Sarah Hartwell, 1993

Though far removed from their Egyptian origins, my cats are desert-dwellers at heart. Rain sends them scurrying indoors to the comfort of a windowsill where they watch the raindrops trickling down the glass in the feline version of the 'Pooh sticks' game. During the summertime heat and sunshine, however, they visibly bloom, lying on their backs with paws akimbo and tummies exposed as though they are oversized desert cactus flowers.

During January's chill, they curl up in front of the fire; every curve of each tightly balled body speaking of thermostats set too low in a household where the rule is: Feeling cold? Wear more clothing! Little pussycat teeth are gritted against stray drafts which seep under the doors. When dinner comes out of the oven and the cats climb into the oven instead of into the casserole, wintertime is truly here.

Sappho's beseeching look reminds me that her previous owner died of hypothermia in the Siberian-style winter a few years ago. Guiltily, I turn the central heating to HI and my bank balance to LO. Kitty creeps closer to the gas-fire; I turn it on full-blast and savour the smell of toasting fur as she turns first one side and then the other towards the rippling heat. Meanwhile, Sappho has insinuated her way underneath the duvet and will not emerge voluntarily until spring. After several years of exorbitant heating bills, I finally wise up and buy her a thermostatically controlled electrical heating pad so that I can have the house comfortably cool and she can quit the hypothermia guilt trip stuff.

Only Aphrodite, her thick fur inherited from an unknown Persian ancestor, is happy to see snow. She tramples little snowy bootees into the house where, to her perennial puzzlement, they melt into puddles. She dances in the silent snowfall, patting and catching the flakes before they land and watching cross-eyed as they melt on the warmth of her nose. Brushing beneath snow-blanketed bushes, she shivers as they dump their icy load onto her back and licks at melting icicles draped on drooping branches. Then she returns from her suddenly-unfamiliar territory to press her icy nose against the radiator: snow is so much fun, but she wishes that it were warmer.

Fred, my robust semi-feral, snuggles down among old blankets in the shed. Not for him the comfort of human habitation, however much I tempt him. Protected from drafts and damp, he is happy to put his nose in his tail though little radar-dish ears scan the environment for sounds of threat.

After a winter of watching sulking cats with scarf-like tails clamped firm over little pink noses and only narrowed eyes and mobile ears visible as they cosy up to radiators, it's a relief when the sun is switched back on in spring. The minute those first golden rays hit tightly curled felines they transform from sullen gas-fire worshippers into full-length, belly-up sun-worshippers. Their bury-your-face-in-it belly-fur exudes the warm-suede fragrance of solar-powered feline.

Early on, the sun is warmest through glass. Sunbeam space on south-facing carpets is at a premium and sun-gilded cats glide across the floor after the golden patches, complaining bitterly if any cat obstructs or intercepts the hallowed sunbeams by hopping on the windowsill. Aphrodite sits among the early daffodils, her red-gold fur gleaming among the golden trumpets. Even Fred drowses in the welcome sun, sitting sphynx-like in his personal doorway to the shed.

As it gets warmer, instead of wintertime's wee-and-run excursions, they venture into the garden and rediscover the greenhouse. With the door left open by a cat-width crack, it is transformed into glorious, baking, scorching, dusty, Saharan heat. Among the cacti and succulents bloom 'kitten-flowers', basking lizardlike on the paving and thriving in the heat. High up above them, on the roof of the garage and out of reach of humans, dozes Fred. 

If the greenhouse loses its appeal they follow thermals round the house, up the stairs and onto the top landing where the heat collects, trapped by the loft insulation, and where heat-seeking moggy-missiles can bake. There they lay sprawled on rugs and bolster cushions, like cats on kitty-cat beach-towels. I can imagine them wearing kitty-cat sunglasses and straw-hats, sipping icy milkshakes and reading 500 page paperbacks. I can almost smell their fur baking.

Indoors or out, cats are thermometers. If they're curled up tight, glaring balefully at an unlit fire, it's positively chilly. I wonder which one of us will crack first - will I switch on the heating or will one of them speed-dial the cat shelter? When their feet and face are visible it's cool, but not unbearable though ideally it could be a touch warmer. At 24 inches of relaxed and floppy feline it's pleasantly warm. When fully extended to around 3 foot of belly-up melting moggy, it's a real scorcher; they start to smell of roast pork with crispy crackling and you get burnt just stroking them. Is fur-licking really a way of cooling sun-seared felines or are they just looking for the zip so they can peel off their fur coat and go naturist in the noon-day sun? Sun-satiated kitties resent getting ordered into the shade, they have no concept of skin-cancer or heat-stroke.

By midsummer, the garden abounds with nectar-sipping hoverflies and slow-droning, paw-pattable bumblebees. Just as humans anticipate smoky summer barbecues and ice-cream vans, cats dream of edible insects that go into hiding, like cats, at the first hint of winter. Then, like belly-filled lions on the African savannah, they lie in the dappled shade beneath the delphiniums until the sun takes off his hat, mops his sweating brow and dips below the horizon to warm the down-under kitty-cats. Then my furry tribe turn tail and drift homewards to the comfort of the duvet to doze and dream of sun-drenched desert-scapes.

In Autumn, the trees relinquish their leaves and Aphrodite dances among the spiralling, falling foliage; chasing gust-blown leaves across the lawn. Her winter coat gleams ginger among the swirling, scurrying autumn-gold leaves. While the others retreat indoors to watch the spectacle from the warmth of a windowsill, Aphrodite is again in her element. She pats the fragile leaves off of low-growing shrubs and, delighted by their suddenly bareness, denudes bush after bush and sabotages human attempts to rake leaves into tidy piles.

But by late-October, frost silvers the fallen leaves and bare branches and frost draws patterns on the window panes. Spider-webs turn into icy filigrees and the Grass crackles underfoot. The long leisurely trips outdoors are growing progressively shorter, turning into wee-and-run outings followed by a slow thawing out wedged against the bathroom radiator. Over the next few weeks, all of the cats reclaim their favourite radiators and fireside seats; waiting out winter's chill and anticipating the return of summer.

Some years the cast is different as one old cat fades and fails like the summer heat and another old cat inherits the heated pad, glad not to be spending the cold months as a stray. Each winter there is the hope that it will be the winter that Fred finally comes in from the cold and each winter he steadfastly refuses to succumb to a sybaritic centrally heated lifestyle.

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