I was thirty in 1986. End of November. Some of you will remember it, some think of it as ancient history. Turning thirty is a watershed for some but I’ve always been a bit ‘meah’ about these so called important anniversaries. We did decide to have a bit of a party for my thirtieth; my best friend (recently he had been my best man too – let’s call him the Bahraini Expat) turned thirty, six days before me; we’d shared our twenty firsts so sharing our thirtieths seemed appropriate.
I’d bought a house with the Textiliste the year before. Something of a wreck so it was a grand venue for a knees up.
Fancy dress. We came as gorillas. I forget why. I was still drinking back then – teetotaldom didn’t come for another four years. The morning after was grim for a number of reasons:
The inevitable hangover
The lack of sleep
The need to clear up
The need to drive the Textiliste to Heathrow as she was to catch a flight to Chicago – a few weeks before she joined Arthur Andersen – now defunct and, from my experience at one remove, not at all missed – and had to go on one their mandatory training course at St Charles (something like that anyway) where they were taught by rote to be Arthur Clones from the FGBs (F*****g Green Books) a series of puerile and facile training manuals that even included stick drawing of how to sit up straight when meeting a client.
The Textiliste and I had been married for two years. We had lived together for five. We had been going out for twelve. For the last nine we hadn’t been more than two miles apart for anything more than a few days and here I was to cope alone for three weeks.
It was made grimmer (more grim?) by the exciting news delivered a couple of days later that my law firm were going to offer me a partnership from the following first May. Of course that was brilliant; I had been working my posterior off for it for some years but the person I wanted to celebrate with was three thousand miles away and not allowed to use the phone. Maybe that coloured my views of those white shirted, tiepinned twats.
So the Bahraini Expat and his girlfriend invited me round. They had a birthday present for me. A cardboard box. As I opened it, intrigued, said friend said, as only one rugby player to another can:
‘We thought you’d need a little pussy’
The tiniest, the cutest black and white kitten stared back at me.
I was smitten. I was terrified. I was responsible for a life without the calming influence of the Textiliste. Said pussy would be sure to die at my incompetent hands. After all I hadn’t been even partly responsible for a pet for upwards of 15 years.
Back at home I let the kitten out. Instantly she disappeared, somewhere under the kitchen cupboards. At my height I didn’t see the gap; at hers it was obvious. She slipped through the tiny hole and into the dark dusty protective space. I cooed, I cajoled, I wept. She stayed put. I left out some food and water and went to bed, disconsolate.
In the morning, I had to go to work. The kitten would surely be dead. But the food had clearly been eaten though the kitten was still missing. At least she wouldn’t starve. I shut the kitchen door carefully, checked all other possible gaps were covered and left for a day as a commercial property lawyer in a boom market – I was busy. And anxious.
The days of a lawyer in the City of London back at the end of the eighties were not quite as fraught as over the last ten years. My working day started at 9 and ended at 8. I wanted to be home.
As I let myself in to the kitchen I heard a scratching and a scrabbling as the (as yet unnamed) kitten disappeared back to safety. Clearly I needed strategy.
First I lay flat and appraised the hole. We were trying to do as much work on our tip as we could ourselves so I had a few tools and odds and sods in the basement. I found a piece of hardboard, left over from boarding the floors before any carpets were laid, and cut it to shape. I put tacks in place so if and when I caught the recalcitrant moggy I could cover the hole PDQ. I also closed off any other likely looking gaps.
Ok, so her escape routes were shut but how did I entice her out. Food seemed to be something she craved. The plate I left out during the night was licked clean. I opened a sachet and slathered my fingers in cat food. I managed to bend my hand through the gap to her hideaway and waited. It took maybe ten minutes before I felt that distinctive glorious rough-tongued licking that cats have. I let her feast and then moved my hand back. She followed, licking all the time and, I was delighted to say, purring. Gradually I pulled my hand right out. She came to the edge and stopped. When I lay flat I could see her eyes appraising me.
Hmm. Ok. Something more. I tried again but this time I covered my wrist. When the hand went in it took longer but eventually she climbed across my palm and began licking. I stayed as still as I could. Eventually I sensed her sitting in my hand, eating. Now or never. I grabbed at whatever I could hold and pulled fur and legs back through the hole.
It was effing agony. She might only have been 7 to 8 weeks old but her trainee talons embedded themselves in my flesh, much the same sensation I imagine if someone was to blanket stitch my hand. But out she came. I’m afraid I have to admit I shook her off rather firmly and she nimbly bounced across the room while I hurried to cover her safety space. Ha! Bloodied, victorious and wondering about what she might have last licked prior to the food and hand perforation (and the consequent concern about tetanus) I felt euphoric.*
(*It was maybe a month later my father in law showed me how to remove the board underneath the kitchen units. Had I known that was possible I wouldn’t have worried or been scarred but equally I wouldn’t have experienced the ridiculously heightened sense of success that I did that night.)
By now I had checked the house for any other similar hiding places. So long as she was kept out of the cellar we were save (in later years she did get in and accessed the dusty space under the floorboards; bear in mind this house was Edwardian so at least 80 years old at the time – under the floorboards were the accumulations of many lives and, more to the point, eight decades of human exfoliation).
That second night the kitten joined me in our sitting room. We had a sofa and a TV. I sat and watched the news while the cat explored. It wasn’t long before she found our new curtains and began to climb. I was naïve; I didn’t know then the damage a cat’s claws could do to expensive drapes. Up she went and then fell back to the floor as the curtains swayed wildly. She tried two, three, a dozen times. And the story of Sisyphus came to me. In a flash in that half decorated Spartan living room I had the perfect name of my black and white cat.
It’s actually a crap name. I mean what’s wrong with Puss or Mog or Chocolate? If you’re calling out for her out of the back door, ‘Sissy’ is not very manly and ‘Sisyphus’ is beyond pretentious for the earthy part of South London we were living in back then. But I loved it and her.
The Bahraini Expat was right; I did need my little pussy. For the remaining two and a bit weeks, she and I spent many a happy evening together. One time I cooked a fry up and had it sitting on a tray on my lap while I watched TV. I looked down and a yellow face looked back up. She had plunged into the sunny side up egg yoke.
I let her creep into bed with me a couple of times (that stopped a few months later when the Textiliste and I were surprised, mid romantic moment, by some unexpected third party licking – cattus interruptus as it were). She followed me around and she made my time bearable until the Textiliste returned and absorbed her affections.
Sissy was our first pet. Since then we have had four more cats, two of whom we still have. And now we have our second dog and a tortoise. Happily the Lawyer’s passion for whistling cockroaches has dissipated. We wouldn’t be without the pets now, even if they are a pest when it comes to homing them while we go away.
I’m grateful to my first pussy. She lived a long and indolent life but until her back legs gave in she’d climb on my lap, nuzzle into my hand and knead my wrist, hunting for a memory of her mother’s milk. 1986. All in all a good year.
And here are a couple of video clips of Dog being made to work hard. The stupid laugh on the beach one is me.