Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Baby spent most of last week in a cattery, a lovely place in the country where he went for a “wee holiday”. He wasn’t all that keen (well, that’s quite possibly the biggest understatement of the decade) but I felt reassured that he was in safe hands. He had his own luxury apartment with split levels and a view out over the pond. The lovely owners even left the radio on for him at night so he wouldn’t feel lonely. The worst part of the experience was the car journey there – 20 minutes of howling, growling, wailing and puking. And that was just me. The Ellie Goulding CD did nothing to calm his nerves, nor did my shaky rendition of Soft Kitty. In a final desperate attempt to calm Baby down, I slid my fingers through the grille at the front of the cat carrier so I could tickle his chin. This seemed to work well – until it was time to change gear. To my horror, I realised my hand was stuck and I was fast approaching a complicated roundabout. Luckily for me (and the rest of the road users) it was early Sunday morning so it didn’t much matter that I sped round on two wheels and in fifth gear while frantically trying to free my hand.

They did everything possible to make Baby feel welcome on his arrival but it was a strange and frightening environment for him, not least because there were plenty of other cats. The noises and smells must have been totally unnerving for him and worst of all they must have reminded him of the cat shelter I rescued him from. My worry was that in leaving Baby, he was going to think I wasn’t coming back. How do you explain to an animal that you’ll be back soon and that this is only for a short time? For a cat who has had several (unhappy) homes and who has experienced neglect and abuse the only conclusion to draw from cages and vanishing owners is abandonment. 

I remember the first time I saw Baby, Christmas 2010. It was love at first sight for me but for Baby it would take longer for the barriers to come down. I understood that only too well and so I tried not to rush things. I was content to let him take time to settle in. I knew it would take a lot of effort on my part for him to trust humans again. Let’s face it, the ones he lived with before didn’t exactly fly the flag for human kindness. I was warned he had ‘baggage’ but I reckoned we would get on well, due to the fair few suitcases of emotional baggage I had stored away. And I like a challenge. 

It took a few weeks before Baby stopped flinching every time I moved. It took months before the postman could pass the window without him running for cover. It took over a year to get a single head bump from him. He has never been demonstrative but he does offer some love when the Munchies cupboard gets opened. I’m always pathetically grateful for the small amount of affection he shows me and even more grateful that he appears to be madly in love with Junior. Sometimes it’s like a mutual appreciation society and I have to fight back my feelings inadequacy. I must confess to resorting to holding fishy cat biscuits up to my face in an attempt to get a kiss from Baby. It’s a tactic that works well.  I like to pretend he loves me and isn’t just very greedy. I do hope I never have to do this with a man.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. 

There has been a distinctive shift in Baby’s behaviour since his return home from the cattery. He has been home for three days and I’ve never seen him so affectionate and relaxed. Perhaps he’s just glad to be home. Perhaps the food is better here. Perhaps it’s the guilt he feels at making the nice man bleed when he was putting him back in the cat carrier. 

I think it’s more likely that he simply can’t believe his luck.

My sister peeked through the window before she entered the cattery to collect him. She said Baby looked perfectly settled, cleaning himself on the balcony. It’s nice to know he wasn’t distressed but I feel a little sad because there was probably a hefty amount of resignation on his part, an acceptance that he had been right all along – that this good life with the small, kind boy and slightly crazy woman was going to come to an end at some point.

So, I think this is where the shift has come in. It’s as though Baby feels more secure now. In his mind, the worst thing happened. We left him. But we came back. The lesson is that we are never going to give up on him. I think it took the stint in the cattery for him to wholly accept that. 

For two and a half years he held back, didn’t allow himself to fully accept our love in case it was snatched away. He must have been waiting for the day when we would admit defeat and cart him back to the shelter again. But how could I ever give up on him? He’s grumpy and demanding. His breath smells of fishy rubber and he sometimes misses the litter tray. He steals food off our plates and he scratches the bed until it’s bald. He does high speed circuits of the house at 3am and if that doesn’t wake me up he jumps on my bladder from a great height. 

But doesn’t he deserve the same chance of happiness that we all do?

I would like to be the one to teach him that sometimes it’s okay to let go, that sometimes it’s fine to drop the barriers and embrace the love that is being offered. I want to show him that it’s possible to live in the moment and not worry so much about what lies ahead, to feel safe in the knowledge that there are people who are capable of sticking with you even when the going gets tough. Yes, happiness can be fleeting and good things can be snatched away from us but it is possible to trust again. Ultimately, there can be no healing until we have restored our trust in life. Who knows? Perhaps with a little bit more time and a lot more perseverance, maybe Baby and I can accept these things together.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Fishy Family Secrets

Whilst sipping on a cup of Earl Grey in a café, my sister pointed up to the rafters and said, “Look, that lampshade looks like Mum’s old crystal trifle bowl, the one that Grace lived in.”

Grace was our first pet, a goldfish we won at a funfair in 1976, a time when it was still acceptable to carry a living creature home in a small sandwich bag. In a rush of giddy excitement I dropped the bag in the back of the car. It landed with a plop and a skoosh, which was followed with a mad scramble to rescue the flapping fish from underneath the driver’s seat. I still recall the water pouring out of a hole in the bag and thinking I had killed her. We could have refilled the bag with my guilty tears. 

Despite her early ordeal, Grace lived to a ripe old age, albeit with a weird, squishy lump on the top of her head. She lived in luxury, swimming around in my Mum’s best Edinburgh Crystal trifle bowl, a wedding present and family heirloom. Grace swam around happily in there for 51 weeks of the year but every December 23rd she would be temporarily re-homed in a less elegant Tupperware sandwich box so that Mum could make her festive trifle. I know it sounds revolting but she always gave it an extra good clean and the carefully positioned layer of tinned fruit covered the marks at the bottom where the gravel had scratched the glass. None of the dinner guests were ever any the wiser. On the contrary, they always ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhd’ and commented on the ‘extra special something’ that they’d never tasted before. Of course, my sister and I were threatened with death (or at least a week without Swap Shop) should we ever let the secret out. Cue much giggling and footsie under the table when it came time to spoon the first serving from the bowl. Mum’s death glare usually put a swift end to the hilarity.

My Mum still uses that crystal bowl and I always smile whenever I see it. If I run my finger over the fine web of scratches along the bottom I can still imagine Grace bobbing around at the surface with that strange, eyeball-shaped lump I gave her on her first day as our family pet. There’s something marvellous about family traditions and secrets. Happy secrets, of course, not the kind that destroy. Silly memories are what link us with our past and our families in unique ways. They provide us with common bonds and shared experiences. They still make us laugh 35 years later when we spot a familiar looking lampshade in a café and are suddenly transported back to our 1970’s living room. 

To the outside world we all grow old. But not to our siblings. Somehow, we always see each other as we always were. We share private jokes, we remember family feuds, griefs and joys. A sibling is like having a little bit of childhood that can never be lost. Different flowers from the same garden.