by Robert Ferguson
a bowl of cream
I am grateful that my family life does not include other humans; just John and Francine and me. John and Francine are tabby cats. John is sleek and short-haired, and Francine longer-haired and fluffy, as befits her extreme femininity. John is brushed when he will permit it, which is usually when, through jealousy, he demands a brushing when he sees Francine receiving her daily beauty treatment. But Francine needs and enjoys a good brushing every day, to keep her luxurious fur from becoming tangled in knots. She hates these being combed out and proves it with her sharp teeth, but stays on my lap and continues to purr throughout the process, so her nips are only an expression of her requirement for consideration. We all need consideration, don’t we? That seems to me to be the essential foundation of interpersonal relationships, especially in the family home.
Both John and Francine are rescue cats, who have known hard times. Both adopted me, one after another at a very short interval, three years ago. Each appeared at the back door to my ground-floor flat in a quiet Fulham backstreet, when September was passing into October and the evenings were becoming unseasonably cold and wet. Francine came first (named for my dear mother), mewling gently for an invitation, which of course I was happy to extend, opening the door widely despite the chilly air, and waiting until she had made up her hesitant mind to come in. Eventually she entered, with tiny, delicate steps, a little anxiously, not sure whether to trust this tall, thin human. She penetrated no further than the kitchen that first evening, even after a bowl of water and another of tinned salmon (a share of my own supper, of course) had been put down for her on the floor. I left her there at first, going through to my warm, comfortable drawing room and favourite comfortable armchair, and leaving the intervening doors open in case she should decide to explore further after finishing her supper. But no, on that first evening she was too timid to come beyond the kitchen. Instead, she found a place on the shelf above the stove, which was still giving off some warmth after my evening cooking. Not the softest surface for her, but, well, it is uncivilised to impose one’s will on other people, other than for their own safety, or one’s own, I believe. I left her there, though I came to check on her every now and then.
Parents do this with children, I have observed (I have none of my own, I am relieved to say). They ignore the self-evident fact that the child is quite likely to have different preferences and attitudes from those of the parent. I am convinced that such misplaced impositions are the source of much of the disruption, not to say hurt, which is customarily blamed on children in all-human families. It certainly was in the one in which I grew up. My athletic father was constantly exhorting me to catch or kick or run when all I wanted was to be allowed to sit quietly alone with a book. “You’ll get fat”, he said, but I never did, taking my physical as well as my emotional genes from my gentle, elegant, slim mother. But he needed always to justify his own habits and tendencies by requiring me to share them and “Be a man”, which was never a priority for me. The rows we had! My tantrums and my tears, of which I am ashamed, of course, when I look back on them. But that’s families, it seems, or so everyone else I know seems to say.
But to return to my current family. John’s arrival was quite different from Francine’s. I was distracted from my evening book by an unusual rattling and scraping at the backdoor, went through to the kitchen to discover the cause, and, finding nothing to explain the noises, opened the backdoor a crack to look outside. John was in like a rocket! Not waiting to shake off the rain from his coat, or to look for anything but potential obstructions to his entry, he dashed through the hall to the bedroom and dived under my double bed (I do rather enjoy the luxury of the space it provides me, though of course I sleep in it alone – apart, that is, these days, from Francine and John). From his vantage point under the bed, quite out of reach from any angle, John was naturally quite inextricable; so I left him there, returning to the kitchen to lay down a bowl of water and another of the Sheba supper to which Francine had by now taken a fancy. She, having eaten sufficient for her self-judged need, ignored the whole incident, and my provision for our visitor, and remained calmly in the warm armchair which she had occupied, in the military sense, since the evening after her arrival.
That was indeed formerly my favourite chair, but, well, at that stage, I was not sure whether she was yet to be accounted as a resident or still as an honoured guest. There was no question that there were enough chairs for the two of us and more, had anyone else in the world unusually arrived. I take the view firmly that the imposition of power over someone else is a loathsome thing, especially when done for its own sake, to prove nothing but its existence; but, again, I have observed it often in human households, not only between parents and children, purely on the offered – to me, not apparently relevant - evidence of respective age, but sadly also between husband and wife, and between wife and husband in equally sad situations. “Oh, you haven’t invited them again, have you,” one might say disparagingly of partner as well as of as-yet absent friends; or “Just lay the table, darling. I’ll do the rest, as usual”. Such a relationship, deteriorating badly, is destined for deep unhappiness or the law courts, I always think when I witness those behaviours; or more probably for both.
Summer routines in my present family are slightly different, of course, though only in the evenings and at night, and only when the air is sufficiently warm. Warm in John and Francine’s judgement, that is, of course. Living on the ground floor of our building, we have the privilege of direct access to the back garden. The garden isn’t particularly well-maintained by the landlord. Its peripheral shrubs have run wild, and its somewhat patchy grass is hacked two or three times a year, rather than being mown; and the ancient surrounding brick wall shows signs of crumbling at various points. Nonetheless, there is a pleasant patio immediately outside the kitchen door on which we each have a soft, padded lounger, known and respected as dedicated personal spaces. Well, theirs are dedicated, and John or Francine commonly colonise mine if they can get there first; and I am content to share mine with one or the other (they are sadly still rather possessive and defensive of particular spaces, indoors and out: first come, first served seems to be one of their ruling principles, and challenges are met by rather peremptory glares and hisses).
Formerly, these loungers used to be uncomfortably damp after rain. Now, however, the patio is overhung by a protective roof, cantilevered from the wall of the house. Oh, the fuss involved in arranging for that structure to be erected! Let alone the cost! And the dust and mess spread by the builders who had to traipse through the flat in their muddy boots, coming and going to the street for their materials and tools. John and Francine were quite upset while the job continued, and showed their indignation by withdrawing from the drawing room for a whole three days after the workmen had completed their work. But that’s families, isn’t it? They cost money, now and then, and are liable to be upset by strangers and changes of routine. Also, significant investments are necessary at various points, to ensure a happier future. At least I shall not have to find thousands of pounds a year to support John and Francine at a university. They could contribute very effectively in such an institution, I am more than confident; but there is no sign of such an opportunity becoming available.
So, on suitable summer evenings, we repair to the patio rather than the drawing room, until it becomes too chilly outside, or bedtime calls. Francine joins me in the bedroom as usual, of course; but John often lingers outside, or, if it is too warm to close all the windows, and having come in perhaps for a brief drink from the tap above the kitchen sink (which has to be very particularly calibrated for this operation), he is liable to disappear into the outer darkness and return at an unknown time of his own. It’s clearly pointless to try to require his return by ten or midnight or whenever. He clearly believes that he is now old enough to decide such things for himself, and will be perfectly all right, anyway. What can I do? He leaves with a dismissive wave of his tail, as if to say, “Whatever”, if he were sufficiently rude as to say such a thing. Of course, he would not dream of doing so!
Well, of course, John and Francine and I have long-since settled into our relationship. Each knows their place and the others’ routines, and respects them. Francine takes over my place in bed each morning, to enjoy the residual warmth, and John goes out when I bring in the milk, to check the security of his territory. Living conveniently close to my place of work, I let him back indoors from the top of the gatepost where he always waits, when I pop home in my mid-morning coffee-break (I never drink the beastly stuff, anyway), which is uncomfortable when the weather is inclement, but, clever though he is, he has not yet mastered the workings of the key and lock on the front door, so what can I do? Francine being still ensconced in my sheets and blankets, he takes his position beneath the big radiator in the drawing room, and there they stay, apparently, until I get home again just before six o’clock. Once they have supped, Francine takes her armchair for the evening and John goes under the bed to wash and tidy himself; and so we all pass each day to our chosen satisfaction, as it should be.
I really cannot understand how chaotic households – of which there seem to be so many, if the television programmes are to believed – can get into the state they seem to do. Ours is always calmness and peace, never disturbed in any way at all.