"A very fine cat indeed" -Samuel Johnson.
Treacherous, handsome, self-obsessed and cunning. Essential characteristics for a Bond movie villain, but not for one's cat. I know this because we owned such a creature, (well, we didn't own him, he just used our house as his headquarters for world domination.)
His name was 'Sooty', an innocuous enough moniker for a cat. Cute without being overly sentimental, or so we thought, but little did we realize when we named him that he was destined for a life of unabashed self-indulgence and crime. As things turned out, 'Moriarty' the arch nemesis of Sherlock Holmes would have been a far more fitting label.
Sooty was our first cat. We were newly wed, and as children were not an immediate likelihood due to career requirements, we filled the void as many do, with a furry substitute. We had seen a Siamese cat in New York when on our honeymoon. He lived in an apartment and never went outside. He used the guest toilet and didn't even need a litter tray. Of course we were hugely impressed, and decided that a Siamese would be the only cat for us.
We wasted no time, and on our return to London, began our search. It didn't take long to find available candidates, but what we didn't realize is that Siamese cat breeders are extremely fussy about who they sell their hairy little progeny to. An interview is mandatory before you even get to see a kitten. The breeder, in our case lived in an unassuming semi detached house in Croydon south London, a few miles from where we lived at the time. She was a very stern lady in a tweed skirt and tattered cardigan who conducted an interrogation that would have done credit to the Spanish inquisition. She wanted to know our eating habits, our work schedules, our meal times and even whether we drank or not. I frantically ran through possible correct answers in my mind for when she got to our sex life but fortunately the loud and very impatient feline yowling coming from the next room cut the interview short. Folding her notebook and informing us (in not so many words) that we had passed with less than flying colors, the cat lady grudgingly led us into the lion's den that was her kitchen.
The first thing that struck me was the noise. Siamese cats are very vocal creatures. Not for them the withering stare of silent disapproval their less sinister cousins employ to good effect. Oh no, if a Siamese wants your attention he'll get it by shouting at you. The kitchen was full of the most beautiful looking cats I had ever seen. They were languid, exotic creatures that mesmerized with their exquisitely fine features. Their long sinuous bodies covered in pale creamy fur, a stark contrast to their chocolate brown faces, legs and tail. Their pointed head and huge ears were a perfect setting for the deepest sapphire blue eyes imaginable. They looked otherworldly, like they belonged on the lap of a silk clad Martian princess watching giant green gladiators battle to the death in a savage arena on the red planet, not in the kitchen of a small house in south London.
There were several adults lying on top of the dishwasher as it hummed away, another sat staring intently down at us from the top of a water heater and two more glared at us from the comfort of a pile of old bath towels on top of the refrigerator. All places that afforded constant heat and little disturbance I noted. Then we saw the kittens. There appeared to be dozens of them but there were actually only seven or eight, they moved around so much that it just appeared like there were more. "You can have that one" said the grim faced keeper of the cats as she pulled her ragged cardigan across her chest with one hand and reluctantly indicated the only kitten she was willing to let us have with the other. I followed her pointing finger across to the cooker to see a small dark face with penetrating blue eyes staring out at me from the grill pan. It was Sooty, and our fate was sealed.
We lived in a two bedroom town house on South Norwood Hill. It was a modern clean convenient residence, open plan living space with a kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. We were located towards the top of the hill a few hundred yards from Crystal Palace tower. The location afforded us a magnificent view from the large picture window where the dining table sat. At night the whole of south London twinkled and sparkled below us as far as the horizon. The mesmerizing view and our newlywed status made dinners long tranquil affairs spent gazing alternately at each other and out the window.
Sooty soon put a stop to all that. We brought him home with all the excitement and expectation of a newborn child. Fussing over whether he was warm enough, wondering if he would get lonely in the cozy little cat basket we prepared for him in the kitchen.
We needn't have worried, Sooty decided he wasn't staying in the kitchen and began a long series of yowling moans that sounded like a child in mortal agony and no matter how we tried to ignore them, (as instructed in the huge bundle of papers marked 'care and advice for the new cat owner' that we had been forced to go through line by line before the cat lady would release her kitten into our care), nothing worked and the only peace we got was if the little darling slept in our bedroom. We relented and let him stay, more out of fear that the neighbors might assume we were running some sort of animal sacrifice cult than anything else. Our subjugation had begun.
As the weeks passed we began to worry that Sooty might be lonely. He was becoming more and more agitated and withdrawn and we decided (after a long and painful consultation with the cat lady) that he needed a companion. I certainly wasn't going to double our problems and get a second Siamese cat so we went to the Battersea Dog and Cats home, famous since the Victorian era as one of the oldest animal shelters in the country and came home with 'Ginger' a beautiful marmalade tabby cat with yellow saucer eyes and a soft almost wistful look about him. We were told by the harried looking vet's assistant that Ginger had a habit of running away if he didn't like his accommodation and we would be his third home in twelve months. The adoption process took no more than fifteen minutes. A far cry from Sootys 'in depth interview'
There were a few moments of heart stopping tension when the two cats met. They stared at each other warily for a moment or two, Blinked once or twice and with a cursory sniff of each others behind they became family. They were of course very different characters. Sooty was sly cunning and very, very clever. Nothing was ever enough, he always wanted more. Ginger was content to muddle through life. His idea of a good time was lying on the window sill watching the traffic go by.
However, I soon got the impression that there was more to Ginger than met the eye. He used to hallucinate. I have no idea why or how, but he would 'see' things running up the wall and across the ceiling. He would suddenly sit bolt upright, eyes wide open and following the path of whatever it was intently, stopping and starting with unnerving precision. I wondered if there might be some sort of hallucinogen in the cat food and became excited at the prospect of a cheap replacement for my beer intake but Sooty would often be sitting right next to him and never saw anything at all. Whatever it was he saw, we never found out and he took his secret with him to the grave.
So, we all settled down to live together. Geraldine was working at the hospital all day and I was away at college. We would arrive home at roughly the same time and our feline lodgers would sometimes rise lazily to greet us. More often they just lay together in a heap where they had been all day until they heard a tin of cat food being opened. Sootys criminal mind developed rapidly. He was a very observant creature. He knew the time and place of pretty much every regular activity in the household. When there might be something to be gained by his presence, (meal times) and when there was no point in getting up (the rest of the time)
We bought all manner of cat 'toys' to try and give him some activity and stimulate his mind. He laughed at our feeble attempts to entertain him, his large sapphire eyes staring pityingly as we desperately dangled an increasing variety of 'things on strings' for his entertainment. Ginger on the other hand was very easy to entertain, his mind, unencumbered by any particularly deep thoughts, allowed him to chase catnip toys and leap on the furniture like any other cat.
Sooty was not an unaffectionate cat. He decided Geraldine was to be his 'familiar'. He attached himself to her and responded to no one else for the rest of his life. Their bond was remarkable to watch. Whenever Geraldine sat down, Sooty was on her lap a few seconds later. However, the relationship did have its limits. Geraldine came home one evening and announced she had a 'gift' for Sooty.
Sooty was used to these little treats, usually some sort of 'cat chew' that he liked, and recognized the familiar rustling of the bag from the pet store. He looked up expectantly from the bed where he was curled up with Ginger and was disappointed to discover that the 'gift' wasn't edible. It was a lovely little leather harness and lead in a perfect shade of blue to match his eyes. "What do you think of that Sooty"? Geraldine asked expectantly. Sooty yawned and lay back down on Ginger. Geraldine explained she had seen another Siamese walking on a lead like a little dog and apparently enjoying himself tremendously. I had my doubts but decided to see how the experiment played out. It was a disaster. Sooty would stand still for the little harness to be fitted but the minute any pressure came on the lead, he literally flopped over on his side and refused to budge. We tried dragging him round the carpet on his side hoping he would get bored and stand up but no, he lay there every time, not even looking us in the eye but staring off into space as if waiting for some unpleasant odor to dissipate. What was even more maddening was that he would stand up when there was no tension on the lead, raising our hopes and then dashing them as he collapsed back down again at the slightest tug on the lead. It went on for weeks, we even took him outside onto the little lawn in front of the house but he just lay on the grass as passers by stared at the bizarre spectacle of an apparently paralyzed cat being dragged over the grass on a leash. Eventually we had to give up. He had won the first of many battles. He took to terrorizing guests next. Sooty had an uncanny ability to single out anyone with a fear of cats even from a large group of people. He would circle the room, select a target and promptly jump into their lap, staring directly into their eyes, daring them to move. The usual response from the victim was a small scream followed by paralysis and desperate pleading to 'get him off!" which we did, always with a profuse apology and the rather desperate lie that 'he doesn't usually do that sort of thing" as we waited for him to do it again.
The two cats settled in remarkably well when we moved to Ireland. Ginger was a simple soul and happy pretty much anywhere but we were worried that Sooty might run off if he didn't like his new surroundings. We needn't have worried, Sooty had developed quite a repertoire of manipulative maneuvers that he used against us to great effect but he soon discovered another victim to ensnare.
Our first Irish home was a small rural bungalow in a town called Athboy in county Meath. It was about a forty minute drive from Dublin at that time, (now it's about three times that!) We both worked in the city but didn't want to live there We weren't alone, there was another house next door, but that was it, just the two houses in the corner of an otherwise empty field about three miles from the town. Our neighbor was a small elderly widow called Bridget Shreenan. She had moved out to the country from the town when her husband died as she had grown up on a farm and felt more at home there. She was a small, painfully thin woman with her years very visible on her face. Her jet black dyed hair a stark contrast to her milky white skin and the bright scarlet gash of lipstick she always wore. She was always very cheerful to us but it was soon fairly obvious she was very lonely and missed her late husband dreadfully. They were very close, and with no children to soften the blow of his death she often told me she felt herself in a kind of limbo, waiting for death to release her so she could rejoin him. There were no near neighbors and the house we rented had been empty for over a year so she was very glad to see us move in. We were away all day and got back late in the evenings but at the weekends we were around most of the time so we soon became very good friends and Bridget would invite us over for tea and cake on Sunday afternoons and we would return the favor the following week. We would discuss the week's events at our little tea party and Geraldine would help her with any medical queries she might have. (Bridget was of the old school, where you didn't bother your GP until you knew exactly what was wrong with you.)
One Friday we came home a little early and were puzzled to see Sooty hop out of Bridget's open kitchen window and sprint round to the back of our house as our car pulled into the driveway. We were even more puzzled when as we opened the front door, Sooty came ambling out of the living room stretching and yawning at us as if he had been asleep all afternoon. Ginger just looked up and blinked as usual. I determined I would ask Bridget at our next tea meeting if she knew Sooty was going into her house.
"Oh I do of course know he's in the house" said Bridget that Saturday.
"Sure doesn't the wee rascal sit up on the kitchen window not five minutes after ye're away to Dublin and I've to let him in for his breakfast or he'd scream the house down."
"His breakfast?" I queried, but we feed him before we leave every morning"
"Is that so?" said Bridget, "well you'd never think it to look at him. He's the skinniest cat I ever saw, and no matter how much I feed him he never gets any bigger." I opened my mouth to try and explain to Bridget that Siamese cats are supposed to be thin when Geraldine caught my eye and shook her head almost imperceptibly and I bit my tongue.
"So does he stay with you for long Bridget"? Geraldine asked.
"Indeed he does, said Bridget, he spends the whole day, until he hears your car in the driveway and then he's off like a rocket out the window and away round the back of your house"
"I hope he's no trouble" I said half apologetically.
"Not at all, sure I'd be lost without him, and don't the baby clothes fit him perfectly. He has a great time altogether so he does"
"The baby clothes"? Geraldine and I blurted out simultaneously..
"Ach, sure years ago, when Tom and I lost the last baby, we gave up trying and I had all the clothes still in a little box and it broke my heart to throw them out or give them away so I kept them all this time. And when 'his nibs' showed up I couldn't resist trying them on him, and sure didn't he take to it like a duck to water! He loves being fussed and spoiled and petted all day so I dress him up and he spends the whole day being carried around while I do the housework. I'm only sorry I gave away the oul' pram, I'd say he'd love that!"
Geraldine looked at me and we knew without saying a word we should just accept the situation for what it was. Sooty was manipulating poor Bridget but she was clearly enjoying herself so who were we to interfere. We didn't say anything, and for the two years we lived in Athboy, Sooty was the child Bridget never had.
When we moved to Clifford, Sooty became a full time outdoor cat. The woods and fields around the house were fertile territory for the conniving little bandit and it didn't take him long to find another victim.
Our nearest neighbors lived about a half a mile away but the glasshouse complex that had once belonged to Clifford had been sold separately to a local farmer and he had installed a young farm manager in the small house attached to the complex. to run the place when the Raffertys left.
Richard Boyle was from Waterford and looked every inch the newly minted agricultural college graduate. Fresh faced, full of enthusiasm and ideas for making a success of his new charge. He was a tall well built man in his early 20's with blond wavy hair, an open honest smile, and the ruddy features of a life spent outdoors. He told me that his father owned a large farm in Waterford and the plan was for him to go back and take it over when he graduated, but it was a dairy farm and while Richard was at college he became obsessed with horticulture and when he finished, he put his father and the dairy farm on hold. The greenhouse project was a dream come true but as later events were to prove it was actually quite the opposite. However, at the time he was delighted with his new job and was full of goodwill to everyone. Just the kind of 'customer' Sooty liked.
A few months after Richard's arrival, he called into the yard one day to ask me if I would mind him drawing some water from the river for the vegetables as his well pump had broken and it would take a day or two to get it fixed. I told him he was more than welcome and to take what he needed. We passed a few other pleasantries and then he noticed Sooty sitting on the windowsill sunning himself and observing the world through deceptively half closed eyes.
Richard motioned to him and said, " So he pays you a visit too does he?"
I asked what he meant and he said "The cat...over there on the windowsill. He calls to me for his breakfast every morning. "Such a racket outside the window. The only thing that shut him up was a piece of fried bacon. Now I have to fry a piece just for him even if I'm having Corn Flakes! He does the same thing to Ned Sullivan and then on to the Gorman House. Every morning, the same routine. Ned calls him the 'white weasel'. So what do you have to give him to shut him up?"
I laughed out loud and said "we don't give him anything, he lives here. I looked over at him and mused, "but maybe he has other arrangements in mind?"
Sooty looked at us pityingly, his blue eyes glittering. He stretched out a languorous front leg and began idly cleaning his paw. He stopped suddenly, his eyes never leaving us. Then, as if to announce the audience was over, he gave a wide yawn, stood up and slid off the windowsill slinking across the yard right past us as if we didn't exist, his tail swishing murderously.
Sooty's crimewave continued to expand. His finest hour' was what came to be known as the 'bacon sandwich affair'. It was soon a well-established fact that Sooty had a serious passion for bacon. He could sniff it out anywhere and would travel miles to obtain a 'fix'. Eventually, the object of his desire started showing up every day in his own back yard and he couldn't resist. It was a risky 'caper' but there was one thing certain about Sooty...he loved a challenge!
In its heyday, the Clifford estate employed nearly 200 people ranging from housemaids, cooks valets and a butler inside the house, to grooms, stable boys farm laborers and milkmaids etc. outside on the two thousand acre estate. It was a small tightly knit community, fathers passed their employment on to their sons and the owners of the house allowed them to stay on in the estate cottages until their death. There was very little interference from the outside world and with the produce from the farm, the orchards, the turf bog and the dairy the little community was pretty much self-sustaining. Only two of the forty or so staff cottages remained. They sat forlornly in the yard, next to the stable block. They had last been lived in nearly thirty years before we arrived and were one step away from dereliction. Stepping through the door was a trip back in time. They were simple affairs with two rooms upstairs and one large room with a large fireplace and a small scullery downstairs. There was no electricity no running water and no sanitation. I noticed the low ceilings were supported be what looked like two pieces of railway track. I mentioned it in passing once to Mikey Gorman and he confirmed they were indeed lengths of railway line. They were from the old Mallow to Waterford line that ran past his cottage, which was once the level crossing keepers cottage known as 'Clifford Crossing'. I asked him what happened to the railway and he told me that when Ireland was finally declared a republic in the 40's there was a massive purge of all things 'British'. "Everything was painted green. Post boxes, railway carriages If it didn't breathe, DeValera (Ireland's first president) painted it green." he said. It was decided that the new nation didn't need half the railway infrastructure the British had installed and as they also needed the cash they sold the entire line to another newly formed nation, Israel. The whole lot was taken up like a full size train set and shipped to Israel where it ran between Tel Aviv and Haifa. (I saw the same railway line for myself on a visit to Israel in the 90's) Mikey told me as a young man he used to come up to the big house after dark as the best poker school for miles around was to be found in the Butler's cottage. The Butler was another Gorman, Mikey's uncle, and was known inexplicably by the locals as 'Golly Gorman' or simply 'the Golly'. During one of these games, a large lump of plaster fell from the ceiling flattening the card table and ending the festivities. Golly declared there would be no more cards till the ceiling was fixed as he wasn't going to be buried alive for the sake of winning a shilling with a hand of cards. The news was devastating to the poker fraternity. Fortunately the railway was being dismantled at the time, and within days, two lengths of railway line went missing from Clifford Crossing and around the same time, card games resumed at the Golly residence.
We decided to restore the cottages rather then let them collapse and we appointed Owen Conroy to do the job. Owen was a large man, a bricklayer by trade but able to turn his hand to anything. He was the husband of Geraldine's secretary at the hospital so of course, he came with impeccable references! Owen was a very quiet man but it was a quietness that suggested a fearsome temper just below the surface. He had an assistant, Mick Breen, who did all the laboring, mixing cement, carrying timber etc. He was the exact opposite to Owen, he never stopped talking. Worse still, it was a maddening type of chatter, not really saying anything but just making noise because he disliked silence. I wondered how Owen could stand it but they seemed to get along very well and I put it down to nature finding a way to balance them out.
They had cleared out the cottages and were getting ready to plaster the interior when Sooty struck. Their car, an ancient ford Escort, was parked in the yard as usual. It was a warm day and one of the windows was open a couple of inches. I was surprised to see Sooty sitting on the roof of the car. He normally steered clear of sitting on metal in the summer as it got too hot, and he much preferred grass or a cool stone window sill. I became suspicious and ducked back into the house to observe him from the window. He looked around for a moment or two and then squeezed himself into the car through the small gap between the window and roof. Intrigued, I hurried outside and took up a position where I could see into the car without being seen myself. To my amazement, Sooty had opened Mick Breen's lunchbox and had carefully removed the bacon from the bacon sandwiches without disturbing the surrounding bread. He withdrew the bacon with a delicate claw and the lid dropped back down on the lunchbox. He then consumed the bacon on the floor of the car, took a quick look outside before squeezing back out through the gap and sauntering over to his usual perch on the kitchen window. I stood there motionless and amazed at what I had seen. Just then Mick shouted out from the cottage "Dan, will you put on the kettle like a good man, tis almost time"
I used to make tea for the two men at lunchtime and they would come into the kitchen to eat their sandwiches. I boiled the kettle wondering how on earth I was going to explain what had just happened but every excuse I came up with just sounded worse. In the end I decided to say nothing and hope for the best. A few minutes later the men arrived into the kitchen and sat down at the table with their lunchboxes and the daily newspaper which was always divided equally in two and swapped over half way through lunch hour. I normally left them to it but today I couldn't leave, I had to see what happened. I crossed my fingers and hoped we still had some bacon left in the fridge. Mick opened his lunchbox pulled out one of the two huge doorstep sandwiches and took a bite. He chewed for a moment or two and then peeled the sandwich apart. 'Would you look at that" he said, showing us the empty sandwich, "That fool of a wife of mine forgot to put the filling in the sandwich again. This is the third time she's done it, is she going off the head or what?" I watched Sooty sitting on the windowsill licking bacon grease from his paws and prayed for a miracle.
"You want to straighten that woman of yours out" said Owen. "before she feckin starves you to death"
"You're right " said Mick, I'm feckin sure she does it deliberate like, but she swears she put the bacon in every time."
Nah, said Owen, she's feckin with yer head, she'll have you inside in the mental hospital in no time if you don't straighten her out"
Begod your right Owen, I'll straighten her out tonight said the worried Mick.
"Sure amn't I always right Mick?" Owen murmured as he read the racing results,
"That you are Owen... that you are" said Mick as he read the fashion page and slowly ate his empty sandwiches.
Sooty grew old eventually, and we were heartbroken to watch his slow descent towards the inevitable. He grew thinner and weaker as the months passed and we discussed taking him to the vet to be put to sleep when it all became too much for him. He was determined not to go without a fight and while he was too weak to chase and kill birds any more, he would lie on the pile of breadcrumbs we would leave out for the wild birds every day, his tail swishing, eyes half closed, daring them to try their luck!
We were spared the trip to the vet as true to the enigmatic way he lived, one day Sooty strode off into the woods and never came back. We never found him I'm pleased to say, as I'd much rather think he's still there somewhere, a ghostly menacing little figure, watching and waiting for an opportunity to strike again!