A Very Purrculiar Practice 24: Gone Cat Fishing
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

"Allo? D’you want some fish for the cats’ home?" queried the voice at the other end of the phone, "Only there’s a load fell off the back of a lorry round the corner from me."

Running on a tight budget, we are always open to interesting offers of food or litter, but this one sounded a bit dodgy. This area is pretty law-abiding and not a lot falls off the back of lorries.

"Lemme explain before you get the wrong idea," the chap said when I failed to reply immediately, "we have lorries full of sprats come through here to be turned into chicken feed. One overturned early this morning just outside my farm. I thought you might want to take what you want before I plough the whole lot in. There’s so many bloody seagulls in my field it looks like Bournemouth and the place is starting to smell like Billingsgate Fish Market. Just bring a spade and some black sacks and you can have as much as you want."

Some fish would go down well with cats, say once or twice a week, just to eke out their normal cat food. They'd probably welcome a change from processed, canned food and it's a rare cat that doesn't like fish. It all sounded fair enough, and legal enough, to me so I got directions to the fish-spill, scrubbed the spade and grovelled well enough that the neighbour offered me the loan of his ancient Transit van.

"And you have to turn the engine off to get it into reverse," my neighbour warned me, "and don’t worry about the oil warning light coming on, the sensor’s a bit duff. Oh, and don't try to get it above 50 miles per hour or you'll knacker the drive-shaft."

The van was on its last legs and every time I went over a bump I though something was going to fall off of it. I'd met cats which travelled faster, though usually in the wrong direction and only when confronted with a wire basket. However, amidst the creaking and groaning and the worrying flicker of most of the lights on the console, which were doing a passable imitation of Blackpool illuminations, I was finally confronted with the first, and hopefully the only, fish-fall in my life.

To say that scene outside Jones' Farm was surreal would be an understatement. A slick of silver covered the corner of one field, with fish adorning the hawthorn hedge like something out of a Salvador Dali painting - the persistence of sprats or suchlike. Due to their streamlined shape, all the fish had oriented themselves in one direction making them look like a dense, landlocked shoal. And the smell was indeed eau-de-Billingsgate as the winter sun took effect. The sun glinted off the mirror-like scales of the fish and made them dazzle like snow - concentrated, pungent snow.

Angry seagulls and some rooks flapped out of the way as I marched onto the fish-slick with spade and bin bag. I immediately discovered that fish are very slippery. A single mackerel is slippery enough when you’re trying to hang onto it while you fillet it, but trying to walk on a lorry load of sprats brought home to me just how slippery fish are. And by the fourth time I had landed on my rump, I realised how wet fish are.

Strangely, none of Jones' famed colony of mad, tabby, flat-headed ferals had arrived at the feast. Either they'd already dined and were resting up in the pig-rearing unit, or the inbred colony had inherited a gene for disliking fish from their famous flat-headed mother. They were known as the flat-headed ferals because they all wore the same ferocious and slightly dazed expression which they had inherited from a single ancestral cat way back in the 1980s: ears laid back, eyes permanently malevolently slitted and the peculiarly flat forehead, presumably the result of a degree of inbreeding which would make geneticists shudder. Even the farm dogs refused to tangle with the flat-heads, and the farm dogs were born and bred ratters.

We'd 'seen to', that is neutered, the flat-headed ferals some years back though the odd flat-headed kitten still cropped up at surrounding farms thanks to migration of toms which didn't fancy bonking their own mothers. Anyone who cared to survey local farm cats could probably trace the flat-head gene all the way from Jones' farms right down to Southend. The great neutering round-up of '91 had reduced trappers and vets to gibbering wrecks. I was grateful that none of the cats, still nursing their grudges against those of us who'd denied them their incestuous pleasures, was at the free fish buffet. I didn't fancied my chances if it came to fighting the flat-heads for a share of the fish.

Watery pink fish blood seeped up round my trainers and into my socks as I sank into the carpet of sprats. Shovelling the things into sacks was no easy matter either - the darn things went everywhere but where I was trying to get them to go. A bit like the flat-headed ferals back in '91.

Six black bin bags later, I realised that I had probably exceeded the capacity of my freezer and decided to call it a day. The flat-heads and the seagulls could slug it out for the rest. I had fish juice on my rear, fish juice up to my knees and fish juice up to my elbows, all rapidly congealing into a smelly, fishy stickiness. Fish blood also made an effective, if malodorous, hair gel and my hair (where I'd pushed it back out of my face) stood up in a fair-imitation of a seventies punk hairdo. I had to drive home sitting on a black bin bag and with the van windows open, but no matter how fast I went (the van having a top speed of 50 on downhill stretches) the smell of sprats could not be escaped.

Hubby rolled his eyes as I unloaded six bin bags full of sprats by the back door and made a dash for the shower. "Those clothes are going straight into the wash, they’re not sitting in the laundry bin stinking the place out!" he admonished.

The van needed a thorough scrubbing before I could remove the sprat smell from it; by the time I’d finished scrubbing and deodorising it, the back of the van smelled of Coty ‘Aimant’ perfume and needed only a mattress in the back and red velvet lining to complete the impression of passion wagon. The neighbour was going to think my story about sprats was, well a red herring, and that I'd spent the morning using his van as a mobile brothel.

Then, of course, there was the question of what to do with six sacks of fish to preserve it. I toyed with the idea of pegging it on the line to sun-dry; the neighbours already thought I was mad. Maybe I should salt it and store it in the water-butt? The best bet was to cook it, drain off the juices then store it in portions. The rest of the day was spent with fish in baking trays in the oven, fish in saucepans on all four cooker rings and fish juice being drained down the drain hatch in the driveway since hubby refused to let me drain it down the sink. After an hour or so of fish-boiling, despite having all the windows in the house open, hubby decided to decamp to the pub to escape the smell.

By mid-afternoon I had finally baked, boiled and grilled the fish into submission and I didn't ever want to see another sprat as long as I lived. Warm, stinking fish had been divided up into every freezer-proof container in the house and our own food had been crammed into the small icebox (max capacity: 2 kg frozen peas and an ice tray) of our fridge. A final portion had been reserved for the shelter cats' dinner.

According to natural laws, cats like fish. They haul goldfish out of bowls, steal fish fingers from underneath grills and will sell their furry little soles, sorry souls, for half shares in Harry Ramsden's cod and chips. This desire does not, it appear, extend to boiled up sprats regardless of the amount of blood, sweat and tears put into boiling up six bin bags' worth of sprats and falling out with a person whose van now stinks like a cross between a Lowestoft trawler and a brothel, and one's spouse who is complaining that the entire house smells like a fish rendering plant.

Someone had better speak to those shelter cats about natural laws. Plate of nice mashed sprats (all bones turned to pulp) anyone? No thanks, we'd much rather have that 23p per can sludge which we wouldn't normally touch with a barge-pole, but which suddenly seems a lot more appetising than boiled fish. It wasn't as if they were going to be fed on nothing else for two weeks! Just a 'treat' of fish once a week to help eke out the cat food.

It soon became apparent that the only way to get the cats to eat the stuff was to mix it, in tiny amounts, with standard cat food. Trying mixing greater amounts of sprats with cat food and the little, errm, darlings refused to touch the food at all, thus eliminating the 'eking' out theory.

After three weeks of scientifically mixing sprats with cat food, and with husband complaining about the lack of freezer-space, it became apparent that I would have sprats in my freezer for approximately fifteen months. There was nothing for it but to empty the whole lot into six bin bags, cart it up to the shelter while still frozen and tip the whole lot into a very big hole then cover it with three foot of earth. Fishmeal is supposedly excellent fertilizer. I buried those damn sprats three years ago and nothing has grown there since. Even the foxes refused to dig the stuff up.

A few days ago, I had a call from our friendly farmer, who is in danger of being termed a fish farmer. Free fish for the pussy cats? I don't think so. But I did refer the details onto a nearby shelter. I don't know what they did with the fish, but apparently the cats couldn't get enough of it!

Back to Main Index