Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past

Henry Wowler always liked a certain midwinter day when his Oomans fed him turkey, and treats, and gave him a fresh catnip mouse. But he preferred a day which came round a couple of weeks beforehand – a rare day when he could go UP. UP was Henry’s Most Special Place, right at the top of the house, under the roof. The Oomans worked in there sometimes, making it into a store for things they seldom needed but wanted to keep, like Christmas decorations. So they’d given UP a boarded floor covered with worn rugs and odd scraps of carpet, shelves along its sloping sides packed with boxes, books, games and old toys, and piled a great assortment of stuff, from electric drills to Henry’s outgrown cat-basket, on the floor underneath.

To Henry Wowler, UP was a magical kingdom, dark and mysterious despite its skylight window, full of hidden corners where mice might someday nest. Going UP to check for them was a rare treat which only happened when the Oomans decided to go UP themselves. And it was special because he’d made a nice comfy den there so secret that they could never find it, no matter how hard they looked. And so on a certain morning in early December he was excited to hear the tell-tale click of the loft-hatch being opened, a boinging of springs as the ladder unfolded, a creaking of rungs, then the sound of Ooman footsteps crossing the ceiling overhead.

Henry jumped down off the bed and went to watch from the doorway as his She-Ooman backed carefully down the ladder holding a box labelled CHRISTMAS, a string of fairy-lights round her neck and a roll of wrapping paper clamped under her chin. Then he darted past and quickly climbed the ladder.

“Oh no! Don’t do that, Henry Wowler! Oh, you bad cat!” She cried, putting down her load. Then, sighing, She followed him into the loft. Naughtily, Henry hid in the shadows while his Ooman dropped a giant carrier bag of gift-bags down the ladder, hung a sparkly bunch of tinsel over one arm, and collected a last box of trimmings. Then She called, “Henry Wowler? Come on down, there’s a good boy. It’s freezing up here.”

Snug in his thick furry coat, Henry Wowler didn’t care; and determined to stay and carry out his full mouse patrol, he crept behind the chimney-stack into the dark narrow gap beneath the eaves, hidden from view by a rolled-up mattress, and wriggled into the den he’d hollowed out in a heap of paint-spotted dust-sheets. His Ooman poked around uselessly, calling, pleading, growing impatient then angry. Then She stomped down the ladder, cursing Henry for making her leave the hatch open on such a cold day.

Meanwhile he set off happily to inspect UP’s every long-neglected nook and cranny. As usual, he didn’t find any mice; but he did find a big black hairy spider, which ran away when he poked it with his paw. Henry chased it out of the darkness and across the floor, swiping madly with his forepaw as it scurried up some bulky object draped in a dirty old sheet. His claws caught that instead of the spider, and dragged it down to reveal an ugly old mirror leaning against a stack of picture frames. It had a heavy dark frame, carved to look like twisted rope and dotted with woodworm holes, and dull, tarnished glass with big brown freckles where the silver had flaked off. Still, through a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, Henry could make out a dim, ghostly reflection.

“Hello?” he said, putting his face close to the glass, trying to see better. “MC? Is that you- achoo!” The dust, tickling his nose, made him sneeze violently, three, four times; and when Henry looked again, he saw he’d blown clear a circle just the right size for the Mirror-cat to peep through.

“Henry Wowler! How fortuitous!” MC exclaimed happily. “Do come over, my dear fellow. You’re arrived in the very nick of time.”

Henry frowned. “Nick of time for what?”

“No time to explain. Suffice to say you’ll enjoy it.”

The Mirror-cat didn’t sound quite like his normal self, thought Henry Wowler, more like a character from the old talking book his Oomans always listened to at Christmas. Feeling very curious, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pressed slowly through to the Other Side. He immediately bumped into something warm and soft. “I beg your pardon, Henry Wowler,” it said, “but I felt obliged to stop you lest you step off the plank. For I fear the plaster would not bear your weight, and I should hate to see you fall through the ceiling.”

“Oh, er – thanks.” Henry opened his eyes and gazed round an UP very different to his own. Overhead, instead of neat white insulation boards there were only bare roof slates, with chinks of daylight showing and a cold wind whistling through. Underfoot were only bare wooden joists with strips of black sooty plaster in between, and several rough planks laid over them beside the hatchway. And this UP was completely empty but for cobwebs, wasps’ nests, and a few pieces of junk piled on its bit of makeshift floor – including the mirror, leaning against a wooden crate with a cat-shaped patch of dust missing from its surface.

“Brr.” Henry shivered. A cloud rose from his fur. “Achoo!” He shook himself to get rid of the rest, and sneezed again. “Achoo! Well, I’m not enjoying it so far. Please can we go somewhere else?”

“Yes, indeed,” said MC. “Permit me to conduct you to the parlour. You’ll find it far more agreeable – besides, our presence will be required there very shortly.”

He disappeared through a simple square hole with no trapdoor to close it, and bounced nimbly down a ladder; not a fixed, sturdy ladder like the one Henry was used to, with broad flat rungs and a thick carpet underneath to cushion his landing, but an ordinary stepladder propped on the hatch frame and standing on bare wooden floorboards. In fact the whole room below was very bare, Henry saw, peering nervously down. No carpet, no curtains, no paper on the cracked plaster walls. No cosy radiator, just a little black grate that didn’t look as if it had held a fire in years. No light fittings, even; and nothing in it but dusty suitcases, hat boxes, leather-bound trunks, and baskets and bags of every size and type stacked around the walls – and the Mirror-cat, of course, waiting expectantly.

Henry put a careful paw on the ladder. It wobbled. He gulped. Then gathering all his courage, he skittered down the first three rungs, took a flying leap from the fourth, and landed with a resounding thud on the hard floor.

Downstairs, a door opened. “Marmaduke?” a voice cried. “Master Carrot, is that you? Come here at once, you wicked cat!”

Marmaduke Carrot?” Henry tried not to laugh. “Seriously? Is that what MC really stands for?”

MC nodded. “It does here. Yes, indeed, Marmaduke Carrot, companion and assistant to the Widow Carrot – she’s a medium, you know – and honoured to be at your service, Master Wowler.” He bowed his head politely. “Now we really must go, or we’ll be late.”

Henry followed him out of the lumber-room onto a dark, gloomy landing with sludgy green walls, dark brown woodwork, and waxed floorboards with a strip of dull red carpet running down the middle and on down the stairs, fixed to each one by a shiny brass rod. At the foot of the stairs was a hall with black and white tiles on the floor, a red and white stained glass window in the front door, and six candles burning in a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Its furniture looked very strange to Henry: a coat-stand draped in black cloaks and bonnets next to a big grey wrinkly animal’s foot with enormous toenails, and a walking stick and two umbrellas poking weirdly out of it; a big floppy plant in a green enamelled planter on a spindle-legged stand; a huge wall-mirror with two more candles burning in holders on either side of its heavy oak frame; and lurking in the shadows under the stairs, a very tall clock in a dark wooden case with a long swinging brass pendulum and a very loud tick.

Bing-bong! it said as they passed, making Henry Wowler nearly jump out of his skin and MC exclaim aloud, “Oh, my – quarter to, already!” He speeded up to a trot. “Make haste, Henry Wowler! We must be ready to start on the hour.”

Waiting for them in the parlour doorway was a She-Ooman in a dress of floor-length black silk, with a black lace veil over her bun of silvery hair, and a black lace shawl around her shoulders, pinned with a black jet brooch. “Oh, there you are, Marmey! Thank goodness! I thought you were lost. What a bad pussy you are to worry me so.” She plainly didn’t see Henry Wowler trotting close behind. “I do hope you’ll behave better for the Circle.”

Medium? She looks pretty small for an Ooman to me, thought Henry. And I wonder what a Circle is? Keen to find out, he followed them into another strange room lit by oil-lamps and a crackling fire, the daylight shut out by thick red velvet curtains. Crammed within were a fat cushioned sofa, two matching armchairs and a footstool, a round polished table with six wooden chairs, a massive oak dresser laden with porcelain dogs, blue-patterned crockery, and Toby jugs shaped like little fat Oomans in old-fashioned clothes, a glass-fronted cabinet full of curios and trinkets, a piano with sheet music heaped on the stool, a big gilded concert harp, a music stand, several stands of potted plants, and three tall ornament stands; a stuffed raven stood on one, a crystal ball and a pack of Tarot cards on another, and a glass dome covering a bouquet of flowers made of sea-shells on the third. The carpet was patterned with red roses and the wallpaper with red and cream stripes, largely hidden by paintings in fancy gold frames, brown-tinted photos in silver frames, embroidered samplers in rustic wooden frames, stuffed fish and bright butterflies in glass cases, and colourful pictures made from pressed flowers in all sorts of frames, large and small.

Rather stunned by it all, Henry Wowler sat down on the tufted rag hearth-rug. “Tell me, MC, why’s everything so weird here? Why does your Ooman wear such funny clothes? Why does She have so much stuff? And what’s happened to your voice? You don’t sound like you.”

“Old mirrors show old reflections,” MC replied simply. “I’m afraid I haven’t time to explain more until after the game. Speaking of which, do join in when it starts. You’ll find it highly entertaining, I assure you.”

“But I don’t know how,” protested Henry. “You haven’t even told me what we’re playing!”

“Oh, an easy, teasy game. There are no rules, we just make it up as we go.” The Mirror-cat’s eyes glinted with mischief. “I recommend you sit under the table to begin with, Master Wowler, until you get the gist of how it works.”

Henry Wowler couldn’t imagine what this game might be. Extremely curious, he perched on the back of an armchair, his eyes following the Widow as She bustled about, fussing with the musical instruments, adjusting her chair, and bending to feel the carpet round its feet, all the while glancing over her shoulder as if she felt someone watching. Then She turned the lamps down low and put a screen in front of the fire, making the room very dark. Finally She sat down, breathed out a long breath, and laid her palms flat on the table. Seconds later, much to Henry’s surprise, the piano went plink-plonk and the harp went twing-twang.

“Do we have any evil spirits here among us?” She asked in an odd, high-pitched voice.

A sound came from under the table. Tip-tap!

“Do we have any good spirits among us?”

TAP! said the table.

Nodding in satisfaction, Widow Carrot chanced to look in Henry’s direction at the exact moment he jumped down from the chair and ran to inspect the still-quivering harp-string. She blinked rapidly. “What- what was that? Did I see-? Is there a good spirit present? Ernest, my love, is it you here with me?”

Henry froze. “MC!” he hissed. “She saw me! What shall I do?”

Jingle-jangle-jing! said the doorbell before MC could reply. Footsteps pattered across the tiles as Janey the maid went to answer it. A babble of excited voices broke out as five members of Ethel Carrot’s Spiritualist Circle came into the hall, and began taking off their outdoor things for Janey to hang up.

“Oh my goodness! My ladies!” Forgetting Henry, the Widow leapt to her feet, grabbed MC, tugged a black velvet ribbon from her pocket, and tied it in a bow round his neck. Then leaving him guarding her chair, She went to greet her guests.

“Here come today’s players,” whispered MC as three heavily-veiled figures filed into the parlour. “May I present the Misses Blewitt, Faith, Hope and Charity. Their father Reverend Blewitt doesn’t approve of mediums, so they’re obliged to attend incognito.”

“In-cog-what?”

“Nito. Incognito. Anonymous. Not known,” said MC, when Henry went on looking blank. “So that no-one can see their faces and report them to the Vicar. And now here’s Miss Lavinia Crabtree, whose great-grandfather died at Waterloo. The battle, that is, not the railway station.”

Henry Wowler crept under the table to escape from their long, swishing skirts as a fifth She-Ooman entered, dressed all in black like Widow Carrot.

“Ah,” said MC, “and lastly we have Mrs Victoria Makepeace, named after the Queen, who can’t get over losing her husband, either.”

Bong! The hall clock struck one. “The hour is upon us,” cried Widow Carrot. “Take your seats, Sisters!”

Henry Wowler, crouched under the table, found himself hemmed in by a rustling wall of silk skirts from which wafted a riot of smells he didn’t recognise, although MC could have told him what they were: lavender sachet, carbolic soap, laundry starch, mothballs, button polish, shoe polish for high-buttoned boots, and damp leather footwear, all mixed together with dusty carpet wool. It tickled his nostrils. He rubbed his nose hard with a forepaw, trying desperately not to-

“Achoo!”

“What was that?”

“What was what, Ethel dear?”

“That sound.” Henry froze as Widow Carrot’s face appeared under the table, peered around, frowned at him, then withdrew.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said the other voice. “Did you, Faith?”

“Not I. Or, well, maybe a coal hissing on the fire.”

“Or maybe the spirits are with us already!” Black skirts shook as Widow Makepeace bounced with excitement. “Maybe my Fred’s come at last! Oh, please, Ethel, can we get on and find out?”

“Hush, Vicky dear. Do try to remain calm and receptive.” Widow Carrot settled MC on her lap. “Yes, we should make a start – let’s join hands, Sisters. We meet in this holy Advent season in hopes of communing with the spirits of our dear departed… hopes which will surely be fulfilled today, for I feel blessed with a powerful sense of their presence! So remember, whatever might happen, do not be afraid – and above all, do not break the circle. The circle. Ooh,” she began crooning in unearthly tones, “ooh, yes, the eternal circle of life, death and rebirth, endlessly renew-ooh-oohed.”

“Oow-ow-oooow,” MC crooned along.

“Into our own Circle we invite any and all benign spirits, and from it we banish any and all that are evil.”

Henry Wowler heard a faint rustle, and saw Widow Carrot’s feet poke out from beneath her black hem, and ease off her black velvet slippers.

Are any evil spirits here among us today?”

Her right big toe in its black silk stocking pressed twice on the centre of a red carpet rose.

Tip-tap! Henry Wowler flinched as two raps sounded directly above his head. The Circle let out a chorus of “Oohs.” So did MC. “Oow-ow-oooow,” he yowled.

“No! Heaven be praised! Yet we do have a presence among us, as we have heard and Marmaduke Carrot plainly sees. So tell us, Spirit – are you a good soul?”

Widow’s Carrot’s toe moved again. Henry Wowler looked up, just in time to see a tiny metal hammer, painted black, jerk downward then spring back to strike the underside of the table with a loud, clear Tap! Squinting through the dim light, his cat-eyes made out a thin black wire running from the hammer to the edge of the table, down the leg nearest Widow Carrot’s chair, and across an inch of floor to disappear into the rose. He crept over and sniffed the place. It smelt of Ooman toes. And there was something round – a button? – poking through a little round hole in the carpet. And all of a sudden, Henry Wowler understood the game. It seemed cruel. His tail lashed back and forth. He liked cruel games. And if Oomans could be so easily fooled, he wanted to play Circle with them!

“In that case, Good Spirit, we bid you a hearty welcome! Have you come to speak to any particular person-”

Henry Wowler trod hard on the button. Tap!

Widow Carrot’s foot twitched in alarm. “Er- yes, it appears.”

“Oh!” cried Widow Makepeace. “Is it me? Is it a message from my Fred? Or is this him? Is it darling Freddie himself?”

“Hush, dear! Do leave the talking to me. The poor soul can’t be expected to answer when you molest it with so many questions at once.” Widow Carrot’s left big toe inched towards a red carpet rosebud. “So tell me, Good Spirit: what would you like to say to this particular person?” Her toe pressed the rosebud, again and again.

Twing-twang-twing-twang-twong,said the harp.

“Ah – a musical soul, choosing to speak through an angelic instrument-”

“Oh, no, Ethel!” interrupted Miss Charity Blewitt. “Angels don’t play the concert harp.”

“No, indeed,” Miss Hope agreed. “They’re normally depicted carrying something much smaller, like a Celtic harp. Or a lyre.”

“Yow-owl,” MC added helpfully.

“Be that as it may, a concert harp is still a harp and makes heavenly music!” snapped Widow Carrot.

Henry Wowler picked that moment to rear up high on his haunches, come down fast, and smash both forepaws together, as hard as he could, onto the rosebud. The resulting TWANG! didn’t sound heavenly at all. It made the whole Circle jump, and several cry out in alarm.

“Wow!” yowled MC. “Jolly well played, Master Wowler! A most timely contribution.”

Shocked rigid, Widow Carrot stammered, “H-hold tight, l-ladies! D-don’t break the circle. Our spirit sounds angry… perhaps it didn’t like hearing us argue.”

“Quite. And you started it, Char, interrupting like that,” said Miss Faith. “So perhaps you should apologise to Ethel and our Good Spirit.”

Twing.

“There, see? I was right, it wants you to say sorry,” She finished smugly. “That’s why it spoke softly again.”

“Oh, very well,” said Miss Charity. “I suppose it was rather rude of me. Please accept my humble apologies, Good Spirit – you too, Ethel dear.”

Henry Wowler pressed lightly again on the rosebud. Twing.

Goodness me – apologies accepted all round, by the sound of it,” Widow Carrot said faintly. “So, er, may we continue? We have with us a good, musical soul who speaks to us through the harp and dislikes argument.”

“It can’t be Great-grandpapa then,” sighed Miss Crabtree, “unless the afterlife has improved him. I’m told that in this life he was tone deaf and exceedingly contentious.”

“As I was saying,” resumed Widow Carrot, “does that mean anything to anyone?”

“Well,” Miss Hope began hopefully, “our late Mother adored harp music-”

“Yes!” Widow Makepeace said over her. “My Frederick was a musician, and very mild-mannered.”

“Your Frederick played the trombone, not the harp,” Miss Charity objected.

“He might’ve liked playing brass, but he liked listening to strings. The fiddle, mainly. But he was fond of harps, too. So I’m sure this must be Fred-”

Twing.

Yes! It is him! Oh, my. I feel quite overcome.” Widow Makepeace snatched her hands back from her neighbours, buried her face in them, and burst into noisy tears.

“Oh, you poor dear. I know what you need – a nice cup of hot, sweet tea for the shock,” said Miss Crabtree. “I’ll run and tell Janey to make some.”

A chair slid back and a gap opened up in the skirts. Henry Wowler wandered out and saw Widow Makepeace rocking backwards and forwards, sobbing uncontrollably. On her left sat Miss Faith, hugging her shoulder, patting her knee, and saying, “There, there.” On her right sat Miss Hope, offering fresh handkerchiefs. Opposite them sat a pale-faced Widow Carrot, clutching MC on her lap, staring dumbly at her harp, with Miss Charity beside her, twiddling her thumbs and biting her lip with impatience.

“Bravo, old chap!” MC greeted his appearance. “You play remarkably well for a novice, if you don’t mind me saying. Moves timed to perfection.”

“Thanks. And you were right,” Henry replied, “it’s a good game, I’m enjoying it. So, what happens now?”

Charity Blewitt snapped. “For heaven’s sake! Vicky doesn’t need tea, she needs something stronger. Then perhaps she can pull herself together, and we can get back to the Circle.” Shoving back her chair, She marched off to get brandy and smelling-salts. Unfortunately, on the way, She tripped over Henry Wowler and fell headlong into the table with the Tarot pack and crystal ball. It overturned. The cards scattered harmlessly, but the heavy crystal, flung like a cannonball, crashed into the curio cabinet, sending broken glass and china flying everywhere.

“Ee-ooo-ow!” screeched Henry. Fleeing blindly, he ran smack into a tall, top-heavy plant-stand. It fell over onto the glass dome, shattering it and the sea-shell bouquet, and cracking the glazed planter in half. He made a flying leap for the piano stool to escape the dangerous mess of sharp splinters, shell flowers and soil. The pile of sheet music shifted under his paws. Panicking, scrabbling, he leapt again, dislodging a dozen sheets which wafted to the floor like autumn leaves.

Plink-plink-plonk-plank, said the piano keys he landed on; and plonk-plonk-plank-plink as he moved; and a long, resounding ploooom as he sat down at one end to get his breath back and plan his next move.

Janey and Miss Crabtree returned with the tea things at the very moment the piano began to play itself – not any sort of tune, but a random collection of notes as if an invisible cat was jumping about on the keyboard. They froze in the doorway, gaping. Then with a loud shriek, the maid dropped her loaded tray, threw her long white apron over her face, and scurried away at top speed to lock herself in the laundry-room.

Miss Crabtree’s horrified gaze swung from the piano to the spilt tea steaming from the carpet. For a few seconds she swayed; then her eyes rolled upward, her knees gave way and She fainted, collapsing among the scattered sugar-lumps, saucers and spoons.

The piano fell silent as Henry Wowler stopped prancing to survey the damage and chaos. I can’t believe I did all this by accident, he thought. A delicious naughty feeling, a familiar madness, ran through him. No rules, eh? Then let’s see what I can do on purpose…

Widow Makepeace stopped crying to watch open-mouthed as the parlour came alive, with a great stirring of air as if an invisible demon was racing round in circles, screeching horribly as it went. The fire-screen toppled down onto the hearthrug. The fire-irons fell with a great clatter and clash onto the hearth tiles. A row of Christmas cards, flicked by an unseen tail, sailed off the mantelpiece. The stuffed raven flew one last time as his toppling stand threw him into the air to land in a potted aspidistra, which fell off its plant-stand and broke. Cloths to protect the upholstery from hair-oil crinkled and slid about on the backs of the sofa and armchairs, and dents appeared in their plump cushions. The music stand fell, hit the harp with a loud TWING-TWANG-TWONG and bounced onto the floor. Two china dogs and a particularly ugly Toby jug flew off the dresser and smashed on the wreckage below. Then the Widow stood up and screamed at the top of her voice.

STOP! Oh, please, Fred, please, please stop!”

Henry stopped.

“I know why you’re so angry, and I know it’s all my fault. And I’m so, so, sorry, my darling, and I’ve been so desperate to reach you and tell you how bitterly I regret what I did.”

“What did you do?” Recovering from her faint, Lavinia Crabtree sat up shakily. “What have I missed?”

“I killed my Freddie, same as if I’d murdered him deliberate.”

“Oh, no. No, Vicky dear,” said Miss Faith. “You didn’t kill him! Frederick died naturally. His heart failed.”

“Broke, you mean! With him home alone while I gossiped with the chemist’s wife instead of coming straight back with his medicine! If only I’d done that, he’d still be alive… that’s why he lost his temper, and why all this mess is my fault. I’m terribly sorry, Ethel. I should never have come – but I’ve been praying for a chance to say goodbye, and tell Fred how much I’ll always love and miss him, and beg him to forgive me.”

A sweet, rippling sound filled the room as Henry Wowler drew a gentle claw over the harp-strings.

“Well, dear, there’s your answer.” Ethel Carrot smiled. “Frederick forgives you most willingly – and asks in turn that you forgive, and cease to blame, yourself. Only then can he truly rest, knowing that his beloved wife has peace of mind.”

The Circle left an hour later, babbling with excitement. “Incredible experience… conclusive proof… eye witnesses… report for the newspapers… greatest medium in England… thank you so much, Ethel dearest… goodbye and God bless… Merry Christmas… goodbye!”

While the Widow and Janey, (brave on medicinal brandy), finished clearing up the ruined parlour, the cats crouched on a rag rug in front of the kitchen fire sharing Marmaduke Carrot’s wages, a dish of boiled cod cheeks in cream.

“I always hated those china dogs,” said MC as they sat washing their whiskers afterwards. “I shall be eternally grateful to you, Master Wowler, for ridding me of their silly grinning faces.”

“My pleasure,” said Henry. “Although I never planned to do so much damage. It started by accident when that Ooman fell over me, then the rest- well, you know, it just happened. Things worked out fine in the end though, didn’t they? Everyone seemed happy, in spite of all the cleaning up they had to do.”

MC nodded. “That’s why I play the game. It comforts other Oomans, and makes them feel better when they’re sad. It isn’t all trickery, either – Widow Carrot gives wise advice and She really does have a sixth sense. It’s just not very strong, because She can’t sense Him. Ernest. The Constant Presence.” He rubbed his cheek lovingly against a transparent, faintly glowing hand. “Ernie was devoted to Ethel, and a dear friend to me and Janey, and so happy living with us in this house, that He says Heaven’s right here in His own home and so here’s where He’ll jolly well stay. She’d be overjoyed to hear it, and I’ve tried to tell Her many, many times– alas, thus far to no avail.”

“Well, keep trying.” Henry Wowler looked up at Ernest Carrot, who smiled and stroked his ears with a feather-light touch. “If She believes She brought the spirit of Fred Makepeace here today, maybe She’ll believe She can bring Ernest too. Then they’ll both be comforted, won’t they?”

“Ah, yes. I perceive you grasp the essence of this sacred season, Master Wowler,” MC looked at him approvingly, “as well as of the game. And I feel privileged to have played it with such a natural talent.”

“Likewise,” said Henry. “Although I’m not sure I want to play it again. No… the past has been very interesting to visit, but I think I prefer my own time. And now I think it’s time I went back there. No offence, MC.”

“None taken, dear fellow. Come, then. Let us leave Ernie toasting his slippers by the fire, and I shall escort you back to the looking-glass portal.”

Five minutes later, Henry Wowler bounced thankfully down off his own solid, safe loft-ladder, landing with a dull thud on a soft carpet in a relatively warm, comfortable room. He heaved a sigh of relief, glad to be back here and now, feeling the warm, glowy feeling that for once he’d managed to do something good – if only by accident, and at the same time as doing something bad.

Then his She-Ooman came out of the bedroom next door. “Henry Wowler! At last! You wicked cat,” she softened the words with gentle hands, rubbing the special place on his back, “upstairs feels like a fridge, thanks to you.”

Henry only had time for a last wistful glance before she folded the ladder away, shut the trapdoor tight, and made UP disappear until next time. He sat for a minute picturing Marmaduke Carrot on the Other Side, sitting on the lumber-room’s cold hard floor. And even though cats don’t really celebrate it, he said the words aloud.

“Merry Christmas, MC.”

Straining his big ginger ears, he caught the faint, ghostly reply. “Merry Christmas, Master Wowler! God bless us, every one.”

Amazingly Fat Cat

This week saw our Henry Wowler’s least-favourite day of the year: the day he gets poked about by a stranger then jabbed in the neck. Yes, it’s annual medical time!

We heaved his cat-basket into the van with considerable effort, braced for a scolding about his heaviness; and in the vet’s waiting room I read a poster, ‘How to Tell if Your Cat’s Overweight.’ Can’t feel its ribs? Check. Saggy dewlap? Check. Lack of interest in playing? Check – sort of. As soon as Henry learnt to kill things, he went off toys, although he still enjoys savaging his Christmas catnip mouse, playing ‘knock on the patio window then run away when they open it,’ and chasing the odd leaf or twig round the garden; but on the whole, if it doesn’t bleed, he deems it not worth bothering with. Lazy and lethargic – um, how do you tell with a creature that spends 18 out of 24 hours asleep?

DSCN2654

With Wowler, it depends on the weather, (when it’s fine, he spends more time outdoors doing cat stuff ), and whether anyone’s at home, (Mummy and Daddy-cat’s arrival means dinner, irrespective of how early we finish work – cue for him to wake and start prowling round hassling for food). So no check here – I’d call him averagely active for a cat of his age and temperament. Hesitates before jumping up onto furniture? Check. Mind you, Henry does like to consider the pros and cons – often at some length – before he acts, to avoid any taint of slavish obedience when invited to jump on the bed or onto Mummy-cat’s lap for a cuddle. I’m not sure if that counts as ‘hesitation’ – he’s perfectly capable of jumping without it when the occasion demands, and agile enough to make a standing leap onto the kitchen worktops (attested by the trail of small muddy rosettes I find after rainy nights). And he still has a visible (if substantial) waist, and no problems with flexibility or grooming his hard-to-reach areas. How overweight can he be?

We soon find out – 6.9 kilos! Amazingly, despite receiving exactly the same diet all year – a half-tin of meat and two handfuls of biscuit a day, plus his ration of toothy-bics (ie the dental-care type) – he’s gained 500g since his last weigh-in. Oops. Henry Wowler is, once again, officially Too Heavy; although to my great relief, he hasn’t topped his highest weight of 7.2 kg, recorded three years ago. But despite being a big, solid cat, he should weigh nearer six than seven kilos; so we discuss his intake with the vet, who recommends that I weigh the handfuls and cut back to no more than 30g of dry food per day.

OK. Next morning I duly chuck two heaping handfuls onto the scale, nervously wondering how much we’ve been over-feeding him. It weighs 35g. In other words, the absolute maximum he’d get on the rare days he succeeds in whingeing extra breakfast out of Mummy-cat and conning his bedtime biscuits out of both cat-parents, is a paltry 5g more than the vet’s recommendation. I reduce it to 25g, which looks more like his average daily portion. Phew. I’m delighted that we generally give him less than the recommended 30g – but amazed that, notwithstanding, he’s still managed to put on a pound. How did that happen?

Um. I guiltily recall the odd scraps of Spam or chicken he gets off our plates; doesn’t happen often, but that’ll have to stop – as will giving him any chance to steal scraps I put out for the birds. Plus I suspect he recently went through a phase of pinching a feline neighbour’s food, because he kept coming home in the afternoon looking smug and suspiciously fat, (but still demanding his usual dinner). Luckily, if that was the case, I think the neighbour must’ve got wise and either stopped leaving food outside, or started locking the cat-flap when they feed their own cat. And we can’t control the number of rodents he pogs overnight, (or even necessarily know about it, unless he leaves bloody remnants in the kitchen) – but however good the hunting, it never stops him demanding his full daily ration of cat-food. (Perhaps he thinks mice contain no calories, like chocolate eaten in secret).

Whatever, the upshot for Henry Wowler is no more unscheduled treats, and no more than a measured 25g biscuit and 12 toothy-bics with his meat every day. I’ll also try to make him run about a bit more, (although that only seems to sharpen his appetite). Then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that when we take him to have his teeth cleaned in the New Year, the vet will find our amazingly fat cat has shed a few ounces…

Animal Costumes = Animal Abuse!

Imagine I have a small child who can’t communicate with me verbally, or prevent me from physically abusing them. Imagine I buy that child a hot, uncomfortable, ludicrous comedy costume for my personal entertainment. Imagine I force it onto the child’s body, and when they wriggle and struggle and cry, I say, ‘Oh, never mind, you’ll soon get used to it.’ Imagine I then take photos of their baffled, miserable little face, or videos of them struggling to move around in said ludicrous costume. Imagine I splatter these all over social media, inviting the whole world to mock and laugh at my child, and inspiring others to torment their own helpless children in similar fashion.

What would you think of that? You would, I hope, be horrified and disgusted, report me to social services, get my child removed to safety, and me banged up in prison.

Now substitute the word ‘pet’ for ‘child,’ and suddenly it’s all OK. ‘Oh, how cute, how funny, how precious!’ you may cry when you see images of unfortunate pets suffering in ludicrous costumes. ‘Just look at the expression on its face! Oh, I must share this with all my friends! I must torment my cat/dog/hamster with one of these ludicrous costumes so I can get lots of likes on Facebook and YouTube!’

Well, you certainly won’t get any ‘likes’ from me – in fact, if costuming pets to make them a laughing-stock is your idea of fun, I want nothing to do with you. I deplore, loathe and detest this stupid fad. It may be pretty low down on the continuum of grotesque cruelties humans inflict on animals every minute of every day; nonetheless, it is a cruelty, part of a mind-set that believes animals exist purely for our pleasure and entertainment, so it’s fine to do whatever we want to them irrespective of the effects on their well-being.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely approve of clothing and/or shoeing animals when it’s necessary for their warmth or protection, or as part of their work. But this silly, growing dressing-up trend has nothing to do with animal welfare, and everything to do with human whimsy and fundamental misunderstanding of animal needs and rights.

For instance, yesterday I was particularly appalled to see a Hallowe’en costume for cats that makes them look like a giant spider. Sure, on the most superficial level it does look very funny, and lets you play hilarious practical jokes on people; but if you stop to think from the cat’s point of view, it’s a total disaster. Even if the cat is placid and doesn’t overtly object, once it’s been put in this costume, it’s stuck. It can’t scratch if it gets itchy. It can’t groom without choking on synthetic fibres. It can’t remove the ludicrous costume when it gets too hot. And if (like the cats in the advertising video) it’s allowed to go out and about, it’s in constant danger of getting caught up, injured or killed – especially if someone freaks out at the sight and attacks it. What a great Hallowe’en decoration: your cat-tarantula kicked to death on the street outside your house, or dangling, strangled, from a tree in your garden – just imagine how your kids would love it!

No. Animals are animals, not small furry people; they deserve to be respected and treated according to their nature, not hurt and held up to ridicule. Animals don’t want, don’t understand, and seldom need, clothing. Animals don’t ‘get into the spirit’ of human festivals; they don’t understand what’s going on, and are more likely to be frightened or agitated than to enjoy wearing a festive sweater or having a pair of foam reindeer antlers strapped to their head. They don’t understand – nor do humans who dress up their pets understand, or apparently ever stop to think – that apart from being uncomfortable, these ludicrous costumes are terribly dangerous, that they can catch on objects, or brush against candles/heaters and burst into flame. Imagine how well that’d go down at your birthday party: a terrified, agonized cat in a blazing tutu doing the wall of death round your lounge, or your dog’s elf costume snagging on the Christmas tree and pulling it down in a great smash of baubles on top of itself and your children.

And I don’t understand why anyone would wish to torture a beloved animal companion by inflicting this kind of thing on them. Animals are, in their own right, beautiful, cute and frequently very amusing; they need no artificial embellishment. As readers of my blogs and Facebook posts will know,  I love to share the doings of our Henry Wowler with the world, and many people seem to enjoy hearing about them – but it’s all his own, pure feline behaviour while he is, and always will be, dressed only in his own fur (oh, and a microchip, the only thing we’ve ever succeeded in making him wear – he won’t even tolerate a collar). I mean, look at him: I wouldn’t dream of insulting such a perfect being, demeaning his natural dignity, or making him unhappy/uncomfortable, by forcing him to wear some ludicrous costume for foolish people to laugh at.

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Last but not least are the environmental considerations. While our planet is on fire and we’re facing a massive global climate crisis, pet clothing companies are wasting untold resources of energy, water, petroleum by-products etc on producing this pointless, non-biodegradable novelty tat for people with more money than sense. It’s the kind of consumerism that has GOT to stop if humanity, collectively, wishes to survive into the next century.

So I implore you: please, please, if you care about your pets, don’t dress them up! Boycott these harmful, wasteful products, delete images of them from social media, and discourage other people from buying them. If you’ve got that sort of money to spare, give it to an animal welfare charity instead – and do join me in campaigning to at least raise awareness of the dangers and undesirability of pet dressing, and at best, getting these horrible products taken off the market altogether.

Henry Hates Firework Nights

Now that Slack-jawed Selfish Morons’ Firework Season (run-up to Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en, run-up to Bonfire Night, Bonfire Night, numerous extra Bonfire Nights for people unable to celebrate on November 5th, run-up to Christmas, Christmas, post-Christmas, run-up to New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve, post-New Year’s Eve, plus random explosions in between times) is in full swing, Henry Wowler has to spend most evenings cowering in his safety box under our bed – and given the propensity of said selfish morons to continue letting off bangers till midnight, we don’t have the heart to evict the poor little chap.

On such occasions, when he eventually feels it’s safe to emerge and wants Mummy-cat to take him downstairs and administer bedtime biscuits, he usually sits at the foot of the bed whispering, ‘Mrrp? Mrrp?’ in a very small voice until I awake. But last night, he mrrped to no avail – both worn-out cat-parents were too fast asleep to hear him; so the first I knew of his wakefulness and desire for attention was when he jumped on the bed, landed on my feet and snuggled down in the space between our legs. I stroked him. He purred. I thought, ‘Aw. This is OK – I can cope if he settles there,’ and went back to sleep (after throwing back the bedspread and sticking one leg out from under the duvet to compensate for the extra heat generated by his large furry presence).

But he didn’t settle there, of course. Night is his time to do cat stuff; so shortly he got up, went out in the pouring rain for a while, then came back upstairs shouting, ‘Wet!’ I ignored him, and- aha! Instead of pestering on to be mopped dry, he dealt with the situation himself, allowing me to doze off again to the slight, soothing sound of a washing cat. But of course the peace didn’t last – soon Henry was wowling again, obliging me to arise before he woke Daddy-cat too, escort him downstairs, give him some fuss, then lure him into the kitchen with the usual biscuit bribe and shut the door firmly behind me.

All this took place between 10.30 pm and 1.40 am; and this, dear reader, is the reason why on normal nights, if Mr Wowler tries to evade the normal nightly routine of being confined to the kitchen by hiding under our bed, he gets prodded out with a longbow…

Feline Friends!

Henry Wowler doesn’t take kindly to strangers on his patch. If visitors are human, his normal response is to hide in his safety box under our bed and sulk until they go home. If they’re feline, he’ll caterwaul terrible songs of hate and retribution at them; and if that doesn’t work, he takes more positive action. Given that he’s twice the size of most of our neighbourhood moggies, seeing the feline equivalent of a Rottweiler (sixteen pounds of spectacularly fuzzed-out Wowler) charging towards them at high speed generally suffices to see them off the premises pretty damn quick – and if that fails, he won’t baulk at resorting to violence.

So it was with some trepidation that I noticed the new kid on the block – a sparky ginger tom-kitten – had taken to exploring our garden. Last week he got stuck on the roof of our wood-box, and was so over-excited, fighty and bitey when I tried to rescue him that I had to don heavy leather gardening gloves in order to pick him up. Yesterday afternoon GK (Ginger Kitten) was back again; and when I went upstairs I was surprised to find Henry sitting on the bedroom window-sill watching him potter about down below. Not fluffed up, or growling, or even lashing his tail – just watching with mild interest, which was extremely unusual.

At tea-time, with Wowler in his customary early-evening position on my lap, the young intruder returned. This time his reaction was what we’ve come to expect: he sat bolt upright, glaring; then dismounted and sat by the patio window, yowling.

“I’m not letting you out, Henry,” said Daddy-cat. “If you want to see him off you’ll have to use your cat-flap.” While Henry thought about this, the undaunted GK came up and inspected him through the glass, then began frolicking around the patio clearly wanting to play. Henry stopped yowling and watched. Intrigued, I took a jingly ball outside and entertained GK with it, wondering if Wowler would follow; but no, he just continued to watch.

I petted GK as he twined round my ankles, then went back indoors. “This is what he smells like,” I said to Henry. He sniffed my hand. Finally, as the kitten went on cavorting, he could stand it no longer. Hubcap and I looked at each other as the cat-flap clicked, expecting the usual mayhem and braced to rescue GK if the Wowler tried to savage him. But to our utter astonishment, he simply strolled up and held out his nose. So did GK. A mutual bottom inspection followed. “They’re greeting!” I gasped. Then came a slight laying back of ears and batting with forepaws; then Henry bounced away with his tail in the air, hotly pursued by the kitten; then the kitten came back into view, hotly pursued by Henry.

Hubcap and I watched entranced. The only other cat Wowler normally tolerates is the ginger tom from three doors down, who we’ve always jokingly referred to as Henry’s dad (as he may well be); but they don’t cosy up or play together, they just hang out in a companionable, blokey sort of way. So this was the first time in six years that we’ve ever seen Henry larking about with another feline, apparently enjoying its company, (admittedly, he did fetch GK one good clip round the ear that elicited a cry of protest, but it was no more than an uppity kitten deserved).

Delighted, I went out to fuss them both, and my amazement was complete when Henry flopped down on his back, giving the full social roll. Playful chasing then continued until Henry, in wild excitement, leapt into Hubcap’s wheelbarrow so forcefully that it overturned and scared him back into the house.

The episode was no fluke or one-off. This morning GK came back, peering in through the patio door obviously looking for his playmate. I let him in, entertained him with a piece of string, then led him to our bedroom where the Wow was asleep on the bed; and when he eventually woke and condescended to notice, another amicable meeting and greeting took place, followed by more outdoor play. It can’t just be down to GK’s youth and smallness – Henry has hated our opposite neighbour’s lovely lavender-grey pair, Boris and Doris, and chased them off with extreme prejudice ever since they were the same age as this little lad. So I can’t help but wonder whether they belong to some secret League of Red-headed Cats – whether Henry recognises GK as a fellow ginge and, like Tormund in Game of Thrones, finds him ‘kissed by fire’ and beautiful.

Whatever, at long last it seems our anti-social Wowler has a real cat-pal – and I’m chuffed to bits!

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Henry Wowler has a Hissy-fit

Once upon a time, a long, long time (well, 18 months) ago, The Cigarette was the siren-song that lured Hubcap back to the house from wherever he happened to be. Yes, whatever time I chose to come down from the office for a fag-break, the minute I began rolling it he was guaranteed to turn up: on early/late lunch, to get changed/clean his teeth before a doctor/ dentist appointment, to pick up/drop off gear and have an unscheduled cuppa or loo-break while he was at it, or because he’d finished the day’s jobs/was rained off/had randomly decided to knock off early or take a half-holiday – thus obliging me to either wait for the fag until he cleared off again, or have it outdoors, or sit uncomfortably at the end of the kitchen, blowing smoke out of the window. I kid you not – it was like some weird psychic whistle calling him home.

But now I’ve given up (by and large), the lure has changed to Henry Wowler’s tea-time. No matter at what point in the cat-son’s permitted feeding window (any time after 3.30 pm; or 3 pm, at a push; or even 2.30, if his demands become too unbearably annoying) he wakes and decides that he’s hungry, the minute I dish his food out Hubcap’s van is sure to roll up – whereupon the trauma starts.

Mr Wowler dines in the kitchen, you see, not far from the back door – and like any cat, he dislikes being disturbed while he’s eating. Unfortunately, Henry finds Daddy-cat extremely disturbing – sometimes by his mere existence and proximity, especially when he’s dressed in his boiler-suit and big clumpy work-boots, which are clearly very dangerous for cats. Then there’s the noise factor as heavy feet tramp up and down the garden path unloading gear from the van to the shed, passing a bare metre away from Henry’s bowl; and the ultimate horror of the back door opening and shutting, often repeatedly depending on what needs bringing into the house – firewood, coal, shopping, armloads of soggy clothing etc – before Hubcap is finally finished and can divest himself of the scary work-wear and sit down for his own meal.

If Henry’s really hungry, he might dare to snatch a few mouthfuls while this is going on, tensed to spring away at any moment should the door open; but sometimes it’s simply too much for a cat to cope with. Like yesterday, for instance, when I was making dinner and (surprise surprise) the arrival of a soft pressure against my calf and a long orange tail curling round my leg coincided almost to the second with the sound of an engine drawing near. I dished Henry’s food out as he dashed into the living room, then followed to give him a reassuring stroke and encourage him to eat before Hubcap came in. He duly jumped down from the armchair only to halt dithering in the doorway, caught between the sounds of trundling lawnmower wheels and clumping boots ahead, and Mummy-cat’s urging from behind.

I should’ve known better. Henry Wowler does not like being told what to do; and when he’s in a Mood he does not like people dogging his paw-steps and invading his personal space. And of course, now he was in a Mood, baulked of the pleasure of stuffing his face in peace by his horrible, inconsiderate cat-parents. ‘Ssssssssss!’ he said to me crossly, ‘Wrow-row-row-row-row,’ then turned tail and fled upstairs.

None of my previous cats have ever hissed the way Henry does. But being a cat of decided character and voluble expression, the Sound of Extreme Wrath and Displeasure is quite a common part of his vocabulary; and he usually gets away with it with me, although Daddy-cat objects and has been known to swat his little ginger bum for using bad language. And I let it go this time because I felt quite sorry for the little chap – not to mention impressed by the admirable clarity with which he made his feelings known.

(For any reader concerned by Mr Wowler’s hungry plight, the story does end well – within half an hour he’d managed to fill his belly and curl up on Mummy-cat’s lap, and we all lived happily ever after – or at least until I had to get up and go for a pee…)

Catty Christmas

Even as a kitten, Henry Wowler hated Christmas. At the age of four months, when a proud new Mummy-cat tried to involve him in our first festive season together – rolling wrapping-paper balls and trailing lengths of ribbon for him to chase – he just stalked off and sulked in his tent. (His tepee, to be precise: a big bubble-wrap sheet draped over his scratchy-post, one of his favourite hidey-holes). He didn’t like the alien objects invading his living room playground; some smelt funny, and none were connected with his comfort or pleasure. The rattle of paper sheets and ripping sound of sticky-tape were most unsettling. And as for the shiny, dangly things that later appeared everywhere – pooh! He couldn’t be bothered to lift a paw at those (thank goodness – no Christmas trees or mantelpiece swags would bite the dust in Helmickton).

Needless to say, he didn’t mellow with age; and at four years, he finds Christmas simply a Nuisance. The fetching of materials from the loft disturbs his sleep with noises overhead; it’s also dangerous for cats, (we might bring the ceiling down), obliging Mr. Wowler to retreat to his safety-box under the bed, leaving a sad little depression in the duvet to reproach us when we descend. Postmen and couriers knock more frequently with parcels, producing a similar result (Stranger Danger! They’ve come to take him away – better hide!). Then there’s the space invasion: the influx of cards and gifts received and yet-to-give piled on every available flat surface, and worst of all, visitors… yes, it’s Extremely Distasteful for a gentlemog of Henry’s refinement and retiring disposition.

Still, our vulgar festivities hold some compensations, like his dinner of fresh raw chicken moistened with turkey cat-food gravy and, of course, presents. As a successful mouse-mass-murderer, the Wow has largely lost interest in play substitutes, but this year he’s rather taken with the run-around mousie-on-wheels from a gift-box of treats given by a friend, (for reasons I can’t quite fathom, family and friends often give presents to the moody fatso). Our gift goes down well with him too – a minute after I filled it up, in fact…

Yes, in lieu of his usual sturdy brand of catnip fishes, (of which there were none to be had), I buy a fluffy hedgehog about the size of a real mouse, with a Velcro slit in its tummy and a tube of catnip to stuff in at home to ensure maximum fresh aroma. A split-second after I toss it to the Wowler – who promptly goes into nip-frenzy, growling and biting and rubbing it over his face – I realise my mistake: Hedgehog is a toy for kittens or small polite lady-cats, not our huge strong tom. Engulfed by his jaws it looks pathetically tiny and so like his usual prey I half-expect to hear it squeak; and as he clasps it in his forepaws and rips into its belly with his hind claws, the Velcro parts slightly and bleeds a little catnip onto the carpet.

Oops – I need to get Hedgehog back before it all pours out and makes a real mess. Of course, Henry Wowler’s having none of that; as I attempt to snatch it, he swipes at my hand and hooks a claw in the side of my thumb, deeply and painfully. Involuntarily I yank my hand back, which only makes matters worse. ‘Argh!’ I cry. Startled, Henry rears up, dragging my impaled digit with him. ‘Argh!’ I repeat as the pain worsens, then try desperately to soothe the cat, rescue the hedgehog and unhook my thumb before any more damage is done.

Five minutes later, Hedgehog is sporting a tight girdle of bootlace to stop its flaps opening while it’s being savaged by the Wowler, I’m sporting a plaster on my throbbing, oozing thumb, and I’ve learnt a few useful things:

  1. Never give a tom-cat girly presents
  2. Never try to part a Wowler from his nip
  3. When snagged by a cat, never yell or pull; remain calm, treat the claw as a fish-hook, and gently push to release your pierced flesh
  4. Remember these points for Christmas 2016…

De-clawing = Cruelty to Cats

Today I saw a most distressing image on Facebook: a pathetic, devastated-looking kitten newly returned from de-clawing. It was such a pitiful sight that it’s prompted this heartfelt plea: if you, or anyone you know, is considering this operation for a cat, PLEASE DON’T DO IT!

I can understand the reasons why people want cats de-clawed – they can be horribly, expensively destructive little monsters. Twenty-odd years ago, mine certainly were. I’d just bought my first house, and was repeatedly reduced to tears by the damage they did. They couldn’t resist blown vinyl and textured wallpapers, so the living room, kitchen and bathroom décor rapidly fell victim to their claws – as did the pristine Art Deco moquette three-piece suite I’d just proudly acquired from an auction room.

So when I took them to be neutered, I innocently asked the vet if he could de-claw them while he was about it. He gave me a funny look and replied sniffily, “We don’t do that operation here.” I wondered why not – it’s only like cutting your nails or trimming a horse’s hooves, right? Then I shrugged it off, redecorated with flat wallpaper that offered no interest to their claws, and put up with their loop-work on my suite until I could eventually afford to replace it (by which time, alas, both cats were long gone).

And I only discovered quite recently that de-clawing a cat isn’t like cutting fingernails AT ALL. It’s a radical, invasive procedure more akin to having your fingernails pulled out. When the anaesthetic wears off, your cat will be in pain – for a long time. It may develop infections involving more pain and medical treatment. The function of its paws will be permanently impaired. Okay, so it won’t be able to scratch you or your precious furnishings, or get stuck up trees, and it’ll probably make a pretty useless hunter… but it’ll pay a heavy price for your convenience.

If you’re in any doubt about how cruel de-clawing is, have a dig about on the internet and find out what it involves. The pictures are not pretty. I firmly believe that this operation should be made illegal, and that any vet who carries it out should be prosecuted – as should the owner who caused it to be inflicted – because there are other, far kinder (and cheaper) ways to deal with the scratching problem. Cats may not be as amenable to training as dogs, but they CAN learn – apparently a quick squirt of cold water from a plant-spray is excellent for training kittens not to scratch. You can also provide scratching posts and encourage your cat to use them by incorporating them into play, and put sacrificial scratchy-mats in places they like to use. Deterrent sprays are helpful, too – our present cat, Henry, loathes the smell of Indorex flea-control spray, so putting that on the upholstery is a sure-fire way of keeping him off the soft furnishings. (He also knows full well that scratting the suite is BAD, and as an adult only resorts to it when he’s desperate for attention because he knows he’s absolutely guaranteed to get it then – even if only a yell of “Henry Wowler! Stop that!”).

Or you can accept that all pets do anti-social stuff and learn to live with it. Dogs roll in dead foxes and eat their own poo. Rabbits and small rodents gnaw stuff. Birds crap everywhere. Cats claw stuff. It’s just the nature of the beast. So we live with Henry’s scratch-zones in the bathroom and office and on the landing carpet, the fur that coats the whole house and the small creatures (or fragments thereof) with which we’re regularly presented. We may not exactly like it, but what the heck – we like the cat, and we like the fact that he’s happily doing his cat-thing.

So please, please, let your cat keep its claws… or if you really can’t stand the thought of letting a cat BE a cat, maybe you shouldn’t keep one at all.

Cats: for life, not just for Christmas

Christmas is coming – so why not give a cat? They’re cheap to feed (only c. £5 a week), easy to house-train thanks to their poo-burying instincts, and easy to look after since they sleep for 18 out of 24 hours – besides, just imagine the children’s little faces when a cute, bright-eyed kitten bursts out of its box on Christmas morning!

Actually, as any responsible cat-lover knows, this is an extremely bad idea. Christmas, with all its upheaval, social excitement and dangerously chewable decorations, isn’t the best time to introduce a new animal to a household; plus kittens are not toys to be cast aside when their batteries run flat (which they won’t) or the new PlayStation game is unwrapped. They are sentient beings with rights and needs which extend far beyond the festive season – a fact which many people, sadly, still fail to grasp, judging from the influx of unwanted ‘Christmas presents’ into the animal shelters every New Year.

This doesn’t mean that children and cats can’t go together very successfully (although crawling infants and toddlers may make for an unhappy mix, with few cats likely to enjoy their clumsily enthusiastic attentions). Pet ownership teaches a lot about care, companionship and responsibility, and my own beloved cats were among the chief joys of my childhood. But the key word is responsibility, and it’s why you should NEVER give a child a kitten (or any living creature) unless you’re 100% certain that the adults in the household are fully prepared to welcome it, and to embrace its care if and when the novelty wears off – because this involves a lot more than buying a food-bowl and a weekly pack of Felix. A litter-tray, poop-scoop and poo-bags are fundamental requirements, along with plentiful supplies of cat-litter – an additional ongoing expense if the cat will live permanently indoors – because kittens produce copious pee and amazingly large stinky poos, necessitating at least a daily clean-out if the house isn’t to reek; and in my experience, fresh litter provokes an ‘Ooh, goody!’ response and an immediate, gleeful evacuation demanding yet another session with the poop-scoop.

Then there are the vet bills, at the very least for inoculations (with annual boosters) and neutering, to safeguard the cat’s health and prevent further additions to the unwanted feline population – so an insurance policy is a wise precaution against the hefty expenses often incurred for dealing with accidents or illness. If the cat goes outdoors it will pick up fleas and require disinfesting (as may the house!), as well as regular worming if it hunts and eats rodents or birds. So, based on our healthy, ‘free-range’ hunting tom with pet insurance and a daily dose of special dental biscuits to keep his teeth clean, this all adds up to annual maintenance costs of c. £250 on top of c. £300 for food and mineral water (he won’t drink fluoridated tap water) – an average of more than £10 a week to keep Henry Wowler in fine fettle. This might be modest compared to the cost of keeping a large dog, but it may still be a significant burden on a cash-strapped family’s budget – a vital factor to consider before adding a cat to a household. And of course it doesn’t take into account things like a pet-carrier (essential for vet visits, and can double up as a cat-bedroom), or optional extras like toys and scratching posts. (It may not be worth shelling out on an expensive bed, since cats are notorious for preferring to sleep in the box it came in!).

Last but not least is the care. Sure, adult cats spend most of their lives looking out of the window, out and about doing cat-stuff, or curled up asleep – but they may expect to spend a substantial portion of this sleeping time on a person, and demand the right to do so with highly vocal persistence. Cat-children are another matter. Like any young creature, kittens are tiny concentrations of energy, as demanding of attention as a human infant but capable of damaging mischief a baby could never achieve – climbing up wallpaper and curtains, pooing in plant-pots (when they aren’t chewing the leaves), shredding furniture and carpets, knocking ornaments off high shelves – the list is endless. Our 12-week-old Wowler required five to six hours of play every morning before he would finally collapse, (and woe betide me – and the house – if I tried to deny him), plus another couple of hours in the evening. Admittedly it was great fun, albeit more so for Henry than for us – the attraction of trailing a string round the floor, rolling balls and jiggling catnip mousies does pall after a while. Then, unless you acquire one of those sad hairless breeds, there’s the matter of fur. Long-hairs need regular grooming to stop their coats getting matted, and even short-hairs benefit from periodic fine-tooth combing to check for fleas and reduce the amount of sheddings which will otherwise blanket the house, especially in summer. Cat under-fur is so fine that it floats on the air and gets into places pussy never goes, as I discovered on taking a dress never worn in Wowler’s presence from the wardrobe. Yes, it’s true that ‘everything in a house with a cat IS a cat’ – so sharing an abode with a feline may add considerably to the burden of housework, unless the residents are content to wear, eat and sleep in their pet as well as look after it.

So the real message is, ‘DON’T give a cat for Christmas’. Instead, give cat-related gifts from welfare charities like the Cats Protection League or RSPCA. Or, if you’re absolutely certain that someone truly wants a feline companion and is willing and able to care for it properly, wait until early 2015 – because then the rescue centres will be overflowing with misguided ‘Christmas presents’ desperately needing new homes.

Animals Matter: Of Mice and Men (and Cats)

For all that I love cats, I must admit they have some less than lovable habits. For instance, in common (I suspect) with most cat owners, since acquiring our feline lodger Henry Wowler, we also acquired a Mouse Problem. (Yes, I know. Cats are supposed to get rid of mice – hah!).

‘He’s got big ears,’ said the vet, when I took him for his first inoculations. ‘I bet he’ll make a good mouser.’ Alas for us, and the local wildlife, he was right. The Wow ‘made his bones’, so to speak, on earthworms – which, right from the start, he proudly brought in through his cat-flap (a mixed blessing if ever there was one) to play with. His delight at his first major kill knew no bounds – even though we knew it was only a puff of breast-feathers from a blackbird exploded by a sparrow-hawk. But inevitably, the mice (or parts thereof) began to appear in the kitchen (where he’s confined overnight to keep the gore off our soft furnishings)… as, inevitably, I had to resign myself to mopping up after his nocturnal hunting expeditions.

On the one hand, I can’t help admiring his skill, diligence and perfect physical adaptation for killing small creatures: his huge, sound-funnel ears, keen nose and big brilliant eyes that miss nothing; his lightning reflexes; his incredible patience (reminiscent of an Inuit seal-hunter crouching for hours over an ice-hole); and of course his paws and mouth full of deadly weapons. On the other hand, disposing of his victims is a pain in the bum.

House rule is, if it comes in alive, he loses it – assuming we get to it before he does. (Unfortunately, if it comes in dead he often loses it as well, usually by batting it under the fridge beyond claw reach where it lies, undiscovered, until the growing stench or suspicious swarms of flies alert us to its presence). This has led to many a ludicrous Tom-and-Jerry-style chase as Wowler and I (creature-catching glass in hand) fight for possession… and a couple of occasions when Jerry has given both of us the slip and holed up in the cavity under the electric fire in the living room hearth.

The first time this happened, we had no humane traps; so I pushed in a paper tissue for Mousie to make a bed, two jam-jar lids of water and birdseed, and barricaded it into a luxurious prison behind walls of video cases and books. Then for £4.50 we bought a twin-pack of The Big Cheese, a simple plastic rocking trap, ready-baited, with a lid that snaps shut when triggered by the weight of the mouse inside. At least, that’s the theory – and indeed, we did catch it a day or two later and (much to Henry’s chagrin) returned it to the wild.

However, the second mouse was much more cunning. Evading the two Big Cheeses set for it either side of the fridge where it had taken up refuge, it waited until Wow and I had cleared off then found its way to the living room and took up residence in Mouse Motel (as I realised when Henry mounted a permanent guard on the hearth-rug). Twice, this Mousie managed to steal the peanut butter with which I’d re-baited the Big Cheese without tripping the trap… clearly, sterner measures were called for. So I bought a Procter Brothers Ltd. Pest-Stop Multicatch trap – at £4.50 for a single unbaited trap, it’s more expensive than the Big Cheese but a far more robust affair; a grey box that can hold up to four mice, with an internal metal ‘bridge’ that flips up behind to stop them getting back out the way they came in. Advantages are that it doesn’t need to sit on a perfectly flat surface – and it can’t be accidentally tripped by a nosy cat. (Disadvantage is, unlike the Big Cheese, you can’t see at a glance whether it’s tripped… and if you forget to check it regularly, it soon stops being humane!).

Anyhow, yes! As soon as Mousie had munched the room-service portion of seeds provided, (well, I felt sorry for it), it succumbed to the lure of peanut butter and chocolate biscuit in the trap and this time we had it. A fine, big handsome mouse – well, I suppose it would be after several days of nothing to do but kip in the warm and pog out on seed and peanut butter – and we felt very guilty about evicting it into a freezing cold night to burrow into a heap of leaves in the woods. Am now confidently expecting it to start hanging round in our garden at night, hoping the Wow will catch it and bring it back in for another stay in Mouse Motel – bit like an habituated convict who doesn’t want to leave prison.

Meanwhile if you, like us, have an issue with uninvited ‘mouse-guests’ but can’t bear to kill them or leave them to the un-tender mercies of your cat, I can recommend the Pest-Stop Multicatch – it works, and it doesn’t hurt a bit.