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The Cat Next Door

I was first warned of his arrival on a sunny May morning, 5 a.m. by the watch on the phone by my pillow. A springy new cat, just freshly released from next door’s protective confinement, out into the big wide world.

I could see him from the bedroom window, swaggering confidently down the garden path. Gleaming white with a well-placed black patch on his face, tail waving high. Full of adolescent joy. Sniffing the air eagerly for every new scent. Soaking up new experience. Stalking a solitary scuttling woodlouse. Intensity of interest following a long snaking trail of busy red ants. Paw snatching at butterflies. Just missing an angry early-foraging bumblebee.

It was fledgling time. Our long-resident blackbird started the warning. A handsome female, with an elegant white feather stripe on each wing. In early Spring she had worked ceaselessly, drying fallen leaves on the lip of the birdbath. Later rummaging and cramming her already-stuffed beak with worms. Seemingly single-handed provider. Systematically surveying her territory from a high perch in the hazel tree, before suddenly disappearing, darting overladen in the opposite direction, into a hidden sanctuary of leaves. Her over-urgent warnings were increasingly frequent these days. Usually just a rant against unwanted approaches of oily black yellow-billed males. She had just lost a tail.

I wanted to sleep. 5 a.m. was too early. But both robins joined in, then the wood-pigeons, collared doves, house sparrows and even a passing magpie, together with several rival male blackbirds. Too strident for dawn chorus. I got up, sleep no longer possible, deciding in the end to seize a rare moment of life, however blurred.

In any case, I thought, cats are not necessarily unwelcome. Last year there were rats. Hungry when the restaurants had locked down. They multiplied in the walls between houses. I had to wire-wrap a new rubbish bin. Stop feeding the hedgehog and ground birds. In the plague of scutterings in the roof (probably just pigeons), the daily visits of a portly tabby cat had been a comfort. The white night ghost cat helped me sleep. The elderly black and white cat gave extra insurance. Territorial scent more potent than organic peppermint. Then suddenly before autumn the rats had disappeared. I suspect next door poisoned them. But you never know …

What disturbed me with this cat was his energy. His unashamedly youthful confidence. The way he immediately took ownership of his chosen space under the slate table in front of my window – carefully arranged for my prime viewing of feeding squirrels and birds. I rushed out and filled all the gaps between ornamental support slabs with less than ornamental piles of some nearby bricks. But as soon as I went back into the house he simply relocated under my rocking chair. I had to stuff that hole with rolls of wire.

The first fledglings came fast. Learning to fly in a flash. In the air and away, no problem. But the last one was not so agile. It was crouched flat on the ground, wings splayed as if frozen. Pink mouth gaping, vulnerably expectant. The cat pounced. Just missed. The leaves behind the flower tubs trembling, panting for assistance.

I was wide awake now. I got up and dressed. Maternal instincts pounding. Thoughts racing. I had to act quick. Whitewing calls now shrilling to panic, demanding sisterly solidarity. I remembered the cylinders of wire netting – prepared several years ago to protect peas and raspberries against squirrels. The old iron gates and spare wooden trellis waiting to protect the pond against long-hoped-for grandchildren. All unused, heaped under ivy behind the shed. I sprang to the rescue. Eager to be of use. Tearing through the ivy. Wrenching out anything with bird-safe holes. Rushing around the garden. Erecting barricade after barricade, blocking every conceivable cat-sized hiding place and stealth way I could see. While the cat sat watching, waiting, semblance of fascinated innocence. Occasionally following, prowling low, listening surreptitiously for any sign of rustling life.

Without warning it sprang forward, high in the air. A small brown feathered projectile catapulted through a hole in a trellis. The cat’s head was too big, wedged astonished in mid air. Struggling, wriggling safe to retreat. Much licking of paws. Then I heard next door ‘Tito, Breakfast, Tito where are you? Time to come home, Breakfast’. The cat’s ears pricked. He jumped onto the bench by the fence and disappeared through the holly bush in a white flash of fur. I was triumphant.

But I knew the cat was clever. There were many more fledglings to come. I could not follow him all summer. It was clear still more would need to be done. Next door offered to bell their cat. I blocked off all apparent entry points under the fence. He learned to climb. He was not going anywhere. He liked my garden.

I decided a more systematic tactic of carrots with sticks would be better for my mindful health. Over the following month we made friends. He greeted me each morning, bell tinkling and wafting his tail. He rolled over for tickles. His fur was soft as his purring. He continued his intrepid explorations. Climbing higher and higher. Watching me, as if for approval as he calculated risk of leaping after squirrels. But getting stuck on the top of archways and sheds when I was absent, unable to back down. Creating new parental angst and worry.

But he grew up fast. Calming down by midsummer, less crazy about the world. Almost lazy. I haven’t seen him for some time now. I heard he now crosses the road to the other house. He will be courting soon.

Whitewing still wakes me in the morning. Her third brood fledging now. All the wire barricades are still there, propping up convolvulus, just in case. Her strident calls to solidarity still frequent through the day. I have stopped rushing out. Only a grey cat prowled past my window last night.


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