Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond (4 page)

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
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‘They have these scraps about four times a day at the moment,’ I told Vicky.

‘Sometimes it’s good if they fight,’ said Vicky. ‘It means it’s all out in the open. The big worry is when they internalise their problems.’

This was an unexpected piece of wisdom, and it led me to ponder a whole set of problems I hadn’t even imagined, then thank my lucky stars I wasn’t experiencing them. Okay, so it was a shame that Pablo sometimes clawed Ralph’s bottom so viciously he removed a chunk of fur big enough to wear as a tabby war bonnet, but at least he wasn’t putting his foe down with sarcasm, pretend pleasantries and backhanded compliments.

‘He’s forgotten to put his tongue back in,’ said Vicky, pointing towards Pablo. ‘I love it when they do that.’

I could have told her the truth, which was that, in Pablo’s case, this wasn’t an oversight so much as a permanent default setting, but I thought better of it. I was anxious that my cats didn’t all come across as complete morons, and I sensed that Shipley had already gone past the point of no redemption in that respect. By now, only his legs were visible above the top of the bag. I had no idea what sort of hedonistic pleasures he’d found in there, but I couldn’t help thinking of the famous scene in the movie
, where Ewan McGregor puts his head into a toilet and finds that the bowl suddenly expands into a magical junkie’s swimming pool.

It was a full hour before Vicky found the first urine stain. ‘It’s just a little spotting, nothing much,’ she said, examining the stair rail near where Ralph and Pablo had many of their tussles, then recalled the time she leaned on a partition wall in a client’s house that was so rotted with feline effluence that her hand went through and out the other side. She called our house a ‘harmonious feline set-up’ and recommended once again, that Ralph and Pablo might be mollified by adding an extra cat flap.

I couldn’t tell if, being a friend, Vicky was quite giving it to me straight. I also realised that ‘harmony’ was relative in this case: her recent clients included a man whose cat had seriously injured his foreskin during a ‘waggling incident’ and a woman who managed to tell her within twenty seconds of their first meeting that she’d known her cat in seven previous lives and had a multiple personality disorder, while also hinting that her late father was a murderer. However, I did notice that there was a palpable change of mood in the aftermath of her visit.

Like most cats, mine spent the majority of their lives sleeping, but this was the first time I could recall my house having the full-on feel of a feline opium den. What had Vicky done to the six of them? There’d been the magic bag, of course, and the various ailing, well-loved toys that she later produced from it – an extremely popular mouse and octopus among them. Or was it a pig and a spider? The effects of years of toothmarks and drool had made it a little hard to tell.

You wouldn’t call Vicky a Cat Whisperer. She hadn’t sat down with them at any point for a ‘quiet word’ or pinched their necks and made hissing sounds when they started to misbehave. But even while she was asking me questions about their behaviour, it was clear she was watching them out the corner of her eye. Within half an hour, she had the measure of their personalities: the easygoing dolt (Janet), the she-Napoleon (Bootsy), the sunny survivor (Pablo), the troubled rock star (Ralph), the office joker (Shipley) and the oversensitive necromancer (The Bear).

There was also the sense that my cats were in a special presence and were cognisant of it: they seemed drawn to any area that Vicky was in, as if by some magic talisman. Vicky wasn’t one of the more mystically inclined cat therapists that would read your cat’s horoscope for you, but, in her own way, perhaps she was speaking to them without opening her mouth or looking in their direction, a feline form of the Stephen King concept of ‘shining’. Their typical characteristics seemed heightened, though clearly this in itself was very exhausting work for them, since, from what I can work out, each of them slipped into a mild coma for about fifteen hours straight afterwards.


The morning after Vicky left, I arrived in the living room to find Ralph and Pablo both sitting within five feet of one another on the floor, in the paws-tucked-under pose known among cat owners variously as ‘The Packed Chicken’, ‘The Duck’, ‘The Tea Cosy’ and ‘Monorail Cat’.

I called Dee over. ‘Have you seen this?’

‘Wow! Unheard of,’ she exclaimed. ‘And they’re doing The Tea Cosy.’

It might have seemed a small point to an outsider, but The Tea Cosy was strictly the jurisdiction of The Bear and Shipley. It simply wasn’t Pablo and Ralph’s Thing. When they settled down, they were sprawlers and curlers and stretchers. When you were as used to their habits as we were, to see them in this uncharacteristic pose was no less odd than seeing a turtle sitting up at a writing desk.

My cats seemed to be experiencing the same phenomenon with Vicky that I’d experienced with every good teacher or coach I’d ever had: when your mentor’s voice was still fresh in your head, you could carry out their instructions successfully, but once it began to fade, the problems began again. A week after her departure, the cats’ Buddhistlike state of enlightenment had ebbed away, and the old fights had begun around the cat door again, but by that point a man called Jim from a company called Jim’ll Fix It was on his way round to tunnel through the back wall of the top floor of the house and insert an exit and entrance point which would, I hoped, cure all Ralph’s neuroses.

This was expensive, but could be looked upon positively as a final touch to a lengthy project – that last thing, to add to the room on the bottom floor that had essentially had all other uses suspended in order for it to act as a giant cat doormat, the special blankets on almost every chair in the house, the ‘paw plank’ bridging the gap between the conservatory roof and the balcony, and the fence built to stop the cats getting on the road – that made it not merely a house that was convenient for cats, but one that appeared to have been specifically designed for their capricious needs.

It didn’t surprise or particularly worry me that Ralph didn’t take to the new cat flap immediately. It led directly out onto the balcony: an area that, in summer, The Bear effectively used as his own penthouse flat: a place where he could enjoy his aging bachelordom away from those peers of his who weren’t quite so appreciative of highbrow culture. Ralph wasn’t scared of The Bear, but he knew to keep away, so it was perhaps only natural that I had to go out and gently encourage him over from the conservatory roof, then feed his well-upholstered flanks through the tunnel by hand. It was painstaking work, but I tried to believe that, if I did it enough times, Ralph would start to see it as normal. That said, the fact that the routine was still the same after three weeks was slightly worrying.

‘It’s a waiting game,’ said Dee. ‘You’ve got to prove you’re the tougher one of the two of you.’ How long, though, would I have to wait? For me, having held out and not let him in through a door for several weeks already felt a bit like I’d performed some gargantuan emotional fasting ritual. I tried sitting it out completely, lying in bed while Ralph sat outside the bedroom window, telling me that he was ‘Raaalph!’ An hour would go by, and there’d be breaks in the Raaalphing, but it would always start up again. Since Ralph apparently had no other pressing business awaiting him, there was clearly only going to be one winner here.

The moment I finally cracked was during a morning about four weeks after Vicky’s visit, when I’d gone out to the balcony to encourage Ralph over from the conservatory roof – the usual final part of our morning ritual, which began with me calling ‘Ralphy!’ down to him, and, upon seeing me, him changing his ‘Raaalph!’ to a slightly pathetic, high-pitched squeak in my direction.

‘He makes that noise because he thinks you’re his mum,’ Dee would tell me. ‘He’d probably like to suckle you as well, if he got the chance.’ Ralph had actually started using the new cat flap by this point, but only after I’d coaxed him over from the roof and quickly bolted indoors, often watched from indoors by Pablo who, with his tongue protruding, appeared to be giving the whole matter some serious thought.

Earlier that summer, Dee had draped some loose willow screening across the conservatory roof, in an attempt to help keep the morning sun out of the bedroom. This also provided a sound buffer, lessening the thump when the cats landed on the roof. Most of them used the paw plank to pass from the roof to the balcony but Ralph had always seemed suspicious of it, and preferred to leap the four-foot gap. Now, with one more encouraging ‘Ralphy!’ I watched as he launched himself from on top of the willow screening. I then continued to watch as the willow screening came loose beneath him, serving to flip him up almost vertically, with no forward propulsion, as if a table cloth had been inexpertly pulled from beneath him, and he toppled, legs splaying, to the ground below.

The fall was no more than nine or ten feet, and I could see that Ralph was unhurt, but, grabbing the nearest available footwear, without looking what it was, and forcing my feet into it, I raced downstairs and outside to find him. He had that ‘stolen mittens’ look again, and was sitting behind a phormium, licking his lips nervously. If I looked at the incident objectively, he had caused the hardship to himself, right from his first cold-blooded attacks on Pablo to the misjudged idiocy of his jump, but that would be overlooking the fact that I am fundamentally unable to view any incident involving my cats objectively. I hadn’t felt this guilty since the time I’d thrown an empty cardboard box in his direction in exasperation after he’d maimed a pregnant rat.

I knew now that my resolve would crumble, and, tomorrow morning – maybe even this afternoon – I’d open the door for him when he asked me to. That wasn’t such a terrible thing to do, was it? I’d spent most of my childhood in houses with two cats and no cat flap. Other people had alarm clocks; I didn’t need to waste money on one, as I had cats. And, besides, wasn’t the morning the best part of the day: for working, for taking in the air, for
being alive
? Those people who could sleep through the noise their cats made – they were the ones missing out.

I sat on the wall next to the patio, looked down towards the lake at the end of the garden, and listened to the sounds of a small British country town at 6.30 am: the flap of a crow’s wings, the odd quack, the distant rumble of a train on the Norwich to London line. Ralph, his dignity now regained, trotted over to me, rubbed his lip against my finger, and made that high-pitched meow again. Sure, you could call it ‘girly’, but he was a cat, and surely the feline playing field was one where traditional notions of girliness could be disregarded? As for this ‘mum’ business, I didn’t see any evidence of that here. We were just two blokes, taking in the air. Shortly, we would both go off to do our blokey things. Ralph would retire to plan his next battle strategy, eat some meat, like men do, and fall asleep in any sprawling way he wanted, not caring who judged him for it. I would clear up the beer cans that last night’s arguers had thrown over the fence, then go inside, take Dee’s glittery pumps off my feet, and set about the business of earning a living. But before that, we would just take a minute more, together, to enjoy the brief, unusual silence.

Animals I Have Considered
Stealing. Number One:
The People Sheep



The People Sheep




Banham Zoo, Norfolk, UK


When you think of the word ‘sheep’, what you don’t normally think of are phrases such as ‘born raconteur’, ‘erudite zest for life’ and ‘Alain de Botton’. But The People Sheep is like no other sheep before him – not even that weird one that Gene Wilder takes to bed with him in
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Too Afraid to Ask
. He lives at the zoo about six miles from my house, in an enclosure between a pen housing some uniquely spoilt pygmy goats and a pot-bellied pig that, from what I can work out from my research, has been asleep in exactly the same position since June 2003.

In contrast to these neighbours, with their world-owes-us-a-living demeanours, The People Sheep stares out at his visitors with eager, bright intelligence, his hooves up on the fence as they pass. But do they pay attention? Do they feel the electric rays of his good nature? No, of course they don’t. They are too busy looking forward to visiting some meerkats, about forty yards away.

I put to those visitors this question: What’s so great about meerkats? What do they really give the world, apart from the art of sitting on their hind legs, looking sour, as if having smelled a distant, foul odour that they pretend offends them, but they secretly quite like? If that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat, you don’t need to go all the way to a zoo – you can just stay in and watch reruns of Fiona Phillips presenting
. Does a meerkat radiate such professorial wit and charm that, when you leave him, you are convinced that he was wearing glasses, chewing on a pipe, and quoting from the early casuals of S.J. Perelman? No. I realise that one way of looking at it is ‘Who wants to see a sheep in a zoo?’ But I prefer to take a different standpoint: the standpoint of, ‘If a sheep has made it into a zoo, that sheep must be a unique specimen – a veritable hero among sheep.’


Great dinner parties. Effortlessly neat lawn. Winning, showboating comeback for those frequent ‘But sheep don’t actually really do anything, do they?’ debates.


I actually quite like mowing the lawn.

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
8.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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