There’s trouble brewing in our back garden. Right now it’s under control, a Mexican standoff in which the participants watch one another warily, plotting and planning their next moves. But any time soon the uneasy peace could descend into open warfare. And if that happens, the fur could really start to fly.
Regular readers of this blog will know that ownership of our garden is claimed by two local cats. Milky Bar and Malteser love to hang out here, to snooze, to play, to hunt insects and to do a bit of casual birdwatching. We think they must live in the same household because, while they are clearly not close friends, they are tolerant of one another’s presence. That, however, is where their generosity of spirit ends. No other cat is welcome in our garden.
Over the years a few others tried to muscle in. Flake, Titan, Toblerone, Mars Bar, Minstrel and Yorkie have all passed through, but none has stayed for long. Milky Bar and Malteser have seen to that, and have remained unchallenged here for ages.
But that could be about to change. A few weeks ago a new cat appeared, walking purposefully along the fence that divides our garden from those of our neighbours. He’s a big bruiser of a ginger tom, a no-nonsense sort of cat who looks to be more than a match for Milky Bar and Malteser.
After checking out the terrain the new arrival – who we called Ginger Nut – leapt down from the fence and inspected the garden in great detail. Luckily our regular feline friends were elsewhere, so a confrontation was avoided. Ginger Nut quickly sniffed out that other cats had been here before him, and communicated his presence by liberally spraying a few bushes. It was like a gold prospector staking a claim, announcing to all and sundry that this is his patch now and he’ll have words with anyone who dares to disagree.
A few hours after Ginger Nut left, Malteser arrived. Cats have a good sense of smell, and he soon detected that his territory had been invaded and, indeed, desecrated. He responded with a spraying frenzy of his own, as if to say anything you can spray, I can spray better / harder / higher! War had been declared.
Since then, Ginger Nut has been back several times. He’s clearly a bit put out by Malteser’s resistance, but hasn’t given up hope that his attempted coup d’état will ultimately be successful. One day he appeared on the fence while Malteser was lazing in the garden. Mrs P and I watched anxiously from the kitchen window while the pair of them sized each other up. A fight seemed inevitable, but on this occasion Ginger Nut backed down.
I’d like to think that this will be the end of it, that Ginger Nut will take his territorial ambitions to another part of our estate. But I have my doubts. He looks like a tough nut, much bigger and bolder than any of the other cats who’ve contemplated staging a coup. I’m worried that one day he’ll attempt to prove his prowess by giving Malteser – and Milky Bar – a thumping. If that happens the outcome is far from predictable, but it’s certain that fur would fly. Let’s hope it never comes to that!
Although its primary focus is on the preservation and display of historic buildings from South-East England, the Weald and Downland Living Museum offers other fascinating insights into the lives of ordinary people in times past. A notable highlight of our visit last October was to be able to watch a team of horses ploughing a field that forms part of the Museum’s land. Only a few decades ago such a sight would have been totally unremarkable anywhere in rural England, but these days draught horses have little if any role in country life beyond their participation in ploughing competitions that hark back nostalgically to the pre-industrial world.
The term “draught” horse is derived from the Old English word dragan, meaning “to haul” or “to draw”. They are also referred to as carthorses, work horses or heavy horses. And these terms, I guess, tells us all we need to know. Back in the day, when heavy loads needed to moved or agricultural land had to be worked, the horse was England’s go-to beast of burden. Even as the Industrial Revolution started to kick in, horses toiled along towpaths hauling canal barges laden with raw materials and manufactured goods.
In these modern times, when internal combustion and diesel engines rule the roost, it’s difficult to imagine a moment when we depended not on them but instead on the humble horse. The Weald and Downland Living Museum’s mission is to celebrate and remind us of the world we have lost, and watching three magnificent horses going about their business did just that.
The Museum’s horses are Percherons, a breed of draught horse that originated in western France. Usually grey or black in colour, Percherons are sturdy animals known for their intelligence and willingness to work. They were originally bred as war horses, but later became sought-after animals for agricultural work and hauling heavy goods. As well as ploughing, the horses we encountered also help out with a number of other seasonal farming tasks. These include sowing, haymaking and harvesting, as well as timber-extraction from the Museum’s woodland.
The Museum’s Percherons seemed content in their work, and the guy leading them clearly cared deeply for their welfare. He was practising for a ploughing competition the next day, and although I’m no expert it seemed from what I saw that he and his horsey team were in with a good shout!
In addition to its draught horses, the Museum has several fine examples of historic horse-drawn vehicles. These include a spectacularly colourful gypsy caravan dating from the late 19th century, and a far more humble “living caravan” which would have been home to labourers who travelled the countryside in search of opportunities for paid work.
Like the rest of the exhibits on display at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, the Percherons and horse-drawn vehicles we saw there offered fascinating insights into a world that is almost beyond comprehension from our comfortable, 21st century perspective. I strongly recommend a visit!
It’s been a tough year. While catching Covid was the worst thing that happened to us personally in 2022, from a national and international perspective it’s been unrelentingly grim. In a year in which the UK lost its queen after 70 years on the throne, political turmoil and financial crisis have stalked the land, the National Health Service is in meltdown, social care is collapsing and many folk can no longer afford to heat their homes or buy enough food to feed their families. Misery rules, OK! And overseas, events in the Ukraine reinforce the sense of instability and imminent jeopardy.
Are we downhearted? Well, to be honest, from time to time I am! But one of the things that has brought me a degree of comfort and solace in the dark times has been the company of cats. Two cats in particular, Milky Bar and his buddy Malteser.
Regular readers of this blog will know that although Mrs P and I have no cat of our own, Milky Bar and Malteser, who live somewhere on our street, regard our garden as part of their territory. And Malteser also lays claim to our house, although he graciously allows us to continue living here so long as we allow him access whenever he feels the need!
We see Milky Bar most days in summer, but rather less often at this time of year. He’s a beautiful chap, although getting on a bit in years and growing stouter around the tummy. His hobby is snoozing, and he’s pleased to indulge in it at every opportunity. He regularly beds down in a nest he has built for himself under an azalea bush, but when he craves sun rather than shade he stretches out on the little wooden bridge that crosses the narrowest part of our garden pond. Here he can soak up the rays while keeping one eye open to watch out for dragonflies, which he’ll catch and eat if the fancy takes him.
Milky Bar is an aloof and somewhat cautious cat, but clearly trusts us to respect his personal space. Occasionally he will approach, softly miaowing and offering himself up to be stroked But mostly he keeps his distance, happily observing what is going on all around him. He watches with interest whenever he sees me doing the gardening (or is he in shock? I don’t do much gardening!), and allows me to approach within inches of him without stirring. We enjoy one another’s company, both understanding that there are boundaries between us that must be respected.
Of course there are times when I wish Milky Bar were more affectionate, more gratuitously friendly. But that’s not his style, and his mere presence in the garden is always enough to raise my spirits.
Malteser, however, is altogether more forward. He visits every day, and is normally to be found waiting outside the door when I go downstairs to make an early morning cup of tea at around 6:30am. I open up, and he dashes in. We greet one another in the time-honoured fashion, but pretty soon he gets on with business, sitting himself down in the kitchen and waiting to be fed.
The cat treats we buy are called Pawsome Pockets, “crunchy pillow treats with a soft centre.” Available in beef, chicken and salmon flavours, Pawsome Pockets are evidently very tasty, and Malteser loves them. But his meal is invariably interrupted by Mrs P, who comes downstairs to join us. Malteser breaks off and strides across the kitchen, greeting her with loud purrs and fond nuzzling. Mrs P takes over feeding duties, and the purring gets even louder. Malteser’s in heaven, and Mrs P looks pretty damned happy with life too!
When his breakfast treat is over, Malteser throws himself on to the kitchen floor, rolling on his back and inviting me to rub his belly and fondle his ears. I’m happy to oblige. As soon as I’ve done my duty he dashes upstairs to the Study. We follow, and spend the next 10 minutes entertaining him, playing “chase the ball” or “pounce on the piece of paper.” By this time his purrs are so loud that the windows almost rattle in sympathy.
And then suddenly, and for no obvious reason, he evidently decides that enough is enough. He trots downstairs and waits beside the door to be let out. We are in no doubt that within a few minutes he will be visiting another of our neighbours, demanding attention and treats from them too. He’s that sort of cat.
Malteser may return two or three time during the day, for treats, belly rubs, playtime and lots of attention. Sometimes he simply uses us as a convenient short cut, entering by the back door them marching immediately through the house to the front door, where he demands to be let out again. And we, being desperate to please him, do just that.
While he is with us, Malteser brightens up our lives. So thank you, Malteser, and Milky Bar too, for making a difficult year a little less difficult. And come again guys, as often as you like, in 2023: the company of cats will always be welcome here.
And while we’re on subject of thanks, I’d also like to thank anyone out there who ever reads or comments on this blog. Your continuing interest has certainly helped keep my spirits up throughout this miserable year. How can I ever thank you? I don’t think you’d like Pawsome Pockets, and I guess it would be inappropriate – and maybe a bit creepy – to offer you a belly rub, but it’s my absolute pleasure to wish you a Merry Christmas, and Happy & Healthy New Year. Have a great time, guys!
We spot him first in the monastic cloisters that are attached to the Cathedral, rolling on his back and wantonly flashing his belly at anyone who will look in his direction. I hurry towards him, camera in hand, hoping to capture some cute video action. But he’s in no mood to be filmed and disappears through a doorway into the main body of the Cathedral. Mrs P’s still taking photos of the cloisters, so I wait for her. By the time we’re ready to follow my new feline friend into the main body of the Cathedral, he’s nowhere to be seen.
Work began on the construction of Norwich Cathedral in 1096 and was completed in 1145. It is a magnificent building, regarded – its guidebook informs me – as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. The monastic cloisters are the second largest in England, exceeded only by those at Salisbury Cathedral. Its cathedral close – that is, the area immediately around a cathedral comprising various properties that belong to it – is England’s largest.
Clerics and other Cathedral officers are housed or work in Norwich Cathedral’s close. And, as we are soon to learn, the close is also home to a cat who is famous the world over.
“Budge” the cathedral cat
Leaving the cloisters behind us, our minds are blown away as we enter the main body of the Cathedral. Stunning! Spectacular! Awe inspiring! The superlatives keep on coming, and we join other visitors in cricking our necks to admire the soaring roof. And yet, as we look around us, we see other visitors focussed on matters that are more grounded: the cat I spotted earlier in the cloisters is now sitting next to the pulpit, and has gathered a bevy of doting admirers.
Standing close by the cat is a member of Cathedral staff. Or maybe a volunteer, I’m not quite sure, but she clearly has an official role in this magnificent place. And she wears a slightly weary expression. I sense she’d rather be talking to us about the glory of God and the breath-taking building He has inspired. But instead she’s filling us in on the life and times of the Cathedral cat.
His name, we learn, is Budge, and he’s around five years old. He lives in one of the houses on the close, but spends most of his days in the Cathedral where he has become a bit of a celebrity. Budge has been known to gate-crash Cathedral events and make his presence known during morning prayers. He is popular with visitors, and the Dean is reported as saying that he brings comfort to those in torment:
“Sometimes people who come in are distressed, and we often find Budge sitting with them. I think some find him very therapeutic. Budge seems to bring people a lot of pleasure, and he is a very positive presence.”
But like most cats his favourite hobby is snoozing, and it seems that there is nowhere in the Cathedral – including the altar – where he has not on occasion lain his sleepy head. A cat with a rare sense of style and a large helping of chutzpah, one Christmas he was even found sleeping in baby Jesus’s crib in the Nativity scene!
Having heard and enjoyed Budge’s story we bid him a fond farewell and continue our journey around Norwich Cathedral. Half an hour later we meet up with him again. He’s removed himself from his position by the pulpit, and is now curled up on a plush cushion that someone has thoughtfully placed on top of one of the choir stalls. He’s sleeping peacefully, seemingly unaware of his many admirers taking photos and selfies.
There’s no doubt about it – Budge is a superstar. Enter “Norwich cathedral cat” in the Google search box and the return is a massive 1.3 million hits! Like all superstars he has his own Twitter feed, and currently boasts 4,630 followers. At the top of his feed is this quote, which seems an appropriate tribute to a much-loved cat who spends most of his life in a Cathedral:
For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God
Excerpt from Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart
Budge’s superstar status is confirmed by the fact that the Cathedral shop sells Christmas cards featuring him. The illustration shows him in front of a large Christmas tree, stretched out on a heating vent that is pumping warmth into the Cathedral. This is, reputedly, one of his favourite spots for a quick nap! Although it’s a bit depressing to find Christmas cards on sale nearly four months before the big day, it’s great to see the affection in which Budge is held and to know that he’s doing his bit to raise funds for the maintenance of his magnificent second home.
St Julian, her calling and her cat
Although he’s the undoubted star of the show, Budge isn’t the only cat to be seen at Norwich Cathedral. One of its stained-glass windows is dedicated to St Julian of Norwich, and in the bottom left-hand corner is the image of a cat.
The remarkable woman featured in the window was born in Norwich in 1342. The name with which she was baptised is lost to history. In 1373 she contracted the plague and experienced several mystical visions as she fought her terrible illness. After a miraculous recovery she determined to devote the rest of her life to God, becoming an anchoress (hermit) at the church of St Julian in Norwich and adopting Julian as her name.
Julian, sometimes also known today as Juliana of Norwich, Dame Julian or Mother Julian, spent all her days and nights in a small cell measuring just over 9 square metres (100 square feet). The cell had a window into the church which allowed her to receive holy communion during Mass, and a window to the street to enable her to give guidance and spiritual support to anyone requesting it. There was also a small window through which a maidservant could pass her food and drink.
Although hers was a holy existence it must also have been very lonely, and Julian is believed to have developed a close relationship with the cat that she was allowed to keep in her cell to control rats and mice. It is this relationship that is referenced in the stained glass.
Julian was controversially ahead of her time in describing God as both mother and father, and in calling Jesus our “true Mother” from whom we receive our beginning, our true being, protection and love.
One of her core messages was “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s an idea that we may all wish to cling to in these, the most turbulent of times.
Julian’s writings, the Revelations of Divine Love, are the earliest surviving works in the English language written by a woman. You can learn a little more about her by watching this short video that I tracked down on YouTube.
The video makes no mention of Julian’s relationship with her cat, understandably perhaps as this may be thought to trivialise a significant, holy life. Personally, however, I’m drawn to the idea that such an exceptional, mystical woman could develop a tender, caring relationship with a simple, furry hunter of rats and mice. In some circles Saint Julian is unofficially known as the patron saint of cats. I’m certain Budge would approve!
This will probably be my last post of 2021. Planning it, I thought I’d write a retrospective piece, focussing on the highlights of the last 12 months. Well that wouldn’t take long, would it, given that there haven’t been any highlights. It’s true that 2021 hasn’t been quite as bad as 2020, but not by much. On balance it’s another year I’d rather forget. But, thankfully, there have been a few compensations along the way.
That was the year that was (all jabbed up, with nowhere to go!)
When I left work in 2018 the plan was that we’d do a lot of travelling, see more of the world and the UK too. And for the first 18 months it worked out just fine, with big trips to the USA – centred on Yellowstone National Park – and New Zealand, as well as shorter stays in various corners of our own country. But since Covid struck nearly two years ago we’ve spent just a couple of nights away from home, in the nearby county of Rutland. Retirement wasn’t meant to be like this!
But at least we’ve had our jabs. Two doses each during the spring, and more recently booster doses to counteract the threat of the omicron variant. We remain healthy and feel safe, but the restrictions and continuing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic have so far deterred us from planning any trips next year. Seems like we’re all jabbed up, with nowhere to go.
So, with our passports gathering dust all year and our UK horizons severely restricted, we’ve had to resort to simple pleasures.
One of the few bonuses of Covid has been that, with long distance travel out of the question, we have found ourselves exploring much closer to home. We’ve finally visited some places that have been on our list for years – decades, even – but never made it to the top. And others that we were totally unaware of, even though they’re in our own backyard. So it’s not been a wasted year, but not at all what I would have predicted when I started drawing my pension in 2018.
The internet has made lockdown life much more tolerable than it would have been had Covid struck before the world went online. During 2021 I’ve spent a lot of time on the web listening to folk music, an interest that dates back to my childhood. We’ve also attended several online gigs on Zoom, and every week I’ve listened to several regional folk music shows via online catch-up radio. We even plucked up the courage to attend one day of the Derby Folk Festival in person, and enjoyed seeing Ninebarrow – a folk duo we discovered online during the first lockdown – perform live.
But more than anything else the thing that has made this year bearable has been the company of our visiting cats, Milky Bar and Malteser. Being at home just about all the time has allowed us to get to know them much better than before, and they’ve repaid us by spending lots of quality time here, sleeping, playing, making mischief and eating any treat we’ve put in front of them. Our Covid experience would have been a whole lot bleaker without those two fabulous felines.
So that’s it, that was the year that was. Of course, it could have been been much, much worse. But I can’t pretend it’s been a bundle of laughs either. Let’s all hope 2022 will be a whole lot better.
Christmas is a time for gift giving, and in that spirit I’d like to present you with this link to a recording on YouTube of Benjamin Zephaniah reading his wonderful Christmas poem that invites us all to Be Nice to Your Turkey this Christmas.
Benjamin was born and raised in Birmingham, England, and is a celebrated dub poet whose work “is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls ‘street politics’.” Many years ago Mrs P and I were thrilled to attend one of his gigs. It was nowhere near Christmas, but his performance of this poem still brought the house down. If you’re not familiar with his work do click on the link and listen to the man do his stuff – it may well be the best two minutes and eight seconds of your whole Christmas!
My second gift to you is Joan Baez singing The Cherry Tree Carol. I’ve already observed that my interest in folk music dates back to my childhood. My father loved Joan Baez’s singing, and had several vinyl albums of her work. I grew to love them too, and remember playing and re-playing her records on our ancient radiogram (anyone else remember radiograms?) until the grooves were worn away.
Although dating back in some form to the early 15th century, the Cherry Tree Carol as we now know it was collected by Francis James Child (1825-96) during the second half of the 19th century and included in his famous anthology of English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I am not a religious man, but the spirituality of this song moves me deeply. And who can possibly listen to Joan Baez’s fabulous folkie voice without getting a lump in their throat? Listen and enjoy!
And finally …
Thank you for reading my blog, and for sharing your comments with me from time to time. With Covid restrictions curtailing travel opportunities and limiting our social interactions, I’ve really appreciated exchanging ideas and experiences with WordPress pals from across the globe. You’ve helped make a difficult year more bearable.
I wish you all a happy, peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and fulfilling New Year.
Our next-door neighbour Jim sadly died at the start of the year. Jim was a great guy, always up for a chat and a joke. He loved gardening, and you could often see him weeding, pruning and primping his immaculate little plot. But with a love of gardening came a loathing of cats, because of the unspeakable things he claimed they did to his flowerbeds. Milky Bar was always persona non grata at Jim’s.
Since Jim passed, his property has remained unoccupied, and Milky Bar has taken full advantage. A few days ago we spotted him curled up on the roof of Jim’s shed, lapping up the weak November sunshine. While Jim was alive such behaviour would have been unthinkable. Our lovely neighbour would have been up and at him, cursing colourfully and swiftly driving the unwelcome intruder away. Now, however, different rules apply, and Milky Bar has claimed squatters’ rights.
Of course, Milky Bar has claimed squatters’ rights in our own garden for several years, although “snoozers’ rights” might be a more accurate description. Every corner of our little garden has been explored, and most of them have been slept in.
Now, I’m not saying that Milky Bar is lazy. He will sometimes chase an insect and may even stalk the occasional pigeon, but his ambition seems to be to spend as much of his life as possible dozing peacefully, wherever the fancy takes him. Recently we’ve noticed he’s putting on a bit of weight, and is looking quite stout around the middle. I can only assume this is a consequence of his personal fitness regime, which involves countless hours of horizontal, eyes-closed “exercise”.
Milky Bar is very good at dozing, and plainly likes to dedicate his days to a hobby at which he excels. If dozing were a sport in the feline Olympics, Milky Bar would be up on the podium, gold medal dangling proudly round his neck. But he’d be fast asleep, naturally.
Milky Bar isn’t unique amongst cats in his love of sleep, although he is a particularly fine practitioner of the art. Here’s what American writer, critic, and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970) wrote on the matter:
Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many different ailments, but I have never heard of one who suffered from insomnia.
If you suspect I’m exaggerating and may be maligning our four-footed friend, I would draw you attention to the photographic evidence accompanying this post. Mrs P always keeps her camera handy, just in case some rare bird or butterfly alights in our garden to say hi. This never happens, of course, but her photographic skills are engaged almost daily as she documents Milky Bar’s activities. Or maybe that should be his “lack of activities”?
What amuses me most of all is Milky Bar’s sense of entitlement. He clearly believes it is his right to sleep wherever he likes, whenever he likes and for just as long as he likes. But I suppose this should come as no great surprise, for as the late Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) – one of the wittiest writers ever to grace the English language – delighted in pointing out…
In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.
But to be clear, I have absolutely no problem with Milky Bar’s sense of entitlement. He’s welcome to spend time in our garden whenever he wishes. The last 18 months have been very difficult, courtesy of Covid-19 and the measures needed to help mitigate its effects. But a visit from Milky Bar has always raised our spirits, even on the darkest of days.
It matters not one bit to me that, for most of the time he spends in our presence, the little fellow is fast asleep. It’s plainly very exhausting being Milky Bar, and the best way of recuperating is to snooze the day away. And who can blame our brave little soldier for taking care of himself in this manner? After all, it’s a cat’s life. It’s a wonderful life.
We’re in the garden room, enjoying a mid-morning cup of tea and nibbling on biscuits, chatting idly about this and that. Suddenly Mrs P stops mid-sentence, points through the window and yells animatedly “New cat, new cat!” I peer out and there he is, a handsome tabby with white boots striding confidently along the top of the fence that divides our garden from our neighbour’s to the rear.
He works his away around the fence, then hops down on to the compost bin and into the garden. Immediately he goes into overdrive, sniffing here, there and everywhere, and spraying liberally, advising any that dare follow of his visit.
Mrs P grabs her camera and fires off a few shots through the kitchen window. The cat seems blissfully unaware of our presence – or maybe he’s a bit of an exhibitionist – and after exploring the nooks and crannies of our little estate he settles down, cocks one leg in the air and starts licking his bum. No dignity, no style, no shame. But we forgive him because he’s as cute as a field full of fluffy kittens.
Having secured photographic evidence of the visit we turn our attention to another urgent matter: what are we going to call our new guest. It’s become a tradition at Platypus Towers that all visiting cats will be named after brands of chocolate or some other confectionary item. Don’t ask me why we do this for, like most traditions, the truth of its origins are lost in the mists of time. Suffice it to say that this little ritual has served us well for many years.
Many cats have dropped by since we retired, have had their photos taken for posterity and have been duly christened. There’s Milky Bar and Malteser, of course, both of whom still visit daily and think of our garden as their second home. Other cats have been and gone: Flake, Oreo, Titan, Toblerone, Mars Bar and Minstrel to name just a few. All named in honour of our favourite confectionary items. So what on earth are we to call out latest visitor?
After much debate we settle on “Yorkie.” For overseas readers unfamiliar with the brand, Yorkie is a chunky chocolate bar, much loved by macho male truck drivers if a controversial TV advertising campaign is to be believed. But Mrs P and I enjoy them too, so it seems entirely appropriate to name our new feline friend after them.
Having thoroughly explored and scent-marked our garden, Yorkie takes his leave. We may never see him again, of course, he may simply be passing through on his way to the Promised Land. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he’s seen potential in our humble little garden, and won’t be able to resist getting to know it better.
So, beware, Milky Bar! And watch your back, Malteser…there’s a new kid on the block!
Next Saturday, (8 August), is International Cat Day. To mark the occasion, this post tells the story of a cat who first came into my life almost 60 years ago.
Mum and Dad twigged early on that I was crazy about animals, so when I was about eight years old we got a cat. It was a Siamese, and boasted an impressive pedigree. The neighbours thought we were getting above ourselves, way too big for our boots. Why couldn’t we make do with a tabby or a basic black-and-white job, just like everyone else down our street, they demanded peevishly.
In truth, however, the choice of a pedigree-toting Lilac Point Siamese had little to do with social pretentiousness. Rather, it was a simple matter of financial logic. “Our Mo,” as we called him, had a slightly mis-shaped (square-ish) head, meaning he would never win prizes on the show circuit. As a result we got him dirt cheap, and could therefore afford to eat for the rest of the week!
I can clearly remember my excitement, dashing off to school the next day to tell my class teacher, Miss Milbourne, about our new arrival. Miss Milbourne was a formidable battle-axe, at least 120 years old by my reckoning at the time, and built like a World War 2 American tank.
“Please miss, please miss,” I whined, “we’ve got a CAT!”
“Hrrmph,” Miss Milbourne grumbled moodily, “cats!” How is it that some people can invest so much contempt in a single word, a word just four measly letters long? The subject was never mentioned again.
Despite Miss Milbourne’s evident disapproval, I quickly came to worship Our Mo. There was so much to admire about him, including an uncanny ability to catch birds in mid-air and a visceral hatred of dustmen (aka “trash collectors” in North America).
Our Mo quickly learned how to open the living room door, leaping up to the lever handle and pulling it down with his paw to release the catch. After this it took him just a second or two to hook his paw around the edge of the door – which would now be slightly ajar – and ease it open. This neat trick enabled him to take himself off to bed whenever he felt like it.
When we first had him, Mum tried to persuade Our Mo that if he wanted to sleep on my bed it would have to be in a sturdy paper bag. I don’t think that lasted a week, and pretty soon he’d abandoned his paper bag and was lying wherever he chose. Often that would be in my bed, his head on the pillow facing mine, purring softly and twitching as he dreamt.
In his younger days Our Mo was a bit of a bruiser. He would regularly exact violent revenge on any other cat encroaching on his territory. One woman from across the road complained that we should teach our cat some manners, and do more to keep him under control. Even at my tender age, I recognised this was a preposterous suggestion. Cats will be cats.
Anyway, Mum and Dad didn’t like this woman much, and the fact that our cat was regularly able to give her cat a good pasting was a source of great vicarious pleasure. The only cat Our Mo ever tolerated in our garden was the next door neighbours’ elderly moggie, who was apparently given special visiting rights on the understanding that he knew who was boss.
Our Mo also terrorized the local wildlife, and as well as birds would regularly bring home mice and shrews. We’d have preferred him to leave nature alone, but like I say cats will be cats, however much we might wish they’d tone it down a bit.
One morning Our Mo laid a fully grown rat outside the back door and stood proudly beside the corpse, waiting for his hunting talents to be admired. Dad must have been at work because I can remember Mum getting very distressed. I was told to stay indoors, the cat was chased off with a flea in his ear (a bit of a change from where his fleas could normally be found!), and the next door neighbour was summoned and told to bring a shovel to dispose of our cat’s unwelcome trophy.
Once, and only once, Our Mo met his match. One day he came in from his adventures drooling at the mouth, sneezing violently and looking very sorry for himself. He was in a terrible state, and it was quickly decided he had to go to the vet.
This in itself was a bit of an ordeal. The vet’s surgery was several miles away and we had no car, so he had to be taken by bus. We didn’t have a pet carrying basket. I don’t know if they were even invented in those days, but if they were we wouldn’t have been able to afford one. So instead, Our Mo had to be taken in a zip-up shopping bag with just his head sticking out of the top.
Siamese cats have a loud, plaintive miaow at the best of times, but the stress and indignity of travelling by bus in a shopping bag with just your head poking out provoked a non-stop vocal protest that sounded for all the world as if he was being tortured. We couldn’t wait to get off the bus and away from the accusing eyes of our fellow passengers, who plainly believed an act of unspeakable animal cruelty was in progress.
The vet examined our cat thoroughly, thought for a bit and asked if we had toads in our neighbourhood. Mum gave me a stern look, and I had to admit that although there were none on the riverbank that backed on to our garden, one of my collection of pet toads – my second best specimen, known as Walter – had gone AWOL a few days previously.
The vet’s diagnosis was that our cat had encountered Walter in the garden and had tried to dispatch him with a swift bite to the neck. However, he explained, toads are blessed with special glands to help them cope with just this sort of emergency, glands that can release a noxious irritant producing a swift and massive allergic reaction in the attacker. Case solved. The cat was given a vitamin shot and instructed to rest. I was given a telling off and instructed to keep better control of my outdoor menagerie in future.
Talking of trips to the vet, Mum was a very proper lady who had certain standards, and one day she decided that Our Mo’s feet were unacceptably smelly. The wretched creature was dragged off to the surgery again, where the long-suffering vet had to sniff his paws. Poor man, seven years training to be a vet, and he ended up snorting a cat’s feet to earn a living!
To make us go away the vet advised that we dip Our Mo’s paws in TCP (a particularly stinky disinfectant) every night, which resulted in them stinking of TCP instead. Definitely a case of the cure being worse than the illness. The neighbours thought we were completely out to lunch, and in this instance you have to see their point.
Our Mo cat died when I had just turned 18. I have no brothers or sisters and was a bit of a loner, so when the cat’s kidneys failed and we had to have him put down it felt as if a great chasm had opened up in my life. I can remember the three of us – Mum, Dad and me – hugging each other and gently sobbing in the living room. He was truly one of the family, a real character, and we missed him dreadfully.
A few months later I went to university. I’ve always thought that it was probably a good thing that Our Mo had already passed on when I left. He would never have understood why I wasn’t at home any more, and would probably have pined. Mum and Dad knew he was irreplaceable. They never had another cat.
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Follow these links to read about some other cats who’ve crossed my path over the years
Click here to read about Sid, one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever met, as dapper as a card sharp at the opera, who broke our hearts in 2014
Click here to read aboutMilky Bar, a cheeky chap who is the undisputed king of our Derbyshire suburban Serengeti
Click here to read about Malteser, an unmitigated rogue who visits us whenever he needs a snack
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that ownership of our garden is claimed by two visiting cats. Although Malteser and Milky Bar are pals – we think they live together in a house further up our estate – they are very different characters. Throughout the pandemic Milky Bar has been content to abide by the government’s tough Covid restrictions. He obeys the rules on social distancing, keeping at least two metres away from us at all times and never coming indoors for a bit of illicit socialising. Milky Bar is a model citizen, and deserves a knighthood.
The same cannot be said for Malteser. If the local constabulary knew what Malteser’s been up to in recent months they’d have fined him £200. Multiple times in fact, probably every day. Such is his disrespect for the law he would most likely have ended up in chokey. Malteser is an unmitigated rogue.
OK, I admit it, Mrs P and I have encouraged Malteser’s wayward ways. When travel opportunities were drastically curtailed by the pandemic and we found ourselves pretty much confined to our house and garden for months on end, we decided it was a good time to develop the relationship with our ‘borrowed’ cats.
Recognising that the best way (the only way?) to a cat’s heart is through his stomach we invested heavily in packets of Vitacat Filled Pockets, which the packaging explains are crunchy pillows with a soft centre. They’re available in beef, chicken and salmon flavours, and guaranteed to tickle the fancy of the fussiest felines.
To start with we stood in the doorway leading out to the garden and tossed pillows onto the patio in front of our feline friends. After a cautious investigation both cats wolfed them down greedily. Milky Bar pronounced himself happy with this arrangement, but Malteser soon calculated that there might be more to be gained by getting up close and personal First, he approached us on the doorstep to have his ears rubbed and back scratched. Within a few days he was brave enough to follow us indoors, stopping off first in the utility room to stare, transfixed, at the washing machine. Pretty soon he found his way into the kitchen, taking pillows from our fingers while purring loudly.
It’s a ritual now. The centrepiece of any visit from Malteser is feeding him by hand. Mostly we sit on a kitchen chair and hold a pillow in front of him. He stands on his back legs, putting two paws on our knees to give himself extra balance while he reaches up for the tasty treat. A couple of quick crunches later the pillow has been swallowed and a few crumbs have been dropped unceremoniously onto the tiled floor. And then he looks imploringly into our eyes, eagerly awaiting a repeat performance. All the time he’s purring as loud as a chainsaw, making sure we know that his continued affection depends on a steady supply of pillows.
Having plucked up sufficient courage to cross the threshold Malteser soon decided he might as well explore the rest of the house. He particularly likes the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms, study and library. His idea of heaven is to roll on his back on the stairs, showing his belly while inviting us to fondle his ears. Honour having been duly satisfied, he climbs another three or four stairs before rolling on his back again and demanding we pay him further homage.
Upstairs there’s a whole new world for him to explore. In Mrs P’s study he likes a game of attack the piece of scrap paper, balls of which he obviously perceives as mice that need to be swiftly despatched to rodent heaven. He’s also fascinated by the door, which he tries to hook open with his paw. Then he’s off to have a sniff around the bathroom, and would happily drink from the toilet if we’d let him.
Malteser also enjoys visiting the library, particularly now we’ve set up a bed for him on the old sofa. If he’s in the mood he’ll snooze there for an hour or so, while Mrs P and I get on with the rest of our lives. It’s good to know that he feels so comfortable in our house, trusting us totally.
But he remains his own cat, beholden to no one, and when the time is right he makes it clear that he wants to leave us. And leave us he does, trotting off into the garden and over the fence with scarcely a backwards glance. We’re under no illusions: Malteser is an advocate of free love, and although we are doggedly faithful to him we’re certain he has relationships with other households up and down our street. But we can forgive his dubious moral character, recognising that his frequent visits have made the Covid lockdowns more bearable.
And anyway, we know Malteser will be back before too long. A cat and his tasty pillows can’t be separated for long, particularly if a couple of mugs are available to feed him those pillows by hand.
Pillow Talk : An ode to Malteser during lockdown (with apologies to UB40, a wonderful 70s/80s reggae band from Birmingham, England)
Cat in mi kitchen what am I gonna do?
Cat in mi kitchen what am I gonna do?
I'm gonna feed that cat that's what I'm gonna do
I'm gonna feed that cat
It’s Christmas Eve afternoon. We’re sitting in the garden room, listening to music and watching the midwinter sun die slowly in the western sky. Overhead, gangs of starlings flock back to their roost, chattering noisily to one another as they pass. Then, to our right, a familiar clatter. It can mean only one thing: our good friend Milky Bar, the visiting cat who calls our garden home, has leapt onto the rickety fence that separates our property from Jim’s.
Yes, there he is. But something’s wrong. Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance. Today, however, he’s struggling, jerkily swaying to the left and then to the right, like a drunken tightrope walker in a tornado. Indignity – and possibly serious injury – seems just seconds away.
But when we look more closely we realise he’s already injured. Milky Bar’s standing on three legs, holding his right front paw clear of the fence. It looks badly swollen, and we can tell by his demeanour that he’s in a lot of pain.
Maybe he’s broken a bone in a freak accident? Perhaps he’s ripped out a claw fighting with a cat that dared invade his territory? Or has an infection set in, sending poison coursing through his frail little body? This look serious.
For several minutes Milky Bar maintains a precarious balance on the fence, before finally taking a leap of faith into our garden. As he lands a shockwave runs through his whole body, and he immediately snatches his damaged paw back into the air. He just stands there looking stunned and dishevelled, apparently unable to take another step. The boisterous, confident cat we know and love is gone, and he looks so fragile that a gentle puff of wind could topple him.
We discuss what to do. If we knew where he lives we’d go fetch one of his family, but Milky Bar’s domestic arrangements have always been a mystery to us. We agree that if he doesn’t move on after a few minutes we’ll bring him into the house, keep him warm and give him some food. We’ll even try to track down an emergency vet, though on Christmas Eve in the middle of a pandemic that could be tricky.
Finally, after an agonising wait for all parties, Milky Bar gathers himself and hobbles off slowly towards the area of the estate where we suspect his family lives. He looks so sad, so crushed, and we fear that we may never see him again.
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We spend a restless night, haunted by the prospect of losing another “borrowed” cat. It happened once before when Sid disappeared suddenly and without trace, and we can’t bear the thought of history repeating itself.
Christmas Day dawns and we work our way through the familiar routine: opening presents, phoning family, whacking a turkey the size of a small ostrich into the oven. It’s business as usual, but our spirits are subdued as we worry about Milky Bar’s fate. We scan the garden every few minutes, but he’s nowhere to be seen. We fear the worst.
And then, when we’ve all but convinced ourselves that he’s not coming back, Milky Bar appears. He’s limping badly and his paw is still swollen, but at least he’s made it through the night and must be feeling a bit better to venture away from home. A couple of minutes later he leaves, but we reassure ourselves that he’s on the mend.
We don’t see him again for the next couple of days, and our anxieties start to return. In particular we worry that infection has taken hold, perhaps because his family were unable to find a vet to give him some urgently needed antibiotics during the festive holiday. But still we check the garden regularly, hoping for good news.
And finally, at last, our borrowed cat re-appears, cheekily peering up at us through the kitchen window. We can tell immediately that he’s feeling much better. The sparkle’s returned to his eyes, and he’s moving more freely.
To reward his courage we offer our brave little soldier some cold roast turkey, tossing it onto the patio in front of him. Milky Bar’s on it in a flash, tucking in greedily and looking cuter than ever. Clearly, this moggie’s got his mojo back.
Then, to round off a perfect day, Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also puts in an appearance. Never one to turn down food, he wolfs down some turkey too.
Having filled their faces, the two cats swagger off in search of their next adventure. But hopefully this time Milky Bar will take a little more care. It’s been an anxious few days, and we could do without a repeat performance any time soon.
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Postscript – do you want to know more about Milky Bar and Malteser? Follow the links below for earlier posts featuring the feline superstars