The naming of cats
It started with my desire to have a black cat named Jolson. I had liked the name and had not appreciated until much later the politically incorrect connotations it could have had. Luckily, my new kitten was not a big voiced creature, in fact he was virtually silent; Jolson would never have suited him. So I switched it to Al, Jolson’s first name, but then again a single syllable cat name never works either, when calling them they need to have a cadence that Al didn’t have but which Alley, as in Alley Cat, did. So I named him Alley. A bad pun. But ultimately Ally’s christening was also a spelling mistake. The name I wrote down for the vet was akin with a friend rather than a stray and when I realized my error I knew that it was the most appropriate name I could ever have given him. My ally, my comrade, my friend; just him and me against the world.
In the style of TS Elliot this was not his only title. Other nicknames developed such as Ali G (is it because I is black?) GG, AG, Jaunty Boy, Gumpy Cat, Baby Bear and several more. But always, deep down, he was Ally.
He became my companion by accident. I was visiting a friend whose cat had had kittens a few months before. She was complaining that she was unable to get rid of the final two kittens; a black male and a black and white female with a hernia. I had warned her that I wasn’t interested in getting a kitten. I was newly released into the world with a job and a disposable income and the last thing I wanted was to be tied down with responsibility. I certainly didn’t want a cat with health problems and a kitten with a hernia would be a 24 hour a day commitment, something I couldn’t give with my new teaching job and newly found freedom. I hadn’t considered a boy, I’d only ever owned female pets and a boy, so I thought, would just wander, fight and give me a headache.
My friend popped Ally into my bedroom the morning I was leaving. He arrived next to me, played with my toes and generally presented himself as so adorable that two hours later I was travelling home with him from Kent to Essex. That was probably the only time I heard him cry and even then it wasn’t for very long or very loudly.
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Probably one of the most important relationships of my adult life and certainly a unique one. Unconditional love, from both parties, a deep understanding that did not require words and contentment with each other’s company that I will never experience again. He was my best friend, my greatest love and my loyal companion from beginning to end.
My silent cat filled a room with his presence. His luminous eyes were his best feature and ultimately his doom. Whatever I did I was watched, accompanied or supervised by a quiet authority I didn’t even recognize until it was gone. I spent 18 years learning to listen for the little noises he did make. Towards the end it was the cry he made before being sick and the tap of his claws on the floor but when he was a kitten it was the thunder of his paws as he galloped around the flat at 100 mph breaking things, the swing of the cat flap or the thump of his paws on the patio doors announcing his arrival and desire to be let in or out. Now, my home feels empty, and very quiet, as I get used to not listening for those things any more.
As a kitten I discovered his love of leaping. A favourite toy was a fabric dice attached to elastic and tied to the telephone shelf. I drew the dice back, called his attention to it and then let go to watch his tiny body freefall through the air and pounce upon the dice. He and I could play this game for hours and he could leap in any direction with out hesitation. At the height of his skills he was leaping level with the shelf, a good 3 feet from the floor. I fear I honed his hunting skills and paid the price with all the birds he brought home later.
He also brought me worms. They were his first gift as a hunter and I remember finding them dried and shriveled under the inflatable mattress I was using at the time whilst awaiting the arrival of my new double bed.
When I was sick with chicken pox he brought me a frog. Such a thoughtful gift! I woke from a feverish sleep to the screaming of a small child. Groggily I looked around to see Ally intently watching the bookcase, slipping his paw behind it and producing the distressed cry of a child. Reality dawned. I had heard frogs scream before and my heart sank. I can’t cope with anything that scuttles, slithers or hops. So, at the height of my illness in the middle of the night I unloaded my bookcase and built a wall between me and the frog while attempting to ‘shoo’ it out of the back door. Ally was shut in the hallway and indignant that his gift was being much maligned. Eventually I got a pint glass and a piece of card and encased the terrified frog safely away from me. I then proceeded to do a girly run with it to the bottom of the garden, release it and run back in locking the door and the cat flap so that Ally could not repeat his offering. He was unimpressed by my ingratitude. He had only brought me the gift because I was unable to cuddle him. The heat (it was a warm May) and the severity of my chicken pox made it impossible for me to have him near me without itching badly, so he tried to show me love in the only other way he knew how.
Another time he brought me someone’s half carved roast and left it for me in the garden because it was too big to fit through the cat flap. We will never speak of it again!
He was a pest in many ways! Constantly walking with muddy paws on my marking, tripping me over whenever I tried to walk anywhere around the house, waking me up with his face in mine at some ungodly hour when he sensed I was surfacing from deep sleep and therefore should be awake to feed him. When he had the operation on his eye towards the end of his life he even head butted me with his cone early in the morning to ensure I was awake and aware of his needs.
This invasion of my pillow comes from an early habit that I could not have changed even if I’d wanted to.
My flat in Southend was very, very cold both in summer and winter and had an old and noisy boiler that could only be controlled manually from a cupboard in my bedroom. So I didn’t switch it on much at night. In addition, the back door was also in my bedroom and the flat did not have double glazing so drafts were common place. Ally and I kept each other warm by curling up in bed under hundreds of blankets with him curled around my head, his chin resting on my ear, purring me to sleep while achieving the most comfortable position on the bed for him. I still believe the reason I stay still in bed is because I never wanted to disturb him when he was sleeping. As time passed and I moved into places with decent heating he would still curl up on the pillow next to me and purr me to sleep, until he was banned from the bedroom by my partner of the time.
Not only did he sleep everywhere, he also trod on everything. Computers, phones, TV remotes, what ever lay in the way to me and my lap. He often risked a shove by attempting to commute over Jaye’s lap to get to me. Not a clever move but a highly amusing one!
He wasn’t Jaye’s biggest fan, nor vice versa, but each tolerated the other because they knew I loved them both. Ally got the raw deal though having been banned from the bedroom and the kitchen and often being removed from the furniture after many years of being free to do as he pleased. I often think that was a mistake on my part and I should have been more loyal to him.
Another adorable feature of his was his dog-like loyalty. He would walk at heel with me, come to me when I called even if he was mid cat-fight and when younger would dance for his dinner. He was even known to sit with his tongue out after washing, almost as if he had forgotten it was there, and he would let me tickle it! O2 have a campaign encouraging people to ‘be more dog’ which features cats doing dog-like things but I don’t think Ally could be ‘more-dog’ if he tried. He chose to be as dog-like as he wished.
When we lived in Aylesbury he would accompany me as far as the edge of the estate on the evenings when I chose to walk to the pub. He would wait in the bushes and then trot out to meet me on my return, walking at heel, or if distracted, coming when I called and patted my leg! My neighbours must have thought I was mad. Indeed, I was the mad cat woman of Aylesbury!
The Mad Cat Woman of Aylesbury
When I first moved to Aylesbury Ally and I lived in an upstairs flat. This meant shutting my previously outdoors alley cat in for 7 solid months. He coped admirably, never even attempting to escape, and developing the entertaining game of upstairs ping-pong where I stood at the bottom of the stairs in goal and he sat at the top and batted ping-pong balls down to me or interrupted my backspin attempts by fishing them out of my reach!
When I purchased my house he tolerated two moves in two weeks with no ill effects, until I landed the greatest indignity of all upon him: a new kitten!
I had obtained Shelly in much the same way I had gotten him. A friend had kittens he couldn’t get rid of so he got me to come and have a look, and I fell in love.
I moved Shelly in the same day as I got the keys and brought Ally along the following day. When I let Ally out of the cat box he was so interested in this new and larger blue space that he completely ignored her. This tiny ball of tortoiseshell fluff backed and advanced at him while he checked out the patio doors and practiced asking to go out in his customary style. He trotted past her as she waved her paw at him and went up stairs. She followed, a step at a time as her legs were much shorter than his. By the time she reached the top he’d turned around and was ready to come back down. As she tottered to go after him he stuck out his paw and swept her feet out from underneath her resulting in Shelley’s first trip down stairs being just that, a head over heels flat spin to the bottom. Ally then proceeded to investigate the second floor while Shelly sat dazed and confused at the bottom of the stairs. It was love at first sight on her part but sadly unrequited on his.
He tolerated Shelly but about a month later I added insult to injury by allowing my brother and his black kitten Salem to move in too. This was a step too far and Ally started to spend more time out and away. For the first time in a long time he started to wander and would disappear for days. On one occasion he’d been gone for about 2 days and I’d been wandering the estate calling him. I eventually found him sitting on a grass bank in an area we didn’t really frequent. I called him, he clocked me but he didn’t come when I called. I had to get closer to check it was him. It was, but he wasn’t playing. Eventually I was able to pick him up and tried to carry him home but he sunk his claws into me and resisted all the way. Something had spooked him and the presence of the dustmen that day made him increasingly nervous. I got him home, shut him in for a few days, fed him and spoilt him. He recovered himself and remained my cat but he would often disappear just long enough to worry me and keep me on my toes.
He had found an appropriate form of revenge that he continued to use until he died. By the end I was worried if he was gone longer than 10 minutes and he knew it, and played on it.
The arrival of the kittens also lead to a slackening of the feeding rules. Cats had always had a place to eat when I was growing up but when my brother Don lived with us Ally was fed wherever he was found so that he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of sharing with the babies. This often meant he was fed on the top of the inbuilt shelves in the second bedroom, a hiding place that the youngsters couldn’t get to for the first few months of their stay. Recently, Ally had the set place on the mat in the kitchen and Shelly was fed wherever I found her to keep them apart. Ally had grown grumpy and greedy and although Shelly is a fat little thing she always deferred to him when it came to food. It had got to a point where he bullied her off her plate and consumed the lot before bringing it back up again, so I kept them apart to give Shelly a chance!
Ally was a great one for human food too. It is said that whatever you feed a kitten in early life is something they always come back to. Ally was given Chinese as a kitten before I adopted him so whenever I had a take-away I found myself sharing it with him. I also shared soup; all my fish including smoked salmon; gammon, any other meat at all really especially if it came with sauce or gravy; cheese, omelet and my cereal bowl remains. If Mummy had it then Ally had it too.
Scientific research has learnt that many male cats are left-pawed and Ally was no exception, but I used to call it his ‘possessive paw’. At first, it was this paw that would draw the cereal bowl towards him once I had given him permission to have the remains and this paw that drew my hand to his mouth if it contained treats or delights. As he got older it was the paw patted my face when we cuddled and that got stuck out to catch my clothes if I passed him by without greeting, something I was not allowed to do.
When he broke his hip the veterinary staff reported that he would stick this paw out of his cage and catch at them too, a habit that, luckily, they found endearing.
In the week that has passed since I had him put to sleep I have come to realize that he was a terrific pest. I sleep better and later without him, I don’t get tripped up every thirty seconds, my marking is quicker and less hairy, I don’t have to open the door for him every couple of minutes for hours at a time, I get to eat my dinner without interruption or a possessive paw hooking my plate out from under me. I know I encouraged this behavior by allowing it but he was such a force of nature I never really considered any of the things he did as being any trouble, in fact they were all endearing and the reason I loved him so much.
I have shared so much history with Ally that I am sometimes amazed. I was a young, naïve girl when I got him and a middle-aged, and far more worldly-wise woman when he left. He shared half of my life with me up until this point. He was there when I got promotion, moved my life from one side of London to the other, when Dad died, when I met (and lost) Jaye, when I was sick and healthy, he even waited for me when I went away to Australia for three months and still purred when I came back. He wiped away many a tear with his tail and caused me much merriment in his time on this earth. His purr alone was enough to make things seem much better than they were before and to hold him, cuddle him, carry him on my shoulders or in my arms like a baby was a method of relaxation many people will never benefit from. I loved him far more than Jaye and while I knew that (and so did Jaye) it was a purer, less complicated type of love than human relationships develop. And I miss him…enormously.