Meter Mayle - It's A Dog's Life
|Mano a Mano with the Cat in the Garage
The world, as Jean-Paul Sartre might have said had the thought occurred to him, is divided into those who like cats and those who donıt. Iım a founding member of the second group, which will come as no surprise to you when I tell you how cats and I first became acquainted. It was during my infancy, when, as Iıve mentioned, times were hard and food was scarcefor us dogs, at any rate. It was a different bag of bones for the house cat.
Hepzibah by name, malignant by nature, she spent her days dozing indoors and, from the look of her, was grossly overfed. She was bigger than we were thena monstrous, beady-eyed creature covered in mottled black and brown fur, with one long yellow tooth protruding over her bottom lip and a full set of claws, which all of us puppies felt at one time or another. Every evening at feeding time, she would waddle down and join us in the barn to inspect the chefıs offerings knowing that, by mistake probably, we were occasionally given something more appetizing than stale bread and gristle. Whenever that happened, Hepzibah would lay about cuffing us right and left to get to the trough first. And, do you know, it must have been for sport. It couldnıt have been for hunger; she was built like a sofa.
To this day, after that youthful trauma, I can never look on cats with any genuine enthusiasm and I never cease to marvel at the popularity enjoyed by Felis Domesticus. What is he, after all, but an antisocial fur ball with delusions of superiority?
The rot started thousands of years ago, as any historian will tell you, with the Egyptians. For some reasonaddled brains due to the climate, possibly or madness brought on by building too many pyramidsthey elevated the status of cat from common mouse catcher to religious object, protector of the Pharaohıs Kitty Litter and icon in chief. Cats, of course, being altogether too pleased with themselves from birth onward, took this as their due and lorded it over the desert sands, taking a front seat at King Tutıs dinner parties, having their paws anointed with sacred unguents, giving up mousing for a life of idleness, and generally being obnoxious. And that has been their lot ever since.
When the rule of the Pharaohs collapsedwhich it was bound to do, given the misguided people in chargeyou might have thought the world would have learned a simple lesson in cause and effect: Namely, cat worshippers come to a sticky end. The best they can hope for is a full-length bandage and parking space in a badly ventilated tomb. And another thing: You wonıt find Tiddles curled up at their feet in eternal loyalty. If heıs given half a chance, heıs off to the next soft touch.
Well, you might say those were dark and primitive days, and weıve come a long way since. Knowledge has increased in quantum leaps and now we have more modern godstelevision, for instance, or football players. If that is your opinion, dear reader, I must tell you that the cat movement has not only survived but prospered mightily, its fury tentacles reaching everywhere one looks.
Take the arts. There are paintings of cats, volumes of prose and poetry devoted to cats, racks of ghastly greeting cards with Pussy smiling his supercilious smile. There is even, so I hear, a cat musical. Iıd quite like to see that, actually because the thought of grown men and women prancing around in false tails and nylon whiskers appeals to my sense of the absurd. I dare say the show is a sellout in Egypt.
All thisand there is much more, but I wonıt belabor the pointis by way of explaining my position vis-à-vis the cat. I am not a fan. Call it sour grapes if you like, or blame it on the horrendous Hepzibah, but when you think of those overstuffed creatures having the run of the furniture and creamed-chicken gourmet dinners, it makes the blood boil and gives me grave doubts about mankindıs sense of priorities.
Ours is an enlightened household, Iım happy to say, and so, apart from the occasional sighting of cats slinking through the forest on some furtive errand, Iım not bothered by them. I certainly donıt expect to find them anywhere on my rolling acres, least of all in the garage. But one morning not too long ago, I was strolling past the open garage on my way to do some light work among the lizard population, when I was stopped short by my nose. There it was, strong and unmistakable: the scent of cat.
Thereıs a popular misconceptionshamelessly encouraged, of course, by ostentatious displays of washing and licking and paws behind the earsthat the cat of one of natureıs cleaner creations, odor-free and community-minded when it comes to waste disposal. This is bunk. Put a ripe old tomcat in an enclosed space, such as a garage, and youıll need to hold your breath. Itıs that bad.
I put my head inside the door and looked around. To help you set the scene in your mindıs eye, I should tell you that the garage would not win any prizes for neatness and order. The car sits in the middle, surrounded by sacks of fertilizer, lengths of garden hose, a lawn mower, three or four garden chairs resting between engagements, drums of rose spray, old clay pots, and a range of shelves that hold everything from cans of paint to a chain saw. For all their talents, I never suspected the management of larceny, but this muddle of equipment looks as though it had been removed under cover of night from a hardware store and tossed willy-nilly into its new home as it came off the back of the truck. And somewhere, hiding among the wreckage, was the trespasser.
Through the door I went, moving with infinite menace, and looked around. Nothing stirred. He was probably pressed up against the wall, frozen with terror, or maybe heıd tucked himself behind the potting soil, but he wasnıt in any of the obvious places. They like to hide under cars, you know, which is why you often see them with an elegant smear of car oil down their backs. This one, however, had gone into deep cover.
I knew he was there, thought by the smell, and so I picked my way through the clutter toward the shelves at the back, the nose questing and every sense on the qui vive, a lethal weapon poised to strike. And then I saw himor, to be strictly accurate, part of him.
The highest shelf was used for the storage of shallow wooden seed trays, stacked in a pile, and I noticed that the topmost tray seemed to have grown a tail, A bushy, ginger, grubby-looking thing it was, similar to the brushes people use to clear a blocked train, and in my view, equally unsavory. It was hanging over the side of the tray. Aha, I said to myself. Follow the tail and you find the cat.
The plan was to give the dangling tail a sudden yank to see if our ginger visitor could break the world record for unassisted flight by getting out of the garage without touching the ground. But much to my irritation, the end was just out of reach, even at full stretch on my hind legs. I was pacing back and forth, mulling over tactics and determined to preserve the element of surprise, when I felt that I was being watched. Itıs a knack I have, a kind of extra-sensory perception developed during the old days of living rough and dodging brooms, and it hasnıt failed me yet.
I looked up, and there was a sight to curdle the cream. Pussyıs head had appeared, the size of a small melon, with two badly mangled ears and eyes the color of old rabbit droppings. Iım a generous soul, so Iıll merely say he wouldnıt have won any beauty contests and leave it at that. We looked at each other in silence for a few seconds, and then I decided to show him that I had no intention of taking in lodgers. Up on my hind legs I went, and I gave him the full treatment. I snarled; I barked; I foamed at the mouth with blood lust. You canıt imagine the savagery of it unless youıve been to a literary cocktail party with no restrictions on the drink. And do you know what he did? He yawned, closed his eyes, and gave every appearance of going to sleep.
I was getting hoarse by this time and, to be honest, not too sure of my next step, when there was a sudden gust of wind and the garage door slammed shut like an explosion. That woke the brute up, and he was out of the seed tray and standing at attention behind the lawn mower in a split second.
He was, if itıs possible, even less prepossessing at ground level, and it was made worse by the ridiculous attitude heıd assumed. His tail was pointing to the sky, his back was arched, his fur stood straight up, as if heıd just swallowed some high-voltage milk, his tattered ears were pressed flat against his moth-eaten head. I remember thinking heıd be out of luck if he auditioned for the musical, and then events moved rather quickly.
We sparred for a few seconds, with me bobbing and weaving and him taking a few unsuccessful swipes with his paw before he realized he was outclassed. I had him on the run. Through the paint pots and empty bottles we went, scattering all before us until we came to the door, which, as Iıve told you, was shut. Now I had him where I wanted him. Pause for a breath before round two.
This is when I learned another piece of practical wisdom, which I urge you to bear in mind should circumstances require. The cornered opponent with nowhere to go is not to be trusted. They say that about rats, as you know, and highly placed government officials who are caught with their hands in the till or their trousers down, and itıs quite true. They lash out, ignoring the possible consequences, causing pain and woe to innocent partieswhich is exactly what happened to me.
I had the intruder with his back to the ropes, in a manner of speaking, up against the garage door, with no chance of escape. Had he surrendered peacefully, I would have given him a swift mauling and sent him on his way, but he came out of the corner like a thing possessed and caught me on the muzzle, with a surprising amount of force for a small, tubby creature. He had all his claws out, too. Instinct must have taken over then, I suppose, because the next thing I knew, Iıd taken a flying leap backward and upward, landing on the hood of the car. Undignified, you may think, but then you werenıt on the receiving end.
It was at this point that the management, attracted by the noise of our negotiations, came to the catıs rescue by opening the door. He went off like a flea on skates, with me in moderately hot pursuit, and found refuge in the high branches of an almond tree. I took up a position at the base of the tree, growling and stamping and flexing my whiskers as though I was spoiling for action, but if truth be known, I was quite happy to leave things as they were. But it was not to be.
One of the disadvantages of country life is that you are never completely free from the curiosity of the neighbors, who will take every opportunity to stop what theyıre doing to watch what youıre doing. I was on my hind legs, giving a convincing impression of trying to climb the tree, when there was a shout from the vineyard below the house.
³Attention!² said the voice, ³that is the cat of Madame Noiret! He is old and delicate! Disengage your dog!²
We looked around, the management, the cat and I, to see a ragged figure sitting on his tractor, flapping his arms in a frenzy, as the French tend to do in moments of crisis. I barked. The cat hissed and moved up a couple of branches. The other half seized me from behind. The busybody dismounted from his tractor and stumped up the drive to join us.
He insisted on shaking hands, which gave me a chance to slip out of the other halfıs clutches and put some distance between us. I declined the managementıs invitation to get back in the house, and I was out of reach, waiting for gravity to work its magic on the cat. He was by now perched uneasily at the very top of the tree, swaying in the wind, and I had pleasant visions of his bough breakingthe almond is not all that sturdyand the ginger missile plummeting to earth. Thus perish all trespassers.
Alarm and consternation at the base of the tree. The cat must be rescued; Madame Noiret must be informed. A crise dramatiquewhat are we to do? I knew what I was going to do, which was to evade arrest and wait for the intruder to fall off his perch. It looked increasingly likely as the wind freshened and I was interested to see if cats really do land on their feet.
The other half muttered something about an appointment and began to sidle off to the bar, but our man with the tractor had other ideas. ³You must get a ladder,² said ³and recuperate the cat while I go fetch Madame Noiret. Allez! We shall return with all speed.² And away he trotted on his errand of mercy.
With much dragging of the feet, the other half went to the garage and came back with an extension ladder, which for once he managed to erect without mutilating his fingers. He wedged it up into the tree, cursing the while, with Madame telling him to be careful and to moderate his language with the cat. As he climbed the ladder, the top of the tree began to bend in a most promising manner, with ginger Tom clinging on like grim death and hissing furiously.
I was well placed to see what happened next. The other half made reassuring noises and stretched out a helping hand, which was promptly attacked by tooth and claw. Ungrateful beasts, cats, as I have always maintained, and the other half had one or two choice phrases to describe them as he returned to earth with scratches up to his elbow, just in time to welcome Madame Noiret and her henchman.
She, of course, was in a fine old state about it all, wringing her hands and wailing and calling out to her little ray of sunshine in the branches to calm himself, Maman was here, double rations of calvesı liver for dinner if he came down, and so forth. But he wasnıt having any of it, and after seeing the damage to the other halfıs arm, there was a distinct shortage of volunteers to climb up and get him.
If Iıd been in charge, Iıd have left him there until autumn, when he would have dropped off with the leaves, but Madame Noiret was working herself into a lather of distress. ³Itıs all your fault,² she said to the other half. ³Itıs your dog who has terrorized my poor Zouzou. What are you going to do?²
To which he replied reasonably enough, I thought after being wounded in action³Madame, your cat was in my garage. My ladder is at your disposal. I am going to bandage my arm and then I shall very probably have a drink to restore myself. Good day to you.²
This wouldnıt do at all. Madame Noiret puffed herself up like an irate balloon and then demanded to use the telephone. In the face of such inhuman behavior, she said, she was forced to invoke the highest authorities. The English may have no regard for helpless animals, or so she claimed, but the French, being civilized, certainly do. We shall summon the pompiers and let the brave lads of the fire department save Zouzou.
Anything for a quiet life is the managementıs motto, and so into the house they all went to make the call and glare at one another. I had become rather bored by now and went off digging with the Labrador to pass the time until the arrival of the boys in blue, with their cranes and, I hoped, hydraulically operated cat extractors. Itıs very modern, the French fire department. And I had a mental picture of Zouzou being plucked off his branch by a giant forceps.
But as things turned out, it wasnıt exactly the joyful climax you might have expected. The pompiers duly turned up and we all went down the drive to welcome them, Madame Noiret leading the way with cries of relief, showering blessings on anyone wearing a uniform and pointing a finger of scorn at the other half. A bossy, disagreeable old boot, she was, and thoroughly deserving of what came next.
The captain cut her off in midbabble and asked her where the endangered cat was. ³Follow me,² said Madame Noiret. ³Bring your men and suitable equipment. And vite! There is not a moment to be lost.²
The procession made its way up to the almond tree, with Madame Noiret calling out in that nauseating way people address their cats, and then there was what you could only describe as a pregnant and embarrassed silence. The tree was uninhabited. Zouzou, finally showing a vestige of common sense, had gone while the going was good and we were all otherwise engaged.
The best was yet to come. Madame Noiret, having made the call, was obliged to pay for bringing out the assembled forces of the fire department without due cause. She protested and carried on, as Iıve noticed people do when their wallets are under threat, but it was to no avail. The captain made the bill out on the spot.
The other half was smiling for the rest of the day, despite his wounds.
From DOGıS LIFE, A by Peter Mayle, copyright İ 1995 by Escargot
Productions, Ltd. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.