October 21, 2004

Tales of Guthrum

Yesterday, Guthrum wasn't eating. The night before, she wasn't co-operating. It was not a change of policy so much as one of degree. She doesn't eat a lot, and she doesn't co-operate a lot. But in the evening, she drove me to distraction, while her refusal to eat worried me all morning. She's the sort of cat to worry you. Not like fat and friendly Alfred who never goes very far away and is never off his food for very long. She bothers me, and worries me.

She's a biter, a scratcher, a wriggler, a sulker, and - me being a worrier - whenever she goes off her food, or goes off in a huff, I always worry that she won't come back. There were three cats here when I arrived, and the smallest and most shy of them, Ginger, went away and never returned. It touched on all my fears of abandonment and rejection, touched on them not enough to bring them spilling out but just enough to have them wash against the fringes of my mind and let me know they were there. So I worry about Guthrum now. I worry about most things.

She's been more than usually skittish recently, with changes of food and changes of diet, with changes of weather and changes of temperature. She rarely retracts her claws at the best of times, and recently, she's been tearing away at my legs, demanding food even when there is already food on the plate. A few nights ago she tried to bite me, for a reason which I still can't understand, and what was most worrying was that when she tried, she missed, and bit down on the sleeve of my sweater rather than the flesh of my hand.

On Tuesday night she refused to be put to bed. The cats need to be put in the kitchen overnight, with the door bolted to keep them inside, lest they crawl into people's bedrooms at five in the morning and mewl demands for breakfast. Alfred is no problem. You pick him up, you carry him downstairs and when he is in, you put him down and leave him there while he is still working out why the room he is in looks different to the one he was in before. Guthrum, by contrast, will not be picked up. Not for very long. Even after knowing her for more than two years, I can pick her up for just a few seconds and just a few steps. Any more and she twists and shakes and shrieks and bites until you put her down. You have fair warning, because in contrast to Alfred's befuddled silence, she ululates in complaint the moment her feet are made to leave the ground - and that is assuming she does not bite you first.

She can normally be shepherded, patted on the bottom until she moves in the direction of the kitchen, then gently manoeuvered down the last half-flight of stairs and through the door for as long as it takes to close it quickly. Even if that quickly is in contrast to the rest of the slow and painful process. In point of fact it's been easier to get her down there since the diets started, as the kitchen is where the foodbin is and she normally hopes to have another go at it last thing at night. Except on Tuesday night, when she wasn't interested in eating. She wasn't interested in the kitchen. She was scared of the kitchen. She wouldn't go near it, balked at it, wouldn't have gone in if you'd dragged her there. When I managed to nudge her off the settee in the living room, she ran onto the table, and when I nudged her away from there, she ran onto a chair and when I nudged her off the chair she ran across the floor and tried to wedge herself between the newspaper pile and the bookcase. I got her out of there, but it was like trying to remove a Suffragette.

From there she went onto the working table, and from there, back onto the floor, running around my legs and heading back towards the settee. I ran after her and scooped her up, ignoring the flailing of teeth and limbs for long enough to get her into the hallway. I closed the door so she couldn't get back into the living room. She sat pressed up against the door like a child pressed up towards the television.

I tried to nudge her towards the kitchen, but she didn't want to know. If I got her anywhere close she drew back as if she were being asked to walk the plank, twisted round and scurried back to her spot next to the door. I tried to entice her with an open tin of Whiskas. I walked over to her and wafted it in front of her nose, then retreated as slowly as I could towards the kitchen. Her nose followed the smell, and she followed her nose, only as far as the top of the steps leading down to kitchen. Thus far and no further.

By this time it was nearly half past midnight, I'd already put on gloves in order to protect myself and I decided to give up. Before she went down to the kitchen she'd be more likely to run up the stairs, and I couldn't let that happen. So if she wanted to sleep in the living room, there she would have to sleep. I would let her in, shut the door, set an early alarm and let her out to be fed before she could wake anybody else in the house. It wasn't what I should have been doing - unlike the kitchen, which has a cat flap, there's no way out of the house for a cat who doesn't want to be there any more, and it's not a good idea to coop up a cat. But I was exhausted and out of alternative ideas. I let her in, shut her in, and went upstairs and set my alarm for 5.59.

I woke up at eight o'clock. I don't know what happened to my alarm - I turned it off, or I never turned it on. When I went downstairs there was a note saying that Guthrum hadn't been fed, and she herself was back in the sitting-room, curled up on the scratching post on which she refuses to scratch. She was chastened, as a cat is often chastened when it has been locked in accidentally. Her eyes were lacking their usual defiance. She wouldn't move, let alone go to the kitchen for some food. She wouldn't move, or moan at me, or hiss at me if I tried to stroke her. I was mortified.

I even brought her some food, in a bowl and put in front of her where she was slumped. She wouldn't eat it, wouldn't touch it, wouldn't even sniff it, just lay there and looked bleakly and blankly in front of her.

I went to sleep for a while (I do not work on Wednesdays) but when I woke up again she was nothing changed. I went into the kitchen and made myself some lunch, rattled the foodbin all I could, but she showed no interest. I went back to the living room, turned on the PC and put on, for music while I went on the internet, a video of Offenbach's Tales Of Hoffmann, a production starring Placido Domingo and Agnes Baltsa and directed, at Covent Garden, by John Schlesinger.

At the start of the second act (that is, after the interval of this production - it's actually at the start of Act IV) is the famous Barcarolle, which is probably best known today because it was the record played by Robert Begnini in the concentration camp in Life Is Beautiful. Curiously enough it's a piece I've always associated with cats, because I first heard it on a television advert for Bailey's Irish Cream nearly twenty years ago, in which, during a romantic dinner, the chocolate liqueur was passed between the couple above the table while beneath the table, a cat went slinking around the legs. (The effect was rather spoiled by the fact that in the final shot, the cat rolled over and looked almost exactly like Bagpuss.)

Anyway, when the introduction to the duet began I left the PC, ran across the room and turned it up, and stayed in front of the television until it had finished. And when it had finished, I had to hear it again. So I rewound until the screen showed the raising of the curtain, and Claire Powell, as Nicklausse, began the first verse over again:
Belle nuit
Oh nuit d'amour
Souris à nos ivresses
Nuit plus douce que le jour
Oh belle nuit d'amour
And then, with Agnes Baltsa, as Giulietta, joining Powell, came the chorus: and on hearing the chorus, Guthrum, having barely moved for something like five hours, struggled like a giraffe to her feet.
Le temps fuit et sans retour
Emporte nos tendresses
Loin de cet heureux séjour
Le temps fuit sans retour

Guthrum was transformed. She arched her back, and stretched, and shook herself, and scampered across the room, and ate.


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