Alley Cat

O’Malley left us the other night just before a filthy day, wet and dark and suitable to mourning. He was our old cat; he had just turned thirteen years old and this made him the equivalent of an old, aching man. He was aching by the end, but not for long and only a little: he became slow and without energy but also without much pain. Only the evening before he passed did he cry a little bit, but more out of confusion. He was confused but then he slept and he passed in peace, and we found him in the darkness of that filthy day. It was raining and the ground was wet but not so wet that it was not difficult to dig a hole deep into the earth. These days both my mother and I lack physical strength, and we had to call on Sonia to be our gravedigger, and she was very good in saying yes. She dug the rusty spade into the earth at the back of the wet olive grove and we stood by and watched.

There is inevitably that hole named grief that O’Malley has left with us, and it hurts, but it is a quiet, slow pain, and I feel myself accepting it peacefully. It was similar with other animals, perhaps deeper with the dog and more sudden. But this sort of grief is funny in that it creates an emptiness that cannot be filled or reconciled. It is just a case of waking up into the first day of many days when a beloved pet is absent, and saying “ok”, and then a feeling of sadness that comes with a nod rather than a refusal, rather than a shake of the head, with some tears but without tears of frustration.

And I do not write this now to mourn, but rather to remember. Thirteen years ago, T was the one who found O’Malley in the bushes of the garden in our first Italian spring. He was small and shriveled up and with a raw tail like a little rat. He was not much to look at, but he had sweet eyes and he wanted to be held. And of course he had the irresistible preciousness that I find in all kittens, delicate and vulnerable and the sweetest little beasts that I have ever known. We held O’Malley from the first day of that spring and he loved to be held. He purred as he climbed cautiously up the leg of my father’s trousers. He was raised on touch and this meant that he always loved affection, purring in our beds and on our laps and nudging his keen white head against our fingers. As I type now I am thrown back to moments when I typed out papers for school, and O’Malley came and popped his paws on the keyboard, seeking attention, and sentences about Orwell or Cold War would be disturbed by paw-placed gibberish.

My father insisted we put him in the shed for his first night, because we were not to get attached and he was to find a different home the next day. But we slid his little form into the dark shed and closed the wooden door, hearing his little cries, and our hearts broke for some time before we gave him something to nibble inside in the kitchen and he climbed onto my father’s shoulders. So then O’Malley played on the tall shoulders of my father and my father’s brave determination melted completely. We knew then that we would keep O’Malley, and we loved him very much for the following years. His name was chosen from the Alley Cat in the Disney film Aristocats. It suited him, he was small but brave and he came from the woods and the streets. He was adopted from the wilderness of country. The vet revealed he was a boy and in our minds he easily came to fill the role of the smooth male charmer from the film.

 

I find it difficult to have deep memories from that time, I was ten years old and the days were slow but my long-term memory is very dim. Photographs help, and I find this one very beautiful, taken somewhere in the warm weeks of O’Malley’s first autumn, and his first autumn with Whiskey, our golden retriever. Whiskey looks very photogenic, as always, a model-like melancholy on his handsome face, but more than this I love O’Malley’s wild eyes and his escaping pose in my mother’s arms. My mother looks very beautiful and natural, as she does now, and I love remembering the mornings she and my father would sit out here in the back garden with a cup of coffee.

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This photo is then of one of those mornings, probably taken by my father, and O’Malley is still living the confusion of his first year. It is a photo that captures a friendship between our oldest animals, and our deep love for them, within the smile of my mother. They were great friends, Whiskey and O’Malley. I have countless images in my head of Whiskey standing straight and wagging his tail, with his nose in O’Malley’s neck, and O’Malley walking slow, seductive circles around Whiskey’s front paws. They were ideal together, golden and white and the same age, growing in parallel and both climbing into old age, welcoming the new arrivals with skepticism and affection. They were friends and brothers.

 

Many friends are less attached to cats than I am, which I have found surprising. I was always deeply attached to our cats, first to our fat old Jago, who was with us in the Netherlands. It is a surprise when friends show a disinterest in cats but then I remember that cats can be detached, and indifferent, and very self-absorbed, a bit like Mundy is now. She is sweet and elegant but she will bite when she feels it is appropriate. She will want to be stroked for the feeling of a hand on her thin back, and not for the gift of her soft fur to the hand that strokes her. O’Malley loved to give affection just as he loved to receive it. He would cry happily when looking for one of us around the house, especially upstairs, roaming between the bedrooms and jumping up beside us when we were lying down with a book in the thin light of a bedside lamp. He would jump up and meow through a sharp purr, and really cuddle beside you and into you. He loved the little spots behind his ears and in his neck and he always carried a nice smell. I remember the morning triumph of announcing at breakfast that “O’Malley slept with me all night!”, and two of us kids would be envious of this luck of the third.

 

This was also because he was rarely in the house for the night. He stayed true to his name for his whole life, always out and in the fields. This is what told us eventually that he was winding down, when he would hardly leave the cushions on the kitchen chair except to wander up to my bed. But he loved being out, even crossing the dangerous street to meet the strays in the fields on the other side, protected by his bright white coat in the darkness of the night. He was streetwise, walking along the top of the walls and only jumping down onto the road when the cars had passed. It was partly a mystery where he would go at night, but then the neighbours said he often snuck down to lie in the cellar under the house. He would find a spot on an old couch in the cold dust of the cellar, and lie there for the night in a perfect peace. I appreciated this solitary nature, the mark of a man. My father would be the same on a Sunday night, with his newspaper and glass of red wine. O’Malley liked his peace and quiet and it was important to respect it.

 

Even as a peaceful soul, he could still be driven wild by certain foods and scents. It was sweet one Christmas to see him go berserk for a little bag of catnip, a substance that I always found very bizarre. It was especially the smell of pork that really shook him. Certainly not kosher, he turned into a deft little thief on the nights when my father cooked little pork fillets. In our family, we have the famous memory of the saltimbocca, or “jump-in-the-mouth”, that O’Malley stole and endlessly enjoyed. A saltimbocca is a little bit of pancetta, wrapped with string in a laurel leaf and a little piece of veal, cooked in white wine. He was a cultured cat with excellent taste, but I suppose it was impolite of him to grab the saltimbocca from the table and drag it down to the floor. He would never steal it directly with his mouth, but he would stick out a little hand and latch his claw into the flesh, like he might have clawed a fish out of its bowl. I always liked seeing his outstretched paw grabbing at something, like when he would jump up onto the kitchen counter to drink from his jug and he would test the water level with his arm. He would eat his treats off the floor but he insisted on sipping his water on the civilization of the kitchen counter. I never asked him about this incoherence because I always enjoyed it too much.

 

For the first half of his life he was nearly pretty, I suppose. He had a clear, white fur and the wide green beautiful eyes that some cats are lucky to have. The ratty tail that he had as a kitten grew into a lovely and strong tail in adulthood. But then one summer we came home and he had been irritated at his eyes, from the heat and the dust, and his eyes never really recovered. They were very dry and the scabs underneath them wouldn’t go anymore. T thought he looked like an alien, which he did a little bit. So he was never really beautiful, but the wonderful thing was that it did not matter in the slightest. O’Malley was never ornamental, as we also see in the picture above. He was a cat in action, he moved and loved and was very much alive until the very end. So I always admitted apologetically to friends that yes, he was not pretty, but I didn’t feel I needed to further justify my attachment. We had a very special relationship, and I found that he always had a beautiful and loving character.

 

Our eyes play wonderful tricks on us, and the subjectivity of beauty, with enough love, always allows us to ignore what might normally be considered ugly. But O’Malley remained a beautiful little boy, even as he approached physical resignation. My father always said that he was “the best cat”, and he was an excellent judge of character, animal or not. I only know very clearly that I loved him, and I was glad that he did not suffer. He went a little more quickly than I had thought or hoped, but in his shadow stands this long, wonderful legacy of feeling that I look at fondly, without sadness. O’Malley’s life, and Whiskey’s, rose and fell as I grew through adolescence and the first years as an adult, and thereby represented a large portion of the love I felt in these important years. Missed, mourned, but only in heart and ever in happiness.

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