Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond (6 page)

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
9.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

My dad’s good deed led to an arrangement enabling him to take a wheelbarrow up to the Pattens’ place whenever he needed manure. He seemed unfathomably enthusiastic about this, with the exception of the day when the Pattens had been out and he returned to the house looking somewhat outraged, having had his shovelling session interrupted by two irate Irishmen wielding an out-of-control stallion.

‘ORDERING ME AROUND THEY WERE,’ my dad said, returning to the house in his slip-on shoes, oversized polo shirt and baggy cords, stained with manure and last night’s mayonnaise. ‘COUPLE OF FOOKPIGS! KEPT TELLING ME TO OPEN UP THE GATES AND ASKING ME WHERE TO PUT THE BLOOMIN’ GREAT THING. I WAS BUGGERED IF I WOULD BE GOING NEAR IT. I COULD SEE IT WANTED TO GO FOR ME. IT WOULD HAVE KICKED MY FACE OFF. DO I LOOK LIKE A SODDING STABLE BOY?’

Another day, not long after that, he returned from answering the door to tell my mum and me that he’d just been asked to shoot a deer.

‘What, just for fun?’ I asked. Having lived in this environment for a year now, such a leisure pursuit would hardly have surprised me.

‘NO, YOU STUPID STREAK OF PISS, HE’D RUN IT OVER AND WANTED ME TO PUT IT OUT OF ITS MISERY. IT’S IN THE BACK SEAT OF HIS CAR. I TOLD HIM TO GO AND SEE WARREN AT THE FARM.’

Twenty minutes later, the three of us were jolted up from the night’s curry by a loud bang.

‘FOOKTIVANO,’ said my dad. ‘I SUPPOSE THAT MEANS THAT WARREN JUST SHOT IT. EITHER THAT OR HE JUST GOT REALLY PISSED OFF THAT THE BLOKE HAD DISTURBED HIS TEA AND DECIDED TO TAKE REVENGE.’

 

At the bottom of the garden, my mum and dad had transformed one of our sheds into a run for eight Pekin bantam chickens: Egbert, Punk, Panic, Pandemonium, Henrietta, Egatha, Snowshoes and Moonboots. I briefly got involved in their upkeep, teaching them to jump on my knee and take scraps from my hand. When Henrietta arrived in the kitchen in a large amount of discomfort having half-laid an egg, my mum and I were on hand to perform a DIY rescue operation involving a bowl of warm water and some rubber gloves. This proved successful, although, following careful consideration, I chose not to boast about it to my friends at Nottingham Rock City’s weekly Alternative Night the following evening.

But, by and large, when an animal-related incident happened to the Cox family, my dad was the one it happened to. On one hand, there was a very obvious reason for this: my dad lived in a constant state of high alert, and was always the first to answer our phone or door. But I also sometimes got the sense that animals saw my dad as separate from other, less instinctual humans; a rival, almost. When my mum was cooking meat, it was not uncommon to see Monty and him congregating around her. Certainly, their methods were different – Monty was a clever cat but had not worked out to communicate his hunger to my mum by saying, ‘AH SAY, JO, WHEN WILL IT BE READY, AH SAY?’ so instead settled for a gaze deep into her eyes and a gentle claw in the calf muscle – but the intention was the same. Egbert, our rooster, remained largely indifferent to me, yet, when my dad appeared in the garden, would hurl himself at his legs the second his back was turned.

‘HE’S AFTER ME AGAIN, JO,’ my dad would complain to my mum. ‘FOOKIN’ FOOKPIG. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? WHY DOES HE NEVER GO FOR TOM?’

‘He must think your dad’s after his birds,’ my mum confided to me. ‘Or perhaps he just doesn’t like all the noise. He’s a very quiet rooster, really.’

I was definitely not complaining about being exempt from the action. If I could get through the day without witnessing the death or maiming of an animal, that would mean I would also get through the day without having to make conversation with one of the neighbours. On the evenings when my parents were out, I’d live in constant dread that a knock at the door would reveal another wounded deer. Jenny and I saw ourselves as animal lovers, but ours was a tame animal kingdom, consisting of cats and dogs and gerbils, and, alone in the house, listening to our Smiths LPs, that was the way we intended to keep it. So when Jenny went downstairs to get a choc ice, and I heard her yelp, I feared the worst.

‘What is it? Are you okay?’ I shouted.

‘There’s a . . . something in the freezer. It was horrible. I literally don’t have
any idea
what it is.’

I’d known friends to have extreme reactions to my mum’s more exotic cooking before – one golfing pal who’d come over for dinner had been rather perturbed to see his first aubergine – but Jenny was a fairly worldly girl, and I couldn’t believe that she’d be that taken aback by a frozen moussaka.

‘It’s a . . . thing,’ she said, pointing me towards the freezer. ‘I don’t think it should be in there. I don’t think it’s hygienic.’

What was perhaps strangest of all is that when I followed her into the pantry, and found myself staring at a sealed plastic bag containing the long-eared bat that Monty had slaughtered and abandoned on the kitchen floor the previous week, it didn’t even come as that much of a shock. Even a moment later, when I discovered a grasshopper warbler behind a bag of value price sweetcorn, I amazed myself with my aura of serenity. I did, however, make a quick mental note: when entertaining friends in future, I’d make sure that I was the one to fetch the snacks.

‘I’M THINKING OF HAVING THEM STUFFED,’ my dad explained, upon arriving home, later that night. ‘THEY’RE BLOODY RARE. I FEEL BAD THAT MONTY KILLED THEM. I FEEL LIKE DOING SOMETHING TO MAKE UP FOR IT. YOU CAN’T JUST SHOVE STUFF LIKE THAT IN THE BIN OR IN A HEDGE, CAN YOU?’

 

There is a certain type of man to be found in provincial Britain who will keep a dead badger in his freezer with no real concern for what society might think of him. Elsewhere in his house, you will find sinks lined with a thick film of old hair and window ledges dotted with an inexplicable quantity of empty milk cartons. I hasten to point out that my dad is not this man. On the other hand, by his mid-forties, he’d had enough experience with taxidermy for stuffed animals to be slightly normalised for him.

Around a decade earlier, between supply teaching jobs, he had accepted a nebulous part-time position as Artist in Residence at an educational resource centre just outside Nottingham. Farnley House was a large Georgian building set high on a hill in deep forestry commission land. Inside, it resembled the lair of some Victorian eccentric shut-in philanthropist, and played host to a selection of equally eccentric refugees from the school staffrooms of the East Midlands. These included Rod, a Samurai sword-obsessed former English teacher who was continually having motorbike accidents, a roll-up-smoking taxidermist called Ben, and an eagle-beaked man with flowing blond locks and leather trousers known sometimes as Mike but mostly just as ‘Zeppelin’ who had a terrifying habit of pinching people’s legs just above their knees when they weren’t expecting it.

As the only child of two teachers, I was accustomed to finding ways to amuse myself in big, semi-deserted 200-year-old buildings. Having quickly exhausted the infotainment potential of Mr Chester’s Big Trak and Miss Davies’ budgerigars at Claremont, the primary school where I studied and my mum taught English as a Second Language, I’d learned to use my imagination to get myself through the hour between the school bell and my mum’s home-time. But, wandering the corridors at Farnley, there was always something new to be discovered – a hitherto unknown chamber containing a selection of dusty marsupials or the cob-webbed paraphernalia of a 1930s shop window. Kept in walnut boxes, these items were borrowed only once in a blue moon.

As I wandered the corridors of Farnley, I usually avoided Ben The Taxidermist’s room, though I would occasionally peek through the open doorway. The smell of viscera and formaldehyde was overpowering, and I was scared of Ben’s eagle owl, Fred, who would sit on Ben’s shoulder as he worked, gazing down sternly yet approvingly as Ben hollowed out the thorax of a stoat or squirrel. When I’d first been introduced to him, Ben had placed Fred briefly on my shoulder, but I’d sensed Fred wasn’t strictly up for it, and my dad had actually had to hold my shoulder in place, what with Fred being the size of my entire nine-year-old torso.

Fred went everywhere with Ben, including, occasionally, to some of my dad’s supply teaching jobs, where Ben would occasionally give talks to children about his work with animals. After half a decade, my dad had learned that supply teaching was a bite-or-be-bitten world, and the stuffed beasts he brought to his classes from Farnley proved an invaluable distraction: by being Stuffed Animal Guy, he could avoid being Persecuted Supply Teacher Guy. Most of my dad’s regular schools got used to seeing an inanimate fox or baby capybara in the corner of their staffroom, though the Deputy Headmistress of one was perturbed to notice the large, dead owl on the table next to her, only for Fred to very slowly swivel his head in her direction and offer her a single, ominous blink.

My dad once reported that Ben’s mum had cleaned out the freezer and found his childhood guinea pig, Tootles – who had, it should be added, died of natural causes – and Ben, who’d forgotten all about him, had cried for a whole afternoon.

‘When Fred dies, will Ben stuff him?’ I asked my dad.

‘PROBABLY. IT WILL BE KIND OF A TRIBUTE.’

‘But he won’t stuff him before he’s dead, will he?’

‘NO. OF COURSE NOT.’

‘But if he likes animals so much, why does he like it when they’re dead?’

‘I’M NOT SURE. ASK YOUR MUM. NOW, I’VE GOT TO FINISH PAINTING THIS GOAT, SO CAN WE TALK ABOUT IT LATER?’

Despite what my dad had assured me, it did turn out that Ben’s interest in taxidermy wasn’t
strictly
limited to dead creatures. I found this out one day upon coming home from school and discovering my dad crouched in front of the living room coffee table, upon which sat a hard white blob about the size of a builder’s fist.

‘AH SAY, TOM, COME ’ERE AND SEE THIS,’ said my dad.

‘What is it?’ I said.

‘SSSSHHHHH!’ said my dad. ‘YOU’VE GOT TO BE REALLY QUIET OR YOU’LL WAKE HIM.’

I could now see that the white blob had legs and eyeholes. ‘Is that a toad?’ I asked.

‘YES. HE’S GOT HIS PROTECTIVE WINTER COATING ON. PICK HIM UP IF YOU LIKE, BUT BE VERY CAREFUL BECAUSE IF HE GETS DISTURBED HE WILL GET ANGRY AND BREAK OUT OF IT. LIKE THE INCREDIBLE HULK DOES. THEN HE WILL PROBABLY BITE YOU.’

After I had picked up the white blob and ascertained that it contained only air, not amphibian, the full story emerged. That morning, a bored Ben had ventured out into the woods behind Farnley House and chloroformed a toad and taken it back to his workroom. He’d then covered it in dental putty, being careful to leave a breathing hole, and allowed the putty to set for the next few hours. At the end of the day, he’d been back to the woods, cut the dried putty, and released the toad, who’d staggered off into the woods like the drugged hostage of unexpectedly kindly terrorists. The casing had then been resealed and loaned to my dad for the evening.

If Malcolm, the frequently sozzled, sexagenarian art collector whose job it was to oversee Farnley, was aware of his workforce’s antics, he did not show it. Nobody ever got to the bottom of who it was that ham-fistedly altered the sign at the bottom of the drive which said ‘Farnley House: Educational Resource Centre’ to make it say ‘Ed’s Occasional Racehorse Centre’ but it was a full month before anybody was concerned enough to change it back.

In the foyer of Farnley hung a giant painting of a nude youth by the artist Albert Wainwright. For ten days in a row, my dad painstakingly painted and cut out a different theme of underwear, including thongs, Speedos and some masterfully designed Hawaiian boxer shorts, and stuck it over the youth’s crotch area. When Malcolm arrived in the morning, my dad and Zeppelin would hide out on the balcony above and watch his reaction, which normally involved staring quizzically at the picture for around thirty seconds, as if trying to work out exactly what was different about it, then moving on. Neither did Malcolm ever seem quite aware of the litter of baby hedgehogs brought in by Ben, which often made short work of the cheese sandwich leftovers in Farnley’s staffroom.

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
9.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

More Than This by Patrick Ness
Little Girl Lost by Tristan J. Tarwater
A Kiss In The Dark by Kimberly Logan
Silent Thunder by Loren D. Estleman
1001 Cranes by Naomi Hirahara