Pretzel was the Practice Cat. Perhaps that was an unfortunate turn of phrase, but all it meant was that he was the resident cat at the Wolds Veterinary Practice, not that he was used for experimental purposes! He had not been adopted on purpose; he was just there one morning, sitting neatly and expectantly on the doorstep. Michael Moore, the vet, and Christine Campbell, the nurse, did their duty, and made sure he was in good health (he was, though he appeared decidedly peckish) and then did their best to find his owner. But this proved unsuccessful. “It’s odd,” said Michael, “Because he’s definitely a cat who’s had an owner, and a good one, too, by the looks of it.” So they decided that, at least temporarily, he could live in the practice. He was a friendly and sociable little puss and put people – and sometimes even other animals – at ease. They gave him his name on account of his markings which undeniably bore a resemblance to the shape of a pretzel.
All was going along its regular and happy way at the Wolds Veterinary Practice until one day Michael was plugging in a piece of equipment, and the plug fizzled and sparked, and as he said later, he didn’t actually get an electric shock, but it felt as if he had. It also sent the power off. They hurriedly summoned the electrician, who looked suitably melodramatic and portentous, and in matching tones, informed them that it was a miracle that nobody had been killed, or at least, the surgery burnt down, because there was a serious electrical fault and it needed a complete rewiring. The building was a positive death-trap! They would have asked for a second opinion, but believed him to be an honest man, and if that expression were feigned, then he should have been nominated for an Academy Award.
“It needs a complete rewiring,” he said, “It should take a couple of weeks.”
It’s amazing how quickly it is to get over relief at not having been frazzled alive (or frazzled dead!) when you realise that with salvation, come problems.
But help was at hand. A local leisure centre said that the Practice could open walk-in clinics there several times a week. Of course it wasn’t ideal, and they wouldn’t be able to do all the procedures they normally did, but it would do whilst the practice was being demoted from death trap status.
The trouble was; what to do with Pretzel? They could hardly take him along to the Leisure Centre. And Michael couldn’t have him, because his son, Zach, had a severe allergy to cat fur. This is the kind of thing people often use as an excuse, but in this instance it was entirely true. They had tried all kind of treatments, but still, Zach wheezed and coughed and even struggled to breathe if he came anywhere near a cat, especially one with long fur like Pretzel.
“I’ll look after him,” Christine said, but said it doubtfully and guardedly. The thing was, she had only quite recently moved in with her significant other, Stephen, and Stephen, to put it mildly, wasn’t a cat lover. Oh, as he always stressed, and she believed him, he’d never ill-treat one, but he couldn’t see the appeal at all. In fact, he wasn’t much of an animal lover full stop. You might say that made him an odd partner for a veterinary nurse, but they had so many other things in common, and though Christine DID love animals, she also knew they could be a bit of a bind if you wanted to take holidays or the like. Anyway, he might come round. After all, Pretzel was such a friendly and sociable little puss. Come to think of it, he wasn’t that little, it was just one of those phrases.
“I would have liked to have been consulted on this,” Stephen said, when he came home and saw Pretzel sitting like a little furry statue. Sometimes you could tell he worked in insurance. Christine couldn’t recall him ever saying “Blue Sky Thinking” or “Elephant in the Room”, but it wouldn’t have surprised her. In this case, the Elephant in the Room was a cat with markings like a Pretzel, who had already evidently made himself at home.
“I did mention that Pretzel was a problem while the practice was closed,” she pointed out.
“But is there any reason for him to be OUR problem?”
“He’ll be no trouble. Honestly. He’s a very nice cat.”
“So you often tell me. But even if he were the feline equivalent of the Angel Gabriel, he would still shed his fur all over the place, and scratch the furniture and eat disgusting-smelling food.”
“He’s not a scratcher,” (well, not very often, she thought, hoping he would be on his best behaviour!) “and we do happen to own a remarkable contraption called a vacuum cleaner.” She could also have pointed out that anyone who had a taste, as Stephen did, for mushy peas, was not in a position to come over all fastidious about anyone’s eating habits. “Anyway, it’s only for two weeks.”
“I’m still not at all happy about this. And I suppose if I tried to put my foot down, you’d say I was indulging in chauvinistic behaviour.” Such a phrase hadn’t been in her mind, but still, she thought, if the cap fits ….. She decided to try sweet reason. “I’ll see to him, Stephen, and it IS only for a fortnight.”
“You’ve said that once already.” It wasn’t the time to point out that technically she had said two weeks and not a fortnight.
Still, she was more worried than she let on. Yes, he was being very unreasonable about this, but in all other ways (well, if you left his tendency to drop into management-speak out of it, and that was a mere annoyance, not a fault) she couldn’t wish for someone kinder and more generous, and he was funny and intelligent as well. Fond as she was of Pretzel, and concerned for his welfare, she didn’t want him to come between her and Stephen. “Please be on your best behaviour,” she muttered to him when they were alone in the room, “I don’t suppose you like this any more than Stephen does!” He gave her his best “butter wouldn’t melt” look.
For a few days there was an uneasy truce. Or at least to the extent that North and South Korea had reached a state of truce. Christine and Stephen, who normally thoroughly enjoyed good-natured verbal sparring, each giving as good as they got, were unnaturally polite and civilised to each other. But there was a crackle in the air as tangible as the one that sometimes came in static off Pretzel’s fur when he was combed. To judge by Stephen’s pained expression when that happened, you’d have thought Christine had smuggled a Tesla coil into the room.
It came to a head, as things often do, over the most apparently trivial thing. They were watching the local news on TV, and an article came on about the local animal rescue shelter. He flicked the channel over, and Christine, mildly, asked, “Why did you do that?”
“Those places …..!”
“It seemed to me they were doing very good work.”
“Well, I suppose some of them do,” but he said it in the same tone as he might have said that some serial killers kept their cells tidy.
“Stephen, for heaven’s sake, what is it? You look –“ well, she would have said as if he’d seen a ghost, but traditionally that meant that people were pale, and he was flushed with anger – and with something that was not anger, but far more troubling.
“It dates back to when I was a kid,” he said. She had often wished she knew a bit more about his childhood. He had told her which subjects he was good at at school, and about a couple of family holidays, but it was a theme that just didn’t seem to interest him very much. She was curious, but then reminded herself of a previous significant other, Tony, who had thought that nothing was more fascinating than his family photo albums, and decided not to labour the point. She didn’t interrupt, but gave one of those “I’m listening” nods.
His early childhood, he stressed, had been happy. Very happy. Then, when he was nine years old, his father had been killed in an industrial accident, and his mother had suffered a breakdown. Everyone agreed, especially as she had offered, that it would be the best thing for him to live with his Auntie Val for a while. Oh dear, thought Christine, fretful on his behalf. She had heard and read enough, both in real life and fiction, about spells with Aunts and Uncles that did not turn out well, to put it mildly.
But he went on, “Though I knew I’d miss my Mum, part of me was quite relieved, to be honest. And I LIKED Auntie Val. She’d come round to visit sometimes, and I’d always got on with her. Mum said she was a bit eccentric, but when you’re little, that’s a word that’s more likely to appeal to you than not. I’d heard that Auntie Val ran an animal sanctuary – though she called it an Ark, and that appealed to me, too! We weren’t a particularly religious household, but I knew the story about Noah’s Ark, and thought it sounded very exciting. So I was loaded into Auntie Val’s van – she didn’t have a car. There was a bit of a funny smell in it, but I didn’t mind that. And at first it was – well, I won’t say fine, certainly not with hindsight, but okay at Auntie Val’s. It did dawn on me that though of course I knew folk had pets, I’d had a rabbit myself, he’d only died a couple of months before, she had rather a lot of them, especially as she only lived in quite a small semi-detached house with not much of a garden to talk of. I also realise now that she was, essentially, a good woman and a well-meaning one, but that being well-meaning can be dangerous at times.”
Auntie Val couldn’t say no. Not where animals were concerned. When Stephen first went to live with her it was within certain bounds. He soon learnt to check that he wasn’t going to fall over or sit on a cat or a dog or a rabbit, and to negotiate the obstacle course. He even got used to the odour that was like the one in the van, only multiplied many times over. An odour of spilt pet food and untended fur, and – well, as he put it, not all the animals were house or litter trained, and even those who were often didn’t manage to get to the door or the tray in time.
Christine knew what he was talking about. Before now she and Michael had been involved in rescuing and caring for animals in not dissimilar circumstances. As Michael said, people who were intentionally and sadistically cruel to animals did, alas, exist, but they were very rare. Far more common were the ones who, like Auntie Val, were essentially good people and well-meaning, and had started off on a small scale, but let things get out of hand and didn’t seem to realise that a suburban house with a little garden was no place for an animal sanctuary.
“It goes without saying I couldn’t have any friends over,” Michael said. “And I wouldn’t have wanted to. Auntie Val did have one pet she called her very own – a cat. A cat who sat on her lap while she tickled him under the chin and stroked him. But to be honest I don’t think he was any better off than the other animals. He certainly had fleas. Still, I didn’t want Mum to be worried, and certainly didn’t want to be taken into care, so I didn’t say anything. It was – an act of childish carelessness that brought things to a head. I’d forgotten to bring my PE kit home – at any rate, to Auntie Val’s. One of my teachers who had stayed in after hours for a staff meeting noticed it, and she lived not that far away, so she thought she’d do me a good turn and bring it round. I recognised her car and saw her coming to the door with my PE bag. “Auntie Val,” I said, “It’s Miss Vernon from school.” She told me to ignore her when she knocked at the door, and I said that I couldn’t and that she’d know we were in. “Then go out to her car!” she told me. I did. But Miss Vernon had already seen enough and – let’s be frank – smelt enough. I’ll – give her credit for this, Christine, she said nothing except what you’d expect a teacher to, about being more careful with my things, but not in a mean way, and then “See you at school tomorrow, Stephen,” and was on her way.”
It was plainly still painful for him to talk about it. Miss Vernon, as she said later, couldn’t just leave it at that, not with a clear conscience. The Social Services were called it. The local animal welfare society was called in. He was moved to a foster home where he was miserable because he wasn’t miserable, and kept thinking that if only he hadn’t forgotten his kit this wouldn’t have happened, and feeling guilty because part of him was quite glad it had happened.
His Mum had had some therapy, and before very long, he could go back home again, and tried to put the episode behind him. He said he’d found out later that Auntie Val had been taken to court, and been banned from keeping animals for several years. Most of her animals were found new homes, though some, alas, had to be euthanized.
“And that’s what made me so against the idea of keeping animals – perhaps especially cats. I can still see that poor, flea-ridden favourite sitting almost as if he were trapped on Auntie Val’s lap. I had nightmares for years, you know. To be honest, I still do, sometimes – not the screaming, dramatic sort, but ones with the same smells, and ones where I have to clamber over animals.” He broke off. “I may as well tell you. The friend who introduced us just said you were a “nurse”. When I found out you were a veterinary nurse I was – within a whisker of ending the relationship. Oh, listen to me, within a whisker – it seems I still can’t get cats out of my mind!”
Pretzel had sat listening quietly, his paws tucked underneath him. Even Christine knew he couldn’t really understand what Stephen was telling her, but it certainly felt as if he did. He unfolded his paws and padded over to Stephen. To Christine’s relief he hadn’t conformed to the stereotype of cats perversely seeking out non cat-lovers, but now he decided to make his move. He didn’t leap into Stephen’s lap or snuggle his head under his chin, or anything like that, but sat there quietly, as if to say, “I’m ready when you are, Stephen!”
Both of them were still and silent for a few seconds that seemed like a decade. Then Stephen stretched out his hand and, tentatively, stroked Pretzel. Pretzel gave a friendly little miaow, though there was an expression in his eyes that said, “Now, what was all that fuss about?”
The electrician did a good job, and the Wolds Practice was given a clean bill of health on time. Stephen was man enough to admit that he was sorry to say goodbye to Pretzel, and would miss him, but he was back where he belonged. A few weeks later he told Christine that if she wanted to, he’d be by no means against the idea of a pet. “And one of our own,” he said.
She told Michael the good news at work, and Pretzel looked on and listened, and, with a wry expression, kept his opinions about how strange humans could be to himself!