Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
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Talk to the Tail




First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Tom Cox

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.

The right of Tom Cox to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
1st Floor
222 Gray’s Inn Road

Simon & Schuster Australia

A CIP catalogue for this book is
available from the British Library.

ISBN: 978-1-84737-817-0
eBook ISBN: 978-1-84737-819-4

Typeset by M Rules
Printed in the UK by CPI Mackays, Chatham ME5 8TD


In memory of Jeanne Francis, and Kiffer


A big thanks to those who also served: Angela Herlihy, Colin Midson, Simon Trewin, Ariella Feiner, Vicky Halls, Hannah Lynch, Henry Lynch, Daniel Carway, Louise Marshall, Michael Cox, Jo Cox, Alex German, Cassie Campbell, Ian Allen, Jackie Morris, Max, the Ginger Army and The People Sheep.


‘That’s supposed to be a fact, that the question mark is originally from an Egyptian hieroglyph that signified a cat walking away. You know, it’s the tail. And the symbol meant – well, whatever it is when they’re ignoring you.’ – Christopher Walken, ‘What I’ve Learned’, American
magazine, June 2009

‘If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow, but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.’ – Mark Twain

‘A bear doesn’t go to sleep thinking, “I wasn’t really a very good bear today.” They are just 100 per cent bear, whereas human beings feel we’re not 100 per cent human. We’re constantly striving towards something, to some fulfilment.’ – Stephen Fry

‘It’s dog eat dog, and cat eat mouse, you can rag mama rag all over my house.’ – The Band, ‘Rag Mama Rag’

War Baby


For most of the average week, my home town of East Mendleham is a quiet sort of place. Often, I will go for as many as six days without hearing any sound more vociferous drifting from the centre of the town than that of an old man swearing encouragingly at some ducks as they take his bread, or an elderly covers group on the park bandstand. This is the standard innocuous backing track of a British market town: the distant cry of an eccentric, some mildly confused birdlife, and a version of ‘That’ll Be the Day’ drifting on the breeze, no less benign for the this-could-actually-
-the-day tension injected into its lyrics by its infirm practitioners. But from about seven o’clock on a Friday to about three o’clock on Saturday morning, East Mendleham, like many other British market towns, comes alive. If you’re on the street during this period, what you will essentially be experiencing is a simulation of a Wild West frontier settlement, with Subarus instead of horses. Tyres screech, arguments are settled in public, primeval mating rituals abound, and the energy of the week is burned off in a blaze of pent-up, Stella Artois-swigging glory.

I’m old enough now to look at this philosophically. It still isn’t all that long ago that I lived in a London flat where, every Wednesday evening, at 9 pm on the dot, a young couple would stand an inch from my bedroom window, arguing loudly about whether or not their baby was ‘a Paki’: the same flat where Tuesday night could be relied upon to be Ladies’ Night. And what I mean by Ladies’ Night, in this case, is Lady From The Flat Upstairs Having Sex Loudly To Primal Scream’s
Album Night. It’s even less long since I lived in a terraced house where the framework would shake on a near 24-hour basis from the ‘rehearsals’ of the empty-eyed DJ next door and the barks of his mum’s giant, unhappy dog. Thankfully, the walls of my house are now all my own, and one night of drunken people burning off steam outside my house seems a small price to pay for six days of peace.

This is not to say, however, that those walls always feel like adequate protection. I have to confess that, until the summer of 2007, I’d never given any great thought to what it would be like to have three men attack your house with pruning shears at three on a Saturday morning, but, if I had, I’m sure I would not have been able to imagine the terrifying onslaught of industrial noise involved. It was such a relief to look outside and discover that the men in question were only trying to steal the lead flashing off the front of the house, and not performing a renovation to turn it into their own personal drinking establishment. I half wanted to thank them. What I did instead was ask them what the jolly heck they were doing (although, now I really think about it, perhaps I didn’t quite put it in those terms). In response, they immediately slunk off. I felt quite brave and pleased with myself, for about twenty minutes, until I realised they’d just gone to get some bigger pairs of secateurs in order to do the job more successfully, and my wife Dee and I decided to put the matter in the – on this occasion – very capable hands of the police. This occurred only a week before we were paid a visit by two sunken-cheeked gentlemen who, when questioned by me regarding the precise vagaries of why they were perched on my wheelie bin, trying to hoist themselves over the fence leading to my garden, said unconvincingly, ‘We’re not trying to rob you, mate, honest!’

To be fair, there was a whole Friday’s respite between that and my car getting broken into. Nonetheless, given the preceding events, it was probably only natural that, two Fridays later, when Dee woke me up at 3 am and announced, ‘There’s someone in the bedroom,’ I did what any other self-respecting male would do when called to defend his domestic realm and those within it: I stood up, naked and fearless, grabbed a plastic watering can, and got ready to fight for everything I held dear.

I’d experienced the aftermath of two burglaries before, back when I lived with my parents, but on neither occasion was I in the house when they took place. Now, I listened hard for movement, feeling genuinely in danger of suffocating from the silence. Wherever the intruder was, he remained icily still. At least, I assumed it was a he. A female reader of the blog I write about my cats had recently emailed me, threatening to move her stuff and her cats into my and Dee’s place. She was just joking – wasn’t she? I froze, keeping my breathing to a bare minimum, and allowing my eyes to become accustomed to the dark. Was that a human-sized lump behind the curtains?

This was one of those moments nervously dreaded by any adult who has worked hard all their life to build something to protect. You pictured it on your darkest nights, but you didn’t believe it would really happen to you.

?’ I tried to hiss and shape the word in a manner that would somehow achieve the impossible: sending it across to Dee, without it being intercepted by the ears of the intruder.

I thought of the infamous farmer from my home county who had shot the two youths who’d broken into his house a few years ago. People called him a crank, a bloodthirsty hick, but placed in the same situation, I now knew those people’s take on the situation would be different. ‘You don’t think Charlton Heston and his National Rifle Association buddies are so silly now, do you?’ said a little demon voice in my head, as I pointed the plastic spout of my weapon into the darkness.

In retrospect, I could have been better-armed – not reaching immediately for the ceramic bedside lamp was already beginning to seem like a glaring oversight, and even the paperback on the table next to it would have been a distinct improvement – but the watering can had been the first thing I’d seen, and now I had it, the important thing was to commit without undue hesitation.

Under the bed
,’ said Dee.

‘You’re sodding kidding me?’ I said, considerably louder.

‘No. Just leave him. He can go out in the morning.’

Had my wife lost her mind? Was she suggesting that I not only ignore the fact that a strange man – maybe more than one strange man – had broken into our house, but that I blithely let him get on with his business? I looked at her in a whole new way, shadowy figure that she was, propped up on her pillow. Maybe she had planned this entire operation. I had been living with a stranger for seven years, and now I was going to pay the ultimate price for my trust and naivety!

‘Come back to bed.’

Thinking ‘To hell with it!’ and that I might as well look my fate right in the eye as I accepted it, I turned on the light. We’d now stopped whispering, and if there had been a burglar or psychopath in the room with us, he would have had an insurmountable upper hand in carrying out whatever bodily harm he had planned. Fortunately, though, it was clear from the way he emerged from his hiding place, bounded up onto the duvet, Tigger-style, and flopped moronically on his back, that Pablo would happily put senseless violence to one side. Or at least that he would defer it for the time being, on the condition that he could find a willing servant to scruff up his chest fur in his favourite, vigorous manner.

‘Sometimes,’ I said, as an ocean of tension drained from my body, ‘I wonder if, on the whole, it might be less confusing for all concerned if we stopped referring to our cats as “someone”.’


I have lived in several homes that creak with history, but the light, airy, early 1960s building where I currently reside is not one of them. Although I can’t state this as a fact, I feel fairly certain in saying that nobody has ever died in here. It’s just not that kind of house. Like a bouncy castle or a Spice Girls video, it’s one of those environments that tend to actively discourage thought of the supernatural. That said, on a Friday night, it clicks and vibrates with mysterious sounds. Objects skitter across the floor, unbidden. Alien voices echo through its air pockets.

‘Darrrrrr-rrr-en, llll-llll-eavvve it. It’s nott-tt worth it . . . He’s just a looo-oooo-ser . . .’

And every so often, a banshee-like wailing can be heard emanating from the region of the staircase.


I’m sure that those who live with an actual ghost would claim to have it far worse. The creeping feeling of being unwelcome in your own home. The heavy atmosphere. The sudden, unexplainable drops in temperature. But I’m not so convinced. What, when it comes right down to it, is the worst a spectre can do? Break a couple of antique vases? Open and close a couple of doors with the force of its sheer unresolved ancient discontentment? Big deal. Does a ghost get high on pills and try to steal some lead from your house? No. It would consider such an activity uncouth. There are some seriously chilling manifestations of the afterlife in the stories of M.R. James and Edgar Allan Poe, but, for all their malice, the chances of them getting drunk, pilfering a plant pot and dropping it from a great height on a nearby duck’s nest ‘for a laugh’ seem quite slim.

No doubt, were I to live in a house with its own headless horsemen legend, it could be a bit of a bind at times, what with the midnight whinnying and the repeat decapitations, but at least he’d be scrupulously clean. Say what you like about headless horsemen’s horses, you don’t find them coming into your bedroom at night when it’s been raining, expecting to be dried off and soiling your duvet with their hoof marks.

There’s also a pleasing lack of ambiguity about ghosts. Once you’ve established you have a supernatural force in residence and you hear a bump in the night, at least you can say, ‘Oh, that’ll only be the Old Man Who Watches The Graveyard, searching for his murdered wife’s hair again.’ You’re not sitting up for hours on end wondering, ‘Was that a speed freak attempting to get in through my front door, or just a mouse’s cranium being batted against a skirting board?’

Living with several cats, in a British market town, in a house built into a hill, by the main route to and from the local dispensers of alcoholic beverages – a B road that’s one of the busiest in East Mendleham, and which souped-up Peugeots and Subarus speed down on a Friday night – I am doomed never to be so certain. I can’t think of any obvious reason my cats have decided to make their weekly Party Night coincide with that of the human population of East Mendleham. Each one of the furry schemers in my house has his or her clandestine double life, but I find it hard to believe that any of these would extend to a nine-to-five job working in a call centre, and its concomitant end-of-week stress-relief session.

It’s not as if it gets to Friday afternoon and the six of them think, ‘You know what? I’m really pooped from five days of sleeping on the sofa, repeatedly cleaning my bottom and having my every whim catered for. What I really need to do is
.’ Nonetheless, the end of their working week is the time they choose to slaughter more voles, the night when they meow the loudest, the night when their need to wander and fight and carouse seems most unquenchable.

Even if I didn’t have cats, Friday would still be my Worry Night, but the commotion they make and their vulnerable proximity to other nearby commotion heightens my concern. I stay vigilant for much the same reason that I will never go to sleep on an aeroplane: to give myself an all-important illusion of control. This is not just about people breaking in, it’s about feeling that, by the mere act of being awake, I can stop my cats getting hit by a car.

I live in an odd building – a place with a layout so disorientating that a few years ago, when Dee and I were thinking of selling it, a prospective buyer tried to leave via a cupboard. Known as the Upside Down House, and erected flush up to one of the approximate four hills in South Norfolk, most of its rooms are actually underground and somewhat cavelike. Because the main bedroom is underneath the parking space, it’s also underneath the seven-foot fence Dee and I installed in a despairing attempt to stop The Bear and Shipley from getting to the road from the garden. I hear the dull thud of their landings on the other side of the fence, and sometimes race upstairs to meet them before they get to the road. Sometimes, I’ll look under my car and see The Bear’s bright, incensed eyes staring back at me. Other times, I’ll catch Shipley before he has made his kamikaze dash, and he will greet me at the front door with a volley of questions, which I’ll do my best to answer:

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
6.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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