What I need you to know is this: it happened back in 1980, I was eighteen, I was clueless, and I didn’t have a mobile phone. (No-one did. They were the size of field radios, for god’s sake. No shops sold them, and even if they did, a contract would cost about three thousand pounds. So only bankers, film stars or presidents had them, and as I was none of the above, I had to use a call box like everyone else).
My girlfriend Max and I had decided to live in Bristol. It was a desperate move, the kind of close your eyes and jump tactic you adopt when things aren’t going well but you can’t think of anything else. I’d been acting in a production of Journey’s End at the local theatre. By some inexplicable kink in the casting process I’d scored the part of Captain Stanhope. It didn’t go well. The problem was, when I thought I was conveying nervous exhaustion I came across as bored. In a promotional still for the production I’m staring off into the distance looking pale and a little ticked-off, like I’m at the back of a long queue for the toilet. ‘You smoked a lot’ was what my brother Pete said when he came to see me. When the review came out in the paper I only featured in the also appearing section, an act of courtesy that read as a damning sleight. (The relationship between Stanhope and Raleigh is central to the play. It would be like a critic going to see Hamlet, ignoring the Prince and focusing on Polonius, instead). Which isn’t to say the critic was wrong, of course. The guys playing Sargent Osborne and Mason were obviously better actors than me. The tragedy was – wholesale slaughter of The First World War aside – I’d been miscast. I should’ve played the cook. I’ve always looked more cook than captain.
Anyway, I’d thought acting was my ticket out, but in the end it was National Express.
We’d chosen Bristol because it was far enough away to escape the gravitational pull of our home town failures, it was cheaper than London, and Max had some friends there who could put us up the first night whilst we looked for a place. We arrived at their house one sharp winter’s evening, knocked on the front door, and waited.
We knocked again, blew on our hands. Waited some more.
I decided to look through the letterbox. Why, I’m not sure. If Max’ friends been standing in the hallway hoping we’d go away, spying on them through the letterbox wouldn’t have helped.
The letterbox was low down on the door, for some reason. I’m sure the postman hated having to bend down to shove the letters through, and aesthetically it gave the door a strangely upside-down appearance. Still, that’s where it was, so I knelt down on the front step and pushed the flap open.
And found six black eyes looking straight back at me.
I dropped the flap and jumped back, because in my road-weary delirium I thought it was a giant spider specifically bred to guard the letterbox. But I recovered quickly and bravely pushed open the flap to have another look. And there they were! Three cute kittens! One tortoiseshell and white, one brindle, and the other the purest black. They’d obviously been attracted by the knocking and come to see what was going on. I waggled my fingers through the letterbox making kissy-kissy noises, and the kittens clambered over each other in their eagerness to get at me. It was a beautiful moment after all the hassle of the journey, the cold and the worry. I played with them like that for a minute or two, then straightened up again to talk to Max about what we should do next.
Maybe her friends were out at work. Maybe they had to go to the shops. We stood on the doorstep looking left and right down the street, hoping we’d see them hurrying towards us along the frosty pavement, laden down with bags, smiling and waving. But the street was resolutely empty of anything but parked cars and a layer of ice so sparkling white you could hear it cracking as it thickened.
There were other things to be considered. Maybe we’d got the dates wrong. Maybe they were expecting us tomorrow.
This is where the lack of mobile phones comes in. If we’d had them we could’ve called her friends up and said Hey! We’re here! and sorted the whole thing out. As it was, the best we could do was find a phone box and call them at work – if Max could remember where they worked.
We were standing on the doorstep wondering what to do next when there was a thin meowing sound close-by. One of the kittens – the pure black one – had somehow escaped and was wrapping itself around my legs.
I picked it up and gave it a cuddle.
‘You shouldn’t have encouraged it,’ said Max. ‘Now what do we do?’
‘Put him back.’
But looking at the house, we couldn’t figure out how the kitten got out. There was no open window, no cat flap, no access to the back of the house we could see.
‘He must’ve squeezed through the letterbox.’
‘He’d never fit through there’
‘You’d be surprised what cats can fit through. Especially when they’re as cute and tiny as this one!’
I held the kitten up next to my face to demonstrate, then knelt back down on the front step and gently introduced it to the letterbox, face first.
‘Come on, sweetie!’ I said, holding the flap open with one hand and pushing him forwards with the other. ‘There you go!’
The kitten braced his front paws against the door and pushed back.
‘Come on! Come on, little fella! Thaaaat’s it…!’
He meowed pitifully and fought back, wildly scrabbling.
I thought maybe there was something on the other side stopping him going through, so I handed him up to Max and bent down to have a look.
And saw three kittens sitting on their haunches with horrified expressions on their faces.
‘It’s a different kitten,’ I said, gently closing the flap and standing up again.
‘Shit,’ said Max. ‘Now what?’