Thursday, 30 September 2021

The Clare Retreat

For the past three weeks we have been hiding out in a cottage by the ocean in Co Clare. We went there for a good break and chose a fairly remote location. Although the cottage had good internet connections (and a large satellite TV) we decided not to do any social media whilst we were away. Instead we walked the short way to the ocean and observed its rhythms and moods. From our house we could hear the sound of the waves and smell the salty air. I found myself remembering ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield, especially the second stanza, which I recall Ciaran Carson declaiming at the Queen’s Writers’ Group.

Of course I brought my bike with me. The main roads of West Clare are few and rather narrow, so I spent most of the time cycling the back roads and byways. There is a big network of these but the surfaces can be a bit rough in places. Most of West Clare is a peninsula with the broad Shannon estuary on the one side and the Atlantic on the other. The climate is very mild and the hedgerows and ditches are full of plants that you don’t often see around here, like purple loosestrife and fuchsia. The best ride was along the magnificent cliff road from Kilkee to Loop Head and back along the Shannon estuary. Kilkee was a Victorian resort visited by Charlotte Bronte and Alfred Tennyson and the cliffs are similar to the Cliffs of Moher.

I also brought a print-out the first draft of my novel. Reading through it carefully for the first time, I noticed lots of flaws but plenty of good things too. The main problem I saw was that the opening was rather ponderous as it contained plenty of scene setting and backstory (the novel is set in 1961 and also refers to 1940). The novel didn’t seem to really get going until about chapter five. I think this was a result of how I wrote the first draft. I embarked on the story with just two characters and a vague idea of where it was all going. So I decided that the novel had to start with what had been chapter five and began my rewrite. By the end of the holiday, I’d rewritten ten chapters. T had brought books to read and worked on journaling and watercolouring.

On other days we went to Ennistymon and visited the Salmon Bookshop, where my new collection is now stocked, and to Quilty, which has a seaweed factory that exports all around the world. At low tide several fellas could be seen collecting sugar kelp from the beach beside our house. We went to Doonbeg and ate in the magnificent Morrisseys restaurant. They have a fish wholesaling business so the fish are fresh from the boats. They also have a fish shop that is open a couple of days a week, where we bought turbot, brill and mackerel to cook at home. We even swam a little in the sea, but it was certainly cool. The one place we avoided was the Donald Trump Golf Links and Resort. We did walk along Doughmore Strand and glimpsed the place beyond the dunes, but it was off-limits to non-residents.

All in all, we had a great time and the weather was mostly good. One thing that did stick out was the very high level of compliance with Covid regulations, which are much tougher than up here. I didn’t see anyone in a shop without a mask on. And you don’t gain entry to a pub, restaurant and cafĂ© without being able to prove that you have a double vaccination. No wonder that vaccination rates are higher and infection rates are lower there. And when we got back, Minnie and Chip (who had been looked after by neighbours) were waiting for us excitedly. Perhaps they knew we had fish.

Friday, 27 August 2021

The Daring Young Chip

Chip has continued to grow and thrive. He has even started to eat solid food. When not sleeping, he spends plenty of time play-fighting with Minnie. The two cats chase madly around the back yard and end up tumbling together, biting and clawing each other. It’s very rough play, but they enjoy it. It also seems to signify a subtle change in their relationship, as Minnie has now become more like a big sister than his protective mother. This does have its dangers.

Chip tries to follow Minnie wherever she goes. Our back yard has a four foot rear wall. Minnie can leap from the back garden to the top of the wall in one bound. Chip was stuck at the bottom, looking longingly upward. But later on we saw him following her along the parapet. We had no idea of how he got up there. The next day we waited and watched. Minnie jumped to the top of the wall. Chip bobbed his head for a while, as if sizing up the wall. He gathered himself and leapt at the pebble-dashed wall. We thought he would fall, but he managed to cling to the vertical face about halfway up. He was hanging onto the pebbled surface with his claws. Then he began to climb. He pushed one paw above his head, grasped the wall with his claw and pulled himself up. In a series of adept rock-climbing moves he reached the parapet, then ran across to the waiting Minnie. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t actually seen it.

But getting down from the top of the four-foot wall was a stiffer challenge. Minnie leapt down without any difficulty. She sat in the garden below and called to Chip to follow her. Chip stood on the parapet and looked down, bobbing his head. Minnie called him. But he turned back from the edge and wailed. We thought we should go and lift him down. Then Chip walked gingerly along the parapet, glancing over the edge from time to time. Near to the far end of the wall, he stopped and peered down. Minnie called him again. Chip launched himself from the top of the wall. He flew through the air like a ginger missile and hit the flagstones with a sickening thud. Minnie ran over to him. We did too. Chip got up, shook himself and bounced away.

It was an incredible leap for a small kitten. Minnie is four times the size of Chip. The equivalent leap for her would be from the apex of the roof of a bungalow. Minnie could probably do this if she really had to. But in order to keep up with her, young Chip is making this huge leap several times a day. Frankly, we are concerned that he might fracture a limb. So we have now put a large upturned cardboard box on the flagstones where he leapt down yesterday. We hope that Chip will use it to break his headlong dive.

Saturday, 14 August 2021

The Chipster

May I introduce you to Chip, son of Minnie and the late Ginger Dog, who was born in our back yard. At one week old his eyes and ears opened. At two weeks he began to crawl. And at three weeks he began to walk. At first Chip could only stagger on shaky little legs. But with Minnie’s encouragement, he became stronger and steadier on his feet. We have been completely fascinated.

Chip was so tiny when he was born. Minnie could carry him easily in her mouth. For the first week he and Minnie nested behind the bins in our back yard. Chip was either sucking milk or sleeping. Minnie kept going by eating enormous amounts of food and drinking loads of the lactose-free milk we gave her. She has six nipples, but with only one kitten in the litter, Chip had no competition for feeds.

After a couple of evening visits from Ginger Dog’s brother, who we managed to scare away, Minnie became quite anxious and started hiding Chip away from view. Each morning we had to search for him, to make sure that he was still alive. Her favourite hiding places for Chip were between two large flowerpots and behind the central heating boiler. We then encouraged her to nest in a cardboard box in the garden shed, which she did.  The shed was more secure because it smelt of humans and no feral cat would be likely to venture in there. This worked well and visits to our back yard from ‘the brother’ became fewer and further between.

When Chip began to walk, Minnie took him out into the back yard. She sat about six feet away and called him. He sat perplexed. She called him again. He bobbed his head at the expanse of gravel and weeds he would have to negotiate to get to her.  Chip opened his mouth and wailed. She called him again. He just sat there and continued to wail. Minnie remained unmoved. After a very long period of contemplation, Chip got to his feet. He staggered a few steps and then fell. He lay amongst the weeds and wailed. Minnie called him again. He slowly got up and headed towards her, before falling again. After a couple more falls, he finally reached her. Minnie bent down and licked his ginger head and back. Then Chip got his reward, a feed of milk.

This tough love continued for a day or two, until he was more secure on his feet. In spite of it all, or perhaps because of it all, Chip has more than doubled in size. He could well become a bruiser.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Cat Genealogy

Two days before our ginger cat died, another feral cat appeared in our back garden. He was half-ginger and half-tabby, small and fairly thin. We thought he could well be the son of our cat and had come to take over his territory. So we chased him away. But he returned the next day, whilst our sickly cat was in the back garden. Much to our surprise, no fight took place. The two cats tolerated each other well. We christened the new cat Mini Dog. The day after our ginger cat died, Mini Dog reappeared and T began to feed him. He was always hungry and ate enormous amounts of food. Over the ensuing weeks he put on a good bit of weight. Then he disappeared, only to return with a tiny ginger kitten in his mouth. So Mini was in fact Minnie.

She made a nest behind the bins in the back yard and nursed the kitten. It was tiny and helpless, being blind and with its ears fully closed. We gave Minnie plenty of food and milk. The kitten lay still and silent in the grass whilst she was away. She bolted her food down and went back to feeding the kitten. We tried to get her to make a nest in a cardboard box in the shed, but she felt more comfortable behind the bins. We also did a search of the garden for the other kittens, but found none. We have since learnt that young cat mothers may only have one or two kittens the first time. Minnie was certainly young, not much more than a kitten herself.

We christened the ginger kitten Chip, as in ‘chip off the old block’. We reckoned that our ginger cat was either his grandfather or his father; or possibly both (as morality is not a major concern of feral cats). And this theory was supported that very evening, for the only other ginger tomcat in the area suddenly appeared in the back garden and challenged Minnie. This ginger tom was the brother of our cat and had never come here whilst he was alive. We feared that the brother might want to kill Chip as he wasn’t his offspring. So we scared him away and kept watch. Luckily the nest was underneath a motion-sensitive security light above the bedroom window, so we could get some warning. We are now on high alert at night, T especially, in our official capacity as the minders of Minnie and Chip.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Early Baths

Our shower stopped working just when I returned from a long bike ride on a hot day. So I took a bath. And this continued as we waited for an electrician to come and fix the shower. But it was a happy accident, for I had almost forgotten what an entirely different experience a bath is. I stretched out in the warm water and rested my head against the scooped end of the bath-tub. My tired body began to relax and I found myself recalling previous baths of note.

The first of these was an enamel bath tub. It was oblong in shape and I played and splashed in it throughout my early years. My favourite toy was a small plastic bucket. I think I got it at the seaside. And I would often pretend that I was sailing across the ocean in my little bath tub.

In those days, no houses had showers. And many older houses didn’t have baths. My grandfather had a zinc bath which was hung up in an outhouse and only brought into the cottage once a week. It was set in front of the fire and filled with hot water from the range. The family bathed in order of seniority. The youngest was last and had to wash in the same water that had already cleaned the others.

The first shower I had was at secondary school. But I was crammed in with thirty other kids, all sweaty from PE. I recall the cock and bum jokes that were shouted by the bolder lads through clouds of steam, along with my sense of embarrassment about my own body. If we stayed in the showers for too long, the PE teacher would turn the water to cold and then slap our buttocks with a wet towel as we scuttled into the damp changing room.

All of the flats I lived in during the 1970’s didn’t have showers. Unless you count the grey rubber tubing that you put over the bath taps and the attached sprinkler that you could hold above your head. The mix of hot and cold was very hard to get right and anything more than a trickle of water would force the tubes off the taps.

In the mid 1980’s I bought a small terraced house that had been built a hundred years earlier. The tiny bathroom had an electric shower behind a flimsy plastic curtain that hung from a rail. That shower was useless: the flow of water was puny, the temperature was virtually uncontrollable (you were either scalded or frozen) and water splashed out across the floor and dripped into the kitchen below.

My pal Phil and I took out the shower tray and installed a bath. I bought the smallest bath I could find. It was a sit-bath, with very tall sides and a bucket seat. Despite the bath being very short, we still had to chip bits off the wall to fit it in. I was an active runner in those days and every Sunday morning I would meet my club-mates for a long run in the New Forest. On the way back home, I would always buy the Sunday papers. I would have a lovely long soak in the sit bath and read the papers from start to finish. It was very therapeutic: mentally and physically. The water came up to my armpits and the newspaper often got wet. Of all the baths I’ve had, that little sit-bath was the one I remember most fondly.

Monday, 21 June 2021

A Wake for Ginger Dog

Our semi-feral cat, Ginger Dog, has passed away. He survived for just three weeks after the cancer diagnosis. He was only three years old. We are heartbroken. It is very special when a wild animal chooses to bond with you. Every morning I still look for him when I open the curtains. But I will never again see his little furry face. Or hear his loud purrs as he rubbed his head against mine. After his heart finally stopped we placed him on his favourite chair and told each other stories about his escapades. The next morning I carried his stiff body into the garden and we buried him with full honours. Rest in peace, Ginger Dog.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

A Gift from Ginger Dog

We have a three year old semi-feral cat. His name is Ginger Dog. A week ago he went missing for several days. We weren’t concerned, he’d done this before. But, on his return, he wouldn’t eat or drink. He just lay in his kennel in our back yard and steadily became unresponsive. A vet examined him, but couldn’t find what was wrong. To save his life, Ginger Dog was admitted to the pet hospital and put on a drip. The next morning he was a bit brighter, but still wouldn’t eat. So they decided to feed him through a tube. After three liquid feeds, he began to eat. We were overjoyed. Then the vet sedated him and scanned him. The next call brought the bad news. Ginger Dog had cancer in both kidneys.

Lymphoma is rare in cats, especially younger ones. But it is an aggressive disease. We were told that GD had weeks, possibly months to live. There was no treatment that could cure him. When we got to the vets, GD was waiting in a cat carrier with a towel covering it. As soon as we spoke, he began to miaow. We drove home, speaking to him soothingly. He tentatively stepped out from the carrier and sniffed his surroundings. With the three large patches of fur that had been removed for the scan and the drip, he looked a little odd. But he was still the same GD. After some food and water, he came and sat in T’s lap and purred. And for the rest of the day he followed us around, just like he had done when we first got to know him (that's how he gained his name).

GD arrived almost three years ago, shortly after our collie, Rex, died. He was small and weedy. We reckoned that he had been abandoned as a kitten. Early on he learned to enter the house for food. Sometimes he would stay and sleep for a few hours. He came and went as he pleased. GD far preferred the outdoors, whatever the weather. Often he would sleep in a bush in the garden, or in Rex’s old kennel. Regularly he would go to hang out with other feral cats at a nearby farm.

Because he was still very weak, we tried to keep him indoors. We cleared a space in the utility room and put down a bed for him, food & water and a litter tray (something he had never used, for he had learned to miaow when he wanted to go outdoors). The next morning I found he had been climbing the higher shelves trying to find a way out, as stuff had been knocked to the ground. We decided to allow him outdoors under supervision. GD lay down beside us in the garden and appeared to be sleeping. But when our attention was elsewhere he crept away. I caught him once on his way down the lane to the farm. That evening we again put him in the utility room. He began to howl. We thought he would stop and settle. But he continued to howl plaintively. We opened the back door. GD purred, ate some food and sloped off into the night. We said our goodbyes, wondering if we would ever see him again.

After an intense late night discussion, we agreed a way forward. GD had lived as a semi-feral cat. So he had to be allowed to die as one. It was no good now trying to turn him into an indoor cat. It was his right to decide how to spend his final days and we had to respect that. 

The next morning GD was not waiting on the kitchen window sill for his breakfast. My heart sank. I’d got so used to seeing his little furry face first thing in the morning. It was easy to imagine that he was lying in a ditch somewhere in pain. And I shed a few tears. But, mid-morning, GD appeared as if nothing had happened. He ate a hearty breakfast, groomed a little and lay down in the hall for a nap. A little later, I found a dead mouse on the front door mat. It was a gift from Ginger Dog. The very first time he had ever done that. We wondered what he was saying to us. Perhaps it was ‘thank you’.