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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Holiday home

I don't get the appeal of cats, so most of them don't like me, including Helen's little black job that she calls Sooty, a daft name for a cat I've always thought, though why anybody gives cats names in the first place I have no idea.

Dogs at least know their names. Cats don't appear to. It's all part of the aura of aloofness that cat-lovers claim for their pets, in contrast, they say, to the slobbering servility of the average dog. TS Eliot famously believed cats have three names, one used daily, one for special occasions and one known only to the cat.

It's all bollocks of course. The reason cats don't fetch sticks or come when you call is that they have only two brain cells. And one of them's asleep.

So when Helen asks me to check on her cat while she's on holiday I hesitate. "All you have to do is drive to the kennels, when I've been gone a few days, and see if Sooty is happy there," she tells me. "The last time I put him in somewhere it took him weeks to get over it. He was traumatised."

It seems an extreme description to me for how a cat can feel, but what do I know?

"So I'm trying this new place," she continues. "It gets a good name and I've talked to the woman who runs it. She seems nice and caring. But I'd like you to make sure he's all right. He's getting old and doesn't like change."

I know how he feels, I'm thinking, as I head south on the hill-road out of New Cumnock and the land gets steadily higher and bleaker. The slate roofs and whitewashed walls of the little farm, just off the road, look old but clean, as I turn into the yard.

The first discordant note comes when I open the car door and hear dogs barking. And not just barking but going berserk. That can't be nice if you're a cat here on your holidays, I think, as I get out and head for the entrance to the cattery, a well-signed wooden outhouse.

"He's been eating fine," the farmer's wife tells me, ushering me inside. "He doesn't come out of his bed when I'm here. But when I look in he seems happy enough. See for yourself."

The room is cold and lined with cages, their bars reaching up to the ceiling. All of them are empty, except the one in the corner, which is occupied by a fleece-lined, blue and white cat-cosy and a small plate of meat.  

"Go in if you like," the woman tells me, unlocking the metal grille door and pulling it towards us. I step inside, get down on my hands and knees and peer into the gloom. All I can see, way inside, are reflections of the light in two dark eyes. They are wide and startled-looking.

"Are you sure he's all right?" I ask. "My sister is very attached to him and she worries."

The woman smiles. "I know," she says. "I realised that when she was talking to me. But this isn't just a business. I care about animals. If there was a problem I would tell you, I promise."

I believe her. Half an hour later Helen gives me a call from Corfu. "He was fine," I tell her. "Eating well, they said."

"Did you see him?" she says, her voice strained.

"Yeah," I say. "He was a wee bit subdued."

There's a pause. "What did the place seem like?" she says.

"It was cold. There were dogs barking. He was on his own."

She says nothing. The silence stretches. "So I brought him home," I tell her.

"What?" she laughs loudly, all signs of stress gone from her voice.

"He's looking up at me now from the rug, with a wee smile on his face. I think he can hear you."

"Aw, that's fantastic," she says. "You've no idea how relieved I am. Will you look after him till I get back?"

"Sure," I say.

"That's wonderful," she says. "I can enjoy my holiday now."

I put the phone down and beckon to the cat. "Hey Sooty, come here. It's you and me for the rest of the week, pal. We'll have a few beers, watch the football and do some male bonding. What do you think?"

The little bugger ignores me completely.

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