Copyright 1993, Sarah Hartwell

The embarrassing incident of the rotund ginger cat and the Gas-board trench began with a knock at the door. "Please miss," said little Harriet from over-the-road, "Sandy's fallen down the workman's hole."

'Sandy' is the local children's name for Affy, our none-too-bright ginger longhair. After 6 weeks crawling through half the hedges in the village in pursuit of a 'stray kitten' I found myself owner of a hungry 5 month old semi-feral which appeared to be severely lacking in the brain department. 5 years of domesticity have not improved her intellect - or diminished her appetite for that matter. What on earth could she be up to now?

I followed Harriet to a half-dug trench temporarily abandoned after heavy rain. There at the bottom was a mobile mudball with gooseberry-green eyes. I could have sworn I used to own a ginger cat. I now seemed to own a small hippopotamus.

"Waaw," said the mudball, wading to my end of the trench.

"What are you doing down there you wozzack?" I asked it.

"He can't get out - the sides are too slippy," one young lad said helpfully. Several other children nodded gravely in agreement. By now half the children in the street were peering into the trench.

"Waaw," agreed the mudball disconsolately. The sides of the trench were too slippery to climb and the suction of the belly-deep goo underpaw was preventing Her Rotundity from jumping out.

"Stay there you!" I ordered, despite the fact that she couldn't escape if she wanted to. What cat would be daft enough to jump into a muddy trench in the first place? "I'll be back to sort you out in a minute."

"Waaw," said the trench plaintively, followed by "spludge" and then a muffled "waaw" as though she had her mouth full.

I returned with wellies and a towel and squelched in to join her. The animated mudball waddled up to me hopefully, then changed her mind when she saw the towel. The children stood around in anticipation of fresh entertainment.

"Look you idiot, I'm not going to give you a tablet down here! This is so I can get you out without getting covered in mud."

"Waaaaw?" The green eyes narrowed suspiciously. Affy was obviously not convinced. How can an ambulatory mud pie put so much feeling into its only visible features?

After chasing her the length of the trench and attempting to mud-wrestle her into submission, I finally threw the towel unceremoniously over what had turned out to be an extremely lively lump of mud and heaved her out, paws flailing, hoping she'd stay put long enough for me to get out and carry her back to the house. She didn't.

"Grab her!" I yelled at the assembled children.

Affy slithered glutinously through their grasp and headed hastily homewards, trailing brown gunge. Every few feet she stopped to shake her head in disgust and another clot of Essex clay fell from her belly fur.

Muddy trenches are easier to get into than out of, as Affy had already discovered. At my first attempt I lost one of my wellies. My foot missed the welly and landed ankle deep in yellow-brown goo. At that moment the workmen arrived. The children mysteriously evaporated, leaving me to explain what I was doing ankle deep in mud in a Gas-board trench.

"And what are you up to?" one ventured, eyebrows raised almost to hairline, in the tone of voice normally reserved for naughty children and misbehaving moggies.

"Trying to get out, actually," I said, perfectly straightfaced, with as much dignity as I could muster under the circumstances.

"And why did you get in there in the first place?" the workman asked in the same artificially patient tones.

"My cat got stuck down here and I had to rescue her. Now she's at home trailing half the clay in Essex round the house and I'm standing down here instead."

"Naah cat would be that stupid," observed number two workman. In pre-Affy days I would have agreed.

Five minutes later I stumped home, liberally anointed with liquid Essex clay, having been extracted from the trench by three workmen who were convinced that I was the village idiot. Affy had arrived before me and was sitting in her own private muddy puddle in the middle of a hand-made rug in full expectation of having the gas fire turned on for her benefit. Images of clay-baked cat or a piece of yellow statuary with mobile eyes flitted through my mind. Seeing the evil gleam in my eyes, she shot off upstairs spraying mud as she went.

I cornered her in the bedroom where she was being regarded with suspicion by an impeccably clean black-and-white Sappho who always looks like an advert for one of those washing powders which gets whites whiter, but doesn't fade your coloureds. Grabbing a muddy cat is like grappling with wet soap. She slithered around in my grasp, coating me liberally with mud.

"Bathtime," I told her firmly.

It took almost an hour to wash all the mud out of Affy's fur. It was not made any easier by the fact that Her Rotundity had never had a bath before and managed to writhe out of my grasp several times and take refuge on top of the cistern (via the washbasin and windowsill) and glare down at me like a badly moulded gargoyle. It took somewhat longer to unclog the plughole and clean up all the places visited by the incredible mud-monster en-route to the bathroom.

A hair-of-the-cat was most definitely in order so I left Affy preening and drying by a radiator, muttering dark nothings to herself. The barman raised an eyebrow as I walked in.

"Pint of Ditchdigger's Delight is it Mrs H?" he asked.

Behind the bar is an expanse of gold-tinted mirror. The house may have been spotless, and Affy herself may have resembled a ginger powder puff when I'd finished with her, but I'd forgotten my own mud-smudged features. I haven't been allowed to forget it since.

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