sharp edge of winter on the keen breeze.  Then came a series of sudden squalls in which driving rain or, worse still, hail would lash across the yard.  Late Saturday morning a particularly vicious squall suddenly appeared out of nowhere and caught MC and her brood unawares as they played in the yard.  Standing at the window, I made a unilateral decision – they couldn’t be allowed to stay out there in this weather.

I raced out into the yard and, in the confusion of hail and high winds, I managed to catch the two long-haired kittens before they could leap back into the coalhouse.  MC and her smooth haired kitten eluded me and shot straight into their sanctuary.  I dashed back into the house with two cold and wet balls of fluff tucked under my arms.  Mum had just come down stairs.

“I couldn’t leave them out there in this” I said, nodding toward the hail now beating a tattoo on our living room window.

“Well, I suppose you had better put them in front of the fire” Mum said resignedly, but it seemed to me that she was secretly relieved that a difficult decision had been taken out of her hands.

Cats are pretty pragmatic and these two clearly quickly weighed up the pros and cons of life in the coalhouse versus a roaring fire and soft carpet and decided that it was no contest.  After a little mewing and pacing about, they settled down in front of the fire to wash and bask.  Meanwhile, MC and the smooth haired escapee stayed put in their coalhouse.

A few more days passed by and our life with the now semi-detached cat family continued.  We found a box and some old blankets for our two refugees to sleep on and made some toys out of ribbons and cotton reels.  Mum was concerned about how we could cope with setting up a litter tray (the family budget not being able to stretch to any further expense whatsoever) but, after a little research, she discovered that common or garden (mostly garden in our case) soil would be fine, provided that it had been sterilised by baking.  From then onwards our kitchen was frequently filled with the rather unusual smell of freshly-baked earth, roasting in a biscuit tin.

MC and her sole remaining kitten carried on pretty much as before.  Playing together when the sun shone (which was becoming more infrequent) and hunkering down in the coalhouse at all other times.  Inevitably the weather worsened further and when snow started to fall and the temperature plummeted, Anne and I finally set up a pincer movement in which one of us guarded the coalhouse door whilst the other chased the kitten, cornered it and managed to haul him, hissing and kicking, into the house. 

With all her kittens now inside, MC decided that she might as well take a look at what was on offer and gingerly made her way in, with our encouragement.  Soon the whole family had taken pride of place in front of the fire and no-one would have ever known that they had not been used to this lifestyle from the start.

Of course, Mum’s dire warnings about the amount of hard work involved in kitten rearing were absolutely correct.  For the next few weeks it was by no means unusual to find kittens climbing up the curtains or chasing furiously up and down the furniture, aided by their razor sharp crampon-like claws.  MC seemed to be completely at ease with divesting her responsibilities onto Mum and took to curling up on any available lap at every opportunity, as did the kittens, in an orderly row, once they had exhausted themselves in one of their “mad half-hours” as Mum called them.

The kittens were christened as Fluff (long haired, all white kitten with a splash of black on both ears and a penchant for laps and creature comforts), Scamp (short haired, all white with a splash of black on his right ear, a rugged individualist) and Fred (long haired, white and tricolour and a born comedian).  Fred had to be rechristened Freda when it became clear that she was a little girl cat (which shows how far she would go to get a laugh).

It was a struggle financially and logistically to manage our new-found brood but we managed.  Well, Mum did, to be fair, although how she coped with keeping our house clean and tidy when she had kittens traipsing soil through the kitchen and wreaking havoc on the furniture, I’ll never know. What with the cat, kittens, our Cocker Spaniel, Jane a budgie (Dinkie, they were all called that, don’t ask me why!) and some goldfish, we had a pretty full house.

The kittens grew rapidly and it was obvious that our small house would never be able to house all of these cats for ever.  Once again we were very fortunate.  Our friendly local vet heard of our plight and recommended a number of people to come and see us.  One by one, our kittens found very good homes indeed and we heard how they were doing in the cards and letters that followed.

Mum decided that MC really needed a quiet house in which to bask in front of the fire and tried to rehome her with a little old lady who had lost her cat and lived just a few streets away, but this was doomed to failure as MC had clearly decided which home she fancied and she reappeared at our door a couple of days after her ‘rehoming’.  She took up residence, as if this had all been an unfortunate aberration, and remained with us for the rest of her life.

Strangely enough, the coalhouse didn’t seem to appeal anymore!

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