Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond (3 page)

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
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In 2007, when friends would ask me how many cats I had, I would tell them ‘six’, but I was actually lying – I had seven. It was just that all seven never lived in the house at the same time. There was The Bear, Shipley, Janet, Ralph and Bootsy, and Summer Pablo. Then, around September each year, Summer Pablo would vanish to be replaced by another cat, known as Winter Pablo. Winter Pablo was ginger, had many of the same habits of Summer Pablo, and cultivated a similarly intellectually challenged look by leaving his tongue permanently protruding from his mouth, but that was pretty much where the resemblance ended. I tend to chalk up Pablo’s vast, terrifying accrual of winter weight to his feralness, but I’ve never known another cat to do it in such exaggerated fashion. It must have been disturbing, being Ralph, the joint biggest of all my cats, to suddenly see one of your skinnier contemporaries transform himself into a giant red pom-pom as the weather got colder.

Did Ralph actually think it was another ginger cat altogether – equally as much of an annoying bum onion as the other one, but even fatter – coming in through the cat flap? Maybe an out-and-out moron like my second oldest cat, Janet, might have made that mistake, but I credited Ralph with more intelligence. Although maybe not enough intelligence to remember that Pablo’s weight gain had occurred the previous two winters as well and, come March, Summer Pablo would begin to return.

So what was responsible for tipping the balance and creating Ralph’s vendetta? Now, as I happened upon the pair of them in mid-scrap, I noticed a new intensity to their wrangling. In the human world, to get two individuals at such loggerheads, one of them would have probably had to have slept with the other’s spouse, stolen their job, or taken out a hit on a close member of their family. But for Ralph and Pablo, all these possibilities seemed moot, apart from maybe the first, and I was certain Ralph had no real romantic, or dry hump-based, designs on Bootsy, nor Pablo on the sheepskin rug draped across the back of the living room sofa that Ralph often turned to for physical comfort in his more carnal moments. The couple of times Pablo had had a tentative go on the sheepskin, it had only made him sneeze.

I’d initially thought that what we were dealing with here was a simple aggressor–victim situation, with Ralph in the aggressor role, but it soon became apparent that Pablo’s happy-go-lucky veneer was beginning to crack. Pablo might have been a big soft pom-pom when bounding onto the bed and asking to have his chest scruffed, but he was also one with scalpel-deadly talons. I found this to my cost one day, when I reached through the cat flap tunnel and readjusted the door, only for Pablo to mistake my hand for Ralph and punish it accordingly.
2

Soon, the exits and corners of the house became places of fiery red trepidation for Ralph. The top of the small staircase leading from the bottom floor was a particular danger point. Once, I arrived here to find Ralph and Pablo both simultaneously suspended upside down, in mid-air, three feet off the ground. From what I could work out, no string, rope or pulley system was in place. It was my usual habit to hurl myself in between them during their scraps, but this time I held back just momentarily, unable to stop myself admiring the ballet of the performance. I will not be persuaded that a full three seconds didn’t elapse before both their heads hit the ground. It was like something from
The Matrix
, the main exceptions being that, post-fight, characters from
The Matrix
don’t a) violently shed fur all over the floor and b) go and sulk behind the sofa.

There was always far more fur to clean up in the aftermath of Ralph and Pablo’s tussles than there was following the recreational wrestling bouts between Janet and Shipley. If I’d had the foresight to save the stuff, it probably would have only taken about half a dozen fights before I had enough to make a whole new cat: a tabby-ginger half-breed named Rablo who might go forth and spread peace, putting an end to racial tension in the cat universe once and for all.

But it seems doubtful Rablo would have succeeded where ‘mellowing’ Feliway plug-ins, valerian drops and pep talks had not. My own interventions certainly weren’t doing much good either. Perhaps the most calamitous of them was the occasion when, in whisking Pablo out from Ralph’s reach and closing the bedroom door, being careful not to shut it on Pablo’s tail, I suddenly realised I was holding a furry ginger air raid alarm whose off switch I could not locate. I’ve never heard such a bloodcurdling sound coming from a cat and an interminable twenty seconds went by before I realised that it was not a continuation of Pablo’s battle cry I was hearing but his way of informing me that, in going to such an attempt not to trap his tail in the door, I’d trapped it in the hinge of the door instead. It took me quite some time to apologise for that one, with the extensive use of pâté – always a dangerous move with Pablo, a cat who, once given a taste, can never quite be convinced that a human is incapable of producing spreadable paste on demand.

 

Working from home takes strict discipline. That discipline can easily be fractured when a person spends half his day serving as a peacemaker between his cats. Now, with Dee out at her new job at a local horse charity, I found myself devoting large amounts of time to trying to placate Ralph and Pablo and soothe their bruised egos. Ralph is a cat who can twist his way inside your chest like a rusty screwdriver with his repertoire of hurt looks, and I found myself being particularly diligent to make sure his feelings weren’t damaged. Outsiders might think the logical thing to do, having run for the doorbell, fallen over on the stairs, lightly trodden on your cat, bruised your shin and scraped a chunk of skin off the palm of your hand, would be to attempt to stop the courier driving off with the package containing the DVD you need to review in your newspaper column that afternoon, or sit down and recover with a calming cup of tea. Instead, I chose a third option: chase after the cat in question, telling him how profusely sorry you are, and promising never to do it again, not once considering that it might be his own stupid fault for sitting on the stairs in the first place.

Sometimes, as I found myself singing my alternative version of Billy Joel’s ‘Vienna’ to Pablo (‘Slow down/You ginger cat/You’re so ambitious for a . . . ginger cat’) and Ralph walked into the room, I would quickly switch to ‘Tabby Lover’, a rewrite of Phil Collins’ and Philip Bailey’s 1985 chart-topping duet ‘Easy Lover’ that I would be the first to admit needed some work (‘He’s a tabby lover/He’ll do a fart and you won’t hear it’). ‘Pablo’s coat is looking extremely plush today,’ I’d say to Dee, who would tighten her lips and point with her eyes at Ralph, sitting behind me on his sheepskin lover, causing me to add, ‘. . . And then there’s Ralph’s sideburns. Have you seen how thick they are right now? Magnificent!’ It would probably be going too far to say I got more careful about eating oranges and carrots while Ralph was around, but I won’t deny that it crossed my mind.

I spent a lot of time checking Pablo was okay too, but it seemed clear that the ginger was slowly getting the upper hand. If Ralph could have backed down, he probably would have, but the battle had gone beyond that stage – there was too much pride at stake. Shipley joined in the goading of Pablo occasionally, but that was clearly for his own amusement. There was no amusement about this for Ralph or Pablo by now: the battle had progressed somewhere newly senseless. But isn’t that always the way with war? That the individuals most liable to get hurt by it can no longer remember what they’re fighting for?

Ralph began to avoid the cat flap altogether, instead standing for periods of up to three hours outside the bedroom window, shouting. ‘Raaalph!’ he would howl, and I would sit up in bed, debating whether to let him in and encourage his neediness or attempt to sleep through it. ‘I yam Raaalph!’ he would sometimes add after half an hour or so, just in case we’d been left in any doubt about exactly who it might be out there, acting like an absolute tool.

‘Leave him,’ said Dee. ‘If you let him in, he’ll realise that he’s got you wrapped around his little finger, and he’ll never come in through the cat flap ever again.’

I could see the logic of her advice, but I had two problems with it. Firstly, Ralph didn’t actually have a little finger; but he did have paws, and it did not take much for me to conjure up the image of one of these paws, cold and forlorn, scraping against the window of a next-door neighbour’s kitchen window, asking for love, having finally given up on me.

Secondly, I knew the advice was coming from a somnolent being of rare powers. I only had to think back to one of our first arguments as a domestic couple to remember this. I forget what the argument was about now, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t cleaning, but it ended with Dee falling asleep and me having the brainwave that, if I scrubbed, hoovered and dusted the flat from top to bottom, it would somehow prove that I was right about everything in the entire universe, for ever. Whatever the warped logic that made me think this, my plan clearly didn’t work, as Dee slept soundly through my vacuuming, and the main upshots were that I had time to realise I was wrong about whatever we were arguing about, and she woke up, well rested, to a blissfully clean flat. I’ve learned since then that she can sleep through louder sounds than the one a vacuum cleaner makes when it’s on full power three feet from your head, so, even though I applauded her pragmatism and took into account her wisdom, I had to also take into account that the sound of hopped-up, hyper-sensitive cats has never disturbed her. (The hopped-up, hyper-sensitive cats seem to know this too, which is why they have never bothered to try to wake her up, knowing that there is someone far more gullible and malleable nearby.)

Suggestions flooded in from family and acquaintances close and distant about what to do about the problem with Ralph and the cat door. My friend Vicky, who works as a cat behaviourist, echoed Dee’s suggestion that a second cat flap might be in order. But Dee’s bird-loving, feline-disliking mum, Oriole, disagreed. ‘It seems like a lot of bother, and quite expensive. Wouldn’t it be easier to just get rid of all your cats? You probably won’t miss them in the long run.’ A more novel, if still impractical, suggestion came from my friend Liz, who is not only very good at sorting out cat problems, but pretty good at sorting computer problems too. ‘Have you tried letting him in and out again?’ she asked.

When I suggested inviting Vicky to the house to meet the cats, Dee seemed apprehensive. ‘But she’ll find us out, and tell us we’re terrible owners.’

‘Yes, well, I suppose it might be an idea to take the padlock off the airing cupboard and let Bootsy out before she comes.’

‘You know what I mean. She
knows
stuff.’

Vicky calls herself a cat behaviour counsellor, and has also been referred to as a ‘cat shrink’ and – not her personal favourite, this – ‘pussy doctor’. If you were someone who visited up to 250 different cat owners’ homes a year it would be forgivable if you started not just to think like a cat but to incorporate a repertoire of growls, purrs and disdainful sniffs into everyday discourse. However, the last thing you think upon meeting Vicky is ‘here’s a person who probably owns kitten-faced place mats’.

Arriving at the house in a sports car so low-riding it had trouble climbing the not particularly steep ramp onto my driveway, she did not exude cattishness and, if anything, seemed more likely to be mistaken for a Labrador owner. She knows cats better than anyone I know, but only owns one, and, much as she loves Mangus, her Devon Rex, she is not afraid to slag her off. ‘She can be a bit clingy sometimes,’ she told me, placing a leather bag on the living room floor. ‘And, you know, I’m not really that big a fan of pedigrees. I prefer moggies.’

There was something about the leather bag that didn’t quite fit in with the sharp business-lady attire and the fast car, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say I was slightly
afraid
to put my finger on it, for fear of what might end up on my finger. The last time I’d come across a piece of hand luggage so weathered and aromatic of a full and varied life was my old school bag, shortly after I’d made the misguided decision to use it to transport a chicken curry back on the school bus after a Home Economics class.

‘It’s a bit grungy, I know,’ said Vicky. She told me she had no idea exactly what combination of various different types of catnip, catmint and valerian had given it its magic, but knew it worked, and that she could not recreate it if she tried. ‘If any problems are there, this tends to bring them to the surface,’ she said.

As if on cue, Shipley appeared and plunged snout-first into the bag’s heady depths, while Bootsy appeared right behind him, and plunged snout-first into the heady depths of Shipley. Almost instantly, from the floor below, we heard the crash of the cat flap and a ‘SCREEEOOW’ noise and rushed to the window to see Pablo’s retreating form. A moment later, Ralph appeared, sporting an expression that seemed to speak of manifold grievances, chief among them possibly being ‘someone has stolen my mittens’.

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
5.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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