Well, it’s almost Christmas. Instead of relaxing into a new year, I’m madly editing Turtle Reef to meet a January 7th deadline. Author and renowned writing mentor Sydney Smith will be guest-blogging for me over this period. I gave her an open-ended charter: book reviews, publishing information, publicity for her upcoming writing craft book, The Architecture of Narrative – all great topics. ‘Or you could write about your cats.‘ Now we have six stable cats here on the farm, most of them acquired quite by accident. They are great characters, so I understand Sydney’s love for these creatures. Without further ado, may I present to you the first in a series of city cat stories – a little tale about loyalty, and how it needs to be earned.
The Butch Tales 1: Daka
Every time I think about writing the Butch Tales I think first of Daka, Butch’s predecessor.
Daka came to me late in her life, when she was twelve. We met when I was sharing a house in Brunswick with Nell. I had been house-sharing for years and was used to having a pet around the place. In these situations, there was never any question of whose responsibility the animals were. They were fed and walked and petted in the usual way, and I never gave it a thought.
But soon after I moved in with Nell I realised something was wrong. Nell had two pets, black, feline Daka and a white bitser called Gina, named after La Lollabigida. Daka is one of the nonsense words Indian musicians and dancers use to count out beats. Her full name was Daka Dimi, which is the four-beat mantra.
Nell used to let Gina into her bedroom first thing in the morning for some private communion and kept Daka, meowing angrily, out in the passage. Nell said, ‘Daka has to learn to be loyal.’ Every afternoon when Nell cycled out to her second shift at work, Daka crouched at the front door, waiting for her to come home. She waited for something that would never come, for though Nell never hit her animals, she didn’t pat or praise them either. She didn’t understand animals and their needs.
Daka was a shrewish cat who scratched anyone who tried to pat her. She’d take a swipe at people as they walked past. She’d squat in an armchair, a cranky look on her face, like a little devil waiting for some unwary mortal to stray too close. People were nervous around her. All animals need love, and her uncouth manners kept her starved of it.
The problem for me came to a head over food. Nell fed her pets once a day, sometimes at five o’clock, or nine, or midnight. She thought a cat could live on rice and vegetables cooked with a bit of mince. But cats are carnivores, and Daka used to go hungry. It caused me a lot of distress to see her starve. I kept telling myself she was Nell’s cat, that it was none of my business how she treated her pets.
Then late one afternoon Nell packed her bag for an overnight stay with her partner and cycled over to Kew. She didn’t make provision for her animals. She didn’t feed them before she left. I waited for her to call and ask me to feed them. I didn’t know the number at her partner’s house. I waited and waited, watching Daka and Gina grow frantic with hunger. Every time I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water or to make dinner, they crowded around my legs. Finally, I fed them.
Once I started, I kept on doing it, every day on the dot of five o’clock. If Nell was home, I’d ask her permission. It felt weird. They were her pets, not mine; I had no rights over them. Yet she didn’t object. I’d trot up to the milk bar to buy some cans of food and fill the pet bowls at home. As Daka ate, I stroked her to help her associate human touch with something good.
I never felt comfortable about feeding Nell’s pets, but I felt worse not feeding them. Nell complained more than ever about Daka’s “disloyalty” while accepting with imperial serenity that feeding her pets was now my duty.
Before long, Daka took up residence in my bedroom. A curtain hung over the doorway, and whenever people came into the house, she’d poke her head from behind the curtain and meow. Nell would look at her, aggrieved, as if Daka had struck her a painful blow.
Daka never became a cat whom people could pick up or pat, but since she spent most of her time in my room, people could walk about without fear of her claws. After a few months, Nell went to live in Kew with her partner. She took Gina and left Daka with me.
Two weeks later, Nell returned to pick up some things. We sat on the glory chest in the kitchen to have a cup of tea and chat about her new situation. In strolled Daka. She froze at the sight of Nell, one paw in the air. After a little think, she walked over to Nell’s side of the glory chest, jumped up, trampled across Nell’s legs, and sat down beside me, her flank touching me, her Byzantine head turned away from her former owner.
Nell, looking more baffled than ever, said, ‘I don’t understand why she’s disloyal.’
Coming soon, The Butch Tales 2: The Boy King.
It is my great pleasure to announce the book giveaway winners – Karen McDermott and Laura Boon. I shall email you both privately for your postal address. Many thanks to those who commented and a very merry Christmas to all!