Once upon a time, tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the old county of Westmorland (now Cumbria), there was a little cottage which sat on top of a hill looking out east, protected from the Atlantic westerlies by an enormous limestone pavement which towered above it. In that cottage lived, most merrily, a man and a woman and four cats.  The cats, naturally, were in charge of all that took place in and around the cottage.

As this story opens the feline members of the household, for they are all that truly matter in this tale, were in order of seniority the two 12 year old moggies – sisters Fannie and Titus (aka Tittlepuss because Titus is properly-speaking a male name and little Tittlepuss is definitely female) – then next came  green eyed Pushkin (the only male, a Russian Blue about to have his 11th birthday) and finally the haughty upstart Gilly (7) the silken-furred black Bengal and self appointed top cat, except when she was ousted from that position by Pushkin, protecting his darling Tittlepuss.

On the whole they lived contentedly enough being cosseted and comforted by their human slaves, who made sure, always, that their every need was met. The bird life outside – the cottage had at its back a long belt of ancient mixed woodland and was protected at its northern end by seven giant Scots Pine sentinels - was prolific and entertaining and when it rained, which it seemed to more often than not (last year 77 inches of rain!) they were able to continue with their watch through conservatory windows until, that is, the rivulets of water obscured their vision and their breath steamed up the windows.  Most satisfyingly of all they (well to be exactly precise three of the four) had great success in their hunting sprees when they were able to catch and kill any number of voles, field mice and shrews. The most proficient hunter was Fannie, challenged in the kill rate by Gilly – but being sworn enemies they never hunted together - and finally Pushkin, a more timid gentlemanly sort of fellow brought up the rear in third place. Titus alone, perhaps because of her gentler nature, or maybe hampered by the pins in her rear legs holding her patellae in place, never killed anything. And, as feline etiquette dictates that the one who kills is the only one who may eat of it, no shared morsel of field mouse, vole or shrew ever came her way.

Of the four cats Gilly was the most noisy and outspoken, both when entering or leaving the premises – a sort of “mneeeeeow” thank you to the door attendant – and again whenever the man or the woman bent down to stroke her. Her low rasping “hello” could, on a good day, remind the listener of the warm sexy voice of Eartha Kitt, but more often her voice had the abrasive complaining utterance of a streetwise alley cat.  But it wasn’t sound that she used to maintain her reign of terror over the female cats. That was done in total menacing silence. She had developed the habit of staring unblinkingly – to begin with at Fannie only - who responded with offended defensive hissings and which usually ended with her running away being pursued by Gilly who, as she inevitably closed in, would grab a fistful of fur in her claws, which done she would then stop. The noise that came from Fannie when this torture was being committed was excruciating as it always sounded like the worst cat fight in the world. This recurrent abuse increasingly left Fannie out of sorts. Fannie, however, in spite of her age was pretty fit at this point in her life, so the humans shrugged and let it continue, there was little they could do other than introducing undesirable segregation to stop it. 

Then one day, Gilly started to bully gentle Titus, Titus who would never hurt a fly (actually – come to think of it - flies were the only thing Tittlepuss did sometimes hurt). But, to the astonishment of the two humans, as this bullying developed Pushkin was most emphatically put out by it, so much so that by Gilly’s third or fourth “go” at Titus –Titus, not being very agile, would try to crawl under a table or hide behind armchairs in order to avoid having fur ripped out, she rarely escaped in time – Pushkin seemed to have made a decision. Enough was enough. And with that he headed off after Gilly and chased her first up and then down the stairs. He never ripped fur out of her, as she did out of Fannie and Titus, but her hissings back at Pushkin were the self same sound that Fannie made at Gilly when being chased and frightened by her. Pushkin at the end of the trouncing of Gilly was often seen with his mouth open, as if in silent laughter. Pushkin continued to champion Tittlepuss whenever Gilly was foolish enough to turn her aggression in that direction (but never on Fannie’s behalf) and on several occasions the humans had to smother giggles (for cats must never ever be laughed at) when they saw Pushkin go up to Gilly and smack her repeatedly on her nose with his right paw. Gilly never failed to look astonished, with an almost “Why? What did I do?” expression on her face. Nevertheless she took his smacking of her nose most meekly. She still to this day maintained a soft spot for Pushkin, whereas when she had been a kitten both Fannie and Titus had mothered her kindly, but that was long forgotten once her adult hormones kicked in and her female supremacy over them now was all that mattered to her. And so the Gilly hostilities continued, with Fannie never learning to enjoy it and having to take it on a regular basis and with no-one to champion her case, although Pushkin continued to protect his Tittlepuss without fail if he was on hand. And so, although the four cats and the two humans continued to be merry, the merriness was tempered by Gilly’s onslaughts with all the occupants of the cottage braced for the next rampage.

Two years earlier Pushkin had been diagnosed with chronic renal failure. Something that often afflicts Russian Blue cats and indeed his humans had discovered at this time that his own mother, Georgia, had very recently died from acute renal failure at the age of 9. What alerted his humans initially to his illness was that previously he had always eaten dried food whenever Titus had eaten. Pushkin adored Titus and would seek her out to head butt her, his constant greeting, but always when she ate, then he wanted to eat beside her, head butting her joyfully between each mouthful. Indeed it had driven Titus slightly bonkers that she could never eat unaccompanied, and sometimes slyly she would wait until she knew he was asleep before sneaking over to the food bowls and eating very quietly. But now, when he suddenly stopped harassing Titus the humans noticed that Titus started to openly invite him to join her, by rattling her biscuits at him. Most alarming of all they registered that both Titus and Fannie licked Pushkin’s nose, repeatedly, a certain sign that they knew he was agitated and this was their way of comforting him.

So then started all those awful trips to the vet and tests and the beginning of a new regime of renal diets and water fountains. What seemed to keep Pushkin motoring on through those two years was an Ace Inhibitor called Fortekor and a phosphate binder spray on his food when he simply couldn’t face the less appetising renal food on offer. But he was never again to eat next to Titus. He did surprisingly well and his humans began to hope against hope that the problem would go away, but kidney failure is progressive, so it was a forlorn hope.  He always had a great thirst and here he is “raiding” the birdbath.

One day the humans conferred and with heavy hearts they knew the time had come to allow Pushkin to leave his feline friends and go to a more peaceful haven where his mal-functioning kidneys would no longer trouble him. He had in the last few weeks lost a great deal of weight and the quality of his life was no longer good. The fateful call was made to the vet early that morning and the vet said she would come at the end of surgery which would be early afternoon. Pushkin who was now unable to eat and who for some days had shown no interest in going outside, suddenly got up and asked to be let out into the garden. The woman went out with him to make sure he would be alright and to her amazement he lifted up his head and wailed. He didn’t do this just once; he pointed his nose to the sky and did it, in his high Pushkinsky-falsetto, five times as he moved hesitantly from one part of the garden to another. The woman wept. Was Pushkin asking for it not to happen?  Did he know and was he frightened? What terrible thought processes were going through his head that he shouted so loudly and long at his God? So many people say that cats always know when the vet is due to visit – that sort of visit at any rate. No-one will ever be able to answer these questions but it was unutterably sad to witness his grief and his distress. However, the call had been made and the vet arrived to administer first a sedative and then the heart stopping drug.

The humans, who had gone through this awful process before with other beloved cats, knew well that the remaining cats must be given the chance to smell the dead body of their life-long friend so that they did not spend time outside searching for him. Cats understand the smell of death and it makes their sense of loss slightly easier, although they still grieve of course. Cats have been known to grieve to death, although it is rare and usually only when a cat is very old and separated from its long term owner.

Fannie and Titus were in the room when Pushkin died and Gilly entered it shortly after. The woman, who had held Pushkin as he died, laid his body on a sofa and now stood up and took Titus in her arms to smell her dear noble adoring friend, but to her surprise Titus went rigid with horror and leapt out of her arms and ran upstairs away from the body. Her golden amber eyes had been enormous and dark with fear. Fannie however crossed to him of her own accord and smelled his ears and his nose thoroughly, to determine whether he was breathing, and on sensing no life in him, she licked his eyelids and his ears thoroughly and then went in search of her sister upstairs. Gilly too perched near him and in a slow thoughtful way she too licked his ears, then she left him. She mneeeowed long and low as she walked away.

In a while the humans buried their beloved boy in a flower bed behind the pond near a large rose bush and under the buddleia and placed two large boulders over his rather shallow grave so that marauding foxes didn’t disinter him. The weather change and it went blustery and cold and it was terrible to think of him being out there in the musty dank soil and not being indoors with the other cats in the warmth, where he belonged.

Two nights later, on the 21st January, something disconcerting happened. This is what the woman wrote in an email:

'Such a strange thing happened last night. It gets dark here at 4.30 which is when the hens go in and all the day birds roost - the blackbirds are the last to roost and you hear their final territorial calls at around 5pm. Last night it was wild and rainy and the wind was howling down the chimney making the fire roar up and Titus and Fannie were lying on the sofa next to me and Michael was pottering about the place. (Gilly was up in my study under my desk, she has hardly moved except to chase the other cats and to eat since Pushkin died).

Suddenly we heard tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap out in the conservatory. It went on for a good half hour and by this time I noticed on my watch that it was 7.30 so it had been dark now for a good two and a half hours. Michael went outside to look and couldn't see anything. He came back in. By this time Titus and Fannie were standing up with eyes wide and whiskers forward in reaction to the noise although they didn't leave the sofa, but they were quivering with curiosity. It continued and then suddenly Michael shouted quick quick come and look. And there down on the ground outside in the black night was a small Great Tit jumping up and down just banging its beak against the window, over and over again. It made me burst into tears and when I sobbed that I thought it was Pushkin trying to get back inside it made Michael cry as well. We turned out all the lights (although Michael wanted to let it in till I pointed out that three cats against one tit wasn't very fair even if it was Pushkin in a different guise) and after the house was dark the noise stopped and the bird went away.

This morning we looked to see if we could find a body (in case it had hit the window in the storm) but there was no sign of a tit anywhere except the usual ones on the bird feeder.'

Why this was a weird happening is that Pushkin was born on 21st January and so the night that this happened would have been his eleventh birthday had he lived to see it.

 


 

A Cats Prayer

Lead me down all the right paths,
Keep me from fleas, bees, and baths.
Let me in should it storm,
Keep me safe, fed, and warm.

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