THE PHANTOM TABBY
Sarah Hartwell, 2008

Some believe in ghosts and some don't; it's a personal thing. Some rubbish the whole idea, which is a bit like a blind man denying the existence of the colour blue simply because he hasn't seen it himself and no matter how many sighted people tell him the colour blue exists. And some of us simply accept that odd things happen, however you try to explain them.

Between 1985 and 1988 I lived in a new-built mid-terrace house in Braintree. It faced onto the flood plain of the river and during floods, the water came to within 10 feet of the front gate. Being cheaply built and rurally located it had a mouse problem. Neighbours on one side had a tabby mouser called Minnie. The house remained was for several months while a young couple redecorated it at weekends. Mice took up residence in the empty house and came through the party wall into a corner of my kitchen.

One evening, while washing dishes, I noticed Minnie dart out of the corner by the sink and dash into the living room towards the dining table.

"Let Minnie out, will you?" I called to my partner.

"She isn't in," he replied from the living room.

I was certain I'd seen Minnie run out of the kitchen. There was no way she could get indoors of her own accord we'd no cat flap and the windows were shut. We borrowed her some nights to kill the mice and visited some days when she wanted a rest from their toddler. But Minnie wasn't indoors so it must have been a trick of the light.

That trick of the light dashed from kitchen to living room on several more occasions. I saw it from several vantage points: the sink, the cooker and the store cupboard. It was always a tabby cat running across the kitchen floor and vanishing. I once, just once, saw it from the living room as it ran under the dining table opposite the kitchen door.

One evening as I sat reading in a living room armchair in the living room I got another glimpse of the cat-that-wasn't. The only place to put my coffee mug was the floor beside the chair. As I leaned over to do so, I noticed a tabby tail and hindquarters walking behind the chair. I didn't remember letting Minnie in and I knew the back door was shut . it was a puzzle.

Over the months I got used to seeing a tabby tail-end walk behind the chair I was sitting on. Sometimes I watched it walk behind the sofa a few feet away. I'd accepted the idea of a phantom cat in the house that resembled Minnie or at least Minnie's back end but was only seen walking away from me and behind the furniture. Except, of course, for that one time I saw it dash out of the kitchen and run under the dining table. Eventually I broached the topic with my then partner.

"Have you ever noticed a cat by the side of the chair even when Minnie's not in?" With relief, he admitted he had. Like me he'd thought it was a trick of the light. When it kept happening he though it was Minnie because of the striped tail and later he just ignored it altogether. We'd both seen the back end of a tabby cat. Minnie's owners visited and they asked if we had a very shy cat, because it always seemed to run behind the sofa or chairs when they spotted it.

Minnie's people moved away and new people moved in with their small, shy tabby called Squeak. They didn't believe in cat flaps so Squeak was outside all day, and sometimes all night. Squeak plucked up the courage to lodge with us when she couldn't get into her own home and was very welcome company.

One of Squeak's favourite indoor games was stalking each other. I got on hands and knees and she stalked me. Then I stalked her. It was a cat-human game of tag. Either of us could start the game and it went on till Squeak flopped on her back for a belly rub. Squeak's flicking ears always betrayed the fact she could hear my lumbering frame creeping up behind her, but she indulged me.

One afternoon I spotted Squeak sitting behind the armchair with her back to me. I got down on all fours and as quietly as my human frame could manage I crept up behind her. I reached out to tap her on the back, but as my hand approached her, I realised there was nothing there. There was no sudden puff of smoke or flash of light. One moment I was creeping up on a tabby back and the next moment there was empty space in front of me. Confused, I checked the room had Squeak made a lightning fast dash? Squeak turned out to be sound asleep on the bed and judging by the warm hollow in the duvet she'd been there awhile.

I had tried to stalk the ghost tabby cat that hung around the furniture. For more than a minute I had seen the back of its head as well as the usual back and tail.

I am certain Squeak saw the phantom feline. Cats often stare into space or chase sunbeams, but Squeak reacted to thin air as though a cat were present, even tracking it with her gaze. One evening she was dozing on my lap while I watched TV. Suddenly she turned her attention to the rug in the middle of the floor. I felt her little body bristling with the start of a growl. She leapt straight at the rug, scratching my thighs with the force of her jump, and then sat looking confused. Whatever she had seen and tried to attack was no longer there. It must have simply vanished because she didn't chase it anywhere.

Squeak and her people moved, but we still spotted the ghost cat around the living room furniture. When we moved a few months later, I wondered if the it would accompany the furniture or stay in the old house. It seemed the latter, because the furniture came with us, but we never saw the tabby phantom again. I wonder if the new owners of the house ever spotted a tabby back and tail dashing through the living room door or walking behind their sofa?

Since then I have only had a couple of phantom feline experiences and none as regular as the phantom tabby that I'd come to regard as one of the family.

As for those other experiences? Scrapper, the ex-feral who adored me, was put to sleep with failing kidneys. That night as I lay awake in bed with remaining cat Affy, I heard him walk into the bedroom, pad round the end of the bed and walk beside the bed towards the cabinet just as he had done so often before.

"That's daft," I thought, "Scrapper's dead."

The paws padded away from me. To this day I wonder what would have happened had I simply accepted Scrapper's presence. I think Scrapper hadn't even realised he was dead and he simply did what he had done most nights.

One evening, long after, and some time after Affy herself had died, I woke up stroking a cat's ruff. In astonishment I realised it was the long, slightly harsh ruff of Affy and not the silky coat of Cindy. That time I simply accepted that Affy had come home. I fell asleep with my hand in her fur. Just a dream you might say? I'm well used to the various states of wakefulness you get when sharing a bed with cats and I can say with conviction I was not dreaming.

MOGGYCATS CAT PAGES