It’s four am and I’m awake, wide awake because my nose has a tickle and I sneeze once, then twice, loud trumpeting sneezes which cause my small daughter beside me to start in her sleep. The husband has wisely retreated to the spare bed. But it’s not the intrusion of a small child that has woken me. Rather I must admit that it’s the cat fur on my duvet which has irritated my nasal passages, since our cat found a warm patch earlier as the sun sliced through the blinds. As I blow my nose I recall that I let her out around midnight and she refused to answer my calls and come in again. So I brave the cold tiles of the kitchen and make pushawhoosh noises at the back door. She answers with a pathetic mew and streaks past, her fur wet against my bare legs. I dish out some food to appease her before returning upstairs. At six o’clock I finally go back to sleep.
I can be a crotchety sort of a buddy. Had it been a human who had disturbed my slumber then a frosty stare may have met them in the morning. But I’ve been known to heat milk in the microwave for a cat, just to take the chill off it in winter. The cats in question lapped it up, without so much as a mew in my direction by way of thanks. Why am I such a sucker for the feline form?
Cats were a permanent feature in my husband’s house as he grew up. There was feisty Henry, a ginger tom who had to be treated with extreme caution, so ready with his claws was he, to maul a small child’s outstretched hand. He had a childlike attachment to his blanket though, and every evening would haul it up the stairs between his teeth and settle at the top of the stairs, perfectly placed to send family members flying down face-first if they weren’t on their guard.
In contrast to this truculent creature was Meli, a slight tortoiseshell who positioned herself at the window at four o’clock everyday day to watch for him, tripping up the path in his St Mary’s uniform. Aside from Oasis, the soundtrack to all his GCSE and A level revision was that of a cat purring, her whiskers tickling his ear while she wrapped herself round his shoulders like a scarf.
Cats change the dynamic in a house. When my grandmother died after a long illness we walked around like sonambulants, grief and relief mixing uneasily in our guts. Then Snowball, our cherished feline would weave around our legs like a caress, his soft purrs lightening the strange, charged atmosphere.
It wasn’t too long into our courtship when Himself remarked: “Your house feels a bit empty. A wee cat padding about would make it a bit more homely.” I needed no encouragement. We flicked open the laptop and beheld the number of cats in Belfast looking for their forever home. As luck would have it there was a lady in the Four Winds area who took the overflow from the Cats’ Protection. Off we zoomed. I was halfway down her drive when I realised that Himself was still in the car; in my haste I’d locked him in before leaping out. Not wise, me.
“I think I’ve just the cat for you,” said Irene, directing us to a cage from which she lifted a small black kitten-cat. She handed her to Himself where the cat purred serenely. “Take me with you” we could hear her croon. “I am the very cat for you.” We were smitten. “I think I’ll call her Marshmallow,” I simpered.
As if to spite me, the cat soon put paid to that notion. Although she craved company she wanted it solely on her own terms. She became Cleo, for like the Egyptian queen she’s best treated with respect, veneration even. Attempts to lift or stroke her were more often than not, met with outright hostility. On my thirtieth birthday, champagne had relaxed my inhibitions and in a fit of misguided affection I scooped her up for a cuddle. She lashed out in a rage, scoring my neck with her claws. “She could have had your eye out!” roared my mother.
I was teaching at the time and the kids delighted in listening to tales of her misconduct. They loved any diversion from learning their avoir and être verbs. Their favourite tale was the one in which I turfed her off my freshly laundered duvet and she crept back in and urinated extensively on it. “You’re not the boss of me,” said that gesture.
Despite this though, we were all besotted with her. It was my mother in particular who waged a sustained campaign to claim ownership. “What sort of a life is that for a cat?” she would sniff. “Stuck up there on the Cregagh Road. She’s already been knocked down once. Next time it’ll be the end of her, I’m telling you.” Always full of optimism, my mother.
Coming home for Christmas one year I was meant to be bringing the cat, so she too could enjoy the sea-air of Ballyholme. But being no dozer, she sensed a change in the force when we produced a box. She took the stairs three at a time before springing on top of the wardrobe. From this vantage point she hissed and spat, taking well-aimed swipes with her paws, claws out for maximum impact. Defeated, we left her to it and arrived, cat-less in Bangor. “Where’s Cleo?” asked my dad, who was looking forward to some feline company over the festivities. “She said she wasn’t coming,” I replied, sucking the bleeding scratch on my wrist. “Oh dear,’ he said all crestfallen. “Well maybe next time.”
Be careful what you wish for Ron, because Cleo is now a permanent resident on the Esplanade, casting her imperious eye over Belfast Lough. “Mine, all mine” one can almost hear her croon, little Bond villain that she is.
With much aggravation and thick gloves we had manhandled her into a box before heading to Kenya on safari. After hiding behind the microwave for three days she made herself quite at home. In fact on our return she took one glance at out tanned faces and leapt straight back behind her preferred hiding spot. We were drinking tea on a sofa watching an episode of Frasier when she emerged, deliberately picking her way over my husband then me to curl up on my dad’s lap. There she narrowed her eyes and turned her back on us, every so often glancing round with palpable disdain. Dad looked a trifle smug.
Mum buys her a tub of cream every week and varies her food between choice cuts of Sheba. Only the best for Cleo. She is the Naomi Campbell of cats and my mother takes tremendous pride in the glossy sheen of her coat.
And now, ever the gluttons for punishment, we’ve a new addition. It involved another trek to a cat lady, this time in Killyleagh. She let us to a shed, where two black and white cats competed for our attention. But Himself was drawn to another small tortoiseshell, a ragged bag of bones, bald behind the ears and her side shaved where she had recently been spayed. “She’s just come in,” said Alison. “She won’t even let me stroke her.” We looked on in amazement as she sniffed my husband’s hand and rubbed against him. “Engine’s on” he reported, as her purrs started up.
And so to our children’s delight, we brought her home. Six months on, and our cat is resplendent. Half-hearted efforts to keep her off the beds have been shelved and I make ineffectual gestures with a sticky roller should guests be coming. She chooses a different bed each day on which to stretch and sleep, luxuriating in the quiet time while the girls are at school. Her tummy almost touches the floor because Himself is a soft-touch and the slightest miaow, plaintive or otherwise, ensures she gets her Sheba fix.
The night we got her my mum rang. “I want you to raise a toast to Auntie Isabel. She would have been one hundred and six today.” “Izzy it is then,” said Himself and we clinked our glasses. “I’m sure Aunt Isabel would be made up with that,” said Mum wryly. My aunt had a big heart. She’d have been delighted.