Tess, that most beautiful and loved of cats, died suddenly early in the morning on Monday, 30 July. We knew that the renal and kidney disease would take their eventual toll, but had hoped that it would still be some months before the end came. And, during what we now know was the last week of her life, she carried on as normal (albeit in a slightly reduced capacity): she hunted voles, she slept, she ate roast chicken, she watched the birds, she went on little walks, and she slept some more. And then, I think, she just decided that it was time. Her death came quickly - probably within 10 minutes – and I am convinced that she waited for me and Bassman to come downstairs before she said good-bye.
So, this is me, saying good-bye to my girl. Because before she was our cat, before she found stardom in Bassman’s blog, she was just my cat. And this is how it all started.
|Suggs. Gone, but still loved.|
You had me at the first yowl: Prior to Tess and Bassman, I shared the Rural Retreat with someone else and his two cats. When that relationship came to an end in 2004, I got custody of the Retreat and the cats. Unfortunately, within six months of each other, both of the cats had to be put to sleep. I was devastated but knew that, someday, I’d have other cats to love; to me, having future cats is a way of honouring the love that I feel for all of my previous cats.
Anyway, by the time of my birthday in October 2005, I felt ready to open my heart to new cats. I was clear that I wanted two, and headed off to the SSPCA to have a look. The staff person directed me to a pen that held a young mother and one of her kittens, who were being rehomed together. The mum was a lovely white and black cat, very friendly and docile, and the kitten was as adorable as only kittens can be. I didn’t feel an immediate burst of love for them but I figured that would come with time, and tentatively committed to taking them home with me the next day.
On my way out of the cat section, my attention was caught by a skinny, shouting tabby cat. She was very pretty, and I’ve always had a soft spot for tabby cats, but she was just one cat and I wanted two. Still, I asked the staff person about this wee cat with the loud, rasping voice who was definitely making her presence known. The tabby had been with the SSPCA for almost six months; no one wanted her once they heard that she had been left at the SSPCA because she had been aggressive in her previous home. The staff person also said – because ‘we’re ethically bound to point this out’ – that the tabby also had been aggressive to staff and they all had the scratch marks to prove it. They were thinking about sending her out of area in a week or so to see if a different branch would have better luck at rehoming her.
I shouldn’t have – because I really wanted two cats – but I asked if I could have a closer look at her. When I walked into the pen, the tabby walked up to me with her tail in the air; I held out my hand for her to smell, and she bumped her cheek against my fingers. I bent to pick her up, which caused the staff person to quickly say, ‘She doesn’t like that…’ But too late. I already had an armful of purring, snuggling cat. ‘Huh,’ said the staff person, ‘never seen her do that before.’ But I really wanted two cats so I reluctantly put the tabby back down and left, with her shouts ringing in my ears.
That night, I couldn’t get the tabby out of my head and, when I woke up the next morning, I had made a decision. I went back to the SSPCA first thing and, an hour later, left with a shouting, yowling tabby cat who was whizzing around like a Tasmanian Devil in the cat basket - and the staff person was left with several gashes in her hand as a result of micro-chipping the tabby and then trying to get her into the carrier. (Important note: There had been serious interest in the mum cat and kitten after I had left the previous day, so they would be going home with someone too.)
The tabby cat, as you will have figured out, was the cat who became Tess. (She came without a name. I chose Tess after ‘tessera,’ which is an individual tile used in creating a mosaic. She was a small piece that had an important place in a bigger whole.) Although this was the first time that she got her own way with me, it certainly wasn’t to be the last.
Learning to live together:
|A brave cat, at the end of the first week|
As soon as I let Tess out of the carrier at home, she hid under the dining table and didn’t come out during the day for three days. I sat on the floor for those three days where she could see me but didn’t make eye contact with her; I talked to her constantly. On the third day, she finally crept out to take a treat from my hand but retreated back under the table at any sudden movements or sounds.
It was different at night. As soon as the lights went out, Tess began to yowl. And yowl. And yowl. She truly did not stop for the entire night. I understand about not reinforcing negative behaviour and resolved to ignore the yowling until it stopped but, by the third night of no sleep, I couldn’t take it any longer. I moved myself downstairs and slept on the sofa with the light on. Tess didn’t come near me, but at least the yowling stopped. This was the second time that she got her own way with me, and me sleeping on the sofa to keep her company when she was upset or lonely or bored became a pattern. But I didn’t mind.
As I got to know Tess, I realised that she was not an aggressive cat. She was a traumatised and neglected cat. Any sudden movements, especially towards her head, either made her run away or strike out with her claws. When she finally, after several weeks, let me begin to stroke her, it became clear that her hindquarters were particularly sensitive; stroking her too close to them would also result in a flash of claws. Some cats, just like some people, don’t like being touched in certain ways. When her limits were respected, though, she was the gentlest of cats. And, even when Bassman or I got it wrong, she always gave plenty of warning. If we were too foolish to ignore that – well, that was our problem, not Tess’s.
|Learning to play|
Tess didn’t know how to play; I spent a great deal of time encouraging her to chase a piece of string, chase balls, chase toys etc. She eventually got the hang of the string and her ‘mouse on a string’ became her favourite toy, but balls sent her running away in a panic. She didn’t seek out affection; it was almost a year and a half before she invited herself onto my lap but, even then, she crouched rather than snuggled. She kept herself alert for danger, ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
But none of this mattered. I loved the cat that she was, loved her feisty nature and ‘fuck you, world’ attitude, loved the small signs that she was coming to trust me, and had no desire or need to make her into a different cat….I don’t know her history before she came to me. All the SSPCA knew was that she had been dropped off in a box after hours, with a note saying that she bit and scratched. Over the years, the vet made some educated guesses as to what Tess's early life might have been like. The crumbly nature of Tess’s teeth, which resulted in multiple dental surgeries and most of her teeth needing to be removed, was likely the result of poor nutrition as a kitten. Her intolerance of sudden movements towards her head was likely the result of having received a blow of some kind - whether from a person or an object, we'll never know - to her face as she had always been missing all of the smaller teeth in the front of her mouth. And her exaggerated startle response to loud sounds and quick movements certainly was not indicative of a cat who had been loved and cared for.
Life before Bassman: Tess and I were on our own for almost two years before Bassman joined us. She became a very talkative, expressive cat who liked to have a good conversation (mostly about food, it must be said. She was a cat, after all, not a member of a debating team.). I could tell by her tone of voice whether she was hungry, whether she was bored and wanted her mouse on a string, whether she had caught a vole and wanted me to come and watch her eat it, and whether she was panicked because it was night and it was dark and she didn’t know where I was (usually in bed, trying to sleep).
|Ready for some bathroom love|
She became affectionate but on her own terms and in her own way. She much preferred to wind herself around and bump her head against my ankles when I was sitting on the loo (apologies if that is too much information) and to shout from the bedroom until I went upstairs and lay down on the bed with her than to snuggle on my lap on the sofa. She occasionally permitted me to pick her up for a cuddle; she would politely purr and stay in my arms long enough for me to not feel rebuffed, but made it very clear when she was ready to be back at ground level. She was often waiting for me at the top of the drive when I arrived home from work but would promptly set about ignoring me, as though it was somehow too risky to let me know that she cared.
She stayed by my side throughout the winter of 2006, when I had a horrible viral infection that meant that I couldn’t breathe lying down. We sat and snuggled together on the sofa during the long nights when I struggled to catch my breath and we walked slowly in the garden together when I began to regain my strength. In fact, she liked nothing better than to walk with me up the farm track and climb over the drystone wall, into the woods, where she pretended that she was a tiger, slinking through the jungle in search of prey. (In reality, she would give a frantic yowl whenever I got out of sight, but I suppose that even tigers need their mums sometimes.) And she proved herself a good judge of character as she saw off several unsuitable suitors, offending one of them so much with her dismissive behaviour that he refused to return to the house because ‘Your cat hates me.’ Yes, she did and, by the end of our brief involvement, so did I. But that’s another story.
Two become three: And then Bassman came onto the scene. Tess immediately gave her approval; just as well, because if she hadn’t, there would have been no further dates. The three of us fit together so well even from the beginning and Bassman, like me, saw and valued Tess’s unique qualities and had no wish for her to be a different kind of cat (although I’m sure that he could have done without the 4am yowlings).
|Waiting for Richy to finish the scaffolding|
For her part, Tess really seemed to relax with the added dimension that Bassman brought. It became apparent that, although her primary bond was with me, she really couldn’t be bothered with other women. I did have sympathy for my cat-loving female friends who would crawl after Tess and try to entice her to come close enough for a cuddle, only to have her flip her tail contemptuously at them as she nipped out the cat flap. No, Tess liked the boys. Bassman’s lap quickly became the lap of choice and she much preferred him over me when it came to brushing her. She enjoyed helping Richy the Builder and Norman the Painter, following them around the garden as they carried out their jobs. She was completely comfortable with Tony the Cat-sitter and with Squirrel James and his son Jack, allowing all of them to make a fuss over her. We even caught her allowing Francis the Postie to tickle her tummy a couple of times. Such a little tart…but amazing to see her relax with other people after such a difficult, difficult start to her life.
Bassman has written eloquently and accurately in his blog over the last five years about Tess’s quirky, eccentric, take-no-prisoners approach to life, complete with photos that utterly capture her character. There’s no need for me to repeat all of that here, and you can have a rummage through his blog to either remind yourselves or to learn for the first time about what a brave, valiant, irreplaceable cat she was. All that’s left for me to say is how thankful and honoured I am that Tess chose me to spend her life with and, even if that life was much too short and the sadness at the moment is much too much, I wouldn’t have traded my time with her for any other cat in the world.
Most Beautiful, I will miss you forever.
And with an Elvis snarl, the cat left the building. (Cat noises supplied by Bassman.)