There were raised voices in the kitchen that morning, though I couldn’t make out what the argument was about. I had a good idea though, and when I entered the dining room, the evidence confirmed my suspicions.
The wallpaper behind the door was hanging in ribbons from about eighteen inches above the floor, and the cat, now curled up on the back of the sofa, was purring contentedly.
My spirits sank. It had already massacred the wallpaper in the hall and my mother would be livid, blaming my father once again for having brought the cat home. I knew why he’d done it; because it cracked him up to see me with my imaginary pets, stroking, feeding and playing with thin air the way I did.
I’d loved the cat from the moment it arrived, but its presence was a source of constant conflict. And I hated conflict. I seemed to wither when my mother was angry; it was as though the sun had disappeared behind towering dark clouds. I crept around trying not to be noticed, to avoid all this anger targeting me. It could be days before the sun would emerge.
She’d complained angrily about the hairs the cat shed, not to mention its wallpaper-stripping activities. I tried to clean up the hairs before she arrived home from work every day, but there was nothing I could do about the wallpaper.
They argued all that morning, and then she said from now on the cat must live in the outhouse. It would prefer to live there, she said, though I wasn’t so sure once I saw the way it streaked up the garden to get into the house whenever the door opened.
I made a bed for the cat in its new home, and visited it daily, but often it deserted me and went to sit on the kitchen doorstep. It was access to the house it wanted, not me.
I didn’t mind. I loved the way it rubbed its furry cheeks against my bare arms, and how it sometimes climbed on my shoulders and kneaded my scalp, drooling copiously. I never tired of watching, stroking and listening to its throaty purring.
My mother softened a bit when the cat had three lovely kittens, and once they’d opened their eyes, she let them into the house. But not the cat, who sat on the windowsill, looking bleakly in at us. My stomach churned with sadness, as my mother glared at the cat, even whilst she was cuddling its kittens.
Then one day, the cat took its kittens and hid them away. I never saw them again, though I searched everywhere. Neither of my parents seemed overly concerned, though my Dad stroked my hair and said it was for the best. At that time I couldn’t understand how this could be so, but I see things more clearly now.
One Sunday morning, I awoke to find that the cat had climbed through the larder window, where my mother had placed a freshly roasted chicken intended for lunch that day. It was sitting on the lawn, surrounded by bones, chewing ferociously like there was no tomorrow. It knew trouble was on the way.
Burdened with bad news and guilt, I did what I’ve always done; got it off my chest right away.
She was in bed, and when I told her, she sat bolt upright, put her fists to either side of her head and screamed the house down. I hurtled downstairs, swept the greasy cat up into my arms and headed for the fields behind the house. I heard them searching and calling for me all day, and then towards suppertime my Dad found us and brought me and the cat home, saying she wasn’t angry any more.
Clearly she was, though. Because a week later, when I got home from school, the cat had disappeared.
My mother told me that a friend had approached her and said she desperately wanted our cat for her little girl. She said the girl was younger than me and was pining day and night for a cat. Our cat. And she felt she just couldn’t refuse.
I minded dreadfully, but I believed her. I should have known better; I couldn’t have been thinking straight. Or maybe I was just weary of the constant conflict.
A couple of years later, in an unguarded moment, she let slip that the cat had been taken to the vet.
Seeing my stricken face, my father intervened, saying that the vet was sure someone would volunteer to give the cat a home. It was such a beautiful tabby, the vet had said.
Yeah, right. Like when you want a cat, the first place you go is the vet, because they’ve got all the space in the world to keep unwanted pets, haven’t they? Just waiting for someone to come along and claim them.
Over the years I’ve thought a lot about the cat; about how much blame attached to me. Had I been kind enough to it? Maybe if I’d loved the cat a bit more, they wouldn’t have dared take it away like that. Maybe if I’d kicked up a bigger fuss at the time, they might have found the time and the inclination to try to retrieve it. Perhaps not, though. Maybe it would have been too late anyway.
It’s clear to me now that the ownership of animals calls for reserves of courage; the conviction to do what you know deep down is right and proper to defend their interests, regardless of the hardship and the consequences.
I’ve learned that letting them into your life exposes you to a never-ending well of sadness and regret which can remain with you, long after they’ve disappeared from your life.
I’ve learned that guilt can eat you up inside, until you’re almost paralysed by the thoughts of what you should or should not have done.
But most of all, I’ve learned that my mother told lies.
Sandra Crook lives in Cambridgeshire, UK and spends several months a year cruising the French waterways with her husband in their dutch barge, Desormais. Links to published work, cruising reports and photos at http://www.castelsarrasin.wordpress.com.