When we got our cat, he was small and neat, still and silent. He was motionless to the point of invisibility. I was surprised to find him in amongst laundry I’d been folding, or on a chair I was about to sit down on. He only ever moved after cautious consideration. Then he would pad squeamishly around, as if the world was contaminated with disease and rife with danger. Our cat was a serious being. Great deliberations about motion and trust weighed him down.
As he came from a rescue centre, his past was a mystery. We got hints of his memories in his volatile reactions: his fear of tall men; his tendency to square up to dogs much larger than him. Due to his aggressive outbursts, he’d been called Tyson in the rescue centre, but we weren’t convinced. He wasn’t brawny or a bully. He was wily and worried. We renamed him Rambo. It’s a long road when you’re on your own.
Mostly, he was worn out. He only wanted to sleep and recede into nothingness. He had been moved too much, in his life, from flats to cages, so he wasn’t interested in learning much about the new place he’d landed. Why bother?
There were, however, some parts of life Rambo considered safe and good. We realised that he loved women – if they were gentle and kind. A visit to the vet was surprisingly successful, because she was soft and sweet with him, and in return he swooned up to her, purring with his whole body. He went starry-eyed and dreamy around any of my female friends who met his preferences.
He decided to try and trust me, and began to snake around me when he was hungry. James Joyce starts off Leopold Bloom’s day in Ulysses with a scrounging cat walking ‘stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high’, and looking up with ‘avid, shame-closing eyes’, which I always thought was exactly the eyes cats do when they want love and food. Our black cat stared up at me with his shining yellow-stone eyes. He began to seek me out in the morning, making little chirrups, softly bumping his head against mine. I held my breath when he came and lay in my lap, afraid that one hasty move would undo our budding friendship.
Safe and good, too, was the bath-tub. At first, he was happy to just perch on the edge and look in. He spent long meditative sittings there, gazing in to its depths, eyes soft and bright. Once I started the shower while he watched from the other side of the room. Overwhelmed, he fled the scene. Then he crept back and watched intently from just outside the door. Water!
‘But surely you’ve seen all this before?’ I asked him. He tilted his face up at me, occupied with his own sense of wonder, and held apart from me the mysterious workings of his catty brain.
He fitfully worked up the courage to go outdoors. The endeavour was a fraught one: he couldn’t stand down from high alert. We began to wonder if he would ever fully relax. When we picked him out in the rescue centre they warned us, ‘you’ll never be able to cuddle him’. But love for an animal heeds no warnings, and we were already thoroughly smitten. A few months later, we had begun to accept our cat was occupied with his own multifarious worries and phobias, and was rarely with us in the human world. He might never become a cuddly, confident creature.
Doris Lessing was an inveterate cat lover (she wrote wonderfully about this in her book, On Cats). She also wrote that: ‘any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so’. I’d like to apply this to rescue animals. I considered Rambo. What did he need? Time and love? This was all we could really offer (apart from cat nip).
Time and love it was.
There came the day when he was confident enough in his surroundings to head-butt his way in to the bathroom, and question me, by way of his worried eyes, about what on earth I was doing filling the sacred tub with bubbles. Then he tried for the first time to dip his paw in the water. He pressed the wet paw against my arm, experimentally, and looked up at me, testing this new interaction. From that day on, he has fully embraced his love for the tub, and has been splashing about like a fisher-cat, under the running tap.
These days, he spends all night outside, like a wayward youngster we have no hope of controlling. He barrels through the cat flap at 6am to tell us all about it (we can hear the meows approaching down the hall), waking us up to tell his stories. Now and then he brings us a dead bird. Thanks, little buddy. He likes to stick around, patrolling (purring) around us as we clean up the mess.
He even softened his views on tall men. With a great deal of patient preamble, my boyfriend has managed to gain Rambo’s trust. Now they play laser-chase together, or lie curled up together napping, Rambo dreaming of an endless series of spotless white bath-tubs.
He springs from rooftop to garden wall in sunshine or rain. Our confident, cuddly cat.
Living alongside a different species means that you are an occasional, privileged visitor to a different world. Cat time works differently. Their life is one of impulse and mood: comfort and pleasure are of the utmost importance. There’s always time for a nap. Rambo make a mockery of my to-do lists. He watches me humorously, intelligently, as I rush clumsily around.
Cats are sensitive to voices and moods; and they will fuss and worry over you if you’re unwell. But they don’t care about lists, housework, politics, economics, committees, referendums, elections. They occupy a different world, alongside ours, and I think it’s very good to be reminded that our human manifestations of worry and dominance are just human things. They are not everything.
Rambo has decided to love and trust us despite our human flaws. The time and love that Rambo needed has come back to us, multiplied. With him, there is a time each day in which the news stories don’t matter. This is a time for playfulness and fur-scratching. Another timely quote, this time from Jean Cocteau: ‘I love cats because I love my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul’. This home belongs to our cat now. We’re just happy to live there with him.