had acquired a great fluffy white feline who accompanied him everywhere, and of whom he now said, in his thick Germanic accent: ‘I neffer rrealiced zat zo late in life one coult fall in loff – wiz a kat!’ Now that I can wholly understand. I do not merely love this cat: in am in love with her. It is of an order and kind quite different from that with any human. I have been in love with other humans, too, but with an animal the range of emotion has an edge of something else: a subtly different set of responsibilities and freedoms, sensualities and communications. It is also, of course, more limited; a cat makes you realise how phenomenally complex, awkward, deceptive humans can be. This creature, when she’s happy, she purrs; when she purrs, you know she’s happy. Simple as a Buddhist mantra.
Which is not to say she’s stupid. In fact, for someone with a brain the size of half a golfball, she’s pretty bright. Surprising, perhaps, for one brought up in the gutters behind Clicks. My friend Ann and I spotted her one freezing wet day, a manky scrap scuttering like a tiny rabbit into the stormdrains. She was, it seemed, the last survivor of a litter that had died, the mother moved off, but still tempted by milk put down by the local hairdressers. We just couldn’t leave her there to die, so we arranged to have her trapped, which the Feral Cat Project did in short order. Since both Ann and the Project people had more cats than they could handle, I said, OK, I’ll get her over the spits and clean her up, then we can find her a home. Being busy and peripatetic, I’d long resisted committing to having animals, much as I love them.
And spitty this one was, boy! She hurled herself at the sides of the trap at one’s approach, every claw and tooth and vocal cord deployed, prepared to do battle with any monster. I enclosed her in my safest room, the bathroom – a bit bleak, but free of dangers – and ensconced her in a wicker basket in the corner. She spat and slashed, but as she cowered in that haven, I lay down and tickled her ribs with the handle of a wooden spoon, which she found less threatening than a great clutching hand. I fed her, of course, and in between sat on the floor and read aloud reams of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. She seemed to like phenomenology. Or at least got very used to the sound of my voice, growing to realise it wasn’t a threat. I shut her in for the night with all she needed, and the next morning continued with the spoon and Merleau-Ponty and other stimulating literature. After a time the stroking of the spoon evoked just the beginnings of a purr, and slowly-slowly I ventured forth with fingertips. There were no claws, just a strengthening purr. Within 36 hours she wanted nothing but to climb onto my lap as I sat on the loo. Without doubt, that moment when she first purred for me – for me – I was a goner.
I gave her her first bath to get rid of the fleas and dirt; she cried and struggled and her hair went all into points. She didn’t consume much water, since she could pretty much fit into a large coffee mug. It was only when she was dried off in the sun that I realised just how pretty she was: a kind of silver tabby, with a stripe down the back and squares on her flanks, dark cross-stripes on the forelegs and ring-tailed as a lemur. I figured I’d better get her to the vet for a check-up and any health necessaries, before taking the next step. But I had to phone Ann and ask, “Listen, if I’ve bought a catbox” – which sort of spontaneously I had – “does that mean I’m committed?” The question was, of course, rhetorical.
For a few nights I confined her to the bathroom so she wouldn’t get into trouble in any of the sundry corners of my open-plan cottage. From the outset, she used the sand-tray quite naturally, and never needed any further house-training. Then, once she knew the full layout by day, I gave her the run of the house at night, too. Except my bedroom; I didn’t want her disturbing my already dodgy sleep, or to roll over onto her inadvertently. I’d open my door in the morning, and there she’d be, sitting a metre away staring fixedly at the door handle, then crying out as I emerged and scooped her up. As I said, a goner.
She grew more and more trusting, more and more beautiful. I called her Siberia, because she was the Snow-Tiger-Who-Came-in-from-the-Cold, in the winter of my fiftieth year – a birthday present from the Universe, Ann claimed. By dint of much repetition, she quickly learned her name. I recently read about some of those wonderful scientists who, through multiple field observations and double-blind controlled experiments, ‘discover’ what anyone who lives attentively with animals knows all along – in this case, that cats might actually know their names. Well, this one answers to several: Siberia, Tiger, Skittoon, Skittleberry, Wodwo. And Gorgeous. Of course tone and pitch of voice are crucial, too.
At first her language skills were shaky. She’d curl up next to my chair, and when I’d lean over and say “Siberia!”, she’d look up and go “eck-eck-eck” in the hunter’s yammer. But after a while her instincts somehow told her to reserve that sound for birds at the window and spiders on the wall. Over time she developed a whole range of sounds, communications that would never be used with another cat, that were human-orientated if not actually attempts at mimicry. There are greetings and queries and Thank-you’s and Yes-pleases. There’s a particular meow that asks for a certain cupboard to be opened, or the ladder to be put up through the trapdoor; she won’t desist until I do it, and performs a weird little circular motion with her head as I obey. (Sucker.) Another meow is just a contact call when we’re out walking, but it changes tone markedly when she’s stopping for a pooh. She knows a number of specific English words, too, including milk, Whiskas, come, up, walk and brush. I know she recognises them as individual words because I can embed them in any variation of surrounding sentence and she’ll pick them out. Of course, she understands No! as well. I only had to swot her off the kitchen table once with a wet dishcloth and a No! for her to desist forever from trying to steal food. She had to learn not to tear things up with her claws. A certain armchair – which literally fell off the back of a truck and is so badly made you can’t even sit on it – is fine for ripping, which happens en route to bed every night. A temptingly velvet-covered footstool, on the other hand, is not fine for ripping. She started to have a go once, and from my chair I said sternly No! and made a threatening gesture, and she backed off blinking. A day or two later I was sitting in the same chair, and she sauntered up to the footstool, planted both sets of claws on its side, chunk, chunk!, paused and looked meaningfully, challengingly, straight at me, clearly in order to gauge my reaction. No! I said sternly. She withdrew, and has never tried to scratch it again, though she frequently relaxes on top of it. As I said, not stupid.
Another sign of intelligence is a capacity for boredom. Especially on those socked-in days of mist and rain, when we both get a bit cabin-feverish: then she starts to be ‘naughty’ – threatening to climb up a wall-hanging, knocking objects off side-tables, or attacking my ankles. Because I’m her sole companion, she demands that I Do Stuff with her. Partly this is because I’ve inculcated it in her myself, taking her on my walks in the afternoons, for example. She’d happily walk for kilometres through the forest, climbing trees, stalking rustles, meowing, getting particularly excited at entering new territory. She came to expect this, so almost to the hour you can see her glancing at her watch and drumming her fingernails, C’mon, c’mon, let’s Do Stuff. I still find this whole inter-species relationship close to miraculous.
Though I know I ‘rescued’ her, that she ‘imprinted’, in the ethologist’s term, I marvel that she wants to be with me, chooses to follow, to come when called, and not just for food. That she looks desolate when I leave in the car, waits for me at the garage, runs to chirrup in greeting on my return. Not that she doesn’t spend large portions of day and night independent and away, adventuring , controlling the local rodent population, or just lying up who knows where. I worry. There are all sorts of predators out here: adders and eagles and caracals and owls, reckless drivers and other aggressive cats and wandering dogs. Mostly dogs. Once she must have been mauled, coming in wet around the throat and with a wound on her cheek that turned nasty – and a broken upper incisor, so now sometimes her top lip gets hitched up on the lower incisor and gives her a raffish, supercilious sort of smirk. But mostly she transforms herself into something resembling a puffer fish and sends the dogs yelping off in all directions. I secretly call her my caniphage: Dog-Eater. Only once, when she was still quite small but fully at liberty, did she go truly missing. One Friday night she went out the window, wasn’t back by morning, nor by the following night. I circled and searched and combed the bushes and called until I was hoarse. I was beside myself. Desperate and already going cold with grief, convinced she’d been taken by something, I could scarcely eat or sleep. On the Sunday night, well after midnight, I finally collapsed into bed and turned out the light – and a minute later a little meow of greeting asked me where the supper had got to. I crushed her to my chest and wet her cheeks and mine with relief, and asked her where the hell she’d been. She never did say. As I said: in love.
She has of course re-centred and recalibrated my whole life. I spend a lot of mental time and emotional energy wondering either where she’s got to, or how I can love her more. We have collaboratively developed a steady routine. At breakfast it’s a slick of milk. (Not that she won’t beg at other visits to the fridge: you’ve never seen such a wide-eyed expression of innocent expectation on a cat’s allegedly expressionless face). Around mid-morning it’s brush time; at the word she’ll come literally galloping to the little carpet on the porch; her total favourite. Bedtime also has its almost invariable sequence. I get into bed and lie on my back, covers pulled up to my chest. She saunters in, gives the bad armchair a good ripping, then bounces up to the bed and plumps on my chest, settling down with forepaws tucked in and her nose an inch or two from mine. With both hands I then give her a thorough head-massage, working over the skin and the skull sutures. The nictitating eyelids glaze over in bliss. I probe deep into the waxy pits of her ears, almost as far as her golf-ball brain, and in the ears’ folds where ticks might hide, over the little knots of her jaw muscles and down her upstretched chin and throat. After a bit she starts to turn her glance sideways, a signal that I must now let her in under the covers. I make a tent of my knees, and under them she washes while I read. Sometimes the way she bounces onto my chest seems so self-consciously comedic that I dissolve into uncontrollable giggles, at which she starts to twitch her head back and sideways oddly, in a gesture, if not of embarrassment, at least of some bafflement or un-ease. Then she stares deep into my face, as if querying What’s the matter with you? She doesn’t need to read Levinas or Derrida to understand that the face is the primary locus of communication, even as she understands that other useful extremities are part of the whole.
Body language complements voice exchanges. Touch, posture, movement are all integrated communication systems. We learn to read each other. If she’s lazily lying at a distance and I contact-call her, she acknowledges just with a particular twitch of the last inch or two of her tail. It seems marvellous to me that when I crouch and extend claw-like hands and mince-creep towards her, she can instantly interpret this as an invitation to play. Does she translate it as mimicry of her own mock-postures? As all cats will, she’ll make of the hunt-and-crouch sequence an occasion for play, leaping out at my feet from hiding and then breaking off to bounce away with tail flung high. It’s hard not to think that there’s a certain self-consciousness involved, some recognition that she knows she looks funny from behind; at the very least she’s able to read my laughter as a positive reaction. These kinds of responses can probably be explained drily by behaviourists as mere extensions of instinct; but other more innovative behaviours seem way in excess of that.
She not only makes considered choices – warm sun, or milk; to walk, or not this time – she invents. She early divined that my wrist-watch was important to me, and that running off with it was a good way of getting me out of bed. She clearly has a conceptual map of forest paths in her head, because she has on occasion taken a wholly unprecedented short-cut in order to ambush me further along. She found that I wanted to towel her dry after she’d been out in the rain (being a gutter-snipe originally, she is undaunted by downpours, thunder or lightning); that felt nice, so she made a game out of going out, getting towelled, going out, getting towelled, going out ...
She trusts me completely. Completely. When I lift her she is like putty in my hands, utterly relaxed. There is nothing more comforting to me than to bury my face in the satiny muffling fragrant fur of her belly. This trust is entrancing, but also very useful: she resists mildly, but doesn’t fight when I need to dose her, or treat a wound, or get her to the vet, or even pull a tick off her eyelid with tweezers. She forgives instantly whatever pain I inadvertently or necessarily inflict on her. I don’t think it even begins to feature in the animal-rights literature, but fundamental to any animal’s existence ought to be the right to be able to trust. Not that many humans seem able to live up to that – but the resultant enrichment of experience is boundless.
All that apart, Siberia is exquisite. Any number of visitors have said, “That’s the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen!” “I know that,” I say nonchalantly.