I was shuffling about the kitchen in my ancient man’s dressing gown. (Ancient dressing gown meant for a man, that is, not a dressing gown stolen from or donated by an ancient man.) The sleeves are so long I have to turn them up several times so they don’t dangle in the washing-up water, but I don’t suppose you wanted to know that.
Outside it is pitch black. It’s what I hate the worst about winter: being in that kitchen with the big windows and the big french doors and outside it’s like… Space, The Final Frontier…
But the cats need to be fed, which includes not only all of mine but also the various black-and-white and ginger huge toms that materialise out of the darkness. Sometimes, even at 4 in the morning – yes, sometimes I can’t sleep and am up at 4 in the morning when it is just as dark as at 6 – you can see one or other of their little furry faces pressed up against the glass. Where exactly are my three personal bowls of Felix, missuss?
Of course, this requires opening and closing the kitchen doors, collecting old bowls, taking out new ones, and this gives Matilda her daily chance to do a runner, which she does today.
I called her Matilda because every evening at dusk when she was a stray she would come waltzing up the garden, a veritable painted lady, a tortoiseshell of the most lurid black, white and orange design, full of confidence, and ravenous.
Pitch black outside. Unable just to close the door on her and wait, or at least hope that she comes back I make trip after trip out into the damp, dark garden, wambling around in my carpet slippers and dangle-sleeved dressing gown whispering Pusscat? Puss Puss Puss? I am aware that the neighbours may be watching and listening, but the need to recapture Matilda trumps self-respect.
Matilda? I call, setting down a bowl of her favourite Gourmet. I spot her, at intervals – a grey shape circling round me. I make several efforts to grab her but she’s young, and fast.
Matilda? I cry, returning with my second to last mini-tin of tuna? I sit on the (rain-soaked) plastic garden seat and wait. The grey shape materialises and gets near the tuna, but not near enough. Matilda has been caught like this before.
And so it goes on. And on. Daylight dawns and I catch sight of her coming over the wall from the neighbours then sashaying off up the hill, in the opposite direction to the one she always used to arrive from. More distant, my Matilda, every time I catch sight her.
Really I am inundated, drowning in stray cats – and you’d think that I might even be quite relieved to mislay one every now and again. You’d think I could say, Well suit yourself, Matilda. That’s the way you want it, moggie, that’s the way you got it. But it doesn’t seem to work that way.
I return to the washing up, plunging my arms into the tepid water, not even bothering to roll up the dangling sleeves this time, and as I wipe away tears on damp dressing-gown I suddenly understand the story of the Prodigal Son as I never did at Sunday School and, being childless, had never really thought about since. How joyfully his father celebrated that selfish boy’s return, and he wasn’t even a tortoiseshell cat.
I was going to go on about the rest of my doleful Matilda-less morning, about the bit on the news about talking to potential ‘jumpers’ on railway platforms. Say anything at all, talk about the weather, anything that disrupts that train of suicidal thoughts… And my darkly sardonic thought that I would be less likely to spot a potential suicide than for a potential suicide to spot me and come running up, wanting to tell me their whole dreadful life story and, clinging to me for dear life, refuse to be rescued by anyone else…
And I had planned to tell you how I was obliged to set off on the bus to pay the weekly visit to my ‘befriendee’ lady, whilst all the time that bumptious, overconfident Matilda was waltzing around in the wild, up hill and down dale, almost certainly being eaten by foxes or raped by one or other of the great lascivious toms I myself had been feeding.
I was going to convey to you how nobly and kindly I smiled as I did my befriending, maintaining eye-contact whilst eating two chocolate biscuits (it was definitely a two-chocolate-biscuit day) and forcing myself to focus on the issue of whether it would be a good idea for her to purchase a replacement television in time for Christmas, whilst all the time my poor little Matilda…
But I expect all you really want to know whether Matilda ever came back. And she did, after a lengthy walkabout, lured through an open kitchen door by the last remaining tin of tuna. Even then she was half way escaped again by the time I managed to tiptoe round and shut it behind her. She almost got her paws squashed.
I don’t suppose she’s likely to fall for that one again.