When I'm taming feral kittens I have to keep them confined in one room for a while; this being the 'guest room' on the grounds that they are guests (although one or two are still outstaying their initial welcome some years later). To get them accustomed to the sound of people - and keep them company - I leave a radio or portable TV playing; tuned to a news station so they get plenty of human voices. And to get them used to real live humans, I spend quite a bit of my free time in there watching TV or reading and more often than not holding one-sided conversations with invisible kittens brooding beneath the bed. Some people really do have monsters under the bed, albeit monsters of the not-very-friendly kitten nature.
Madeleine - Maddy - was a 12 week old feral kitten; dark tortie with cream toes on her front paws as though her feet were poking through dark stockings. She had been subjected to the 'Radio News' and 'Channel 4 Mid-Week Horse Racing' treatment for at least a week and I'd spent plenty of time sitting in the room with her, reading and studying. She'd also endured enough episodes of Eastenders that anti-cruelty protesters were bound to turn up on my doorstep next time the theme tune played. My warped theory was that after a weeks' worth of Eastenders she'd come crawling into my lap and renounce her feral nature if only I'd turned the darned TV off!
Saturday lunchtime - housework done, time to sit on the bed in Maddy's room with a Terry Pratchett Discworld Novel and talk to her. Sometimes I'd read aloud, mainly the passages about Nanny Ogg's sex-crazed and murderous tomcat though I'm not sure he was the sort of feline example I wanted her to follow. Lately Maddy had taken to sitting on the end of the bed instead of hiding underneath it which meant I could actually see her baleful little glare instead of simply imagining it. Budget analysts were dissecting the Chancellor's speech on the radio and the Hogfather was giving little children real swords in the Discworld book. I was 90% in Discworld, 8% in the economics program and about 2% in a small kitten-infested bedroom in Essex.
"He hasn't allowed for the Gross National Product, y'know," said the voice.
I looked up. Maddy was staring towards the window with a look of studied interest; the sort of polite faraway look normally adopted by a cat which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a pungent puddle on the living rug. The voice must have come from outside. I turned the page in my book. The radio rumbled on for several minutes.
"And he's taxed petrol again, not a good move," the voice said.
I peered over the top of my book. Maddy was curled up with her nose on her tail. She regarded me with polite disdain, the normal expression of a feral kitten which is weighing up the pros and cons of domesticity and slowly finding in favour of domesticity; or at least in favour of two square meals a day and central heating but is withholding judgement on the petting, hugging and cooing side of things. For a moment we looked at each other. Then I went back to reading. The budget program finished and there was The Archers Omnibus - an hour's worth of radio soap about farming life.
"What sort of a name is Shula anyway?" complained the voice.
I peered over my book. Maddy winked at me. I swear she winked at me. I tentatively offered her my hand to sniff. She tried to remove several layers of skin and then politely washed my blood off her face, look a bit like a diner at an Indian restaurant delicately dabbing their sweating tikka-stained face with a lemon-scented napkin after setting a land-speed record for shovelling tikka masala into a gaping maw. I switched off the radio and turned on the small portable TV which is now only used for cat-taming vigil. A flamboyant bookie and an ex-jockey were discussing this afternoon's meetings at Uttoxeter and Sandown, plus the all-weather at Lingfield and some evening races at Stratford-upon-Avon. It was less distracting than a farmyard soap opera, and Maddy seemed to like the moving pictures, so I went back to reading.
"Personally I wouldn't go for General Amigo," said the voice, "He was pulled up mid-week, might have burst a blood vessel."
"Huh," I said without bothering to look up (by now I was convinced that overdosing on Discworld makes you hear voices).
"Wood Ash is a better bet for the 2:30 at Uttoxeter. Came in 3rd at Sandown, but really needs the longer trip. Another furlong and he'd have been home and dry," explained the voice.
"What about his chances in the Grand National?" I mumbled.
"The trainer isn't putting him in for it," the voice replied.
"You wouldn't happen to know who's actually going to win today?" I hazarded.
"I'm not psychic, you know," the voice replied haughtily.
I peered over the top of my book. Maddy was chattering her teeth at the moving pictures. I went back to my book.
"So what do you think of the weather?" I asked after a few minutes.
"Haven't been out much lately."
"I suppose not. Food okay?"
"Not bad. I was hoping for rabbit a bit more often. Mum always did us a nice rabbit two or three times a day."
"I'll see what I can do. What about the litter - do you prefer the clay or the lightweight?"
There was a stony silence. I looked up. Maddy eyed me suspiciously. Surely I didn't expect her to incriminate herself? I went back to the book. I vaguely wondered if Pratchett had ever done any kitten taming and whether Gaspode the talking dog had been inspired by small feral tortie bundles which knew far too much about horse racing.
"I was rather hoping we could come to an arrangement - I feed you, you let me stroke you; that sort of thing. It's fairly standard in cat-human relationships."
Maddy yawned. Reading between the lines she seemed to be saying she'd think about it. Here glare was a little less baleful as though she was finding in favour of domesticity providing it involved regular rabbit.
Two days (and a long discussion about Coronation Street) later, bribed by a plate of lightly poached rabbit, Maddy finally let me stroke her. Domesticity trounced feralness and the baleful kitten turned into a heap of purring clownishness with a black and ginger tummy that needed a lot of tickling proportional to its size. From there she came on in leaps and bounds - many of those leaps and bounds being in pursuit of a plush cat toy - and eventually went to live with Cyril, a nice old chap who had plenty of experience with nervy cats.
I didn't think about the budget discussions, let alone Coronation Street or Shula Archer, for some years until I bumped into Cyril in the supermarket. He was buying a nice bit of fresh rabbit to cook for the cat.
"It's funny," he said, "Sometimes when it's quiet in the evening and I'm dozing, I could swear there's someone talking to me. Of course I'm an old widower and no-one's worried that I talk to meself - but the bit of meself that answers back knows a lot more than me about Gross National Product and soap opera storylines. Course, it's only me and Maddy-cat nowadays, but sometimes after a little chat she gives me a funny look …."
"What sort of funny look?" I asked.
"Oh, I dunno," said Cyril scratching his thinning hair, "Like she knows more about Gross Domestic wossname than I do."
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