Copyright 1994, Sarah Hartwell

Ma and her five grown-up offspring lived where my back garden backed onto an overgrown goods yard. Some years ago I had rounded up the six cats for neutering and cut a little pop-hole in the side of the shed and put some blanket-lined kitchen units inside. Once the cats had forgiven me, they moved in and made themselves at home.

Originally I had only intended to feed Ma. She was an old tabby, the queen of the colony who ruled the others with an iron paw. Of course, it never worked that way and each day for four years I had fed breakfast and supper to six ungrateful ferals who lurked half-seen among bushes until I retreated to a respectable distance.

As well as Ma, there were two black-and-whites, Smudges 1 and 2, and three tabby-and-whites known simply as Tabbies 1, 2 and 3. They operated a sort of exclusion zone, miaowing for food as I approached, retreating as I doled out the Katkins and hissing reproachfully if I didn't move at least five feet away while they fed. Then, if I stayed quiet, they ignored me and settled down to wash.

"Well littluns," I burbled one Friday morning as I doled out Chicken and Turkey Meaty Loaf, "The lady from the CPL will be feeding you for a few days."

"Miaow," demanded Ma in strident tones. She was probably only complaining about slow service, but I answered her anyway.

"I'm going into hospital and won't be on my feet for a few days; in fact I'm being spayed."

Ma glared at me, waited for me to retreat and then tucked in. As long as food appeared on schedule I got the feeling that this lot didn't care who dished it out.

I had never been to hospital for anything more than an X-ray and I dreaded the anaesthetic and operation. The antiseptic smell made my head ache and the doctors and consultants spoke a foreign language. I began to realise how the cats had felt in the vet's surgery. The operation was a necessity not a nicety and, like Ma and her tribe, I would soon be back home afterwards.

The pre-med made me pleasantly drowsy and stopped me from leaping off the trolley screaming as I was wheeled to Theatre. The anaesthetist and surgeon explained what was going to happen though I didn't take much in. I had dreamy visions of vets miaowing reassurances to their feline patients.

I do recall a great deal of shouting, but it didn't mean a lot as I realised that, instead of lying on an operating table, I was standing naked in a large dark place. I knew I could shut out the shouting if I really wanted too, but I wasn't ready to make such a final decision.

Ahead of me was a bright speck the size of a 1 pence coin. I reached out to touch it and realised that it wasn't small, just far away. It was too much effort to go and investigate so I lay down and curled up in my dark cocoon.

Something wet touched my bare back. A whiskery face pushed against mine. A raspy little tongue licked my knee. I opened my eyes to see Ma's stern serious little face. The tribe were sitting around me, willing me to get up and do something. Though it was dark in my cocoon I could see them quite clearly.

It must be meal-time I realised and lurched to my feet. Pressed forward by their warm bodies I walked towards the white speck. It had shrunk while I had slept, but the cats guided me towards it, pushing against my legs to make me hurry or trotting on ahead and miaowing for me to follow. Finally I was near enough the light see that it was an open doorway into a bright place that, if I wished, I could step into. Apart from Ma, who stood a little way back, the cats pressed impatiently around my ankles.

"Come on Ma," I urged.

Ma miaowed sadly at me. I had never heard her miaow like that, she either nagged or she hissed. She sat down and stared at me while her children nudged me forward. With the furry bodies about my feet I stepped into blinding light.

There were no cats the other side; I lay on hospital sheets with a drip in my arm and wires stuck all over me. My sister was sitting beside my bed. Why had she come all the way from Newcastle to see me here in Essex? Then I fell asleep. It was Tuesday morning, three days since my operation.

Later, I learnt that I had begun losing blood after the operation. The doctors thought they were going to lose me and had contacted my immediate family.

It was a few weeks before I went home. The CPL lady hadn't seen the feral family although she had felt their hotly burning eyes watching her as she doled out their rations. She had some bad news to tell me as well. When she had gone to shake out the bedding on the Tuesday morning after my op, she had found Ma curled up among the blankets. She had looked as if she was sleeping peacefully, but the CPL lady knew enough about ferals to realise that Ma had been "Promoted to Glory" during the night.

I soon got back into the routine of feeding the cats. The Smudge twins skulked under ground elder and the Tabbies lurked in the brambles, hissing when I got too close. But I now knew that they weren't ungrateful, simply shy.

(Based on a true story told to me by an acquaintance I knew only as Irene)

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