Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond (7 page)

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
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Eventually, my dad’s role was expanded at Farnley to include overseeing many of the educational items that were sent out to schools. Every so often, he’d receive a call asking for an authentic eighteenth-century musket or a duck-billed platypus, but on the whole the pace remained sluggish.

By this point, our house had become a temporary home for many of the animals that my dad did not feel were getting the respect they deserved at Farnley. Strangely, it has taken me over two decades to realise there’s anything remotely odd about having a polar bear guarding your entrance hall, and with this realisation comes the inevitable cavalcade of other questions. How exactly did my dad fit it into the boot of a Morris Marina? When Paul Abbott’s mum phoned up my mum to say he couldn’t stay over at my house any more, was it really just because Paul was ‘having trouble sleeping without the light on in a foreign house’ or was there more to it than that? When Paul closed his eyes, was he experiencing a generic fear of the dark, or was he specifically thinking about the giant claws and enormous, toothy muzzle just a few feet below him?

The polar bear was actually a little too demented-looking, a bit wonky around the chops, to genuinely strike fear into the heart of most visitors. More black-fanged and impressive was the baby alligator that slept at the end of my bed throughout the summer of 1985, and briefly made me the most popular boy in my school year. After Darren Kestembaum stayed over and I placed it on his chest facing him while he was asleep, a rumour developed in Mr Highland’s class that I actually owned a real alligator. While I never went so far as to confirm this, neither did I quite discourage it.

Sadly, by the time most of the class began to invite themselves over, the alligator had gone to stay with Zeppelin, and, subsequently, his grandma, who was reportedly using it as a draught excluder. However, I think my new friends found some consolation for its absence in my dad interrupting our rice pudding to bring in a stuffed ocelot and announce, ‘THIS IS TIBBLES: I GOT HIM FROM THE RSPCA RECENTLY. HE’S GOT A BIT OF A BAD TEMPER BUT HE’S OKAY ONCE YOU GET TO KNOW HIM.’

When Farnley closed, the collection moved to smaller premises, and many of its animals came up for grabs. In the end, after careful consideration, the polar bear chose to cohabit with Farnley’s janitor, a bachelor called Eric who lived in a one-bedroom flat near Nottingham city centre and, it must be assumed, was not subject to a large amount of lady callers. The ocelot went to Zeppelin, who had already taken to keeping it on the back shelf of his Mark 1 Ford Capri, often accompanied by a marmot, putting him a level up from fellow East Midlands playboys who settled for fluffy dice and a pine-scented air freshener.

The tawny owl, fox and African mole rat my dad brought home all put in their time as domestic sentries, educational devices and practical-joke props over the next few years, but history does not record where their afterlife journeys came to an end, or if they still continue, elsewhere, against the odds. Had I not turned into an adolescent, and temporarily lost my fascination with the natural world, I probably would have paid more attention.

‘Oh, that old thing?’ my mum will say now, as I ask her about the mole rat. ‘I don’t know. One of its legs fell off in the end, though. I remember that much. I think I took it to the antiques fair with me one time and my friend Sandra bought it off me. Or no, maybe that was the fox.’

In the end, the sole Farnley refugee to survive my teenage years was not a wild animal at all, but a West Highland terrier. I’d named it Rags, after the electronic dog in the Woody Allen film
, which, as an eleven-year-old, I’d adored. Our Rags had none of the perky, waggy-tailed charm of its namesake, and his off-white fur was less than strokable, but every summer he would sit in our front window, sometimes for up to four weeks, obediently guarding our home while we were on our annual holiday. To my know ledge, nobody called the RSPCA on us, though we did return from Italy in 1988 to find our neighbours, Dennis and Roma, standing at our front gate looking pale and worried. Having already had to report the death of my goldfish that summer, which had long ago gone to live in their pond, my heart bleeds to think of the emotional steeling they must have done before giving us the tragic news that our pet dog had ‘not moved’ for an entire fortnight.


Rags survived several house moves in the late 80s and early 90s, and made it to the cottage near Ockwold. It was in our third summer here that, undaunted by age and the physical effects of frequently getting the crud beaten out of him by Monty, he embarked on his most heroic and selfless adventure yet.

There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the narrow lane outside the cottage, but what there was would not be out of place in a wacky, computer-based racing game: a mixture of horses, stock cars heading to the racetrack two miles away, tractors, combine harvesters, stolen Ford Escorts and police cars. Not all of these sights raised a smile, but one that did was the weekly trundle of a mobility scooter, driven by an obese disabled lady, upon whose roof travelled a proud-looking Jack Russell.

I have no idea where the lady in the mobility scooter lived, nor where she travelled to every Tuesday, but she seemed very determined about it. She always rode along in the centre of the lane, her bespectacled face a mask of belligerence, and she and her Jack Russell appeared unfazed on the occasions when a farm vehicle or local boy-racer was being held up behind her. Sometimes, up to four vehicles could be seen queuing up in her slipstream. My bedroom and my dad’s workroom faced the lane, and we would often stop work to watch these processions, although on the occasion she had her accident we were on the other side of the house in the garden.

‘FOOKTIVANO! WAS THAT YOU?’ my dad asked me, switching off his hedge clippers.

‘Was what me?’ I said.


‘I haven’t done that for years.’



‘Yeah. But it wasn’t me. Did you see my lips move?’

My dad and I hurried down the garden, in the direction of the cawing sound, through the gate and into the downhill track leading to the Pattens’ farmhouse.

Simultaneously, we spotted the wheel sticking up out of the ditch, twenty yards down the track. The scooter was wedged fast, and its occupant was wedged even faster inside the scooter, still making the cawing sound. Perhaps, initially, the noise had been more like ‘Heeelp!’ but, as she’d spent longer there, and hope of human assistance had dimmed, it had degenerated into something more desperate, a last-ditch appeal from a ditch to any benevolent crows who happened to be passing.

Getting the scooter back upright, with its driver – whom it now emerged was called Beryl – still inside it, meant my dad and I getting into the ditch and heaving, red-faced, with all our strength. A grunt or two could have helped, but both of us remained near silent as we pushed, aware of how such a noise might, in the circumstances, seem tactless, given Beryl’s physique. I was enormously relieved to see the scooter back upright – not just because Beryl was unhurt, but because we’d managed our rescue operation without me having to resort to my dad’s original suggestion of getting help from Frank, the fox-hater next door, who disturbed me, and probably would have brought his gun, just on the off chance that there was something with a snout involved that needed putting out of its misery.

‘Ceaaaaaakkkwwww! I don’t know what happened,’ said Beryl. ‘I was pootling along, and I just lost control, and it ran away from me down the hill.’

As we ascertained that the scooter was still working, my dad asked her if she needed any help getting home.

‘No, no, I’ll be fine, ceaaaaaakkkwwww!’ said Beryl, whose return to vertical life strangely did not seem to have diminished her enthusiasm for making crow-like Monty Python woman noises.


‘Oh yes, my Billy. He’s up there now.’ Beryl pointed to the top of the mobility vehicle.

My dad and I exchanged a nervous glance, and scanned the roof, which was incontrovertibly dog-free.

‘OOH, ER . . . RIGHT. ARE YOU SURE?’ my dad asked Beryl.

I felt my heart sink somewhere south of my shins. We had been far too smug and hasty. How could we not have remembered the Jack Russell during our rescue operation? Had he been flipped over the hedge into the field? Was his inert form still lying in the ditch, half crushed? Perhaps I would need to get Frank and his gun after all.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Beryl. ‘Up there, in heaven. He’ll be happy now. I had him put to sleep last week, poor little chap.’

Naturally, neither of us wanted to be seen as treating the death of Billy as good news, but I’m sure our relief must have been palpable, as it drained into our faces.

To further throw us off balance, Beryl added: ‘You’ve still got your little fella, though, haven’t you? I’ve seen him in your window. Lovely little frizzy white thing. Such a good boy, always on the lookout for you. Not like Billy. He never could sit still.’

My dad is no Jedi Master at thinking before he speaks, but in this instance he paused sensibly. I could see him asking himself the question: would it be helpful in any way to confront this woman, who recently lost what was quite possibly her only friend, who had barely finished wiping her tears away after the most traumatic of mornings, with more death and suffering?



For the next six months, Beryl continued to drive down the lane and, as she did, Rags was always sure to offer her his stoical greeting. Sometimes, for authenticity’s sake, my dad or I would move him to a different window or add a cushion as a prop. One day Beryl drove by and I picked Rags up and made him wave to her. She didn’t seem to suspect anything, but I sensed I was living a little close to the edge, thus refrained from a repeat performance. Rags’ leg joint felt slightly brittle, and, as much as I liked playing practical jokes in my early twenties, I had no particular desire to put the fear of God into old ladies by waggling disembodied canine limbs at them.

By this point, one too many beatings from Monty’s infamous back paws had taken their toll on Rags’ coat, and his gums were beginning to come apart, revealing a congealed, sawdust-like substance. I considered taking him to be reupholstered, but, ultimately, what kind of person would that have made me? It was one thing being someone who owned a stuffed dog, but it was another thing entirely being someone who knew where to get that stuffed dog fixed up.

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
2.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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