Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond (5 page)

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
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The Man Who Cried Chaffinch
 

 

‘AH SAY, JO, HAVE YOU SEEN THIS? AH SAY, JO, HAVE YOU SEEN THIS? TOM, AH SAY, SWITCH THAT FOOKING BOLLOCKS OFF AND COME AND SEE THIS.’

It was 1994, and I was upstairs in my bedroom in my mum and dad’s country cottage listening to the first Smashing Pumpkins album, and wondering why I could never quite get my hair the way Jim Morrison’s looked in the poster on my wall. My mum was downstairs, making a mouse out of felt. My dad was standing by the kitchen window, and he was excited. My dad is almost always excited, so it would perhaps be most accurate to say he was even more excited than normal. A sure sign that he was more excited than normal was that he had used the expression ‘AH SAY’.

My dad had been using the expression ‘AH SAY’ for as long as I could remember. And, for very nearly as long as I could remember, my mum and I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to wean him off doing so. As in the case of a select group of other northern and almost-northern men born around the middle of the twentieth century, ‘AH SAY’, for my dad, was a more rough and ready, nagging version of the posher, better known phrase ‘I say!’ If he was using it, it meant he wanted your attention, and he wanted it that instant. You could attempt to ignore him, carry on making your ingenious felt rodent or playing with your hair in the hope it would finally stop sitting on your head like a straw mushroom, but you’d be wasting your time, since, in the end, you’d be required to succumb to a greater force.

On the scale of parent–adolescent irritation, hearing my dad shout ‘AH SAY!’ was right up there with him waking me up by playing avant-garde jazz albums at 6.30 in the morning, and I’m sure, right now, I would have reminded him of this fact, had I not looked out the window towards our lawn and seen a weasel ripping a rabbit’s throat out.

‘HAVE YOU SEEN IT?’ said my dad. ‘FOOKING INCREDIBLE.’

‘Oh god, that’s awful,’ my mum and I chimed.

‘SHHHHHHH,’ said my dad, who seemed unaware that, for the last five minutes, he was, with the exception of the Smashing Pumpkins, the only person in the house who’d been making any noise of note. ‘IF YOU’RE QUIET YOU CAN HEAR IT.’

Sure enough, through the glass, I could hear
something
. You might not have presumed it was the sound of an animal at first. Not that it was the noise of a machine, exactly, more that some deep, dark, rasping part of the rabbit had chosen to speak for itself, bypassing the mouth and vocal cords. As for what it was trying to say, it couldn’t be put into words: it was too primal, too visceral and remote.

‘Can’t we do something about it?’ said my mum. ‘It’s screaming for its life.’

‘I’m going to go outside and clap my hands, then maybe it will be able to escape,’ I said.

‘NO,’ said my dad. ‘YOU’VE GOT TO LET NATURE TAKE ITS COURSE. ANYWAY, LOOK: IT’S GOT HALF ITS THROAT HANGING OUT NOW.’

On further reflection, it was indeed clear that little could have been done for the rabbit. We watched as the weasel dragged it across the lawn and into the hedge, then turned back to our business, each of us – even my dad – shocked into silence. A few hours later, as dusk was falling, I crept out onto the dew-soaked lawn in my slippers and peered into the spot in the hedgerow where the weasel and its prey had disappeared, but saw nothing. I was still upset, but an ‘out of hedge, out of mind’ rule came into play. If there was no slaughtered rabbit in my garden, then I still lived in a world consisting not of slaughtered rabbits but of the faultless tousle of Jim Morrison’s hair circa 1967 and that perfect, electrifying moment on track two of the Smashing Pumpkins’
Gish
album when the thundering guitar shoots from the left speaker, to the right speaker, and then back again.

 

I’d been hearing the nocturnal noises coming through my open bedroom window from the field, or, terrifyingly, even closer, for a few months now: the guttural cries of unidentified creatures. Some tiny, or – going on this latest evidence – perhaps not so tiny, squeaky, furry thing meeting a horrifically elongated end. When humans were being murdered, they screamed, but that was understandable. To find that animals did too was far more bewildering. Did the vole skewered by the talons of the tawny owl think that if it raised its voice loud enough, a tiny vole army would appear at the top of the hill, blowing their tiny vole horns, form a vole pyramid and pull their brother from the owl’s clutches and safely back to earth? And who precisely did the rabbit think was coming to its rescue? Come to think of it, I preferred not to dwell on that one.

My parents and I had moved into our rented cottage, a couple of miles from the northeast Midlands village of Ockwold, three months earlier, relocating from a housing estate in the Nottingham suburbs. To me, the place was a giant, uncool inconvenience: something that put me that bit further away from any dingy, sticky venue playing the dingy, sticky indie rock that had become my fleeting obsession. To my mum, it was a tranquil contrast to her job in an urban primary school: somewhere where she could listen to the uninterrupted dawn chorus and make magical items out of fabric. To my dad, it was the realisation of a lifelong dream. We’d lived in the countryside before, but this was the real deal – a truly isolated spot, ringed for miles by deep woodland.

Besides the two cottages next door and the farms a couple of hundred yards on either side of us, you would have had to walk a mile in order even to see another building. Living in a temporary, all-consuming fog of discordant guitar, blinding me to the beauty of anything else, I planned to leave the place as soon as humanly possible; a plan I felt the need to put into practice even more quickly when, only two days after we moved in, the local gamekeeper brought us a special housewarming present.

‘Is that a . . . hare?’ I asked my dad as he closed the door on his new friend.

‘YEAH. IT’S BLOODY AMAZING, ISN’T IT?’

‘It’s bloody terrible, that’s what it is. How can he do that?’

My dad held the hare – not gingerly, yet not quite confidently either. For all his wide-eyed excitement, he probably didn’t know quite what was next. Was he supposed to skin it? Take it straight to a cooking pot? Hang it up on the front door to ward off evil? He’d been brought culinary offerings by neighbours in the past, of course, but the homemade Bombay mix given to us by the Indian couple next door to our last house didn’t quite throw up the same set of dilemmas.

The two of us stood frozen in the hare’s eyes in much the same way the animal itself might once have frozen in the headlights of one of the cars that rocketed antisocially along the adjacent lane. Then the unthinkable happened: as we stared, one of them began to move, revealing a bluebottle, which, having wriggled out of the corner of the socket, crawled along the sleeve of my dad’s cardigan.

Later that night, I relayed this information to my girlfriend, Jenny, and we agreed that we had reached the last straw: what with this, and what Morrissey had said on The Smiths’
Meat Is Murder
LP, how could we any longer go on living with ourselves, without being vegetarians?

I’d been spellbound by the folksy magic of hares – rock star rabbits, unshackled by the ‘straight’ mammal world – right from when I’d pawed repeatedly through the pages of Kit Williams’
Masquerade
as a seven-year-old. At anything but this most pretentious stage of my life, my sadness at seeing one dead would undoubtedly have been offset by my fascination at seeing one close up at all. At eighteen, the idea of having a wild animal killed by a human and brought into the place where I lived did not just offend my belief that all creatures should be treated with kindness, it offended my belief that all life worth living happened in the city, and involved people between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five.

My dad looked at the hare from an entirely different standpoint: I’m sure he didn’t endorse the idea of killing it, but I’m equally sure that his excitement of being confronted with such raw, pulsating rural life drowned out his misgivings.

My dad had always been liable to frenzied outbursts on seeing animals. ‘FOOKTIVANO! LOOK AT THAT! SODDING SPECTACULAR!’ he would often shout, on a drive in Derbyshire, braking sharply upon seeing a giant bull in a nearby field, as, mindful of previous mishaps, my mum would make a dive for the steering wheel. In our new home, however, every day seemed to bring a new animal-themed exclamation.

‘GOOLIES! OH MY FOOKIN’ GOD!’ I would hear him shout. From the patriarch of any other family, this might have meant that a digit had been severed or a close relative had been found collapsed on the kitchen floor in a pool of their own making, but my mum and I knew it probably just meant that the bloodhounds from the local hunt were coming over the hill across the lane or the gamekeeper had brought him some more pheasants.

At this point, my dad was still working as a supply teacher – a job he’d been doing on and off for over a decade. On the days when a school didn’t call upon his services, he could mostly be found in his study, painting a bull he’d photographed on his travels or one of the horses in the field at the rear of the house, or my cat, Monty. Every so often, if I happened to be in the house, working on an essay or my self-published music magazine, he would shout to ask me if I could make him some coffee. I would go downstairs and do so, then place the mug by his side, where it would be left to go cold, just like the eight previous mugs surrounding it. ‘LOOK AT THAT,’ he might then say, pointing out the window.

‘What?’ I would reply, peering into the sky, and spotting nothing of interest.

‘BLOODY SPARROWHAWK, YOU TWAZZOCK, ISN’T IT?’

I’m sure that, for many strangers, coming into our house and hearing my dad swear at me might have seemed odd, but I knew that the vast majority of his profanities were not attacks upon my character. For the two of us, phrases such as ‘twazzock’, ‘fookpig’ and ‘shit basket’ served in much the same way as ‘pal’, ‘mate’ and ‘son’ served in other father–son relationships. He’d always cursed a lot, and the moment a few years earlier when he’d finally started directing his cursing at me had made me feel grown-up and proud: a bit like an atheist’s version of a bar mitzvah.

‘Oh, right,’ I said.

‘WHAT DO YOU MEAN, “OH RIGHT”?’

‘Well, the way I see it, it’s just a bird, and there are lots of birds around here. You get used to them after a while, and they all kind of look the same.’

‘“ALL LOOK THE SAME!?” ALL LOOK THE SAME!? DO YOU HAVE ANY SODDING IDEA WHAT YOU’RE SAYING? YOU DON’T KNOW YOU’RE BORN. FOOKING UNBELIEVABLE, YOU TOSSPOT. I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU.
JO-O-O! COME UPSTAIRS AND LISTEN TO WHAT TOM’S JUST SAID! YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT!

In theory, our new home was the quietest place we had ever lived, but, with my dad around, in his hyped-up state, it soon became the noisiest. Who knows? I suppose he could have thrown himself into rural life more rambunctiously: he didn’t learn to ride a horse or take up the open invitation from our middle-aged loner of a next-door neighbour, Frank, to ‘come fox shooting’. But he made a pretty good job of insinuating himself into local life and, before long, local animals, perhaps sensing a fellow force of nature, began to gravitate towards him.

Of the two farms nearby, just one actually functioned as a farm. This was owned by a grumpy man called Warren, whose grimy agricultural face, it was claimed by some in the area, would fall off if he ever cracked a smile. The other farm served as a babysitting business for racehorses – or, as my mum described it, a ‘horse cattery’ – run by our third closest neighbours, the Pattens. That summer, when one of these horses escaped onto the narrow lane, my dad was first on the scene, blocking its path in one direction with his Ford Mondeo estate, stopping another passing driver and inveigling him to do the same, then racing down to the farmhouse to tell the Pattens that one of their charges had escaped, though not before poking his head in through our front door to shout, ‘TOM, COME AND HAVE A SODDING LOOK AT THIS. NOW! COME NOW!’

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
7.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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