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Paw Prints in the Moonlight
WINTER: THE RESCUE
The icy January storm wailed through the crannies and spouts of the large old house as I stared at the scrubbed wooden table in the clinic of the vet, Scott Mackenzie. On the table lay a tragic sight. The silver-coloured she-cat was still bleeding, her flanks heaving with the desperate effort to stay alive. Next to her lay the barely living bodies of her two kittens. With immense difficulty I had rescued them and rushed them here for help.
'There'll be nothing I can be doing for any of them. They're all goners!' he said, with professional finality.
His Scottish brogue was oddly comforting in that sterile, clinical atmosphere. His examination had been short but thorough. I could see expressed in the eyes of Mac the Vet the professional conclusion that saving these cats was beyond the scope and skills of modern veterinary science.
'They're past hope, laddie,' he intoned gently, perhaps fearful of my reaction.
I winced at his words, not wanting to believe him as I gazed once more at the threesome lying before me on the table. Mac was right, of course, his expertise was beyond question. From appearances nothing humanely could bedone for these creatures other than a swift and painless death but I had stubbornly clung on to the hope that somehow they could be saved. In my optimism I had imagined that Mac could work a miracle and restore them to health. Then I would take the whole family home with me. I lived alone and, although I had a demanding professional life, I had long toyed with the idea of having a pet, but had never got around to acquiring one. As I looked at them again, the small hope I'd nursed started to die. They did appear to be beyond help.
The she-cat was obviously too far gone to save. I imagined that her scrawny body had once been beautiful, with its silver-grey fur and elegant tail, but she was drifting helplessly in and out of consciousness as she struggled to survive.
'She'll have to be put down,' Mac said in his no-nonsense manner. 'And it would be a mercy for the kittens to go as well,' he concluded. 'They're far too young to fend for themselves even if they survive.'
He left the room with the mother, intent on doing what had to be done. While he was away, I looked down at the two kittens. Both of them were male, 'Tommies' as Mac called them. One was coloured smoky blue-grey and the other was black, with minute white markings. Neither was any bigger than a shrew. Sorrowfully, I reached down to touch them, simply as a gesture of compassion. There was no warmth nor any other sign of life in the grey kitten's bodybut when my fingers stroked the black-and-white kitten he stirred ever so slightly and I thought I heard a faint sigh. Suddenly, the kitten moved, curling its tiny body as if to cuddle up to the warmth of my hand. Startled, I looked down again at this little waif. It had certainly moved but I didn't know whether this was because it was in the throes of death or not.
I found myself becoming very angry. 'Cats are very special creatures. It's grossly unfair that things like this should be allowed to happen,' I said to myself, overcome by the strength of my feelings.
I recalled long-forgotten incidents and experiences that years spent as a city-dweller had all but obliterated. The simple reaction of the kitten to the warmth of my hand revived a memory of myself as a small boy who naively believed that his love for animals, birds, flowers and trees would somehow serve to protect them. I'd thought that by cherishing 'Nature' in all its forms I could conserve it. I had not thought about such things for many years but, lately, these childhood feelings had started to resurface, inspired no doubt by my rural surroundings.
Images from the past flooded my mind as, with my finger and thumb, I gently stroked the body of the black kitten and waited for the vet to return. Best remembered were the days of my childhood spent in the woods and fields by the River Derwent and at the lake at Axwell ParkEstate where I was born. Out of nowhere came the memory of the hurt I felt when I fell out with my best friend, Billy Morrison, as we explored Winlaton Woods because he wanted to take some eggs from a blue-tit's nest we'd found in a hollowed oak tree and I wouldn't let him. I also recalled the shock one Sunday morning of finding a mallard duck flapping about in the meadow grass with half her wing shot away by the irresponsible hunters out for a morning's 'sport'. Like the poet Wordsworth, I had always loved nature and now, at twenty-nine years of age, living a bachelor existence and working in a country market town, these feelings were crystallizing into what was becoming a devotion to the wild creatures and landscapes of Northumberland.
It was 1966 and I had been given the opportunity to work as a lecturer in Educational Studies at Alnwick College of Education in Northumberland. Consequently, I had bought Owl Cottage, an eighteenth-century stone building which stood on a hillside above the River Coquet, with uninterrupted views across the village of Felton towards the distant Cheviot Hills. This was to be a new beginning, the fulfilment of a dream. In the past cats had always been a part of my life and the households of my childhood and youth were never without at least one cat. I loved them all, not least for their dignified and independent natures. Every one of them had been a friend and playmate and every one of themwas special. Cats have always fascinated me because they are so mysterious and difficult to analyse in spite of their domesticity.
I knew that cats probably first became domesticated in Ancient Egypt, about 15,000 years ago. For a time cats were even adored as representatives of gods, and their images were sculpted in precious metals encrusted with jewels. Once, on a working trip to Trinity College, Dublin, I was intrigued to find an illustration of a cat in the historic Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript made by the monks on the island of Iona in the eighth or ninth century. Fascinated by this reference I bought a replica bronze statuette of the cat. On the back of the statuette I found the following inscription: 'Cats are both homely and mysterious. They walk silently, mate noisily, they rid us of pests. Their eyes shine in the dark and their pupils change as the moon, from round to crescent. They are sacred to the Moon-goddess and familiars of the feminine.'
For me, cats have always been more than just domesticated animals. They have the 'Call of the Wild', which makes them forsake the comfort of their home from time to time to prowl and hunt, preferably in the fields and woods, but also in our gardens, streets and parks. These characteristics fascinate people across the world to the extent that, for many, keeping cats as pets becomes an addiction.
With these thoughts and sentiments running through myhead I suddenly felt an urge, almost an obligation, to do something even if it seemed reckless as well as hopeless. At this point Mac, having don*e his deed of mercy with the grey tabby, returned to deal similarly with the two kittens. On a sudden impulse, and to Mac's utter consternation, I scooped up the black-and-white kitten from the table and deposited him carefully into the pocket of my sheepskin jacket.
'You're a sentimental fool,' he said sternly, shocked by my action. 'The wee thing will suffer and die no matter what you do.'
'Well,' I replied, 'he might just as well die in front of my fire as anywhere else. Please send me the bill.'
With these hurried words of farewell I left an incredulous Mac shaking his head.
His words rang in my ears. 'Sentimental fool,' he'd said. How well I recalled the many times those words had been directed towards me, even by my own father, because of my passionate feelings for wildlife. Struggling with these emotions, I drove slowly home on the snow-packed roads and reflected on the harrowing events of the day.
The trip to the vet had followed what began as a normal, dull, grey January day. As I arrived home from work and got out of the car, I felt a heaviness in the air. Living in the country away from the enclosed life of the city had made me far more aware of changes in the weather. By noting howthe sky looked, the direction and strength of the wind, as well as the behaviour of birds and animals, my more experienced eye could forecast fairly accurately if any major changes in the weather were on the way.
'It will snow tonight,' a neighbour remarked as he walked his dog along the footpath past my drive.
'Looks like a storm's coming,' I called back.
He smiled and nodded in reply as he was tugged along by Butch, his massive black Labrador. Later, when it did snow, it was heavier than either of us expected.
After closing the garage doors I paused by the tall cypress tree to watch the flocks of crows wheeling noisily over their rookery, having returned from marauding the local fields. I loved to watch the sky at this time of day when the soft gentle light of evening slowly gave way to darkness. Sometimes there would be such a subtle toning of colours that the landscape looked like a Turner painting. Alone in my garden at such a moment I could indulge the thought that this was a private viewing for my eyes only. On other days, the colours of sunset would be so boldly red, orange and yellow that they mesmerized me with their beauty. I often reflected that I never had enough time just to watch and appreciate the sky. Tonight, though, there was no sunset - only overcast clouds that gave off a half-light.
As I dawdled, the air all around grew still and became electric. I stood spellbound, aware that something eventfulwas about to happen. Then it began to grow darker and I felt a sudden chill. Snow started to fall silently, driving the chaffinches and blackbirds from the bird-table to seek sanctuary in the hedges that fringed the wood at the end of my garden. Despite the cold, I stayed there for a few more moments, witnessing the first snowfall of winter. Suddenly, the tranquil scene changed dramatically and I was nearly swept off my feet by sudden gusts of wind that turned the shower into a blizzard. Covered in huge flakes of snow and numbed with cold, I hastily made for the patio door of the cottage.
Once inside, I felt besieged by the storm which was growing stronger by the minute. It rattled the back door and covered the window panes with pale shutters of snow. I shed my overcoat, brushing it free of snowflakes, and hung it to dry in the narrow hall. The sounds of the gale outside grew wilder but this only added to my feelings of safety and comfort inside the cottage. It was Friday and the weekend beckoned with its promise of rest and recreation. Icy draughts from the doors and windows swept around me but failed to dampen my good spirits as I put a match to the log fire and lit the candles around the sitting room. After a hot meal of grilled steak and fried potatoes, I settled down by the fireside with a book and a glass of wine for an evening of homely bliss. I was as yet unaware of the coming turn of events that would shatter my relaxation and change my life for many years to come.
The mellow chimes of the French clock striking seven awoke me from an armchair snooze. By this time the storm had moved on and I became aware of an all-pervading stillness. The fire had burned down to roasting hot embers that warmed me right through to my toes and my armchair was, at that moment, the most comfortable place in the whole world. But the particular quiet that comes after a storm is alluring and I couldn't resist the temptation to look outside and sample the night air. The view from my back doorway was bleak but breathtaking. The windblown snow had transformed the familiar scene into a wilderness of pure white. It felt bitterly cold and the air tasted dry and frosted like chilled wine. The sky had cleared and a full moon shone starkly down from a black background of shimmering stars unlike anything I ever saw in the polluted skies of the cities where I had lived for so many years. It thrilled me to imagine again that perhaps I was a solitary witness to this splendour. As far as I could see from my back door, none of my neighbours were sharing the beauty of this night. It was a Christmas-card scene so captivating that it held me there until I realized I was slowly beginning to freeze. I moved to return indoors.
Suddenly, the silence was pierced by the scream of an animal. It was a strident cry of pain, totally shattering the stillness that had followed the heavy snowfall. It was frightening and terrible to hear and in the midst of all the beautyaround me it seemed so unreal. I felt as if every sense in my body was switched to full alert. Shocked and alarmed, I strained to find out where it came from. Then I heard it again, a howl full of agony and distress. It sounded close by but I could see nothing. It came again and yet again. This time I thought I knew roughly the location it was coming from. Moving out to get a better view I found myself having to wade through powdery snowdrifts, slipping and sliding in my haste. In spite of shivering in the intense cold I pressed on without a thought for my inadequate clothing. I didn't have a coat on and I was only wearing my carpet slippers. Eventually, I reached the outskirts of the wood that led to Blackbrook Farm. Something squirmed in the snow ahead and wailed with the torment of moving. A silver-grey cat lay twisting and turning in a gin-trap which held it fast by the hind leg.
As I approached, the cat's struggles to escape became frenzied and I saw that the snow around it was heavily bloodstained. Shocked and distressed by the sight, I had to find a way to release it, but that proved far from easy. Demented by its injuries and panicked by my presence, it hindered my well-intentioned efforts with a fit of spitting and clawing. Scrambling about on my hands and knees in the snow, I eventually succeeded in prising open the jaws of the rusty trap which had bitten deeply into its leg. To my surprise, despite its severe wounds, the cat took off at highspeed through the snow and was quickly gone from sight. Breathless with exertion and badly scratched and bitten about the hands and arms, I struggled to find a footing on the frozen ground but managed to raise myself up. Still reeling from the shock of this sudden and unexpected experience, at first I didn't know what I should do, if anything. Where had the cat gone? Had it simply headed for the nearest cover? Was it now lying under some fir tree, racked with pain? Cold and wet, I decided to return to the cottage for comfort and medication, as well as time to think. A welcome glass of brandy, some first aid and a roasting in front of the revived log fire did much to restore my spirits.
As I thawed out I reviewed the situation. Thinking about what I had seen started to vex me. It was worrying to think about the injured cat and how desperately it needed help. 'I can't just leave things like that,' I said to myself aloud, but it wasn't really any business of mine. Perhaps I should leave it alone. After all, it was getting late and I was tired. Also, it wasn't the weather to go tramping around looking for an injured animal and either a fox or farm dog would most probably have got to it already. Even if the cat survived until daylight, the carrion crows, nature's scavengers, would soon dispatch it and that would be the end of it. Still, I had spent a childhood living with cats and I had a great fondness for them. It was an irritating dilemmafor me but after only a short tussle my conscience won the day and I resolved to try to track and find the cat. What I would do then was a matter for future consideration. Quickly fortifying myself with my sheepskin jacket, the thickest gloves I could find and Wellington boots, I armed myself with a walking stick and set off in pursuit before I could change my mind.
The cat's paw tracks in the snow were easy enough to pick out by the light of the moon, especially where they were spattered with blood. Under the trees it was harder to see the tracks, particularly as they meandered through a dense clump of blackthorn and sometime later through a plantation of young firs. I floundered through packed snow, breathing hard, as the trail plunged down a sharp incline. I slithered and fell as I tried to find it again after it had disappeared through an overgrown drainage ditch. Sweating profusely and already exhausted, I wondered where the cat was going: surely it should have given up by now. Abruptly, the tracks turned almost at a right angle as the cat headed, to my relief, over open country. This animal had a definite purpose in mind but I puzzled over what it could be. Tired and out of breath, I was already feeling that I'd had enough. I decided that if I didn't find it soon, I would turn back for home.
The trail suddenly became more direct and appeared to head for a tumbledown barn in the near distance. I had tomarvel at this animal's stamina, especially in places where it had literally dragged itself through the snow. It was hard enough for me to walk as I kept sliding and losing balance on the freezing ground.
Soon I was standing inside the opening of the derelict building. At first it was hard to see anything in the darkness, but after a time my eyes adjusted to the gloom. With the help of the moonlight reflecting off the snow outside, I began to search the darker corners where I thought a wounded cat might go. I had no luck there. Mystified, I started to examine the walls of the separate stalls because I thought a cat could perhaps climb up into a corner or some other hiding place that wasn't easy to see from the ground. At last, I found a pathway of bloodspots which traced the cat's passage to where a broken door gave access to an inner shed. The door had seen better days and I was easily able to wrench it open, but there was nothing inside except a rusty corn bin and some straw. I regretted not bringing a torch. Through holes in the timbers I could see that it had begun snowing again. The wind blew flakes of it through the gaps against my face and clothing as I searched around. It felt bitterly cold even in the shelter of the barn and I could feel a chill on my back from the cold sweat of my shirt. I worried that the search was probably foolhardy, but I was determined to persevere for a little while longer.
There was no sign of the cat anywhere but a closerinspection of the wall around a warped wooden shelf revealed more spots of blood and a well-defined route of scratch marks leading upwards. Judging from the signs I'd seen, the cat was bleeding badly and possibly wouldn't last much longer without help. It could be anywhere in the roof area and it probably wouldn't be safe for me to go up there even if I somehow managed the climb. Then I remembered that when I came in I'd noticed a ladder lying near the entrance to the barn.
Hurrying back to the front of the building I found the wooden ladder half-buried in dirt. Pulling it free I saw that two rungs were missing. It looked to be in a poor state but I thought it might be worth giving it a try. Quickly propping the ladder up against the wall where I believed the cat had climbed, I found it reached right up to where there was a sort of hatchway into the roof. The ladder must have been used in the past to gain access to a hay store in the loft. The hatchway didn't look too high so I thought I'd chance it. If I still couldn't find the cat after this effort, then I'd go home.
I cautiously inched my way up the rickety ladder. I was now more than ever determined to see this thing through to the end. I am not that keen on heights at the best of times but by now I knew that what I was doing was madly reckless. What if I fell and broke a leg? Would anybody find me? In spite of these acute anxieties, I continued to climb.
Pushing and shoving my way up against dusty, cobwebbedtimbers, I eased myself between the rotting planks and crawled out on to the floor above. Remnants of straw and hay were strewn all around and the impression I had was that everything was in a state of near collapse. Towards the rear end of the loft there was an opening to the outside, with a patch of windblown snow around it. Possibly this had once been a loading bay. Bird-droppings littered part of the flooring and looking up I could just make out the shapes of last summer's swallow nests. Shafts of moonlight seeped through the gaps between the sprung timbers of the roof and softly illumined the dark-beamed joists and warped floorboards of the loft stretching out before me. The question was, where had the cat gone?
As I slowly looked around I heard a wet licking sound which drew me to a corner where, amid the debris of leaves and straw, the silver-grey cat had come to rest. Not wishing to alarm it in any way and mindful of its claws, I cautiously approached and, from a safe distance, peered into the recess. Was this its den? Had it crawled here to die as badly wounded wild animals have been known to do? As I edged slowly closer, a moonbeam slanted through a hole in the roof and momentarily lit up the corner. I realized that I had been witness to the most powerful of all instincts in the animal kingdom. The silver-grey cat was a mother, driven by the maternal instinct to return to succour her two kittens. In front of me, a rough nest had been scraped together forher family. Not trusting the loose timbers to accommodate my weight while standing, I crawled nearer on hands and knees until I was at last able to inspect the family by the dim moonlight.
They were a pitiful sight. The kittens, as far as I could see were at most only a couple of weeks old and merely frail bundles of skin and bone covered in ragged fur. They hardly seemed to move at all, despite the she-cat's insistent licking as she worked feverishly to caress some life into them. They had obviously been left on their own for some considerable time. I stared aghast at what I'd found and it filled me with despair. The she-cat seemed oblivious to her own plight, determined to mother her kittens at all costs. Perhaps it was already too late, but I felt I had to make the effort to seek help for them, especially after making it this far.
Transporting them was more easily accomplished than I'd expected. I found a remnant of sacking, dusty with chaff and seed husks but dry and warm nonetheless. The she-cat watched me, wide-eyed and strangely gentle, as I carefully lifted her mangled body on to the sacking, followed by the tiny, frail kittens. She must have been in great pain as I moved her but all the fight and fear appeared to have bled out of her and she was content now that she was back with her kittens. There were a few anxious moments when I came to descend the ladder but, apart from a number of painfully bruising jolts, I succeeded in reaching the floor ofthe barn without mishap. From there I hurried home by a more direct and, I hoped, easier route than the one by which I'd come.
The ground outside was frozen hard and I found myself stumbling and skidding with the effort of carrying the cat and her kittens over frozen patches of snow and ice. I was more worried about their safety than my own and a couple of times I lost my balance and thudded down, saving them from dropping at the expense of falling hard. I was beginning to ache in places that I'd forgotten I had.
At one point I decided to cross a field in order to shorten the journey but it proved to be a time-consuming mistake. I found myself struggling through deep drifts and stumbling over concealed stones and other debris. Nevertheless, I kept going as fast as the deep snow and the care of my charges would allow.
I reached the cottage almost on the point of collapse. Even though I was feeling physically worn-out and emotionally drained, I wasted no time and began to summon help. It was just after 9 p.m.; the whole episode had taken a mere two hours yet it seemed an eternity since I had been relaxing in front of the fire. Directory Enquiries gave me a number to telephone and soon the three casualties were safe in the boot of my car as I drove as fast as conditions would allow, along roads covered in snow, to the local veterinary clinic in Alnwick. Their fate would soon be in the hands ofa professional and my task, thankfully, would be over. Or so I thought at the time.
Arriving home from the vet's some two hours later with the sole remaining kitten still, hopefully, warm and safe in my pocket, I felt weakened and fatigued by the evening's turn of events. It had all happened so quickly that it was difficult for me to fully comprehend that it really had occurred. The cottage was warm and friendly in contrast to the brutal weather outside and after the disappointment of losing the mother cat and her kitten, it was uplifting to feel the comfort of familiar surroundings again.
Gingerly, I removed the surviving kitten from my pocket and placed him with great care on to a woollen rug near the fire. At first I couldn't tell whether he was alive or not but suddenly the tiny creature sneezed, probably due to the dust in my pocket. It was at that moment I realized the enormity of the task that lay ahead of me. Here I was, expected to play nursemaid to a little wild animal that was only about two-weeks old and barely alive. I was totally inexperienced for this task and suddenly felt quite inadequate. What had I been thinking of to get myself into such a predicament?
The odds against me having any chance at all of rearing the kitten successfully were too far-fetched to even consider. But all my efforts throughout this evening had beenmotivated by feelings of compassion for a badly injured cat that, as it turned out, had been killed by human cruelty. I had brought the surviving kitten home as an act of mercy, rather than having it put to death, but I hadn't thought it through. I began to reflect that possibly I had been too impulsive. Nevertheless, as it was a problem of my own making I would just have to do what I could in the circumstances.
I was reminded of times past when, as a boy, I'd gone fishing for minnows only to find that my catch couldn't survive captivity in a jam jar. So I would trek back to the lake to set them free again. This felt like a similar situation except that this time I could not face the humiliation of taking the kitten back to the vet.
After a recuperative mug of tea and a short spell by the fireside, I felt in a better mood to tackle the problem. Anyway, I thought, the creature will probably pass away any minute now. The image of the injured she-cat returned to haunt me. I was suffering from feelings of guilt towards the kitten on behalf of my fellow humans who had killed his mother. As a lover of wild creatures and the countryside I know that gamekeepers and hunters use various trapping devices against animal life in the fields and woods, but I think the practice of using gin-traps is particularly wicked. Aimed at safeguarding flocks of pheasants and grouse so that the landed gentry and their guests can shoot them down in mid-August, it causes the deaths of innocent victims. Unsuspectinganimals, such as rabbits, weasels, pine martens, foxes and badgers, who step on the trap release a spring holding back serrated iron jaws which trap the animal's foot. Many creatures have been known to bite through their ensnared limb in order to escape, only to die later from blood loss or an infection; others, such as the mother cat, writhe in awful agony and face a slow and pain-filled death. Since that fateful night when the silver-grey cat died, I have made it my business to destroy gin-traps wherever I find them on my country walks.
My immediate and most pressing problem was what I could do to successfully rear this pathetic little creature, a true orphan of the storm. Whenever in my life I have been uncertain about what to do, I have found the best answer is to actually do something straightaway, but without panicking, and to think about it in depth later. I wanted to avoid making a terrible mistake, though: there was a life at stake here.
Grabbing the poker I wrestled the dying fire into an all-warming blaze. Then I embarked upon a course of action. I knew that the kitten needed to be fed as soon as possible. I remembered that somewhere in a copy of Reader's Digest I'd read an account of a woman who'd reared an abandoned litter of puppies who were only a few weeks old. Initially, she'd fed them by using a fountain pen to squeeze a kind of milky mixture into their mouths. Surely, I said to myself, Imust have an old fountain pen somewhere. Hurriedly searching through the congested rubbish in the drawers of my desk I retrieved an old Swan fountain pen. In great haste, I flushed out the dried ink sac and removed the pen nib. From the limited resources available to me, I filled the ink sac with some tinned evaporated milk which I fortified with halibut oil squeezed from a gelatine capsule. Next, I heated the mixture by immersing it briefly in a cup of warm water. I hoped that the kitten would accept this milky concoction.
I had never held any living thing which was as fragile as this. Holding the tiny body firmly, I gently opened the diminutive mouth with two of my fingers and, taking the pen sac in my other hand, I squeezed some of the milky solution into its mouth. The resulting reaction was both explosive and at the same time reassuring. The formerly dormant and almost lifeless body went into a convulsion of spluttering and gasping and then a minute pink tongue emerged to the accompaniment of gasps and wheezes. At least the little thing is still alive, I thought as I continued to squeeze some liquid into the tiny mouth. Gaining confidence from this show of life, I set about completing what his late lamented mother had started when I found her.
First of all, I cleaned the kitten all over. With cotton wool buds soaked in warm water I washed it down and cut away the matted tufts from its sparse fur coat. As all catlovers know, for cats washing is not only routine care, it is a way of life and I hoped what I was doing would be therapeutic. Soon, I noticed that the kitten's body had begun to tremble and quiver all over with barely audible sneezes and snorting noises as if its whole being was coming alive again. Wet and dishevelled-looking after its bed bath, it presented an endearing picture of frailty and baby-animal innocence.
There were bald patches on its head, hind parts and stomach, while its eyes were gummed shut with semi-hardened pus. In the gentlest way I could, I nursed the little being and then became afraid to do any more in case the attention caused it to go into remission and die on me. Using a hairdryer on a low setting, I dried it as best I could. Then placing it very carefully in front of the fire in a cardboard box lined with a blanket, I retired to my bed, weary and worn out by all the effort and worry of a dramatic night. I slipped at once into a relaxed doze, consoled by the thought that I'd done all I could for the kitten.
As I drifted off I mused upon my emotions which were already becoming attached to this little creature. I had saved it from what was almost certain death twice. Firstly, by freeing its mother from the trap and, secondly, by preventing the vet from putting it down because its chances of survival without a mother were nil. It began to register in my sleepy mind that I had accepted a challenge which would requireenormous luck as well as determination and effort. And then it dawned upon me that I was no longer thinking of the kitten as an 'it' but as a 'him'. Too tired to think anymore, I slipped into a deep sleep.
Fortunately, the following day was Saturday which I would normally spend at home. In view of last night's adventures, this was to prove fortunate in the kitten's struggle for survival. As soon as I awoke I remembered everything that had transpired the night before with startling clarity. I wanted to rush out of bed immediately and check that the kitten had not died during the night. I didn't, though, because I was scared of what I might find. As I lay in bed worrying I began to think negative thoughts like those I'd had the night before regarding the immensity of the task facing me. For one thing I very much enjoyed leading an independent life with as few ties and commitments as possible. Having a sick kitten to look after would certainly intrude upon my space and freedom. And ideally the little creature needed good nurturing from his mother for at least another month. 'Face reality!' I told myself. But the she-cat was no longer with us and I had impulsively, but nonetheless willingly, taken responsibility for at least trying to salvage something worthwhile from the tragedy. It was therefore my job to see it through to some kind of satisfactory conclusion. Resolving to deal sensibly with whatever I would find downstairs, I got out of bed.
There are many advantages to living in an ancient stone cottage with walls which are almost three feet thick. One of these is the insulation from the world outside, not only in terms of sound but also temperature. On the hottest days of summer the inside of the cottage is pleasantly cool, shielded by the thick stone walls from the heat outside. In winter the reverse is true as the heat from the fire is retained by those very same stone walls. Downstairs was still warm from yesterday's fire, giving it a homely atmosphere.
Apprehensively, I approached the box in which I'd placed the kitten. At first I couldn't see him but on closer inspection there he lay: a coiled mite of fur with only the slightest body movements which I took to be his breathing. I felt rewarded beyond my wildest hopes but knew it was too early to expect that everything would be alright.
Feeling really happy, I set about restoring the cottage to good order and soon the fire was blazing and the smell of coffee and grilled bacon filled the air so that everything felt cosy and warm, in sharp contrast to the wintry scenes outdoors. Overnight the weather had grown more severe and temperatures had dropped below freezing. Later, when I replenished the bird-table with the breakfast leftovers, the thermometer near the birdbath read -5C. Opening the front door to collect the milk required a supreme effort because the windblown snow had frozen and sealed the door edges to the frame during the night. It also requireda big effort to free the bottles from the ice which held them fast. The milkman must have had a superhuman struggle to deliver the milk at all. I was most thankful for his toil.
The open porch had been transformed overnight into an ice house, festooned with long icicles sparkling in the morning sun. Inspecting the frozen bottles of milk I saw that the blue tits had been there before me and had pecked neat little holes in the silver tops. Nearby, in a stand of pine trees across the road, a pair of magpies chittered in annoyance at me. Obviously, they also had their eyes on the milk.
The wintry scenery was breathtaking in its beauty but piercingly cold. The trees drooped under heavy garlands of snow. In addition there was an otherworldliness about everything, cloaked as it was in arctic white. The sound of the traffic was muffled as were the cries of the children sledging on the snowbanks above the river, a happy reminder of my own childhood in winters past.
Returning indoors, the temptation was to huddle up by the fire with a hot drink and observe the snowy wilderness through the glass of the patio door. Rousing myself from the desire to spend the day cosseted as a 'couch potato' in the armchair by the fireside, I began to address the more immediate problems of rearing the sole survivor of last night's storm.
That day was spent working urgently to save the kittenfrom reaching a life-threatening point of no return. I fed him with the fountain pen sac and kept him warm. I washed and cleaned him, stroking him with a cotton wool ball lightly dipped in lukewarm water to mimic his mother's licking and grooming behaviour. During it all I spoke tenderly to him to soothe him and encourage him to live. I did little else but minister to the kitten, even to the point of sitting next to his box, which lay close to the hearth, whilst I was sipping a hot drink. I sat by him, coffee mug in hand, watching him anxiously and speaking to him softly as he slept the day away.
Looking at him as he slept, I was in awe of the capacity of cats to sleep at will and with absolute relaxation. We have created the term 'catnap' to describe the luxury of a short but reviving sleep, often taken in the comfort of a favourite armchair. For cats, sleeping is not only restful but also a healing process and I fervently hoped that was the case for this kitten. Still, healing takes time. This kitten needed time to sleep in safety, as well as warmth, with food and lots of tender loving care. My cottage had been effectively turned into a nursing home to enable this tiny cat to live as a testament not only to his own instinct for survival, but to my adamant refusal to abandon him and, of course, to my commitment to his care.
I told myself all of this as I retired once more to my bed after a final check that the kitten looked to be sleeping peacefully, apart from occasional brief body spasms. I foundit difficult to sleep that night and kept waking to tiptoe downstairs to keep the fire going and alleviate my anxiety about the kitten. It was similar, I assumed, to looking after a baby or a sick child and I became aware that I was adopting essentially the role of substitute parent.
As I nursed the kitten through these anxious early days of our life together, I reflected on how Owl Cottage fulfilled a long-held ambition of mine to live in the country after enduring several years in London at the start of my career. It had always been my intention to have a pet, most probably a kitten, as soon as I had a house with a garden. My dream of a house and garden had now become a reality but a pet had not been quite so high on my agenda at that particular moment in time.
Since buying and making my home in Owl Cottage over a year ago I had very much enjoyed living alone but it looked as if fate had taken a hand in my affairs. Out of the blue, I now had another life to consider, albeit one that sadly might cease at any moment. This tiny wild creature in just a few hours had made me realize how empty my home life had been without another living thing to care for. I found that I was rapidly changing my mind about being a completely free agent. Indeed, I was growing to like the thought of having another living creature to share my home with. I began to rejoice in the idea, however challenging, of raising this kitten as a pet.
Sunday morning came with a deep winter look about it. All the window panes were frosted over with what as children we called Jack Frost stars. Downstairs the cottage remained warm and I could see in the dim light that there were traces of glowing embers left amongst the ashes. Soon I had the fire roaring up the chimney, bringing the cottage awake again. Now I had to address the question of caring for this very sick kitten still lying precisely where I'd placed him the night before in the cardboard box. As I lifted him out and cradled him in my hand, he felt just like a tiny bag of bones and I despaired at my lack of common sense in hoping that I could nurse him back to health. Feeding him from the pen tube proved a messy business and I doubted whether he got much into his stomach. It was like holding a lifeless sack and several times I thought he had died, only to be reassured by a cough and what passed for a whimper.
There was no apparent progress that day and the kitten just lay in the box, dormant, in a curved foetal position. I really believed that he was dying but I stubbornly persisted in taking him out every few hours to force some of the milky mixture into him. At times I felt like giving up in frustration and I sensed hopelessness in what I was attempting to do. Sometimes I thought about taking him back to the vet so that he could die in peace. But I didn't and I kept thinking, 'I'll give it one more try,' followed by another and yet another until the whole day passed in a succession ofdepressing attempts to achieve the impossible, I concluded that nothing short of a miracle was needed, but then miracles sometimes happen.
I felt very much the same on the Monday morning when I had to shake off all of these feelings in order to go back to work. After feeding and washing him I left the kitten, a black lump of fur in the box near the fire, with the feeling that it had all been a waste of time. In fact, it was with immense relief that I sped off to college. I was finding caring extremely hard going. Once there, I didn't tell any of my colleagues about my traumatic weekend because I couldn't face the strong possibility that all my best efforts to save the kitten were doomed to failure. Now that I was away from the cottage and my patient, I was back in the real world in which the childish fantasy of rearing a sickly, half-dead kitten was farcical even to my mind. With a sinking heart I drove slowly home at the end of the day, afraid at what I might find, with a part of me hoping he had died and so released me from emotional torment.
There had been another heavy snowfall during the afternoon and I had great difficulty negotiating the driveway to the garage. The cottage assumed a dark and gloomy aspect in keeping with my mood. I even wondered whether I should walk down the bank to the Northumberland Arms for a bite to eat and some alcohol to drown my sorrows at what might be waiting for me inside the cottage. I stood forseveral moments outside, considering this option and staring up at the myriad of stars in the vastness of space above me. Normally, this night-time view of the universe served to raise my spirits but tonight it did nothing for me. Perhaps, I decided, it would be best to see what the situation was first and then go to the pub afterwards. Forcing myself to put the key in the lock, I went inside. I thought let's do a quick check and then get out. I imagined that I'd find a stiff little body already in the throes of rigor mortis. Refusing to put on the lights, I shone a torch I'd taken from the boot of the car directly into the kitten's box.
The sight that greeted me was truly amazing. Instead of finding him lying dead the kitten must have heard me come in and was shuffling around, making what I assumed to be squeaks of hunger. Overcome with happiness at this development, I yanked off my coat and set to work with renewed optimism. I was filled with joy at finding him alive in spite of my worst fears. I never did get to the local pub that night. This creature was hanging in there with all the tenacity Mother Nature had endowed him with and it was truly wondrous to witness.
Two days later a further crisis developed. When I returned from work I found the kitten convulsing with chesty coughs. His nose and mouth were covered in phlegm and there was more pus around his eyes, which had still failed to open. Sick at heart, I coldly reviewed the situation. His conditionwas ultra serious, it was probably some form of influenza, possibly pneumonia or pleurisy. It might even be cat flu which I'd heard was almost incurable. Whatever it was I considered it likely to be fatal. This small creature could not keep on going against such odds. What should I do? I suddenly felt totally weary of it all, too weary to bother to take him to Mac's for the inevitable. I decided that I would continue to do everything I could for the little fellow and, if he did have to die, it would be on my lap.
Then a strange thing happened to me, something which I couldn't ever remember happening before: I began to weep uncontrollably. Much later, my feelings eased somewhat. Resigning myself to whatever might lie ahead, I began to deal with the situation as positively as possible.
Of course, I did what I could to treat his condition but I did it without hope. I bathed his face, and cleaned his nostrils and his mouth. I squeezed fresh orange juice into a cup and soaking the end of a cotton handkerchief in it, I dripped some into his open mouth so that he would get the vitamin C. I'd read somewhere that this was what people did in the olden days to unblock the throats of children who were dying of diphtheria. And all the while my tears flowed as my feelings overwhelmed me.
I had already grown to love this creature and I couldn't bear the thought of losing him now. I had put a huge emotional investment into trying to save the kitten andlooking down at him I felt as if it had all been for nothing. He lay limply in my hand except when the coughing convulsed him. All night long I continued these ministrations. It was important to me that I gave him as much comfort as possible because it was through my arrogance in believing that I could save him that he was suffering now. I wouldn't let him die alone. Sometime later during the night I forced a quarter of an aspirin into him. Then, exhausted, I fell asleep sitting in the chair, with the kitten on a towel in my lap.
I awakened feeling stiff and cold. It was just after six o'clock in the morning and still dark outside. The kitten still lay where I'd put him. He felt warm and had stopped coughing. I placed him in his box and then I loaded and stoked the fire into roasting flames. I needed to shave and shower as soon it would be time to leave for work. After a cup of tea I attended my patient. He was still alive but there was a sickly aura about him. I fed him and washed him as best I could. All the sorrow of the previous night had left me drained and I felt much relieved as if my tears had washed away the residue of tension which had accumulated since the rescue. It was again a relief to go to work for a brief respite but he was on my mind all day.
The next few days seem in retrospect to blend into one another as I continued to care for the kitten. I spent all my time at home looking after him. If I read or wrote anythingit was always close to where I could see and hear him. Fortunately, there were no more crises.
When I checked him on Saturday morning there appeared to be a change. Somehow, he looked different. It was perhaps the way he was lying in his box. No longer was he lying on his side in a huddled curve, rather he was upright in a more typical cat-like position with feet and paws tucked under him like a nesting hen, although I must say, a very tiny hen. When I lifted him he mewed softly. Could he possibly be on the mend? Adrenaline rushed through me and filled me with the excitement of new hope. This put a fresh vista on everything. I felt happy for the first time in days and everything around me seemed brighter and better. I was more than ever determined to do whatever was necessary to save this kitten if I could.
From appearances the kitten seemed little changed but at least now when I fed him, amidst the splutters and snorts, there seemed to be a relishing of the milky concoction. I thought I could just detect a very tiny tongue-licking action with what I interpreted as enthusiasm, albeit faint, but nonetheless there. His eyes were still gummed shut and the grey bald patches on his skin showed no signs of improvement but intuitively I could sense that this little fellow was putting up a tremendous fight for his life.
Optimistically, I began to believe that together there might be a chance for us to beat the odds. The only timethat I wasn't occupied doing things either for the kitten or myself was when I was dozing into sleep and this was when I had the time to think. This kitten's fight to live was testament to the enduring ability of living things to recover and adapt in the face of hardship if given help, support and, perhaps, some luck. Just before I fell asleep I had come to the conclusion that the kitten had been extremely lucky. And, furthermore, so had I. Tomorrow would tell, I believed, whether or not he really was on the mend. For the first time in several days I looked forward happily to the next morning.
Kittens grow up fast and two days in the life of a kitten is a long time compared to a human, so I was hoping to see a definite improvement in the condition of the kitten after a whole weekend of intensive care and nurture. As it turned out, I was not to be disappointed.
On Monday morning I arose bright and early to see how things were. The kitten lay coiled in a little fluffy ball, snuggled into the blanket in a corner of his box. No sign of life greeted me until I lifted him out and placed him gently on to a hand towel on my lap. He didn't seem strong enough yet to stand and he appeared very fragile. Holding him in my hand I attempted to feed him from the pen sac, only this time it wouldn't work. Inserting the business end of the sac into his tiny mouth, which as usual I had prised open, I squeezed carefully and nothing happened. I squeezed harderand the sac burst, spraying the evaporated milk mixture over the kitten, the kitchen table and my clothes. I suppose the fountain pen ink sac had never been intended for this purpose, although it had so far done sterling service.
I considered what I could do now as I cleaned up the mess. I resorted to ladling the milk directly into his mouth using a miniature silver-plated sugar spoon found abandoned in the cutlery drawer. I vaguely remembered it among the many keepsakes I had from my grandmother's house. It seemed perfect for the job. The reaction to the first spoonful was discouraging. There was a great deal of spitting and snorting but some of the milk obviously went down. The second and third offerings caused him to gulp and gasp for breath but he didn't choke, although at times it seemed as if he would. When I felt he'd had enough, I sponged his face and chest which were by this time extremely messy.
It was then that I noticed the bald patches on his skin had become red and looked really sore. I decided to apply some Evening Primrose ointment that my mother had given me to heal my hands after I'd been doing some building work. I had never used it and it took me a while to remember where I'd stored it. It was to prove very useful and I applied the sticky ointment with great care to the kitten's bald patches. During these ministrations he simply lay quietly on the towel in my lap and seemed to be soothed into sleep by my fingers gently stroking the balm into hisskin. He had a most affable temperament, even allowing for his weakened state. I was beginning to appreciate that there was something very special about this little cat, something simply lovable. Day by day he seemed to be developing and changing for the better.
As the week went on and his health continued to improve, I had another problem. Since the kitten appeared to be progressing so well I worried what would happen if he became really active and escaped his box. Cats, even kittens, are exceptionally good climbers so my worries about him in this respect were not unfounded. I also needed to make sure that the kitten wouldn't die of hypothermia in an old draughty cottage when the fire went out. I expected that his immune system couldn't cope with any more of a battering than he'd so far endured.
It was a freezing Thursday morning and I was preparing to go to work but the problem nagged at my mind. After giving the matter serious consideration, I took a clear, wide-bottomed glass jug, which usually contained dried flowers, from the bathroom and some cotton-wool balls which I used whenever I cut myself shaving. Putting the two together offered the ideal solution. Emptying the jug, washing and drying it, I covered the bottom with cotton wool and stood it on an old-fashioned, three-legged stool called a cracket which I'd inherited from my grandmother. Then I moved the cracket closer to the fire. Next, I very carefully liftedthe kitten and placed him gently in the centre of the cotton-wool base. Whilst I was away he could be as active as he liked but the jug would ensure that he was kept warm. Now I felt I could happily leave him in safety and comfort. I wished I'd thought of it sooner.
Since the morning weather report on the radio predicted a further sharp fall in temperature for the rest of the day, I stoked the fire as fully as I could and drew the curtains to make the room as cosy as possible. With a last look at the tiny figure I hurriedly, but reluctantly, left for work. While the kitten still required 'Intensive Care', at last the situation was easing down from 'Critical' to the 'Patient is Comfortable and Out of Danger'.
After a hectic and frustrating day at work, I drove into the driveway of the cottage and anxiously let myself in through the patio door. My small living room felt warm and cosy in contrast to how desperately cold it was outside. There was a faint red glow from the burned-down fire and in the subdued light from a table lamp I examined the contents of the jug. Gently, I felt inside and touched the dark ball of fluff almost cocooned within the cotton-wool lining and to my utter relief it stirred. He was alive and seemed well. This event, however small in its cosmic significance, caused me immense satisfaction and I hastened to bring the cottage alive once more with heat, light, food and music.
This pattern of events became the routine for the rest ofthat week. Although there were some anxious moments, I gradually came to realize that the kitten was likely to survive. I even felt sure that the kitten had grown bigger in his time with me. Whenever I fed him now, his body appeared to be firmer and he seemed less devoted to sleeping than previously. Several times I noticed him shuffling around in the jug as if he was trying to assert his right to an active life.
There were a number of high spots during the next week to balance out the worrisome times. There was the morning when, after feeding him and bathing his face, he at last opened his eyes and looked at me with what seemed like two tiny blue jewels. The memory of that moment, of the look of wonder and bemusement on his grizzled face at seeing me and the world around him for the very first time, caused me to break into a chuckle whenever I thought about it for the rest of the day.
Then there was the time four weeks after finding him that I came home from work to an amusing and, as it proved, eventful sight. As I came into the room the kitten's diminutive figure was raised on hind legs, peering out from the inside of the jug as if to welcome me. For some days he had been responding to me more and more. He seemed to be increasingly aware of my presence whenever I came near him and his body would turn to face the direction of my voice whenever I spoke to him.
I needed to give him a name.
Watching him as carefully as I did I saw that he was developing into an extremely interesting personality. I was impressed by the way he shuffled around his jug as he negotiated the lumps of cotton wool with fierce determination. And then there was the way he would peer through the thick glass sides of the jug as he sought to make some sense of his world. Watching him, I was fascinated and I believed his progress to be nothing short of miraculous.
The sight of him in the jug that evening clinched an appropriate name for him. No other name would be so right. He looked the picture of a miniature Toby Jug as he stood peering out through the glass and from now on that would be his name: he would be known always as Toby Jug no matter what else happened. This decision also settled something else that had been hovering in my mind - the uncertainty of whether he would or would not survive. Now I was filled with a firm sense of conviction that the kitten I'd rescued on that foul night over four weeks ago was, against all the odds, going to live. It seemed a lifetime since I'd brought him home and I really hadn't expected then that he would survive. But here he was, alive and kicking, and very much emerging as a personality with which to be reckoned.
Some days later, Toby Jug surprised me yet again with his accelerating health and his burgeoning instinct for survival.I was still feeding him from the small spoon which was now known as 'Toby Jug's spoon'. While I was spooning the milky concoction into him I noticed that he was beginning to lick the spoon. Two or three feeds later I observed him not only licking at the spoon but actually licking the top of my hand where some of the milk had spilled. This was progress indeed and the next step was to see whether he could lap directly from a saucer.
The first experiments were total failures. At this stage, Toby Jug was still extremely small, if not to say minute. In comparison to his size, saucers proved quite large and far too high for him to reach over to lap the milk. Back to square one. I continued feeding him with the spoon until a few days later when I happened to be shopping in a Woolworths store.
On one of the displays I spotted a children's play-pack of miniature place-settings for a doll's house. I thought the saucers looked just the right size for Toby Jug and bought one on the spot. Hastening home, I couldn't wait to try it out.
Toby was confused at first and couldn't work out what was expected of him. So I raised the saucer with the milk to his mouth and, holding him steady with the other hand, I gently nudged his face into the liquid. He gasped and spluttered as he usually did when I fed him, but as I persevered Toby gradually got the message. Finally, there was no stoppinghim as he attacked the milk in the saucer with gusto. Yet another major step along the road to recovery, I thought.
'Bright little cat,' I said, watching him, but by then Toby was experiencing the first principle of cat lore: 'Be Independent'. The determination he showed in the way he shoved his face into that saucer of milk revealed his true mettle. It meant the past was behind him and Toby Jug was here to stay. I know that some people disapprove of giving milk to cats in the belief that it can give them constipation and make them ill, but the cats I have known have all been supremely healthy and happy animals who thrive on drinking milk, the creamier the better. In Toby Jug's case, I needed to duplicate the health-sustaining properties of a mother cat's milk and the concoction of unsweetened evaporated milk with an added booster of halibut oil proved to be a life-saver. However, he also needed to drink water so from then on he had both, although the milk mixture continued to be a firm favourite at this point in time.
From that Saturday onwards there was no holding him back. Toby rapidly advanced to semi-solid foods, which I bought for him at the supermarket as I didn't have any type of food processor. I purchased baby foods for him at first. Any meat with vegetables was favoured but he especially appreciated the milky puddings. However, Toby Jug was amessy eater and he required regular cleaning, as did the floor area around his dish. In the time before he could eat and drink from a saucer, I had had to resort to wearing an apron to protect my clothes from his spillages, but lately I had detected a subtle change in his behaviour. He was becoming increasingly fastidious about his appearance. On one occasion, having washed him down with a wet sponge and dried him off as best I could with his towel, I happened to turn as I was leaving the room in time to witness another example of the little creature's instinctive efforts to become independent.
Silhouetted against a background of blazing logs, this miniature cat was slowly inching his way forward from the hand towel on which I'd left him. He moved purposefully across the stone hearth towards the inviting heat. On reaching the point he no doubt thought to be the warmest place on this earth, he stopped and, in complete repudiation of my recent efforts on his behalf, began to wash himself. This continued for a while until he slumped to a comfortable sleeping position and flopped on to his side in blissful abandon. Yet another hurdle in his development had been accomplished with aplomb. Thereafter, a considerable amount of his waking time was spent licking himself clean and tidy.
In the days that followed Toby Jug visibly improved in vitality and began to show a much more active interest in life.I was much reassured by this, especially with regard to the latter, because a part of me wondered whether the problems he had suffered during those first weeks after birth might have damaged him. Now I could tell that these worries were unfounded and I became more aware of the bright and interesting character that was emerging. Toby Jug had proved himself very much the survivor par excellence.
Further aspects of his lively personality rapidly developed. For one thing, Toby soon began to show frustration at being kept in the jug - on several occasions he tried to climb out but his feline climbing skills just weren't up to scaling the smooth glass. He also became surprisingly mobile. Gone were the comatose slumbers of the early days. Whenever I let him out of his jug he would dart here and there in a sheer frenzy of leaps and bounds. Much to my astonishment, he played. I suppose it couldn't really be called playing by normal kitten standards but considering his size and what he'd been through, every mock pounce and roll were feats of Olympic proportions. A small ball of discarded paper became prey to be hunted down with exaggerated fervour. However, his energy very quickly ran out and he would quite suddenly drop in the middle of a half-completed whirl and fall immediately asleep where he lay.
At times, these antics left him lying asleep in the most undignified postures. Once I watched him playing outside his jug and jumping repeatedly at his reflection in the glass,probably through curiosity at what he thought was an apparition of another cat. Suddenly, he stopped, exhausted, lay flat on his back with all four paws in the air and, most comical of all, with just the tip of a pink tongue sticking out of his mouth. On such occasions I would pick him up and return him to the warmth and safety of his jug only for him to awaken some minutes later and begin shuffling around on the cotton wool, anxiously trying to catch my attention with piteous squeaks. On letting him out the same routine would start all over again and again until both of us were tired out.
In the evenings, having eaten, I liked to sit by the arched stone fireplace with only the flames from the fire and candlelight casting shadows that eased my mind in restful solitude. Now I had Toby Jug lying beside me as an extra comfort. Outside everything was still frozen in the harsh grip of the winter snows which made being inside the cottage feel extra cosy. At times like this I often left the curtains open to look at the moon through the bare branches of the oak and mountain ash trees that graced the far end of the garden. Whenever I sat like this, with the lights switched off and without any intrusions from the radio or television, I could sense a timeless affinity with the way of life many years ago which was much simpler than that demanded by our noisy, hectic and ultra-modern world. Despite my awareness that such a life was filled with hardships that I would never haveto endure, I enjoyed indulging romantic thoughts about times past in Owl Cottage and of the people who lived here long ago.
Some people believe that houses have a spirit which epitomizes the feelings, good or bad, of the people who have lived there previously. Perhaps this is especially true of older houses because they have had a longer time to develop their spirits. Allegedly, houses built of stone are more likely to have acquired this characteristic because of peculiar qualities which enable stone to imbibe and store strong feelings. Whatever the truth of this, I noticed from the very first time I entered Owl Cottage that I experienced a sense of calm and friendly ambience. I had never felt anything like this in the modern flats and houses I had lived in.
The cottage always had a feel-good atmosphere about it. This feeling even extended to the garden. I could easily imagine a scenario in which hard-working ordinary family folk lived happily in this place and I felt certain the cottage retained something of their spirits. The sound of the wind in the trees, the calls of animals and birds and the crackling of the log fire seemed to link me to the people who had lived here previously. I found that these emotional vibrations, within both the cottage and the garden, had a calming effect on me, possibly because they derived from simple pleasures that had their source in nature rather than modern technology.
All of this may well have been my very own fantasy world and yet the singing of blackbirds as dusk settled over the garden or the night sky when the moon was at its fullest evoked emotions in me similar to hearing the Northern Sinfonia play Ravel at Brinkburn Abbey, or the sight of Bamburgh Castle clothed in a wintry landscape or sail boats in the harbour at Seahouses on a warm summer evening, as viewed from the balcony of the Olde Ship Inn. All of these things are part of the charm of Northumberland.
Toby Jug was the bonus I needed to cement my attachment to this Northumbrian world. Through observing his lust for life I was able to rediscover my lost youth and the hope of finding a place where I could experience a quality of living that fulfilled my wildest dreams.
In such a tranquil and philosophical state of mind, it was a bonus to have a cat on my lap to stroke even if that cat was intent upon tearing my best sweater to shreds. I enjoyed watching the emergence of such instinctive patterns of behaviour in Toby Jug as he became fitter, even though my sweater became increasingly tattered as he worked through the feline ritual of preparing a nest for sleeping. He presented a comical sight. Eyes half-closed in the sheer ecstasy of the war dance, with claws sharply extended, he treaded rhythmically to the tune of his own purring until eventually, turning a half circle, he collapsed. Then, with a few additional throaty purrs to convey his contentment, he fell asleep in an instant.
As he lay in my lap softly sleeping I could see that the bare patches of skin had responded to treatment and had just about healed. His fur now had a sheen to it, which was yet another sign of improved health, testimony to the good food he was getting and the days of intensive care, attention and love. To look at, he was nothing special compared to the chocolate-box pictures of kittens but to me he was the most remarkable kitten in the whole world. Beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder and to my eye Toby Jug was wonderful.
I remember at that time jotting down a few words that would aptly describe Toby Jug's appearance. He had a round knob of a head with tiny ears and almost the whole of his face was covered with untidy tufts of fur which gave him a wild, absurdly belligerent appearance. His face was covered with a predominantly black mask extending to below his nose where he had a white moustache slightly skewed to the right, along with a white mouth, throat and chest. He also had a black smudge on the right side of his nose which gave him a somewhat quizzical expression. The rest of his body was black except for neat white spats on all four paws that lent him an endearing touch of the dandy. His eyes, which turned green as he matured, were faintly ringed with white, giving him a perpetually startled look.
His appearance reminded me of some other creature that I couldn't at first put a name to until I recalledmemories of racoons seen by torchlight as they raided refuse bins during the nights when I had stayed with friends in Rhode Island, USA. There was definitely a slight racoon-look to Toby Jug's eyes. When I stopped to think about it, there was a further resemblance to racoons in the way he would occasionally sit up and balance on his hind legs and look searchingly around. He also tended to scoop his food up into his mouth with a paw and sometimes he would dip a piece of cooked chicken I had given him into the water bowl before eating it. All of these behaviours were curiously racoon-like but at the time I didn't make a great deal of it. Later, however, it was to prove significant in consideration of Toby Jug's ancestry. He was certainly no ordinary cat either in looks or behaviour and in my opinion he was unique!
Taking a really careful look at him I wondered just how this little cat perceived the world and me. Maybe I was his entire world. I thought that any memory of his mother would be severely limited, especially since he hadn't been able to open his eyes until he'd been with me awhile. Because I had been the first living and moving thing he'd ever seen, he probably regarded me as family and had imprinted in his brain the sight of me as mother. A famous zoologist called Konrad Lorenz once described how he became the 'mother' to some geese and had to teach them to swim and also how to fly by running along flapping hisarms until the geese, imitating him, became airborne. Quite possibly, Toby Jug had no idea he was a cat at all but believed himself to be human. After all, he had never even seen another cat and had very little experience of associating with his own species. What else could he think in the circumstances, if he could think at all? It was all very confusing and I fell asleep in the chair ruminating on it.
Some hours later I awoke with a stiff neck to find that the fire was almost out and Toby Jug had worked his way up inside my sweater. Popping him into his jug, I blew out the candles and carried both kitten and jug up to my bedroom, which had an electric heater. I climbed into bed and fell nicely asleep, until Toby Jug's true cat nature began to assert itself once more and I awoke in alarm to find him squeaking and squealing. There he was, in the dim illumination of my bedside lamp, leaping urgently about in his jug, determined to attract my attention. Obviously, he wished to be let out of his jug to join me on the bed; 3 a.m. in the morning is no time to start an argument and so Toby won. Thereafter at bedtime he spurned his jug in favour of sleeping on the bed between the quilt and the top blanket as if it was his God-given right to do so. I expect his excuse would be that he had to keep track of me.
This was often the pattern of our evenings during the winter months as Toby grew from strength to strength and we became irrevocably attached to each other.
PAW PRINTS IN THE MOONLIGHT. Copyright © 2004, 2009 by Denis O'Connor. All rights reserved. . For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.