WRITTEN BY LYNNE BARRETT-LEE
No, I didn’t need another man. But did I really need an untameable, ill-treated, viciously aggressive cat?
When I make a decision, I generally stick to it, and I had decided I was going to get a kitten.
At least, that was the plan when I arrived at the animal rescue centre. I had a flat with the requisite garden, a very expensive cat flap, and there was absolutely no question that I was going to get a kitten. Something small and adorable and friendly.
There were plenty to choose from, too.
“How about our Jonesy?” said the smiling girl who showed me round. “He’s a poppet. A wee bit lively…”
“I don’t mind lively,” I assured her, as we watched the tiny black Exocet pinging round the cage. “If I’m going to become a mad cat lady, I might as well do it properly, eh?”
“Well, if that’s your plan, how about going the whole hog and taking these three?” She pointed towards the next enclosure, inside which were three puffs of apricot fluff, nestled like balls of wool in a knitting basket. “Oh – actually, no,” she corrected herself. “They’re already taken.”
And it seemed they were. There was a card taped to the glass.
Lucky us! I read. We’ve already found a home!
And that’s when I heard it. A sharp hiss, from behind me. And my plan to get a kitten was no more.
“Oh, bless her,” the girl said, as we both turned around. “That’s our Miss Havisham,” she explained, nodding towards an angry-looking ginger cat in the enclosure opposite.
She hissed again, her ears flattened, her hackles fully risen. At least I assumed so. I wasn’t entirely sure what hackles were. Though there was no question that I understood the concept.
I took a step towards her, just as I would to soothe a fretful, crying child. Miss Havisham didn’t like it one bit.
“So sad,” said the girl, as I spotted another card. Please don’t approach me, this one instructed sternly. I’ve had some bad experiences and I’m not very good with people.
I almost took a step back, but something stopped me…
Instead I smiled at the cat, who had huge amber eyes, and was really rather beautiful. Or would have been, if she hadn’t been so cross.
“Is she not up for adoption?” I asked the girl. She shook her head.
“She’s probably unsuitable for rehoming. Even though ginger cats are in great demand, she doesn’t like people much, as you can see.”
Miss Havisham hissed at me again. I knew exactly how she felt.
“What happened to her?” I asked.
“No-one’s sure,” the girl said. “She arrived a couple of months back, in a right state. Terrified. Starving. With a badly fractured leg. She still can’t jump properly.”
“A road accident?”
“Apparently not. The vet said her injuries were more consistent with her having being mistreated.” She frowned. “Ditto the behaviour. Which is why they don’t think she’ll find a home.”
“How old is she?”
“Five or six, we think. Which is also why… well, with the older cats, they tend to go to older people, don’t they? So they need to be docile, and, as you can see…”
I blinked as the penny dropped
“She’s on borrowed time, you mean?”
The girl winced. It was an uncomfortable truth, after all.
“If you put it like that,” she confessed, “I’m afraid she is.”
“Then I’ll take her,” I said firmly. “If you’ll let me, that is.”
“If she’ll let you, more like,” she replied.
“Mum, you’re bonkers.” Megan’s voice was as certain as she was. A brisk gust of unshakeable self-belief down the phone.
At twenty-two, my older daughter was confident about most things – which, given the upheaval of the divorce, was a blessing.
“Possibly,” I agreed. I quite liked being called bonkers. And, when I thought about it, I was quite enjoying being bonkers, too.
I’d visited the pet superstore in preparation for collecting Miss Havisham, and it felt almost like Christmas all over again. I’d bought a huge wire cage – the girl said a safe, contained space would be calming – plus cat food and litter, and three kinds of cat treats, some silly toys and a sensible book on cat care.
“I had to,” I told Megan. “They’d have put her down otherwise.”
“Really?” said Megan, sounding not at all convinced. Then she gave me a five-minute lecture about the folly of taking on such a project and the likelihood of rehabilitation of such an apparently damaged soul. “Which is basically slim to none, Mum,” she finished firmly. And Megan would know, because Megan had a masters in psychology.
I didn’t care. We could be mad, bad and dangerous together
There was something very satisfying about taking on Miss Havisham. Perhaps because it involved the vital element of choice. My choice, no-one else’s. Which mattered greatly.
I had to get a cat because I missed Paws so much. Grizzled, bumbling Paws, who we’d had since he was a kitten, who’d been brought home in the sack of the paperboy next door.
“He’s a bloody razor-clawed home-wrecker,” my ex-husband, Ian, had commented, but he’d let the girls keep him, even if it had been under duress. They’d called him Edward Scissorpaws, which had turned out to be appropriate.
I got custody – when it came to it, there wasn’t any question, Ian’s new partner, The Lovely Ffion, being allergic.
“Anyway,” said Megan, equally briskly. “How are things with Tom? Have you made up with him yet?”
Ah, Tom, I thought irritably, as I put the phone down. And again, as I went to collect Miss Havisham the following Saturday. And quite a lot – in fact, a great deal – in between.
Tom, who was a “catch”, and who the girls had hoped would save me from becoming a spiky old lady living alone with just a mad cat for company.
Tom, who was funny, kind, and generally perfect. But not, absolutely not, the man for me. Hadn’t he said so?
I say “collect”. Actually I stood there while the girl manhandled Mrs Havisham into a cat carrier – wincing at the livid weals she got for her trouble and wondering quite what I’d taken on.
I took the little sign too, as a reminder that my mission was to prove it wrong, and, while Miss Havisham sat and trembled in her new cage in my kitchen, I got it out of my bag and stuck it up on the fridge.
“You’ll be fine,” I told her brightly. “The natives are friendly.”
Which was true, my divorce having taken me to a different part of the city where students rubbed shoulders with young middle-class families, who, in their turn, did their bit for the older residents, who liked to reminisce about the good old days… while I hoped for some good new days, too.
It was also how I’d met Tom. My new next-door neighbour, he’d been the one who’d offered to fit the cat flap. And he’d had to tell me that Paws had been run over, not a month since I’d moved in.
That had been six months back – six tentative, testing months. In which I’d tried on my new role as divorced middle-aged woman, and, mostly because it was the biggest cliché ever, had resisted the urge to get another cat.
After all, I was free. So I might decide to travel. Pack my job in. Become a chalet girl or yacht hand – Tom, having travelled, was full of suggestions. Somewhere a million bright miles from my work as an optometrist, which, though a career I cherished, mostly saw me stuck in a darkened room with far too many thoughts.
What had Tom said? That my future was now waiting to be re-written. Of course, he’d been right. Just as I’d been wrong about him – about whether I needed a man in my life, period. I didn’t.
On the contrary, I needed another cat. Because a cat wouldn’t make my hackles rise.
Miss Havisham spent the first day in her new home in the kitchen, sitting in the corner of her enormous cage, glowering. Until then, I hadn’t even been aware that cats could strictly glower, but I understood. When I’d moved in, remembering my beautiful pre-divorce kitchen, I’d glowered for a good bit as well.
I wasn’t glowering now. I was a happy cat-owner, albeit a bit of a mad one. I rather liked that too. So I phoned my younger daughter, Emma, to tell her.
She’d not long returned to university after the short Christmas break, and her absence filled the flat with a loud, unsettling silence that even Miss Havisham’s frequent tantrums couldn’t puncture.
Could Miss Havisham tell we were discussing her?
I studied my grumpy new flatmate as we chatted. Could she tell we were discussing her? I held a hand out. She ignored it.
I explained to Emma about the sad little sign, her broken leg and how I just had to bring her home.
“Though, strictly speaking, she’s still on sale or return,” I added.
“Oh, Mum. No!”
“Oh, Emma. Yes! And from her point of view as much as mine. They insisted. If she won’t leave her cage there’s not much point in her being here…”
“Except they won’t put her down. That’s the main point,” Emma said.
“Exactly,” I agreed. “Though once you’re home, with all your music –”
“Mother, tsk! You like my music! Anyway, more to the point, have you made up with Tom yet?”
They didn’t get it. It was Tom who’d stopped speaking to me. So, as Emma might have said, not my prerogative.
On the seventh day – the Friday – there was progress. I launched a volley of super-expensive organic food into Miss Havisham’s bowl, and, for the first time, she didn’t hiss. She miaowed.
So I moved the bowl, tentatively, to a far spot on the kitchen floor, and she walked out of the cage and past me – actually past me – to get it.
I did a fist pump at that. A happy, happy morning
And in my excitement, when I saw Tom hurrying from his house to catch the train, I almost forgot that I couldn’t run to tell him.
The following Saturday – typically too late – it snowed.
Who’d have thought, I mused, as I watched it blanketing the mess in my garden, that you could fall out so spectacularly over nothing?
You probably couldn’t, in normal circumstances, but these weren’t normal circumstances. After all, who’d be so insistent on building a barbecue in the middle of December anyway?
Only Tom, who was widowed (his wife had been just forty) and good with his hands, and who, having travelled a lot since, had all kinds of crazy ideas. One of them was for the abandoned bricks piled up by my garden fence.
“Trust me,” he’d urged. “You need to live a little, Debbie! Glass of mulled wine, couple of sausages – Christmas carols round the roaring flames…”
I’d said yes, because it was hard not to be infected with his enthusiasm. But, perhaps because Christmas tends to do that to people sometimes, something deep inside me snapped.
Which is how arguments about nothing so often start. He’d called me unimaginative – I forget why – and it had stung. Really stung.
It was my imagination, surely, that was the problem – fuelled by thinking back to the way in which, three difficult years previously, I confirmed what I’d long suspected.
A cloudless summer Sunday. Ian returning late from a work trip, smelling oddly of smoke. The very day after I’d seen The Lovely Ffion in the DIY store, buying briquettes.
It was history. Long over. But in one of those hair-trigger I-don’t-know-what-came-over-me moments, I’d responded to being called “unimaginative” with feeling, and at some length.
Before stomping off, Tom had said, “Whatever”. Which made me crosser.
Still, I thought, at least the snow’s covered it up now.
The next day saw a major breakthrough. I didn’t know if she’d been a polar bear or arctic fox in a former life, but Miss Havisham seemed so intrigued by the white stuff that she forgot she didn’t like me. When I made my toast, she actually deigned to lick some butter off my proffered finger, and when I was putting some recycling in the bin by the back door, she followed me outside.
But then disaster…
At that very moment, some post clattered through the letterbox, and what was really such a small noise was obviously, to her, a big noise. Before I could so much as lunge out to catch her, she’d shot off across the patio, straight up the pile of snowy bricks, and disappeared over the fence.
The fence that separated my garden and Tom’s.
“Mum – you’re bonkers.”
Megan again, once I’d explained my problem. She’d only called for a quick catch-up, but got chapter and verse on how I’d clambered up the bricks and peered over the fence, to find Miss Havisham cowering on Tom’s back doormat – unable to go anywhere, since she couldn’t scale the fence, and unable to be rescued, since Tom wasn’t in.
As an interim, but very important measure, I’d lowered a bowl of the very expensive organic cat food over the fence, and a blanket for her to sit on.
“Though she’s so far ignored both,” I finished despairingly.
“Of course she has!” Megan barked. “Now get on the phone and call TOM!”
In response, he was home within the hour and with no fuss at all had not only coaxed Miss Havisham into his kitchen, but even picked her up and, seemingly indifferent to her writhing and spitting, brought her round the front and into mine, stomping the snow from his boots.
“That’s some cage,” he observed as he placed Miss Havisham on the kitchen floor. “You own a pet wolf as well?”
“I’m so sorry…” I began. His right brow lifted an inch. “For being such a nuisance…” I then gabbled on about Miss Havisham’s broken leg, and how she’d scaled the brickpile, and how I hoped she hadn’t done herself even more damage falling, and how I might now get blackballed as a cat adoptee.
Tom stood rubbing the scratches on his hand till the flow of words finally stopped.
I saw him glance behind me
“What’s this?” he said, reaching past me to pull the card from on my fridge.
“She’s a bit of a project,” I explained, once he’d read it. “It was on her cage. It moved me. We are making progress – it’s just a bit ‘one step forward, two steps back’ as you can see.”
He looked at me. Hard.
“I guess it takes one to know one.”
“Touché,” I responded. He smiled.
What were Megan’s estimated odds of rehabilitation? Slim to none?
I reached my hand down and, almost as if expressly to prove the girl wrong, Miss Havisham pushed her velvet head into it.
So that was me told. I slipped my other hand into Tom’s.