As memories are separated from the actual events by an ever growing gap of time, some of them remain strong and clear, whilst others seem to disintegrate, little by little, until they threaten to disappear altogether. This is one such memory, fairly intact, but missing several important elements – I can only share what remains of it and in doing so hope I continue to retain that much at least.
Many people recall their first pet, exactly when they were given it and the name they gave it. I have even seen ‘the name of your first pet’ used as a suggestion for a security question for various online accounts. Well that question is no good to me as I don’t remember it! No one else who was there can help me either, as they are all gone now, except my sister, Suzy, and she is too young to have ever known the cat’s name.
I do remember that it was a beautiful tortoiseshell cat, but then we have had a couple of good photos of me with the cat to help prop that memory up! I can’t tell you when she came to live with us or whether she was a kitten or full grown. All those details have faded too, but I do remember that she was always around from as early as I can recall.
Playing games with her was a daily activity. We made balls of wool tied on to a thin single strand and dragged them around the flat with her chasing and pouncing, perfecting her hunting skills. We also played games with all kinds of plastic and rubber balls and we even had a small grey wind up mouse, with a flicking tail, that we used to place on the lino of the kitchen floor for her to chase around. These games were as much fun for me as they seemed to be for the cat. I love the way a cat moves when they are stalking, pouncing and even moving sideways as they seem to play with their ‘prey’, whether it is a ball, a hand or a light from a torch!
Feeding the cat was one of my first responsibilities around the home – putting down a old saucer with tinned cat food or small dried food pieces shaken from a foul smelling card box. I also remember that she liked a little milk in a saucer and water too. She was very inquisitive and adventurous, always prowling the flat and the garden, checking out her domain. Sometimes her adventures were a bit too much for her and she got into a tricky situation. One evening she didn’t appear at the usual time for an early evening meal. I was sent outside to look for her in the garden or the street, just before dusk. Other children in the street told me that she was stuck up a tree, calling out for help. I rushed back in to tell Dad and together we went to look for her. A short walk down the road there she was, high up in the branches of what seemed to me to be a very large tree. She was plaintively calling as if saying “Help! Help! Get me down from here!”
After the first attempt to coax her down, my Dad started to climb the tree only for her to climb higher as if she was trying to get away from the help that was arriving. This made no sense at all to me, but I am sure now that it was simply her anxiety about being rescued causing her to panic. Dad asked the growing crowd at the base of the tree, which now included a few other parents too – did anyone have a ladder? “Yes” said one man, and he went home to fetch it. The man soon returned and propping the ladder firmly against the tree my Dad made another attempt to climb and recover the cat. Within a few minutes, my Dad was high in the branches of the tree – worryingly high as far as I was concerned. The cat was even higher, still occasionally calling for help, with only a couple of very thin branches remaining to walk around on. Several neighbours were suggesting that the Fire Brigade be called, but my Dad was determined to manage on his own, with stubborn independence!
Frustrated and feeling he needed additional pieces of equipment, my Dad sent me home for the string shopping bag and a length of rope. Now not all of you will remember string shopping bags, but in the 1960s they were very common. Supermarkets had only just been invented and were not commonplace, and thin plastic carrier bags were unknown. Local shops only provided expensive paper bags or expected shoppers to bring their own bag, and a string bag was often used for fruit and vegetables.
The photo is of a modern string bag on ebay.com(not the UK site), but it has the same leather handles and overall design as our original – with more and more people seeking alternatives to the free plastic carrier bags in supermarkets the string bag is making a comeback!
When I retuned to the tree with the string bag, my Dad quickly managed to use the rope to climb even higher and secure himself well enough to make a lunge and get a firm hold on the cat. He placed it safely in the string bag, which he hooked over one shoulder before carefully climbing back down. Once back on the ground I was handed the bag and carefully carried the cat home as Dad thanked the neighbours for their help and we finally had late meal. The cat stayed indoors till the next day, sleeping soundly after her adventure in the tall tree!
After an adventure of an altogether different kind, Mum noticed that the cat was putting on a lot of weight around the belly and a few weeks later seven kittens were born in the early hours of one morning. Our cat was a fairly good attentive mother, but one kitten didn’t survive the first day – Dad buried it in the back garden. The rest we had a lot of fun naming, according to their characteristics.
The one with the weepy eyes and the fluffy grey tabby colouring we called Smoky Joe. There was a ginger tabby, always bright, energetic and adventurous that I think we called Tiger (Winnie The Pooh wasn’t a book I knew then or it would have been Tigger!) I don’t recall the names of all the others, all different colours, but I remember the chubby black and white one was definitely food focused. He would barge his way to the saucer of milk, occasionally flipping the saucer and spilling the milk all over him. When he didn’t flip the saucer, he still wasn’t content to just lap milk from the edge, he would wade into the middle of the saucer and stand there in the milk as if he was saying “This is all mine!” We called him Fatso – political correctness was another thing that we didn’t have back in the 1960s!
After a few weeks Mum and Dad said that they all had to find new homes and we took them to a pet shop. Smokey Joe stayed for an extra week or so, due to his small size and weakness, and he was much improved before he went to a new home. After that excitement life returned to normal, until the events I recounted in A Tale of Two Sisters turned our lives upside down and back again. A few months after my sister Suzy was born my Dad came to a fairly sudden decision that he couldn’t stay in the flat with all the memories of my first sister Mleen and so we prepared to move out of London!
That proved to be a mixture of adventure and disaster, that only lasted for about six months, before we returned to London for most of 1969 – there are sufficient stories of that time for at least two or three posts in the future. The one big loss of the move though was the cat! A day or so before we were due to move she disappeared completely. My Mum said it was either all the packing disturbed her or she was off on another adventure that would lead to another litter of kittens! Well our Mum kept in touch with a neighbour by letter for several months after we moved. The cat reappeared just a few days later and the neighbour took her in. A number of weeks later she had another six kittens!
It was a year or so before we took on another cat, well just a kitten, a fluffy tabby. He was mainly given a home to try to deal with the serious mouse problem in the shared housing where we lived. All I remember of him was that he was a bit wild, biting and scratching, seemingly at random, far from friendly or fun. After just a few weeks he had an accident crossing the very busy main road and it was a couple of years before we took on another cat. By the time we did we were established in the more suburban area near St Albans.
Whiskers was another tabby, the kitten of a feral cat that lived behind where our Dad worked. She was a more typical friendly tabby, a good family pet, tolerant of being picked up by young children and capable of dealing with the odd mouse too. She was with us for a couple of years and moved with us to a more remote village in Hertfordshire when Mum and Dad took up a care-taking role for a fair sized country house. The photo was taken in the beautiful grounds of that house – you do have to look carefully though to see the tabby cat, just in front of me on the left, as it is fairly well camouflaged among the stalks of the daffodils. As far as I know it is the only photo we have of her.
After a few months living in the wildness of the deeper countryside she disappeared for many weeks. When she finally reappeared she looked like she must have survived an attack by a wild animal, as she had what appeared to be several bite wounds and was in a very poor state. I found her in the courtyard of the big house, near the stables and garages and immediately fetched her some water, that she very gingerly accepted.
Worried about how ill she looked I went back to ask Mum for advice and when I came back outside a couple of minutes later she was gone – never to be seen again! We often wondered what had attacked her, there were many suspects – a fox being fairly likely as there were many in the woods around us. We also had stoats and weasels, which she may have been tempted to take on herself – which wouldn’t have been a good move. A domestic cat is no match for such fast and ferocious wild animals, their pretty presentation in story books for children are not really accurate.
A year or so later, after a move to a more typical village house, we took in one last kitten, a little black and white bundle of fun. Unfortunately, it escaped from the garden when it hadn’t developed a healthy fear of the busy road right outside. After that I think we felt that we couldn’t face any more tragedy with cats and our next pet was a dog! She was great fun, and was around for over 14 years, an adopted family member – more about her and dogs in general some time in the future.
Cats are still very appealing to me, I often stop in the street and talk to them, stroke them and love to hear them purr and ‘speak’. I seem to have inherited that from my Dad, he rarely passed a cat in the street without greeting it. As you will have noticed my gravatar is an cat character, loosely based on the legendary character Growl Tiger from the musical Cats, which in turn is based on the works of T S Elliott. One of my favourite eccentric characters in a film is the old man discovered near the end of Logan’s Run, he is played by Peter Ustinov. He introduces the futuristic humans to a creature they have never seen before – cats, quoting T S Elliot as he speaks. See the previous post for that clip and one of my favourite musical songs, Memory, sung by the incomparable Elaine Paige, from Cats.