Tom the Cat

10 October 2013 Ricky French

Tom the Cat

Illustration by Anita Ponne

Ricky French, Ed#424, January 2013

Ricky French composes a eulogy for a friend.

How strange it is to not have Tom the Cat around anymore. It’s also wrong, ridiculous, an outrage and all those other words that can mean heartbroken. It’s bullshit.

I knew I would end up writing a eulogy for Tom, but I’ve put it off because of the utter sadness I knew would swell inside me. And it’s right on cue. It surges up through my chest to my hardened eyeballs and causes me to get off the chair and walk around the house, fighting for composure.

I knew Tom was dead because he was draped lifelessly over my five-year-old’s Lego box. He must have just dropped dead and fallen off the couch. We had come home. Where’s my phone charger? Put your bag away; don’t leave it there. Did you lock your door? And then all hell broke loose. Within a couple of seconds of entering the lounge I spotted Tom in his final, absurd resting position. I shouted his name, snatched him up and lay him on the floor. He was warm, but I knew it. My son sensed my panic and asked: “What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s dead!” I said. That’s what was wrong with him.

I had heard about people giving animals mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. His cat jaw was wet, his tongue still, useless. I remembered all those times trying to pop pills in that jaw, and the swiftness of movement, the evasive jerks and the shockingly sharp teeth. Now nothing. I stopped and accepted that Tom the Cat was dead.

We adopted Tom when he was two. I would never have named him Tom. Too boring. But the name suited him; he was simple, unhurried, not flashy, never one to make a scene. His previous owners had two other cats and a new baby. Tom got the boot. We spent the next six years wondering just how the hell anyone could voluntarily give Tom away. He was simply the most perfect cat. All cats are beautiful – even a fiendish cat-hater would admit it. But Tom went beyond that. He was a huge, handsome, upstanding citizen. His sheer size was the first thing you noticed. Seven kilos, maybe eight. If released into the wild no doubt he would have stirred big-cat rumours and triggered a frenzy of photographs. Not that he really photographed well. Being completely and utterly black his features would resist the charms of the camera. His huge nose bore a lump and his proud, stately postures made it clear he had no time for frivolous snapping.

When we first took him home he was timid. He would scoff his food so fast I would time it with a stopwatch to see if he would beat his record the following day. Then, realising there was no competition, he began to savour the delicious flavours of Science Diet dry biscuits. I refused to buy him jellymeat due to a traumatic childhood memory of inadvertently sticking my finger into that gelatinous stew-like atrocity and wanting to vomit (which would have looked more appetising than the jellymeat, in my view).

A few weeks after we got him, Tom knocked the clock off the mantelpiece. We should have seen it coming. For days the clock’s ticking hand had aroused uncontrollable attack instincts in the poor cat. So he killed the clock. The noise, however, caused him to take fright and scamper. We saw it all and laughed. We shouldn’t have laughed. We didn’t see him for two weeks. He was gone. After a neighbourhood flyer-drop we got a call saying a cat answering the description (huge, completely and utterly black) was seen under a vacant house over the back fence. I raced over and spent an hour coaxing Tom out. I carried him home in a good grip under two arms. The industrious devil had spent two weeks looking after himself, but from that moment never left the house or yard again.

Welcome to our house: there he is. Tom the Cat wherever you turned. We speculated he must have had ‘breeding’, such was his placid and consenting nature. You could mould him into any shape on your lap. On his back, all four legs spread and head back was a favourite for amusement value. The class clown without trying, Tom would also specialise in attempting to curl up in a lap much too small, and, as middle-age caught up, his gently wobbling belly would flow over the sides of the couch like a blob of cake icing. If you whistled he would miaow and jump up on you and sniff inquisitively at your lips, blowing cool cat-breath – we speculated that he thought there must be a bird in your mouth.

Tom loved all species of company. We got him a kitten friend, and when the kitten was tragically run over by some ignoramus hoon we got him another one. His new friend was named Guy (pronounced Ghee – the French way), and Guy adored Tom. It went straight to Tom’s head, and so did Guy, with many evenings spent licking Tom’s face. Tom lapped it up as Guy lapped it up.

Guy became an outdoor cat; we still only really see him at dinnertime. Sometimes we don’t see him for days. Tom, however, craved company. The only time Tom would go outside was if you went outside. He would appear on the grass and give you a look that said, “Hey, you didn’t tell me you were going outside.” Then he would insist you drag a twitching leaf across the ground for him to pounce on. It was a dangerous game, as Tom just happened to be the most feared and powerful hunter ever to walk the Earth. His speed, coupled with his size, meant you would soon be shrieking and hopping round the yard clutching a pierced fingertip if you weren’t vigilant in your leaf-handling. I once saw Tom launch a fatal attack on a wattlebird that was resting on the ground in long grass against a fence. The image of Tom’s huge, powerful, black hindquarters powering straight for the hapless bird and crashing into the fence with prey in mouth is one I will remember forever.

But as the years went by he would spend more time sleeping on the bed, the couch or the other couch. When you came home he would inevitably be on one of those spots, and when activity roused him he would make that classic throat-ringing friendly cat noise – his start-up tone, we dubbed it. We would imitate the sound and laugh, and Tom would flick his ears dismissively and yawn.

Five minutes after we got in bed he was there. When it was warm he would plonk himself right on the middle of the blankets, effectively consuming one half of all usable bed space. But we didn’t mind; it was his bed, too. When it was cold he would appear at our faces and make loud, sniffing noises – ‘wuffling’ – indicating he intended to burrow under the covers. I would make him a nest and cradle his delicious, purring, soft warmth until we both fell asleep. We all looked forward to winter.

Tom, we miss you. You were a handsome, noble beast; a top bloke. You were the best-looking guy in the house, the sweetest friend. Too big to climb trees, too cool to care. Eater of green beans, lover of fleece. It’s absurd that you are no longer here. It just shouldn’t be. The house is empty, the couches barren, the Science Diet no longer needs replenishing. You should be at my feet right now, enquiring as to when dinner will be served.

At this stage in the story my fight for composure is well and truly lost. I am a blubbering kid again, pacing the house idiotically, trying to gather myself for the next paragraph. I can’t bring myself to talk about Tom just yet to my girlfriend. She brings it up and I change the subject. I want the sadness to go away first.

Tom was the best cat in the world. Ask anyone you like. Check the Hansard – we routinely said so. We’re not sure why he died. He wasn’t old. He wasn’t sick. I drove his unfathomably dead body to the vet that terrible day looking for reasons. Snakebite? As if. Poison? Unlikely. Heart attack. Possibly. We don’t really know.

All we know is that Tom looked as beautiful as ever when he was placed next to a freshly dug hole in the garden. We didn’t want to bury him because that meant we would never see his gorgeous face again; we just wanted to keep looking at him. We stroked him for ages, and he felt as he always had. Then I cradled him with two arms for the last time and laid him in the hole – it was hardly big enough. We placed some cat thyme from the garden on his shimmering fur. And when the first handful of dirt landed on his head and he didn’t leap up and shake it off, it was the end of Tom.

We had lost one of our boys.

Ricky French is a regular contributor to The Big Issue.