IT’S A CAT’S LIFE

 

It’s quite confusing, is Cherry Trees International Quarantine and Boarding Cattery.  Part reformatory, part progressive school.  The poor babies never know whether it’s going to be thin soup and cold showers or pampering and tea time.

Cherry Trees is a ridiculously expensive English kennel patronized by rich people and those on the corporate tit who bring cats into England from abroad.  After six months at Cherry Trees, Tabby will have satisfied Her Majesty’s veterinarian that she is not rabid and has earned thereby the right to pass through the great iron gates and into Britain at large.  Query: will there be a graduation ceremony at the end, or will Tabby get the kitty equivalent of a new suit and some pocket change along with the warden’s admonition to be careful out there?

The four long concrete-block buildings are laid out in connecting wings, like cell blocks.  Each room has a window covered with heavy steel mesh.  Kitties peer out between partially open curtains.  Some stare blankly, long since having fallen into despair.  Others beg and cry, their mouths opening soundlessly behind the glass.

Visiting is not permitted during the first month of Tabby’s residence.  If I found the courage to ask why, I don’t recall the answer.  After the blackout period, visiting is permitted for two hours on Saturday afternoons and at other times by special arrangement.  Two rules govern these meetings.  One must call first—no dropping in without warning.  The mind leaps wildly seeking possible reasons for this practice.  Do the operators of the Cattery—is it possible—do they groom Tabby between phone call and arrival?  A place that has little kitty curtains in the little kitty windows just might.  Perhaps a modest hit of kitty downers is administered before Mum and Pater arrive?  Can’t have Tabby getting emotional during visiting hours.  Kitty stiff upper lip, don’t you know.  If Tabby is upset by the visit, Mum and Pater will not be allowed to come in future.

Visitors enter though a single locked door.  Upon admission one signs in, and then a matron leads the way through two more locked doors.  Tabby’s cell itself has a locked door, lest some distressed owner, driven over the edge by the prospect of six months without Tabby, tries to break her out before her time has been served.

“How long would you like to stay?” matron asks.  She makes a note of the answer, then leaves, locking all doors behind her.  At that point Tabby, Mum, and Pater have four locked doors between them and freedom.  The prison vision begins to overwhelm that of the progressive school.

Each five-by-five room has a plastic stool (presumably for the use of visitors), a large shelf just below the window, a kitty bed on the shelf, and a heat lamp over the bed.  All in all, rather a New York “frnshd eff. w. loft; grt chrm,” except the kitty accommodation tends to be nicer and more spacious.  The bill for the electricity that runs the heat lamp allays any nagging fears about Tabby being chilly.

The hall side of the cell is made of heavy steel mesh, which enables each resident to communicate with the other eight or ten on the wing.  One wonders if they swap contraband when they get a chance.  And who decides what they listen to on the one radio that plays constantly?  Probably Bruno, the intact tom in Number Three.

In addition to the standard issue furniture, each room is personalized with toys and favorite blankets and such.  One expects to see girlie calendars and snapshots of the family.

Visitors spend their time in various ways—reading, nodding off on the floor, and talking inanities to Tabby.  Two hours in a small cell with a cat can seem like a long time, especially if you don’t care for Nat King Cole (Bruno’s favorite), but you can always speed the time by picturing in the mind the person down the hall who is overheard saying to Puss “Oh did Sweetums make poopie?  Oooh good kitty.”

At the end of visiting hours everyone files down the narrow halls amid the clanging of doors being unlocked and relocked, all the while striving to look like the afternoon’s activities have not been inconsistent with human dignity.  Upon reaching the office near the outermost door, leftover Good Girl Goodies (a treat sold by the Cattery) and kitty toothbrushes are turned in for safekeeping until the next visit.

When the last visitor leaves, the outer door is locked a final time, and kitty tea is served.

* * * *

Our Peewee had been at Cherry Trees International Quarantine and Boarding Cattery for a few weeks when we went to inspect a flat for lease in a row house near Hampstead Heath in north London.  I said hello to the person who was showing the property, but Ann had gone up the street to pet a cat on a nearby stoop.  It was a short-haired, female, quite well-mannered, with a collar and tag.  Thus, we knew the apartment was probably going to be our kind of place.  And it was.  Two floors with a lovely small garden in back (and as it turned out, charming neighbors who would become dear friends).  So we took it.

While Peewee did his time at Cherry Trees, we amused ourselves—harmlessly, we thought—with the kitties who appeared in the garden.  They came in great numbers and variety.

One distinguished visitor was a large black and white male.  We called him Spot.  The other regulars didn’t distinguish themselves sufficiently to earn names.  They kept their British reserve and had nothing to do with us beyond swaggering through the roses and spraying the rhododendrons.  Sometimes one of them would sit on the fence for a while looking aloof and inspecting the surrounding gardens.  They teased us in this way for about a month, but one gray, March morning the short-haired tabby Ann had met our first day on the block appeared at the back door.

There was no problem at all getting to know this puss.  I opened the door, she walked right in, went to the kitchen, and sat in front of the refrigerator until she got the cream she had come for.  She lapped it up, licked her chops for a moment, went upstairs, hopped into our bed, and slept until she got hungry again a couple of hours later.  t need another cat.  Peewee was enough.  As it turned out our fears were groundless.

This kitty wore a tag bearing an address—299 Pippin’s Way—but no name, so we called her 299.

We were not the only people in 299’s life.  When we mentioned her to a neighbor, he said, “Oh, good heavens.  Yes, of course.”  The story was that 299 Pippin’s Way was the home of an octogenarian lady named Blythe.  In addition to 299, she owned eleven other cats.  “Really quite eccentric, you know.”  Not long after 299 began coming round, one of the other cats living with Blythe blessed the eccentric lady with eight babies, giving her a total of twenty.

It seemed natural that 299 would want to spend time at our house; plenty of food, no competition for it, clean quilts, a warm hearth.  We thought it was OK to help her out a bit, especially since we were in kitty withdrawal as a result of Peewee’s long incarceration.  Upon Peewee’s release, we would just send 299 back to the hardscrabble life with her nineteen housemates.  It soon became obvious that we did not understand 299.  She had no desire at all to move in with us, or anyone else.  She liked to come for visits, but she carefully preserved her independence.

In fact, 299 was running the same scam next door as she was at our house.  She had a place atop a tool shed just outside the window over my desk where she could lie in the morning sun and peer into both the neighbor’s kitchen and my study without having to do more than shift her eyes.  Whoever appeared first got 299 for the morning shift.  She took an afternoon nap with the other.  We don’t know where she spent the night, but her accommodations were probably quite acceptable.

One day we learned that the eccentric cat lady, Blythe, had died.  Someone had said to us only a few days earlier, “It’s nice she takes care of all those cats, but what happens to them when she dies?”  No problem.  She had a two-part plan.

Blythe left her entire estate to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  She also left instructions—a bit inconsistently, it seemed to us—that her twenty cats were to be put down.

None of us who shared the life of 299 had seen the will, but we assumed that euthanasia would be necessary only if homes could not be found for the kitties.  Surely that is what a kindly old cat lady would intend, however eccentric she may have been.  Acting on this assumption, Ann circulated announcements in her office that the cats were in life and death need of rescue by adoption, and we discussed with our next door neighbor whether we should continue joint responsibility for the welfare of 299.  As we scrambled to save kitty lives, the execution clock continued to tick.

The person in command of the clock was Nora, a sister of the deceased, who lived upstairs at 299.  Hearsay had it that Nora had arranged for Diana, who lived across the street, to dispatch the kitties.  Diana was “a strapping girl, a farmer’s daughter, you know.”  That being the case, killing cats presumably came naturally to her.

All our information about the situation came from a single source, who asked that his name not be revealed here.  This Kitty Deep Throat knew a lot and did not mind being sent to learn more when questions arose, but he was unable to satisfy one point of ghoulish curiosity.  Was Diana going to carry out the executions personally, or was she going to enlist the services of a veterinarian?

The fact that Diana was invariably described as “a strapping girl, a farmer’s daughter, you know” suggested that she herself would do the killing.  If so, what method would she employ?  Drowning?  Throat cutting?  Poison?  For all his investigative skill, Kitty Deep Throat couldn’t find out.  One supposes that the principals would indeed endeavor to keep it confidential.

Nor was the date of the execution known, just that it would not occur until Diana returned from holiday.  She had traveled in her car, and so we began to watch for it.

It soon became clear that we would be unable to find homes for all of the cats.  We did, however, think we would be able to save 299 by offering to Nora, the executor, a plan of joint ownership with our neighbor.  With light hearts we sent Kitty Deep Throat as an ambassador to tell Nora of our offer.  We thought that she would be as happy as we to have one fewer feline on her conscience, especially since the cat to be saved was such a winsome creature.

Our common sense interpretation of the will did not hold.  Nora preferred a plain meaning interpretation.  The will said the cats were all to be killed, and she meant to see that they were.  None were available for adoption, not even through the good offices of Blythe’s beneficiary, the RSPCA.  They were to be executed.  Regina, sister of the deceased, from the next street over, agreed.  Eccentricity did not merely run in the family; it raced in torrents.

We clutched at straws.  No sensible resident of the neighborhood had actually seen the will.  Perhaps the language was in some small way unclear.  Perhaps the sisters misunderstood it.  Not likely, though; these old girls had had a great deal of experience with wills.  The three of them had buried a total of eight husbands, so the story went.  What with the number of times they had presumably been principal beneficiaries and the number of times they had rewritten their own wills, they probably knew as much about that sort of thing as a probate judge.

Even if the will was absolutely clear and unambiguous in directing that all twenty cats be killed, there was a possibility that it was unenforceable as against public policy. But legal proceedings necessary to establish that would be expensive and the outcome far from certain.

We considered turning the ruthless tabloid press loose on the story, but these old girls were a bit long in the tooth for such rough treatment.

As I fretted over this dreadful situation one afternoon, Kitty Deep Throat came to me, like Peter Rabbit’s sparrows, in a state of great excitement and implored me to exert myself.  Diana’s car was back.  Whatever we were going to do, it had to be done quickly.

In the end, we were unable to save the kitties.

Miraculously, 299 did not share the fate of the other nineteen.  Somehow, soon after Diana returned from holiday, 299 disappeared.  Just vanished. Then a very strange thing happened.  I spotted 299’s collar and tag on the shed where she used to yawn and stretch in the morning sun watching for me and my neighbor. Some days later, Kitty Deep Throat thought he saw her in St. Albans about twenty miles away, but he was driving and didn’t get a close look.

I vacillate a little about what I believe regarding an afterlife for humans, but I’m pretty steady on what awaits cats on the other side.  For British kitties it’s a never ending supply of clotted cream and stewed kidneys.  And, please God, an existence utterly devoid of unnecessary quarantine and crazy fucking cat ladies.

Rest in peace, little guys.  Happy trails, 299.

* * * *

 

The above was written in 1992.  Since then, the British quarantine requirement has been modified so that pets from EU countries, the U.S, and certain others can enter without quarantine.

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