Last week, while rummaging through a miscellaneous selection of old documents in search of my ancient and seldom-used National Insurance Number (which I failed to find), I came across a photo of N and F, neighbours from way, way back. And I remembered Tapsy.
This isn’t a happy story, but it’s one that made an impression on me. It was the only time in my life when I can truthfully say that I felt ‘something’ in the atmosphere, something there was no explanation for. And it happened about this time of year.
Tapsy was N and F’s cat, an old puss at seventeen. She was one of those very shy creatures; she would streak off if anyone other than her owners tried to go near her. Her fur was long and a beautiful rich mixture of dark brown and black – she was a very luxurious-looking animal. I don’t have any photos of her, but she wasn’t unlike this cat – just a little darker.
One day our neighbours knocked on the door to say they were going south to Italy on family business – could I feed Tapsy while they were gone?
‘She’s lost a lot of weight recently, hardly eats a thing – but she’s quite content, so we’re just keeping an eye on her,’ added N.
I was happy to oblige, and for a day or two everything went well. Tapsy had the run of their house, and I went in twice a day to provide food and fresh water. I was a bit sorry for her, home all alone, but she made it clear my company wasn’t welcome so there was nothing I could do about that.
On the fourth evening I realised that Tapsy hadn’t just eaten ‘hardly anything’ – she had eaten nothing at all that day. I renewed her food and water, but when I went in the following morning the food was still untouched. And she hadn’t used her litter box since I’d cleaned it the day before. This time, she didn’t run away when I appeared, and after a bit of sweet talk I was allowed to stroke her – and under that luxuriously thick coat was an absolute skeleton of a cat.
It was a real dilemma – those were the days before mobile phones and I had no contact number for my neighbours. Should I take Tapsy to the vet? But she was in no visible distress, and what would the vet say when I appeared with a 17-year-old cat who was thin as a rake and neither eating nor peeing? It wasn’t a decision I wanted to make that day. I couldn’t even take her home with me, as the boys were both under three at this point, and Tapsy liked her peace and quiet…
The following morning I went next door as usual, before my husband went to work. I heard Tapsy jump off something and run into another room upstairs, but she didn’t come down and when I went to look she was hiding. I removed the untouched food, and this time I put a portion onto four saucers and left them in different places for her. I made a decision: if she ate nothing that day we would go to the vet tomorrow.
As soon as the boys were asleep after lunch I went to check on Tapsy. I opened the front door, stepped into the hallway – and that was when I felt it. It wasn’t a presence, it was more a negative thing, a non-presence. I felt a chill all over and I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that I was the only living thing in that house; to this day it has remained the most spine-tingling moment of my entire life. I walked through the rooms but I couldn’t find her.
When my husband came home from work I returned next door, armed with a box. The stillness in the house was different now, just a normal kind of quietness as I searched in all the corners and under the furniture. Eventually I found her. She had crawled under a duvet – only the tip of her nose was visible.
It’s not exactly the kind of thing you want to have to tell your neighbours when they arrive home. N and I sat and had a little cry together, and then she went home. And you know, coincidences sometimes happen when you need them most. The very next day, a friend of N’s phoned to say that they were looking for a new home for their cat, as their daughter had developed asthma – would N and F be interested in taking him?
And so Minousch came to live in our street. He was a splendid chap – but that’s a story for another day.