A Very Purrculiar Practice: Why, why, why, Delilah?
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

Working at a cat shelter sometimes demands dedication beyond the call of duty. One volunteer, while being wheeled into the operating theatre at the local hospital, discovered that the theatre nurse had earlier adopted one of our more difficult cats. The dedicated volunteer quizzed the owner about the cat's progress right up until the aneasthetic took hold .... and managed to write up a coherent report on hospital notepaper after regaining consciousness. In return, the nurse filled in a neutering certificate - about the volunteer.

So it was that I found myself sitting in the dentist's chair, mouth full of drills, mirrors and suction pump, and arranging to pick up a pregnant cat.

"You're the cat shelter lady, aren't you," asked my dentist as she prodded around in my mouth.

"Nnnngh," I replied through all the metalwork, "Eeech!" as the metal probe hit a sensitive nerve which four injections hadn't managed to deaden..

"I've had a sweet little cat turn up on my doorstep, but I'm sure it's pregnant," she said, "Ahh, you know you need a filling replaced? The problem is my kids are used to our cats and keep trying to pick her up round the middle; which can't be doing the kittens any good. Can you mix some amalgum please, Julie? Any chance of a place at the shelter?"

"Nnngh," I said in affirmative tones.

"Can you pop over this evening? She generally turns up at tea time. She used to live with a couple of chaps a few doors down, but they split up and moved away."

"Nnngh-nngh," I said in resigned tones which, roughly translated to "Yes I'm free this evening even though the anaesthetic has numbed my face from chin to forehead and means I'll have tears streaming down my cheeks, which incidentally fell like lumps of cork - inert and swollen - and I'll have a mouth full of wadding where you've made a ruddy great hole in the place my wisdom tooth used to live."


A few hours later, the anaesthetic had crept up to my hairline, although I had dispensed with the wadding, when I drove the seven miles to my dentist's home town. I hoped that my speech was coherent, in case she hadn't managed to make it home before me, though she'd assured me that hubby was at home with the kids during the school holidays. Hubby was a European languages teacher at the local Catholic High School, though I doubted that dental-anaesthetic-ese featured in his linguistic achievements, being a skill solely the province of dentists.

"Cup of tea?" asked my dentist when I knocked, "We're just waiting for her to turn up."

"Nnnngh-nngh," I mumbled in the negative.

Her husband looked at me as though I was either drunk, imbecilic, registered deaf or speech impaired. His expression fluctuated from horror (drunk), disbelief (imbecile drove here?) to worried (how do I communicate with hearing-impared person without being patronising?).

"Oh, I'd forgotten, the anesthetic won't wear off for another three hours."

Hubby's face developed a relieved expression then a flicker of concern that wife was bringing her work home with her and was about to use the kitchen cutlery for root canal surgery.

By the time we'd decided that 'Delilah' (since the song was played six time on the radio during our wait, some sort of Tom Jones celebration) was skipping tea, the anaesthetic had retreated to nostril level and I could messily slurp the promised cup of tea and was being used as a place of retreat for two cats when they tired of being loved by two pre-school children. I only discovered the feline love-bites on my nose when feeling finally returned.

"Tell oo what," I mumbled semi-coherently, "I'll leave my phone nummer an' you can ring me another evening when she turnsh up."

Four days later, by which time I was totally anaesthetic-free, as comprehensible and coherent as any cat worker is ever likely to be ("Come on lickle fluffy wuffy kitty cat, your new mummy wants to take you home, so please go into the nice basket for auntie shelter helper, be a good lickle puddy tat .... ouch you bastard, do that again and you're history ... no Mrs James I didn't really mean that, she's just frightened, she'll be fine when she's loose in a house."), I had a call from Queen Street Dental Surgery.

Had I forgotten to pay my bill? Was there some new and devilish procedure they wished to inflict on me - like how much dental scaffolding they could cram into my mouth at once? No, my dentist's receptionist was ringing to let me know that Delilah had turned up with her baby "whatever that means," sniffed the prim receptionist disapprovingly, sensing a potential scandal. Since my dentist was working late, could I pop over and pick Delilah up from her husband? Obviously the receptionist had no idea who Delilah was or why she and her baby were with the dentist's husband.

"Hiya," said hubby as I turned up with cat basket, "You'll have to come up to the bedroom to pick her up as I don't know much about handling tiny kittens. Gina reckoned I was all thumbs with our babies so I don't want to risk it!"

"Daddy, daddy, I want to pick up the kitten!" shouted their little boy.

"No, I want to!" protested the slightly older little girl.

"Only the lady can pick up the kitten, but if you're very quiet you can look," daddy told them firmly, "I've put the baby gate on the bedroom door so they can't get in and maul the kitten. They're too young to realise how fragile it is."

"Why can only the lady pick it up?" demanded the girl.

"The lady's a ..... vet," he stated, settling for a concept the children understood, "and vets are specially trained to handle kittens."

I only hoped that the mother was amenable to having kitten handled, because seeing a supposed vet chasing a flying mother cat round the room, or possibly being chased around the room by a flying mother cat, was not going to instill confidence in anyone.

"When our cat was sick she went to the vet," said the little boy solemnly, "He shaved some fur off her side to make her better. He didn't shave the other cat though, so it can't have been very sick can it?"

"No, it probably wasn't very sick," I confirmed fearing further interrogation, "and they're both better now aren't they?"

Upstairs, in the middle of the parents' bed, looking for all the world like a queen, was a beautiful and very young golden tabby-tortie nursing a ginger kitten which must have been born the day of my last visit. The two children stared entranced over the baby gate.

"She only brought one home," said hubby, "She can get through the baby gate, but she hasn't fetched any others and she hasn't shown any signs of wanting to look for others. I had a look anywhere I thought she could have had them, but I can't see any sign of more kittens."

"This is probably her first litter and it's a big kitten, so it may have been the only one or any others didn't survive," I said, "She's obviously settled down so I don't think there are any others."

"Daddy said the baby was in her tummy," stated the little girl, "How did it get out of her tummy?"

"Did she sick it up?" asked her brother.

"Or poo it out?" added the girl. "Daddy, will I poo out a baby?"

"Mon dieu, Gott in Himmel," cursed their father bilingually, then added something in Latin that came from no Mass that I remembered.

"Look, it's nursing," I told them, hoping to distract them from their line of thought.

"Daddy! Will I ...." insisted the girl.

"Why is it biting the mummy cat's tummy?" asked the boy cheerfully.

Relieved, daddy hastily explained that it was suckling.

"Do people babies suckle too?" asked the girl, though from her expression the question of how babies get out of mummy's tummies was going to be revisited at a later date, probably at a point of maximum embarrassment.

Delilah appeared totally relaxed in the face of high volume children so I plopped the carrier down next to her. She purred proudly when I picked up the kitten, which had fallen asleep again, and popped it onto the fleecy liner of the basket, then hopped in after it. Great, I thought, a co-operative cat. Then she picked up her offspring and hopped out of the carrier back onto the bed. The kids went 'aaaah' and misty-eyed.

Next time, when the still good-tempered and infinitely patient Delilah hopped into the carrier after her kitten I fastened the lid. A little perturbed she mewed at me and walked round the carrier with kitten in mouth. Then, with an expression of good-natured resignation, she flopped down on her side and washed it instead.

As I left the house, with the little feline family in my carrier, I could hear the two children resume their interrogation of daddy. "But why can't Simon have babies?" "Was I in mummy's tummy?"

Unfazed by all the fuss and commotion, Delilah continued to nurse little 'Pickle' all the way back to the shelter, their combined purring and whiffling making a pleasant counterpoint to my car engine on the journey home.

Six months later at my twice yearly dental check-up, my dentist asked "How's Delilah and her baby?"

"Nnnngh-nngh ummph," I replied, or "Very well" for those who can't understand people speaking through a mouthful of metal implements. "Nng umph nngh-nngh urrm aaah ummm?" I asked ("Did you explain about babies and tummies?"), but for once she seemed not to understand me.

(An exceptionally patient and child-tolerant cat, Delilah went to live with a family whose daughter has Downs Syndrome; child and cat are almost inseparable.)

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