The Tale Of The Bullpuss
Miaow, I shall never forget the first time I stepped out from my pet carrier, when my Young Mistress, Samantha, set it down, in the front room of her shared student house in Fallowfield.
There were too many unfriendly faces staring at me and as I strolled out among them, someone nudged me with their foot. Actually it was more like a kick, since it hurt and this is something I’m unused to.
My Young Mistress had been most upset at leaving her parents’ large detached house in Surrey; the grounds were so extensive, my adventurous kittenhood had barely covered all the nooks and crannies.
Over the summer, just before her second University year was to start, she had found me curled up asleep on her bed, and, desperately hugging me to her, had burst into tears in my fur.
Something about a divorce, the house having to be sold and my Old Master would not be seen again. Eventually my Young Mistress calmed down and explained that I was to accompany her back to University. A last tenuous link to home and her childhood.
My Old Mistress drove Young Mistress and myself up to Manchester. She with all her clothes, books and sports equipment. Me with all my food supplies, Pussypaws and Biccoes, cat toys, combs and brushes. The journey from Surrey to Manchester was very long and most disagreeable to a cat of refinement, such as myself.
Did I say that I am a Norwegian Forest Cat? Well, that’s what the cattery told my Old Mistress and Samantha when they bought me. My dear old mother is definitely a Norwegian Forest Cat, but there was that time when she fiddled with the catch on her cage and escaped for a day or two!
Samantha’s room was quite small and nothing like her quarters at home. But there was a ledge beneath the small window and once I had investigated every corner of the room and used my litter tray, I hopped upon the ledge to gaze out across a large expanse of tarmac which once, possibly, may have been a garden stretching across the backs of two old Victorian houses. Most unappealing to my discerning eye, although, further afield, across walls, hedges, and fences I could see proper gardens with trees and flowers, summerhouses and sheds, children’s swings and play areas, and, oh, how exciting, sitting smartly on top of one of the walls was a slim, long legged, reddish ginger and white cat. He noticed me staring, and giving a friendly cat wink, raised a paw of welcome. I winked back, twice quickly, with both eyes and gave a return wave. Here at least was one potential friend and ally.
There were very few friends in my Young Mistress' house. One or two of the people she had met in her first year, took quite a shine to me, and would allow me on their knees for a stroke. But most of the others were not pet-trained and either fell over me or kicked me out of their way. It was difficult to get in and out of the house since there was no cat flap installed.
My meals during that first week were punctual and acceptable but as the autumn progressed my Young Mistress' behaviour deteriorated. Often my meal was a handful of cat biscuits flung down on to yesterday's plate.
Although each bedroom could be locked, the other students took to leaving their doors ajar and I could quickly sneak in to investigate. The communal areas and kitchens were particularly happy hunting grounds for me, although speed was of the essence. A reconnoitre, a quick dash and a leap, assess the available snacks, grab and scamper away. I became so good at this that the students often accused each other of stealing from someone else's plate.
It was in this way that I became rather partial to Indian food, the chicken chunks in a Madras being my favourite. Never too much at one time, you understand; one cannot always depend upon the availability of the litter tray!
As winter approached, my Young Mistress took less and less care of me. Sometimes she hardly seemed to know me. My meals I could arrange for myself, as previously explained, but I had always relied upon a human's supervision with the cat brush to keep my fur in top condition. I often found myself locked out at night in the cold and damp and an unkempt and bedraggled fur coat was my usual attire. Gone were the collars, buttons and bows of kittenhood.
I soon became firm friends with the red and white cat, who told me his name was Tigger. He was astonished to hear that my name was Bullpuss and explained that it was an unfamiliar name to him.
He had a brother, called Simpkin, who often seemed a little wary of me but never objected when Tigger took it upon himself to show me around the neighbourhood, explaining the cat lore, where all the best rodents lived, which gardens and people to avoid and where to shelter if you found yourself locked out at night. He showed me the best way to sneak under his people's summer house, which always stayed dry and reasonably warm, whatever the weather.
It was during one of these first expeditions that Tigger remarked upon the frequency with which I needed to scent mark our route. Something which I hardly knew I was doing, the urge having crept up on me unbeknownst. He came round behind me, and glanced under the base of my tail, which, I don't think I've mentioned, is a magnificent pale ginger plume.
"I thought so," said Tigger with a wry smile, "you've not had your pockets picked at the Vets!"
"Miaow, so that's what my Old Mistress meant when she was leaving Samantha and I. She said Samantha was not to forget my little operation!"
Under Tigger's tutelage I quickly became familiar with the neighbourhood and its inhabitants. There were friendly but timid cats on either side of Tigger's house and others further afield. Only a few dogs lived nearby. Some neighbours kept guinea pigs and rabbits. Tigger explained to me how the wild animal contingent was very well represented. Of rodents, birds and squirrels there were huge numbers. He told me that his people frowned upon birding activities but were always full of praise when rodent trophies were presented.
Tigger was very wary of the fast changing fox population. They were large, unpredictable animals and if suffering from the mange disease were very difficult to cope with. He showed me a number of trees suitable as a refuge in times of danger. Ones with rough bark and low, well spaced branches which a cat could easily run up before turning to shout rude names at the fox's pointed snout just below them.
Tigger had one particular friend from the wild whom he was most keen to introduce me to. A funny little prickly fellow, called Old HedgeDog, who specialised in supplying nourishing snacks and treats to anyone in need in the wilds.
Little did I know just how much I would need to rely upon Tigger's knowledge and the lore of the wild.
As the days shortened and the nights grew colder, my occasional visits back to Samantha’s little room showed that she was gradually packing all her bags ready for a journey. Were we to return to the peace and luxury of her original home?
Samantha made a few pathetic attempts to collect together and clean up my own meagre possessions.
Then late one morning, my Old Mistress, Samantha’s mother, arrived, with a different car, older and smaller than the one we had driven to Manchester in. My Old Mistress seemed very distant, distracted and annoyed. She helped Samantha put her things in the car. Samantha came out of the house, carrying me in my large cat basket. Her mother took one long look at me and wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“You’ve let your cat down very badly, Samantha,” she announced, “he’s neglected and stinks. You can leave him here. He’s not coming back to my little flat!”
Samantha burst into tears. She opened my carry box, tipped me out, and flung the box across the tarmac to the wheely bin area. She leapt into the passenger seat and slammed the door.
That was the last time I saw my Young Mistress, for after the students’ Christmas vacation, she did not return.
I learnt my first lessons in winter survival during that Christmas break. There were only a few students staying over and they happened to be the most unfriendly ones.
Tigger showed me the best places to watch for mice and rats and being a much stronger and sturdier animal than my slim, lithe and wiry little friend, I found that the young and adolescent rats were easy prey. They were not particularly worldly wise, and I could sneak up upon them, leap, pounce and bite them across the back of their necks. Then with a neat sideways whip of my strong neck and shoulders, I could dispatch them with a minimum of delay.
I must say that a plump adolescent rat, well fed by its Mummy and Daddy, and having just been encouraged to seek its own way in the big wild world, makes a most substantial snack, roughly equivalent to four tiny mice.
Old HedgeDog was a little wary of me at first, probably something to do with my magnificent plume of a tail and pale ginger furry presence, but after a gracious introduction by Tigger we became firm friends. I made up little stories of the students’ activities, to keep him amused and he was always ready to provide a small but nourishing hedgerow snack, although often the contents were still wriggling and it was advisable to munch and swallow as quickly as possible.
Luckily Tigger had explained to him, how distasteful, cats in general, found members of the Gastropod world. Old HedgeDog couldn’t believe this information, but was happy to comply, since it meant many more slugs and snails for him and his family.
Tigger and Simpkin took turns to bring along a few cat biscuits, wrapped in a twist of tissue paper which they popped underneath the edge of their people’s summer house. If I was “at home” we would sit, companionably, in the weak winter sun and discuss the neighbourhood happenings.
Simpkin showed great feline compassion, once we had got to know each other. He would often gently ask after my health, and general well-being, and whether there was any small thing that they could do for me. It was a great reassurance during that first winter to know that, if things got really bad, I could always rely upon Tigger and Simpkin.
On Christmas Day itself, the first full one that I remember, Tigger and Simpkin pulled out all the stops. They had planned a sneaky manoeuvre around the Christmas dinner table. Their family and friends invariably prepared far too much turkey, sausages and other human food, and once all were replete and settled comfortably for the afternoon, the substantial remains of the meal were invariably left on the dining room table. What an opportunity for cats! When all was quiet, Tigger and Simpkin would sneak up on to the table, locate the turkey remains, and steal as much of a leg as they could carry.
I was waiting outside by their cat flap, which suddenly sprang to life with Tigger edging out backwards carrying one end of the turkey leg and thigh. Simpkin was at the other end, ensuring that it cleared the cat flap with a minimum of greasy smears.
Such a treat. I helped to carry the delicacy down to the summer house and, Tigger and Simpkin, already replete from their own Christmas treats, watched in amusement as I did my best to eat the whole turkey leg with maximum decorum.
With the advent of the New Year, Tigger and Simpkin continued to provide a succession of nourishing snacks and I was determined to repay the kindness with a compliment of my own.
I had just established a rather unusual feline/vulpine pact with the large dog fox Vulpo, who recognised an ally in the battle to survive the winter and appreciated the complementary skills that an almost feral cat could provide.
One evening, just after the students had returned from the Christmas break, I was out and about with Vulpo, and he, in particular, was unusually replete, with the rich pickings discarded by the over indulgent students. Remembering that I had mentioned returning the Christmas compliment to Tigger and Simpkin, he spotted a hardly touched chicken takeaway left discarded on one of the bus stop seats. He grabbed the whole box and carried it back to my friends’ garden where we opened it and investigated. Among the curry soaked chips was an untouched batter coated chicken piece. I carefully picked it up and trotted round to the cat flap. No one was about, so I pushed my way through and since the house was in darkness, ventured further to locate their feeding area. I was just dropping the succulent trophy on their tray when a huge shriek split the late night calm. Their Old Mistress, dozing on her favourite sofa, before retiring upstairs, awoke suddenly, and spying a large, furry, pale ginger intruder, rather over-reacted.
Tigger told me afterwards, that he had overheard his Old Mistress describing the episode to her friend, Sue, and how a huge unkempt, bedraggled creature had scuttled across the morning room floor, dragging a most suspicious object and how she’d spent the early hours of the morning, wiping up smears of curry sauce.
Vulpo was a strange animal. I got on well with him, but never felt that he could be trusted completely. If he was really hungry, I would find him staring at me, with a disturbing and penetrating gaze, as if he was assessing the number of meals I would provide him with.
He often disappeared for days at a time, with no forewarning; and then, would pop out from behind a fence or tree. He invariably knew where I was, before I noticed him.
I was completely in awe of his inherent canine ability to work together as a team. Occasionally a vixen would accompany him, or a family member from an earlier season, and the ease with which they could co-operate to track down prey was uncanny. I found that the best way was to let Vulpo take the lead in most things, and I worked diligently to understand his signs, signals and directions.
One particular technique, I am proud to say, we developed to perfection. The range was full of plump grey squirrels, a species I had always had trouble chasing. Over the flat they could almost outrun a cat, but they had this disconcerting ability to run directly up the nearest tree, whereupon, settling themselves completely out of reach, would turn to look down at the frustrated cat, to shout rude names, whilst barking and flicking their fluffy flexible tails.
Vulpo knew he was much quicker over the flat, but there were so many trees in our domain, that he rarely dined out on succulent squirrel. He devised a cunning plan and explained it in detail to me.
I was to lie quietly in wait near the bushes and trees along the side of the nearby club's bowling green. Vulpo would hide on the other side of the large open expanse of beautifully mown grass. He had the patience of a saint. In the distance I would occasionally see the flick of his ear or a dark nose raised to sniff the air for squirrel.
Sure enough, eventually, a squirrel would come scrambling through the bushes with forays on to the ground. This was my chance. But instead of my usual direct cat attack, I would run to and fro, making as much noise as possible. This confused Mr Squirrel, who would turn to run directly across the bowling green to escape.
It was all too easy for Vulpo. You could almost see him in his starting blocks, waiting for exactly the correct moment, which he invariably judged to perfection. Off he would go in an angled pursuit. The poor squirrel couldn't believe his bad luck, when an arch predator suddenly appeared at his side. No amount of jinking and twisting could avoid the inevitable.
Vulpo always shared a small, but succulent piece of Mr Squirrel. It's surprising how far a squirrel's leg will stretch! He could cope with the fragile bones, which was not something I dared take a chance with.
We worked this killing fields ruse at regular intervals, but never too often to arouse the suspicions of the whole squirrel population.
I grew in confidence as the Spring arrived. It had been an easy winter with a minimum of hardship and if Vulpo was away on his travels, and I was well fed, I could amuse myself by playing tricks on the other animals in my domain. Some, including Old HedgeDog, Tigger and Simpkin, took all this in good part and returned joke for joke, but certain others seemed to be struggling with a sense of humour failure. The guinea pigs in their outdoor cage and run failed completely to appreciate my jocularity and invariably huddled together in a furry, squeaking heap whenever I appeared.
There were two poodles in the next road from Tigger and Simpkin’s, who, whatever the weather, went out wearing waterproof coats which, I could hardly believe my eyes, had handles attached to the top. This was to facilitate the easy enforcement of their owner’s wishes. I devised simple rhymes and songs to sing to them whenever I spotted their embarrassment.
I often noticed cat collars, hung upon obtrusive branches, where certain feline friends had encountered a snag. I soon built up an impressive collection, and since they invariably held a magnet or radio button, I could use them to trigger cat flap mechanisms and thus gain access to forbidden domains. Such fun, since as well as stealing snacks, I could run off with favourite cat toys, and hide them in the gardens.
Occasionally, I would call back at my original students’ house, and the few students who remembered me would make a bit of a fuss and provide a savoury snack. Sadly there was no word whatsoever of Samantha.
As their year drew to a close, the house emptied, and the last connection back to my Young Mistress evaporated. Nobody thought to rehabilitate me or perhaps take me home with them. I was completely abandoned.
My resolve to become a self sufficient feline was strengthened and my confidence grew as I learnt more and more of the ways of the wild from Vulpo and Old HedgeDog. I’m afraid I rather neglected the feline paw of affection extended so kindly by Tigger and Simpkin.
The long summer was replaced by a much cooler autumn than normal, and the forthcoming winter was predicted by the wildlife to be a most arduous trial.
Things took a turn for the worse when Vulpo mentioned casually that he would be away for some time since he needed to support Mrs Vulpo with the new cubs.
I thought I was coping adequately, but my foibles and lack of experience were exposed by the following episode.
One day, as the grip of winter was strengthening, I spotted a couple of Jack Russell dogs who had unfortunately slipped away from their owner. I trotted up in a friendly manner and expected them to respond in a reciprocal way to my witticisms and comments. Unfortunately they turned upon me. Now one Jack Russell, I could have thrown over my shoulder into the nearest puddle, but two, working together in this enviable canine manner, were too much for me. Rather heavily nipped, I made my escape, but unfortunately, as it turned out, I leapt for sanctuary into the open van of a telephone engineer. He had just finished his latest job, and, slamming the doors on all his tools, equipment and poor shivering me, set off for his next job, which I’m afraid was around 20 miles away.
When he next opened his van, I leapt past him and escaped, but I had no idea where I was. Having grown up in familiar territory, whatever the setbacks, I was completely unused to tackling a new terrain. But I seemed to know the direction I should take for what I still felt as “home”.
I would prefer not to go into the details of the weeks and months it took me to retrace the steps of my unanticipated journey. It was awful. I was forever trespassing into other felines’ domains, or running the gauntlet, crossing wild animals’ territories. Food was in very short supply, as the grip of the worst winter for many years ensued.
I eventually dragged my weary paws back into familiar territory. The stress of the last few months and the relief when Tigger and Simpkin welcomed me with open paws, was overwhelming. I collapsed in front of them. Questions and answers were to come later, but they immediately assessed my condition and encouraged me to rest underneath their summer house, whilst they put together a small but steady supply of nourishing food.
After several days of recuperation, I felt the life returning to my exhausted limbs. Gradually I explained to my friends the key points of the flight and my travails on the return journey. They mentioned how astonished they were to see me again, having given up all hope, and how amused they were at my new attire. Seemingly, some ancestral calls of the wild had encouraged my body to respond to the grip of winter by growing an extra long fur coat, with the bushiest side pieces around my neck, that they had ever seen. Perhaps my ancestors in the Norwegian winters had evolved this technique to survive.
The back leg that I had twisted and damaged was slowly mending, but still caused me to limp rather badly. This had precipitated my swift decline, since normal food hunting activities were curtailed. My friends had noticed my injured leg immediately and had examined it closely. There were no breakages, just damage to the joints and tendons which would mend with time.
Simpkin explained how he thought that the limp could be used to help win over their family, and asked me to ensure that I exhibited my poorly leg, whenever I was in their garden. My friends had a plan to enable me to join their family. Tigger explained that the price to be paid was a visit to their Vets for the removal of lugs and tangles, delousing and a little operation, but I was happy to agree to anything. Their plan fell neatly into place and after limping up the garden in the early Spring, I overheard their Young Mistress call out to her mother, that “The poor Bullpuss is back! He’s hurt, and we just have to help him.”
A friendly voice after all this time. Over the next few days, the family regularly brought proper dishes of cat food outside for me, and gradually I became accustomed to their voices and actions. Eventually they encouraged me to step inside their open back door, and even though I noticed their noses wrinkling, they were brave enough to tickle my magnificent side whiskers.
Things happened very quickly over the next few days. Arrangements were made with the Vet and I was whisked off for rehabilitation. Upon my return I looked and felt like a different cat. My new Young Mistress picked me up for a gentle cuddle, and announced that I was the best stray cat she had ever seen.
My new Old Mistress asked the Vet for a prognosis upon my damaged back leg.
“Do you know,” he said, “we examined all limbs diligently, but couldn’t find any damage at all!”