Remembering my pledge to help Freddie, the feral cat, in his acclimatisation into a human family, I piled on just about everything that from Stone Age cavemen to today’s cottage dweller represents ‘Home Sweet Home’. The warmth-radiating oven shelves were stocked full with various dishes. On one Freddie’s supper was simmering gently, on the other a tray of bread or scones would exude a wonderful aroma. As the weather that year had been exceptionally chilly, the cosiness of the kitchen served as an invaluable attraction. At mealtimes Freddie’s food was served grandly on three plates. Every so often there would be a side dish of a starter with a few prawns, or chopped liver, all highly exotic as far as Freddie was concerned.
As I didn’t know whether the feral cat was even aware that now he should be ‘a contentedly purring’ cat, I set up a role model for him. The washing machine and the dryer purred softly, creating a cocoon of soothing sound that was meant to give Freddie encouragement while he slept. I made a point of talking to him when he was resting at regular intervals in a soft but animated voice. As with all animals that had come to live with us over the years, I treated Freddie as a little foreigner as far as communication was involved. That meant speaking clearly and slowly, with some pointing included for good measure. I would tell him how companionable it was to be together, how nice it was to have a cosy home, that I liked him a lot, and that I would take good care of him.
At certain times during the course of each day, I would put on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C or perhaps the Clarinet Quintet in A, although understandably my favourite, the Requiem Mass, had to be ruled out. Initially, there was no indication that Freddie understood anything at all, but I persevered, repeating the same words in the same situations and accompanying them with appropriate gestures. For instance, when alerting him to a freshly served meal, I would always use the same sentence and point in the direction of the dishes. To develop in Freddie a sense of self-worth, often destroyed in strays by the harshness of their lives, I treated him with great respect. When I dropped something by accident, banged a saucepan or used a blender, I would always apologise in a soft voice and looking directly at him. In the evenings I would switch off the top light in the kitchen after noticing that it made Freddie’s eyes narrow against its glare. This simple task would be performed in a slightly theatrical manner, to leave the cat in no doubt whatsoever of how important his welfare was to me. By now Freddie was able to understand quite a great deal; he looked alert and interested, his eyes closely following my every gesture.
Although alert, he relaxed in his box with the indifference of a seasoned traveller in yet another hotel on the way to somewhere else. I was in no doubt that it was the easily provided comfort that he found so appealing. It was just too bad that it came with a treacherous human attached. No matter how softly I spoke to him and how much fuss I made, he simply didn’t like or trust me now, and that was that. Another week passed as usual without any marked progress. One day, particularly affronted by his indifferent gaze, I looked him squarely in the eye and asked: “Why don’t you like me a little? I do everything for you, do I not? I like you heaps. Isn’t it nice to have someone to like you? Why don’t you try that little bit harder then?” I could see that Freddie, a still feral cat, understood the general meaning of my reproachful outburst.
Thinking that a well-regulated life might be a trifle dull for a wild creature, I decided to introduce Freddie to the joys of playing. A carton roll from the loo roll threaded on black elastic looked attractive to me, but would this be good enough for Freddie? The moment of truth finally arrived and I started waving and pirouetting the rope in front of a po-faced cat. Trying hard to retain some of his superior composure and habitual grumpiness, he sat upright, his tail coiled elegantly around his ankles, and stared at me with disbelief. This wasn’t something to do with food, was it? It seemed, in fact, that this thing wasn’t to do with anything. It was just plain silly.
“Go on”, I urged him in excited tones, manically twirling the loo roll at his feet. “Come on, let’s play, let yourself go!” It took Freddie a few minutes to assess the situation. In the end he concluded that as he owed me a favour or two, he should humour me and get involved if that was what would please me. Tentatively he put out one paw and touched the jerking roll. At this very moment instinct took over, and forgetful of his composure, he started chasing the rope. Grabbing the elastic in both paws, he threw himself to the floor and twisting on his back in fast rounds, his legs and arms high in the air, he chewed on the end knot and licked it as if it was an ice-lolly, simply refusing to let go of his first real toy. I was jubilant! The bit of stretchy elastic had achieved the breakthrough I had been awaiting for such a long time.
From that day on, playtime became one of the most cherished and rigorously observed rituals. A day could not begin properly without a furiously energetic romp. Then there would be one at lunchtime and another at night, not counting the little playtimes when the mood took us. Curiously though, while in no time Freddie developed a wide repertoire of wonderfully choreographed hops, jumps, rolls and throws, he still regarded his new-found activity as my special hobby. Suddenly, he discovered an odd new emotion, namely that pleasing me somehow pleased him, and he couldn’t do enough to accommodate me. For instance, on coming back home, normally his first thought would have been to have a good nosh-up before collapsing into his bed. Now, back from an outing tired and hungry, his first thought would be to look for me all around the house, calling me in an urgent voice. Then he would have a good tumble-down the stairs, a roll over the hall, a spot of prancing around the chair legs in the kitchen, all performed with an amazing agility, before finally satisfied that he had paid his dues, he would settle down to his supper. I could see that his face was more relaxed now and that he wasn’t indifferent to me anymore. I would suddenly look over my shoulder to see him right behind me , watching me preparing dinner. As soon as I looked at him, he would run to his bed, but all the signs were there. Finally I had been forgiven, just.