A Very Purrculiar Practice: Kittens Ahoy!
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

"You say the kittens are in the wood?" I asked the old gent who'd visited the shelter the day before.

"That's right, love, they're not tinies, but the mother hasn't been back for a couple of days. Horrible feeling that she's fallen foul of a cat-hating dog that gets walked here, either that or there's a terrier man comes down here after rabbits, but I reckon his dog isn't too fussy about what it goes for. She was totally wild, otherwise I'd have taken her in during that hard winter last year. I put the food down which she ate, and a crate but she never slept in it."

"It probably smelled of humans and if she is a country feral she might not want to sleep in anything smelling of people." I refrained from saying that 'Gaffer Tom' could have requested a cat trap and that not even a human a bad cold would voluntarily enter an enclosed area smelling of Gaffer Tom.

Gaffer Tom (nobody seemed to know his surname, maybe he'd forgotten it himself) was a weatherbeaten old chap of that indeterminate age somewhere between sixty and one hundred and sixty. He lived in a decaying cottage which should have been condemned years back and which had been partially demolished by the weight of wild clematis and ivy clinging to its walls and roof. Though mains water had reached the area several decades ago, Gaffer Tom seemed to have an aversion to the stuff, not helped by the odour of a cess pit which was long overdue for cleansing. He lived on a modest army pension supplemented, so it was said, by rabbits off the side of the lane. He had his own pew (understandably) at church on Sunday, but otherwise seemed, from his appearance and pungency, the epitome of a 'gentleman of the road'. Not having a phone and either unable or unwilling to use the phone box at the end of the lane, he'd walked the several miles to our shelter after church to tell us that he was caring for two tame kittens born to a wildie mum.

"The kittens are tame?" I had asked in surprise the day before.

"Oh yes. Their dam's a real wildie, gets spooked if I go anywhere near. I usually have a way with wild things, but she's having none of it. The kittens were a bit skittish when I first saw them, but they've quieted down. I don't like to see animals in cages," he said, looking at the cats in their pens, "but I don't want them to fall afoul of the terrier man. Asides, I'm sure it won't be long afore someone wants them for housepets."

After he'd gone, I learnt that Gaffer Tom did indeed have a way with wild things - birds with injured wings, rabbits and squirrels rescued from snares, even normally timid foxes would share his home. Humans, however, were another matter; by his own admission he didn't have time for humans and had become virtually a recluse since leaving the army. People finding injured wild animals was as likely to take them to Gaffer Tom as to one of the vets, if they could locate his cottage among several decades of untrimmed overgrown undergrowth.

"Where are we likely to find them?" I asked, unwilling to spend too much time inhaling Gaffer Toms distinctive fragrance.

"They'll be around that oak tree," he told me, indicating an ancient oak standing apart from the other trees.

Although I'd brought gauntlets, in case the kittens were less tame than claimed, I did not fancy rooting around in bramble bushes in search of two skittish kittens. I needn't have woried. Gaffer Tom produced an open can of cat food and a fork from the pocket of an Oxfam-reject suit jacket.

"Watch this," he said, smiling, the first time I'd seen his weathered dirty face face smile and his eyes twinkle. He pointed to the tree and began to ratle the fork on the side of the can. "just up there, on the third branch."

A large crow's nest was built where the branch and trunk diverged. As the can rattled, two heads popped up from the unruly mess of twigs. A pair of fourteen-ish week kittens shook themselves free of bird's nest and tippy-toed out of the nest, hopping from that branch to one lower down.

"How on earth will they get down?" I breathed, unaware that I'd been holding my breath (purely reflexive due to my proximity to Gaffer Tom rather than my expectation of the kittens missing a step and hurtling many feet to ground level).

"Watch," he said, his grubby face shining in simple joy as the pair descended the main trunk bottoms first and scampered up to him.

As he'd promised, the kittens were tame and friendly, amenable to being handled even by a stranger without me having to wear the anti-feral gauntlets. Despite their unusual home, they were bright-eyed, healthy and well-nourished and no more skittish than your average kitten when introduced to the joys of travelling in a basket.

As I left, gaffer Tom put the half-empty can back in his pocket.

"For the hedgehogs," he said simply, but I swear he was licking his lips and had my doubts.

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