In praise of tabby cats

They've been a fixture at Merlhiot for the last 15-odd years.

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People from the generation before mine have a flashbulb memory: they remember where they were when they heard JFK was shot. For (then-) Labour voters of my age, it’s John Smith. I remember walking down Kirklee Road on a bright sunny day in Glasgow and seeing a newspaper headline saying John Smith was dead. I don’t have any memories like that for e.g. Princess Diana (but then, while England went to pieces, Scots didn’t care). It’s just John Smith.

Cats we have known, and misnamed

There’s perhaps another reason. In 1991 our cat at Merlhiot died (I think this was Big Tiny, short for Big Tiny Sister, because of the two Tiny Sisters he - yes, he - was the largest, and this was a generation after Little Sister, who was in turn a generation after Sister, who was named because she was the sister of our first cat whose name I can’t mention here because it’s an answer to a number of bank security questions). I think I put my foot down at that point and said “enough already with the stupid names”, or words to that effect. So we got two kittens from this Brit couple who ran a camp-site, and not only did we give them distinctive names, we gave them names that would remind us when we’d got them. We named them after the two new prime ministers at the time, being John Major and Edith Cresson.

Edith was the first to go; she was run over by the postman, I think, within a month of Edith Cresson getting the sack. John was a fantastic cat; he was your basic moggy, mostly white but with tabby-ish blotches, satisfyingly fluffy, and if you shoved him off your lap he’d immediately run beneath the chair and jump back on. He’d keep this up as often as you wanted, like a warm furry perpetual motion machine. Sadly he ate something or got poisoned by something and died, within a day of John Smith dying.

Ten years into their stay in France, Brit household gets their first tabby cat

We booked a couple of replacement kittens from the Brit campsite people. (They’d attempted to put their cat on the pill, but the tomcat kept on eating it.) Margaret came over to Glasgow to pick me up, and barely minutes after we’d arrived back in France, up popped Mme Renaud, our sort-of housekeeper, with a small tabby cat in her arms, with words to the effect of: This is your cat.

We named her Helen, after Helen Liddell who had just been elected to John Smith’s old seat in Monklands. We then picked up the two other kittens, decided to jettison the newsworthy theme, and called them Hector and Cassandra; and in a fit of serendipitous rightfulness, Cassandra turned out to be the sort of cat who would miaow all the time but everyone ignored her. Having decided that cats needed to be named after gods or demons, we named one of Helen’s kittens Lilith; brilliantly, having been given to a new home, they brought her back and we had to try again.

Helen had a few other memorable kittens, but male cats don’t tend to stick around in rural areas. The one lasting result of Helen’s brief fertile period was her daughter Vali (at this point we were reduced to giving gender-inappropriate names), who was for a very long time in Helen’s shadow; Helen was the star, and Vali was just some other cat, who merely happened to look almost exactly like her mother.

Then Helen died (she had some sort of tumour on her tongue and couldn’t eat, so had to be put down), and suddenly Vali was free to play the Helen role. She started purring on-demand, inheriting her mother’s title of Mrs Switch-On; she started sitting on people’s laps. She would appear within minutes of you arriving at Merlhiot, and sit herself happily on a chair. (Well, apart from last summer, when Habibi treed her; it took her a day or two to venture back to the house, and a few more days to work out a tacit truce with the dogs.) She became the excellent cat Helen had always been.

In praise, and memory, of Vali

Vali is sitting on my lap as I type this, purring like the friendliest pneumatic drill you’d ever meet. Within a day of me coming back to Merlhiot this week, she was helping me read in bed, by helpfully lying on the spot on my pillow where I’d otherwise rest my book. Earlier today I sat on a bench on the terrasse, drinking a most excellent Belgian beer, listening to the cuckoos call, with a laptop on the table and Vali by my side. Occasionally I’d reach out and stroke her belly, and she’d roll onto her back with an expression of furry trust and luxuriance that perfume manufacturers wish they could bottle.

But Vali is 13, give or take a few years, and it was a shock but no real surprise when the vet told me earlier today that she had cancer. She was limping when she first greeted me at the house on Monday when I arrived, and the X-Rays say that it’s a tumour. She’s going to the vet on Saturday, for only the third time in her life, to have the leg she’s not really using anyway amputated, in the hope that the virulent bone cancer hasn’t already spread, and failing that to relieve the pain that the tumour must be causing her.

We left a number of interesting pastas in the drawers of the sideboard in the kitchen; when I arrived this week, I found them all gone, and sufficient evidence of small rodent activity that one of the my as-yet unresolved action items on the blackboard in the kitchen is “mouse shit maelstrom”. That was a sign that Vali wasn’t as active as she couldn’t be. We’re due back in the summer, all of us, including the dogs, and I hope Vali is there to greet us. But soon, far too soon, the era of cats at Merlhiot will be over.

Until then, though, here’s to Vali. Who has just resumed quietly purring on my lap.

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