“So she’s … dead?”
The young Australian vet looked at me with red eyes. “I’ve never had this happen to me before,” he half whispered, as if reading my look of alarm.
A silence hung between us as we sat facing each other on fake leather chairs. Only one question ran screaming round my brain: “What the hell am I going to tell the children?”
Eventually I asked to see her and we trooped downstairs to the operating theatre. “Fluffy Offenbach” (don’t ask) was written on a marker board outside, among a list of operations that day. At six months, she was down to be spayed, a supposedly simple ten minute operation. Or not. She lay under an old blanket, with her head and paws poking out. Like all the world’s deceased, she appeared shrunken. I stroked her head like I’d done a hundred times, the fur still soft but her body now cool. A post mortem by the Royal Veterinary College would later reveal, for a sum of £400, precisely nothing. “Allergic to anaesthetic” was the only proffered explanation.
I was genuinely surprised how devastated I felt.
In my lifetime I’d lost both parents within ten days of each other and a close friend who was barely 40. That was it. And yet, this felt just as painful.
To explain, let me backtrack.
As a family, we didn’t really do pets. Growing up the Middle East I had a feral cat called Tiger who’d deposit mice on our pillows. When thoughts turned to fury friends on acquiring a family of my own, it turned out my husband was allergic to moggies. Dogs? Out of the question, as they needed as much looking after as a baby, three of which I already possessed.
The children were fobbed off with hamsters Monty and Roderick, followed by Rosie the budgie. All met a swift ending at the hands of said small people.
The clamour for a ‘proper pet’ began again when they were teens, and ended last summer with us knocking on the door of a terrace in Hounslow, where a Russian breeder presented a litter of six week old pedigree Siberian Forest kittens. The husband rolled around with them without a hint of a sneeze. We’d found the answer.
Another six weeks later and for an obscene amount of money (£900) our feline teen was welcomed into a household of both raging and dying hormones.
Marl grey, long-tailed, green-eyed and as soft as down, she set about stealing all our hearts.
At 6.30 am she was all mine, curling up on my lap as I drank tea and watched the dawn. At 4 pm, she ensured our 14 year old never came home to an empty house. On the weekends, she reposed, purring, on my husbands chest on the sofa. (“I want nothing to do with this cat” he had previously proclaimed. Now? Putty.) She became the perfect nocturnal plaything for the elder teens who hibernated in their rooms with friends doing heaven-knows-what. To lure them out, once a mammoth task of shouting up the stairs and unanswered texts, now all I had to do now was kidnap this ball of fur.
My sister, owner of Betty and Lily, explained: “The cats are the one thing we don’t argue about. They are like glue in a family – no-one dislikes them.’
And then the vet went and killed ours.
We packed up her toys, washed out her litter tray and cried many tears. The house appeared depleted.
To be honest I’d always found “cat person” a pejorative term, invariably applied to tricky women. But I totally get it now.
They are usually low maintenance providers of unconditional love, affection and acceptance, with numerous studies proving they counter feelings of worry, distress and loneliness. Certainly the happiness index of our family had risen exponentially.
We needed a Fluffy doppelgänger and pronto.
Within two weeks I’d found another Siberian on the internet, inconveniently residing in Barcelona (they are not easy to find). We FaceTimed the breeders, cooed over Sky the tabby kitten, paid even more obscene sums and the following Saturday waited in the back streets of Kings Cross for her and her blue EU pet passport to be delivered from the back of a black Mercedes Benz van.
Did I mention we’ve never had much luck with pets?
Within 36 hours our four month old kitten was at the vets (a different one) suffering from an upper respiratory infection. “Is she going to die?” I solemnly asked the elderly man with the rheumy eyes who’d cared for local pets for more than 40 years. “No,” he said. And he was right.
Sky very much lives, but who knew cats were such mercurial characters, even among their own breed? More catch-me-if-you-can than love-me-do, she isn’t quite the Fluffy replacement I’d imagined.
She remains, nevertheless, beguiling. We find her leonine stalking and pouncing around the garden as transfixing as any Attenborough wildlife programme. Her favourite game is to pull off a piece of ribbon I’ve draped over the apple tree and race back to me in the kitchen with it between her bared teeth. Like a dog. As I write she’s studiously trying to catch raindrops lashing the other side of the kitchen window. It’s like having an amusingly clever toddler in the house.
More importantly the teens adore her, mostly because she takes turns sleeping with them. If you catch her dozing and manage to pull her onto your lap, all that stroking and subsequent purring is positively meditative and distracts us all away from our pernicious screens.
It was the cat-loving French novelist Colette (whose life is currently depicted in a film out now starring Keira Knightly) who decreed: “Time spent with cats is never wasted.”
Six months on and two kittens later, I have transmogrified (lol) into a ‘cat person’. Although when it comes to famous cat quotes, I still aspire to this from Charles Dickens: “What greater gift than the love of a cat?”
Sky, listen up babe. I really appreciate your unifying effect on the family. But I’m still waiting for you to hop on my lap unprompted.