A Death in the Family

AmeliaI was probably the last human being to see my cat Amelia alive. It was a bright August morning: the coffee maker was gurgling away as it pushed hot water through the freshly ground beans. The kitchen was imbued with the scent of banana flavoured porridge which was just out of the microwave. The sun was shining: I looked out the kitchen window and could see blossoms of magenta, white and blue in the garden, and the golden morning light blazing onto the flat land. Distant white windmills turned in the stiff breeze. It was difficult to believe that anything particularly bad could happen on such a day.

Dear Amelia sat on the windowsill, her black and white head bobbing along with my movements through the kitchen, her pale yellow-green eyes darting back and forth, trying to anticipate what I would do next. Amelia was a hunter and she didn’t care for being cooped up in the house, particularly on a morning in which the birds were singing and the grass was rustling with life.

I had a propensity to put Amelia’s looks into words. In this instance, her gaze said:

“I am such a good cat, if you let me out, I will come back, I promise!”

Hitherto, that had been the case. Certainly, she had given myself and my partner long, worrisome nights when she didn’t come back at dusk: however, usually there would be a cry outside my window at four in the morning. I would stumble down the stairs, unlock and open the door and her black and white form would power past me. Yes, she had been spending more time out as of late and a decision had been made to keep her in for several weeks: but she was restless and the summer sun was warm. So I opened the window: she leapt out and strolled across the courtyard in front of my home. She turned a corner, which indicated she was heading towards the front yard.

I never saw her again.

A full 24 hours passed and she didn’t return home. In the midst of our mutual fretting, my fiancee and I had some hope she would come back: after all, Amelia had once been a feral cat and she had recently developed a taste for the “fast food” provided by the various rodents and birds on our property. Several weeks ago, I saw her out on the lawn: she caught a field mouse and gobbled it up at speed.  It was amazing to see her in predator mode, considering how endearing and cuddly she was most of the time.

We thought perhaps she had gone on a “hunting trip”. Not too far from our home is a grove of trees which seemed ideal grounds for it: the trees are thick, old and dense. No doubt all manner of prey would be there. I thought of Amelia as a latter day Robin Hood, living off of the land in her own variant of Sherwood.

My fiancee and I went for a walk amidst the fields of sugar beet and rye. Eventually, we arrived at the grove: we called out her name repeatedly and loudly.  We got no response except the occasional bird singing, a cow mooing from a nearby field and the sound of the wind rushing through the trees. The grove itself was less idyllic close up than it was from a distance. People had dumped old furniture, including a sofa and chairs covered in torn red leather, into it. Old refrigerators and televisions were also present, as was a discarded car door. Indeed, all manner of rubbish was there, but no Amelia. We took a dangerous walk alongside an A road looking for any sign as cars and lorries zoomed passed us, whipping the air from behind us. The occasionally less than helpful driver honked their horn. I thought if Amelia had strayed anywhere near this road, she was doomed. As it so happened, we found nothing.

My fiancee then sent out Amelia’s photo to various veterinarians and a cattery in our area. Late on Saturday night, we received a response: apparently the remains of a black and white cat had been found on the A road. It was too dangerous to retrieve them at that point, but nevertheless, the vet would make every effort to pick them up in the morning. My fiancee succumbed to floods of tears; I felt a deep pain inside. What if I hadn’t let her out? Would she still be around? Was it really her?

I didn’t want to think it was her: after all, earlier on Saturday we had gone into town and our cheerful taxi driver, a man with silver wire frame glasses and grey hair, had told us that there were gangs of feral cats in the area. My disposition was instantly brightened by that thought: in my mind’s eye, I could picture Amelia encountering such a feline tribe in the undergrowth of sugar beet or rye around our home. After circling each other, I pictured her touching noses with a large ginger tom. Then they would go hunting together. I envisaged her running amidst a pack, sleeping in barns, living off her wits from that moment onward. Amelia the bold, Amelia the adventurer, I thought.

The email had punctured that hope. A restless night followed: I awoke from time to time, thinking in the darkness. What if I hadn’t let her out? Would she have escaped anyway? Was this inevitable? She had lost her fear of the road in recent days. But is anything inevitable?  The historian Dominic Lieven once said that most stupid school of history is the one that believed that what happened is what had to happen: was it just as dense to think that Amelia’s demise was preordained?

The dawn came and the vet called. Amelia had been microchipped a long time ago and it was this which confirmed her identity. To put it delicately, because of the speed at which cars had driven along the road, I was informed that we would not be able to identify Amelia via any other means. The vet tried to be reassuring: it was unlikely that she had suffered, rather, she had been taken from this life as suddenly as if she had been struck by lightning. This was scarce comfort.

Given the state of her remains, my fiancee and I quickly decided that Amelia should be cremated. I made up my mind that a small corner of the garden will be dedicated to her: her ashes will be buried beneath the roots of a white rose and a couple of other perennial plants. On top, wood chips will be scattered as a decorative feature and to prevent weeds taking root: smooth stones will be placed around the perimeter. Solar powered lights will be placed at either end of the memorial. As I write this, the plants are in pots; they have been watered and nurtured for their eventual destination. Next Tuesday, dear Amelia’s remains will arrive home and the plan will be implemented. The rose will hopefully bloom before the autumn frost, thus beginning her new life, one which will hopefully last for many, many years.

I will never forget.  Amelia was my first cat. I remember when she and I were introduced: she was nervous, she had issues with her spine, she didn’t quite saunter so much as wiggle. She inspired me: when she would roll around on the bed as if she couldn’t get comfortable, I thought she was saying that it was her “pyjamas, they’re too big“. And when she went out, it was to do her “little cat errands, including looking around, collecting leaves and chasing frogs“. She was hesitant, pretty, funny.  If I put food down for her and then made the slightest noise or disruption, she’d run away from the bowl, no matter how hungry she was.  She was also extremely affectionate: there were many occasions when I’d lay on my back, she would climb up on my chest and rub her head up against my hand.

We bonded in other, more unusual ways. One time when she was ill, my fiancee and I decided to take Amelia to a holiday caravan in Cumbria for a few days. We rolled up a big fluffy duvet on the front passenger seat (I imagined Amelia saying “Everybody talks about the Cloud, I have one“) as she couldn’t stand to sit inside a kitty carrier, and she sat there for the entire 90 mile trip. In order to keep her calm, I narrated the journey to her in a soft voice. She eventually fell asleep.

Every morning, she waited for me: she and her fellow cats, Thomas and Sarah Jane, would look up with me with big eyes the moment I opened mine. I’d stretch, groan, put my feet on the floor and put on my robe, and we would all go down, more or less in company, to the kitchen where tins were opened and chicken and liver were put into ceramic bowls.

My other cats are shell-shocked. Not long after Amelia’s disappearance, Sarah Jane tried to tell me something: when I came home one evening, she came right up to my car door, let out a cry and tried to lead me somewhere. But the place she was leading me to was nowhere in wide circles. She’s extremely clever: via these circles, I eventually realised, she was trying to indicate Amelia’s absence. Similarly, Thomas has been very reluctant to set foot outside the house.

They will recover in time, as will my partner and I. I will look at old photos of Amelia on occasion and remember her lying on her back showing off her furry belly and waving her paws at me. I will look out onto the garden at night, see the solar powered lights shimmering in the darkness and remember how she made my life brighter. Some might say that Amelia was “only a cat”; those people probably have never had a pet in their lives, nor experienced the unconditional love that one can bring. Amelia’s passing is a death in the family; I only hope that there is a great beyond in which she has opened her eyes onto a fresh morning, past all care and pain, and she can play in the light forever.

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