Somewhere in the region of ten years ago, not long after marriage but well before the arrival of our children, Glenda and I decided we needed a cat. In so far as one ever needs an animal around the place we needed a cat. Perhaps as a counterfoil to the dog. Perhaps as a comforting presence on the windowsill. An urbane symbol of domesticity and settlement. But practically, rodent control was also a factor for consideration in a house beside a stable yard full of horses, full of horse feed and full of mice.
Friends in Newbridge had a litter of kittens delivered to them by their own queen.We went to visit and found four bundles of snotty matted taggly meowing catflu in our friends' kitchen."Pick the sickest one; You'll be able to treat it" said Glenda.We took home a jetblack Tom Kitten. We named him Ted. Our two dogs were Dougal and Jack. Around that time we also rehomed a terrier named Mrs Doyle. Dermot Morgan's bizarre TV show about the priests on Craggy island was popular in our house. Not least because our house itself with leaking roof, wind-tunnel corridors and telephone number heating bills resembled Fr Ted's parochial house in a field. Thus the black kitten became Ted.
Ted grew and thrived.He was the biggest young tom I had seen by the time he was a year old. After Neutering he grew even bigger. And being wormed regularly and fed sparingly he developed the sleek coat and body lines of a miniature cougar. He was allowed indoors rarely, perhaps at feeding time or on a particularly wet night. He curled up most nights in the stableblock with one or other of the horses and patrolled the loft above, ruthlessly maintaining it rodent-free.
He was regularly fed but hunted whether hungry or not. True to the independence of his species, he reserved the feral rights of his ancestors to come and go as he pleased. He would disappear for a day or two. Then reappear dragging a large dead rat, rabbit or misfortunate young bird. These he would drop at the back door.I regularly teased Glenda "He is doing you a favour- bringing you food. He feels sorry for you that you're not able to hunt for yourself". She fondly wrote "Ultimate Killing machine" in the space for "breed" on Ted's vaccination card. Though she was also conflicted.She felt a pang of sorrow at the feathered confetti he nonchalantly left as evidence. Proud that Ted kept our house and yard rat-free while appalled at his callous, sanguine approach to killing for fun. This was the dichotomy of nature. Feral cruelty alongside urbane hygiene in a species on the edge of domesticity.
The writer TS Eliot was a cat lover. But you dont have to love cats or admire them to respect them. Cats are a species of contradictions and retain some primeval mystery. The dog is man's best friend and in creeping close to stone age camps for warmth and food, formed an alliance with huntergather man which has endured the millenia. Cats were slower to trust, to be taken in. The cat is nobody's fool. Eliot's poem "the naming of cats" whimsically points out the elusive nature of cats "The naming of cats is a difficult matter, it isnt just one of your holiday games, you may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter, when I tell you a cat must at least have three names"... The meaning I take from Eliot's fun poem is that you may name a cat but you'll never really own one.
Ted disappeared early one winter a few years ago. We turfed him out after his supper to his regular night's hunting and that was the last we saw of him. Glenda blamed herself. He had wanted to stay in that night but as the mother of a sick baby which refused to sleep Ted was now a lower priority. I had also begun a boarding kennels at the surgery which I reckoned was a barking indignity to Ted's sensibilities. Ted had probably exercised his prerogative as a cat of means, by no means and hit the road. That winter we were plagued with mice and paid a pest control firm for the first time ever.
Last week,some three years since Ted was last seen,a new customer brought a chronically ill old neutered tomcat to me for treatment. His admittance forms and record card labelled him with some name which shall remain nameless and by which this lady client knew him. But I knew Ted and he knew me. He was in a critical state of viral infection, needed a battery of tests and IV fluids but I smiled as I explored his familiar ear scars and skin folds, knowing that Ted had come to the right place to have his new life,or the next one, saved. I also took my hat off to the poise, resourcefulness and self-mastery of a cat who finding himself in a life of barking stress and waning appreciation, had simply taken off to make a new life.
It is people and not cats who struggle to make new lives. Look around today at a jaded Ireland and see the human detritus of unravelled lifestyles. Some angry at lost business, collapsed equity or that collapsed house of cards. Others bewildered at lost identities, certainties, not to mention lost livelihoods. A feeling of being tossed out- like the cat on that cold winter night. Most of us are survivors. Some of us like the cat with nine lives, can reinvent, cope, move on. Those whose identity is wedded to a house, job, place or status will struggle.The hard part of coping with extreme change and upheaval is to retain an inner equilibrium of self,of moral compass, of identity and pride,of cherishing family and priority. And to shrug off lesser things before moving on. That's the trick of survival of the cat with nine lives.
When Ted came off the IV drip and gained some weight again I imagined I could see his inner equilibrium return.I called him Ted. His new owners called him something else. Glenda cried when she came to the surgery to see this surprise,the proud independent tom who had adopted a new family years ago and miles away. Like all cats he probably doesnt much care what anyone calls him. He knows who he is. A survivor. TS Eliot finishes the peom thus " when you notice a cat in profound meditation,the reason I tell you is always the same, his mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation, of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name, his effable ineffable,
deep and inscrutable,