Tuesday, 22 May 2012
Whiskers McChimney… a cat’s tale.
I always reckoned a cat would earn his own name and this big stray tom staring at me from the back of the cat box was to be no exception. Two big dark eyes set in a broad head of dirty white fur didn’t blink as I looked in and it was quite clear this boy was in no mood for purring or stroking.
I came by this muckle big lump through someone who takes in rescue animals; she’d heard I was looking for a cat who’d offer natural protection from the hungry hordes of rabbits, mice, rats, moles and all manner of furry creatures who continually eat my house and garden. A cat who’d be used to being outside and could look after himself; a four year old feral Tom Cat sounded just the ticket.
Fiona (my girlfriend) picked him up and we took him up to the cottage along with a litter tray, some food and a big cage. We needed to keep him in for a few weeks to get him used to the place as he’d never been in a house nor had much contact with humans; he lived since a kitten in a derelict school building which had recently been demolished, leaving him prey to neighbourhood cats and children. It was a rough neighbourhood and he had a few war wounds to show for it. Once he was familiar and comfortable with his new surroundings, we’d allow him out.
We let him out in my big country cottage kitchen with long table, couch and open fireplace; thought we’d let him explore his new surroundings in his own time and just ignore him while we ate at the table. He immediately dived under the dresser and didn’t come out for the rest of the evening. We left his cage door open and put inside some food, an old jumper for a bed and his litter tray.
The next morning he was nowhere to be seen although we’d heard him raking about in the night. I found him cowering behind the Hammond organ and decided I’d get him into his cage as we were out for day. This didn’t go quite according to plan as he was absolutely not allowing me touch him. He bolted; behind the couch, across the floor, to the cupboard, squeezed into a gap, then saw some daylight, but didn’t see the closed window between him and said daylight. I’d never before seen a cat claw vertically up a window pane. This mad scaredy cat ball of fur and claws bouncing off walls, pots and pans clanging, dining chairs knocked over, things crashing and clattering and general mayhem wasn’t a good start. This wasn’t a good introduction to close-quarter living with humans. He would find a place to cower and if I even went near, he’d dive for other cover and Fiona was getting quite distressed at all this. We were thinking he’d be better just left when he made another dash for sanctuary. I head Fiona scream as I saw, in the fireplace, a big fluffy ginger and white cat’s tail disappear up the chimney.
Fiona was upset and I didn’t help by finding the whole situation hilariously funny for I kinda knew that there is no way I could get him out of there save for get a chimney sweep, and I didn’t have time for that - I had a job on that Saturday. I thought he’d come down of his own accord when we were out and the place was quiet. I cleaned out the fireplace and covered it with a white dustsheet; if he comes down, we’ll see paw prints. I left some food and water on the hearth and put the cage in front like a big fireguard, with his bedding and litter tray inside and headed out to work.
On the way back, I was picking up my good friend Peter the Piano, a talented jazz/blues musician with an insatiable taste for whisky and late nights. He was coming over for a few days of music and open fires. When we got to the cottage, there was no sign of - I’d half expected a sooty chaos of a kitchen and a black cat hiding somewhere, but the dustsheet was pristine - not even had a speck of soot fallen from the chimney, suggesting he hadn’t even been moving around. We pondered on different plans to get him out. Peter suggested lighting a fire but I’d already considered it and reckoned that wouldn’t end well, particularly as I’d promised Fiona I wouldn’t.
We wondered if the cat had managed to get right out the top of the chimney - if he can claw his way vertically up a window, then anything could be possible. I decided to climb on the roof and have a look down to see if there was any scratch marks inside the chimney pot. Then we wondered if we could scare him out by shouting down the chimney and I had the brainwave to take my euphonium up and blast a few big parps down. Surely that would shift him. After a precarious scramble, the bell of my oompha was over the chimney pot and I was blowing furiously down with Peter listening at the hearth. According to Peter, the acoustics were great for the sound, there was no feline movement to be heard. The Hammond was too ungainly to haul up onto the roof so we gave up on that idea.
It was a warm summer evening; we took the Hammond out onto the lawn and fired up the chimenea, leaving the kitchen in peace. The tunes and whisky were beginning to flow and Ian from across the fell turned up to join the banter. We had a rowdy old night out in the garden with Hammond organs, electric guitars, euphoniums and a plethora of other instruments augmented with Johnny Walker and enthusiasm until we eventually crashed out.
Ian kipped on the couch in the kitchen and in the morning, said he’d not heard a sound. All day, Peter and I kept out the kitchen, and still not a sign. Surely he must be getting hungry or at the very least thirsty and it concerned me he’d not had any drinking water as I know dehydration is very dangerous for a cat. Monday morning and still no sign. I had to go to work and left Peter to hang out at the cottage. When I got home still no evidence of cat movement. I set up my camping stove in the hearth and boiled a pan of tinned pilchards to let the aroma up the chimney; I reckoned the cat must be starving by now and could not ignore the delicious smell of stinky fish. Nothing. We left the pan of pilchards in the hearth and turned in for the night. Tuesday morning and still no speck of soot nor cat and Tuesday evening when I came in from work was the same. I boiled up the pilchards again and left them for the night. Wednesday morning was the same and when I got in from work that evening we were forming the conclusion that Harry wasn’t in the chimney - there’s no way, we figured, a cat would stay up there for five days and forego food and water, especally when he could smell it. I scoured the internet and asked advice from everyone I knew who had cats and we all came to the same conclusion… that Harry Houdini had made his escape, was twenty miles away by now and not looking back.
The weather was on the turn and getting cold - couldn’t go without a fire on much longer. I rolled up a load of newspapers and lit them in the fireplace and threw on some green hedge clippings. This would produce little heat but would send up a thick acrid plume which would surely make him move if he was in there. As the white smoke rose, we listened and listened. Nothing. No sound of any movement whatsoever. We let the smoky fire burn down and waited a good half hour before we were finally satisfied there was indeed no cat in that chimney. We lit the fire again, with paper, kindling and firewood and in no time at all, a good blaze was licking up the chimney. We set about getting our dinner ready, poured wine and put some cool tunes on for inspiration.
Suddenly there was a black avalanche of soot pouring down onto the fireplace and hearth. SHIT! THE CAT!! Quick as a flash, I grabbed for a pan of cold water while Peter started to pull the burning wood out the fire, but even quicker was the sooty, singed and very determined cat who launched himself from inside the chimney breast without even touching the burning wood. He landed four black feet on the stone floor and shot straight into the nearest open cupboard full of clean crockery. I reached in and grabbed him, avoiding angry claws and teeth long enough to get him into the cage and shut the door. Peter & I looked at each other in speechless, heart pounding amazement at what had just occurred.
If I felt bad at what had happened, the cat looked even worse. Almost completely black with soot, eyes all crusty and foaming at the mouth as he tried to catch his breath, he must have been starving and badly dehydrated as well as possible smoke inhalation and burns. I couldn’t let him lick all that soot off and his whiskers were singed to little short and curlies. I put some food in front of him, splashed water around his mouth and wiped his face as best I could. This was not a happy cat. I phoned the vet.
The vet receptionist eventually stopped laughing at my story;
“You better bring him in.”
First thing next morning I was at the vet, gave the receptionist my name.
“Ah, the chimney sweep.” she replied.
“Aye, that’s the one. I’ve got a rather sooty boy for you to have a look at.”
The receptionist explained that I hadn’t given the cat’s name, so they registered him as “The Chimney Sweep.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “Appropriate in the circumstances, and we haven’t had him long enough to decide a name.” This was true. Initially, due to his heroic attempts as escape, we were calling him Houdini, or Harry the Hood; after such an epic escapology failure, maybe that wasn’t the name.
Soon he had a clean bill of health and I had a vet’s bill - I’d been ‘burned’, not the cat. They’d knocked him out so he wouldn’t fight, cleaned him up, checked him over and cut short his claws so he couldn’t scratch. So much for me giving this boy a good home - instead, I’d given him the most traumatic week of his life; our relationship was not off to a good start. I took him home and put him in the cage.
After a week in the cage and no dramatic events, he would let me stroke him a bit but he didn’t want to come out. He wouldn’t let me pick him up but I could pick up the bed he was lying in so long as I didn’t touch him but once out the cage he would run for cover. I didn’t think he would attempt the chimney with a fire on. That was a misjudgement of character and with the fire burning, he jumped at the chimney but not fast enough and without claws to scrape his way back up into the black abyss. I grabbed his hind legs and pulled him down as he tried to paw his way up, serving only to pull a load of soot over his face again, looking like Wiley Coyote when the cigar explodes in his mouth. We both avoided getting burnt and I man handled him upstairs into the shower. I’m not paying another vet’s bill for you, boy. With a firm grip of the scruff of his neck, I gave him the Alberto Balsam shampoo treatment, rolled him up in an old towel and held onto him until dry. This was the strange thing; wrapped in a towel, he didn’t object to sitting on my knee by the fire (with the fireguard on). No struggling or hissing so long as I didn’t touch him. The one time I did try to pick him up, he sunk his teeth in my hand, and it wasn’t a playful bite either, this was a clear “leave me alone or I’ll kill you” kind of bite. This boy had some ‘issues’.
A few more days passed and he still showed no interest in being sociable or even coming out his bed when there were people around. He couldn’t live out his life imprisoned in a cage in my kitchen so it was time to let him outside. I put him in his carry crate, put it in a shaded part of the garden, opened the door and stood back. He didn’t move for ages, but eventually put his nose out, took a smell of outside then like a bold of lightning, flashed across the garden, cleared the wall and road in a single bound and the cattle grid in a second bound and disappeared.
An hour later, I wandered down the road to see if I could spot him and there, a few hundred yards from the cottage, in the whin bushes, two big dark eyes set in a broad head of dirty white fur stared back at me. This big lad knew how to look after himself and that was how he preferred things. I never saw him again.