Well, Christmas has come and gone, and I’m still madly editing Turtle Reef to meet a January 7th deadline. Author and writing mentor Sydney Smith is guest-blogging for me over this period – about her cats! Here is the second instalment …
I left the shared house where I met Daka and the two of us moved into a flat in Brunswick. It had gardens for her to play in, with lots of places she could hide and spy on other felines. I left the lounge room window ajar to let her climb in and out as she pleased. She was an old cat and arthritic. I placed a chair outside the window, to help her get inside.
Two years later, Daka sickened. It hurt her to eat and she left messes outside the door of my upstairs neighbour. I took her to the vet, a man with wildly romantic looks and a sharp tone of voice. Though he was irritable with humans, he was firm and gentle with Daka. He told me she had to be put to sleep. He let me stay with her while he shaved her forepaw and injected the drug. All the strength melted from her body.
I cried over her. Then I went home, and the moment I lay down on my bed to grieve properly, a cat flea, one of Daka’s little tenants, jumped onto my arm and bit me. I cried even more. Inside that flea a little bit of Daka lived on, and that somehow was more heart-wrenching than her death.
It took me two years to get over Daka. It was lonely to live in my flat with no animal. But every time I thought about adopting someone new, that grief for Daka welled up again. But grief will go, if you let it, and after two years in mourning I was ready. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted a cat. Maybe I’d get a dog. Or a budgie. Whatever it was I’d call it Butch. In particular, Butch the Budgie tickled my sense of humour. But I wasn’t set on getting a bird. I would see what caught my fancy.
One day I was walking along Rathdowne Street in Carlton, one of the routes I took on my expeditions into the big world after a morning spent at my computer. A vet clinic there kept a big cage of kittens. I had often stopped outside the window to watch them climb the stairs inside their cage and tumble through the trapdoor. On this day, I went inside.
I wanted a female, but they’d all been taken. I was ready for an animal, and wouldn’t be put off by a little matter of gender. The vet nurse opened the cage. A black kitten with a bushy tail as big as he was stepped out and allowed himself to be carried, a boy king riding his human palanquin to the counter. From there he jumped to the floor and explored the reception area with such a singular air of eccentric personality that I fell for him.
His ragdoll mother had bequeathed to him the distinctive white markings on his black face, his white shirt front, the dab of white at the end of his black tail and his king-sized paws. I took him home. He meowed all the way.
Daka was my first pet, and she had come to me as an adult, set in her ways. I consulted my cat-owning neighbour. What should I do with a kitten? How should I train him? Where should he sleep? Daka had slept with me but I thought I ought to train Butch differently. ‘Shut him in the kitchen at night,’ she said. ‘He’ll learn to sleep by himself.’ I made up a bed for him with an old jumper in a cardboard box, and added a toy cat so that he wouldn’t feel lonely.
Butch had lived all his short life with his brothers and sisters. He had never been alone. A synthetic toy cat didn’t count as company. Moreover, he had a strong sense of what was due to him as a boy king. The moment I shut the kitchen door, he set up an imperious meowing. I hardened my heart for about ten seconds, and then gave in. From then on, it was Butch who trained me. He knew exactly what he wanted and would stop at nothing to get it.
In those days I was working part-time at the writers’ centre. Every morning when I went to work, Butch sprinted around the flat, screaming at the top of his lungs. After two such mornings, I couldn’t take it anymore. I packed his lunch and some kitty litter, put him into his carry case, and took him to work on the tram.
As Butch grew bigger he wanted to go outside. I opened the front door for him. I’d sit there reading a manuscript I was assessing while he ventured out into the big world of the garden. Every few steps he’d look back at me and meow. ‘It’s OK, Butch. I’m right here.’ Soon I stopped sitting at the open door and he would come and go as he pleased. Once I heard him plaintively calling. I went outside and found him in a tree. I thought he was stuck and climbed up to get him. He meowed his protests, and as soon as I put him on the ground, he quickly scaled the trunk and sat on a branch, singing.
When Butch was confident in the garden, he wanted to go further afield. In the evening, soon after dark had closed over Brunswick, I took him for walks around the block. Was this normal? I knew of only one wandering cat, a Russian Blue who went for walks on the end of a leash. Butch seemed to think it was perfectly natural, and by this time, I knew better than to argue.
Other cats were out there, adult cats, big cats with territories. They hissed at him, but maybe because he was a kitten, they didn’t hurt him. One night we met a woman taking her seven cats for a walk to the local school playground, where they could run around. The beefy grey tom built like a rugby forward, who was really in charge of the expedition, strolled across the road to greet us with his round, smiling face. He looked benignly on Butch before sauntering back to his team.
One evening Butch demanded his walk twenty minutes before a show I wanted to see came on TV. I asked him to wait, but he insisted. The boy king had never heard of delayed gratification. I kept an eye on the time, thinking we could do the walk quickly and I could get back for my show. Butch had other ideas. He lingered in every interesting nook and cranny. He especially loved a rose garden up the street. At five minutes before my show started, I left him there and raced home. An hour later, riven by guilt and worry for his safety, I returned to the rose garden. ‘Butch?’ An answering meow. He had waited for me all that time, hiding under a bushy fuchsia.
Coming soon – The Butch Tales 3: Mouse-hunter.
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her website.