It’s been a week since that last very sad day with Zoe, and I finally feel able to pay tribute to her and celebrate her short life by sharing a few anecdotes. I suspect many people will think this is too much grief for a pet (I probably felt the same way before having her), but she was much more than that to me. I apologise to those who read my Twitter thread, for I will be repeating many of the same things, but Twitter is transient and I wanted a slightly more permanent way to commemorate her uniqueness.
She was my first pet and I had to wait over 40 years to get her. I had always loved cats, but my parents refused to allow any pets in the house. I would wander forlornly in the vacant lots behind our house and feed stray cats there in secret. When my friends got me a kitten for my 18th birthday, they made me return her to the owners of the mother cat. Once I left my parents’ house, I was either too broke, or living in student accommodation/ private rentals, moving every 6-12 months, often in-between countries, to even contemplate getting a pet. Once I got married and had children, I kept being told by parents, in-laws and husband how unhealthy it would be for babies to grow up in a house with cat hair and excrement. Plus, I was travelling a lot for work, my husband made it clear he would not look after an animal in my absence, and moving abroad continued to happen.
She became my symbol of ‘breaking free’ and not caring what other people thought. In January 2014 we were living in France and I had just ended an extremely busy year of travelling for work. I was cutting back on my professional obligations, partly for my own sanity, partly to spend more time with the children, but most of all because my husband had issued an ultimatum that he couldn’t bear to take over the childcare and household responsibilities any longer (needless to say, I was still doing most of these whenever I was at home, and organising with other mums and after-school clubs for the rest of the time). I was also starting to feel very lonely, resentful and sad in my marriage, but my husband kept telling me there were no problems, no need to do any counselling, and I should just snap out of my totally unjustified depression.
I decided it was now or never to get a cat and visited the local shelter, where I saw a shy tabby trying to avoid all the other cats. The people at the shelter told me her sad backstory and it took me just a couple of days to complete all the paperwork and adopt her on the 4th of February. As soon as I brought her home, my husband (who had hitherto served his usual ‘you do as you please, dear’ response) started complaining (this was his typical MO). He claimed he was allergic to cat hair, but luckily he was incapable of going for a doctor’s appointment without me in tow to translate for him, so we soon debunked this. He never fed or stroked her, but the boys were by now old enough to help and they fell as much in love with her as I did. In fact, they immediately composed a lullaby for her, which they used to sing till she fell asleep (it didn’t take too long, she loved napping). It always seemed to calm her down (maybe she just loved hearing her name repeated a lot), so I sang this song to her a lot during her final few days.
She knew exactly when to come onto my lap. For the first six months or so, she was friendly but cautious and slightly aloof. She took a while to sit on the sofa, and always only on a little green blanket that we put there for her. She allowed herself to be stroked, but hated being picked up and never came onto our laps.
All this changed on a single day. In mid-July, we took the boys to the airport to fly as unaccompanied minors to their grandparents in Greece. We paid quite a high sum for this service (we had done it before with other airlines/airports and it had worked beautifully), only to find that the Swiss made us queue with them (no Fast Access lane), take them through security, take them to the gate, wait there until their flight was airborne etc. I went to complain about this lack of service, which clearly embarrassed my husband, as he then proceeded to complain about me in the car on the way home, saying I was impossible to live with, and no wonder he had been having an affair for the past year.
I was so shocked and hurt by this sudden news, especially from someone claiming that my unhappiness in the marriage was illusory and everything was just fine, that I ran into the guest room (which was Zoe’s domain, as she was not allowed in our bedroom) and threw myself onto the bed, sobbing uncontrollably. After a while, I felt a little paw on my back. I turned, sat up and Zoe crawled onto my lap, and she has been there ever since. It was her favourite spot, but she seemed to have knack for knowing when I was especially sad or upset or ill in the many tricky years that followed, and she was always there for me.
She was the best-behaved darling. The day after I brought her home, I already let her roam all over the house. I went cross-country skiing on the 5th of February with some friends, and they told me: ‘Oh, no, you’ll come back and all your furniture will be scratched, she’ll have peed on the sofa, jumped up on the counters, smashed your vases etc.’ But she didn’t do it that day – or ever. The most she ever did was climb up occasionally to sleep in my younger son’s bunkbed, and she would always jump down from it guiltily when we intoned: ‘Zoe? Are you being naughty again?’ That didn’t stop the boys or me, of course, from blaming her whenever something was missing in the house: ‘Zoe must have taken the nail clipper or my school tie or left the door to the garage open.’
She was a bit of a hunter back in France, and would explore the garden and all the way to the end of the close. Once we moved to England, however, she became far more cautious (possibly because of the loud road at the back of our garden) and never again troubled the wildlife. In fact, she rejected the advances of two of our neighbours’ tomcats, who competed for her French demoiselle graces by bringing mice as offerings on our drive for the first few weeks after we returned to the UK.
She was Mummy’s Girl but also had a delightful complicity with the boys. Her preference for me was so marked that even the boys had to admit that it might be about more than just me feeding her. The boys often spoke in ‘her voice’, saying: ‘Maman est la meilleure.’ She even forgave me within a couple of minutes when I had to give her worming and tick liquids, or take her to the vet. As for when I had to put her in a cattery once when we went on holiday, she was utterly miserable there, and when we got back home, she brought in two mice, a bird and two lizards that day, as if to tell me: ‘See what a good provider I am? Please don’t put me in that awful place again.’ [It was the most expensive and exclusive Swiss cattery you can imagine, but hey- ho…].
She was a bit of a celebrity, since she was included in a colouring book Forty Real Cats From Around the World by Pamela Hodges, where she represented France, with her stripey pattern, a beret and chasing butterflies (she never caught on that it was impossible to catch them).
In France, we would take the shortcut through a neighbour’s garden and an orchard to walk to school, and Zoe would often follow us there, but stop short of the road. She liked to pretend to be spying on us, but she was rubbish at hiding, so we could see her when we came back from school too, waiting just by the horses in the field. Aside from pretending to be James Bond, she also liked to pretend to be a dog: she would dash after the bouncy miniature toys that we threw, but just sat beside them instead of bringing them back.
Back in England, she knew what time the boys would be back from school and jump on the windowsill in my study, which overlooks the front door, to wait for them about five minutes before they arrived. She would then run downstairs to chat to them about her day, and try to trick them into feeding her: ‘Maman hasn’t fed me in years, look how skinny I am!’ [She was a plump little girl, who sometimes got stuck on her back like a beetle while rolling, and had to be put on a diet. Which made the last couple of months, when she lost more than half her body weight, particularly heartbreaking.]
She was a gifted linguist, an excellent reading companion and perfect for exam revision. Although she seemed to respond best to the French language, over the years she picked up English, Greek, German, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish and Italian as we either learnt or spoke those languages or during Family TV Time. She loved me reading to her in bed, I don’t think she’d have minded me sitting there all day. And she was always there to help the boys revise for their GCSEs and A Levels. Her particular areas of expertise were the Weimar Republic, Stalinist Russia and hot deserts, although she was starting to differentiate between Sartre and Camus recently.
My favourite example of her French bias came when we were watching Casablanca. She was (for once) not on my lap, but on the windowsill next to the TV and when the Marseillaise was sung, she jumped down and stood to attention in front of the TV. Alas, not captured on camera! She also tended to prefer the team dressed in blue whenever we watched football: ‘Allez les Bleues!’
And in case you are wondering where the title of the post comes from, it’s from this song by Cornershop, which was everywhere around the time I came to live in London and is a homage to the things you love and that made you what you are today (in this case the music from Bollywood films).