A Cat Called Pepper

THE first time the old man saw the little animal was when he looked out of the bedroom window early one evening and spotted a tiny bundle of brown fur scurrying around the corner of the house.  Of course, his sight wasn’t too good and the whole thing only lasted a second, so he couldn’t be sure what kind of animal it might be.  Besides, there were two cats already living in the house and it could have one of them.  But, he didn’t think so.  However, in case he was mistaken and it turned out to be a squirrel or a rat, he did not mention it to his daughter when she brought him his supper.  But he determined to keep an eye open.

When he saw the little creature again the next day, this time assisted by the bright morning sunlight as well as his own anticipation, he was certain it was a small cat and not one he had seen before.  This time, confident in his powers of observation, he had no hesitation in reporting the sighting.  Sally was surprised.  Stray cats were not a frequent occurrence, especially as the house lay well back from the road and was surrounded by heath land.  But any scepticism was quickly dispelled when, later that day, she discovered a small, short-legged tabby cat of indeterminate age fast asleep on top of a pile of washing in the utility room.

With two cats already in the family, the cat flap was in constant use and it seemed that the little stray had encountered no difficulty in gaining entry – or exit, as she quickly found out; for, as soon as she approached the little animal, he leapt into the air and clattered out the way he’d come in. ‘Maybe that’s the last we’ll see of him,’ Sally thought.  But she was wrong.

As the days went by the little chap – his gender obvious for all to see, much to the amusement of the children who had never come across an un-neutered male cat before – made daily appearances, even to the extent of sharing the other cat’s food.  Not that Pawsley and Basil seemed to mind.  Like all domestic pets they were over fed and under exercised and quickly resigned themselves to parting with a share of their rations rather than expending unnecessary energy chasing him off.  In fact, they seemed to enjoy his company.  After all, the circumstances of his arrival must have been as just intriguing to them as to the rest of the family.  Pepper had made up his mind to adopt them, and was giving them little choice but to reciprocate.

With the other cats already named after herbs, the name ‘Pepper’ sprang to mind.  So, Pepper it was.  There were now three cats in the household, the only noticeable difference being that Pepper was terrified of human contact.  Any attempt to stroke or pet him, let alone pick him up, was met with instant flight, although not once did he scratch or bite despite the obvious panic in his eyes.  In fact, the family learned to respect Pepper’s wishes, avoided touching him, and were rewarded with an endearing and grateful new friend.

Not long after his arrival, Pepper was in his usual spot within striking distance of the cat flap, when Jim passed through with a large plastic sack full of rubbish.  Pepper fled and wasn’t seen for the rest of the day.  Jim wondered why, until it happened again a day or so later, this time when one of the girls was unwrapping a dress from ‘Next’.

“It’s the plastic bags,” Sally remarked, “the poor little fellow is frightened of plastic bags.”  And so the theory emerged: that someone had dumped a kitten on the heath, leaving it to suffocate in a plastic bag

“Just imagine,” Sally said, “what it would have been like for him.  He must have scratched and torn himself out, wandered around for who knows how long and then discovered us.”

“Paradise found,” Jim chuckled, “a nice big house, some friendly cats already in residence and more warmth and food than he could have dared hope for!”

“Well, good luck to him,” said Sally, “everyone deserves a lucky break, even an abandoned cat.”

As summer turned into autumn and the air became chilly, the old man died having never met his little protégé.  Pepper had been too frightened to be taken to his room and the old man was too frail to make the journey to the other end of the house.  His granddaughters had kept him in touch with Pepper’s progress with daily bulletins and reports and not a day had passed when he didn’t eagerly await the latest news.  His imagination, vivid until the end, had filled in the rest.

Soon, Christmas was upon them.  Amidst the sadness, Jenny, the youngest of the three girls, raised the matter of a suitable present.  Although she loved Pepper, she explained, he wasn’t like a proper cat to be cuddled and nuzzled, petted and even, occasionally, taken to bed.  And, anyway, she wanted a cat of her own.  Please.

Jim knew of a friend in the village who was looking for a home for a kitten and so it was that, on Christmas Eve, Rosie arrived.   Jenny was thrilled.  It was hard to imagine a cat less like Pepper.  Not only was Rosie female, she was unmistakably an aristocrat amongst cats.  She took to her new home on her terms, which no-one, human or feline, even thought to question.  She was quite irresistible and, as the months went by, it became obvious that Rosie was growing into a great beauty with long, fine silver grey fur and a haughty, dismissive manner.

Her effect on the other cats was dramatic.  Pawsley and Basil cow-towed to her every whim, whilst Pepper…well, Pepper was smitten.  It was love at first sight.  Needless to say, he received no encouragement: he was quite simply not of a calibre socially or physically to even catch Rosie’s eye.  Besides, she was in the equivalent of her teens and was spending increasing periods of time away from home.

Seeing the obvious danger, Sally and Jim considered taking Rosie to the vet but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do it.

“It doesn’t feel right,” mused Sally.  “She’s so self-contained, so independent, that even though we are providing the roof over her head, she doesn’t belong to us.”

Jim thought hard about it.  “Or anyone else, for that matter.  Rosie is a law unto herself.  It’s true; we don’t have the right to interfere.”

Meanwhile Pepper was spending as much time as he could with Rosie.  On the occasions she deigned to be at home, he would follow her around, keeping her company, making way for her at mealtimes and generally looking out for her every need.  When she was away, he waited for her to come back.  Many were the nights when Sally or Jim would lock up, switch off the lights and go to bed knowing that Pepper was engaged in his vigil, sitting outside the back door waiting patiently for Rosie to return.

It was Sally who first noticed that Rosie was pregnant although she was probably no more than a year old herself.  Pepper became increasingly attentive as the weeks went by and by the time the births were imminent, never left her side.  Eventually, Rosie decided on a suitable place and, late one winter’s night, settled down in the warmth of the airing cupboard, tight against the hot water tank, Pepper snuggled up beside her.  It was a touching sight and Sally reached down to stroke him, forgetting for a moment that this might disturb the scene.  To her great surprise he remained still and, hardly believing her ears, Sally heard a faint rumbling sound she had never heard before.  Pepper was purring.

“I do hope those kittens are his,” she said to Jim as she got into bed, “he’ll be heartbroken if they’re not.”

The following morning Sally’s question was answered.  There, nestling against Rosie’s immaculate tummy, were five tiny grey kittens and a tabby one, all with short legs. Pepper positively beamed as he helped Rosie lick them clean.

For two days Rosie and Pepper worked together, sharing the task of bringing up their young family.  Then things changed.  Rosie’s unsettled nature re-asserted itself and, on the third night, she disappeared.  Pepper stayed with the kittens until she came home late the following morning having been who knows where.  Only then did he permit himself a brief trip into the garden.

As time passed the pattern became set.  Rosie was to be an absentee mother and Pepper a stay-at-home dad.  Rosie would appear from time to time but showed only cursory interest in her family.  However, although her visits became less frequent and of shorter duration, Pepper lost none of his fondness for her, ever keen to show her the progress the clever kittens were making under his tutelage.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” remarked Sally as she warmed some more milk for the kittens, “it’s as if Pepper knows exactly what to do.”

And so it seemed.  Pepper was making an excellent job of fatherhood and was relaxed and happy in the task.  So happy, in fact, that, deprived of Rosie to pet and fawn over, Jenny began to adopt him as her ‘special’ cat.  And as Pepper learned the meaning of trust from his kittens, so he was able to bestow the same trust in Jenny.  Gone was the fear in his eyes, the frantic attempts at escape.  Instead, he allowed himself to be stroked, cuddled and carried.  Jenny had her pet at last.

Ten weeks went by and the kittens had grown into young cats. By now they were perfectly capable of playing on their own, often outside, whilst Pepper sat nearby watching them with pride, only intervening with a light cuff of the paw when they got into a fight or wandered beyond bounds.

Sally and Jim were troubled.  With three cats of their own to look after, plus the nomadic Rosie, good homes for the new kittens had already been located and the prospective owners had expected to collect them by now.  The girls had pressed to keep the little tabby but knew in their hearts he had to go, too.  It was a heartbreaking decision and it was left to Sally to make the telephone calls.

The following day a neighbour arrived to take two of the long-haired silver kittens away.  Sally knew she was a cat lover with children of her own and would take good care of them.  As usual Pepper was in attendance – although whether or not he knew what was going on was questionable.  Sally suspected that, on past performance, he probably did so she made sure he was fully involved in their departure.  As their new owner drove happily away, Pepper stood alongside Sally at the front door watching them go.  The following day the same thing happened and by the end of the week the little tabby, Pepper’s look-alike, now christened Pepperoni, had gone, too.

The dynamics in the household changed again.  Rosie’s visits were now so rare as to be insulting and, finally, she disappeared for good.  Pepper gradually withdrew back into himself and reverted to his fearful ways.  His sorties beyond the boundaries of the garden were few and far between and, to their knowledge, he never showed any interest in another female.  It was as though the events of the last six months had been erased from his memory.

Another year was to go by before Jenny noticed that something was wrong.  Although the halcyon days of her relationship with Pepper were over, he still permitted her to stroke him sometimes and that was when she noticed a swelling under his stomach.  Alarmed, Sally and Jenny took him to the vet who did some tests.  Throughout all this the little cat put up no resistance, submitting to the experience bravely and knowingly.

The news was not good, the vet said.  He would be alright for a month or so, but as the illness progressed he would suffer increasing pain and would lose his appetite.  Then, perhaps, it would be wise to make another appointment.  There was nothing more that could be done.

The family watched as the little cat gradually deteriorated.  Sadness descended over the household and even Pawsley and Basil became melancholy.  Not once did Pepper complain nor indicate that he was in any distress, but, as the vet predicted, he soon lost his taste for food and grew thin and weak.  Walking became precarious and he was reduced to lying down for hours on end.

Sally knew what had to be done and, over dinner one evening, explained to the girls that it would be a kindness to put him out of his misery.  Tearfully, the girls agreed and it was decided that an appointment would be made for the following day.  Jenny would go, too.

Again, Pepper allowed himself to be taken on the short journey without protest and as Sally carried him into the vet’s room he rested affectionately in her arms.  The vet agreed to administer the injection with Sally still holding him and, as the needle was inserted into his side, Sally heard the uncommon rumbling again.  Pepper was purring again, content in the knowledge that his job was done.

*   *   *

“What do you think we can learn from Pepper’s story?” Jenny asked her children as she came to the end.  They’d heard it a dozen times but still wanted to hear it.

“That animals have feelings?” suggested the little boy.

“That every life has a purpose?” said his older sister.

Jenny thought back to her own childhood and wondered what it was about Pepper that had made such an impression.  It was a long time ago and much water had passed under the bridge.  She couldn’t be sure if her recollection had become distorted; whether something quite run-of-the-mill had blossomed into family folklore.  She reminded herself that Pepper’s short life had coincided with her grandfather’s death, when the family was already in a state of heightened emotion and unusually prone to sentimentality.  But, if her own childish memories were unreliable, the same could not be said about her mother’s.  Sally still remembered every detail as if it were yesterday.

As she tucked them in, she knew her children would draw their own lessons from what to them would only ever be a fairy tale.  But fairy tales were important, she thought.  She kissed them goodnight, wished them sweet dreams and closed the bedroom door quietly.

“They wanted to hear all about Pepper again,” she told her mother.  There was still some sunlight filtering into the room.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Sally answered.  “Hardly a day goes by without me thinking about him.”

Sally reflected on this before asking: “Why is that, Mum, after all these years?  I mean, he was only a cat.”

“You know, I never saw it like that,” said Sally tiredly, looking out at the garden. “We used to talk about it.  You’ve forgotten.”

“What, Mum?” Jenny asked.

“That we can all be inspired by a noble spirit, even if for a brief moment in time it happens to be residing in the body of a cat.” Jenny noticed her mother’s eyes moistening. “Does that sound silly?”

“No, Mum, it doesn’t sound silly,” Jenny answered, kissing her forehead. “But, life can be so unfair, can’t it?”

The older woman lay back against the pillows.  “You know, your grandfather wasn’t afraid and neither am I.”  She smiled contentedly.  “Now, be a darling and fetch my supper and don’t worry about me.  I love lying here looking out of the window.”