When we first moved into the rental where we now live in the centre of the newer part of Tarifa, just outside the old city walls, we did what I imagine many couples do when they’ve been handed the keys but before they’ve moved any boxes – we cleaned the place from top to bottom. It didn’t look dirty but there is something about going over a new home with bleach and polish, and preparing to add your own dirt, that seems to make it yours. As a woman washes a man out of her hair, so we washed the old tenants away and started afresh. An additional incentive was the smell of cat that pervaded the place.
In the garden, same. It appeared to be some kind of feline colony with all the smells and deposits that that entails. I dug it up and planted aromatics, put down chicken wire and chased off anything with four legs for months, hissing and contorting my face in an effort to convince the neighborhood cat population that it wasn’t worth bothering with our garden anymore. I really went to town, procuring a pump action water gun and sprinkling the place with coffee grounds and lemon peel, as well as the more aggressive chilli powder.
The previous tenant, it became apparent from numerous conversations with the landlord, had made a refuge of the garden for the local strays, feeding them there, and in the house I bet; several of them would come boldly up to the window as if expecting to get in. I cursed her. Bonkers cat lady, I called her. Oh, how selfless and kind, to feed the cats. But not to us. Never mind us.
Anyway, none of my internet-researched anti-cat measures worked in any way, shape or form but gradually – thanks to the facial expressions and hissing – the sizeable contingent of tomcats and their attendant concubines faded away; we’d still see them round the place, but not in our garden. It was a huge effort if I’m honest and got to me at times a lot more than it should have done, but then there’s nothing quite as infuriating as finding one’s fingers in some tomcat poo when doing a spot of weeding (gardening gloves, people).
I was determined to get rid of them for the same reason as we had been determined to clean the inside of the house when we first arrived. Tabula rasa – a clean slate, a hygienic stamp of ownership on our new nest. Although the process in the garden was more gradual, we felt optimistic when Valentín came to live with us some months later, that we had procured the perfect weapon: a big, burly cat of our own to make the garden his.
No slate can ever be wiped completely clean though, can it? There is always the chalk dust and, beneath it, traces of words rubbed out, outlines of the past. Our little trace is called Estrella, a black female with gold spots who never quite went away. Her attachment to our house would appear to be at least as strong as ours. Stronger, probably. The nearest we’ve had to a concession from her was her decision to give birth to a litter of kittens just outside the garden, beneath the neighbour’s hedge.
“Year after year, she has kittens,” we were told.
She isn’t particularly pretty. She isn’t particularly healthy looking. Or friendly. She isn’t particularly ours. She doesn’t, for example, have a clue that her name, thanks to a whim on my part, is Estrella. She is one hundred percent Valentín-proof, appearing to give not the slightest of shits that he now lives here. Actually, Valentín has been a wash-out on that front; apart from Estrella, with whom he has adopted a policy of mutual disregard, he is afraid of other cats. He merely watches, and if they make any sudden moves, comes back inside.
Estrella’s kittens ransacked the garden but went away when they were old enough and things went back to normal. She would run away when she saw us but never too far. Well-established in the barrio, she gets titbits from the local shop and several neighbours so although a street cat from top to bottom, never looked painfully hungry. She would regularly leave vile messages and I therefore remained hostile.
Things began to change a couple of months back, during the coldest patch of weather this winter. Estrella started spending nights on our doormat in order to get herself off the near-freezing ground and only moving when we disturbed her by opening the door in the morning. She looked pregnant again. The cold was getting to us and we felt bad for the cat so we put one of our spare baskets out with a blanket in it, which she immediately moved into. I can’t remember exactly when I started feeding her, or putting the hot water bottle out at night, but as her belly grew we felt more and more protective.
A routine developed of two feeds a day and the water bottle at night. She got huge and must have been in some discomfort. We weren’t worried that she’d give birth in the porch – although sheltered, it isn’t sheltered enough. We did begin to anticipate that she’d have this lot somewhere in our garden and began to make plans for coping. We would seek the help of a nearby shelter with the kittens and as far as Estrella was concerned, we would try to get her sterilised afterwards. She appears to be eight or nine years old – she’s had enough kittens and deserves an easier life.
When we spotted her in the compartment where our water meter is (the door won’t close properly) we knew the kittens were on their way. Nature is cruel though and Estrella gave birth just as the heavens opened and it rained cold rain for a week. She wasn’t sheltered enough, the kittens were born onto cold wet ground and she wouldn’t let me near with the plastic bag and blanket I wanted to put under them, the only time I’ve ever heard her hiss. None of the kittens survived. K was heartbroken and I found it harrowing, to tell the truth.
She’s back in the porch now. I don’t know anything about whether cats grieve, what cognitive mechanisms are at work in her, whether we can talk about suffering. She’s full of milk though and must, at the very least, be in physical discomfort. We are more resolved than ever to do something for her and will be implementing a “training” program whereby she gets used to being fed in a transporter, so one day we can snap the door shut behind her and whisk her down to the vet. She won’t like it, but she won’t have to go through that again, and neither will K.
And neither will I, I suppose.Follow @RobinJGraham