In childhood, people, animals, events appear, are accepted, vanish, with no explanation offered or asked for.
But now, remembering cats, always cats, a hundred incidents involving cats, years and years of cats, I am astonished at the hard work they must have meant. In London now I have two cats; and often enough I say, What nonsense that one should have all this trouble and worry on account of two small animals.
All that work must have been done by my mother. Farm work for the man; housework for the woman, even if the house did involve so very much more work than one associates with housework in a town. It was her work, too, because a nature claims the labor that goes with it. She was humane, sensible, shrewd. She was above all, and in every detail, practical. But more than that: she was one of that part of humankind which understands how things work; and works with them. A grim enough role.
My father understood well enough; he was a countryman. But his attitude came out as a protest; when something had to be done, steps had to be taken, a final stand was being made – and my mother was making it. “So that’s that! I suppose!” he’d say, in ironic anger which was also admiring. “Nature,” he’d say, capitulating, “is all very well if it’s kept in its place.”
But my mother, nature her element, indeed her duty and her burden, did not waste time on sentimental philosophy. “It’s all very well for you, isn’t it?” she’d say, humorous, humorous if it killed her; but resentful of course, for it was not my father who drowned the kittens, shot the snake, killed the diseased fowl, or burned sulphur in the white ant nest; my father like ants, enjoyed watching them.
Which makes it even harder to understand what led to the frightful weekend when I was left alone with my father and about forty cats.
All I can remember from that time by the way of explanation is the remark: “she’s got soft-hearted and can’t bear to drown a kitten.”
It was said with impatience, with irritation and – from me –cold hard anger. At that time I was in combat with my mother, a fight to the death, a fight for survival, and perhaps that had something to do with it, I don’t know. But now I wonder, appalled, what sort of breakdown in her courage had taken place. Or perhaps it was a protest? What inner miseries expressed themselves so? What was she in fact saying during that year when she would not drown kittens, or have put to death the cats who badly needed it? And, finally, why did she go away and leave us two, knowing perfectly well, because she must have known, since it was loudly and frequently threatened, what was going to happen.
A year, less, of my mother’s refusal to act her role as regulator, arbiter, balance between sense and the senseless proliferations of nature, had resulted in the house, the sheds around the house, the bush that surrounded the farmstead, being infested with cats. Cats of all ages; cats tame and wild and the stages in between; cats mangy and sore-eyed and maimed and crippled. Worse, there were half a dozen cats in kitten. There was nothing to prevent us, within a few weeks, from becoming the battleground for a hundred cats.
Something had to be done. My father said it. I said it. The servants said it. My mother tightened her lips, said nothing, but went away. Before she left she said goodbye to her favorite puss, an old tabby who was the mother of them all. She stroked her gently, and cried. That I do remember, my feelings of futility because I could not understand the helplessness of those tears.
The moment she had gone, my father said several times, “Well, it’s got to be done, hasn’t it?” Yes, it had; and so he rang up the vet in town. Not at all a simple business this . . .
At last we got the vet, who said the least cruel way to kill grown cats was to chloroform them. We rang Salisbury and asked a chemist to put a large bottle of chloroform on to the train next day. He said he would try. That night we sat out in front of the house under the stars; which is where our evenings were spent unless it rained. We were miserable, angry, guilty. We went to bed very early to make the time pass. Next day was Saturday. We drove to the station but the chloroform was not on the train. On Sunday a cat gave birth to six kittens. They were all deformed: there was something wrong with each of them. Inbreeding, my father said it was so. If so, it is a remarkable thing that less than a year of it could transform a few healthy animals into an army of ragged sick cripples. The servant disposed of the new kittens, and we spent another miserable day. On Monday we drove to the station, met the train, and came back with the chloroform. My mother was to come back Monday night. We got a large air-tight biscuit tin, put an old sick cat into it, with a tampon soaked in chloroform. I do not recommend this method. The vet said it would be instantaneous; but it was not.
In the end, the cats were rounded up and put into a room. My father went into the room with his First World War revolver, more reliable, he said, than a shotgun. The gun sounded again, again, again, again. The cats that were still uncaught had sensed their fate and were raging and screaming all over the bush, with people after them. My father came out of the room at one point, very white, with tight angry lips and wet eyes. He was sick. Then he swore a good deal, then he went back into the room and the shooting continued. At last he came out. The servants went in and carried off the corpses to the disused well.
Some of the cats had escaped –three never came back at all to the murderous household, so they must have gone wild and taken their chances. When my mother returned from her trip, and the neighbor who had brought her had gone, she walked quiet and uncommenting through the house where there was now one cat, her old favorite asleep on her bed. My mother had not asked for this cat to be spared, because it was old, and not very well. But she was looking for it; and she sat a long time stroking and talking to it. Then she came out to the verandah. There sat my father and there I sat, murderers, and feeling it. She sat down. He was rolling a cigarette. His hands were still shaking. He looked up at her and said: “that must never happen again.”
And I suppose it never did. . .