My mother always said that cats choose their owners. I always said that my mother talked a lot of old shite.
It wasn’t just when she was old that she talked nonsense. It started when I was young. Scratch that; it probably started when she was young. She insisted that eating my crusts would make my hair curl, but I ended up begging for a perm by the time I was fourteen because all the sodding crusts in the world wouldn’t put a single kink in my limp locks. She said apples were as good as toothpaste for brushing our pegs, but that theory was disproved when our Mark insisted on eating two apples a day instead of using a toothbrush and spent more time in the dentist’s office than he did in school. She insisted that leaving shoes on the table brings bad luck, but I don’t think I’m any unluckier than the next poor git despite going against this titbit of motherly advice more times than I can count over the last forty-nine years.
And she said for decades that she’d be dead by eighty. Said she could feel it in her bones. Said it was written into her fate. She got that wrong. No, she stubbornly hung on for as long as she could. Shame, really, because if she hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had to put ourselves through the shambles that was her eightieth birthday party.
The village hall was decked out in balloons and streamers. We bought all the booze in cheap from the cash and carry and our Mark loved the power trip of being barman for the night. My lad compiled a playlist of classic 1950s hits that were sure to bring back my mother’s memories of the good old days. The guests dressed in all their finery, and I even bought myself a new frock. And in walked my mother with a face like a smacked arse.
She sighed at the cries of ‘Surprise!’ and ‘Happy Birthday, Dore!’ She rolled her eyes at the poor folk who handed her a card or gave her a kiss on the cheek. She ignored the stack of presents that were laid out on one of the trestle tables. She sneered at the buffet and refused a glass of sherry. Then, when we managed to convince her to blow out her candles and cut into her birthday cake, she whinged that the sponge was too dry and the currants were like bullets.
And why was my mother such a snotty bitch on her eightieth birthday? Because we’d dragged her away from her new bloody cat.
‘He needs to settle in, Sharon. I should be with him.’
‘He’ll be fine, Mum. Let’s get you a sherry, eh?’
‘He’ll think I’ve rejected him.’
‘He won’t. You let him into your house, didn’t you?’
‘Actually, he let himself in.’
They always let themselves in, these cats that chose her. I think that says more about her home security than the cats’ abilities to pick their owners.
This one, so she’d told me over the phone on the morning of her birthday, woke her up by holding its paw to her lips. I tried to to tell her that it was more likely trying to smother her to death than lovingly wake her from her slumber, but she had none of it.
A strange cat sat on her chest, staring down at her and clawing at her mouth. Can you believe it? Any sane person would have screamed and thrown the bloody thing out the window, but not my mother. She gave it a tickle behind the ear and then served it a breakfast of tinned sardines.
‘He’s the only birthday present I need, Sharon,’ she’d said. ‘I went to bed last night convinced I’d be dead by morning. I thought eighty was my number. But this wee thing has chosen me. I must have some life left in me.’
My mother’s theory was that a cat wouldn’t choose an owner which it knew to be too old and decrepit to look after it. In her mind, she was destined to continue to live for at least as long as her new cat did, which could have been as much as twenty years. I almost wept at the thought of my maungy old mother clinging onto life for two more decades.
I ended up driving her home from the village hall a mere hour after she’d arrived. The party went on without her, mind. Truth be told, folk probably had more fun that way.
She invited me in to meet her new housemate. Foul little beast, it was. So thin you could see its bones. Striped grey fur plagued by patches of bald, pink skin. Only thing it had going for it was its youth, which meant it was fit enough to do a fair amount of damage when it launched itself at my legs and went to town with its claws.
Every single one of Mum’s cats had hated me. They glared at me whenever I was in the room, even when I was a little girl. I was hissed at for doing nothing more than daring to exist. Bitten for having the gall to put food in their bowls. Clawed at for being generous enough to open doors for them when they mewed at me.
It had been a blessing when her previous had one died. I could go round her house and not have to fear for my life. Oh, I could go round her house and breathe fresh air!
Age had done away with Mum’s sense of smell and eyesight and ability to move about without creaking. She didn’t notice the stench of the piss-sprayed curtains, and she refused to believe me when I told her about it. She didn’t spot the rogue turds, all black and shrivelled and noxious, lurking in the corners of the rooms. And she didn’t have the flexibility to be sweeping up the clumps of fur that gathered in the nooks and crannies around the furniture. Walking into her house was a guaranteed route to an asthma attack and a fit of the sneezes.
And it wasn’t just the state of her home that went downhill when she was with cat. It was her body, too. Her paper-thin skin yielded too easily to misdirected claws, which left her hands and arms crisscrossed with a perpetual string of healing wounds. Wounds which I was responsible for cleaning up and dressing and seeking doctors’ advice about when they turned yellow and gammy.
As I prised my mother’s new cat from my legs, wishing I was back at the party with a large glass of cheap white in hand, I gave it to her straight. ‘You’re too old for another cat, Mum.’
‘I mean it. You should find another home for him.’
‘If I get rid of him, that’ll be it. I’ll be dead. What will I have to live for?’
Your kids, I wanted to shout at her. Your grandson!
‘He’s staying,’ she said, as she tickled the new cat’s head. ‘He’s going to keep me young, aren’t you, wee thing?’
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