Whittle 7: Cats

Anyone who knows anything about cats will probably have an explanation for why one would save the life of another, but this still amazes me.

It was a damp winter’s night in our Cornish home. We lived right on the river. So much so, that in the summer we had been diving from our patio right into the water. It is a tidal river with a large rise/fall of some 5-7 metres and quite extreme during ‘Spring Tides’. This was not such a time, but the storm raging outside let me know that there was probably a three-foot swell on the water, even this far up-river.

I was alone in the house that evening. It was about 7pm and quite dark now that winter had properly arrived. I had grabbed a quick make-shift meal at about 5.30 as I had work to do. One daughter was away at University, the other two with their mother; by now on her way driving home from Truro city.

Our house was spread over four floors, with the top being a converted attic room giving access to better river views; the bottom floor being just above water level and when originally built, it had been the ‘workshop’. One of just four houses completed side-by-side in the 1820s. Our river-access floor was in fact where the owners had once rowed to and tied-up their small ‘get you home’ boats. They were sea captains. The floor sloped down towards the water so that (on nights such as this!) any water coming flowing in, would just as soon drain out again.

We had put our kitchen down there as it was quite spacious (about four metres by six metres) and gave door access directly onto the patio. All the outside area was now protected by a one metre wall rising some two metres above high-water. Not a lot if you were closer to the sea and Atlantic hurricanes, but usually enough this far up, along the calmer river waters.

So there we lived, my family and two cats. We had the big ginger tom called Marmaduke (shortened to ‘Marmie’) and because of his colouring could just as easily be named Marmalade. And there was the younger, smaller black, fluffy long-hair, not surprisingly called simply ‘Fluffy’. Marmie had come to us some fifteen years earlier.

He had come to us from a friend’s farm, where I’d gone to look over a new litter. Out in the yard this cute, stringy ginger thing came running across to me mewing and seeming to talk. I replied and he sort of threw his two front paws around me and that was it. He was the last one from a previous litter and as they said “good to go” I decided that he’d chosen me, so had to be adopted. Until cancer took too strong a hold, he was with us from daughters’ births until he reached twenty. Good years even for a cat.

Fluffy had come to us through quite a normal route of being chosen at eight weeks from a litter of six. She’d had just the one narrow escape. Some years earlier at a previous house, having gone missing overnight, we were now into a second night. At about 2am we were woken by crying outside. Very faint, but right under our window. She had found her way home and was crying to us. I rushed to pick her up and was relieved to find her intact and looking ok. That is, until I brought her indoors and turned her over. As her rear legs spread, her tummy opened up and we could see her intestines through a four-inch slash across her middle. Luckily, it seemed a clean cut, but serious. The vet did an amazing job and she healed well, gaining her strength and from that (at nine months) went on for another fourteen years. Although she always carried a clean diagonal scar across her belly, where the fur never regrew.

This was some ten years after her birth and on this night, it had become dark quite early. A storm had blown up and it was getting seriously rough outside. The tide was rising and down our part of the river the noise grew with the wind rushing through the trees along the opposite bank and the erratic waves slopping and splashing closer as they inched up the wall outside. It was going to be a long blustery night.

I’d gone down to the kitchen level and made a cup of coffee. I assumed Fluffy was asleep somewhere above, oblivious to all around her. Marmie had been disturbed, maybe by the storm and had come down to join me. I gave him some food which he declined. He seemed restless. He went out through the cat-flap and onto the patio. In that weather, with that wind, it was something no normal cat would do. I’d had the kettle boiling and with the storm outside, hadn’t heard the cat-flap when he came back in.

I made my drink and walked to the staircase to go back up to the front room. Marmie was on the first step. I made a swerve and got to the second step and as I shifted my weight to bring my other leg up, he ran ahead and blocked my path from the step above. As I went to walk past, he clawed my jeans and hissed. This is a cat that never hissed. This is a cat that was so placid…. well, for years the girls had dressed him and pushed him around in their prams. He ran down past me and sat crying in the middle of the kitchen floor. I put my coffee on the stairs and went down. He then ran to the door. I went towards the door and he went out again through the flap. For a moment I stood there, thinking it was a storm, and our cat (like most animals) was typically disturbed by the heavenly rumblings. So I decided to let things go and return for my drink to go upstairs. Marmie then shot back through the cat-flap, ran around me crying and went out again.
There was something up!

This was Marmie trying to tell me something.
I followed him outside and he began to run to the patio edge, back to me and back to the edge. It was wet, it was slippery, it was cold and I wasn’t in the mood but I walked over and looked down to the dark water. The white flecks of the mini-waves could be seen about a metre below me, just catching the light from our window and from the few neighbours’ patios with lighting.

As my eyes adjusted, I looked or rather searched and saw down the wall, just a short distance from the water, our small fluffy black cat. She was drenched and clinging to a ledge just out of the water, virtually hanging onto the wall. With a rising tide, she had minutes. We had an old rusty iron ladder down that wall. It was never secure, the rungs worn to about a finger-width and slippery when wet. With no choice I climbed down, feet into the sea, knees, then waist, until my arms could reach her. We both just about kept ourselves above the water as I reached out and then held her to my shoulder. She clung and I’ll swear she had her paws wrapped around my neck. It was quite a task climbing with one wet cold hand, but we fell over the patio wall and recovered. Marmie was there and started to lick her, I got to the door and we all collapsed inside. In the warm, in the dry. Quite uneventfully, Marmie then went and over to eat, whilst Fluffy sat and washed herself. I carried on upstairs with my coffee and fell into the armchair. Which is where the family later found me with their tales of what a cosy evening I must have had, whilst they battled through rain, traffic and terrible road conditions driving home.
I had yet to explain how the armchair had become so wet!