When we bought our first flat it happened quickly. Emma had just finished her degree, which she had started late, and started working fulltime, and so one Saturday evening we sat down and estimated how much we could afford in rent each month. The following Tuesday, before we’d even looked at any rental places, Emma’s dad asked us if we could get a mortgage, and offered us a deposit. We consulted a financial advisor, found out how much we could afford, and started looking. We saw four flats, all broadly similar, two-bedroom affairs in and around central Exeter. On stepping inside the fourth, which wasn’t quite finished being refurbished, and consisted of the top two floors of an old Georgian terraced house just off Magdalene Road, we fell in love. The open plan living room / kitchen had two big old sash windows and was flooded with morning light, rooftop views over Victorian terraces, the church steeple, a park at the end of the road. We bought it.
Inside two weeks it became apparent that we, who had each grown up in houses surrounded by brothers and animals, needed something alive in the flat with us.
My family home since I was 6 months old was a modern, 4-bedroom affair at the top of a cliff. At one point it was occupied by myself (approximately 7 years old at the time), my two brothers (16 and 18), my parents, a black Labrador, a golden retriever, a collie-cross-labrador, and a dark brown tortoiseshell cat who went by the name of Purdie. This seemed strange to me, because she didn’t purr often, and seemed unbothered by humans. She lived almost exclusively on top of the bin house, the roof of which was slightly angled, and which caught the sun for most of the day in our small, south-facing back garden.
Purdie died around that time, and Sally, the black Labrador, too: the cat of liver disease, in my dad’s lap one evening after I had gone to bed; the dog by the vet’s method of eternal quietude. Purdie was replaced by Cindy (who had been named Tinkerbell, but which my dad, rightly, said was a ludicrous name and was not something he would call out into the garden when summoning her in for the night), who we got from a rescue home. The home said she was four years old, but she seemed barely out of kittenhood. Where Purdie had been aloof, an animal who happened to live with humans, Cindy, blonde and lithe, was supremely ladylike, and much more comfortable in a lap.
One time, perhaps two years after she had come to live with us, Cindy went missing. She had been missing before, for a day or two. But this time one day became two, became five, became ten, became a fortnight, three weeks, became loss of hope. Became the sigh of resignation that she was never coming back, that she had wondered too far, found the main road, and been run over. By this time the golden retriever had gone to live with a neighbour, and we were left with just the collie-cross, who was energetic, highly strung, hard work. We decided, 25 days after Cindy had disappeared, after we had spent every evening and weekend searching the estate, calling her name, asking the neighbours, to get a new cat, and went again to the rescue home. There we chose two, a brother and sister, Mork and Mindy, and we left a donation and brought them home.
On the 28th day, our elderly neighbour heard a noise in his garage. It was Cindy. She seemed to have been stuck on top of a wardrobe in there for the entire four weeks she had been gone, subsisting on nothing but drips of water from the roof. It was spring. She was tiny, malnourished, close to death. She still had her collar around her neck, but you could have fitted a second cat into it. We brought her home, wrapped in a blanket, and placed her gently onto my parents’ bed. Mork and Mindy had been in the house for three days or so, and to have this intruder, who’s scent had presumably vanished from the house, subsumed by that of the collie-cross and by the smells of three sons and two parents, took umbrage. They hissed, they stalked, they wanted this frail, tiny, pokey-boned creature out. The collie-cross did not. He sat at the threshold of my parents’ bedroom and he growled every time the two new cats came near. We consulted the vet, who pronounced Cindy very lucky, and gave us a feeding regime. And then, regretfully, for my eldest brother had made quick friends with Mork, who was shy and timid and didn’t like to spend time with the younger siblings, we decided that we had to take Mork and Mindy back to the rescue centre. We phoned them, explained, and they understood.
Cindy was slowly nursed back to health, not least by the collie-cross. They became firm friends; amazing friends; inseparable, unlike any cat and dog I have ever seen together. When they had first met he had nosed her curiously and she had savaged his snout with her claws, asserting that she was the boss and not to be sniffed at, literally or metaphorically. But after her entrapment in the garage, Pete, which was the collie-cross’ name, became her companion and bodyguard rather than her subject. He would curl up on the floor in the living room, and after Cindy had tired of a human lap, she would curl up in the nook of his supine form. They would wash each other, follow each other around the house and further besides; dad walked Pete every morning and evening, the same route, and in the evening Cindy would accompany them almost all the way around.
She was an intelligent cat, though, cunning as well as ladylike; for many years our front door was glass covered by wooden slats (like every frontdoor on our estate, which was modelled after the charm and character of Clovelly in North Devon, and thus, like every modelled modern estate, had scant real charm or character of its own), and when she wanted to come in she would climb the slats and lift the knocker. The first few times this happened we were baffled; she would have climbed down to the floor by the time we got there, and we would say “surely not?” and be left puzzled. Eventually we saw her climb up and lift the knocker with her paw, and we understood.
Cindy lived to a grand old age; if the rescue centre were correct, and she was four when we got her, then she would have been 21 when she died. The final few years saw her slow down dramatically; while she was never an energetic cat or a hunter (thought she did bring the occasional bird or mouse back to my mother as a morning trophy), she loved to stroll her territory. The vet gave her a number of steroid injections in her final months; each one would turn her into a kitten again for a few days, until age came back into her joints and made the stairs difficult to climb, and then one day we decided it wasn’t fair to keep doing this, to give her fading glimpses of vitality that made the veil of old age seem even crueller, and we let her pass on.
Emma had had cats too; one named Bogie in her childhood, and, when we met, a black hunter called Duster and a longhaired, floppy, friendly cat, who we suspect may have had a touch of Norwegian Forest Cat in him, called Harley. Harley died early of cat leukaemia, and Emma was distraught; he had been her cat, had slept on her bed, had followed her around the house like a daft, affectionate dog. Harley wasn’t daft, though – there was a drawer in the livingroom where the cat toys were kept, and he observed where it was when they were put away and then methodically set about learning to open it by himself.
After Harley died, Emma’s younger brother acquired a ginger and white tom kitten, called Goose for a day and then rechristened, by his girlfriend, with the slightly less unusual name of Tom. He came away from his mother too early, needed almost hand rearing, and seemed not to quite understand that he was a cat, or how to be social. If you spoke to him, he would turn and face the other way. If you stroked him, he would bite you; not aggressively, but a little too hard all the same. He too died early, age about four, cat leukaemia yet again, and, suspecting that Duster was a carrier but not a sufferer, Emma’s family decided not to have another cat until after Duster’s time had passed.
So you see that living in a house with just the two of us, no younger or elder brothers, no dogs, no cats, seemed unusual, seemed alien. But it was a flat, two stories up, with no garden, only a tiny concrete yard that one had to pass two other flats to get to, and neither of us thought it would be fair to keep a moggy in these circumstances.
Emma researched. For the first month or two that we were in the flat, she was working in an inbound call centre, with internet access and long stretches of nothingness to do. Some breeds of cats, pedigree breeds, were suited to living indoors, had insanely friendly temperaments, thought they were human, had no sense of direction, couldn’t be let outside for their own good, because they would wander off, get lost, get beaten up by smaller, tougher, more streetwise animals, and never return. So we decided that, as tight as money was (always is for a young couple in their first house) we absolutely must be able to afford a few hundred pounds for such a cat. We drove one evening past Okehampton to see a breeder and meet some kittens. The breeder brought two out, ragdolls, one so perfectly coloured with a grey face that it looked like an alien, the other with smudged markings that meant he would never be good enough to show. His nose was picked out in black, with a tattoo of a flamenco dancer in his fur, almost. The alien-faced cat huffed at me; the smudge-nosed cat clung to my shoulder and purred. I reacted, as I did often to cats, by developing an inflamed neck, streaming eyes. Emma wondered if we were doing the right thing. We declared that we were in love with the smudge-nosed kitten, and we would collect her in three weeks, when she was old enough, and we would call her Mabel.
Three weeks later we went to pick Mabel up, but the breeder had an apology; she had mis-sexed the kitten, and Mabel had, quite clearly now, two tiny brown balls beneath his tail. We put ‘Mabel’ in the box, got in the car, and set to drive home. He looked up at me as I was about to start the car, with his enormous blue eyes (a feature of ragdoll cats, alongside long, lustrous coats, and the most bizarre, placid, affectionate, demanding temperament), and I said out loud “his name is Bob”. And that is what we called him. I have no idea why I said it; it just seemed right.
Of course he’s not just called Bob. He is referred to by a number of variations, as is any cat. He is “The Bob”, with a pronounced and deliberate definite article. He is “Bob-Bob”, doubled-up, because we like saying it. Boberty. Bobert. Bobbity-Boo. “Hello Bob” is perhaps the phrase that most often found itself enunciated in our flat in our first year there. It still gets said a lot, four years in.
Bob received a huge amount of our time, attention, and affection, but we felt guilty, leaving him for eight hours a day, five days a week, as we went to work. We would come home on lunchtimes, as often as possible, to ask him how he was. After several months of separation guilt each day, we decided he needed a friend. The breeder we had been too had given up breeding; Bob had been part of her last litter. So Emma researched. We needed another ragdoll. This time we would get one with an alien grey face. We found a breeder beyond Crediton, who had a smallholding, who also bred pygmy goats, miniature border collies, and other things besides. They had built a pen for their ragdolls so that they could go outside but not get lost, and had built a covered ramp out of their porch, over their carport, and into this pen. Ragdolls, being curious of humans, and affectionate, and prone to following, wherever people went, would stream out of the porch, along this wire tunnel, over the carport, and into the pen as you left the frontdoor. If you went into the pen, they would swarm you, asking for strokes and fuss and conversation. It was bizarre.
We met the kittens. All bar one had had dibs placed down on them by other owners. There were seven weeks until they were ready. The one who was free, who was ours… was a mischief. The other kittens seemed friendly, gentle, calm. This one ran, and pounced, and climbed, and was curious of everything. He cajoled and poked the bigger cats (of which there were a dozen or so) especially when they wanted to lay still and relax. He made his own entertainment. We called him Cosmo, again my suggestion, again I’m not sure why (Emma had wanted to call her baby brother Cosmo when he was born; she was four; her mother politely declined – perhaps this was on my mind?). We wondered what we were getting into with this troublemaker.
When Cosmo met Bob it was love at first sight. Bob was the greatest thing Cosmo had ever seen, and he followed him everywhere. Bob was not so pleased; he bopped Cosmo on the head, checking if he was real, and then lost his purr for a number of months, so put-out he was that we had brought him a friend. His purr is still not as it had been before Cosmo had arrived, although now they are firm friends, and we often find them curled up together like lazy lovers, nested in the chair on the landing which a person has never been allowed to sit in, because it is a chair for cats.
Cosmo purrs when you look at him. He purrs when you walk in the room. Then he twists his head right around, almost, as if pretending he was in The Exorcist, and he flops down, hard, onto the floor on his side, and rolls onto his back, and says “here is my belly; isn’t it good? You might like to fuss over it” but when you do he takes a little umbrage, and kicks you with his hind legs, and rolls around, and stretches into shapes that even cat spines should not be able to make.
Bob likes to sit between us on the sofa, scared of causing offence if he chooses one lap over another. He likes to be stroked; he likes the back of his neck roughly kneaded like dough for bread. He cannot have a door closed to him, which is fine, as we leave ours wide open in summer and propped ajar with bricks the rest of the time, but we have two cupboards with regular doors on, which cause him issue, and every so often, sometimes not for days, sometimes several times a day, he demands that we open them and show him the boiler, the vacuum cleaner, the toolbox, our pile of shoes, even though they have not changed since we last showed them to him. Sometimes too he will bang on the frontdoor and moan loudly; when we open it he scratches at the mat outside, but seldom dares to go any further; he doesn’t want to leave, he simply doesn’t like a closed door of any kind. On some mornings Bob likes to come and curl up completely on my pillow, his fur buried into my face, and have his neck kneaded, and then his purr is back, and he is the most affectionate cat in the world.
Cosmo likes to sit on the beanbag, or else on a lap, but he does not like to be stroked. It is too much for him, and he gets over-faced with affection, jumps off, and retreats to the beanbag again. He likes to climb into bed early in the mornings, his head on a pillow, his body under the duvet, and pretend that he is human too. He has a myriad of names: Cosmosis, Cosmology, Cosmonaught, Monkey, Blue Fidget Bum, Xanthus (his given, pedigree name, the Greek word for ‘bear’), Cozzy. He is intensely loving and intensely lazy; wave a piece of string at Bob and he plays with a frantic, huffing intensity, pouncing and running and changing direction (on tiled floors he is like a cartoon animal scrabbling in mid-air); but wave string at Cosmo and he plays laconically, insouciantly. Sometimes, though, the spark of kitten mischief stirs in him, and he makes his own entertainment, running around the house, pestering Bob, bashing things to see what noise they make, playing a cat game that humans aren’t allowed to participate in.
I am writing this post on a roof terrace in Gaucin, a pueblo blanco in the Andalucian mountains in Spain. It is beautiful; there are eagles overhead, the sea in the distance, a river winding its way there. The cottage is perfect; a secluded yard adjoining the kitchen, a sun-drenched roof terrace with views of Gibraltar and Africa (and free wi-fi that we are borrowing a little of now and then). Wine is insanely cheap, the bread is good, the cured Spanish ham plentiful and delicious. But both Emma and I agree that it would be better with a cat. Not necessarily one of our cats; just any cat. We both saw tins of cat food in the local shop and wondered should we buy some, tempt a local cat into the yard, and befriend it for a few days. But we decided not to. Cosmo and Bob are a thousand miles away, and I miss them.