My father hated cats.
He thought that they spread TB. He wouldn’t have a dog in the house either but he wouldn’t even have had a cat in the coal shed.
He was a Donegal peasant who had refined his manners enough for the city back streets and the pub and no more. He was from among people who were plain and harsh, which is what the Donegal rain would do to anyone.
So one thing he would not understand if he was around today is the procedure you go through to get a cat.
If he had wanted one for catching mice – and he didn’t because he didn’t mind mice – but if he had, this is how he would have done it.
He’d have gone to a neighbour.
‘Have you drowned that litter yet? he would have said.
And if the neighbour hadn’t got round to it; ‘well, leave one out of the bag for me, will you.’
He spoke to people as if he was giving orders even when he was asking a favour.
‘Cats and magpies. They kill for pleasure. Only people who don’t know them could love them.’
Well, my wife loves them and our last cat – a beast so grumpy that I fancy my da might have softened to it – crossed over to the other side last month, taking its eight surplus lives with it. And I chose to surprise her with another.
There are plenty of places to get a cat, but it turned out not to be as easy as just turning up at the Cats’ Protection League with a plastic cage to carry one home in.
I went with my niece, who is even further along the family tree from the Donegal roots and therefore a sweeter nicer person. She loves cats and was almost purring herself at the sight of pictures of them in the reception area when a woman greeted us with.
‘Lovely, but have you had your home visit yet?’
I turned into my father in reaction to that.
‘Why do we need a home visit?’
‘No need to be aggressive’, said the woman. I thought I had come to do her a favour and take one of her cats off her hands. She saw herself more as a social worker in an adoption agency.
‘Do you have children?’ I didn’t like this. Play coy with a social worker and she’ll suspect all sorts of reasons for it.
I said I would like to ask questions first, before discussing my personal history and opening my family circumstances for inspection. Hmmmm. She had clearly handled difficult people before. She had a strategy.
She handed me over to a male member of staff who would show me their kittens, and then, if I wanted to proceed, I could arrange a home visit and be inspected too.
That seemed reasonable.
The kittens were mostly scrawny and scarred wee things. One of them liked ham, said the man. They clearly weren’t what I wanted anyway. I was looking for something more – ornamental. So we went on to Assisi, another animal shelter which the Cats’ Protection man said didn’t insist on home visits.
There we picked Jackson, an almost totally black three month old kitten who extended a pleading paw through the bars of his cage. There are very few real black cats left, apparently, since the line was almost expunged in the purge of witches’ familiars.
Jackson, once we had changed his name, would fit in well. First we had to make a ‘donation’ and fill in a form.
He whimpered in the plastic cage on the office counter while I detailed all my past cats and their deaths: Smudge, Misery and Skitter – two roadkills one diabetes and euthanasia – not a good record. I then had to agree to a future home visit – which hasn’t happened yet – and sign a commitment not to let Jackson go outside the house.
I had got off lightly.
A young couple beside us had chosen kittens to bring home. ‘The manager wants you to bring your children here so that we can observe how they interact with the kittens before we let you take them.’
These people were entirely agreeable. They read this perhaps as confirmation that Assisi was just the sort of outfit they wanted to receive cats from, run by cat lovers like themselves.
My da would have told them to get stuffed.