1998 on paper doesn’t seem that long ago; but 1998 was the year an 18-year-old footballer called Michael Owen scored a wonder goal for England against Argentina in the World Cup; he’s now retired from playing and is struggling to replicate his talent on the pitch by droning into the pundit’s microphone. Tony Blair was twelve months into his decade as Prime Minister and was still largely enjoying a honeymoon period, playing his part in the Good Friday Agreement; he’s now almost universally condemned as a warmonger, doomed to wander from one obscure after-dinner speech to another while the western world craves his head on a plate. DVDs were introduced to the UK in 1998 – as were ASBOs; Bill Clinton was still US President – and 9/11 was three years away. And the house I shared was overrun with mice. Seems like a long time ago to me.
In 1998, the girl I lived with intervened in our rodent problem and delivered a stray cat to the house, something I thought madness due to the fact we had a dog. I’d underestimated the dog’s good nature and the cat’s knack for putting him in his place. The first night this feline recruit spent under our roof, I strolled into the kitchen, switched on the light, and she looked up at me with a mouse hanging out of her mouth. And so the very function that domesticated the cat in the human household proved as durable as ever. Mice, sparrows and (on one memorably gruesome occasion) pigeons had been warned.
That dogs and cats should remain the most popular of pets is no surprise considering the respective talents these once wild animals showed could be of service to us homo-sapiens if we invited them into our homes, whether helping us to hunt down our food or ridding us of vermin. This mutually beneficent partnership was entered into from the earliest organised communities, and while some of the roles these animals performed may have been watered down due to changing social environment in more recent times, it is still a partnership we instinctively crave, and one that both parties derive immense enjoyment and comfort from. The cat that entered my world as a stray mouser eighteen years ago accompanied me on every change of address thereafter (three in total) and finally left my world this week. The impact of her sudden removal from that world has rendered it a far emptier place than it was.
Up until this week, I would have said I’ve lived alone since 1999, though I now know that’s not true. It’s only coming home to an empty flat for the first time in twenty years that’s made me realise I had housemates all along. The relationship one has with a cat or a dog is obviously different to that which one has with a fellow human being, but no less rich for it; they may not be able to answer you back, but a rewarding game of telepathic chess develops over time, to the point where you can anticipate their next move and they can anticipate yours. Actual conversation may be one-way traffic, but I now see that one chatters away regardless; it is the silencing of that chatter that jars so much today. There are so many daily sayings I will no longer utter, let alone the silly singing of songs and altering the words to include the cat’s name. Moreover, I will never hear her miaow again either.
There’s a moving moment at the end of ‘The Dam Busters’, when the camera pans across the canteen at the RAF base from where the pilots dropping Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs are launched and we see the empty tables, signifying those airmen who never returned from the mission. Yet, there’s an equally moving moment earlier in the film when Richard Todd’s character has received the news his beloved dog (whose name we’re not allowed to say now, of course) has been killed by a hit and run driver. He holds the dog’s collar in his hand and glances across at his office door, which bears the paw-marks of those occasions when the dog has scratched it to notify him that it’s time for a walk. That’s what hits you when your four-legged companion has gone, all those little and poignant forensic insignias scattered around the house. Confronted by a vacant basket, an unsoiled litter tray, an untouched water bowl and surfaces strewn with her discarded hair, it feels as though she’s just popped out and she’ll be back in a minute. But she won’t.
Having shared my space with a dog for twelve years and a cat for eighteen (ten of them having the pair competing for my affection like a pair of sibling rivals), I know the distinct differences between the two species and also know the characteristics they share. Just as cat owners have to contend with the stereotypes – ageing lesbian spinster etc. – they also have to contend with the misinformation about cats themselves. Yes, they are more independent minded than their canine equivalents and less demanding in terms of what they require of us; but they are no less affectionate, nor (in the case of a house-cat, as mine was for fifteen years) no less dependent on us to ensure they’re fed and their litter is changed when it’s soiled. It’s not much to ask, really; and what we get in return far outweighs the necessity to organise one’s daily routine around their needs.
My cat was fiercely possessive of me, welding herself to my lap whenever a visitor called, sending out the message as to ownership, just in case. Perhaps that was her way of recognising that, without her, I probably wouldn’t be here. At my lowest ebb in my darkest hours, it was always the thought of her being abandoned that ultimately kept me going. I could abandon everyone else, but not her. The cat made me laugh when I didn’t feel like laughing via some daft, seemingly meaningless gesture; the undoubted eccentricities cats exhibit in their occasionally odd behaviour is very much in synch with my own outlook. Also, she was extremely teddy bear-like and became even more receptive to cuddles as she grew older; no longer able to leap great heights – including onto my shoulder, one of her favourite youthful destinations – and needing me to lift her up and down, she relied on my assistance even more and expressed her gratitude accordingly. She was so pivotal to the harmony of the household that it no longer feels like home anymore; it seems wrong that she’s no longer here to share it with me.
She was so robust in health for so long that watching the years catch up with her in the last couple of months of her life was heartbreaking; I never even had cause to take her to the vets until the very last day, when I had the most unenviable of responsibilities thrust upon me. The disparity between human and animal years is often commented on as unfair, something I wouldn’t dispute; but the cycle of life is played out before you with a pet in a way it isn’t with a person; one sees the seven ages from start to finish and adapts one’s relationship as a consequence, from parent to sidekick to carer – to paraphrase Rupert Everett’s lovely description in his memoirs, when referencing his changing role for his dog. Only later does one recognise the privilege in being privy to that cycle; it really is an honour. And confronted by a wider world that appears to grow increasingly ugly with each passing day, there is so much to miss and so, so much to mourn now that my beautiful silent partner has gone.
© The Editor