Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

It was too good to be true -things had been very quiet on the Mad Sal front for almost a year. Mad Sal normally phoned us at least once a month about Fluffkin's poopsies on the duvet or some starving cat which had turned up on the railway line behind her house. Fluffkin's poopsies ("Oh what can I do, I love her so much and couldn't bear to have her put down") were entirely due to Fluffkin's onerous bulk making a trip to the litter tray an Olympian feat and the starving cats were invariably the well-fed cats belonging to long-suffering neighbours, although in comparison with the gargantuan Fluffkin they might indeed look undernourished. Sal's marathon phone calls invariably ended with "I don't know how you can call yourselves cat lovers; you don't really care about cats, I'm the only one who really cares ... I'm going to call your headquarters and tell them that you won't come and rescue this cat, it can't have eaten properly for weeks". Mad Sal was, as always on the edge of a nervous breakdown although no-one had ever worked out which edge. I knew the halcyon Sal-free times couldn't last.

It ended one Sunday in April when Sal phoned the shelter to tell us of an injured cat she had seen on her way back from an out-of-town shopping centre.

"At least I think it was a cat," she said, "It was a sort of dirty white colour and just lying on the side of the road. It might have been a West Highland dog, but it was moving slightly."

Or then again it might have been another inside out Tesco's bag.

"Look, we're short-handed and I can't leave the shelter unattended, if you can confirm that it was a cat, or even a dog, I'll send someone to pick it up." I explained, knowing that last time - and the two times before - it had been a discarded carrier bag fluttering in the breeze.

"You don't care about cats at all," Sal launched into her normal routine, "I care about cats, I REALLY care about them, not like you. You only care about people seeing what a wonderful job you do at the shelter. Well let me tell you this, I don't think you are doing a wonderful job if you can't even be bothered to look at an injured cat. It might even be dead by now, and I can't imagine what pain it must have been in. And let me tell you something, I don't think your shelter is doing a wonderful job either, I offered to help at the shelter and you gave me all the horrible dirty jobs to do so that you didn't have to do them yourself ...."

Apart from the fact that most of the jobs were pretty dirty, and everyone else mucked in to clean litter trays and clear up after icky cats, Sal had turned up for one morning only. She'd had to sit with her head between her knees when a post-operative amputee returned from the vet, she practically fainted when someone found a stillborn litter of kittens and she cried so hard when a pair of feral cats was adopted by people who, according to her, "can't really care about cats if they're going to make them live in a stable" that we had to phone her husband to come and collect her.

"We can't close the shelter just to go and investigate ANOTHER plastic bag," I said when I could finally get a word in edgeways.

"Even if it is a plastic bag, there might be kittens in it!" she wailed hysterically, "But you don't even care enough to investigate, I'm going to ring your headquarters tomorrow and report you for not really caring about cats at all, you shouldn't be allowed to rescue cats!"

"If you care so much about cats why didn't you stop and investigate? Then you could have brought it straight here instead of making it wait until you got to a phone!" I retorted. There came a point with Sal when no amount of diplomacy could achieve a result.

After a few hiccupping sobs and a final "You don't care" the line went dead. I wasn't concerned about HQ being contacted, they had also had their fill of Mad Sal. The first time they sent us a letter asking us to "investigate" the handling of the "situation" and send them a report. Sal gloatingly sent us a copy of a letter she received saying that "the situation will be investigated" along with a covering letter demanding an apology. She was sorely disappointed to learn that we had "acted reasonably in very trying circumstances". The second time HQ phoned us to ask what the hell was going on and was it true that we had given the poor distraught woman the mucky jobs and been abusive to her before physically removing her from the premises? By this time we were sending HQ "Mad Sal bulletins" confirming that she had been escorted off the premises for being verbally abusive then physically threatening a helper. The fourth time they had gone into "Samaritans" mode and made nice understanding conversation before putting the phone down and screaming blue murder. But by now, even they were beginning to realise that Sal herself was a very trying circumstance and were tempted to tell her to sod off so that we could get on with helping cats.

With the persistence born of borderline insanity, Sal phoned some weeks later (having apparently forgotten all about the plastic bag incident) to tell us of a black cat stuck on her neighbour's shed roof. It had been there for two weeks and she had been throwing cat food onto the roof for it, but it seemed to be stuck. It hadn't moved from the spot in all that time and she thought it might be injured or have kittens among the clutter on the shed roof.

"I didn't call you earlier because I wanted to be sure it really was stuck, I know they mostly get down by themselves, but if it wasn't for me throwing it food it would have starved by now. I've even pushed a bowl of water onto the roof, but it's up there in all weathers, even that storm last night, and I think it might be hurt as it won't even miaow when I talk to it and throw it food. My husband didn't want me to panic, but someone's got to help it before ..."

"I'll come over the minute I lock the shelter up after lunch,"

"But you've got to come straight away, it could be badly injured!"

"If it's been there for two weeks, another half hour isn't going to make any difference. If it is injured I can take it straight to the vets." I explained, "But I must hand feed these orphan kittens first otherwise they really will die; they've been without food for almost 36 hours before they were found behind a compost heap."

There were no orphan kittens, but with Mad Sal it was best to have a Sal-proof excuse. "The poor things," she whimpered understandingly.

Thirty five minutes later I was standing in her back garden receiving a dressing down for being late, those crucial five minutes could mean the difference between finding trapped and injured cat and finding a pathetic body etc etc. The black cat stared at me from the neighbour's shed roof, motionless and unblinking its lofty perch.

"Have you got a stepladder?" I asked.

Alas, Sal had no stepladder and was beginning to panic that we were not going to rescue the cat before it dropped dead from heat exhaustion, hypothermia, malnutrition or despair. By then the neighbour had ventured into his garden.

"Have you got a stepladder we can borrow?" I called over the five foot fence.

"What's the problem?" he asked sympathetically (he treats all of Sal's visitors sympathetically or bemusedly).

"Cat Sanctuary," I explained, flashing my ID card as though I was FBI (Feline Bureau of Investigation) Agent Scully, "There's a cat stuck on your shed roof, I can probably reach it from here."

"Hang on a mo," he said, "But I think you'll find it's a waste of time."

Sal burst into tears, "I knew it, it's dead, it couldn't wait, I should have called you earlier, you should have arrived on time ..."

The neighbour placed his ladder against the shed and reached out to the cat. Sal held her breath. He picked it up by the neck. Sal winced and looked ready to call the RSPCA. The cat remained motionless.

"Moulded concrete," the neighbour said, "Painted black to keep the birds off, but it doesn't seem to work as the shed roof is always covered with starlings. Hang on, what's this?" He picked up a feather filled water bowl which the birds had evidently been using for a bird-bath.

Sal giggled. Thankfully the neighbour only raised a long-suffering eyebrow before wordlessly handing her the water bowl and placing the cat back on the shed roof. Mercifully he said nothing about the lumps of drying cat food, evidence of two weeks of feeding the local starlings.

Admittedly it was not quite as embarrassing as the time when she had the police break into a neighbour's baking hot glass porch to rescue a Siamese cat trapped there while the owners went on holiday. The neighbours were none too pleased to find their porch broken into so that Sal could rescue a lifelike ceramic cat ornament in danger of "roasting to death". The police officer was very understanding and said it was a mistake anyone could have made and said that he himself would rather come home to a broken porch window than a dead cat. Quite how understanding the neighbours were is unknown.

Then of course there was the stray kitten under her own shed. In order to catch it I had to block off all the gaps (the bottom board had fallen off on two sides of the shed), remove the rusting corpses of two lawnmowers and some deceased room-sized remnants of carpet and then cling for dear life to an 8 week old feral kitten, a task comparable to wrestling with an extremely irate animated cactus. Sal poured an entire bottle of TCP over my shredded hand, and when I went for a tetanus jab the casualty Doctor told me that it was a good year for hedgetrimmer accidents.

Unfortunately, the shed-roof cat was not the last we heard of Mad Sal that year. In midsummer she rang about two half-wild cats that were sheltering in her greenhouse. Convinced that two local pets had discovered her open greenhouse and were using it as a sunlounge I turned up with a couple of baskets "just in case".

"They're both in there at the moment," she whispered, tiptoeing dramatically down the path in grand pantomime style. I half expected someone to yell "behind you!" as I tiptoed after her. Two little pairs of eyes watched us curiously from beneath the tomato plant foliage.

"I'll go in with the baskets," I said confidently.

"They're very wild," she told me, which translated from Sal-speak means "they're next door's cats and they'll probably want you to tickle their tummies, but they don't seem to like me very much", which from a cat's point of view is fair comment when faced with an over-protective Sal intent on "rescuing" it.

I stepped none-too-cautiously into the greenhouse. Suddenly it exploded into a mass of snarling, flying fur, slitted eyes, flattened ears, bared fangs and cornered feral cats. With unusual quick thinking, Sal slammed the door shut, leaving me in the middle of her greenhouse while two very feral cats did the wall of death around the glass. A small voice in the back of my mind remarked on the fact that cats have suction pads on their paws enabling them to walk on vertical glass, the rest of my mind, however, was shrieking "duck". I cowered at floor level until the cats stopped flying and hid behind the wreckage of a felled tomato plant. Outside the greenhouse door, Sal mouthed "I told you they were wild".

This time Sal had the upper hand. I knew she wouldn't let me out until I had trapped both cats; after all Fluffkin would go into convulsions at the mere sight of a feral cat. I inched towards the door and gestured for Sal to slide it open enough to pass me one of the baskets and close the door again. Then I edged back to the tomato plant where the cats were waiting to see what I would do next. I dropped the upturned open basket over one of the cats. While its friend began the wall of death again, I found a piece of board to slide under the basket so that I could turn it over and close it. Just like catching a spider with a jam jar and postcard, except spiders don't have claws and jam jars don't have gaps in the side.

Once cat number two had stopped flying I gestured to Sal once more. She shrank away from taking the feral-filled basket, but did pass me the second basket. Cat number two was too crafty to be caught spider-fashion and began to spin round the greenhouse again. Sooner or later it would grow tired, but in the meantime I was growing dizzy from watching it and there were claw marks on my shoulders where it had bounced off them several times. The cat continued to race round the wall and I decided to herd it into a corner using the piece of board as a baffle. Unfortunately, on its next circuit, the cat didn't manage an emergency stop and rammed straight into the board. Stunned it dropped to the ground and I managed to cram a dazed feral with spinning eyes but no lasting damage into the basket. Sal finally opened the door.

"You shouldn't have done that to the poor frightened cat, I saw you hit it with that board. You say you love cats, but people who love cats don't hit them like that ..."

A splash of TCP was evidently out of the question, so I left Sal to phone HQ while I took my now rather subdued trophies to the shelter.

The call from HQ was more intrigued than annoyed. Was it true, they wanted to know, that I had wilfully terrified a cornered cat before hitting it on the head? I explained that I had merely acted reasonably in very trying circumstances.

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