July 26, 2005

Fattest of cats

Alfred is dead. I knew he was dead as soon as I saw bad news was the email's subject line. The news was worse than bad. A few nights ago, while he was sleeping outside the front door, he was attacked by a Staffordshire terrier. Though the neighbours pulled the dog away, it was too late. Alfred's sternum was broken and his thorax punctured. The injuries were too bad to give any real hope of recovery and it was agreed not to make the attempt. I was shocked to hear the news, shocked and shaken up. Alfie was a friend of mine. He was my favourite cat.

For two and a half years I looked forward to coming home each night because I would see him when I got back. Often - generally if no-one was home before me, so he was hungry for his dinner - he'd be waiting along the road, emerging from the garden or from behind a stationary car. At one point there were three cats in the house and each of them would be waiting along the road, all at different points, until all three were scurrying along behind me as I walked. (At such times, especially if it was growing dark, I was half-inclined to cry "my cheeldren of the night!!" for the benefit of the rest of the street.)

When I turned from the street towards the front door, the cats, without any apparent increase in exertion, would accelerate and appear in front of me, all unwilling to be any slower getting inside, all unwilling to be any further from their bowls, than was absolutely necessary. None more unwilling than Alfie. For it was the prospect of dinner in the evening that gave meaning to his afternoon.

I have a photo of him at my desk, crouching by a pot in the garden, showing off his white front, his black back and his little pink nose. I have a lot of photos of him, though I never got the pose I really wanted. I wanted a snap of Alfie sitting back, with his front paws in the air, much in the manner of a teddy bear: a pose the feline form is not designed to allow unless a lot of weight has been added to the bottom. But Alfie had added plenty of weight to the bottom.

The last time he was weighed, the scales reached 5.9 kilogrammes, which was half a kilogramme more, in the opinion of the vet, than was Alfie's proper weight. The opinion of the vet and the opinion of Alfie himself were somewhat at odds on this question, since Alfie felt his proper weight was always approximately one breakfast more than he had already eaten. Perhaps he just wanted to stock up for fear of missing it the next day, since when breakfast was actually being prepared he would crawl as far up the front of the dishwasher as he could, clawing for the bowl lest I change my mind at the last minute and give his food to someone else.

Clawing, mewing, pleading, stretching, wishing that the extra inches he had added to his width had been added to his length instead. While I spooned the Whiskas into his bowl I would sympathise: oh, no! what's going to happen Alfie? suppose he changes his mind? and then, relieving him from his agonies, lower the bowl to ground level with the promise: we shall not let poor Alfie starve.

He would eat with an enthusiasm, with a will, that I have never seen elsewhere in beast nor man. He didn't eat so much as shovel. He approached his food not from the top of the pile, as any normal cat would do, but from the side, with an action like a JCB, pushing into it, scooping from below while munching from above. No morsel could escape, except by being pushed over the edge of his bowl and falling to the floor. He attacked it, he harrassed it, he demolished it. He forced his food to flee. The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, but the Assyrian was no match for Alfie falling on his breakfast. In no other activity did he demonstrate such energy and determination: indeed, in no other activity did he very often demonstrate any energy or determination. But breakfast was the making of him, and it made a lot of him. He loved his breakfast, and I loved to watch him eat.

Nor was he sated once breakfast had been consumed, for he would immediately start on a second breakfast and never mind that it belonged to another cat. Had they been unwise and unfortunate enough to eat more slowly than he had - which they would, for that was true of any cat, not just his housemates - they would simply be muscled out of their place on the principle that his need (and his capacity to muscle) was greater than theirs. If they were to get their share it was necessary to intervene, to pick up Alfie and deposit him outside, and lock the intervening door. Against which he would press himself, suffering at the thought and sound of breakfast being present, yet being eaten by another cat than him.

Guthrum, however, was usually too picky to eat her breakfast at one go and would usually walk off and leave half of it (oh Alfie, look, she doesn't even want it, it's so unfair) meaning that her bowl had to be placed on the work surface, another bowl put on top of it, and hopefully the cat and her breakfast would be reconciled later on. Alfie knew about this and occasionally, later, the bowl would be found empty, like an Egyptian tomb plundered by thieves. Sometimes it was even possible to catch him at it, or nearly catch him at it: one would walk into the hallway and hear a thud from the kitchen, which involved Alfie having dropped to the floor on thinking he'd been overheard. He was not light on his feet: one often saw him thinking very carefully before he made a jump. He was, as I have said, a heavy cat. A very heavy cat.

Attached to the front of the fridge was a photograph of Alfie, in which he was to be seen investigating the contents of the fridge. To think of Alfie was to think of food. Come to that, to think of food was to think of Alfie. From this love of food he acquired nearly all his nicknames, the exception being Alfredo, which I occasionally rendered as in Antoine de Caunes' Rapido (Alf! Alf! Alf! Alf-re-do!) or sometimes introduced for colour when I was maundering to the cats in French. (Ici, Guthrum, le chat qui marche. Et ici, Alfredo, le chat qui mange. Il est gros, Alfredo.) But other than that I created many nicknames deriving from his love of food. Mr Creosote. Alfred the Weight. Captain Fat. Supersize Me. Two Breakfasts. Two breakfasts? He'd have liked to have a breakfast for each separate nickname.

I also sang to him, making use of the happy circumstance that in English, cat is a rhyme for fat. I did Rodgers and Hammerstein:

There is nothing like a cat
Nothing quite so fat
There is nothing quite so fat
That is anything like a cat!

and Harburg and Allen:

We're off to see the kitty
The wonderful kitty the cat
He really is a bit of a kit
Although he's extremely fat.

I sang of his waistline as the poet sings of the courage of the King. Of Alfie's courage I sang but little, for he was not a brave cat, unless by "brave" one means merely the absence of fear. He was not disturbed by Guy Fawkes' night. While other cats, at the first explosion, will scuttle to the cellar and refuse to come out till morning, Alfie would take no interest in the racket, however long it lasted. It took him no time at all to establish that the bangs were nothing that he wanted to eat, and little more time to establish that they were not going to eat him. Consequently they were little more than an irrelevance, affecting him only in so far as they affected his sleep.

They did not, on the whole. Once he settled down he was not the sort of cat who sleeps with one eye open. He was, rather, the sort of cat who shuts down for the duration. In fact, he was the sort of cat who often looks half asleep when awake and walking around - his was not the alertness of the tiger - and when he walked around it was usually only to move from one sleeping-place to another. This, he did more rarely than many other cats do, but he was more amenable than many other cats to being moved from one sleeping-place to another. It was, for instance, entirely possible, should the settee be required, to scoop him up from his place on the cushion, take him outside and deposit him on his favourite stair instead. As long as he maintained much the same shape throughout, he was perfectly happy with the new arrangement.

Guthrum, in contrast, would scream and howl, and scratch, and bite, and thrash about, and squirm, and if you tried to tip her off the computer chair, would hang on to it even at a vertical angle as if she was on the deck of the Titanic. Alfie exhibited no such desperation. Most of the time, one sleeping-place was quite as good as another. But he did possess his species' habitual innovation when it comes to finding new and attractive places to sleep. He was, for instance, once discovered in a hammock that he had created from a sheet that was draped over a clothes-horse.

He was not overfond of staring. Cats, on the whole, are formidable starers. Many of the houses further down my street are like those New York houses which have a row of stone steps leading up to a raised front door: I went past one the other night and there were three cats, positioned on the top two steps, staring at me.

It was hypnotically beautiful. Three piercing pairs of eyes tracking me from the gloom. Cats have power in their stare, and they like to exert it. In pursuit of that occupation they are formidable sitters. Nobody sits like a cat does. Nobody spends quite so much time selecting the place, position and angle of their sit. More often than not, this is so that they may take the high ground and look down on you physically, to match they way they look at you metaphorically.

Alfred did this but rarely. He more than once leapt onto my chest of drawers in order to stare down at me when I was lying on my bed, but as leaping was an activity which he preferred to avoid (indeed, he tried to avoid activity as such) he preferred the lower to the higher ground, eschewing fences and walls for chairs and floors. He liked tables, too, not because of the vantage point they gave but because of the flat surface and the generosity of spread. Once he settled on a flat surface he would spread out, encroaching little by little on the slowly disappearing space around him. If you let him sit next to the PC as you typed, before long you would be typing round and over him as he began to envelope the keyboard.

Newspapers he was attached to like a comfort blanket. If one was unfolded on the table he would summon, not only sufficient energy to jump up and appropriate it for a rug, but sufficient energy to do so several more times, seeing if he could wear out your willingness to remove him before his ability to keep on jumping ran out. If you had breakfast on the table, that willingness was redoubled or even trebled. No plate could be left unattended lest it be licked.

I said that he was not a brave cat. He was not, at any rate, a hunter. It was too much effort. Alfie had a fine sense of what was, or was not, worth his while, and as a matter of principle his inclination was to not. In the matter of chasing other creatures, there were very few that were neither faster, nor more nimble than he was, nor able to escape by either climbing or being able to fly. This left very little by way of game, save slugs. These, when they infiltrated the kitchen, he would stalk, and subsequently eat. (Unless, that is, there were several of them together near his bowl, when he would get scared and nervous and try to keep away from them. I said that he was not a brave cat.)

It is rare for the domestic cat to hunt with any intention of eating its prey, and Alfie was not wise to go against his nature, since he would usually be sick, leaving the entrails of the slug in the resulting pile. Alfie was sick often, as the habitual overeater is wont to be, but he was curiously considerate in his vomiting, preferring, almost always, to make his deposit on a smooth floor that could be cleaned up much more easily than if he had puked up on the carpet. But Alfie knew who his friends were. They were the people who fed him and cleaned up after he was sick. He was a friendly cat.

He was not often friendly to Guthrum, and they lived up to the historical record (without, of course, the reconciliation) of the warring parties after which they were named, by fighting each other through the whole of their disputed domain. Occasionally they would grab each other and roll around scratching and screeching to such an extent that it resembled a fight in a cartoon, with claws and teeth emerging out of a cloud of confusion.

Remarkably, nobody ever seemed to get hurt in these fights, though Alfred got the better of them, having an enormous advantage in weight and bulk, if not in the sheer aggression which was Guthrum's speciality and her inevitable response. Sometimes, in fact, he would simply jump on top of her to make his weight advantage count. But whatever the tale of the tape, it was usually Guthrum who did most of the running away, which she did with speed and ease, often running out of the back door, through the garden and over the fence.

As a rule, no sooner had she done so, and Alfie had returned to the house to claim it for his very own, than she would come back to have another go. In that house, therefore, there was a lot of separating cats, a lot of carrying them off to separate rooms and a lot of shutting doors to keep them in for as long as we could stand the scratching. But they were a wonderful double-act, as different as two cats could be, one fat, one thin, one placid, one aggressive, one friendly, one ferocious, one trying to be a teddy bear, one trying to be a tiger. They were balanced, more equally matched than the immediate result of their close-range battles tended to suggest.

Besides, Guthrum, even if she was denied her chance for immediate revenge, would choose to take it cold instead. After a fight she would let time elapse, until Alfred had long forgotten it. She would then hurry up to him and punch him on the nose, as many as three times in rapid succession, before running away as if she had knocked off a policeman's helmet. Alfie would put on a puzzled expression, before, undamaged, sloping off for another period of sleep.

He had relatively little contact with other cats, unlike Guthrum who would traverse several gardens for the chance to take on two at once. Out the back, Alfie rarely went much further than the garden next door, the fence on that side being full of holes, the house being full of people (and therefore full of people to whom he could plead an unlikely hunger) and the sound of tin on bowl, or of somebody opening a cupboard, or of somebody looking at a cupboard, still being close enough to hear. His territory was the kitchen and he needed little else.

He had a doppleganger though, or at least a close match, a tom of similar size, colour and pattern, but one who unlike Alfie roamed as far as he could go. He seemed to wish, Alexander-like, to claim territory from one end of the street to the other and across both sides of the street, front gardens and back, an entire empire. He even came in the back door one night and marked the kitchen as his own, something which provoked a cacophony of howling, uniting Alf and Guthrum in mutual protection against a common enemy.

The doppleganger came into the back garden on a few occasions, to which I was alerted, at various late hours of the night, by the keening that Alfie began, as he and the doppleganger faced each other across the garden while I struggled into my shoes. I would then go out and saw off the intruder, shooing him off while Alfred stayed close to my side for safety.

Out the front, Alfie usually kept quite close to the house, rarely going much further than immediately across the road. The exception came when I was off to work. He would follow me down the street, ignoring all my pleas for him to turn around until I would, inevitably, have to pick him up and carry him home, regardless of how late I might be running. I didn't want him following me so far that he lost track of where I was, because I feared that if he did, he wouldn't be there to chase me home when I came back in the evening.

I loved to pick him up, though. He had no problem with being picked up, or held, or turned over on his back and tickled till his dignity was lost entirely. He could be carried round all day, and probably would have been if he could have made that happen. He would simply pop out his paws and place them on my chest as I carried him about. He would let me carry him while I sat, settling in the cradle of my arms and, when he knew me well enough, stretching out a paw a few affectionate inches. How I beamed. And sometimes, when I was laid out on the settee, when he came and plonked himself, with the heaviest of plonks, on my chest, he would stretch out as he settled into sleep and put his paw all the way up to my neck. So I would hug him, gently, back, and we would nod off in mutual harmony, man and cat together. He was so good for me.

He was measurably good for me. In times that have been difficult, in times that sometimes have been desperately difficult, to share affections with a cat, especially with a cat that one could pick up and hug, kept me both sane and human. He was there. He was always there, cuddly, unchanging and reliable. For thirty months I loved to watch him, to listen to him, to separate him from Guthrum, to have him on my chest, to sing to him, to make sure he was fed. But most of all I loved to pick him up, to come down to the hallway or come in from outside, to pick him up with one swift movement and rest him on top of my arms and to tell him: Alfie! Alfredo! You cat! You fat cat! Fattest of cats! FATTEST OF CATS!

Well, you cannot hold someone so often in your arms and then fail to know the pain they feel. So I know pain. I know Alfie's pain, and I know mine. For Alfie is dead, and dead in such a dreadful way, attacked while sleeping, when he loved to sleep, by the front door where he felt so safe. Unable to escape, unable probably to understand what was happening or why. I am devastated to hear about his end, when he was such a cat, such a fantastic cat, my favourite cat of all the cats that I have ever known. He should have lived to be a hundred, slowly plodding between eating-place and sleeping-place, hammocking in the washing, puking in the hallway, brawling with Guthrum, clawing his way up the dishwasher, shovelling up his breakfast.

If he could not have the hundred years that he deserved, he should at least have had his natural span, another ten years or a dozen. But he did not, and while I am angry at the world for many reasons, just now - even while bombs are going off in my city, while the police are assassinating innocent strangers from abroad - I am angry about this. He was my friend, my fat and lovely friend, he was fabulous, he was the fattest of cats. He was Alfred and I loved him and I'm angry that he's dead.


At July 26, 2005 9:35 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lovely epitaph (are they only on graves?) - thank you for giving me something to pore over and remember him by.


At July 26, 2005 11:08 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, both funny and achingly sad, a wonderful eulogy for the fattest of cats.

At July 27, 2005 1:28 am, Anonymous Sean said...

I'm so sorry to hear this Justin, I really am. Poor Alfredo.

At July 27, 2005 10:41 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This brought tears to my eyes... poor Alfred, your writing brought him to life for me, so I can feel your pain at his death.


At July 27, 2005 1:51 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your writing evoked shock that it happened, outrage that it could happen, sickness due to how it happened, but most of all sadness for you and Alfie, and of course Guthrum.

At July 28, 2005 1:13 pm, Blogger phylos said...

I had to pick my cats up and hug them after reading this - I feel for your loss

At July 28, 2005 4:40 pm, Blogger Nick Brown said...

Very sad and beautifully written. I know how sad I would be if something similar happened to my cat. Very sorry to hear it.

At July 28, 2005 5:18 pm, Anonymous Anna said...

I am sitting at my desk with tears in my eyes. I really do feel for you and wish I had known your fantastic cat.

I am so, so sorry for what you are going through. Never met you and never will but am sending you love anyway.

At August 04, 2005 8:49 am, Anonymous Juliet said...

Thank you for writing about Alfie so movingly. Your words sparked off so many memories of Alfred he was truly the most teddy bear like cat in the world.

I have pinned up a photo next to my computer of him as a tiny kitten meeting Ginger (the third cat you mention?) for the first time.

Thank you for loving him as you did.

At August 10, 2005 11:15 pm, Blogger Just Jane said...

I get annoyed with my cats. They wake me up at unearthly hours of the morning because they fancy popping out, then they wake me up again by howling on the doorstep because they fancy coming back in. I trod on a dead bird Sophie had left by the back door the other night, and it wasn't nice.George bites my ankle when he is hungry, and it hurts. But you have reminded me how much I love them, and how devastated I would be if anything happened to them.I'm so sorry about Alfred. He was clearly a truely great cat.

At August 19, 2006 12:26 am, Anonymous chjh said...

Justin - Thank you, thank you. We love cats both for being ridiculous and being sublime, and you capture that brilliantly. The image of Alfred detecting someone looking at a cupboard is one that will stay with me.


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