Fritz the Cat

I once had a cat called Fritz. He was my best-ever cat: there had been others before, but none quite like Fritz. Of the other cats, the first I remember is Pickles: she was ginger and stripy, and I was small and excited to be getting a pet. I went with my dad to collect her, a small kitten, from Uncle Bill's timber yard, that wonderful place with the cobbled floor and the warm smell of sawn wood and fresh creosote, and that evening my aunt was cooking chutney and so we named the kitten Pickles. Every other cat after Pickles who came to live in our house was always called Bill--not after my dad's brother, but because my dad reckoned that as Bills were the only thing that ever arrived on our doormat, so therefore all the cats must be Bills, too.

And I remember my special Billy-Cat, my early-teen soul-mate: a long-haired tabby who produced litter after litter of well-assorted kittens until she was dragged off to the vet, and who then spent two weeks hiding her wound in the cellar, until I'd just about given her up as lost and written the tragedy on one of the few completed pages of my precious lock-away-your-secrets five-year diary. Billy died of the cat 'flu a couple of years later, I'd carried her sneezing and suffering across town to the vet's every night for a week, but he couldn't fix her and, in the end, kindly persuaded me to let her stay with him...

And then there was Oedipuss, my college cat, who ran away in the summer to chase squirrels in the park and returned many weeks later in time for the cold autumn nights, and who went to live with my mother when I moved away and couldn't take him with me. He stayed put in her house growing fat and old and lazy and no matter how many times he was packed off to live with my sister he would sooner-rather-than-later plod his way back across the town to lay full-stretch on the tangled rug in front of my mother's gas fire. As if he'd used up eight of his nine lives that first frantic summer and was making the ninth life last.

And there was the black cat that never did get a name, but which peed on the bed and then chewed my husband's dope plants and finally got thrown out on its ear after jumping in through the kitchen window to land four-footed in a bowl of soup that my husband was bad-temperedly serving up...

None of these other cats could ever match up to Fritz.

Fritz was born behind the worn and untidy couch in our small orange-and- purple-painted council house in the village where my husband had grown up. Fritz's mother had sneaked inside the house while no-one was looking and hidden her tiny frame and her swollen, wriggling belly in the dark and warm space between the couch and the wall. She was a brow-and-ginger, more-than-half-wild farm cat who'd been given to us as a pet, but who had made it known right away that she wanted none of that stroking-and-fussing business, thank you very much, but just to be left alone in peace to wander about in the village fields and catch mice and tease next-door's angry dog. And after the kittens were born and snug in the shed just outside the back door, she retreated even further; dragging small rabbits, bigger than herself, up the lane and through the gap under the shed door.

As a pet cat Fritz's mother was pretty much a failure, but she would have made an excellent dog. She loved to follow you, at a respectful distance, on walks through the village. And the kittens would follow after her--one of them, mewing continuously. All the time. Non-stop. That was Fritz. From the day he was born, he never stopped mioauing. Loudly.

Then one dark night, my husband came running back to the house just minutes after he had left, bursting into the kitchen, crying, sobbing hard, his hands cradling a small bundle of dying, bloody fur and matchstick bones. Going out to visit some friends, he'd crossed the road that ran through the unlit village, not knowing that the cat had followed him, the kittens strung in line behind like a troop of schoolchildren... and a truck had rushed through the night, blind and brutal, rolling heavy wheels through and over them all. All but one. The one that was always miaowing. He was Fritz. Fritz the cat.

Fritz just moved right in and settled down. He miaoued to go outside, then immediately miaoued to come back in again. He miaoued to be stroked. He miaoued to be fed. He even purred in his sleep.

The big black dog adopted him, or rather, Fritz adopted the dog. He'd crawl all over the black dog's back, jump on his ears, stalk his tail. He'd eat from the dog's bowl. The dog, the same dog that could wolf down a tin of biscuits or an unguarded sandwich or a large tin of dogfood with two handfuls of Winalot mixed in, in two seconds flat, and savagely gnaw a bone while growling through his teeth, that same dog would stand waiting patiently, his saliva drooling into pools on the tiled floor, until Fritz had eaten his fill and staggered away, belly swollen fit to burst.

The two animals would sleep curled together, the cat cradled against the dog's massive chest, even when Fritz was grown into a long-and- lanky tomcat, who yowled like a crying baby and nightly serenaded all the she-cats in the village and county. Even then, cat and dog would arrange themselves around each other, ignorant of the rules, just keeping warm and safe and being and doing what felt right.

Then Fritz would disappear for days, weeks even. Prowling the fields. Stalking mice and avoiding men. Singing in the night. Talking to the trees. But he would always come home... not to come back indoors, but miaouing his way through the next-door field, all the way down the garden path to the back door, "I'm home, i'm back, come on lass, where's the milk?" non-stop cat-talk, miaou-miaou-MIAOU-miaou, "Come on then, give us a stroke, go on, that's right, what's that? oh that's nowt, bloody big rat tried to mix it didn'ee; keep strokin', come on, ooh that feels good, bin away two weeks ain't I, ooh y'should've seen them mice in Old Jack's barn down the 'ill there, frit the livin' daylights out of them mice didn' I, blummin' 'eck y'should've seen'em run... oi, a drop more milk'd go down well, 'n' what's bin 'appenin' round-ere then, an' where's that stoopid dog, gone scroungin' again? I'll give 'm a talkin' to when I see 'im, aw go on, stroke us a bit more, go on..."

And that was his routine: off into the world from day to day and week to week, coming back "home" every now and then, checking in, making sure we were still there: like a seasick sailor, anchoring himself for an hour or two, sitting out a storm, then launching himself back into the flowing days of mousing and catting and tomming and prowling and generally behaving like a Proper Country Tom-cat should.

Fritz-cat. My best cat... He was nobody's cat, he was his own cat, he was just as a cat should be.

And then he was late... two or three weeks had gone by, and his milk-saucer lay waiting for him on the wall by the dustbins, rain- filled and sad. I called for him, but he didn't come. And as if he'd missed an unspoken appointment, somehow I knew he was gone... and early one morning a villager found him, stiff and cold at the side of the road, wrapped in dew and dust, silent for the first time since he was born...

It's funny, I've never wanted another cat since Fritz... because, in a way, he's still here. He's around: still telling his stories, singing his songs. I can still feel his long back under my hand as I stroke his fur hard, hard as he liked it: he's guzzling milk, squatting low on the wall, still miaouing as he drinks and rubs and purrs and laps... yes, he's still around. Listen... you might hear him, too.

Fritz the Cat. My best cat. Nobody's cat. His own cat.