Friday, 3 February 2012

Cat and mouse tales

I grew up in the days long before You Tube or The Internet. The antics of my pets have largely gone unrecorded. Pets were given to children to teach them about life, death and the birds and bees. I never got £250 for appearing on You've Been Framed or Pets Do The Funniest Things and my childhood pets are captured in minute monochrome prints, which don't do justice to my first cat Friska who was a ginger Tom or to my tank of tropical fish.

Totter jumping would have made it to You Tube
One day my mother looked across the garden and spotted Friska's sweet little face appearing out of one of the little doorways of the neighbour's very new dovecote. Moments later the cat returned, lovingly bringing back a present.  There then followed the trauma of returning the corpse to be told that they were 'very special' and EXPENSIVE doves.

My parents liked their early morning cuppa and dad especially liked gadgets so it was natural for them to acquire a Teasmade which would wake them up to a perfectly brewed cup of tea.  Dad would get this contraption ready the night before, with milk, tea and water all in their correct places but noticed that the when the tea was made in the morning the quantity of milk was rather less than had been expected.  Increasing the amount of milk the night before did not seem to alter the amount in the tea in the morning.   Dad decided that something was taking the milk in the night and resolved to discover what by lying awake and on the alert.  Sure enough in the night there was the sound of gentle lapping and the culprit apprehended in its felonious act.  Friska was 'escorted' rather rapidly back out through the bedroom window through which he had gained entry and slid magnificently across the catslide roof of the kitchen.

Aged ten, I had a golden hamster called Tabitha Twitchit. I used to make runs through upturned books which would lead her all round the living room. One afternoon my friend and I got Tabitha together with her hamster, a handsome male. Only a few seconds together and the deed was done, birds were singing and bees were making honey. Not long after, a litter of 7 hamsters appeared in Tabitha's cage, bald and blind looking like little piglets. After a few weeks I took them to the pet shop and sold them for half a crown each, a third of their retail price and the same amount as my pocket money. I kept the runt as it only three legs and no market value. It was adorable and lived far longer than expected but the death thing was looming large. Six months later Tabitha was found lying stiff in her cage and was ceremonially buried in a small box lined with cotton wool. I was still in mourning when somebody told me that hamsters can hibernate, so I was convinced Tabitha had been simply sleeping and  therefore needed to be exhumed. Several attempts were made to locate the resting place, but it was never found. I hoped that being a burrowing creature, her training at navigating through the books would lead her to freedom.

I did have a tortoise, which was expected to hibernate. As winter approached it was given a cardboard box and placed below the airing cupboard. When inspected the tortoise appeared to be dead too, but really how are you supposed to know?

At my all girls Grammar school, pupils were encouraged to participate in lots of activities to make you a "more rounded girl", these days it would be to add substance to your CV. My after school time was taken up with Choir as I enjoyed singing, Orchestra where I learned the clarinet, Debating Society, though I don't think I ever went but that's debateable and the Young Farmer's Club. The YFC seemed to consist of cleaning out rabbit cages, which I didn't particularly enjoy, though I can see I'm all the more rounded for doing it, especially as I let go of a very large rabbit called Billy who hopped it and took over an hour to be tempted back to his garrison, not helped by me who was terrified by just how huge he was.

During a Christmas school holiday I took a cute black mouse home for the two weeks rather like one might borrow a library book to enjoy while it proved entertaining and then return when it became a chore. The mouse was enjoying the stimulation of my 70's green and orange bedroom, so much so that it suddenly produced a litter of tiny black fluffy balls.  I decided it needed to be moved nearer to my bed so I could watch more closely. In the night I was woken up by squeals and squeaks and found that the mouse was devouring her offspring with amazing speed and bloodshed. My mother desperately searched the fridge for a tempting titbit to distract it, but despite being given a tasty turkey morsel it continued its frenzy, caused I found later, due to having its nest moved.

Years later living in a old farmhouse, I opened a cupboard in the bathroom and found my astonished gaze returned by a field mouse, who had diligently constructed a pyramid of rubble presumably from the wall. It looked so lovely I placed half a Satsuma alongside. Looking in later I discovered the fruit all eaten and the skin perched like a cupola on the very top of the pile. How cute I thought! Looking forward to seeing my furry architect again, I was disappointed to find it in the kitchen, well garrotted by the trap which had been set there. Aghast I decided to only use humane traps in future and put one in the bathroom cupboard to see if my mouse had a mate. I found eight mice in the trap, for two days running. Not knowing what to do with them, I released them in the woods, but without a nest, those sweet little field mice would never have made it. One mouse is endearing, several feel like a plague. I realised I had been sleeping in a mouse sandwich, with them running below me under the floorboards, and above me with the protected bats in the attic.

I had a bigger surprise a matter of weeks later. I was in my car eating some cashew nuts I'd bought but feeling guilty about how expensive they were, I tightly wrapped the packet and tucked them in the door. Driving along the next day munching the nuts, it suddenly occurred to me that it had been easy to open the bag, so I looked more carefully and saw teeth marks. Narrowly avoiding a crash, I investigated the entire car and found a variety of snacks that I had forgotten about, all of which had been spotted by something else. I called the vermin controller and he put a trap in the boot, which the next day contained a very large rat. It seems I had taken some rubbish to the dump and it must have been in one of the bags. I got away lightly as he told me stories of a brand new Mercedes which had been trashed by a rat trying to get out by chewing through the speakers, seat belts and floor well.

Having cats, it goes without saying that there are regular killings to deal with. One Spring day, Totter arrived in the garden with a huge bird dangling from side to side. Terrified it might be an exotic species, it was hurriedly checked in a bird book and found to be a cuckoo, which I had never seen before or since. Another arrival in the garden was a pigeon with a ring on its leg. It seemed tired and so the RSPB were called for advice which was to keep it in the garage overnight, give it some chopped boiled egg and in the morning to put it on the fence, making sure the cats were inside, clap hands and it would fly away. Morning came and the bird was placed on the fence, hands were clapped and it flew, about a foot, more clapping and it flew into the neighbour's garden, where it was immediately killed by their cat. I flew round to their door shouting "Your cat has got my bird", but they didn't seemed bothered. I was preparing to move saying I didn't want to live next to  such thoughtless people, when they rang the bell in tears saying they had done their best, but it had been too late and offering a bottle of wine.

These lessons in life and death no doubt prepared me for future losses. Loves are intense but often short lived. My cats have mostly been of a neurotic nature, probably picking up on their owner's vibes. In the 1980's we had painted and furnished a room entirely in black and white in which poor Nibber the tabby cat was not really welcomed, whereas Totter became a fashionable accessory.

To all my pets and other wildlife, thank you for entertaining me, comforting me and teaching me many lessons.

Totter posing for an 80's Xmas card