Spectator: Alas, poor Percy

Lucy Baring mourns the family cat.

THE only thing I’ve painted since returning from a week of artistic instruction is the ‘r’ in Percy on his headstone, the rest of the letters being shared by the rest of the family.

I had been wandering down the garden wondering where on earth all the flowerpots had gone when I saw a friend gesticulating at me from the bottom of the steps. She’d just driven past our four-year-old cat lying on a wall opposite the house and, thinking that this was an unusual place for him to sunbathe, had stopped to have a look. Percy had clearly been hit by a car, was stone cold dead and had been lifted onto the wall, presumably by the driver. Rigor mortis had set in.

I’ve never been a cat person, not least because my father was phobically terrified of them and we couldn’t visit a house in which a cat was present. But Olive was determined and began a cat fund into which she put any spare change until she had £30 with which to buy a kitten. I was unenthusiastic, without actually scotching the idea, so off she went, with Zam, to view a litter in a terraced house in Southampton that she’d found on the internet.

Percy entered our life on Christmas Eve. He had a noble profile and unusual markings, both of which were often remarked upon. He was completely unfazed by dogs, had back legs that reminded Zam of his great aunt and drank water only from the loo or narrow vases containing flowers, preferably tulips. These he knocked over, with the remains of the water invariably soaking the tax return or the parking-ticket reminder and ruining the table.

He left the indigestible bits of animal in the place most guaranteed to be trodden on by bare feet first thing in the morning. He purred incessantly and lorded it over the dachshund, who tried not to look inferior. Despite all this, even people who don’t like cats liked Percy.

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It seemed remarkably unfair that, having survived a town house in Winchester — from which he once disappeared for days until somebody who’d seen our ‘missing’ posters got in touch to say he was in their garden. I went round to pick him up, expecting a joyous reunion (but not getting one) and then had to carry him, wriggling, howling, bawling and furious, the several streets back to our house to the amazement of all passers-by, who thought I must be kidnapping him — that his life ended on the quietest of lanes.

When Will was nine, he too had saved up, to buy Speedy, a ‘fancy rat’ of whom I grew quite fond, although I never got used to the tail. Will would walk around with Speedy in his pocket or on his shoulder until, one day, Speedy disappeared from his cage.

Many months later, while we were all assembled for a shooting lunch, Anna appeared at my side and said in her six-year-old voice, which had a bit of a lisp: ‘I’ve just been feeding Speedy.’ I waved her away dismissively, but she insisted that I follow her. And there was Speedy, sitting on top of his cage — which was still in situ — with an expression that seemed to say: ‘I’ve seen, I’ve explored and I think I prefer it here.’

We bought a second rat to keep him company, but Speedy ate Gonzales and was found one morning dead as dead can be with the unfortunate Gonzales’s tail sticking out of his mouth.

At supper, in order to digest the latest trauma in the domestic pet disasters (which I don’t think are uncommon, although my mother thinks otherwise), we discuss the life, loss and love we’ve experienced over the years. I’m not sure lessons in any of these have, in fact, been learned as Alf asks, with the earth barely shovelled onto Percy’s grave, if we can get another kitten. ‘Absolutely not,’ I say with feeling.

As we raise a glass to our noble cat, I look down and see someone who is surprisingly affected. Fletcher the dachshund looks very subdued indeed.