this life.

phillip barker

Maisie and Me
Wayward dogs have been immortalised on screen, but Phillip Barker believes anyone with a furry friend knows the sheer madness and joy pets bring. Here, he remembers one crazy cat.

I

was at a friend’s house the other day, moaning

Phillip Barker is a journalist and author. Her third novel The Italian Wedding (Orion) was published in April.

that I’d read all my books and needed to do a bookshop run to re-stock. They let me raid their bookshelves and I loaded up on stuff I wouldn’t necessarily buy for myself. On top of the pile was Marley & Me by US newspaper columnist John Grogan, recently turned into a film starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, about ‘life and love with the world’s worst dog’. The book, a New York Times bestseller, was sweet enough. Marley, a labrador, blundered through life a connoisseur of crotches, a determined eater of poo, a gnawer of sofas, an obedience school drop-out and an enthusiastic sexual assaulter of poodles. Marley, of course, also had a heart of gold and was truly the author’s best friend. John Grogan argued Marley was the world’s worst dog and the avalanche of hilarious stories of Marley constantly losing the battle for rational behaviour seems to support that. I’m sure Marley was wonderful and hilarious and frustrating. But I don’t think Marley was unique. Every relationship a person has with an animal yields a million moments of joy, beauty and lunacy worthy of a book. And a film starring Jennifer Aniston (although I don’t want Owen Wilson to play me. Maybe Clive Owen or Orlando Bloom). That’s why we love animals and share our lives with them. So meet Maisie, an enormous Russian blue cat who enriched our lives and managed to supply a constant stream of Marley-style moments of madness. My wife and I lived in a garden apartment and both worked. We wanted pets – if we could keep animals alive maybe one day we might feel grown-up enough to have a kid – but dogs were out of the question so we chose Russian blues for their calm, intelligence and dog-like friendliness and loyalty. Life with Maisie started weirdly the day I made the trip to a breeder in Sydney’s Rooty Hill, 12 years ago, to pick up Maisie and her sister, Bella. I asked my aged mother-in-law to accompany me. It was an outing, so that meant erratically applied make-up, hat and handbag... for my mother-in-law, that is. When we found the house it seemed to be abandoned, with burned-out cars arranged carefully on the front lawn. I knocked and slowly the door squeaked open. There was a woman with blue hair in a green polyester

she had him by the back of the neck like a lion bringing down a zebra.

tracksuit featuring pilling so alarming one would have not thought it possible on one garment. Behind her the floor seemed to be moving. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom it became clear the floor was indeed alive. With wall-to-wall cats. In every room. “Here you go – the last two,” she said cheerfully, digging through the feline carpet to extract two kittens. She proudly introduced us to their father, a monstrous panther-like beast balancing on a swaying pile of filthy pots in the kitchen, enjoying a snack of dried spaghetti. A tubby persian took a liking to mother-in-law’s pantyhose and was rewarded with a ferocious handbagging. With Maisie and Bella safely inside their cage, we made a quick getaway over the suspiciously crunchy newspaper that lined the floors. Maisie and Bella were purebreds, but we didn’t care about them being of show standard. They were the last of the litter because of their imperfections. Maisie was huge, with paws like a lion. Bella was small and round-faced, like a little teddy bear. As their personalities developed it became clear Bella was the smart one and Maisie was, well, Maisie. She quickly bonded with me and liked to jump up onto my shoulder and ride around, purring and jamming her tongue into my ear in appreciation. Maisie’s purr was the loudest I’ve ever heard, prompting an outraged babysitter who shared a cosy couch with Maisie one night to say: “Oy, couldn’t hear meself fink!” As she grew, Maisie took on the role of self-appointed protector of house and home. One morning a big neighbourhood tomcat attacked Bella in our yard. Horrified, I started towards the commotion. As it became clear I was witnessing a sexual assault, Maisie shot past me, smashing straight into both the rapist and her sister and tore the tomcat to shreds. She had him by the back of the neck like a lion bringing down a zebra. In just seconds, bleeding and hobbling, he made an escape and never came back. I couldn’t believe our sweet-natured Maisie could be so savage – we’d never seen that side of her before. The praise she received and her obvious pride in her achievement lead to a life of vigilance, ever watchful for interlopers. Holes in fences became a dangerous obsession for Maisie. She would put one eye up to a gap, checking for criminals wherever they may lurk. Unfortunately, if they did lurk Maisie would get pronged in the eye and

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make one of her many trips to the vet. If she couldn’t see through a hole she’d thrust a huge paw in, right up to the shoulder, and feel about for bad guys. Then she’d get spiked on the paw. Off to the vet. Maisie was neither smart nor coordinated. She regularly fell off and over things and tripped on her big paws. One day she managed to fall into a bucket of mineral turpentine and carefully licked most of it off herself. Off to the vet. Because Maisie spent the first months of her life fighting for food, she always had food issues. She never trusted she’d get a next meal so she’d supply her own food. By theft. One of her greatest triumphs was ripping a whole spatchcock from its packaging and racing through the house with it clamped in her jaws, to hide under the bed, chewing in furious victory. Once my wife let Maisie and Bella lick her fingers after she’d been preparing sausages. I came home to find her in tears and covered in scratches. They’d climbed her like a tree to taste more sausage. At the Inner West veterinary hospital Maisie visited there were notes on her file that she was, well, large and dangerous. She defended herself against vets as she did home invaders. The vets would zip Maisie into a Hannibal Lecter-style suit, her eyes bulging in rage, her furious hissing muffled by the gimp outfit. When my wife went to pick her up, not one vet was brave enough to reach into the cage. The scourge of the Inner West could strike at any moment! One of Maisie’s many nicknames was Dog Pills because she was so big vets would have to prescribe her pills meant for dogs. Another was the Seinfeldian Man Hands because of her huge paws. Russian blues are very vocal cats. Maisie had a unique inflection and as she trotted by to check the back yard for rapists or continue excavation of the many holes she liked to dig, she’d utter a happy but very un cat-like greeting “Woo-ooo”. She only ever used that sound as a hello. I’d say “woo-ooo” back. Being first anywhere, onto a couch, bed or lap, ahead of her sister, was very important to Maisie. Each win was a personal triumph and you couldn’t hover over a couch without Maisie lurking, begging to sit down with you for a scratch and a chat. She was completely emotionally transparent, with absolutely none of the aloofness cats are supposed to exhibit. Every day, Maisie lived with her heart on her sleeve. Despite her numerous injuries Maisie was always incredibly healthy. While Bella succumbs to vapours

every summer and was once misdiagnosed with liver cancer, Maisie was always sleek, glossy and wet-nosed. So when she became lethargic and lost weight a few months before she turned 12 we thought she’d be fine. nothing could stop big old Maisie. Well, something did. For two weeks we visited vets and specialists as her kidneys gradually shut down. She couldn’t drag herself from the bean bag she slept on, her eyes were dull and she wasn’t eating or drinking. On a plane on a business trip, I sobbed uncontrollably at the thought of life without the big galoot padding around the house, to the horror of the man beside me. On a Saturday in December Maisie’s red blood cell count dropped to almost nothing. Her life was not worth living, so she died in our arms from lethal injection and we took her home. My wife and daughter, Lulu, decorated the Christmas tree then we buried Maisie in the garden. Lulu painted a red heart and the words “Here Lies May, the Beloved Cat” on the fence above her resting place. We wept for weeks and I’m crying now, more than a year after she died, as I remember her – how bizarre, unique, violent, loving and hilarious that animal was. Every one of you who has an animal in your life has a well of joyous memories and side-splitting stories. Just like Maisie and me. ■
Notebook: July 2009 71

ILLUSTRATIOn: kAREn GREEnBERG