So there we were – five cats, two dogs, two boys and a guinea pig all happily rolling around in a 10-bedroomed house in the country when I hit on the idea of moving into a two-bedroomed flat over one of the shops that we owned until we could buy or build something nearer our place of business.
Brigadier Pontoon (the guinea-pig) must have got wind of the idea because he was found dead in his hutch one morning. As dignified in death as he had been in life. We had no idea how old he was or, indeed, of the normal lifespan of guinea-pigs. We had first spotted him in a cardboard box on the pavement outside a shop with a label attached `Retired from Breeding Purposes`. He had been happy with us and the cats loved him – one or other of them was often to be found curled up with him in his hutch (we never shut the sliding door as he never attempted to escape) in the cosy hay. He was given a solemn funeral in the tradition of our family.
The cats? Two of them were long-standing family pets and had been with us for a number of years – Sophie and George – and they were inseparable. Minky-Puss had belonged to the old lady who owned the large house – she had died – and we told her daughter that we would take Minky on with the property. She was ginger – did y ou know that ginger female cats are always sterile? She was also sort-of feral – strange because in the winter she would be a real household pet – joining the others in front of the Aga and going to bed with my youngest son. Come spring and she would disappear – not even coming home to be fed. I could often spot her tail waving like a flag as she made her way through the long grass in the field opposite. She was totally self-sufficient until the first touch of winter and there she would be – in front of the Aga again and looking for her dinner. She had befriended the man who lived in the house just over the road (he also owned the field she liked) and on speaking to him about her and telling him we were moving – he offered to give her a home. She was quite elderly and it would not have been kind to move her from her familiar surroundings and way of life. We gratefully accepted and offered to meet any vets bills that she incurred. He never asked us.
My brother took on one of the cats that had taken a liking to him and, sadly, we had to have one put to sleep. She had been a real feral cat and of uncertain stock. She had a troublesome skin condition that would not clear up and it caused her distress. Again – like Brigadier Pontoon – she had had a good life with us.
Moving from a house that size into a smallish flat exercised my mind not a little. I had to be ruthless! There were large packing cases stored in one room that I had not unpacked all the time we had been there – I figured I could live without the contents and threw the whole lot into skips. I have no idea what I threw out – the childrens` first teeth I am sure – but? Nowadays the needless waste of this action troubles me when I think of the people who may have been glad of my unwanted stuff – but I was young and a little desperate to downsize.
We moved into the flat. Whew the central heating after a partially (very partially) heated large old house. The cats loved it – they had a basket each on top of the boiler in the kitchen but, more often than not, were to be found curled up – spoon-fashion – in the same basket. The dogs had to be walked on the lead as we lived in a smallish town. Grandma flatly refused to do what she was supposed to do on the lead. `My dear – it is so public – everyone watching`. So Dixon and I walked on a-pace with a leadless Grandma following at her own speed sniffing delicately each blade of grass before deciding which one she would bless. The cats thought dog-walking was great fun – they would come with us – one walking on the pavement beside us – one walking in the front gardens to our right – jumping over the dividing hedges and fences and the brave one stalking in the road – not too many cars around to worry about. We became something of a feature.
Christmas was coming – we decided to have an artificial tree (touching the ceiling as in our family tradition) as a spruce or pine would surely lose all its needles in the central heating well before Christmas. Tree decorated – presents wrapped and put under the tree. Came Christmas morning and the family filed into the sitting room to look at their presents to be met by torn wrapping paper and chewed cardboard. Yes the animals all had their presents under the tree – Dixon`s was a large tube of Doggie Chocs – his favourite. Stupid me!!!!! He had sniffed them out when we were in bed and opened his pressie early – not only that he had eaten them all. This resulted in him having the most ghastly wind (gas) all Christmas Day – so there was the whole family periodically throwing open the windows and gasping for fresh air.
I was working part-time in one of the shops that I owned just around the corner from our flat. The cat George found out where I got to during the day so would often come into the shop – he could be found asleep in a cardboard box with the label `Cat Suits` – didn`t know he could read! He also liked the laundrette just a couple of doors down (nice and warm there) and would curl up on one of the upholstered benches for a snooze or two. Sophie didn`t bother to wander much – she was quite happy to cat-nap in her basket in the flat.
Someone I knew had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital for treatment. I used to visit him regularly. Conversation was rather limited and one day I seized on the fact that the Occupational Therapy Department (where the patients made things to sell) was having a Sale of Work and suggested we should go. Unfortunately I got the time wrong and the sale had finished by the time we got there however we met the Occupational Therapist who very kindly offered to open the store cupboard to see if there was anything there I wanted to buy. All kinds of wooden things but what took my fancy were what we used to call slip-mats – hand-hooked woollen mats that people used to place by doors. There was an oversize one and I exclaimed `Perfect. That will be wonderful for Grandma to sleep on. Silly old thing – she could sleep on the couch, on the carpet or on the mat in the hall. But no – she chooses to curl up on the cold tiles outside my bedroom door`. It wasn`t until I saw the look of utter astonishment on the Therapist`s face that I offered the immediate explanation that Grandma was my collie!!!!!
Dixon discovered the joy of sleeping on a bed (usually ours). It was not allowed but it gave him great pleasure to sneak on there when I left the door open – always the same reaction when I yelled my displeasure – he would smile and roll over on his back – `Yeah – and what are you going to do about it?` I think Grandma`s arthritis prevented her from ever trying to get on the bed but, in the morning, she would come into the room and put her long nose on the bed, level with my face and look at me lovingly. I even loved her halitosis!
Sadly, Grandma became ill. The vet said her kidneys were failing and gave her medication. She declined very quickly. One morning I just had to go into the shop – I wrapped her in a blanket on the rug and told her I wouldn`t be long. I was only gone about two hours but when I came back she was dead – still warm – I lay on the floor and cuddled her – sobbing the while. I have always been sad that I couldn`t be with her when she died. She hadn`t moved from the position I had left her in – still wrapped in the rug.
Dixon missed her – on his walk he would stop periodically, waiting for Grandma to catch up – as he always had done. It took a long time for that to stop.
I missed her – I miss her. It is a shock to realise that it is now 40 years since she died but her memory will never die – I can still feel her at my feet, see her long nose on my lap and those patient eyes looking at me intently …