One Down, Eight To Go

Nobody, not even the rain, has such small paws.

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Sorry E.E. Cummings, I have ever so slightly edited a line of your masterpiece (the wonderful poem “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”) in honour of my cat.

I have two cats – Sam (who is always presumed to be a boy, but is in fact Samantha) and Lucy.

Sam is my cockroach cat, i.e. I swear she would survive a nuclear holocaust along with the cockroaches. She’s 16, slightly arthritic with a tear in one ear from a mystery altercation some years ago and randomly yowling her way through the early stages of dementia, but she’s otherwise in perfect health and looks like she could truck on for another decade or so. I wouldn’t be surprised if she outlived me, purring her way through the post-funeral morning tea, devouring the leftover sausage rolls.

Lucy is my SPCA special. Eight years ago I went to the local SPCA and chose her, a bright little tabby with striking dark markings and extraordinarily long whiskers, who quacks like a duck and is almost overbearingly affectionate.

Sam hates Lucy – think crotchety old lady constantly poking her stick at annoying teenager – but we all rub along together OK, and my little daughter just adores both of them.

Last week Lucy went missing. It was so out of character for her – she is a homebody – and we were very worried indeed. I did everything you’re advised to do when you lose a pet you love – advertise on the internet, distribute flyers, search the undergrowth of adjoining properties, search our property with a torch and toothcomb, call and call and call and cry a bit and call again, but all to no avail.

But here comes the happy (relatively, scolds my credit card) ending. The day before yesterday I pulled into the garage and jumped out the car to meet the curtain consultant waiting for me at our front door. And then I heard a desperately loud whiny meow and there she was, an exhausted, overjoyed Lucy, curling round my shins.

I have never been so delighted to see a little furry face in all my life.

As I write there is a certain curtain consultant called Tina driving around Auckland in her mobile fabrics van, chuckling as she tells customers about the loony cat lover who started crying into her roller blind samples, holding on for dear life to a little cat quacking in relief.

Off we went to the vet and found that Lucy was dehydrated, starving and had a terrible wound above her tail. It looked like she had been bitten viciously and the bite had turned into an abscess. Perhaps she had crawled away to nurse her wound and wander through her pain in solitude, as cats often do. The vet said the infection would have been fierce. She was lucky to survive.

One overnight drip, an operation and #@!* dollars later, she is now at home convalescing. It is wonderful to have her back, despite the heart attack-inducing vet bill.

The incident has made me think about how precious our animal friends are and how much they enrich our lives.

Cats are fantastic writing companions. As I tap this post Lucy is eyeing me gently from under the coffee table, purring. She is my faithful companion in the solitude that writers simultaneously love and hate. A cat encourages contemplation, perhaps because cats are expert observers: enigmatic figures who dwell on the edges and gaze from a distance, they slink in and out of domestic business as they see fit, mysteriously appearing and disappearing.

Cats make regular appearances in myth, legend and literature. No blog post about cats and writers could ignore T.S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, on which the musical smash hit Cats was based. (If I hear one more strangled amateur rendition of “Memory” I swear I’m going to scream, but I love the show.)

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Numerous authors have written stories and poems and essays about cats, trying to pin down the appeal of our feline friends. One of my personal favourites is James Herriot’s Cat Stories, a gorgeous little collection of the famous vet’s best stories about cats. Come to think of it, I think I’ll take it to bed tonight and nod off as I turn the pages.

Jean Cocteau said: “I love cats because I love my home, and little by little they become its visible soul.” According to Francois Mery, “God made the cat to give man the pleasure of petting the tiger.”

Lowell Thomas wasn’t so charitable, but I laughed in recognition when I read his summation of a cat’s divine nature: “In Istanbul, I met a man who said he knew beyond a doubt that God was a cat. I asked why he was so sure, and the man said, ‘When I pray to him, he ignores me.'”

Ah, but isn’t that part of the appeal? That enigmatic gaze, then the slow blink as the cat looks away, perhaps to search out a more interesting subject. The disdain one minute and the dribbly adoration the next. And always, the aura of mystery.

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One of my treasured books is The Cat’s Whiskers, New Zealand writers on cats, edited by Peter Wells. It’s a wonderful anthology of poems, memoirs, essays and short stories. One of the most moving is by Shonagh Koea, who describes the unspeakable comfort her cat “Small” brought to her after the unexpected death of her husband. If you love cats and good writing, this is a book worth reading.

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So let me end by reproducing one of its poems here. It is dedicated to Lucy, who blinks at me, mute and mysterious, guarding her secret story of survival.

The Cat Climbs
by Fiona Farrell

There are few safe places.
The cat chooses the verandah roof.
Watch her climb the tree.
Watch her ebb about its roots.
Watch her flow against the trunk
and up paws lead body tail one
slow expansion watch her take
without rush each twig each
thorn marked hers with spit and
delicate attention. She notes the
flight of birds seeps through
leaves eases into her corner
quiet as spilt milk.

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