“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes
It was Christmas time in England. The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost. I looked out the window and sighed. After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.
Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception. In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed. Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits. Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead. The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.
My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub. I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.
“Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed. He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants. “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds. That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas. It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings. “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.” The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.
“Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”. “ 180 sterling ? You have got to be kidding me ? It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy. “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl. Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”. I asked him if he could wait a minute. It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman. I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms. The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin. I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal. Or, you can rescue this poor creature. She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )
This was not the way it was supposed to go. This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas. We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared. He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor. “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes. I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.
The drive home was a disaster. The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough. Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck. The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb. I collected myself. It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down. My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.
With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her. As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”. She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap. “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered. I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face. Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.
After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom. For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom. Christmas Eve finally arrived. The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas. The cat would not cooperate. The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house. All night I tracked and captured the animal. About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning, both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket. Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee. “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself. She’ll never know it was me.
I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship. I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck. The ringworm was already beginning to appear.