Fester Cat tells the story of how we first met Bernard Socks - a year ago this week.
The outbreak of sniffles upstairs at the cat sanctuary meant that all the volunteers had decided to play it safe. ‘We can’t just let members of the public go traipsing about up there,’ the lady with purple hair told the boys. ‘Don’t you see? If we did they’d be treading germs from room to room and sooner or later all the cats would come down with the sniffles.’
‘Of course,’ said Jeremy, sounding sensible.
‘Come back next week, eh?’ she smiled. For a moment it was possible to believe that she was the stall holder in some exotic bazaar in a faraway land, surrounded by trinkets, theatrical jewellery and glass bottles that were glittering in the afternoon sun.
Paul looked just then as if he thought a week was a very long time indeed.
The purple-haired woman seemed to take pity, asking: ‘Have you seen our website? Is there a particular cat that you had in mind?’
Jeremy hadn’t consulted the Tharg site as yet and he just shrugged and was about to say something about visiting with an open mind. Why, they weren’t actually sure yet about adopting anyway. Not so soon after losing me.
He never got a chance to say any of that, however.
‘Sox,’ said Paul. ‘We wanted to visit Sox.’
‘Sox?’ mused the lady, and smiled. ‘Oh, yes. I know who you mean. He’s lovely. A really lovely boy. Well, you two lads come back next Saturday and he’ll still be here and you can see him then.’
‘All right,’ said Paul and then he moved off, going to examine the room full of secondhand books at the rear of the shop. No matter where he is, no matter what’s going on, he can never resist checking over the blummin’ books on sale.
It was a windowless room at the back of the shop. He found lots of thrillers and paranormal romance, plus a great many star biographies. Also, lots of china tea sets, some of them mismatched and fascinating. And there was Jeremy’s favourite – box loads of vinyl LPs, all unsorted.
‘You never said you had a particular cat in mind.’
‘Hm?’ said Paul. ‘I wasn’t sure that I did, really. His name just kind of popped into my head.’
Jeremy flipped through the records. He paused whenever he came to one of the wonderful things he collected – disco compilations (‘Don’t Walk, Boogie!’) and ancient Easy Listening (‘Last the Whole Night Long!’)
The smell back there was stronger. The musky, slightly widdly scent of cats, overlaid by gallons of disinfectant. It stirred nostalgia in Paul. It made him think of my last few weeks when, during endless winter nights, I took to blithely ignoring my litter tray. Paul would be scrubbing carpets and rugs with coconut-scented stuff and doing his best to reassure me that everything was all right.
Now he realized that, in the world beyond our house, people were still looking after cats. They were still doing all that feeding and mopping up after cats. In the past two months he had been unaware of this. As far as he was concerned, all cats had stopped with Fester. That was how he had felt. In that time, he had visited neighbours and their cats and he had popped round to feed Scooby, Rowan and Fang at the end of the street while their family was away, and it had felt so strange, as if they were mythical creatures he was dreaming. I think he was craving the company of cats, and relishing the chance to put out their food and rub their ears and tickle them under their chins whenever he paid a visit. One evening, when Paul and Jeremy were visiting Scooby, Rowan and Fang’s humans – the Lakes – all three cats had taken turns to jump up into both their laps. It was a sort of gesture of catty consolation, and quite different to their usual behaviour, Paul thought. I’m a bit more cynical about other cats generally but I can see where he was coming from. I think he went a bit doo-lally when I died.
But I was glad to see the other cats in the street were being nice to my boys. I’d never had much faith in other moggies really. But maybe this lot were all right.
And now… now I was watching Paul and Jeremy at this Tharg place and I was actually glad they hadn’t been allowed to visit those cats-in-care. What did they want with stinky replacement cats? Cats someone had chucked out? Right then as I watched my fellas rummage in the jumble I wanted them to turn around and leave; to drive straight back home across Levenshulme. I wanted them to sit in the garden, on the terrace of the Beach House. They could take their mugs of tea out there and sit still and concentrate on missing me like crazy. Yep. That’s what I wanted them to do.
But at that very moment the door that led out of the charity shop and into the secret base of cat rescue operations opened. And through the doorway stepped the lady in charge of Tharg. She looked very friendly and only a little bit harassed. Next thing, she was at the counter with the purple hair lady and they were chatting about this and that: the everyday to-ings and fro-ings of such a complicated outfit.
My ears were pricked though, and so were Paul’s as he pored over the books. All the hardbacks were two pounds only and he was imagining going home with stacks of the things. Jeremy, oblivious to everything, was building himself a tower of scratchy vinyl. And then Paul and I both heard the lady in charge of Tharg saying – quite distinctly – that the quarantined zone was only actually upstairs. The danger of sniffle-spreading only really applied to the rooms above the charity shop. But behind the shop there was another room filled with other cats, and that was where Sox was housed just now. So – if the two gentlemen were particularly interested in meeting the cat known as Sox, then they were welcome to pay a visit right now.
‘Jeremy!’ Paul hissed.
My heart sank a little, I must admit. But only for a few moments, before I gave myself up to the blummin’ inevitability of it all.
You see, I knew what was going to happen.
The Tharg ladies were about to call my boys over, away from all the secondhand tat, back to the front desk, and there they would explain that, as it happened, they could both meet Sox that afternoon after all.
Both boys would be thrilled.
And everything would start to change.
They would shuffle – maybe nervously – through the door after the lady who was in charge of Tharg. They would step through that magic door like they were stepping through a spaceship door or a wardrobe into a brand new world. They’d be stepping into a whole new phase of their shared life.
I could see that in a moment’s flash. I could tell everything that was to come. And, quite naturally, I had mixed feelings about that, didn’t I?
I thought that their imminent meeting with Sox would take them further away from me.
It was a bit like visiting a hospital ward, Paul was thinking. Rather than beds there were cubicles with glass doors and inside each were two inhabitants. The doors had signs with their names, plus plastic folders containing any medication they were on.
The ladies of Tharg urged the two boys to have a visit and to spend some time. They would find Sox in the small room at the very end of the passageway, which he shared with his friend, Felix. The windows were covered with pale blinds, making the light seem cloudy and unreal.
Paul was on the point of saying. ‘Oh, but Sox was just a name that popped into my head. His was the only name I could remember from looking at your website. Quite honestly, we aren’t committed to the idea of him above all others… Not yet.’
But he didn’t say anything. It was overwhelming in there. Noisy with chirruping and questioning mews. When it became apparent that there were visitors in the place a right blummin’ racket started up. I wouldn’t have been able to stand it, had I been there.
The lady in charge was explaining that seven of the cats in this downstairs room had all come from the same previous home. They had been given over to the care of Tharg in one boisterous job lot. They were a ramshackle, inter-related family, though no one could work out who was whose aunty or son or whatever. This magnificent seven had belonged to a human couple that had broken up. The woman was moving into a flat and couldn’t look after this many moggies – and so, four months ago, all had come to Tharg.
Some of these cats were in pairs that couldn’t be parted and would have to be adopted together. Some slept twined in their baskets. Others were very shy and young, hanging back on the wooden shelves of their cubby holes. Some were over-friendly, shoving themselves forward for attention. One was driving himself into a frenzy, all through the boys’ visit. His name was Jigger and he yelled hoarsely for their attention. He flomped onto the concrete floor and wriggled and squirmed against the door, squeezing his paw in the gap underneath, trying to get to them. It was a bit funny and a bit pathetic to see that pawful of claws darting out from under that door.
Other cats perched on their shelves, gazing balefully. Some had bright, alert, hopeful faces turned towards Paul and Jeremy as they went along the passage, peering at everyone. The boys paused to call out to everyone. They spent time with Jigger, and they looked quietly at the tiny, eighteen month old mother, Sugar, who was so shy a curtain had been put round her bed. She peered round it at the visitors, and so did her three, blue-eyed kittens.
In the last cubicle of all, however, was the one they had apparently come to see.
‘Just open the door carefully and go in and introduce yourselves,’ said the lady in charge. ‘The pair of them probably won’t try to bolt, but do watch out they don’t make a bid for freedom.’
Paul let Jeremy go into that tiny space first. The cellmates were up on their feet, stretching and shuffling and keen to know what was going on. Both were a bit big. That was the first thing I thought, and I knew both of the fellas thought it too. I’d say that both the cats were twice my size. This was startling to Paul and Jeremy, who’d for so long been used to such a petite cat. But here were two tall, robust, long-legged cats with thick necks and broad skulls. They were strong, too, nudging and pushing at their visitors. They were vying for affection.
Sox gripped the edge of his shelf, clenching his bright white paws on the wood. He leaned forward and pressed his nose against Jeremy’s forehead. A proper smacker! Boop! Then he pushed out his white bib and stared at both boys. Before either of them knew what was happening, he launched himself into the air.
Luckily Jeremy caught him in both arms. Sox sprawled there, stretching out these huge legs and continuing to press nose-kisses on Jeremy’s face. Paul laughed and took pictures with his phone, and then Sox leaned over, putting his front paws on Paul’s arm, very gently asking to be held by him, too.
Down on the ground Felix was purring hopefully. He could see who the centre of attention was, though. He went off to crunch some biscuits by his bowl, allowing Paul to give him a consoling scratch. Paul was feeling bad and starting to wonder whether the cats were close and maybe couldn’t be parted. Maybe they had to be adopted together? Could the boys cope with having both cats come to live with them? Would two cats this size be a bit much..?
Meanwhile Sox was jumping down and crunching biscuits, and then winding round their legs, nudging at them and going through the whole rigmarole of being adorable. I was trying to work out if it was something he did on cue, and whether he’d practiced much. It was clear that Felix didn’t know how to do it. He just made some pitiable Siamese-type noises – not very attractive – as if he already knew he was right out of the running.
The boys didn’t know whether many potential adopters had already had a look at Sox. His being all affectionate and stuff seemed pretty off the cuff. I thought so, and so did Paul. He was really excited by their visit. His pupils went huge and black and round.
They stopped with him for ten minutes or so. They chatted with both Sox and Felix. Sox didn’t say anything at all, he just kept on nudging a bit frantically. There were no promises. No firm decisions. It was just a nice visit. No one was giving their heart away, were they? Everyone was being careful not to fall in love today.
Paul and Jeremy backed out of the cell, closing the glass door, careful not to trap anyone’s tail or paw. Now all the cats in that corridor were getting noisy and too worked up. More of them than just Jigger were scrabbling at their smeary windows and trying to poke their paws under the doors. Everyone was over-excited.
‘We’ve caused a riot,’ said Paul.
‘At least we’re popular somewhere,’ said Jeremy.
The lady in charge of Tharg was smiling at them. ‘What do you think? Have you made a decision?’ She looked sympathetic. ‘I know it’s hard, when you see them all like this. But I’ve found over the years that people often know all at once. Something just clicks inside and they know who they have to take home. Do you like him?’
‘Oh, yes,’ they both said. ‘He seems like a wonderful cat…’
‘But at the same time you have to be completely sure,’ said the lady in charge of Tharg. ‘That’s right. It’s a very big decision. He’s only four years old and that means you’ll have him with you for a long time yet.’
Then Paul explained a little about me. He told her how they were both still quite battered and bruised from grieving.
Only two months had passed. Maybe they were here too soon. They didn’t know.
I was pleased to be mentioned then. I was glad they were talking about me.
They were saying that nothing could bring back Fester Cat. And nobody could replace him. And yet it was time to let in someone else. Someone they could love on his own account, and for his own self.
It was overwhelming. Being there on that Saturday afternoon. Both of them a bit tired. All those voices calling out to them. After so many weeks of no cat company at all. To have all this kerfuffle and all this neediness and being at the centre of all this noisy longing… well, it was a bit too much.
‘What we can do for you is reserve him,’ said the lady in charge of Tharg. ‘It doesn’t commit you, but it ensures that no one else can come along in the meantime to claim him. And so you can think, during the coming week, whether or not Sox is the right boy for you.’
Paul and Jeremy smiled at this very sensible, practical suggestion. Yes, that’s what they would do. They would sleep on this and come back next Saturday. And by then the upstairs of Tharg would be open, too and maybe they could visit up there as well.
Then they left. They went through the interior door and went back into the charity shop. Out of the world of cats and back into the treasure trove.
The lady with purple streaks in her hair gabbled at them: ‘Did you see him? Isn’t he lovely? Are you going to rehome him?’
The boys told her that they had to think hard about it all. It was a big decision. There was a hole in their lives where Fester Cat had been. It wasn’t a case of just filling it up. It had to be about love all over again.
Of course, I glowed a little at hearing that. Ungow!
But I also knew that, while Jeremy was still confused and mulling things over, Paul was completely sure. He knew that it would be Sox who’d be moving in.
He already knew that it was the story of Sox they’d be part of next.