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in need of a home, have found a way into my heart. The first, a small grey one, arrived one late afternoon, in 1957, inside my father’s leather jacket. Dad worked on the waterfront in Williamstown, Melbourne, and at the time, we were renting a half share in an old house in Oakleigh, a good one and a half hour’s driving distance away. Only Dad didn’t drive: he rode a motor bike. How the little cat managed to cope still amazes me. In those days, people didn’t tend to have their cats neutered, or even taken to vets for check-ups, so it wasn’t long before ‘Puss’, who was never given any other name, had kittens. We kept one, and not long afterwards, my parents bought their first home in the new suburb of Glenroy. The streets were still 1
unmade and the toilets consisted of outhouses with ‘dunny cans’. I was always fascinated by them as the cans were regularly carried away, on their shoulders, by men whose job it was to dispose of all this waste. Big strong men, with very broad shoulders and steady hands, I imagine. However, this story is about cats, not dunnies, so onto the next one! We didn’t stay long in Glenroy; only long enough for me to begin school, make some friends, and for Dad to find work as an engineer in the small industrial town of Yallourn in the Latrobe Valley. Puss had died by this time, so we only had her kitten to take with us, who was now called Puss instead. The trip to Yallourn didn’t seem to worry him too much and he soon settled into our new home - where the streets were still unmade, but we at least had an inside toilet with a pull chain and cistern. Progress! In Glenroy, the kitchen was quite modern, but in Yallourn, as well as an electric stove, my mother had a wood stove, and in the laundry, a matching 1920s ‘copper’ for boiling the washing. The copper had a small inbuilt place at the bottom where briquettes, made from local brown coal, were used to heat the water. My mother adored this copper and would spend one day a week happily doing the washing. There were two adjoining concrete wash troughs, containing clean water for rinsing. In between them was a clothes mangle, used to squeeze out the water from the washing as it was passed between the two troughs. Mum lifted the hot washing from the copper into the first wash trough using a broomstick - or ‘copper stick’, as we referred to it. Later on, she did buy an electric washing machine, but always preferred the copper. The point of all this is that the laundry was usually very warm and cosy, particularly on washing days, but also because it backed onto the kitchen, where the wood stove was kept going every day. The laundry, therefore, was where Puss slept at night in his little bed. He was never allowed into the rest of the house, but had free run of the large garden during the day; and 2
his fill of raw meat when Dad came back from a hunting trip in the nearby hills. Puss was a killer though, and one time I saw him leap into a shrubbery, come down with a sparrow between his jaws, and then the bird disappeared down his throat before I even had time to yelp. Sadly, Puss became ill, and rather than take him to a vet, which, as I explained earlier was not something people tended to do in those days, Dad shot him. Naturally, this was extremely upsetting for my sister and I. Not long afterwards, when I asked to bring home another kitten that one of the boys at school was trying to give away, my mother agreed. She was an exceptionally pretty black and white long-hair, and full of personality. This cat also had kittens eventually, but we didn’t keep any, and afterwards, my mother decided to have her neutered. I seem to recall that from this point onwards, Puss (yes, she was just ‘Puss’ as well) needed to have a kitty litter tray at night, but there was no such thing as modern kitty litter available back then, so we would collect sand from the beach. We used to love going for picnics to the beach, which was about two hours’ drive away. The cat often came with us, and adored lying on the top of the back seat, sunning and cleaning herself. I remember one time some people drove up close behind our car just to watch! The only problem was that Puss had become used to the sand in her litter tray, and nearly collapsed, literally, in astonishment when we took her to this vast, sandy place for the first time. We also went on camping trips every school holiday, and again, the cat came with us, following my mother, tail in the air as she walked around the camp site. Puss eventually died when I was about fourteen. As luck would have it, I soon found another kitten; this time the most pathetic little animal I had ever seen. On my way home from 3
school one day, I saw a tiny, scab-covered kitten, with horribly matted fur, standing outside a house. I picked it up and it was crawling with fleas and so thin that its ribs stood out. When I presented this creature to my mother, she agreed I could keep it until I found another home for him. I washed the kitten and got rid of all the fleas and furballs, then gave him something to eat. The poor thing purred the whole time, either through fear or from joy, I’m not sure, but he slept well that night in his warm bed in the laundry. A few days later, a girl at school asked if it was me who had taken their kitten. When I said that, yes, it was me, she asked to have it back. You won’t be surprised to hear that I refused! The kitten soon grew into a beautiful, long-haired cat, but my mother didn’t want me to keep him. Luckily, a friend of my sister’s was able to give him a good home. For a few years afterwards, we were cat-less, but when I left home, at seventeen, it wasn’t long before I began collecting strays. They just kept turning up! I began with one (Emma Peel), then another (Parsnip), and another (Rinso), until I had four (the fourth being Fang). Emma had two kittens, despite having been neutered (the vet turned out to be a drunkard), and being present at their birth was an amazing experience I will never forget. However, already having four cats meant keeping the kittens was out of the question, so I had to find homes for them, which was rather sad as they were so goodnatured and loving. Fang was a gorgeous jet-black long-haired cat whose name was bestowed for good reason. I lived in a small, one bedroom flat, with a narrow path running alongside it, bordered by a high wooden fence. One afternoon, I heard a terrific commotion outside and ran to the door, only to see Fang chasing a huge Rottweiler down the path, with the dog’s owner standing on the nearby footpath yelling at the cat. The last I saw of the Rottweiler was him scrambling over the back fence in a most
ungainly fashion, and Fang stalking back along the path, tail in the air, looking mightily pleased with himself. Since that time, stray cats have always turned up, one way or another. Dearly loved, and deeply missed when they died or disappeared, my last one, an old feral called Harry, died of cancer in 2004, and I haven’t had the heart to keep any of my own since. Instead, I feed the wild birds; and also two neighbour’s cats that aren’t looked after properly, and who came begging for food and care two years ago. Needless to say, although I no longer have cats of my own, they still turn up, one way or another, and I have re-homed quite a number while I’ve lived in my present house on the outskirts of Melbourne. The most satisfying of these was a huge cat I caught three years ago. He was so wild, and in such dreadful condition, I had to call a Ranger to come take him away, but then rang the Council Pound every day to beg them not to put him down. ‘I’ll find him a home, I promise!’ was the daily refrain. And find him a home I did; with my sister, who had recently lost her own beloved cat. She also has been a life-long collector of strays, but was a little hesitant for the same reason I’ve not wanted to have any more - sometimes the grief of losing them becomes too much, and also, living where we do in a bushland area, if they’re killers, the wildlife suffers, which is unacceptable. However, it all turned out well, and King Oskar, the Norwegian Forest Cat, as the stray turned out to be, reigns supreme in my sister’s house, and I get to look after him from time to time when she takes a holiday…all seven kilograms of him and the biggest, fluffiest plume of a tail I have ever seen! That’s him in the photo, during his last visit.
Inge Meldgaard Copyright 2011 5
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