Free Gifts & Fine Furniture – What’s in a Name? (apart from Buckwheat) – Two London Strays – London-by-the-Sea – Buzz the mixed-up terrier – Kasha and her natural affinity with sofas – The Inevitable Vet – Lola the Lurcher – The Inevitable Vet II – Solly the Dog Whisperer & Traffic Victim –Stanley
Our first cat came free with a sofa.
‘I don’t suppose you want a kitten,’ the woman had said, standing there looking harassed, kittens in her hair, swinging off her dressing gown cord. Behind her, the entire flat was filled with cats, of all ages and colours and sizes. A calamitous catastrophe of delinquent cats, chasing each other in and out of the kitchen, climbing the curtains, sprawling on the sofa, flipping through the TV with a remote, snapping cat treats in the air and missing their mouths. The poor woman explained what happened. She said she’d started out with two cats, one of which was pregnant. And then a neighbourhood stray drifted in and forgot to leave and she thought it was male but then it turned out to be pregnant, too, so probably wasn’t, and the next thing was both cats gave birth at the same time to about a million kittens a piece, and overnight the flat was knee-deep in whiskers.
‘Go on, then,’ I said.
After I’d loaded up the sofa she handed me the first one that happened to be passing. I said thankyou and staggered backwards into the hallway, a kitten claws-deep in my chest.
I called her Kasha, after hearing a Polish friend of my sister talking about a girlfriend of hers, although I subsequently found out it wasn’t a girl she was talking about but a recipe for porridge. Still, the name seemed to fit – particularly as it was almost exactly the coughing sound she made when she was about to dredge up a furball. (The cat, not the girlfriend).
Kasha joined me for a particularly rootless phase of my life. I was living in London, wondering what to do next, changing accommodation almost as frequently as I changed jobs. Kasha fitted right in. We’d go through the Employment and Accommodation pages of the local paper together; she’d scratch round something interesting with a claw, I’d make the call. It worked out pretty well. And although I quickly lost sight of the sofa, Kasha would always be there, happily curled up. An image of domesticity in an otherwise rootless time.
By the time I met Kath and we moved in together, Kasha was already into double figures, with the unblinking stare of a city cat who knew her way round the alternative A to Z as much as any pigeon or rat.
We lived together in London for a bit longer, then bought a house down in Brighton. As a first step towards thinking of having children, we thought maybe we’d better practice on something first, so we went to the local pound to adopt a dog. Buzz was a mixed-up terrier, a black and tan stray down from Liverpool who had ears on springs and who would definitely have walked back on his heels if he had any. Kasha hated him. She hid in the bedroom for a month, giving me accusatory looks whenever I went up to feed her and try counselling. But time passed, she got bored with her self-imposed exile, and grudgingly came down to mix with us all. Although they were never friends, they soon came to a workable arrangement. And if Buzz ever trotted too close to the sofa whilst Kasha was lying on the arm, she would swat him on the nose, and the most Buzz would ever do about it was stand and stare at us with a haunted expression, like he couldn’t figure out how his life had come to this, a mixed-up terrier of his pedigree, being tyrannized by a throw cushion.
But of course, it turns out that a free gift with a secondhand piece of furniture has a time limit, just like anything else. After twenty years of good health and serviceable teeth Kasha lost weight, looked frail and unwell. I took her to the vet.
‘I only hope someone will do the same for me one day,’ the vet said, as she shaved Kasha’s paw and prepared to euthanize. It was a painful moment, as these things always are. Despite the off-hand shrug with which I’d taken Kasha, twenty years is a long time in anyone’s book; twenty cat years even longer. I buried her in the garden with a rhododendron on top.
To make up for the loss of Kasha we got another dog. This was Lola – a tiny lurcher from the same pound as Buzz. She was a puppy when we saw her, a tiny scrap of legs and tail, buckling on the bottom row of a pyramid of lurchers who were trying to escape through the top of the run. Buzz and Lola got on well. Buzz enjoyed having something around that was a bit more relatable, something he could curl up with, and jump around with in the snow, and steal sticks from when she’d fetched them from the lake, and wouldn’t swat him on the nose when he stopped by the sofa, for absolutely no reason he could think of.
And then a few years later, when Buzz made his last trip to the vets, we decided to get another cat.
Solly came from a cat rescue place. He had a take-me-or-leave-me, black-and-white-and-the-hell-with-you demeanour. A smart, streetwise cat who’d ambush you in the hallway and jump on your lap when he’d been outside in the rain all night. He quickly learned to manipulate Lola with steely mind control, and I have to say his dog training methodology was way better than ours. Unfortunately, though, he must have tried using the same technique on an approaching car one night, because he was found run over by a passing traffic cop. I had to go identify him down at the vet’s. I brought him home in something horribly like a pizza box. I buried him in the garden with a rose bush on top.
The road was obviously too fast for another cat, so we decided to get another dog.
Which is how, almost a year ago today, we came to be parking up at the same local shelter, filling out a form in the office, strolling through the back door, and up the familiar concrete steps through a wild chorus of barking dogs to see who might be in that day.
And that’s the first time we saw Stanley – or Storm as he was then – sitting in his basket, one enormous front paw flopped over the other, watching the coming and goings with the kind of stare you might see on the face of an old West End critic, sitting in the front row, praying for the interval.
‘Hmm. I’m not sure,’ I said, squatting down and smiling at him. ‘He looks a bit too big to fit through the dog flap.’
Turns out, of course, he wasn’t.