The Ninth Life
Here is a — surely non exhaustive — list of every ailment that has ever afflicted my cat, Boots.
· Cat cystitis. For a while, he was peeing blood.
· He swallowed a needle and kept it in his throat for five days, managing to conceal it through the first trip to the vet. On the second trip, with the air of one performing a difficult conjuring trick, he gave an enormous heave and coughed it up onto the table.
· Something I took to calling ‘exploding head syndrome’. Every few months for about two years, Boots’ forehead would swell and bulge, giving him a look of deep (and justified) concern. Then, usually overnight, the swelling would subside in a great spurt of pus. ‘Probably an infected bite from another cat,’ the vet said, when I took him in. At the time, Boots was an indoor cat. Could he have bitten… himself?
· A tree fell directly onto the table where he was sunbathing, smashing it to pieces. Boots turned up at the back door several hours later, entirely unscathed.
· An impacted hairball, which nearly killed him. But he recovered fast. Indeed, by day four at the vet’s, he refused to be transferred back into his cage and, in circumstances that have never quite been explained, gave the nurse in charge of moving him a sprained leg.
· Post a flat move, he suffered so badly from cat anxiety that he had to be prescribed cat valium.
· His digestive system, never good, fails every few weeks or so. Bouts of vomiting can only be stalled by the administration of long-boiled white fish in copious liquid. Many of my mornings have begun standing over the stove as the kitchen fills with the deeply un-tantalising aroma of cod gruel.
One might think that the cat who has endured such hardships would be a sylphine wisp of feline gratitude. Not so. Boots was a fat and fractious fucker. I use that final noun knowingly; he’s been spayed, but until very recently I have had to hide cushions, blankets and discarded cardigans for fear I’d find Boots astride them, enjoying a very public wank.
For most of his life, he’s has been a rough and tumble tomcat, all whiskers and attitude. When affronted — and Boots is usually affronted — he would launch at the soft skin on the insides of my wrists with fearsome claws. In the first few years of our acquaintance, my ankles bore rotating crops of scabs, witnesses to his habit of lurking behind doors to slash at passing legs. Visiting friends held their children close. Boots was a cat to fear.
Until he was not.
It seems odd to mourn the passing of Boots the Slasher, when the creature that has come to replace him, Boots The Snoozy, Boots The Sweetheart, Boots Of The Late Night Cuddle, is much the nicer cat. Now, when my small son tweaks his tail, he purrs and turns away. Five years ago, any such toddler would have needed a face transplant.
We’ve joked about old age making him mellow. But I do miss the Boots of yore. I mourn his mad bursts of energy; the way he’d attack bits of string as though slaying a python, how he once pawed a bumblebee from mid-air, and, in the manner of one performing a ritual sacrifice, held it down and ate it. I miss his inconsistencies; he would attack humans, yes, but never other cats. He was, in the end, a coward. He was, in the end, like me.
Because I haven’t taken him to the vet, not in a long time. I say it’s because whenever he gets into the cat basket he panics, shits, vomits into the shit, and, last time he was on that high, disinfected table, his heart raced so much he all but collapsed. Yes, it’s that, it’s all of that.
And it’s also because I know that when I do take him, it’ll be the end. And because the vet will be appalled at what he has become. Thin, heartbreakingly thin; when I stroke him I can feel not just the knobbles of his spine, but the bones of his pelvis. His black fur is turning white. He has arthritis and his back legs are weak, so weak that he can’t always get up onto the sofa. I comb him, because he has stopped grooming himself. He no longer goes out, so I hold him down and clip his claws. He doesn’t struggle. After, he sits on my lap and I feel the quiet rumble of his purr.
I finally force myself to ring the vet fifteen minutes before I’m supposed to pick up my son from nursery. The lady on the phone is cheerful, yes, she understands that Boots doesn’t like being into the cat basket. Of course they can come to my home. My gaze settles on him, asleep on the sofa, as the voice on the other end of the phone asks whether I’m planning to bury him. Or would I rather have his ashes? There’s an appointment free on Monday, if I would like to take it. I prevaricate, and put the phone down.
Walking to collect the baby, I remember the call from the hospital to schedule my C-section; marvelling that you can put a birthday into the diary. It had never occurred to me that, of course, it works in reverse, too.
Sometimes, when I’m out, I meet other cats. Plump, roly-poly cats, cheerful with good health. When I stroke them, I feel fur and fat and complacency. I come home, put my hand on Boots’ fragile head, and hope that he can’t smell my betrayal.
When the cat dies, I’d say, as I stepped in yet another pool of puke. It’s not forever, I’d say, brushing crumbs of shitty cat litter from my keyboard. I knew it, but I did not know it. I think I know it now, though. It’s astonishing, really, how little intellectual knowledge translates into emotional foresight. How did I never realise this; when the cat dies, the cat will die.
‘It’s OK,’ my husband says, when I tell him about my conversation with the vet. ‘He’s eating loads. He’s purring. He’s happy enough. It doesn’t have to be now.’ We put a footstool by the sofa to help him climb up to his favourite spot. I brush his fur until he attempts to snap at me. We sit and watch television. He sleeps.
When he first came, turning up at the back door demanding food, and then a stroke, and then a forever home, I was in my twenties. ‘I’ll still have him when I’m forty!’ I said, and we marvelled. Forty! Impossible! Now I am forty. Everything has changed; everything is changing again. My baby is becoming a boy. Life will soon look very different, and Boots will not be there.
I don’t know when I’ll make that final phonecall. Soon, I suppose. But for now, I’m going to finish typing this. Then, I’m going to go to the sofa and place my hand upon my cat’s sleeping head. Feel the warmth of him; watch his side rising and falling. Feel it, treasure it, that right now, he’s still here, alive.