28 December 2017

Tiger

Strange time for a cat to go. The news came on 23 December in the form of a phone call from The Farmer. The information had to be embargoed so as not to darken the festivities.

Eleven years ago, Tiger was located online in a search for a Bengal kitten. She was a half-Bengal; our contact with her seller was early enough for the new-born kitten to be named Tiger, our name of choice, from day one. When she was ready, we drove down to Lincolnshire to collect her. At her birthplace, the children of the house seemed sad to part from her; the children’s mother had seemed caring throughout the preliminary contact. “She is a cat that doesn’t purr” she warned us as we left her house. In the car, during the long drive back, we cuddled the kitten, stroked her and talked to her soothingly. Tiger purred.

Back in Northumberland – we lived in the Coquet valley at the time – Tiger’s arrival caused a commotion. Douglas, the slightly older black kitten, was delighted to see us after what had been our longest absence from him – about twelve hours. Douglas ran from K to me and back to K, as if to make sure we were really there. At a suitable time we introduced him to the newcomer. The look on Douglas’s face was something to remember. Thunderstruck first, then incredulous, then hypnotically entranced. His first attempted action was, of course, to come up to her, but his advance was not welcome: Tiger hissed and recoiled. This was the beginning of a difficult acquaintance. Things had not been going badly for Tiger on her journey north; she might have enjoyed her new house by the Coquet, but a needy black cat was more than she was ready for.

For her first night we put Tiger in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. The following morning she was nowhere to be seen. It took a long search by two people to locate her: she was crouching in the narrow space under the cooker. She had to be forcibly pulled out. As days went by, she showed herself to be a needy cat, quite affectionate if on the demanding side. She did not have the best digestive system. And she remained wary of Douglas.

She grew up to be a lovely cat, with attractive tabby shades and a most elegant white glove on one of her front paws. She seemed inordinately proud of this, judging by her habit of stretching the gloved paw in front of her. She liked to be the centre of attention, and she often demanded this with an imperious miaow that was almost a scream. This was immortalised in a tune K titled after her, Tiger’s First Bird.

Tiger had an unfailing attention-seeker’s instinct, always present when there were visitors, often assuming what she uncannily knew to be her most fetching poses, such as the one with the outstretched white paw. She also ensured she never missed a photo opportunity. I had a goodly collection of images from this time, but it was lost when, ironically, Tiger herself pulled my Powerbook’s cable when the computer was charging, sending it crashing down on the stone floor. This was before the days cloud-based storage became widespread; the loss of this and many other valuable documents marked a turning point in my storage habits.

When, in her second year, we moved to Redesdale, Tiger found herself surrounded by vast fields in which to explore, play and hunt, and more prey than she could catch.  She slowly came to an entente cordiale with Douglas and with Fluffy the dog, and her digestive problems seemed to vanish. Tiger thrived in her new environment.

She particularly enjoyed walking the dog, almost invariably joining in when I or K took Fluffy across the fields or along the river. If the excursion had not started with her, she would demand to join in halfway, announcing herself from a distance with her unmistakable call. Although normal to us, this often caused the hilarity of visitors and passers-by. 

Little by little, though, we became aware of a change: Tiger did not always come home. She disappeared for days, then for weeks, and then for months. More than once we gave her up for lost, but every time she would return. Sometimes she would answer my call around the neighbouring fields; other times she would come back of her own accord. Each time we noticed that her features had become rougher, her voice had grown gruffer and her frame more sinewy. She was no longer a pretty princess: she had become a feral cat.

It would be only too easy to blame the arrival of a younger contingent - Rumble and then Rumble’s kittens - for this change in Tiger’s behaviour. But the fact is that her wandering habit began earlier than that, not dictated by any external circumstances we could see. What kind of inner dictate guided her actions is anybody's guess. 

She certainly was far from welcoming to Rumble when he turned up, hissing at him viciously. Unluckily for her, Rumble grew up to be a plucky fighter, and soon it was Tiger who was in retreat. Rumble acquired a vicious streak of his own, attacking Tiger in and out of the house, sometimes cornering her in such a way that Tiger would start wailing in an uncharacteristically defenceless tone. We found that heart-breaking, and punished Rumble with exclusion whenever we witnessed that behaviour. The tide turned further against Tiger when Rumble had kittens and they grew up, the hostility becoming tribal, and entrenched. Tiger was now a pariah.

We got used to Tiger’s long absences. There were enough cats in the house to look after – four without Tiger, and this only after three of Rumble’s kittens had found new homes. Every now and then, at irregular intervals, when out in the fields, I would hear that imperious call demanding my attention from afar. It was an unexpected joy when that happened, even though the call was getting hoarser every time, and could by now be described as the growl of a wild animal. Sometimes I would pick her up, all wet and sinewy, and would carry her back to the house to ensure she had a good meal and some warmth before resuming her wanderings.



This December, Tiger’s visits became more frequent. She was not an inch friendlier towards the other cats, but she avoided confrontation, and she did not disdain opportunities for human affection or even a nap in a warm place. In the couple of weeks before Christmas, K reported that Tiger had come home almost every day. Was she again a regular member of the family? That would have been a pleasing thought.

On 23 December in the evening, The Farmer phoned to say that he had seen Tiger lying dead on the side of the road. He thought that a speeding car must have run her over. He offered to send a farm hand the following day to give her decent burial. He was insistent that I should not tell K until after Christmas, but K had been in front of me throughout that call and it would have been futile to deny that something was amiss.

Later that night, I decided that Tiger’s funeral should not be The Farmer’s responsibility. When the time came for Fluffy’s night walk, although it was raining I took a shovel with me. I walked in the rain to the spot described by The Farmer, but found no dead body. I walked a long stretch of the road in both directions, but there was no sign of Tiger. The following morning I drove up and down, still to no avail. In the evening, The Farmer dropped by for a Christmas Eve chat. As he was leaving I asked him to clarify where the spot was, but he was evasive; he said he had dealt with it.

So Tiger, the coquettish kitten princess who became a wild animal of the forest, braving foxes, badgers, hostile cats and countless winter nights in the woods – Tiger ended her life not succumbing to any of those extreme dangers, but a victim of a more mundane threat: the stupidity of a human driving too fast.

It is a tribute to this unusual, courageous cat that what overcame her in the end was not any of the dangers she had chosen to face, but the fiercer power of human destructiveness. In the contest between a cat and the forces of nature, Tiger won.



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