Last rites for a very special bird killer

It was a miserable deed but it had to be done. Yesterday morning, I dug a grave for my old feline friend.

Fred was a ginger cat, one of a litter of eight adorable little bird-killers that we first met when they were only a few days old. We had booked a night in a bed and breakfast on the way back from a buckets and spades holiday in Cornwall. The room was under a thatched roof in a working farm in beautiful Tarka the Otter countryside in north Devon. Drawn by the smell of frying bacon, the family went downstairs the next morning to a hearty breakfast and to find a litter of squeaking bundles of fluff, urgently suckling their exhausted mother in one corner of the kitchen.

The children used every trick in the book on their weak-willed parents. How they had always wanted a kitten. How it would complete the family. How they would look after it. In reply to the parental deflection and the pre-conditioned mumbles about cost and inconvenience, the kids conspired in a collaborative assault, countering with bold and bright-eyed claims of how they would always be there to feed the animal. Yes, and they would do extra paper rounds to pay for the vet bills.

A few weeks later, we returned en mass with a bright blue cat carrier for the skittish George. The chosen one was by far the prettiest of the litter, a film-star tortoise shell with beautiful markings and the whitest paws. Fred was never meant to come home with us but after a long car journey to Devon with excited children, capacity to resist them had flown. Somehow the friendly ginger kitten had made his presence felt and he had decided that he should join his brother.

Roll on nineteen years and the kids have all left home. The first bell tolled when I took George to the vets in the same blue carrier. Even in his weakened state, the diabetic animal was still ridiculously cute and would have made a fine pair of slippers. The vet wore a cheerful shirt with motifs of creatures, great and small. He smiled kindly before giving George a lethal dose. His final resting place was to be a pet cemetery. It was sad but the bill was even more eye-watering.

I’d always teased that I’d deal with a sick pet with a heavy spade. But that was just bravado. I recall my mother recounting that when she was a child my grandfather had efficiently dispatched their chickens when their time was up, but they couldn’t face spearing their fork into Mavis or Matilda when they were served up as a Sunday roast.

Fred went downhill soon after his brother passed. Stone deaf, arthritic and with breath to knock out a bison, he had died peacefully at home. The second bell had tolled. In his prime, he had been bold and mischievous. A double-07 of cats. He would climb into a neighbour’s window at night and they would awake the next morning to find him curled up on their bed. On one long hot summer, he went missing for over a fortnight. After an extensive search and hoarse voices from calling his name, he was eventually found in another village. I carried the exhausted cat back home over my shoulders, his fur smelling of hay.

In contrast to his neat and wary sibling, Fred would flop on any lap without judgement. He was a good snoozing companion. In the last few months, Fred changed his behaviour. He would burrow under a thick throw at the foot of the bed, climbing into his cave to blot out the world, and there he would stay for most of the day, just the end of a tail showing. As evening approached a thump would be heard through the ceiling as he dropped to the floor to head downstairs for food.

I chopped deeper into chalky clay until the trench was above knee height, ramparts of earth and rubble heaped to either side. A robin chattered and flitted on a branch nearby, hopping down to pick at the upturned soil. His generation would be safer in our garden for a while. Fred’s stiff body was swaddled in a red Virgin Atlantic blanket and I laid it at the base of the grave. One white paw poked out and I tucked it back in the folds. His brother had gone to the pet cemetery wrapped in a Cathay Pacific fleece.

So that was my yesterday morning. Grave-digging in the pouring rain. If truth be told, it wasn’t raining. But it makes it feel bleaker and more melancholy to remember it that way. Goodbye old friend.

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