As a man leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the Spirit leaves his mortal body and then puts on one that is new.
—The Bhagavad Gita 2:22 (translated by Juan Mascaró)
The end was more of a surprise than expected, which sounds a little bit like something fun, but it wasn’t at all. This end was the curtain call on the final act of the life of our beloved cat, Mr Mu.
We had thought about how it might be and some sort of slow decline seemed most likely. A continuation of the decline which had begun years before, with his failing body becoming less and less competent at keeping itself going, until some point would be reached where control over a basic function had been lost and we would consult the experts and they would tell us that there was no coming back from this.
He had come back so many times. The odds showed one outcome. Indications would worsen, yet he would resist. We were told about how his life would change and what we would have to do for him, and yet it seemed as if not much had changed. He refused to be sick. His body was dying but his attitude was bloody-minded. There was still so much living to do that he would not be an invalid.
But in the end, it wasn’t as we had thought. The end came quickly and perversely caught us unready. On a day when he had demanded his morning coffee—as an elderly cat, he was given whatever he wanted—and eaten a small amount of leftover Christmas smoked salmon at lunchtime, he was given his crushed up tablets in his dinner but didn’t have an appetite and walked away. From the next room we heard him making the noise of a cat about to vomit—and it had started: the beginning of the end.
It wasn’t vomiting. He was having trouble breathing and was frothing at the mouth. Soon he was having trouble sitting or standing up and was in obvious distress.
Laetitia drove and I sat in the passenger seat and put my fingers through the plastic bars of his cat cage. This used to calm him—he might brush my fingers with his whiskers or scratch his gums on my nails or just bump my hand with his forehead and thereby claim it as his own. But he was past calming. It was dark and he couldn’t be seen very well in his box on the back seat, and all I could hear was his occasional breathing, laboured and uncomfortable.
The vet at the emergency veterinary hospital described his condition as “critical.” We knew that the situation was very serious indeed, and we knew what the implications were when your 21-year-old cat is having severe trouble breathing, but to hear the expert describing it like this made it real, immediate. The young man outlined the options, which were essentially to do some tests on Mr Mu, keep him at the hospital, make an assessment based on the results, and the other option was to euthanize. This clinical way of putting it seemed even more stark.
It wasn’t that we were unaware of the situation. We were the ones who knew best of all that the poor little bloke was taking medication for a thyroid condition, a heart condition, and blood pressure problems.
We asked for some time to think. It was a busy vet hospital, with animals coming in all the time. It seemed better to let the vet see someone else. Plus we wanted to talk about this outside. We talked in the dark. Although there were other things we could do, the only thing we should do was clear. The turn that poor Mu had taken was so severe, his effort to keep going so great, that to do anything else seemed merely to delay the inevitable.
And so we went back in and waited and spoke to the vet, and even then were looking for some way out, but we said what we thought should happen and he took our advice. We sat outside while they prepared our poor boy. Other owners were concerned about their pets, who were off their food or had injured themselves over the holiday period, and we wished we could be in their position. All these owners were better off, for they would be bringing their friend home. And then we went in again and the vet asked if we were ready and they brought him out—our beautiful little man, looking a bit thin, but still ever so handsome, and breathing better as a result of the oxygen he had been treated with. He knew us and we hugged him and in the end it was all over too quickly.
It was certainly humane and clinical and the last moments were comfortable and he knew how much we loved him right then, how much we had always loved him and how much he would always be loved. He went limp with the first injection, an extreme sedative, and his relaxed tongue stuck out a little, and then the second injection came, an overdose of anaesthetic, and he breathed his last.
Laetitia left the room while I discussed the arrangements for his remains, patting him, my mate, a mate I thought I would never have, but would have done anything to get back, and the vet took out the catheter from Mu’s arm and still I patted him. And I couldn’t believe he was dead.
The beginning of my friendship with Mr Mu was not auspicious. When I first got to know Laetitia she lived in the country in a small house with two insane puppies—one big and one small, one black and one white—and a middle-aged cat who made a quick assessment of me and decided that he did not like what he saw.
It is difficult to explain the campaign of psychological operations he used on me in those early days. In the periods we spent alone he would attempt to steal my lunch, and when I moved him to somewhere else, he would knock over a bin in the kitchen, and when I moved him away from that he would threaten to knock valuable items off a shelf, and when I moved him away from that danger then the lunch stealing would start again. It was as if that small house was some kind of experimental space monitored by scientists who were studying my reactions—as if the cat was part of the experiment. This cat, Mr Mu, was always looking for ways to torture me.
On one occasion he got out, and went walking across paddocks on the property and ended up on the other side of an enclosure with a horse in it. Only minutes earlier I had thought him missing: gone, murdered by one of the deadly dangers in the Australian bush. So it was a relief to see him on the other side of the enclosure, even though he was taunting me.
Needless to say that when Letitia, my then girlfriend, was around, the cat behaved much more equably. He affected to hardly notice me.
And that was the way it went for a while. The two humans got closer, one moved to Sydney to be with the other and the cat was indifferent to the interloper.
Things started to change when Laetitia had a funeral to attend interstate, and I was not yet living with her, and I went to her place to feed the pets. I went inside and sat down, and this cat who had not seen anyone for a day or two ran at me—I thought he was running at me—but he was really running to me, and he jumped up and sat on my lap for an extended period. I was the next best thing to the person he really wanted to see. I can’t recall whether he purred. This sitting on the lap was a first and I remember wondering what you were supposed to do, when of course the answer is to sit there until the cat is finished. I would get a lot of practice at doing just that.
They know what they’re doing. It’s a lesson you soon learn. Mr Mu undoubtedly found me a useful helper—one might say servant—and personal convenience played an important role in our developing friendship. We weren’t there yet, but we were getting closer. In the mornings when Laetitia and I left for work Mu could use a partly opened window to go on his rounds of the district. The details of this daily journey were a mystery to us.
Of far greater consequence than laps and pats to a middle-aged gent was that I started feeding the pets, and this made me an acquaintance worth having. By this time Laetitia and I lived together and soon we moved house to somewhere dilapidated but charming as opposed to merely dilapidated. In the new house there were more entrances and exits and the two of us became really quite intimate when he realised that if he knocked at the front door I would open it, meaning he would be let in at any time of the night and would not need to climb through a side window. When he realised there was something in it for him he was even more interested in being friends.
He also realised that I could be trusted. I wasn’t a threat to his human mother, and in fact seemed to be good for her, on balance. And I knew how to do other things: I could correctly pick up and hold and correctly pat and stroke a cat. I had gained the confidence previously lacking.
We developed the concept of Man Time. When I came home from work, Mr Mu wanted to spend time with me. A thorough kind of bonding was required, so I would take him outside with me while I watered the potted plants on the verandah. It was Man Time because we were two chaps, and the dogs and Laetitia were all ladies, so it was an opportunity to get away from the female atmosphere inside the house. As I went about my work, I would hear people stop on the street to talk to him as he stretched in the late afternoon sun and exposed his tummy for patting. But he also wanted to impress me by demonstrating his athleticism—in this case climbing the big tree in the front yard, to show that he still could, and could do it with flair, and from there to walk, via a long branch, onto the roof, where he would sit and meow to me at ground level.
I would need to rescue a cat who was perfectly capable of getting down from the place he had climbed to, a number of times each week. So, I would get up on a step ladder and he would allow me to take him in my arms and bring him back down. Of course, he was being manipulative. The knocking at all hours was manipulative too, and Laetitia chided me for indulging him. But it felt good to be spending time with him, like this, alone, doing our things.
That’s what I had learned most of all: cats get their way. He wanted me to become his mate and I did.
He was also swaggering into sedate older middle age and even old age and managed to do aging, as he did everything else, with a certain panache. He was like a film star from the Golden Years of Hollywood who always looked perfect: precisely waxed moustache, hair in place, clothes looking like they had been hand made by a personal tailor. He slowed down a bit, but that was to be expected in a domestic feline approaching the middle of his second decade.
And then he got sick. To say this was an alarming development would not do justice to the fears we held for his health and for his immediate future. Suddenly Mr Mu had no energy. He didn’t want to move, was uninterested in food. We took him outside for some sun, to see if this might revive him, but he just wanted to lie, in an abject, sickly posture, on the bed. I can remember well desperately hoping that he wouldn’t die in the night in this condition, going to sleep with Mu on the bed with us, fearing the worst and telling myself that he had a chance to pull through.
It was a thyroid problem, the vet said. Quite common. Take the medication.
His thyroid gland had been overactive, hence the manic need to do everything and be everywhere and demanding to be let in all the time, the sleeping less and being generally a bit shirty. Although I have to admit that his shirty was still very charming, and I never grew tired of hearing his demanding meow. There was love in this meow, just a little less than there was in the affectionate one.
But he had been so slow. That was the problem: either too fast or too slow. And the problem could not be cured, just treated. The drugs were designed to regulate the production of the chemical in the thyroid gland.
And we went on as we had in the past. Now there were regular visits at the vet, and blood tests to measure his levels of thyroid chemical. He didn’t behave well at the vet. As a younger cat the vet had been something he chose not to concern himself about, but when older he decided he hated it and would behave poorly. In response, Mu was given an anaesthetic to make him unconscious while blood was taken, and he would come around very quickly afterwards in a procedure which lasted only a few minutes. This meant that he wasn’t able to eat for hours before a visit, as food in the stomach can be regurgitated when the anaesthetic is administered and the animal can choke. It was a complication. And there were to be more of those.
We read about thyroid troubles and discovered that cats with these problems don’t live longer than a couple of years. We also discovered that kidney damage from the medication would ensue and that if the animal should start to drink more than usual that was a bad sign, indicating the beginning of the end. And so we looked for this and other things. We worried and he didn’t and we got used to the new reality. It meant regular tablets, fed at the beginning of a meal.
Around this time we also realised that the thyroid medication, the same as medication taken by humans, was far more expensive when purchased from a vet than from a pharmacy. And for this reason Mr Mu became a client at a pharmacy or two, which seemed to suit him just right. He was always more than a cat and this seemed to prove it.
But we had to be careful. Doses changed and this meant cutting up tablets into different sizes and monitoring how much we had left. He ate his first course, the medication, with a small amount of the main dish. There had been experiments with using fresh mince as a treat to serve the tablets, but he went off this. Careful meant watching his weight, watching how much water he drank, and knowing something about his toilet results. Hard or soft faeces could both be problematic. He might need more Metamucil—yes, he took that too. It was not a good thing at all if blood were present in his faeces. On more than one occasion Laetitia and I stood in the laundry, where the litter tray was, holding a cat poo in a length of toilet paper, while we both examined it before declaring that it seemed pretty good actually.
So Mu’s care had become an increasingly large part of both of our lives. He seemed unconcerned by the situation, unless he was a very good actor, which could well have been the case, for he was good with people and people loved him. He always knew what to do to make people fall for him.
In the years before I had known him he had met many people and charmed every one of them. For an animal with the capacity to get the shits he was also effortlessly gracious. With all the friends coming and going in the flat Laetitia lived in when he was a kitten and she was a student, and all the other places he lived, he had met a wide variety of people and lived in a variety of places and done a huge range of things. He had been both an inside and an outside cat. He became smitten with Laetitia’s best friend, and she remained his special sweetheart from then on, but he also killed a number of wild animals and vermin and was known to hold his own in fights with other cats in alleys and driveways after dark.
If all those things sound a bit contradictory, then he was no more contradictory than the average person—and that is the point: he was no mere pet. He had a fully rounded personality.
We used to make little deals with whoever was listening, in the hope that Mu would live to the next Christmas or next winter (he loved winter and became more cuddly when it was cold). Without discussing it, we both crossed our fingers and hoped he would be there on our wedding day. And he was. And if we could have included him in the ceremony we would have. We considered taking him with us on our wedding night. He was still alive for our second wedding anniversary.
This sort of thinking, heightened around the times of blood tests and vet visits, was a strain. The effort and the worry all took their toll on us, although we didn’t know how much at the time. There were reversals in his health, and at these moments it seemed like the end could be near, but there was constant low level concern for him for years. Towards the end he was visiting the vet so often that he calmed down enough for them to stop using the cat bag on him. A cat bag is used to bring the animal’s dangerous claws under control. He didn’t need it any more. He liked the vet now, and the staff liked him. For his last Christmas he exchanged Christmas cards with the vet surgery staff—both cards prepared unknown to each other—and this seemed right.
It was remarkable that he made it to that Christmas, in many ways. In September he became very ill and when taken to the vet they told us that the long term effects of his thyroid medication had damaged his vision. The optic nerve can become disconnected from the eye and therefore the animal loses their sight. It’s as simple as that, a known problem, and it was quite a shock to be told that Mr Mu was now blind.
I distinctly recall leaving him one morning as Laetitia and I departed for work, crouched in front of a food bowl, where he had been positioned by us, with little pathways created by laying towels down, to his toilet, his food, his water, and so on, and I thought, “You poor little bastard.” For a resourceful, independent chap who simply refused to let things get the better of him, he had been hit very hard by this reversal. It was a sad and rather pathetic figure crouching there. Previously the idea of a blind cat hadn’t seemed such a bad fate. Now that it had happened it was devastating. You walked into the room and he wouldn’t look up from where he was. He started sleeping in new places, on the ground, even with our bigger dog, as that was not a dangerous place to fall from. He bumped into furniture and took a while to learn where all the table and chair legs were.
One weekend Laetitia and I stood in a well-lighted spot and wondered if he could see us. It seemed like he could, but that was ridiculous. We were content to know that he hadn’t lost all his sight. It wasn’t just that he learned where things were. And he seemed more aware of what was going on. And his vision was even better. And without really noticing, he could actually see. Our cat, who had been declared blind, was able to see.
Later in the year, having conquered blindness, he contracted some sort of bronchial complaint. His breathing was affected and it sounded terrible when he purred, which seemed a particularly cruel punishment: he couldn’t help doing that if you patted him, so he would get off if you put him on your lap.
For these medical problems there was more medication. Now there was heart medication and blood pressure medication (which caused the optic nerve problem), antibiotics for the fluid on his lungs, and balancing dosages for all of these became tricky, as they counteracted each other. By this time the illnesses were being managed, rather than any attempt to really treat them, let alone fix them. The time for all that was long gone.
Yet still he improved or found a way to cope—whatever it was that he had done in the past, he did it again. He lived years longer than a thyroid cat is supposed to live. He was like a boxer who keeps getting hit but refuses to give in.
And it was in this form, quite well, despite everything—years of deterioration, age, recent illness—that Mr Mu enjoyed another Christmas with us. This time he allowed himself to be photographed with a festive hat on. And for these reasons, and many more, it was both a shock and somehow inevitable when he had that strange, diabolical reaction after eating his dinner on January 2.
We brought Mr Mu’s cat cage back, empty, and walked into a darkened house without needing to check where he was, to make sure he was alright. In the kitchen there was, still in the frying pan, the dinner Laetitia had been preparing for us when we were called away.
The dogs were brought in and we patted them and talked and I drank too much rum and whiskey and other things. It was right to go through what we had seen and what had happened and just to talk about him. In the car on the way back it had been more hysterical. At times safety demanded Laetitia pull over when reason gave way to boiling emotion. We both sat there with tear-filled eyes, watching the streaky street lights pass by as we made our slow way home.
We talked until late, honouring Mr Mu by sharing memories of him. We also spoke of the future and of many things we hadn’t been able to speak about for months or even years. Both of us admitted to being fearful: fearful for him, fearful for how we would cope on the inevitable day—and we admitted that we regularly imagined walking into the house and discovering him dead. Thus the first greeting was always warm but a little fraught.
Eventually we went to bed. I was not awakened during the night, instead I woke up, somewhat the worse for wear, when my body decided it was time. The first sound I heard when I was almost out of bed was Mr Mu’s meow. There would be many such phantom sightings and auditory tricks as the brain tried to make sense of a regular fixture being no longer present in the house.
I got up quietly and let Laetitia sleep. I wanted to read something, to take my mind off the thoughts which wouldn’t leave, but that was no good. I called my parents, two of Mu’s long list of friends, and broke down as I told them what had happened on the previous night.
It seemed important to do something, to get out of the house. Exercise and fresh air and a change of scene should help, so I suggested we go shopping at one of the ethnically diverse suburbs not far from our house, and Laetitia agreed to my suggestion as she was simply unable to think properly for herself and knew that the alternative was to sit on the couch, in the dark, and cry. And so we wandered around, looking in windows where they will hand make a sari for you or sell you the serving dishes you find at Indian restaurants, and we bought a range of South Asian spices and a Chinese lantern lamp shade.
After we returned, we decided that we should do something else, and so we took the dogs for a walk at the big local park. Now our dogs are two middle-aged ladies, who really like a walk but prefer their activity in small doses, and so they seemed a bit confused when we took them out for hours. Near the end, we sat under a tree, and the dogs told us that they would like to go home now, please. As we walked we talked again. You could say it was cathartic. You could say we shared. It was simply being together and reminding ourselves of the good things we had, including so many wonderful memories, and talking about the future. Talk of the future had always had Mu in it somewhere, and so we had to force ourselves to talk like this, but it did us good.
We talked about the house we would live in if we could live in any house and the things we would do to occupy our time there—making olive oil, keeping bees—and the rooms and the pets in those rooms and how happy we would be, and how happy we were, despite it all.
The next day we went for a very long walk again. The dogs got very good exercise for a few days. Waiting for us when we came back home was a beautiful orchid, sent by a friend in sympathy, and when we read the card we both burst into tears. This orchid is still with us, part of the collection Laetitia carefully tends. It is known as Mu’s Orchid.
An unspoken decision had been arrived at that Christmas was over when we got back from the vet and so we took down all the decorations, which are voluminous at our place, and we worked as such a good, tight harmonious team that we surprised ourselves. One of the things we discussed was to use this awful event as an excuse to put things into some sort of perspective. The death of a loved one is important—arguing over the way tinsel is packed away is not.
At the end of the first week there was a small party at our place. A gathering of a few old friends, which we catered for on a grand scale, with good food and quantities of drink which some of us succumbed to. Until this point Laetitia and I had hardly eaten and now some of us drank too much.
A few days later I wrote about Mu in my blog, aware that perhaps this was the author’s cold-blooded recognition that he had found “material” and wished to exploit it, but also, more importantly, aware that this is what we do—we write—we attempt to make sense of a tragedy by writing about it. The blog post finished like this:
Most pet owners think their animal is beautiful and intelligent and charming, but this cat was all of those three things and so many more. His personality was too big for a mere pet, and now it is hard to fathom that he is gone. It simply doesn’t make sense. But gone he is and the world seems to turn more slowly as a result. Our souls are bruised and our bodies weak with the strain of grief.
We will move on, somehow, in time: learn to cope, to fake it at first, and then to properly collect our emotions. But we will never forget our little friend. Before Mr Mu I thought I didn’t like cats. His example showed me I was wrong, and how wrong I was. He wasn’t just a cat though. He was far more than that and words are insufficient to do him justice.
We did move on. It was difficult. At first the tears came quickly at the mere mention of his name, and it was necessary to use his name to tell people the news.
With time it became easier to speak about him and even an enjoyable thing to reminisce. There were so many good things, fun things, happy times.
Our smaller dog needed some surgery and as the vet removed her stitches he asked how we were coping with the loss of Mr Mu and we said things were much better, and he asked how the dogs were coping and we said it was strange. They seemed sad somehow, like they missed him, and the smaller dog Lily would respond with a strange faraway look if you said the cat’s name. It was as if they sympathised. The vet said, “For them it’s a bit like the King is dead. Things are different but life goes on much the same as it did.”
But emotions could still sneak up and engulf you without much warning. Feelings were complex, but we were coping. I felt like I was coping better than Laetitia. She could still be overcome. She would still say “I miss Mu” without preamble or warning and we would embrace. I missed him too, but was perhaps more able to compartmentalise those feelings.
It was something of a surprise that Laetitia suggested new feline company entering our lives and that she brought it up more and more until it became a serious topic. The idea she had was to start again, and that meant kittens. The second, related, idea was to get two of them. A pair of kittens would enjoy each other’s company, play together—useful when their busy humans are working—and also feel our absence less than one lonely little cat might.
This seemed a leap. From one old, sick cat, to no cat, to two very young cats was a series of big changes, but the arguments made sense. Soon it wasn’t an abstract topic any more. There is a “kitten season”—they tend to be conceived from the onset of spring until the end of the warmer months, and that means that you can’t get a kitten all year round. They are only around from late summer until autumn and if you don’t get one then you must wait until the end of the year. So we had to start looking now if we were interested.
It was strange. I actually wasn’t sure if I was ready for new feline company. While I might have found a better way to cope with the loss of Mr Mu, it didn’t seem like I was actually over it yet (and, of course, you never really get over something like this); and although Laetitia seemed to still be finding a way to cope with his death she was ready to move on.
A cat up the street who would look rather disdainfully from its driveway at Laetitia as she walked home from work began to actually communicate when she was spoken to. One afternoon I happened to be there too, and the cat sidled up to us and allowed herself to be patted through the bars of the gate before lying on the ground, on the footpath in front of us, and exposing her tummy to us and to the sun. This sort of thing showed us that you can miss a cat, tragically taken from you, but you can also miss the company of felines. The cat’s human emerged, a lovely woman who politely hid any alarm she might have experienced when she noted two adults at the brow of her driveway taking a suspiciously long time to pat her pet, and she spoke to us and we told her that her cat was very sweet.
And Laetitia had already begun to say that she felt as if Mu would send us another cat. It became a sort of running gag that if one of us was leaving the house Laetitia would say to watch out for kittens, homeless, stranded, in need of being brought home to two humans who liked animals very much and provided shelter and love and warmth and pats in whatever quantities were requested. We had also started warning each other to watch out for abandoned kittens, in a basket on the doorstep, as if such things were likely.
All of these things made a new feline pet seem inevitable. The signs were there. However, serious discussion was needed.
We talked and it became clear I understood very little about cats. I had never taken the trouble to learn what the pattern on Mu’s coat was called and to understand that the coat design is used to describe the type of cat, unless you are talking about a pure bred example (Persian, Russian Blue, Burmese). Mu was a tabby, which is the striped design, usually quite wide stripes which start at the spine and run down the ribcage either in swirls or in straightish lines (a mackerel tabby). You need to discuss these things when you’re considering a new cat as you need to know what you’re looking for.
There are also cat prejudices, which I also found new and strange. A lot of people don’t like ginger cats and Laetitia is one of them. I said something about just finding a cat with the right personality who looks good and this didn’t seem to be correct either. Should we get a cat who looked too much like Mu? Would that be weird and somehow dishonour him at the same time? He was a beautiful animal and I didn’t want to be too prescriptive.
And so we went off on a cat mission, looking for two youths with a confident personality and short hair. Laetitia’s allergies flare up too much if the hair is too long. A similar look to Mr Mu wasn’t ruled out.
At first we went to an animal shelter, which was about to close for the day, and were told that most of their kittens were at the homes of foster carers who could just be called and we could go over and look at the animal in their home. This seemed a good system for the welfare of the kitten but a pretty inefficient system for the purchase of a new pet. The volunteers who ran the shelter were doing an admirable job and meant well but when one woman told us that most domestic cats had short hair and that we couldn’t be told anything about a kitten at a fosterer’s house before we went and found out for ourselves it was clear that this wasn’t the best place to buy a kitten. We moved on to Plan B.
Plan B was the RSPCA centre in Yagoona, western Sydney. This was the place where my family had got Bob the dog when I was just a very little boy. I hadn’t quite started school when we got Bob, so I didn’t remember how you bought an animal from there. The vets at the Yagoona centre had also treated our second dog, also long-lived, Bob’s successor Alfie. When cancer finally got the better of him the whole family brought Alfie to Yagoona to be put down. I was thirty and the memory was indelible.
Laetitia and I walked around and looked at the younger cats and made a mental note of the ones which appealed to us. There were kittens called “achew kittens,” which carry the feline flu. It doesn’t bother them and they are perfectly healthy, but unvaccinated cats can become quite sick if they come into contact with a flu cat. Flu cats are also cheaper. You need to wash your hands from a pump dispenser of foam on the wall when you walk between different parts of the kittery, as the RSPCA does not want to spread the virus.
We narrowed it down and took photos on Laetitia’s phone and took a number at the front desk, so that we might be shown around by a staff member.
She was a lovely woman who revealed that her cat had died eighteen months before and she couldn’t bring herself to get another one yet, despite working with them every day. She told us that she had been in a pub with friends and a song came on and it was necessary to hide her tears as it had been “their song”—hers and her cat’s. She didn’t need to explain this to us. We knew what she meant.
She showed us more cats than we had asked to see. We patted them and they assessed us. Some were too boisterous, some too timid, and there was a pair which was just right. One was a tabby, who looked quite a lot like Mr Mu, and the other a torti. A torti meant that its colouring resembled a tortoise shell. The torti was mostly black on one side and had a lot of ginger on the other side and looked as if she had been dipped in black paint over her white and ginger areas. This pair, “bonded” as they say, meaning they eat and sleep and generally function as a unit, were very calm. In fact they were almost too laid back—a brother with more curiosity but still a very relaxed demeanour and a sister with a reticence to be too demonstrative yet absolutely no fear. Laetitia revealed later that she had given the girl a silent ultimatum to show some interest and then when the cat stretched out her paw, Laetitia thought we could probably make it work with these two.
The RSPCA woman was careful not to put any pressure on us, and that meant that she wouldn’t say which ones suited us best. But I suspected that she wanted us to have these two, and she said as much after we decided to take them. She realised that they had a very special shared outlook and thought they would suit us very well indeed. She was happy we made the choice and said, “You’ve warmed my heart.”
As we drove we could hear soft meowing from the back seat, high-pitched and innocent. Our new pets were in the cat cage, Mr Mu’s cage, curious about all they could see and smell and hear. They were coming home.
The twins, as we would come to refer to them, were still without names when we set out for work together early on Tuesday morning. They had been living with us since Saturday afternoon.
Since they were a duo it seemed right to name them after a real or fictional double act. A number of pairings were considered, including Sid and Nancy and Boris and Natasha and George and Martha and Donald and Melania, but we still hadn’t settled on names.
It was a cool morning and rainy. It had rained for weeks, with a handful of very short breaks of fine weather for no more than a day, and then more rain—persistent and soaking.
Laetitia saw him: huddled next to the stout fence of a private school we walk past on the way to the train station was a little kitten, much smaller than the two who were back at home, ten minutes’ walk away, cold, shivering, tiny and wet through.
It all happened very quickly. We took the tiny creature back to our place and fed him something. He was hungry and ate with enthusiasm as Laetitia held him to her chest. Then we were at the vet. We had driven and I had held him in blanket to keep him warm and stop him from crawling away. At the vet they said that there had been no communication from an owner missing a very small kitten and they also said that there was no computer chip in his ear and that this basically meant that he was ours.
We left him at the vet, for them to examine and clean him up and check for any medical problems, and we caught the train from the nearby station, unconcerned that we were both quite late for work by now and worried only by what name we might give him.
He stayed at the vet for a few days. Laetitia visited after work on the first day and received updates about his health. He was a beautiful little ginger kitten with otherworldly blue eyes and you could easily fit him on the palm of your hand. The idea of Mr Mu sending him to us came up frequently:
“Sending us a long-haired ginger sounds like the sort of thing he would so, doesn’t it?”
“Well, he did have an unusual sense of humour.”
We visited him on other days and although he had seemed to be a bit down and lacking interest in his surroundings on one evening, when we visited on Friday he seemed much more perky. The vet suggested we take him home for the weekend and the nurses seemed keen about this too. They said he needed encouragement to eat like he really should be eating and told us that chicken from the local charcoal chicken shop had got him interested.
On the street he attracted attention from children, who suggested names for him, and adults who said he was adorable. When Laetitia came out of a shop I was surrounded by a small audience of enchanted women making comments and telling me about their own pets.
At home though, he took a turn for the worse. He wouldn’t eat and it seemed impossible to keep him warm enough. He wouldn’t even hold his own head up. Eventually he ate something, late at night, but his appetite was still lacking the next day as we tried to feed him with a syringe. We left him to sleep, having fussed over him for hours, and hoped that might energise him a bit, which seemed about right, as he ate again, seemingly greedily, until we realised that there was something wrong, and he would swallow no more from the syringe.
He died in Laetitia’s arms on the step from the lounge room to the back of the house, the same step where she had excitedly run into me on the morning of our wedding day and accidentally splashed champagne down my front.
It was truly appalling, one of the worst things I have seen, a thing that just seemed impossible, and haunts me still. Neither of us shall ever get over it, I think.
His last few hours were as comfortable as we could make him and it was a curiously tender thing that the male twin had treated him with such affection on the previous night, cuddling up to him as he lay on one of our laps, purring and sharing what feline love he had to share.
I suggested that we put him in our front room. “He’ll be cold,” said Laetitia, so we wrapped his little body in a scarf before we placed him in a box and put him in the room.
The vet had told us of a condition where experts talk about a kitten fading. “It seems some kittens were just not meant for this world,” he said. They don’t eat and seem to have decided that death is inevitable. In these cases, which are more common than you’d think, there is nothing medically wrong with the animal. They just die.
Of course, in the vet surgery we didn’t think it would actually happen. Not to us. We had kept a geriatric cat alive for years after he really should have passed away—the vet said we had as good a chance of turning this kitten around as anyone would. So he was really telling us that what happened was something that might happen, but it felt like the nastiest possible surprise, and these events are still almost too painful to relate.
On the Monday morning we returned to the vet surgery with the kitten they had last seen on Friday in a shoebox inside the cage they had lent us. It felt like a failure on top of all the still raw sadness and grief.
A few days later we brought back the ashes of the ginger kitten in an elegant little pewter box from the vet surgery. Next to the urn with Mr Mu’s ashes was the right place for it and we both stood there and wept and embraced and Laetitia said she could see Mu and the ginger kitten sitting on the table their vessels were on, Mu older and bigger, giving the younger animal a fatherly lick on the head, and this was more of a comfort than I can say.
On the box was written Jay. The name was taken from The Great Gatsby, as the names of the twins had been. We called them Tom and Daisy, and they were in excellent health, and had adapted to life with us almost completely in what had been merely two weeks.
The only thing to do was to get on with it, again. For some time the companionship of Tom and Daisy, amusing though they were, did not compensate for what we had seen and the turmoil which refused to subside. This was a failing of ours, for which we scolded ourselves. In truth, the cats adapted to us even as we felt like they were barely even present in the house and we came to realise that they were indeed almost perfect. They were healthy and intelligent and cheeky without being too reckless or destructive. They gave us an emotional crutch which it took some time to realise had been offered.
Even as we came to understand all that, Laetitia still said: “It’s like there were supposed to be three. And now we’re one short.”
Privately I hoped she would stop talking like that. We had our kittens, and two would be a handful. And where would another one come from? It wasn’t as if one could just find us.
Until one dark autumn afternoon a man came to the door and said, “Hello, I’m a friend of Mr Mu’s.” He went on to tell us that he lived up the street, one of many neighbours we did not know, and had heard about Mu’s death some months before, and wondered if we would be interested in taking in a kitten he had found just days earlier near a building site. The kitten was from a family of strays and its mum had been run over and now it needed a home. The neighbour’s mature cat would not agree to live with it, he said.
And so we walked up the street a couple of doors and met a tiny little thing, a bundle of grey and black and white, but also brown, with a ginger spot on its forehead. It was on a double bed and purred when Laetitia patted it and we decided that yes, we would take it home and two would indeed become three.
The vet told us the next day that it was a she and we decided to call her Folly, the name of one of the two named pets in Jane Austen, because it was folly to take her on. And because the whole thing, with the proliferation of animals at our place was all getting a bit silly now. It only occurred to us later on that Daisy Buchanan says about her little daughter in The Great Gatsby: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
Folly has needed more training than the others in a few areas, lacking a mum to teach her, but she has learned from her brother and sister, and they do indeed think of themselves, their group, as a family. They eat without competition and groom each other. Folly may be stripey and she may be spotty—it’s hard to tell—she may be a bit tabby and was described on her forms as a grey torti, but it doesn’t much matter. What matters is wrestling and climbing curtains and sleeping together, all curled up in a ball.
Three kittens all purring at the same time is a truly magical noise. It feels complete now, feels right. The kittens have told us that and we believe them.
There is a box with some of Mr Mu’s things: a pill cutter, his collar, the glass he drank from sometimes in preference to the shared water bowl. Items relating to Jay are in there too: a feeding syringe and notes made after discussions with the vet nurses about his progress.
When I go into the room where the urn and the pewter box sit on the small table, I silently say hello to Jay and to Mu. On the other side of the door there will often be a kitten or two, waiting for me, ready to play the next game.
by Philip Keenan
Philip Keenan is a writer based in Sydney, Australia, with an interest in the strangeness of familiar things. He has been published by Tincture Journal and Going Down Swinging online, has a blog called Johan Turdenmeier’s Miscellany, and is on Twitter @Turdenmeier.