Unlike his fictional counterpart, (featured on here in my Dickens spoof, ‘Henry Wowler and the Cat of Christmas Past’), our great and sadly late Henry Wowler didn’t like Christmas. At all. Well, apart from the turkey and more chance to go Up in the loft where we keep the decorations – that much of the story is true. Henry loved this dark, magical, usually inaccessible kingdom so much he’d prowl under the hatch, gazing up round-eyed, wowling for me to let the ladder down – which I usually did, because the sight of him solemnly ascending always amused the heck out of me, (or shocked me on the occasions he impatiently leapt past my face before I’d unfurled the last rungs).
Henry’s distaste for the festive season became apparent in our first Christmas together, which happened about six weeks after Hubcap captured him, cold, hungry and lost, in the woods behind our house. I expected a four-month-old kitten to have huge fun playing with wrapping paper and ribbons, batting baubles about, and being made a fuss of. Instead, he went into a massive, prolonged snit about the mess, disruption, and distraction of his Ooman slaves, vanished when visitors appeared, (he was extremely anti-social, and as a youngster disliked being petted, even by me), and otherwise spent many hours like Achilles, sulking in his tent, (a bubble-wrap tepee draped over his scratching-post).
That huge sheet of bubble-wrap came round a picture given to us by the great and also sadly late author, Towton Battlefield Society benefactor and all-round great guy George Peter Algar. It was the only thing young Henry liked about his first Christmas and he liked it in a big way, riding it like a toboggan while I whirled him round the living room, or chasing and pouncing on it while I trailed it about, until he’d literally loved it to shreds. Tell a lie: he also adored the bag of unshelled walnuts given by friends David and Lynne Lanchester; he’d fish them out of the fruit-bowl to play carpet- or lino-hockey in the living room and kitchen, we were finding ‘Henry’s nuts’ under pieces of furniture or painfully under stockinged feet for months to come.
One advantage of this indifference was that at least our trimmings were safe – unlike my last tomcat, Lister, (below), Henry was never much into mountaineering even when he was young and light enough, and in maturity, being huge and weighing almost a stone, he chose to remain largely grounded; whereas Lister’s first act when his original cat-parents, our friends Geoff and the late Penny, released him from his travel basket into my living room aged seven weeks, was to hurtle up an angle of wall like a black fuzzy spider and cling squeaking under the coving until my very tall then-boyfriend reached up and plucked him off – I can still hear the Velcro sound of his tiny claws ripping out of the blown-vinyl wallpaper. It was a harbinger of things to come – he’d scale anything and everything from clothes-horses to trees, including vertical surfaces like the wooden back door so he could hang by his foreclaws and yowl through the glass for admittance, or the cement washing-line post in brave but futile attempts to catch perching sparrows.
Consequently, Christmas trees were out of the question while I had Lister and his adorable half-sister Ash, (below), who was less of a climber but very much a tinsel-puller and bauble-basher; unfortunately, being terminally afflicted with chronic cat-flu, she was also prone to sneeze lurid snot over things, which could make her attendance on gift-wrap proceedings unwelcome.
Alas, like my childhood chums Lulu, Tiggy and Smokey, (all lost within c. 5 years to dog attack, accident and kidney disease respectively, whereupon Mum said, ‘No more’), neither lived with me for long. Lister morphed from a cuddly catolescent into an obnoxious 2-year-old who absconded for increasing periods – he must’ve had a second home somewhere – only returning briefly to demand food until the day he cleared off for good; and Ash, a valiant tiny runt born with all sorts of health problems, who was never likely to make old bones and had to be euthanised a year later when she stopped responding to her ‘flu medication. Consequently, in the intervening catless decades, during which I met Hubcap and moved from Doncaster to Wakefield, I enjoyed being able to have Christmas trees again, and it was nice to continue the tradition secure in the knowledge that Henry Wowler wouldn’t try to climb them, pull the ornaments off, or poo in the pot. (He would however raid boxes and steal catnip mice intended as gifts for himself or my mad-cat-lady cousin’s two ginger boys).
Otherwise, in most respects Henry never knew, or cared, that it was Christmas except for the brief abundance of meaty treats and the presents he always got from us and at least one friend; catnip toys and Uncle Steve’s giant Dreamies assortment were always well received, though he lost all interest in other toys apart from plastic bags and the odd slinky string as soon as he mastered the art of catching and killing real prey. The picture below shows him with the Aldi carrier and light-pull cord he fell in love with during his last few months which I still haven’t the heart to throw away, and probably never will; our surly grump became oddly gentle in later years, and during one of our last play sessions with them, actually sheathed his claws before hitting my hand for the first time ever – he normally played with ferocious abandon and drew blood on many occasions – making Baggie and String precious, poignant relics to me now.
Another odd consideration Henry developed and maintained to the end manifested during the accursed firework season, when he got special dispensation to stay in his safety box under the bed at night; random explosions often continued into the small hours, and knowing how they terrified the poor little chap, we hadn’t the heart to evict him. Most cats, on emergence, would jump aboard their sleeping cat-parents, treadle around, and if that didn’t wake them, sit on their chests and bat their noses. (Lister and Ash certainly did, unless I shut them downstairs). Not Henry Wowler. He’d have a wash, murmur, ‘Mrrp?’ in a very small voice, and if he received no response, go off and do cat stuff for a while, then return and repeat the process until I finally stirred and, depending on the hour, either served supper, shut him downstairs and went back to bed, or served breakfast, made coffee, and stayed up to start my day with him. (I learned this from Hubcap, who never budged because he knew Henry’s murmurs meant, ‘Mummy-cat? Mummy-cat?’). Despite this, when he finally decided to retire after second breakfast, treats, several excursions outdoors and much fondling and fuss in between, Hen never baulked at jumping on Hubcap’s feet and trampling his hamstrings en route to his own bed, (a dog-bed, on account of his size), instead of walking round to jump on my vacant side – or stomping around complaining on the odd occasion I forgot to put it below my pillow on arising, until poor Hubcap rolled over and hauled it into place.
As well as the posh gourmet cat-food I always treated him to, Hen received some large, lavish gifts over the years. By his second Christmas, he’d grown too big and heavy for his first cat-carrier-cum-bed, so his cat-parents-in-law bought him the splendid beehive basket he regularly slept and always travelled in for the rest of his life – here’s me in my new Christmas 2012 onesie, introducing him to it (he wasn’t sure at first).:
He also wasn’t sure about the stupidly-expensive but gorgeous, hand-made-by-Nepalese- community-collective cat-cave I bought him three years ago, subsequently dubbed ‘Henry’s TellyTubby’ – but when he got used to it, it became a favourite sleeping-spot, especially in winter when we put it next to the glowing stove:
Thus nine Catmases came and went, pleasantly and quietly, with most of our socialising done away from home or with Henry hiding in his safety box – even from said mad-cat-lady cousin, who adores ginger boys above all other cats and longed to pick up and cuddle the Wow, (she’d have needed a crane), but he was having none of it and to her great dismay, would ooze into hiding the moment she entered the room. The main event going on in the background from around 2018 was the 4-chapter children’s story he inspired, ‘Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat’, illustrated by our great friend Janet Flynn, which finally made it into print in December 2021, just in time for me to put gift copies into friends and family stockings. Henry wasn’t as excited about it as me, but I think he looks quite proud in the picture below, among the last few I took of him alive. So preparing for our tenth, and unbeknown to us at the time, our last Christmas together was hectic but thoroughly enjoyable, and I was looking forward to getting stuck into a sequel, ‘Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cats’, in 2022 when sudden disaster struck on New Year’s Eve in the form of a fatal blood-clot.
Devastated by shock and grief, I poured my heart out on our Facebook pages (Helen Cox and Henry Wowler), my website, an obituary on here, and in an article for the summer edition of the Cats Protection magazine. The loss of my feline Muse, boon writing companion, (and frequent demanding distraction), derailed me completely; I could hardly bear to think about marketing and launching his book without his warm, furry, purry presence, much less about writing a sequel. Luckily, my previous experience as a funeral celebrant enabled me to give Henry a better send-off than many humans receive, (below you see him lying in state on New Year’s Day, shortly before we interred him beside the patio), which was a great comfort, as was the catharsis of giving my sorrow loud vent in tears and words.
Much as I’d loved all his predecessors, Hen’s loss was perhaps the most painful because we’d known each other roughly five times as long as I had any of the others, and our bond had grown correspondingly close; I was always his primary carer, often in his company practically 24/7, the bountiful source of treats, entertainment and the grooming and fuss he acquired a taste for in his hedonistic adulthood; as long as he had Mummy-cat, all was right with his world and pretty much every other Ooman, even Hubcap, could go hang. I felt very honoured that Henry chose me as his particular friend, and chose to live with us as self-appointed Pest Control Officer though he was free to come and go, like a lodger with his own key, and move out altogether if he felt so inclined. (He never did). I found it hysterically funny that away from home, our cat led an independent life of violent drama, small-creature murder and scraps with the neighbours, as safe as he could be from cars and cruel people because it mostly took place at night, with his days spent in bed, looking out of windows, guarding his cat-flap, or pottering round in the garden. When he was at home, which was most of the time, his presence whether sleeping or waking altered the dynamic of the house as much as a third human’s energy; we talked to and about him daily, and organised ourselves around meeting his needs as we would with a child. In return, he was a delightful companion to me: cuddly, amusing, chatty in his fashion, always pleased to see me, never gave a stuff what I looked like, and didn’t hold grudges when we occasionally fell out, (though he’d swear viciously at the time, I’d never heard a cat use such foul language to me before, or known one turn to hiss a rude word over his shoulder in passing).
So yes, the magnitude of Henry’s absence was stunning, exactly as if a human lodger had suddenly died in the midst of New Year’s Eve family lunch preparations. This only makes sense to anyone who knows that by living with people, other species become so much more than mere animal, in every sense a member of the household. They develop and express their individuality, master new skills, learn our languages, verbal and unspoken, and communicate back with their own; like infants or aliens abroad, they learn the basics – the names we bestow, hello, yes/no – and to communicate their simple demands for food or attention PDQ, as we’ve discovered over the past 15 months with our sheep. It all adds up to a great loss which needs and deserves to be grieved; but thank God, once the first ghastly shock had abated and the first days of howling agony passed, it dawned on me that in essence, Henry would always be with me. The characters we created together, Henry Wowler Gingerson (probably), his twin MC, and all the rest, had only just been born and were still very much alive in fiction; so my best possible tribute to this very special cat would be to make him famous, to tell and sell his stories for other Oomans to enjoy, and to raise funds for feline charities in the process. The picture below is one of Janet’s lovely drawings for Chapter 2, in which mirror-cats live very much like Oomans and Henry Wowler finds he has to wear Ooman clothes…
So please do pass this on to any cat-lovers you know: 100% of sales on site go to support Janet’s local sanctuary, Syros Cats, and I’ll be donating a tithe of profits from copies sold elsewhere to Cats Protection UK. You should still be able to get it in time for Christmas, on special offer at £4.99 from YPD Books, or from Amazon UK; and if you’re local to Wakefield, you can buy it directly from Darling Reads independent bookshop on Horbury High Street, or email me on email@example.com and you can collect a signed first edition for a fiver, or I’ll pop it through your door.
Of course, Henry also lives on in a very real sense, sleeping eternal a few metres away from the couch where he spent so many hours sleeping on me, and transformed into myriad forms – notably the beautiful yellow and red Tiger Eye rose still blooming in December, its roots no doubt well-nourished by cat-juice, and a new orange wallflower – and come spring he’ll be a riot of spring bulbs again, with a newly-planted purple crocus border.
In a final loving tribute and perhaps the finest compliment I can pay him, the doors of our new kitchen and back porch have flaps installed ready for his successor. Future Cat will, I hope, come from a local rescue centre called (wait for it!) Henry’s Haven, as soon as building works are complete; and though it’ll never replace Henry, it will fill the cat-shaped hole he’s left in our lives. Yes, after a decade of happy encatment and one year of sad catlessness, I know which state I prefer… and although I’ll miss and mourn my darling Wow forever, I feel ready and able now to love another needy puss in his stead.
Yes: Happy Heavenly Christmas, Henry Wowler! Ours won’t be the same without you… but thanks for giving us ten years of joyous memories, despite being such a ginger Grinch.