Byline: PHILIP NORMAN
LIFE CAN have strange ways of making amends. Just after Easter 1979, I lost a live-in girlfriend and acquired a cat, all in the space of one week.
The cat's arrival was even more dramatically unexpected than the girlfriend's departure.
I was slumped on my living room couch, swallowed up by self-pity, when a faint sound made me turn to the French window. Outlined against its lower pane was a small, entreating face.
The flat was a basement with a large, paved courtyard at its rear. I knew there were cats in the neighbouring Victorian terrace houses, and now and again I had seen a furtive shape undulate along the back wall and jump down to inspect my under-utilised domain.
Usually the interloper fled as soon as I showed myself. But this one didn't.
I carefully stepped outside. My visitor was scarcely more than a kitten, undersized, large-eared and trembling with the enormity of its adventure.
Its markings were no different from a million other moggies - black back and tail, white breast, stomach and lower legs.
The pink-nosed face still had a kitten's peaky, over-wakeful look.
But mingled with apprehensiveness in the wide green eyes was an urgency which in Parliament could have caught the Speaker's attention from the back benches.
Remembering one should never go to a strange cat, but always let it come to you, I crouched down and extended a hand. My visitor acknowledged it with a quivering nostril, but otherwise made no move, towards me or away.
I put out a forefinger and gently scratched under the white chin. Then I picked it up. It was as light as a feather and I could feel its fragile bones under the fur.
As I lifted it into the air, it twisted its body and rested two white forepaws on my chest as if it were trying to hug me. In my forsaken state, I found that strangely moving.
Feeling uncared for as I did, the idea of caring for something had a pleasing novelty. I put the cat on the tiled floor of my kitchen area, where it stood cautiously, testing its balance like a ship's passenger in a mid-Atlantic gale.
I poured some milk into a saucer and set it down, wondering if my visitor would get the idea. To my excitement, a minuscule pink tongue appeared and began attacking the milk. At least there's something in the world I can do right, I thought.
OPENING the fridge, I searched among my bachelor stores and found some processed ham, cut a slice into strips, arranged these on a second saucer and - with the same feeling of adventure - put it down by the milk.
Here the scene abruptly ceased to be heart-warmingly winsome.
Snatching up the largest piece of ham and uttering a menacing growl, my visitor turned and bolted back through the living room and out into the courtyard.
I followed, protesting against the lack of logic. 'Look, I've just given it to you,' I said. 'I'm hardly likely to take it away again, am I?' The cat laid the ham between its front paws like freshly caught live prey and began chewing, still growling but otherwise ignoring me. Vaguely offended, I took out the rest of the ham, then returned to self-pitying introspection.
When I looked, a quarter of an hour later, the cat had gone. Oh well, I thought, how very typical.
Nothing ever stays with me.
But the next day she returned with her tentative step and her determined green eye. I guessed that 'she' was appropriate, even though the fluffy white undercarriage showed no distinguishing features one way or another.
Any lingering doubt on this score was dispersed when I saw four other cats crouching on the wall. Clearly all males, they were staring down at my visitor in a way that made their dastardly intentions only too plain.
Three of them I recognised from earlier encounters, but one I hadn't seen before, a sinister-looking character with a withered left hind leg, like a former tango champion down on his luck.…