A squat arm, outstretched; a fluffy paw spreading to reveal, ever so slightly, the elegant claws concealed within. Eyes shut, nose pointed, teeth bared – the stray yawned.
“Will you just look at this sleepy thing,” my friend remarked.
Coos instantly ensued, before the conversation dissolved into a series of unintelligible noises – almost non-human noises that can only be described as a “crescendo of pseudo-meows, leading into a majestic cacophony of banshee-screeches”. As we proceeded to comb our fingers through its bristly, grey fur, the cat laid, utterly still and probably baffled. Then he vanished.
Mysterious are the cats that I’ve come across, appearing, and then disappearing just as quickly as they came. Never had I owned a cat – or any furry pet, for that matter* – for my mother thought them too loud and troublesome. Two children were enough, she claimed. And so I spent my childhood yearning for pets that I’d never have, plotting in my head far-fetched situations in which I would arrive home from school, one day, with a stray in my arms, and, by inexplicable means, impel my mother to fall in love with our new pet. Alas, that never happened.
Instead, I received, for my seventh birthday, a plush toy of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, which I named Benjy after a character in an Enid Blyton story, and then proceeded to rename every few months, after each and every one of my fleeting interests. A stuffed “pet” that came with no responsibility: that was all my parents needed to satiate their child’s whims and fancies. However, the poor dog was, later, put away with the rest of my plush toys when my parents deemed me too old to be playing with them. By then, Benjy had also taken the sobriquets of Ron, Matilda, Bilbo, Dog and, for some reason, Cat. Between dealing with an identity crisis, and providing me with a pudgy, white belly to rub, my furry companion had captured my attention for years and, therein, served its purpose.
At the same time, I made a new friend at school, whose family kept an orange tabby not dissimilar to Garfield. With my old accomplice confiscated and gathering dust in the storeroom, I began turning my fixation to this quaint feline by inquiring, repeatedly, of all his quirks and habits; so incessant I was with my queries, that my friend eventually took me home to meet the cat himself.
My first encounter with Tiger the tabby was hardly an eventful one, for he was persistently impervious to all my attempts to shower it with the affection that I had once reserved for Benjy/Ron/ Matilda/Bilbo/Dog/Cat. He would plod away as soon as I reached out for him, and squirm out of my friend’s arms upon realizing that she was carrying him just for me to pet. Discouraged, my friend and I proceeded on with our day, leaving the cat to go about his.
For almost a dozen times, I tried, unsuccessfully, to pet Tiger before he finally warmed up to me. As I became a regular visitor to my friend’s home, it seemed the tabby was ultimately obliged to reciprocate the cordiality of his owner’s guest, though he remained unenthusiastic about it. The very first time he sat, voluntarily, by me, as my friend and I lounged in her room, we made such an ebullient commotion about it that he hopped right off her bed and scampered into the garden. We learned, then, that nonchalance – even if one could barely muster the appearance of it – was vital for one to possess the elusive attention of a cat.
In addition to an air of insouciance, what is most useful for one to draw a cat’s presence is, undoubtedly, the promise of sustenance. Unknown cats never fail to emerge where there’s food. For this very reason, my mother finds cats to be rather abhorrent.
When Tiger began to spend more time in my company, it also became a habit of mine to enumerate my day’s exploits to my mother on our way home from my friend’s. Just as pre-pubescent girls seem to gossip about their crushes in teen flicks, I would blather about the tabby.
“The cat rubbed his face against my arm today,” I’d quip, and though my mother stayed taciturn, I’d continue, “When a cat rubs its face against you, it means they like you!”
It was only weeks after that I discovered the excuse for my mother’s reticence. I suppose she must have heard enough of her eleven-year-old’s over-eager babbles about a creature she simply thought irksome and hence felt it necessary to articulate herself.
“I’ve always hated cats,” she said.
Over the course of our stroll home that day, it was revealed to me that my grandfather had kept a pet cat in my mother’s youth; it was a black stray picked up from the streets, across the convenience store my grandfather ran. He grew to be especially fond of the cat, though my mother refused to share his position. She felt it much too lazy, for it disappeared after breakfast in the day, whilst everyone else toiled at school or work, only to show up again at dinner time. She felt it much too obnoxious when it paraded around, as if it were the master of the house, and demanded the care of her father, despite having nothing to show for it. She felt it much too listless. Perhaps it was that my grandfather treated everyone else, including his children, so indifferently, that the tenderness with which he lavished generously upon this typically uncaring creature unnerved her. It engendered such jaundiced sentiments within my mother that she subsequently penned an essay on her disdain for cats, which was published in the local papers.
I cannot remember when it was that I started gaining a specific penchant for cats over dogs, but perhaps it was my mother’s bias that influenced my own preferences. She spoke of cats so dismissively that in my teenage rebellion, I fervently proclaimed myself a feline-lover. When she lamented cats’ idleness, I praised their serenity; when she griped about their indifference to human affection, I commended their honesty; for all her criticism of the species, I had a ready defense.
Perhaps, in those years that I tried to distinguish myself, so much, from my mother, I had become the sort of person who revels not in the boisterous company of a dog – or other people – but the quiet and generally unobtrusive presence of a cat. Living on campus now, I tend to wander, in the midst of an essay crisis, around university grounds in search of a roaming cat to pet – if not Misty, the resident cat of the college, then the unnamed, black-and-white stray that occupies the surrounding premises – for there is nothing more satisfying, after a day of drudgery, than hard-won approval from a cat.
Perhaps, in my love of cats, I had sought to become the antithesis to my mother. But I wonder if we’re so different now, as I find myself writing of my love of cats, just as she once wrote of the very opposite.
*However, the author’s father does keep fishes, which she found awfully boring as a child.
Images are credited to “A Sleeping Cat” (1896), a painting by Gwen John, and Rachel’s personal collection.
About the Author
Over-caffeinated, bookish, and just the right amount of manic, Rachel is oft found dashing between the library and her bed. When she isn’t reading or griping about impending deadlines, she enjoys writing, painting, and attempting to pet all the cats – stray or otherwise – that she comes across.