Friday 14 November 2008

Dublin to New York, via feral cats and Greek comedy

It started with one cat, in Dublin. She was feral, she lived in the alleyways behind the house I was living in on Synge street, and she was the mother of a colony of feral cats that I got mixed up with.

She was a grey tabby, with one eye missing, so I called her One Eye. She had clearly had been in human hands to some degree for the first weeks or months of her life, because she understood - and seemed to enjoy - the etiquette of rubbing her head against the windowsill, and purring as a human stroked her. None of her offspring would ever let me do that to them. You've got to get a cat socialised to human touch within the first 6 - 8 weeks of their lives, or else they're untouchable forever (though I have heard some amazing (and bloody) stories of rescue and trust between human and feral cat).

So One Eye scoped me out and sussed me pretty fast. I was living in the basement of this house on Synge street, right across from the boys' school, and she slunk into my life and I began to buy chicken necks to feed her. I bought this stuff from a lovely butcher on Grantham street, who had kept the butcher shop for 40 years with his wife. Before that, it had been a haberdashers. Soon after I began to buy chicken necks from the butcher to feed One Eye and whoever else would come around, he sold the shop and it became a faux-Cuban tapas bar.

The bar is still there, and there's another one of the same name on George's street, where it has taken the place of one of the last greasy spoon cheapy cafes to close in Dublin. I used to go there every day in my last year in the town. Three euro fifty got you scrambled eggs on toast and a pot of tea, and I usually had a bit of a chat with the dishwasher who would come out from the kitchen when he saw me there. It was like the kind of place Francis Bacon might have frequented, had it been in London, full of all kinds of every dreg of Dublin life. Flanagans, it was called. A great place. The last time I went to eat there it was early 2005. Now, there's the Cuban place, which of course is not actually Cuban, but a sort of Cuban tribute restaurant.

The first Cuban joint, on Grantham street, was one of Dublin's first tastes of the Celtic Tiger. People came there to dance over their shrimp tapas on the weekends, and African drummers were brought in to jam along to the CDs on saturday nights. I popped in there from time to time, usually to howl like a wolf, and leave again. That seemed to be an acceptable addition to the climate there on the weekends, so I kind of liked the place.

One Eye and her brood, the neighbourhood feral cats, lived in the alleys between my flat and the Cuban place. At some point, I realised that I had taken them on. Pretty quickly, it was clear that One Eye was with kitten. When the kittens were born, it was freezing and snowy and I used to go around the back alleys with this bag of chicken necks and stand there in the cold for over an hour feeding them to her. One Eye would come as soon as I called her, and rub her head against my legs, purring, and I would give her a chicken neck. Then she had to jump up on the wall surrounding a trashed-out backyard behind one of those Camden street townhouse hotels, then leap up on a higher wall above it, all this with chicken neck in mouth, and climb unsteadily across a galvanised icy snowy roof, after which she dropped out of sight to wherever she had stowed her babies. After some time, she would return, and we repeated the process. We did this every night until they were able to come and get food themselves.

By the spring (which is February in Ireland) she began to bring the brood over. They were three raving beauties, with very distinct personalities. One was tortoiseshell, we called her Yak. She was very dignified and good natured, though of course not amenable to any kind of physical contact. But she would happily sit on the ledge outside the window, and have eye contact conversations with us, and spend the whole day there, knowing that she would get fed when she was hungry. She became a kind of surrogate mother to One Eye's later broods, and was intensely social. Other cats, especially smaller ones, loved her.

The other two ended up being called Purpee and Silvee. Purp was a kind of Kerry Blue colour, on the colour frontier where smokey blue meets purple, and he was a bit of a pain in the arse, very suspicious, out for all he could get, opportunistic, moved through life alone. Nervous. Edgy.

Silv was more circumspect than Yak, but magnificent nonetheless. A big silver haired tom, with intelligence in his eyes, and a kindliness that is unusual to find in a feral tomcat.

In a later litter came Billie, who was constantly vocal. She was a bit of a gorgeous brat who demanded everything all the time. The last major cat character from that tribe was a sweet little mischievous black and white scruff we called Bogie. These guys hung off of Yak all day long. Others came and went, I remember some of them, not all.

Things escalated. I made trips up Clanbrassil street to a butcher there, with a big backpack, and bought a vast quantity of pork hearts once a week, which I filled the fridge and freezer with, and microwaved in the evenings. My kitchen was turned into a bloodhouse (I was vegetarian at the time) but the cats got fed well every evening. I learned something about anatomy and developed a strong stomach.

My landlord found out I was feeding the cats and threatened to throw me out unless I stopped having contact with them in his backyard. I stopped feeding them from my window and brought the hearts over to the back alleys every night. I heard rumours that the neighbours were threatening to put down poison to kill the cats off, they thought they were a nuisance. Then Yak got pregnant.

The weather was mild, soft, rainy. She brought her kittens around to the garden, and deposited them under a wallcreeper by my window. She took care of them there. I could see that they were not well. So, one day, on one of her brief sojourns away from them, I gathered the five fluffballs up and put them in a box and brought them to the local vet. He took one look at them and condemned them to death. They had cat leukemia, he said, and cat flu, and would only spread the disease along. They hadn't a hope, he said. It was better this way. I was distraught, and he suggested that I let him put them down, and I walked away, back home, without Yak's kittens.

I got home, and sat in the kitchen, and waited. Yak came back, called her babies, searched frantically for them, called and called them, searched my face for information, kept calling through the day. I was in agony. She kept calling. I kept crying, trying to tell her what had happened. We kept going for hours. I was wretched, distraught. And then I remembered a phone number that had been given to me by a woman who I met a few months previously when a dog had followed me home and I had kept it in the flat overnight and met her in the park the next day, and she had found it a home.

She was a well-to-do middle aged woman who lived in Foxrock - a bit like Hellerup or Westchester - and spent her life and a lot of her money rescuing animals, mostly dogs, and giving them medical attention, and caring for them, trying to find them homes, keeping a lot of them in her own home, devoting her life to the care of abandoned things. I was sobbing down the line in the phone box at the corner of Harrington and Camden and South Richmond streets, and she heard me, and offered to help the cats, by giving me a trap so I could catch them one by one and get them neutered. At least we could keep the remaining colony stable, rather than a constantly expanding number of animals fighting for diminishing resources. I would do the legwork and she would pay for the whole thing.

So, for the next six months, that's what I spent my nights doing. Putting the trap out, sometimes catching one, sometimes not. It took six months to do them all. I would keep them in my flat overnight, bring them to the vet, collect them the next day, keep them in the cage, inside my flat for a couple of days to recover, then release them. Rinse. Repeat.

And then one day, this pregnant kittenish creature came in my window, and sat on my bed, and gave birth to a single kitten on my bed, right before my eyes. She belonged to a woman who lived next door, who never seemed to be around to take care of her cats, and so one by one, her cats found me. And one by one, I brought the cats, now three, to my parents' place in Clare, where they live today.

I just found this story in my drafts, while I was cleaning up my labels. Feels like it needs some kind of spit and polish ending, some kind of bringing to life of the life in these cats, the life that I lived with them, the difficulty of leaving them, of just abandoning them one day, because I had to live, because caring for them was taking up so much of my mind and heart, though I didn't know how leave them at the mercy of the winds. I think I did it gradually, stopped going around with the meat, but kept something handy at the window for whoever would come, to hell with the landlord.

Then I got a job spending eight hours a day trying to keep sixteen year olds quiet, in a study room of one of those nasty intensive grind schools, the job lasted three months until I could pretend to silence teenagers no more, and I had written a play based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata, and there had passed some tortuous conversations with a friend listening to my heart craving New York and that was the way it was, and the decision was at hand. A week later I was in New York.

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