It was serious. Normally, a litter tray at the end of the day is a mess, but this time, it was a horror show. My fiancée had called me down to take a look: up until that point, it had been a normal work day, with its usual hastily consumed cups of coffee, teleconferences and writing documents and emails. I had driven home and changed into more comfortable clothes; I anticipated nothing more than a little dinner, a little television, another check on work e-mails, and then a chance to sleep.
Our cats are an important part of such evenings: they often process like actors on and off stage, casting a glance at us before departing the tableau. Our cat Amelia is the shy one: the slightest noise or disruption will make her scurry for cover. Another cat, Sarah Jane, is the stubborn and clever one: if I’ve shut the doors and windows, she will examine every last exit and entry point to find a means of escape.
Thomas, a stray who turned up on my doorstep in March 2012, is the soft one. He will often come for affection to either myself or my fiancée, and nuzzle his black and white head up against a hand. He is profuse in his purring and strangely not averse to remaining in close proximity to humans for extended periods of time.
All three are valuable. All three are loved. When my other half called me down to look at the litter tray, she had that odd lilt of forced calm in her voice that indicated panic.
The litter trays are in a spare bathroom on the ground floor. When I arrived, my fiancée showed me one of them: rather than normal urine, there was a profusion of blood.
All I could say was “Oh no.” We humans are actually rather tough creatures, capable of adapting to extremes: we can consume poisons, say, Carling Black Label, in quantities that would kill more sensitive creatures. We can adapt to temperatures that many animals will eschew. We also recover from illnesses better than many other mammals. The contents of the litter tray looked like the result of a kidney problem: for a cat, such issues can be fatal.
At first, it was unclear who had done it. I found Amelia on our bed, she looked nervous, but no more so than usual: she rolled around on her back which is her way of asking for a tummy rub. Sarah Jane sat at the top of the stair, her usual place, looking as watchful and thoughtful as ever. I noted her step as she bounded toward her food bowl: normal. Only Thomas seemed subdued: the look in his eyes was sad. My other half concurred: something wasn’t right with him. When I picked him up, he let out a little yelp: this was atypical. My other half and I looked at each other. It was him.
I retrieved our blue and white cat box: it was stored in an outdoor closet and was cold and needed to have some cobwebs wiped off of it. My other half found an old red towel to line it. She gently urged Thomas into the box: being so agreeable, he did not resist.
It was close unto 7 PM: our local veterinarian shuts at that time. Nevertheless, it was worth a try: my other half had gotten a urine sample which she placed in a small glass jar. The rain was falling gently; my street in Bradford was lit solely by the limited reflected light from the windows of the houses which line it and the orange street lamps. We put Thomas and his box on the back seat of the car. I turned the key and we drove as the rain continued to fall. I put on a classical music station: the orchestra playing, the engine grunting were the only noises which penetrated the silence.
My mind was reeling. Had we not put down fresh water for him? Indeed, we had. His water was changed more or less every day. Could it be an infection? Certainly: but hopefully a shot of antibiotics would clear that up. Cats can get cancer: did he have that?
We arrived. A middle aged woman with sandy hair and wearing a brown coat and a purple scarf sat in the corner of the waiting room: she was dabbing her eyes with tissue. Another man with short grey hair came out of one of the examination rooms: he went over to her and spoke to her, then disappeared back inside.
We tried to see the vet: eventually we were greeted by a nurse wearing navy blue scrubs and holding a large glass bottle with a purple and white label. Her expression indicated deep annoyance.
“Can you not analyse the sample we gave you?” my other half asked. I added that it would be useful to find out if any hormones were within so we could make sure it was Thomas who was having the problem.
“You’ll have to come back in the morning,” she told us.
“Are you sure it’s safe to wait that long?” my other half asked.
“You’ll have to come back in the morning.”
The nurse then returned to the examination room. I looked into the cat box: Thomas was sitting quietly, though his eyes seemed wide, glassy. I pushed my fingers through the metal bars and stroked his head: he purred lightly, as if he was chuckling through fear. The man finally emerged from the examination room. He had a few words with the woman who had been crying. Whatever had been done in this case, I presume euthanasia, was finished. The woman got up, looked at us and said, “You wonder if it’s worth it.” They departed.
There was nothing to do. We drove home; the rain was falling steadily. I let Thomas out of his box in the front hall. He quietly padded his way towards the living room. My fiancée suggested we make him drink: I made a cocktail of 1 part milk, 3 parts water, which I held in front of him. He drank. He drank his fill and lay on a beige ottoman, his eyes three-quarters shut. I stroked his head.
My other half watched us. I wasn’t paying attention to her gaze, I was continuing to pet Thomas and praise him, telling him what a good boy he was and that we didn’t want him to go anywhere.
I remembered when he first showed up. It was in that peculiar March of 2012 when we had a burst of warm spring sunshine. There was a red folding chair set out on the decking: my first sight of Thomas was him sitting on that chair, his paws folded, his face tilted towards the sun as if he was trying to get a tan. He was very friendly: he had no hesitation in approaching us. He ate all the food we gave him. He kept coming back. My other half once examined his paws and found they were covered in callouses, indicative of a wandering lifestyle.
My other half, fearful of becoming attached to him, named him “Tom”, as in “Tom Cat”. I started calling him Thomas after the Apostle, the only one of Jesus’ original followers who went outside the Roman Empire, and thus had travelled far. My partner asked our neighbours about his origins and confirmed he was a stray.
The warmth of March was followed by a vengeful blizzard in early April. Just as the storm hit, I ushered Amelia and Sarah Jane inside, and then Thomas showed up at the back door, crying to be let in. I opened the door. He’s lived with us ever since.
Now when I awake in the morning, usually Thomas is laying there at my feet or on my back, along with his sister Sarah Jane, waiting for me to descend down the darkened stairs to the kitchen to feed them. Once that task is done and I’m typing on my laptop, he will often leap up beside me with a quizzical look on his face, almost as if he’s asking if he can help.
As I looked at Thomas laying on the ottoman, his face serene yet somehow suffering, I wondered if all that would be gone. I knew that if consulted others, many would say, “He’s just a cat”. Perhaps he had more personality and eccentricities than most: after all, he has a passion for eating cake. But to many, he would still remain “just a cat”.
I thought Cocteau would disagree, after all he referred to a cat as the soul of the house. Thomas in many ways had added warmth to the spirit of my home. Open a window, could it dissipate into the winter air?
“It’s a pity that they don’t have midnight vets like in much of America,” I said. I was sure that if we were in London that there would be one, but it seemed unlikely there would be such a place in Bradford. The lights in the houses outside were going out one by one, the rain continued to fall, people were going to sleep. Would there be enough demand to sustain such a place?
My other half tapped her iPad: as it turned out, there was one less than 4 miles away. She phoned up: both our jaws dropped at the price of an appointment. My inner Yorkshireman cried “How much?!?” but then I looked at Thomas. Although I quietly wished for an Animal NHS, I said “Let’s do it.”
Thomas went into his box again. We drove along the A6177 Ring Road, and then through the middle of Bradford itself. Though late, the lights hadn’t gone out. I thought: Thomas is a Bradford cat, born and bred. This may have been the only time he’d be taken through the middle of his city. I tried to push such thoughts aside. Some of the other drivers drove at 100 miles per hour and abandoned the idea of using turn signals. The roads glistened with rain and street lights. We finally found a big sign marked “PDSA”, the animal hospital. Without much care for tidy parking, we pulled up.
The animal hospital looked like a large bungalow or a small school in the darkness, albeit it was surrounded by a high metal fence. At the door ahead of us was a large, middle aged man wearing a tan coat; a younger man with greasy hair and wearing a plaid shirt carried a cardboard box. He had a cat in the box. It was scratching, gasping and shrieking in pain.
The door buzzed. We stepped inside. There was a aqua coloured waiting room, the colours made harsh by the fluorescent lights and the late hour. The room was lined with hard wooden benches. We informed the young nurse behind the desk that we had arrived. Thomas sat quietly in his box. The other cat continued to shriek. Two other young men were there, holding an Alsatian who was obviously suffering from a broken paw.
One of the doors to the examination rooms opened: the young men were called in and they carried their dog gently in to be seen. The other cat continued to cry out and try to claw out of the box. My other half spoke to the cat owners: apparently their pet suddenly had been unable to move her back legs. There had been no symptoms, no warning. There was only that piercing cry which punctuated the air every few seconds, followed by gasping and scratching.
Thomas was alarmed. At every cry, he perked his ears up. He himself did not cry. He merely looked through the bars at me, as if he was seeking reassurance.
“It’s going to be OK, Thomas,” I told him. Then the cry rang out again.
Finally, we were called in. My other half did the right thing by letting the other cat go ahead of us. The door of the examination room shut. The cries became more intense as presumably the cat was lifted out of her box and she was examined.
I could only catch snippets of conversation, namely, “This is very serious”, “it’s a blood clot”, “there’s not much we can do”. The cries got louder. The young man whose cat it presumably was, left the room, his eyes glistening as much as his greasy face.
I heard more snippets: “It happens all of a sudden, it’s unfortunate” “That was her blanket, she can keep it” “No, we don’t want to dispose of her” The door opened and the middle aged man stepped out. Laying on the table inside the examination room, I saw a little white and tortoise shell form, partially draped in a brown blanket.
The door shut. The man went to the nurse. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.
He had to run to a cash machine to get the remainder, but left £90 behind.
It was well past midnight and I had been up since 5:30 AM. The adrenalin was pumping, but nevertheless, there was a heaviness in my eyes that was proving difficult to ignore. I pushed my fingers through the bars to stroke Thomas again. He purred slightly.
We were called in again. The examination table had been wiped clean, the streak marks of the disinfectant clearly visible. I placed the box on it.
The veterinarian had bright red hair and wore dark blue scrubs: she had a no-nonsense manner about her. It wasn’t that she was lacking in compassion, I presume the previous patient had forced her to push her emotions down. Thomas stepped out of his box to face her. She then administered a rectal thermometer. As I gently held Thomas while this occurred, I mused on the fact that I’d probably have precisely the same expression on my face as he did if it was happening to me. His yellow-green eyes were wide with shock.
His temperature was normal. The vet thought it would be best to give him some anti-inflammatory drugs but first she took some blood to test his kidney function. We’d have to wait another thirty minutes. She shaved his ankle, took the blood and wrapped it in a blue velcro fastened bandage.
Back to the hard benches: the young men with the dog had returned without their pet, they were apparently waiting for x-rays. Another couple came in: a young, skinny blonde woman and her boyfriend, a friendly, effusive Yorkshireman with close cropped black hair. They were carrying their cat in brown plastic carrier box. The cat looked dishevelled. The gentleman told us that they were from Armley in Leeds: he said that he thought that their cat had either fallen into a can of diesel or worse, had been doused in it by some kids. I mused aloud as to what kind of animals would torture a cat so.
We were called back in. Apparently Thomas’ kidney function was normal: the vet injected him with the anti-inflammatories. The details of his treatment would be transmitted to our usual vet in the morning.
The bill was in excess of £200. I could almost hear my debit card creak as I paid: I wondered if this is what the future of healthcare would be like without the NHS. I remembered the last time I sought help from American doctors, namely to get a Whooping Cough vaccine: the cost at that time was $80. I then looked at Thomas again. It looked as if he was asking to go home.
We did. By the time the front door was shut and locked, it was 1:30 AM. Thomas was persuaded to consume some more fluid and went to sleep. The next day we returned to our usual vet, who was apologetic. Thomas received a further injection of antibiotics and a course of anti-inflammatory treatments. Several days after his ordeal, he is back again to greeting me in the morning, his face arched upward hopefully as I enter the kitchen, and he tries to interrupt me as I work. Those who have never lived with a cat would say in the final analysis that he is “just a cat”. He is “just a cat”: but that doesn’t mean he is incapable of feeling happiness and pain, enjoying life or finding it a misery, being ill or being healthy. It also doesn’t preclude him from the possibility of feeling deep emotion for those who care for him; our usual vet speculated that male cats often suffer from “stress related” conditions which can trigger such blood letting. We had been away quite a lot over the holiday period and Thomas has abandonment issues. If I am in a room where there is a shut door between him and I, he’ll often scratch at it frantically, demanding to be let in.
Regardless of his capability (or not) of loving in a human way, it definitely doesn’t preclude him from being loved by the humans who care for him. The trip to the midnight vet would seem madness to some, but as I type this on a tranquil Saturday morning and the cats lay sleeping in the hall, all is well. Thank goodness.