Sometimes I’m sure that my cat thanks me. He is so dark that when he’s in shadow, all I can see are his eyes, and I know from the way he looks at me, then rests his eyelids, that he is thanking me for the life he now has. He was a stud cat for his first year. Kept in an outdoor cage and made to mate on demand. When I took him home he was emaciated and strung out, his ribs and muscles visible through his ratty coat. It was a while before he could trust me.
I took one of his kittens, too, an adorable little lilac, a rarity in a dark chocolate litter. We named him Kafka.
Last night Kafka was killed by a car, aged just three, and his dad is now sniffing around for his son and yowling at me. He saw his dead son, wrapped up in a towel on our living room floor. Kaf’s face was still pretty, but his body was frozen, stiff with rigor mortis, his spirit gone.
I’ve had cats all through my life and I’ve witnessed them dying from cancer, old age, even squashed by an unattached door (that was the worst), but I’ve never had a cat who’s died after being hit by a car.
But I once witnessed it happen. I was ten years old, spending my summer in Tuscany at my father’s villa. I was watching tiny feral kittens skittering about among the wheels of the parked cars on the pebble drive. They were small and fluffy, as tabby kitten are. Their mother was a stray, taken in by the members of my dad’s commune. My brother and I and our friends named her Calvin Klein after the ads on the telly. ‘Calvin Klein’s Obsession.’
My dad lived in a big villa on the outskirts of Florence with about five other couples, all with names given to them by their Indian guru – Niten, Mukti, Navyo, Yatri, Upshara, to name a few. My dad was called Purvodaya by his friends (but never by me). There were always people coming and going, stopping off from their travels, arriving in a camper van or Mercedes. Many of them were tall, bearded and German.
I was leaning out of the dining room window when a car pulled out of the drive, and the kittens were running about, and one of them got trapped beneath the wheel. It was crushed and killed. It was shocking. The image stayed with me for weeks, months, even years. I wonder now if it was symptomatic of the general free-flow of these Indian-named westerners and their preoccupation with themselves, their lack of care.
Something happened to me, the year my daughter turned six. The world came alive again for the first time, it seemed, since the birth of my two children, almost as if I was emerging from a chrysalis. I realise now that I’d been in a kind of torpor. My father died when my daughter was just four months old, tragically from drink, and this, combined with new motherhood, had sucked me in to some internal quiet place that had felt necessary, safe, but also stifling. As the world coloured around me, I cried for my daughter. My father left my family home when I was six and it broke my heart, split me in two. It was almost as if I were reliving that time, but there was a new fear awakening in me now. A part of me unfurled and it held a grenade in its spectral fist, threatened to throw it right into the heart of my delicate carefully constructed world.
But I didn’t throw it. I dropped it at my feet where it imploded. As far as I am aware, my children remain unharmed.
Now my daughter is eight and my son is six. They have a good life. My husband and I have tried to the best of our ability to put them first, to protect them from pain or hurt, from confusion, fear. I didn’t have such a smooth introduction to the world. They’ve not felt unloved, not been neglected, exposed to things that are inappropriate for their age. They’ve not been abused. They’ve not witnessed first-hand the death of anyone that they’ve loved.
When I got out of bed last night and put my clothes back on to go outside and call for my cat, who hadn’t been seen since five o’clock, I didn’t really think of any of these things. When I saw the poster on the tree: ‘Cat found dead’ I misread it as having been put up the night before. I continued on up the road, calling his name. Then I checked my phone and realised the dead cat had been found that evening.
‘He’s grey,’ the woman said down the phone. ‘Slick petite… pretty.’
And I knew.
When I walked into this kind stranger’s house I first saw two of his paws peering out from the blue towel that covered him. It was a thoughtful way to help me identify him. I burst into tears, put my hands to my mouth, and she lifted the towel from his pretty face, intact, his mouth open in a last gasp, a scream, a hiss. She told me that one of his eyes had popped out, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the blood that had come from his ear. She said someone must have lifted him and put him on the pavement, and someone else had put a towel over him. ‘They’d felt for him,’ she said. ‘Just like me.’
She hadn’t wanted to leave him there, she said, so she’d brought him home. I thanked her again and again, with his heavy, stiff body in my arms, and I carried him the three roads home, barely able to see through my tears.
So when we lay him down on the living room floor and we let his father lick and sniff him, I wanted to wake the children and show them death. I wanted them to see how easily it could happen. But I didn’t. I barely slept, because I kept imagining the tinkle of his bell on the stairs.
This morning we told the children and asked if they wanted to see his face. I went down to help my husband prepare his grave, and they stood back in the hallway. ‘It doesn’t look bad,’ I said. ‘You’ll see that he’s gone now.’
I didn’t hide it from them, nor my tears. I didn’t tell them stories of cat heaven and fairies. I showed them his face, his cold body, and they were able to see that the Kaf they knew was no longer with us, and that through all their safety and fun and freedom, bad things can happen. They can hit you unexpectedly, out of the blue, with no real reason. That there is chaos in order, and sometimes this chaos wakes you up from your torpor, reminds you what it feels like to be alive.