It’s fair to say, three years ago I hated cats. Yep, all cats, the entire species. The cartoon image I associated with them was the witch’s cat, spine-arched, fur on end all the way down to the tail, with sharp splayed claws. And it wasn’t just a physical loathing – cats were in my book, selfish, aloof, manipulative in the extreme especially when it came to wanting food.
The day we got the kitten, my wife Sarah picked it up with confidence for she’d had a cat as a child – the only pets I’d ever had was an aquarium of guppies, and never any pets with legs except a small colony of woodlice in a matchbox which I had kept in my bedroom when I was seven till my mum found out.
Sarah fell in love with the kitten’s oversized blue-green eyes and big pointy ears instantly and followed it around the room with a prolonged awww. I held my face like The Scream. She never had me at miaow.
We returned from the pet shop with ceramic bowls, sachets of kitten food, cat litter, a litter tray, a cat-nip filled cuddly toy, a red-laser torch and a scratching post. How could a creature the same weight as half a bag of sugar need all that stuff? We registered her at the vet, got her chipped and jabbed and named her “Silver”, but when she showed her remarkable inclination to climb bookcases, mantel-pieces, table legs, chair legs and our legs, we gave her a nickname. And that is how we came to have a cat named Monkey.
Understanding her language
Monkey’s behaviour in the early months seemed to affirm my suspicions. Her self-absorbed behaviour rankled with me. There’s a me in miaow, the world revolved around her needs and these seemed to be vocalised at the most inconvenient of times.
Sleeping on the laptop when I worked from home, just as the webex started. The freshly ironed pile of clothes that doubled up as a cat cushion. The 7.30am snooze in the sink at bathroom just at teeth-brushing time.
My cat education commenced. I learned to clean her litter tray, to pick and hold her properly and I became familiar with the parts of her body that should’t be touched, like the tail or the hind legs, which would set off her set of fangs, triggered like a pink and white venus fly trap.
Yet there were safe zones to stroke, affirmed with a soft engine-like purring, the head, the neck, the chin all petting friendly, but with a specific quota which I should exceed at my peril – the limit was arbitrarily chosen by Monkey and could vary according to her mood. Exceeding the limit would result in a series of defensive manoeuvres collectively known as ‘kitten death grip’ – a bite in the fleshy part between thumb and forefinger, followed by the front legs clamping the wrist, and culminating in lower legs holding on the forearm.
Could someone please explain the reasons for this strange behaviour
My education had its gaps for her sporadically weird behaviour often dumbfounded me. She’d take fright every time she saw me in the corridor, even if she’d just seen me there a few minutes before. She had chronic short term memory loss. Her fur would fluff up off her arched back in fright and she’d jump up, limbs straight, bouncing down the corridor, as if on hot coals, moving sideways like a Michael Jackson dance routine.
In the mornings I would make breakfast at precisely the time the cat decided to use the litter tray. Coincidence or just plain vindictiveness? As she stood amongst the litter, on hind legs, doing her business, she would look up and lock eyes with me as if to emphasise her superiority. Where you eat, I evacuate my bowels she seemed to suggest as an intrusive aroma wafted over my cornflakes.
The other thing she did with her eye contact that really riled me was when she’d sit on the coffee table, pawing gently an object, moving it millimetre by millimetre closer to the edge. Any small object would do, just moveable by paw and the more valuable the better. The remote. A pen. A bunch of keys. And then just as she tipped the object over the edge, she would lock her eyes at me, utterly devoid of emotion. Deadpan destructiveness. Oh is this watch valuable? she seemed to ask.
The eye contact seemed to improve slowly, and in those early months there were flitting glimpses of intimacy, just teasing flashes of what might be. The beckoning eyes that followed me around the room, the brushing of her head on my legs just before breakfast, the early morning ‘hello’, which was more like a Telly Tubby ‘eh-oh’. The repertoire of cat movements is surprisingly limited considering humans and cats have co-habited for thousands of years, but she worked them to the max with an air of effortless, graceful superiority. On some mornings, she would award me her deepest sign of affection – a lick on my forehead – which I reciprocated by learning to refer to the cat as she and not it.
After six months Monkey’s frame filled out, her eyes and ears took on more proportion and her tail lengthened to have a tip which she could wave when either bored or vexed. She looked less like a kitten and more like a grown up cat. When we started to play-fight usually on Saturday mornings, I found out that although her teeth were sharp, she kept her jaw deliberately soft and her scratches were just superficial, never drawing blood.
She must live in a parallel world
At seven months, I reached an epiphany moment – I realised that when she looked at me with those big eyes, she was actually looking beyond me, as if I was transparent, to the ceiling above which was clearly, in her eyes, more interesting. Perhaps she sensed things up there that I couldn’t see, small flies, spiders or vibrations from the flat above. Or perhaps could it have been, that cats inhabit a parallel world, filled with wonderful things that merit staring at for minutes on end, such as cat-supernovas, and cat-galaxies which in our dimension pale in to invisibility.
During one Saturday morning lie-in, in her eighth month, she jumped on to the bed. Our eyes locked, and she actually DID stare at my eyes, and not just at my eyes but into them. There was meaning in them. I could feel it. She even blinked both her eyes at the same time, which in cat behaviour terms, is a big sign of trust.We were clearly bonding – she saw me as one of her kind, and it didn’t matter that I was tailless, had no hair on my face and was unable to jump on to the kitchen top in one go. Love is blind to such shortcomings, and with that thought I lay in bed. Soon I felt her walking up the duvet, on to my body then up to my chest where she waited for a few seconds. I awaited a lick on my forehead. Instead, she walked across my face and jumped off the bed in to the next room to investigate a potential fly sighting. That let me know where I ranked in her scheme of things. My hopes of a deeper relationship with Monkey were in tatters. My face, in her eyes, was little more than a thoroughfare.
Once I knew that Monkey inhabited a parallel universe, my humiliation felt easier to live with. The fact that she stared at me as she poo’d no longer hurt me, for I knew the that she was staring beyond me. The pivotal moment all made sense, it accounted for her strangest of choices – not choosing to stare at the TV, or out of the the bay windows, but instead at the back of the sofa at a range of ten centimetres for minutes on end. It was my fault, I had been judging her in human terms, anthropomorphising her, whereas in the cat world, choosing to sleep in the gap between two randomly selected pieces of furniture, when she could have slept on a soft fleece blanket or a sofa with cushions, was perfectly rational.
The desire to hide at the bottom of a paper bag, but leaving the tail out. Hiding behind the mirror that leans agains the wall. Resting in the little gap in the cabinet where the piles of DVDs are kept. Comfy there are you monkey? Through cats-eyes they are perfectly good options, perhaps the equivalent of a bejewelled astral jacuzzi-throne, where cats are worshipped like they once were in ancient Egypt
She is either wild or supernatural
By the 8th month, she would spend her post-meal energy running at speed in to any randomly chosen room. Then she’d do a ‘wall of death’ stunt which entailed running around the front room so fast till she would be able to generate enough centrifugal force to defy gravity for short periods and run across vertical surfaces, walls, the sofa back, radiators and doors. She seemed to defy science. Our friends who cat-sat for us when we went on holiday, showed us a frayed satin curtain that seemed to confirm that we had a wild one.
I googled ‘Scottish Wild Cat’, the image appeared – Monkey was a dead ringer for one. We read in horror, especially the final sentence that said they were impossible to domesticate.
At worst she was supernatural, I hoped in the dead of night I wouldn’t see her in the corridor, looking towards me and then walking backwards up the wall, her head facing the wrong way, like an exorcist cat.
I didn’t realise it then, but her high energy behaviour was due to the fact that she was up till then an indoor cat with lots of unspent energy.
The turning point: Monkey goes outdoors
With her indefatigable energy, our small flat could not afford her the stretching room she so craved. So, in her 9th month we decided our indoor cat would become an outdoor one. This was the big breakthrough, the precise moment was one spring evening when the days were starting to get longer. Sarah had got back from the vets where Monkey had been spayed. She emerged from the cat carrier to show that one side of her body had a small shaved area that exposed a patch of greyish-purple skin with stitches in it. We had made some big life decisions for her. We had decided for her to take away her right to have kittens and we had taken her away from her mother when she was just two months. Whatever she had learned in her short life, how to eat, to hunt, to jump, to climb, she had worked out for herself, on her own, not having a mother to show her. She was our dependent, she saw us as her parents and seeing her there with a wound in her side we had decided to inflict on her made her seem in the fading sunlight frail and vulnerable.
We had a cat flap fitted and she stepped out in to the garden for the first time, big curious eyes, nose sniffing in all directions, alert to the wisp of a branch with pricked up ears. A new chapter in her life commenced. She realised then that the world was much, much bigger than she had ever imagined, full of wonder – flies, plants, birds, planes, all worth chasing and jumping at – and also full of danger. Fast, growling cars with bright headlights. Trees that had no way down them. Branches that shrieked in the wind. Frightening, fur-dampening raindrops, impossible to side-step. She met next door’s muscular, black and white tom that strutted in to our back garden, patrolling his territory, staring down at the new usurper. They screamed at each other in an hour-long stand-off and ultimately she backed down. She’d get in to fights, come back with a bleeding nose, she’d fall out of trees, lose her collar and get bruised and then hide in her comfort-hole, the gap under Sarah’s dresses that hung in our cupboard. The world now became a challenge and she was no longer a cat that ruled the roost but a small creature, the weight of two bags of sugar, fending for herself, working out the world on her own. That self-absorbedness that so troubled me once, was for her, an engrained instinct of survival.
We’d worry at nights waiting for the sound of the cat-flap at nights for she would be out for hours especially in the summers. I became curious to know how far her patrolling took her and bought a small GPS tracker, the size of a cork that attached to her collar and linked to an app on my smartphone. In the morning I would download the data and see a zig zag of blue lines on a map that showed the 3 kilometres of nocturnal adventures, her stomping ground of roads, parks and neighbours’ gardens.
It’s taken me three years to get from cat loather to cat lover. In that time I’ve seen Monkey grow up from a playful kitten, climber of bookshelves, chewer of the Nintendo cable, rustler of the Christmas tinsel, shredder of friend’s satin curtains to a semi-feral night patroller, inhabiter of a parallel world, purrer, toe-hunter, leaser-beam-chaser, DIY-superviser and gardening inspector. Fear is born from a lack of understanding, and now her movements and sounds carry meaning for me – the upturned belly, the head bumps, the rubbing of the neck on walls, the high pitched miaows, the chirrups, purrs, chatters and her hisses. I’m conversant in cat, it’s been an education.
Here I write beside her, she’s asleep, chin up and can resist the inviting plastic tiles of the keyboard. From the first day she stepped out of her carrier box looking around with big Gremlinesque eyes, a walkie-talkie aerial tail and pink wining mouth heralding her arrival in to our lives, it’s been educational for for her too. She must wonder why I don’t eat dead mice, why my life is so devoid of late-night street patrols and why cleaning doesn’t involve licking. All we needed was empathy. We’ve both come to an understanding. From the first taps of the bedroom door to the last moment she steps out of the cat flap at night sharing your life with a cat is one of life’s joys. I never thought it would happen but I’m so glad it did.