That’s what we call them in our town. Or sometimes the ladies who look after cats. Or both. They tend to appear at dawn or dusk. Not every dawn, not every dusk, and not exclusively at those times. But if you want to stand a reasonable chance of encountering one of the ladies who look for cats, then it’s best to venture out into the little market square before the stalls have even been put up, or after they have been packed away. Of course, when it is midwinter and dawn comes late, or when it is midsummer and dawn comes early, and dusk follows sooner or later, earl or late, then logic dictates that there is some variation. But the ladies who look for cats seem to follow a timetable and pattern of their own.
There is nothing about them that is either especially remarkable or especially pitiable. They seem, for the most part, to be in middle years rather than very old, or very young, and to be sprightly, but not to believe in expending energy for no good reason. Some people say they look as if they have sprung from an old sepia photograph, but that is not entirely true. They favour muted colours, but sometimes you will see a flash of fuchsia, a touch of turquoise. Sometimes there are just one or two of them, sometimes a little pack, and sometimes none at all. But only rarely none at all, because they care for the cats.
They care for them in an unobtrusive, undemonstrative, but wholly unabashed and overt way. They are plainly proud of what they do, but with a practical and understated pride, as they rattle their packets of cat food, and put down their no-nonsense tin bowls, and make sure there is always water, too. Sometimes they just call “Puss, puss, puss,” and the feral cats come padding on rhythmic paws. The ladies let them eat first, and do not fuss them, and stand back a little, but then, if the cats want it, they let them eat their fill and then fondle them behind their ears, and find that little sweet spots on their backs. Some do not invite this, and the ladies never force it, but some seem to dream, and I am sure cats dream, of homes past and future.
Sometimes they call the names of cats who are missing, and voices that are clear but not loud, and penetrate but do not grate resonate across the market square. “Fluffy!” they call, or “Sukey!” or if the owners are more imaginative (nobody asks the cats’ opinion, and probably they are too sensible and pragmatic to have one) “Prosperine!” or “Dorabella!”
They have a very good record on finding missing cats, though they are not always successful. They don’t make a song and dance about it, don’t look for reward, though they have ways of making it known that if more tins and packets of cat food were to be found on the bench under the chestnut tree on the market square at dawn or dusk then it would be very welcome. They seem to have no time or wish for fancy words and effusive thanks. As long as Fluffy or Sukey or Prosperine or Dorabella is reunited with their owner, it is enough.
I never imagined I would be looking for the help of the Ladies who Look for Cats. Three years ago, even having a cat was not part of my plans. Oh, I liked cats well enough, I didn’t have ailurophobia or anything close to it. I’d had a calendar with cats on it, cats on patchwork quilts, and very pretty, too. True, it was a present rather than one I’d bought myself, but it was a nice present. I had a top with a cat on, but they were on offer at the end of the season and were a decent length, and I have a weakness for sequins within reason, though they’re a pain to wash, and the cats were more – well, more like cats than the dolphins were like dolphins.
But keeping a cat, or, indeed, any animal, was just not something that held any immediate allure. I know that’s not the kind of thing you’re supposed to say, but the way I saw things – still do, I suppose – although ill-treating an animal is utterly unforgivable, not having any particular urge to have one is fine.
And then I met Dominic. I say I met Dominic – or Dom, as he was nearly always called. We were on what my Mum calls nodding terms already. I worked in a pharmacy, and though he enjoyed good health, of course he sometimes came in for sore throat lozenges, or headache pills, or even toiletries.
Things started to get more serious for the most trivial of reasons. He had been in the queue (and we were a bit short-staffed that day) behind Mrs Allen, who, in the course of buying a 16 pack of the value range of aspirins, had let me know her opinions on the Government (both national and local) and the weather, and the ineptitude of the weather forecasters, and the BBC License fee, and how she could never understand why people thought even wearing, let alone buying, jeans with rips and tears all over them looked remotely attractive. Then it dawned on her (or at least she chose to acknowledge) that there was someone else behind her in the queue, and she said, “Well, Geraldine, mustn’t grumble!” before making her grand exit.
Our eyes met and we both burst out laughing. We knew we were both thinking, if that’s not grumbling, then heaven preserve me from grumbling.
“Is she always like that?” he asked.
“Usually,” I admitted, “In fact, she wasn’t at her worst today.”
“Maybe she’s lonely,” he said, dutifully, but without any real conviction.
“No, she isn’t,” I said, “There’s a Mr Allen – Graham – and he’s lovely. She has children and grandchildren, and she’s talking about standing for the Council.”
“WHAT? After all she’s just had to say about it?”
“She thinks it needs shaking up and she’ll do the shaking!”
“That’ll register on the Richter Scale!”
Well, call me a hypocrite, but having just vented my frustration at Mrs Allen’s loquacity, I proved I was not necessarily that far behind her myself. But in my defence, I did at least listen, too, and made sure I wasn’t keeping anyone waiting. Dom and I had decidedly “clicked”. Oh, there wasn’t one of those moments when you imagine you hear soft music playing and feel the world shift on its axis, but it wasn’t that long before I realised, and rather liked the feeling, that for the first time in more than a year I had a love life, and Dom seemed to share that opinion.
Like the start of any relationship, even with someone you think you know well, it was also a voyage of discovery. On the practical side I discovered (I probably half-knew anyway) that he was – as he put it himself, somewhere between an architect and a builder. He loved the design side, though he knew his limitations and kept it fairly small scale, but said he would never give up the sheer joy of laying bricks and measuring up. And it was plain from the glint in his grey-green eyes, that the word joy wasn’t an exaggeration. Perhaps I’d been lucky, but I’d never had a bad experience with a builder, so there wasn’t any baggage so far as that was concerned.
He had just moved into a little cottage in a village three miles up the road, and was renovating it himself. And he had a cat. A large Persian cat with white fur and amber eyes called Topolino. When he told me the name it was one of those instances where something rings a bell, but you can’t quite work out why and it seems to be on the tip of your brain. He put me out of my misery. “I know you’ll think it’s silly,” he said, “But it’s what they call Mickey Mouse in Italy.”
Of course! Well, I suppose he had his reasons …… “A kind of slightly silly joke, I suppose,” he said. But then he went on to confide that he had a weakness for Disney films. Now I hope I don’t have any prejudices, petty or important, but of course, like most people, I do. Again, I had nothing at all against Disney films. Only a couple of weeks ago I had very much enjoyed watching Tangled while baby-sitting my niece Livy. I could, with a few glasses of Merlot inside me, belt out Let it Go on Karaoke evening with the best (or worst) of them.
I really did not want to think that I regarded a grown man being into Disney movies as a bit odd. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think it. I told myself it was much better than him being into violent movies, and I believed it. Yet that But, at least for a while, refused to go away.
As it turned out, though, it was fine. Yes, he had his endearing weakness, but it was that, endearing, rather than obsessive, and if he did ever binge-watch the Disney Channel for hours on end, he never did so in my presence.
After initial caution, Topolino decided that he approved of me. And I knew that mattered, so far as Dom was concerned. He could probably have come to terms with me being no fan of Walt, but Topolino was a different matter.
Yes, I’ll admit it. That amber-eyed furball had won me over completely. He was a cat it was easy to like. Like all cats, he could do supercilious. That was more or less compulsory. And there were times when I thought it was as well that evolution or God or nature or all three had thought better of giving cats opposable thumbs. But we soon became firm friends and I prided (or possibly deluded) myself that I had found a sweet spot on his left cheek that even Dom didn’t know about.
And though he adored Topolino, he didn’t let her entirely run his life. He had been invited to his cousin’s wedding in Florida, and never thought of refusing the invitation. “Topolino will be fine with Mum,” he said, “They know each others’ ways!”
“That’s okay then,” I said, but couldn’t help sounding a bit peevish. I liked to think that Topolino and I knew each others’ ways by now and I could stay over in the cottage. I felt more than a bit slighted. “Come on, spit it out!” Dom said.
“Just – well – I know he’ll be fine with your Mum, but I’m more than willing …..”
“But Gerry, how on earth can you look after Topolino when you’re coming to Florida with me!”
I felt rather foolish – and very, very happy!
It was a wonderful trip. Marco and his family and his soon-to-be-wife Wilma couldn’t have made me more welcome, and the ceremony itself was simple and beautiful. We went on glorious, unforgettable trips to the Everglades – and of course I didn’t even think of begrudging Dom his trip to Disneyworld. To tell the truth, I was quite looking forward to it myself. I won’t say he’d quite converted me, but he was getting there.
I said it was a wonderful trip. It was. Until the evening after our trip to Disneyworld. How can something be so vague and so vivid at the same time? When we were first attacked what I felt was betrayal and puzzlement rather than fear, but as I realised Dom lay bleeding, utter, blind panic, overcame me.
Everyone was so kind. But he never had a chance. They had found a main artery – more by accident than by design, I fancy.
I came home. And it did not feel like coming home, and I was sure it would never feel like coming home.
Just when I thought it could not possibly get any worse, Topolino was missing.
I tried desperately to find him, and told myself I would see that dear, familiar form padding round a corner, would hear his rusty gate miaow, more like a Siamese than a Persian, and would sob into his white fur as we clung together, longing for Dom.
I turned to the Ladies Who Look for Cats. Of course I did. If anyone could find him, then they could. They welcomed me in their quiet way, and invited me to do the rounds with them, and though I thought I was too young, and did not wear the right sort of clothes, and despite my excellent relationship with Topolino did not have their way with cats, I said yes. It did not instantly console me, but there was something about the dawn and dusk routine, something about the rattling and the tapping and the ambivalent light, and the quiet, soft-shaded company of the Ladies that made me feel stiller and quieter.
I realised one evening that one of the ladies called Marion had taken me away from the market square, and away from the streets leading off it, and away from the little park where the feral colony sometimes gathered, and into a residential street on the outskirts of town. It was familiar to me. It was where Harriet, Dom’s mother, lived. I saw her house, with the lupins growing in the garden and the gingham curtains at the window, and saw her standing at the window, looking sad and thoughtful – and holding Topolino in her arms! He nuzzled her the way he sometimes nuzzled me, and I knew she would be gently crooning the way she did, in a way that sounded almost like a purr sometimes.
I was about to say I didn’t understand, but I did. I understood, and I remembered. I remembered being stabbed, and remembered thinking people were right when they said the pain when you were stabbed wasn’t really a stabbing pain. Dom did his best to help me, but there were five of them. I remembered lying on the ground, and trying to reach out for Dom’s hand, and remember a kind-faced policeman saying, “You hang in there, honey, help’s on its way. I thought I called Dom’s name and he didn’t reply, but perhaps I didn’t call it after all. Perhaps I was beyond calling it.
“Come on, now, love,” Marion said, “You can see Topolino is safe. Come along and we’ll look for the others.”
I’m one of them, now. I’m one of the Ladies Who Look for Cats.