Copyright 1995, Sarah Hartwell

This is a fictionalised account of true events.

It was cold outdoors and the rain had started again. Hopefully, the old cat walked slowly back to the familiar front door and scratched tentatively at it. Instead of a pair of slippered feet and the smell of pipe smoke, an unfamiliar shriek of children's laughter and the blare of hi-fi greeted her as the door opened. She hesitated, mewing plaintively. A splash of cold water hit her in the face, telling her that she was unwelcome. Wet and demoralised, the old cat fled as fast as her legs could manage.

"It's that ruddy cat again, it ought to have gone away by now," a woman's voice called before the door slammed shut with an air of finality.

Her heart thudding in her bony chest, the old cat sat down at the gate. Puzzled, she flicked droplets of water from her ears and blinked it out of her rheumy eyes. Where was George, her human? Who were the strange people in her home? Ever since the men in uniforms had been called to the house and taken George away to the people-vet place, things had been different. Strange people had moved into her house and she was no longer welcome.

Now nobody called her by the special sound that meant love and affection and a warm lap to sit on. She missed the rug by the electric fire, the rug that George's mate had made while chair-bound. She missed the pipe smell, even though it made her sneeze, and the peculiar odour of Guinness.

Sad and dejected, the old tabby cat huddled under a hedge. Her belly was empty. She had scratched at the door several times, but George hadn't returned for her. He had always returned before! The white vehicle always brought him back from the people-vet place, smelling of disquieting things and admonishing the uniformed men for fussing over him. The white vehicle hadn't returned this time. Instead, another van had turned up and had taken away all of George's furniture. Then yet another one, bringing with it different people and furniture. She had hidden in the potting shed for a while and during that time everything had changed.

Settling her sagging, empty belly on the ground, she rested her chin on her front paws and gazed at the house, wishing that George would hurry up and come back and make things right again.

She was lucky that night. Some neighbours put out bread and milk for the hedgehogs. She ate it all then looked for bacon rind which the birds had left behind. There was part of a cheese sandwich on the pavement and a greasy hotdog wrapper in the gutter. She licked the wrapper dejectedly and went back to the hedge to lie down.

She was old, she knew that. She could not climb or jump any more and she had no teeth left. She was too slow to hunt and without teeth she couldn't eat mice anyway. George had always chopped her food into small pieces so she could eat easily. And George's mate had made her a rug to sit on by the fire. The neighbours had said that George had gone to be with his wife, which the old cat thought rather odd because George's wife had died, but George had only gone to the people-vet place.

The next morning, she trotted slowly down the road to sit near the school. Some of the children fed her chicken or corned beef from their sandwiches and she finished a bag of crushed crisps. Someone had dropped a bag of chips near the fish-and-chip shop. She knew there was fish in the big bins behind the shop, but she couldn't jump that far. On the way home, she drank from a fish-pond then settled down by the hedge to wait for George.

George didn't return that day or the next. She politely scratched at the door again, but only got another faceful of water. After a few days, she stopped scratching at the door. She felt too tired and too demoralised to bother. Her belly was empty and she felt light-headed. Sometimes when she curled up to sleep, she thought she heard George's voice, but when she woke there was no-one there. It was cold in the hedge, and damp, but the new people in her house had boarded up the hidey-hole in the potting shed - the hole George's mate had pestered the old man to make in case the cat got caught out in the rain while the house was closed up for the day.

Eventually, she just lay down and hoped that everything would go away. Nobody called her by her special sound and nobody put down food for her. She missed her warm rug. She was hungry and thirsty and cold and wet. She shivered in her sleep and curled up as tightly as her old bones could manage.

When she heard voices saying, "Isn't that the old man's cat? What's she doing outside in weather like this," she thought she was dreaming. She was light-headed and couldn't be bothered to wake up.

"I thought his daughter and son-in-law were keeping her after he died. She looks like she's nearly finished."

"I think we'd better get her to the vet, though I doubt they can do anything for her now. Pity we didn't notice earlier."

The sound 'vet' made her shiver. Vets meant odd smells and needles or tablets. Once, after she'd had her kittens, it had meant stitches in her side. Maybe she had gone to cat hell. George had called any bad situation 'hell' and a vet was certainly a bad situation. Still, the old cat had no energy left to protest as she was gathered up in a blanket. It was almost comforting being held again, even if she was being taken to the vet.

She could barely stand on her own four paws at the vet-place. He made soothing noises and poked a needle into her. She began to feel very dizzy and collapsed on the table. At times she heard voices or felt another needle. Once or twice she opened her eyes and saw a needle stuck in her leg, but she was too tired to wonder what was happening to her and went back to sleep. Her belly felt empty, but she no longer felt light-headed; sometimes she found the energy to purr, just to keep herself company.

When she woke up properly, she was ravenous. A kind young woman put food and water beside her. The old cat licked the food-bowl clean and searched beside and under it in case she had missed anything. Then she sat down and began to wash her face, slowly and unsteadily. The vet smells were all around her. She was sitting on a white towel in a small cage with a litter tray in one corner. She tried to reach the litter tray, but her back legs weren't interested in walking. The woman who had brought the food picked up the old cat and supported her while she used the tray. Then she put the old cat back on the towel and stroked her a little before closing the cage.

The next time the old cat woke up, the food was just out of reach. This time her back legs did work and she staggered drunkenly to the food and then to the litter. Every time she woke, there was food and sometimes there were strokes and kind sounds. She felt a lot better and began to look forward to going home. Maybe George was worried about her. She stretched out on the blanket and fell asleep, still hoping that she would wake up on her rug in front of the electric fire.

She was woken up by the sound of a human crying. The old cat knew about human grief after George's mate had died and she looked up, puzzled. The kind lady was sitting by an older woman who held an unmoving cat in her lap. As she watched, they gently wrapped the cat in a piece of blanket.

"I know he'd had a good innings, but you always hope they'll go on their own," the grieving lady was saying, rocking her cat's body on her lap.

The old cat mewed gently, and scratched at the front of her cage. Grief was something she understood. The two women looked over at her.

"Poor old girl," said the kind lady, "her owner died and no-one took any notice of his cat until it was nearly too late. Mr Harris put her on a drip and she's as good as she'll ever be, but the rescue society says she's too old to be rehomed. They've told us to put her to sleep, but it hardly seems fair after she's been through so much."

"How old is she?" the bereaved woman asked.

"The neighbours say she's at least nineteen. Mr Harris is still hoping someone will take her, but no-one seems interested in the old ones."

The woman put her blanket-wrapped bundle on the chair and walked across to the old cat. Opening the cage, she reached in and began to stroke the tatty old head. She made soothing sounds, not the sounds the old cat was used to, but sounds that nonetheless spoke of love and rugs by the fire.

"I don't think Tinker would mind me replacing him so soon," the woman said, massaging the old cat's vibrating throat, "At least he was put to sleep because he was so ill. It isn't fair to put a cat to sleep just because it's old."

That night, there was a sheepskin rug by a gas fire and a dish of well-chopped food nearby. There was a special sound again, a different one from before, but a sound that meant attention and affection. The old cat knew that she would see George again one day, but for now she was content to lie in front of the fire and dream.

Note: Kitty II is now with George. She was put to sleep aged 21 due to heart failure caused by sheer old age. We were with her and she was still purring at the end, this time she was a worn-out cat and she herself was losing interest in life. The vet remarked that she was otherwise in excellent physical condition, better than many cats half her age. While she lived with us, she gave us two years of joy and love. Far from being 'not worth bothering about' she took great joy in our garden in summer, a warm fire in winter and a large beanbag at night.

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