Maisie, or the Meaning of Cats

According to a recent poll, conducted a few seconds ago inside my head, the average time spent online before coming across the hackneyed observation that the internet is comprised mainly of cat pictures is one minute.

However, as with all hackneyed observations, which flap and flail in the wind of popular discourse like giant flags, there is a single tent peg of truth keeping this one fixed to the ground. Cats are popular with the human race, and possibly always have been. By now, the cat is an enduring cultural icon. It is Hollywood with whiskers.

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But as well as beholding the cat as an icon, distant and fashionable, swathes of humanity consider the cat a friend; it is close and companionable, personal and warm. We are starstruck but also affectionate when we meet a strange cat in the street. It is at once far off and close at our ankles – and they act as if they know this. They are confident in their unique status.

Throughout history, then, the cat has been worshipped by the human race (occasionally literally, in the case of those Ancient Egyptians). Indeed, the human arts are woven through with a feline thread. Edgar Allan Poe is one of literature’s most notorious fans, Dr. Johnson had a favourite, and TS Eliot devoted some of his most popularly enduring poetry to the animal. Louis Wain painted them, and Morrissey has been extensively photographed with them. Katy Perry apparently has a cat called Kitty Purry, and online meme ‘Grumpy Cat’ is allegedly amusing to some.

From Top Cat to ship’s  cats, they slink through human society, transcending class and status. Of course, there are a few negative depictions scattered here and there – black cats unnerve the gullible, and Blofeld’s white cat found itself the unwitting emblem of cold, calculating malice. But cats are apolitical, and we might safely hazard a guess as to how Blofeld got his scar.

It is impossible to discuss black without reference to white, noise without a nod to silence, winners without polite tribute to losers. As such, I am compelled to consider the dog. I ought to clarify that I do not myself consider cats and dogs to be polar opposites. I do not consider them black and white, noise and silence, winners and losers. They are not mutually exclusive animals. But frequently, in social gatherings, on first dates, in job interviews, we are asked that all-too decisive question: ‘are you a dog person or a cat person?’

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It is an artificial divide, but, like the artificial divide between liking The Smiths and liking The Cure, it is a popular and judgmental one, with rippling social repercussions. I have met dogs, and they have been very pleasant. I particularly like a friendly old Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Sam, the hairs of his ears and snout growing white with age, as if he’s been snuffling through bags of flour. I know two beautiful malamutes, Indy and Kai, wide-eyed and beloved by their dedicated, dutiful owners. I used to live next door to a lumbering Labrador called Taz, and more recently a bounding hound named Toby. I know an absurd whippet called Phoebe. These characters are all playful, joyous, and – being naturally very social animals – they seem to depend and thrive on love and attention, and they return the sentiment to their human pack. I can see very clearly why anyone might declare themselves a ‘dog person’.

When a dog leaps onto your lap and wags its hypermetronomic tail, there is happiness. But when a cat settles on your knee after a period of quiet consideration, there is honour. A friendship with a cat is more subdued than with a dog. It is cooler and quieter, more intellectual. There is dignity and respect, calculation and curiosity. There is time spent apart, but there are bouts of sheer friendliness and untelegraphed flashes of playfulness. If he was a four-legged mammal, Sherlock Holmes would have been a cat, despite Italian-Japanese efforts to suggest otherwise. Dogs love snakes and ladders. Cats admire chess. I realise that this is all anthropomorphic projection and illusion, and that I don’t know how to play chess, but it is difficult to live with a cat and draw alternative impressions. In my toxoplasmotic heart I know that cats are simple creatures driven by evolutionary programming, as we also tragically know of ourselves – but let not this small nihilistic detail deny our art and our fanciful impressions.

For my part, I have lived with several cats, all adopted from streets and shelters. First there were Tamsi and Izzy, who grew from timid things into friendly little family members, and then ancient Oscar, who died, toothless and happy, at a grand old uncertified age (I once knew another elderly cat, Havoc; a bright ginger character who lived beyond twenty years). But most recently, overlapping in her stay with first Izzy and later Oscar, I lived with Maisie, and she is the real subject of this aimless ode to the cat.

maisie1

In 2009, she appeared, thin and scrappy and hungry, at the back door of the restaurant where my mum worked. My mum took this little creature to the vets, and, by the power of microchip, her owner was traced. The owner was an old lady, who, when visited by mum, declared simply that she didn’t want the cat any more, and so the cat became Maisie, and Maisie lived with us.

We cleared her scabbed skin and gave health to her bad stomach, and she never again went begging for food in strangers’ doorways. If there were people in the garden – at a barbecue in the summer, for example – she would come out and sit nearby. On sunny days she would sprawl and relax in the heat. On snowy days she pawed tentatively across the chilly whitescape. But she never chose to wander beyond the fence at the bottom of the garden. She was happy in her new territory.

She knew individual people, and one of her favourite people was my grandpa. Whenever he visited, as soon as he sat down, she’d slip onto his lap and curl up, purring until he made to leave. He is very much a ‘cat person’, often fondly recalling the Boris of my mum’s childhood.

However, as any owner knows, you cannot love a cat without quietly, guiltily despairing of the bloody streak in its nature. Fortunately for us, Maisie was uninterested by the call of the hunt. Her pointed ears were quite closed to it. She once half-heartedly approached a mouse, causing little more damage than a temporary shake to its nerves. I placed the tiny victim carefully in an upturned joke-shop top hat, where it recuperated for the day and ate the dandelion leaves I procured (and it also urinated, resulting in my disposal of the hat). After that, Maisie retired from the very notion of considering the consumption of anything with a bloodstream, and stuck with contentment to cat biscuits. I taught her to high-five whenever she wanted them.

I moved from England to Ireland last year, and, in the days prior to my departure, Maisie repeatedly came up to my room in the evening and slept on my bed overnight. This I found very sweet. Obviously she had no idea – if a cat can even form a meaningful idea – that I, one of several humans in her house, would shortly be getting on an aeroplane and travelling through the air to another country. But her quiet, unprompted affection was appreciated as if she did.

On the day before I moved, Maisie suffered an embolism. I left my last shift at work early and unceremoniously to join my mum and brothers at the vets. One of Maisie’s legs was clad in a bandage, and her wide eyes were soft with an anaesthetic glaze. She gazed up at us like a tiny kitten, rewound seven years to that vision of vulnerability at the restaurant door.

There was nothing that could be done, and it was suddenly time to say goodbye to to our unassuming feline family member, the last in a line since my childhood. A little friend, a little icon, we gently fussed our cat as the vet administered the last medicine – barbiturates – and she rolled quietly onto her side.

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