“He’ll come bowling in any minute now,” said Mr-Blue-Shirt and bit into his toast. “… nearly bringing the cat flap off its hinges as usual”.
“Yes, with that wide-eyed look that shouts ‘have I missed breakfast?’” I said.
The cats nearly always eat together, Stanley on the left, Tilly on the right, one bowl each. Before they arrived with us, they were effectively semi-feral and had always had to compete with a dozen or more siblings and cousins for every scrap of food and meal times were initially a total feeding frenzy. After a few weeks, though, we managed to convince them that this was their food, no one was going to steal it from them and so they didn’t need to fight over it or eat it all at once. Mealtimes gradually became a lot less frantic and a lot less messy with each of them crunching contentedly at his and her own bowl of biscuits.
“Tilly will have told him she’s had hers so he needs to get a move on if he’s not going to be too late for his,” continued Mr Blue-Shirt, sipping his coffee. Anthropomorphise? Us?
It was Saturday morning so we were lingering over our own late breakfast before getting on with the weekend errands and chores. As usual Tilly had been at the bedroom door calling for breakfast as soon as she heard us stir. And as usual, Mr Blue-Shirt had fed her while making our morning tea. Then, still licking her lips, she had disappeared through the cat flap for another day’s butterfly chasing, lizard hunting and tree climbing. He hadn’t bothered to open the back door and call Stanley or rattle the biscuit jar as over summer he had taken to staying out longer than his sister. So we knew that before long we’d hear the distinctive ba-dap of the cat flap opening and closing and Stanley would appear, squawking loudly and looking slightly panic-stricken, for all the world like a hotel guest who thought he’d overslept and had come dashing down to breakfast before the restaurant closed.
We cleared away the coffee pot and jam jars, put some food down for Stanley and headed off in different directions to start on our respective job lists. Mr Blue-Shirt strode out to the shed that, with the pigsty gone, now serves as a makeshift workshop, ready for a morning’s woodwork (the first section of the pergola for the southern section of terrace) while I trotted up to my study to catch up on some paperwork and prepare my lessons for the first part of the following week. With Radio 4 burbling gently in the background, a light breeze carrying the distant clatter of a tractor in through the open window and my desk covered in papers, I was soon absorbed in the daily task of completing my online class registers. So it was with a slight start that I became aware of Mr Blue-Shirt coming up stairs. Something was wrong, though. His tread was slow and heavy, as if he was carrying a great burden, and when he appeared on the landing outside my study, his face was grey and drawn.
“What’s up?” I asked. “Have you had an accident?”
He shook his head, swallowed hard and took a deep breath.
“What??” I’d heard what Mr Blue-Shirt clearly enough; I just couldn’t take it in. “Where? How?”
“A car got him. He was out on the road.”
It had been our abiding fear. Although the road is quiet, what little traffic there is is fast-moving and with their tabby stripes, both Tilly and Stanley are – were – is – extremely well-camouflaged.
“What? Just now? I didn’t hear anything.”
“No, it must have been during the night. He is quite cold.”
“I thought you were in the shed.”
“I was opening the gate. I need to go down to Civi to get some bits from OBI. I saw him straight away lying on the road.”
I winced. “Is he badly damaged?” My voice caught in my throat.
“No, thank goodness. It must have been a glancing blow. It will have been quick.”
“Where is he now? Another car might hit him.”
“It’s OK”. Mr Blue-Shirt had caught the anxious note in my voice. “I’ve brought him in and laid him in the shade in the car port. He’s quite safe. Do you want to come and see him?”
“I don’t know. I…” the words wouldn’t come. My throat tightened and tears sprang in my eyes. I stood up from my desk and wrapped my arms round Mr Blue-Shirt.
“Another loss. Yet more taken from us. When will it stop?”
My tears flowing freely now, I sobbed into his saw-dust sprinkled chest while he stroked my back with one hand and wiped the tears from his own eyes with the other.
“I know, I know. It’s so bloody unfair. Poor little chap.”
After a few moments we released one another.
“What do you want to do, then? We can’t leave him in the car port.”
“No. But I do want to see him and say goodbye.”
Mr Blue-Shirt was right. There were no gaping wounds, no oddly-angled limbs. He was lying on his side, legs outstretched, mouth slightly open. From a distance you might think he was just snoozing in the shade. But close up, you could see that his head was slightly flattened and that he had already begun to stiffen. I knelt down beside him and stroked his thick brindled fur with its ginger-tinged highlights. It was strangely cold, and his small body was so utterly lifeless. No deep throaty purr, no languid yawn, no slow wriggle over onto his back to have his honey-coloured tummy tickled. Our dear, gentle, playful, loyal and oh-so-lovable Stanley had well and truly departed.
“Have we got an old pillow case I can put him in?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt, trying to be business-like. “I’ll get going on a grave. Where do you think we should put him?”
He sniffed and thrust his red spotty handkerchief back into his pocket.
“I thought maybe somewhere in the olive grove. He loved to play there and climb the trees.”
“With Mimi,” I said. “He loved to play everywhere out here. We can’t keep making little cairns all over the place either.”
My throat constricted once more. “And I know it’s silly, but I don’t want him to be alone.” Fresh tears spilled onto his tawny coat.
“No, it’s not silly. That makes perfect sense. With Mimi it is. I’ll get a spade.”
And with that, he was off to the far corner of the garden that catches the early morning sun and the spot where Mimi lies beneath the small pear tree that looks across to village and down to the sea.
We must have made a strange sight: Mr Blue-Shirt and I, together solemnly bearing a small, pale blue bundle across the drive and down past the legnaia to the freshly dug hole. We gently laid him on top of Mimi, still in her own pillowcase shroud, and neatly tucked him in – daft, I know, but… Then we bade him one last farewell and carefully re-filled the grave and rolled back into place the large stones that mark the spot and keep it safe from foxes and porcupines.
And then it struck me. “What about poor Tilly?”