Stringy things, water and roses

Critter Newton, 199?-2005Keeping a diary of Critter’s death troubled me. The problem, and I guess it’s an inevitable one, is that to set down those final days at such length commits to memory the worst of times in a way that ensures they will always overshadow the best of times. After all, we don’t always recognise the best of times for what they are.

Supporting this notion is the regret that in my most powerful memories of my grandmothers they are dotty, frail (in one case very) and, ultimately, ill. That’s terribly unfair all round.

I promised Critter something more suitable. That was fifteen months ago. The truth is that it’s taken us that long to dispose of his ashes. I know that sounds really weird, but it was just too difficult. We’d always joked he get little angel wings, but never thought it would be so soon. Early Sunday morning, before the neighbours had woken up, we stepped out into the brilliant early morning sun and scattered Critter over the fence to Chorlton Brook, which was his playground. It felt right (even though he had a habit of sneaking inside when it was hot). That evening we had a terrific thunder storm (rain bouncing high in the air), so he’s now part of the bank.

To escape the ugliness of Critter’s last week when, despite getting the very best veterinary care, he did suffer, Katharine and I decided to write down the little things that made him special to us as they came to mind. It came to fifteen pages of a reporter’s notepad that I haven’t been able to write up. I’ve called it ‘Stringy things, water and roses’ because those are the things that stimulated or seemed to fascinate him.

He really was into water, climbing into the bath or sink to investigate the plughole and taps. Not too bothered if he got a little wet, watching water swirl away would hold his attention, but leave him subdued. On one occasion he watched Katharine wring water out of a flannel with real amazement. It was as if she was magicing water from nowhere. His favourite toy was his Cat Charmer; a strip of material on a plastic stick. He would talk to shrubs before spraying them and really did seem to enjoy sniffing roses.

There are lots of little, special memories of course. Like licking whipped cream from Katharine’s finger, tummy rubs and the way he took over the big chair (although he did eventually learn to share).

A rescued cat who was in a very bad way when the Society for Abandoned Animals picked him up, he’d been with the sanctuary for some time and was sad, lonely and depressed. It was love at first sight and he’d obviously made an impression as all the volunteers came out to see Norman, as he was, off. (He couldn’t be Norman Newton as that’s my uncle.)

His health was never great. At first, Critter would sit on my arm and do an extremely good Spit the Dog impression due to his gingivitis, which included a symptom the vet described as ‘anti-social sneezing’. The solution was to remove all his teeth, bar one. While we thought long and hard over this radical solution, losing his teeth didn’t seem to bother him at all and the gingivitis cleared up.

That said, having just the one tooth did seem to cause his tongue to poke out, without him realising. ‘Put your tongue away,’ we’d say and having gained his attention lick our own lips to prompt him. That almost always worked (as did yawning at him).

Another trait probably picked up on the streets, was his aggression towards other cats. Much of this was territorial. Occasionally, and mostly in the early days, he would pace around the close mewing loudly. This was the feline equivalent of ‘come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough’. He was laying claim to all he could see. ‘He rules this close,’ one neighbour told me after seeing him escort a rival from the next street off the premises. He was genuinely fearless. But some of the other cats did have a go and he developed a strong rivalry with a pair of siblings; Digit and Jet.

There’s a clear cat path running from the back of ours to the brook (the grass is well trodden down and they’ve tunnelled under the fence). This is used by all the cats, but Critter decided to close it. He would sit in the middle of the path, eyes closed, in the sphinx position while purring loudly. This too led to many fights and we had to have him patched up several times.

Critter’s unusually thuggish technique involved stalking then jumping the other cats without bothering with the spitting, back arching and other displays. With the exception of Digit and Jet (who even called round for him), it worked because they learnt to run away rather than challenge Critter. (Interestingly, for days after Digit and Jet’s owner moved, Critter would cry outside their front door.)

Fighting wasn’t tolerated by all cat owners and while we were ready to defend him in the case of a complaint with ‘but he’s only got one tooth!’, at least one fight was stopped by a bucket of water that wrote off his entire weekend. Completely soaked on the Saturday morning he came in depressed, not even leaving his bed to eat.

He was a very special little cat; our beautiful baby boy who could do no wrong. But he had a real fear of abandonment that never really left him. He would often follow us to the edge of the close, again mewing loudly, but this time in the style of a kitten that’s lost its mother.

He’s missed most where his absence changes routines. He’d visit me working each afternoon, appearing in the doorway and announcing his presence before sitting on my lap from where he’d watch me type and eventually have a go himself: a paw suddenly banged on the keyboard and held as if waiting for something to happen. After that he’d be moved off and spend time sitting in an in-tray watching.

Another thing missed is what became known as ‘Critty detritus’, which consisted of a little fur and plenty of discarded claws and crumbs somehow dragged through from the kitchen. But it’s worth pointing out that he was always the first to complain – mewing and patting any dirt with his paw – if the carpet wasn’t hoovered.

He used those same claws to grab me by the labels for a rub-nose kiss. Katharine used to fight for a kiss on the snout. Having no lips he was never comfortable with this, but would concede a bowed head for a kiss on the forehead.

We know he was happy. When we first collected him from the cattery after a holiday he could hardly believe he was home. Rushing to check food bowls, then litter tray, then toys, then bed, he revealed his life’s priorities.

There is much, much more. His surprise at Katharine’s newly pierced ears; chasing his tail; sitting on the stoop with him waiting for Katharine to let us in when I locked myself out; watching Katharine garden with vandalism on his mind; adjusting his head to quiet his snoring… too much.

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