It is almost exactly two years since Tilly and her brother Stanley first came into our lives as four- or five-month-old kittens; two years since they used to cuddle up side by side in a succession of refuges like a pair of tabby slippers, peering out at us from two sets of golden, suspicion-filled eyes, trying to ease their own and each other’s fears and anxieties at all the unfamiliarity. With the approaching spring, though, they gradually grew not to fear us, then to accept us, then to trust us, and finally to feel properly at home in their new surroundings – but always as a pair, each always the other’s wingman, playmate and fall guy.
It was the same once spring had blossomed into summer and they were able to go outside and discover a whole new world of adventure. From time to time we’d catch sight of them both galloping across the grass, rolling around on the drive or chasing each other up olive trees. When they had run out of steam, they would snuggle up together for an afternoon nap in an eight-pawed, two-tailed tangle of tabby fur, before trotting off together into the gathering dusk for an evening alternating between moth-chasing, lizard-catching and tiny rodent-hunting, and coming over to enjoy a gentle ear-scritch, a vigorous tummy-tickle, or simply loll about at our feet while we dined on the terrace and watched the lights twinkling in the valley.
By the end of that summer, though, Stanley was gone. It was on a Saturday morning in late September that Mr Blue-Shirt found his small, lifeless body on the road just outside the gate, his thick brindled fur with its ginger-tinged highlights already stiff and cold to the touch. There were no gaping wounds, no oddly-angled limbs; he was lying on his side, legs outstretched, with just a slight flattening of his head the only sign of the fatal blow from a passing car that had killed him. We were saddened beyond measure to lose our gentle, playful, loyal Stanley and through our tears we could barely see what we were doing as later that morning we gently wrapped him in an old pillow case, dug his grave and tenderly laid him to rest beneath the small pear tree in the far corner of the garden that looks across the fields to the village and down to the sea. It was only once we had rolled into place a couple of large rocks to mark the spot and keep it safe from foxes and porcupines that our thoughts turned to poor Tilly.
I thought I had glimpsed her dark tabby form among the olive trees while we were still kneeling at the gate stroking Stanley’s inert form, and I fleetingly wondered whether she had somehow sensed that something terrible had happened. Not having seen her since, I wondered whether she was still searching for her brother in all their usual haunts, and by late afternoon we were worried sick. But as night closed in, she finally re-appeared, looking bewildered, stricken and utterly lost. Our hearts nearly broke for the poor wee creature and we smothered her in cuddles and did our inadequate, human best to comfort her. She wouldn’t rest, though, and a pattern soon emerged: searching out in the fields by day and then patrolling the house by night, when we would hear her soft paws padding back and forth across the wooden floors, her mournful calls amplified by the stillness and the dark.
For weeks Tilly continued her search for her absent brother, never giving up hope that they might one day be reunited. She did seem to draw some comfort from all the extra attention and reassurance, however, and to ease her loneliness she gradually began to seek out our company more often and then to play with us a little, and even, on occasion, to cuddle up on the sofa with us. Then as the year drew to a close, she seemed properly to turn a corner. It was as if she had finally understood that poor Stanley was never coming back and that she was on her own; and that while we might be pretty second-rate playmates (rubbish at tree-climbing, even worse at butterfly-chasing, and as for mousing…), she could do an awful lot worse than us.
The daytime searching stopped and the night time padding ceased; the charging up and down trees restarted, the hunting came back, and the brightness in her eyes returned. Over the next few weeks, she became talkative and sociable, always calling out a greeting as she came in through the cat-flap before coming to find each of us for a quick cuddle and a game. Although she still spent hours at a time outside, now she was playing and exploring and hunting – and bringing us an endless succession of live, small furry ‘gifts’ for us to play with (ie try and catch and release back into the garden before they sought refuge under the fridge or behind the stove). Come evening, she developed the uncanny habit of returning home for a bowl of turkey biscuits just as we were sitting down for our own dinner. She soon started to join us in the sitting room too, either draped along the back of one of the sofas or curled up, in true cat fashion, in front of the fire. And when we headed up to bed, it became her custom to trot up the stairs behind us, jump up onto the bed and nestle down between us, only hopping back down again shortly before dawn to do what a cat has to do. Yes, she definitely didn’t seem to feel that badly off with us, even without her much-missed brother.
Then, with coronavirus spreading unimpeded across the country and we started to go into what would become twelve weeks of total lockdown, our roles were somehow suddenly reversed. Very quickly death and disease became the only topics of conversation, everyone’s primary pre-occupations were whether they could avoid the virus and whether they could keep their jobs; fear and uncertainty became the constant background music to week after week spent doing our best to carry on as normal in a world that was now anything but normal, and it was we who now felt bewildered and lost. But our dear, sweet Tilly remained utterly indifferent to the crisis unfolding around us. No matter how alarming the daily statistics, her self-possession never crumbled; no matter how difficult and frustrating it became for Mr Blue-Shirt to get hold of the materials he needed to carry on building the terrace, her nonchalance never wavered; no matter how stressful and restrictive I found the virtual classroom, her serenity never faltered. We both found her sheer imperturbability immensely comforting and reassuring, so as the storm raged around us, just a few minutes’ playing with her, stroking her, or even just watching the gentle rise and fall of her stripey flanks as she slept would have a surprisingly calming effect, ease our troubled minds and soothe our weary spirits. In short, she became – and remains – the tabby embodiment of the Persian adage ‘this too shall pass’. So whatever we gave her when she was in distress, she has given back in spades.