I have shared my life with some wonderful cats but none more special than Wasim. He came into our lives in May 1982, one of a litter of kittens born to a cat dumped on our neighbours when heavily pregnant and about to give birth. I said Iíd take one of the kittens to help them out, though I already had quite a large feline family and could have done without any more. But there was something about Wasim even when he was a tiny kitten still on his mother that was love at first sight.
It was twenty years ago now but how well I remember weaning day and our neighbourís arrival with this very indignant, spitting black bundle of fur that he deposited gently on our kitchen floor. "Ouch!" he said, "the little beggarís got sharp claws." It was probably the first and only time Wasim ever scratched anyone, for he had a delightful, loving nature and seldom unsheathed his claws in anger, although the carpet snake episode was a notable exception. But more of that later.
Right from the beginning Wasim made it clear that he was going to be my companion and mine alone. Others in the household he tolerated but I was number one. Pretty well whatever I did Wasim did as well, from household duties, to typing and computing, to gardening and other outdoor activities and he slept with me almost every night of the nearly eighteen years of his life.
Anything to do with water was a big attraction, he loved to get on the ledge above the kitchen sink while I was washing up, occasionally reaching a paw down to scoop up some suds. He especially loved watching the water disappear down the drain, ditto for the bath, though the edges were so slippery he often ended up in the bath with me, but it never phased him much. Heíd simply scramble out, delicately shake each paw in turn and then wash himself all over to regain some dignity. The irrigation sprays were another major attraction, they went in a circular pattern and Wasim would chase the water round and round until he was exhausted and soaking wet.
He took great delight in riding in the wheelbarrow. Every afternoon I used to scythe a strip of lucerne for the horses we had in stables at that time and collect it in the wheelbarrow for distribution. Wasim would stand up the front, paws resting on the rim of the tray, directing operations while we trundled along, like some small Admiral of the Fleet. Heíd end up almost buried in lucerne sometimes before heíd vacate his perch.
Before progressing any further, brief mention must be made of the other cats that shared our home during Wasimís growing years. Their stories could fill a book in their own right but will have to wait their turn, because this is Wasimís page.
The oldest was Smudge, a dear harmless soul who grew very fat in old age, in fact was runner-up in a local fat cat competition and even had his name in the paper as one of the finalists. He could snore like someoneís grandfather, indeed one day we had a visitor who thought Smudge must have been an elderly relative snoring in the next room.
Scooter was the next in age, famous for always walking directly in front of you and suddenly flopping down, also for leaping through open doorways at knob height, something to do with fear of the cat flap, which he would use only if desperate. Also he was a sprayer of car tyres, but of course being a cat he did it backwards and if he really wanted to make his mark would lift both back legs right off the ground to gain added force.
Smudge and Scooter together provided some funny moments. Though they shared some fifteen years of their lives they never really got on, in fact had some quite serious fights when younger though they never drew blood. With advancing years they confined their enmity to hassling - Smudge would walk past Scooter pretending not to see him, Scooter would give him a not-too-gentle shove in the backside with a paw, just to help him on his way. If eating together, it was Scooter who would get the paw from Smudge - in the face in fact, to push him away from the dish. If that didn't work, Smudge would simply pull the dish closer to himself, right from under Scooter's nose.
Ginger Imran was a darling, named for Imran Khan (Iím sure he would be flattered if he knew). Imran the cat was noteworthy for being friendly with everyone, he would get on the laps of visitors, even into bed with them if they stayed the night. He particularly delighted in doing this to people who did not like cats. He had a wonderful toasty smell, not experienced before or since on any other cat.
Sweety Pie (originally Babushka) was truly special. This dear little tabby came from a bring-and-buy stall at a local market and shared our lives for eight years. She always sat behind or beside me on whatever chair I was sitting on. She was so sweet and affectionate (hence her name change) it was a very sad day in our family when she had to be put down with bladder cancer.
One-eyed Illie (short for illegitimate) was dumped at our front gate. We saw it happen - at least, we saw the car turn around in our gateway then roar off in a cloud of dust. A few minutes later this large, very hesitant and fearful, ginger-and-white cat came up our driveway. Illie proved to have a great personality and we grew very fond of him, but it was obvious, even without the knocked-out eye, that heíd had a less than happy history. He never quite trusted people and he was a bit of a sneak and a thief, for which he could scarcely be blamed, it was probably how he had survived. Also there must have been something about him that made the other cats distrust him. Wasim in particular disliked him and would keep track of his movements from a safe spying distance. Illie really loved to get in cupboards and Wasim would always come and tell you.
Bission was another who shared Wasimís formative years, though only briefly. He was a refuge kitten but stand-offish from the start and though he did sometimes appear to enjoy a bit of petting and cuddling, he was never into deep affection. He was very much a catís cat and preferred to live in the hay shed and catch his own meals, only rarely venturing into the house. Then he started going further afield even than the farm sheds and his absences became longer and longer. Finally he did not come back at all and we could only hope that nothing had happened to him, that although desexed like all our other cats, he had simply decided to return permanently to the wild. If such was the case it was his choice, all we could do was wish him well.
So back to Wasim and the story of his life. There are just so many memories of this wonderful black cat that itís hard to know what to relate. But when he was about three years old I was offered a job in the city that necessitated selling up and shifting ourselves, our possessions, three horses and all the cats to a small acreage farmlet that was within commuting distance of where I would work. We were to spend quite some years on this small property on the outskirts of Brisbane. It was a very pleasant environment before development overtook the area, and heaven for the cats, plus I could commute to work by train, such a relaxing way to travel. To while away the time while travelling, I sometimes recorded daily events in a diary, and Wasim and the other cats and animals who shared our lives figured prominently. Following is a selection of random jottings covering just the space of one year - 1998. They convey very well the essential Wasim, even though 1998 was the year before he died and he was getting quite elderly and a little crotchety.
But first, I must recount the carpet snake incident that happened a few years previously. I had been home alone for the weekend, my husband having gone to visit relatives. It was the Saturday night about midnight and I was fast asleep with, as usual, Wasim asleep beside me, when suddenly I woke to an awareness of his furry belly stretched across my face and realised he was attacking something on the wall above the bedhead. Assuming he was trying to catch a moth, I pushed him away from the vicinity of my face, muttered blearily,"Stupid cat," then rolled over and went back to sleep.
When I woke at the usual time the next morning, I was immediately aware that all was not well. Wasim was in the doorway of the room on full alert, eyes riveted on something under the bed. Cautiously I moved to the edge of the bed and peered underneath myself. I nearly died when I saw the big heap of diamond-patterned coils under there. The head must have been buried in the middle somewhere. I was out of that bed in a flash and that was the end of Wasimís courage as well. He fled for the kitchen with hair on end, in fact it was to be some months before he ventured back on the bed or even into the room without thoroughly checking under all the furniture first.
I often thought about that episode later and, without being too melodramatic, Iím sure Wasim saved my life or at least my sanity. If Iíd woken up with that carpet snake in my arms or wrapped around my body I hate to think what my mental state might have become, providing I hadnít died of fright immediately. Closer examination of the wall and bedhead at the time had revealed quite deep claw marks and it was obvious that the snake must have tried to get onto the bed by climbing up the back but Wasim had clobbered him over the head and made him retreat. I wish snakes no harm but years later I still shudder to think what might have been. And how brave was the cat? Cats are cautious of all snakes but fear carpet snakes above all else, because they will deliberately try to catch and strangle them.
Back to the year 1998 and those random jottings. The first that appears in my diary concerns cat number two, Sam, and Wasim who were marching towards me on either side of the swimming pool with slow purposeful strides, glaring daggers across the water at each another. These high noon situations were not uncommon between them and theyíd been spoiling for a fight all morning - not that it ever amounted to much, just a spit and a snarl - but I scooped Sam up before he could start anything. Neither of them were spring chickens anymore, but Sam, the younger by three years, had always been a bit aggressive, a defender-of-the-faith type who dearly loved a stoush with any neighbourhood cats silly enough to venture onto his patch.
No doubt Samís territorial behaviour was because, although long since neutered, he had spent the first 18 months or so of his life living on his wits as a stray tom. Unfortunately he had not that long ago tried his aggressive approach on a fox which had been coming around at night looking for scraps, and come off second best. A massive abscess had formed on his head, the result of a bite from the fox, and it had only just healed. The whole incident had left Sam a little less inclined to fight with all and sundry; now he more-or-less confined himself to hassling Wasim occasionally, knowing the old boy had never been much of a fighter even in his prime.
Mention of the swimming pool reminds me that Wasim dearly loved to sit on the edge and have whoever was in the pool sprinkle water on his back. Just a dribble, he didnít like getting too wet. Sometimes his tail inadvertently dipped in the water and that upset him no end, necessitating much lashing of the tail to get rid of the excess water and a great licking session to remove the rest.
Then there was the time my husband swam very quietly up behind Wasim when he was sitting on the edge and said "Boo!" or something along those lines. The poor cat got such a fright he jumped a good few feet in the air and landed fair in the water. Talk about a mad scramble for the edge - plenty of willing human hands were there of course but Wasim was out of the pool before anyone could help him. It was one of the few times Iíd ever seen him seriously out of sorts. In fact his black mood lasted nearly the whole day - not helped, Iím sure, by my tendency to collapse into laughter every time I looked at him.
Actually this was nearly as amusing as the leeks incident, which happened some years before Wasim was born. It went like this... Husband was sitting reading the paper at the kitchen table and the cats of the time were clustered about the floor or reclining on the other kitchen chairs. I was standing at the kitchen sink preparing the vegetables for tea. Amongst said vegetables were some leeks which I was just about to wash when somehow they slipped from my fingers and landed on the floor. Well, talk about mass panic. The cats went everywhere. Some tried to climb the walls - I distinctly remember an above-head-height level being reached before the inevitable crash back to the floor. Others were galloping so hard on the slippery lino that they were making no headway. Two shot straight over the table and somehow even cleared my husband, who was sitting there with a bemused look on his face, muttering, "Those bloody cats!"
The whole thing was hilarious really. I was quite paralysed with laughter at the time and memory of the incident still raises a chuckle.
Back to the diary jottings and Wasim, who puts great effort into his "toilette". An indication he is on-the-job is a truly enormous flurry of dirt and leaves shooting up into the air from under the bushes. But this doesnít happen just once. Several holes are dug and tested before a final selection is made. Then the filling-in is almost as dramatic. But oh the joy of that final sniff to ensure that everything is well buried. It provokes a short sprint up the stairs and into the house, there to spend the rest of the day recovering from it all sound asleep on the sofa.
Cat number three, Missy, is a dreadful snorer. Sometimes I have to get up in the middle of the night and turn her over to make her stop. Also she hates snakes and other reptiles. She terrorises green tree snakes until they are exhausted if no one rescues them beforehand. Obviously she has never tangled with a venomous snake or a carpet snake, or she would not still be alive.
Late yesterday afternoon she was racing up and down the patio, obviously chasing something trying desperately to conceal itself in the vegetation at the edge. I soon spotted her quarry, a bearded dragon just about at the end of its tether, panting and exhausted and puffed up like a balloon. Quickly I picked Missy up and removed her indoors to let the poor thing recover and make its escape.
A huge water dragon, close relative of the bearded dragon, often basks in the sun on the bridge over the lagoon, though youíve got to creep down very quietly to see him. Once he catches sight of you heís off the bridge in a flash and into the water with a dull plop. Strangely, he and his family take no notice of the motor mower even when itís quite close to them - itís only when you stop and step off it that they scatter, much like the Aztecs when they first saw the conquistadors dismount from their horses.
The hens are quite convinced that a chooky monster lives under this same bridge. It takes them a long time to pluck up the courage to cross it though they are always keen to do so, knowing that some choice scratching areas are on the other side. Eventually one will step on and be crowded into by the others, all in a rush. Usually this rush takes them headlong over the bridge, accompanied by much squawking and flapping and anxious crowding away from the edges, where the chooky monster presumably lurks.
Wasim and to a lesser extent the other two cats are great watchcats. They mightnít be able to protect you like a dog, but they certainly let you know when someone strange is around by running through the house growling with hair on end. If Iím going to be home alone and am asked by other family members if Iíll be alright, I always reply, "No problem. Iíve got my watchcats to protect me". Which reminds me of some other manufactured words that have arisen in this household of cats, mostly by substituting "cat" for "dog", like cathouse (doghouse), catgone (doggone), catto (lying doggo), undercat, pussy bag (doggy bag), cat in the manger, boogiecat (the boogiecat will get you if you go outside), cat days, cat-eat-cat, cat-tired and so on. Cateteria is another good word (I seem to be running one all day) and catastrophe, though not a manufactured word, is very appropriate when living with cats.
Iím a park-and-drive person, meaning I drive to the station, park the car, catch the train to work and reverse the process to get home again at the end of the day. Last night my neighbour Cheryl was waiting for me as I drove up the driveway and I feared some major drama like the chooks had got into her garden again. But it was worse, much worse.
"Iím awfully sorry," she said in a rush, hardly before Iíd switched off the ignition, "but your black catís in at Windsor. Wasim? Isnít that what you call him?"
"W-Windsor?" I stammered, scarcely able to comprehend what she was saying. Windsor was miles away.
"Yes, I took my car in to Windsor to be serviced and the mechanic phoned later to say a black cat had leapt out from under the bonnet and run off when he started working on the car and was it mine? I said that no, it wasnít, but that you owned a black cat and it must be yours. I left my car out in the driveway last night and your cat must have climbed up under the bonnet and been too scared to move when I started the engine and has travelled that way all the way to Windsor. Iím terribly sorry, but I had no idea he was there ..."
I literally went weak at the knees. Wasim was there in front of us, tail erect in welcome, though he had one wary eye on Cheryl for no reason other than he didnít trust visitors. I gathered him up, almost squeezing the breath out of him. I was too overcome to speak.
"Obviously not your black cat. Iím so pleased." Cheryl gave me a relieved smile. She looked a little pale. I recovered my wits sufficiently to thank her for her very genuine concern. We both then agreed that we hoped the other cat had been a local Windsor cat which had sneaked into the workshop and then into Cherylís car when no one was looking and was now safely back home.
Wasim is developing the feline version of Alzheimerís disease. He tears up any paper he can find and often cries for no reason in a very raucous voice - his "growly" voice we call it. He woke me up in full cry just on daylight this morning, clawing at the mattress at the same time. I thought it was because he wanted help to get up on the bed, he doesnít climb so well nowadays and certainly canít jump much, but that wasnít the problem at all as he soon made clear by proceeding to pull himself along on his back all the way around the base of the mattress, a mad look in his eye. He was just having fun.
At times his growly voice sounds almost humanoid. We spend a lot of time conversing backwards and forwards, usually on matters to do with food. His side of the conversation is standard Catonese for the most part, but often a distinct "nyo" or "mmm" emerges. For example, I might ask, "Wasim, do you want these nibblies - you know, the ones youíre supposed to eat for the health of your kidneys?"
"What about some fillet steak, or maybe some crab?"
"Well sorry, but youíll have to make do with the good-for-your-kidneys nibblies for the moment, until I do the next lot of shopping."
The hens are a nuisance when they go clucky. They sit on the nest all day and make it difficult for others to use that nest to lay an egg. Often eggs get broken as a result. I find the best thing to do with clucky chooks is evict them from the henhouse for the day and let them back in at night when the others have finished laying and the eggs are collected. This particular morning I had evicted the clucky hen of the moment and gone back inside for breakfast. Next minute Wasim flew in with hair on end, skidded to a halt on the tiles then very cautiously peered out the door again. The problem was the clucky chook. She had come up onto the patio to complain about her eviction and given the cat a fright. Itís all an act of course, because the cats arenít remotely frightened of the hens.
Missy sometimes goes crazy when I have a shower. She sounds as though sheís throwing herself against the door, but I think sheís chasing her tail. Actually sheíll get into the bath if she can and chase her tail in there, accompanied by much banging and crashing. Also she dearly loves to come into the toilet with me. So does Wasim, in fact he backed up against the wall one day when I was sitting on the pedestal, and next minute I heard this little tinkling noise that wasnít of my doing.
Wasim was playing with a ball of pink crochet yarn and had it in a lovely tangle around his ears, though he was holding the ball itself against his belly, kicking hell out of it with his back feet. One of the symptoms of his age-related mental condition is that he will fall suddenly and deeply asleep, which is what he did just as I decided I had better get the yarn off him before he either strangled himself or ruined it properly. I couldnít help but smile at the sleeping beauty, though with a pang as well, for he looked like a just-adult young cat again, the pink yarn wrapped around his ears and criss-crossed in an artistic tangle over his still-sleek black coat. Oh that he was in fact as young as he looked at that moment.
Benny the horse thinks heís a cow because the cows are his only companions. Actually heís appointed himself herd leader and is quite protective of them. I went walking through the paddock to check on them this morning and gave Benny a fright - he had been dozing, resting one back leg. He woke with a great snort and hastily ran around his "girls" and got them to their feet, then head and tail lifted high in alarm, he hustled them to the far corner of the paddock, out of harmís way. The cows werenít keen, cattle prefer to hide in the scrub if real or imagined danger threatens, but Bennyís attitude was that, if they were associating with a horse they could behave like a horse and abide by his idea of escaping predators, which is to flee across the open plains.
I buy fish for the cats once a week, particularly mullet, which they love. I microwave it lightly and feed it to them out on the patio because they make such a mess. This night I fed them a bit earlier than usual and the next moment Sam and Wasim came racing into the house, hair on end, eyes sticking out of their heads as though theyíd had an enormous fright. I flew outside to discover the cause was the chooks. Iíd forgotten to lock them up before feeding the cats and naturally theyíd made a bee-line for the patio and the fish, which they were pecking down with great gusto. Proof that hens are dominant to cats? No, I donít think so. Itís all just an act on the part of the cats to express outrage and gain sympathy.
Itís amazing how black cat hairs seem to get everywhere. The hairs of other coloured cats no doubt permeate everything as well, but they are not so noticeable. Black hairs though, seem to end up in the washing machine, in the kitchen cupboards, on the crockery and cutlery and consequently in your mouth, and they especially seem to be attracted to paper. They regularly get into the printer, photocopier, fax machine. I even had a friend from the US write to me to say thanks to Wasim for enclosing a few of his hairs in a Christmas card I sent her.
All the hens get out for a run in the afternoons, but one of them often goes off a little on her own. I came across her down near the lagoon footbridge one afternoon when going to water some young trees Iíd planted down there. She couldnít see me because her comb was over the eye facing me. She sensed I was there, though, and kept extending her neck forward in a series of jerks as though trying to see beyond her comb. When I stepped around to her other side so that she could see me, she erupted into a flurry of cackling and ran off. No wonder they call them bird brains.
Jim, the man who owns the few cattle we have here on agistment, rang to say he was coming down early this morning to check them out, maybe take a couple home and get them in calf. Knowing Jim was coming I was up a little earlier than usual and noticed that the cattle were all up the back paddock. I decided that instead of my normal morning walk Iíd go up and chase them back closer to the house.
Actually I set off with a feeling of some relief because it would be one morning I wouldnít have to keep looking ahead so that I could dodge Marie and her idiot dog. I love dogs but I hate them jumping all over me, especially big dogs with sharp claws and muddy feet, particularly when the owner thinks its funny and makes no effort to restrain them. So if I see Marie and dog in time, walking the same path as me, Iím afraid I take evasive action, like going back the other way or in some other direction, or even, if desperate, plunging off the track into the lantana and (I hate confessing this) hiding myself. The latter is the least favourable option, apart from the guilt I feel, because the idiot dog usually sniffs me out. Then I have to come up with a plausible excuse for being beneath a lantana bush in the first place. This is where the lightweight binoculars I usually carry come in handy. I emerge brandishing them aloft, mumbling something about an unusual bird I thought I had spotted.
Crows, if not under too much environmental pressure, prefer a territory of about 100 acres per breeding pair. That is certainly the case here, thereís been a pair of crows patrolling our small property as long as I can remember. They build the most untidy looking nest high up in one of the bigger silky oak trees and patch it up every year. If I was them Iíd start again, build a new one, but that is not the way of the crow. Mostly itís just them you see around, they are great scavengers and do a good job tidying up anything thatís dead or decaying in their territory, though theyíll eat anything if forced to it.
Some years, the skies are black and the air filled with the raucous cawing of huge flocks of young crows - hoon crows I call them, for they are as hooinish as their human counterparts. Fortunately this is not a regular occurrence and lasts only a month or two because there are thousands of birds in these flocks and the noise they make is unbearable. Heaven knows where they all end up, for it seems that despite their numbers they have a hard job moving in on established pairs. But eventually it all settles down and our resident crows have time again for their favourite sport - terrorising walkers, bike riders and horse riders who use the walking track that runs along our boundary fence. One shouldnít laugh because they can and have caused accidents, but it is funny to see a couple of unsuspecting young ladies enter this track on horseback and the next moment be galloping in disarray, waving their arms and screaming as the crows swoop on them with clacking beaks.
But the crows sometimes get their comeuppance. They are not immune from invasion ("parasitism") by the channel-billed cuckoos, huge birds that lay their eggs in other birdsí nests. The crows diligently tend the cuckoo eggs along with their own, though usually, even if they hatch, the crow babies do not survive due to competition from the much larger cuckoo hatchlings. And indeed they are large and demand huge quantities of food. The poor old crows seem to be going backwards and forwards constantly trying to provide enough for them, they must be exhausted by the time the young cuckoos fledge.
Wasim has taken to wandering around the house in the middle of the night caterwauling. Iíve often had to get up and bring him back to bed because itís the only way to shut him up. He is definitely becoming more and more affected by this feline version of Altzheimerís disease he seems to be getting. He acts like heís lost, doesnít know where anyone is (including himself, I suspect). For example, I had been home all day yesterday, but late in the afternoon, just on sundown when I would normally be getting home from work, he went out to the front door and stared anxiously down the driveway as though looking out for me, trilling a little bit to himself. I spoke to him from the lounge chair where I was sitting doing some crotcheting and he turned to me with the most surprised look I have ever seen on a catís face. He had obviously forgotten I had been home all day.
Henrietta was the last of six hens we had bought for next to nothing from a battery place which had closed down. When we first got them theyíd been unable to walk, had hardly any feathers left and were scared stiff of the great outdoors. Theyíd been debeaked and had their middle claws removed, so even though they did eventually learn to scratch around in the dirt, they were always handicapped. But dust-bathing was another matter, it was something they could enjoy fully. In fact like all hens they just loved it once instinct kicked in and showed them how.
Instinct is a word thatís frowned on in some circles, but how else could you explain the behaviour of these six pitiful specimens when they first saw the other hens hopping up on the perch ready to settle down for the night? How well I remember them watching the others, even bobbing their heads up and down in preparation for jumping up on the perch beside them, but wishful thinking was the best they could manage for quite awhile. But eventually they did learn. All of them went on to live a happy free-range life with us for some years, even laying an occasional egg.
Now only Henrietta was left and she had become a bit of a character. Sheíd gone broody about a month previously and was showing no signs of going off the cluck. We had been putting her out of the henhouse in the daytime to avoid broken eggs, the inevitable result of fights over the laying box, in which she seemed determined to ensconce herself forever. Maybe we should have had two laying boxes, but we had proved in the past that with a small number of hens they all laid in the one box anyway.
Last night when I locked the chooks up, I had lifted the lid off the laying box, hoping the exposure would dissuade Henrietta from spending the night in it, which in turn might persuade her that she really didnít want to be clucky anymore. It seemed to work, too, for she had got up on the perch. But this morning, when I went to feed them, I had to laugh at the sight that confronted me. Henrietta had decided to resume the nest despite its exposure to the open air, and she had a look of thunder on her face if such a thing is possible in a chook. Two of the other hens were more-or-less sitting on top of her attempting to lay their eggs. Henrietta was fluffed up to her full capacity with wings spread out, trying to fend them off.
It was a magic morning, the air balmy and clear, a soft breeze blowing, lightly teasing the surface of the dam into ripples. With a little imagination and by squinting through one eye, the dam could look a much bigger body of water. Under a lowering sky, it could seem as black and mysterious as Loch Ness, or if the day was sunny and bright, as pastel pretty as a lake in the Lake District. It was funny, I thought as I walked along admiring the view, how we still looked to the Olde Country for so many of our similies, when in Australia there are bodies of water far more spectacular and at least as beautiful as any in Britain.
A pair of grebes had resided on the dam for years now and reared many young. Australian grebes are widespread in near-coastal areas; they are small water birds commonly called divers, for that is what they do - dive continuously in search of food. In between their diving activities they are always either rearing young or sitting on eggs on their floating nest of vegetation anchored a little way out from the edge. The attrition rate of the young is very high, the most popular theory being that eels grab them by the legs from underneath and pull them under. The anchoring of the nest out from the edge is usually protection against accidental demolition by large grazing animals drinking from the dam, but not always. Only a few days previously I had heard much splashing coming from the dam, only to find the horse in there up to his belly, pawing at the nest and removing mouthfuls from its top layers. I had shouted and thrown sticks at him and chased him away, but ever since had been worried about the fate of the eggs it no doubt contained. Consequently it was with great relief that I saw at that moment the two adult grebes swimming placidly on the far side of the dam, five little black dots scooting about on the surface of the water between them. Then I blinked, for suddenly there were only two, then none. But not to worry, I knew where they were - beneath the wings of one parent or another and indeed, they all shortly reappeared.
No matter how firmly she has him leashed, Marie our neighbour has never been able to stop her dog Jack going berserk when a car passes them. Thereís a bush track that runs up past our place where she can let him run off-lead, but to get there she has to walk him along a road frequented by light traffic. Itís interesting to watch the preparation as a car approaches dog and owner. Marie secures her hat more firmly on her head, wraps the lead around her waist as well as twice around her hands, digs her heels in, then hangs on for grim death. As the car gets closer and closer, Jack jumps and barks frantically, then starts to race around Marie, spinning her like a top, she hanging on to him much like a hammer thrower in the Olympics. Only when the car is past do things return to normal.
Sam had been suffering from bleeding ears for awhile and they were getting worse. The veterinary verdict was to remove the pinnae, or tips, to ward off the likely sequel, which was cancer. The day for the operation had arrived. We had been practising with the cat cage for several days, even so he sensed something was up when I went to put him in it, but I did just manage to get the top secured before he erupted into a howling, clawing, scratching maniac. Once in the car he tried to bash his brains out against the wires of the cage. I arrived at the vets in tears from the stress of it all, though Sam had settled down, in fact was strangely quiet. I warned the girl who took him from me not to be fooled; it could well be the lull before the storm.
I filled in the day as usual, relieved when 5 oíclock came and I could collect Sam. He was still suffering mildly from the anaesthetic when I picked him up. The receptionist told me it had taken two vet nurses and a vet to hold him down to give him the anaesthetic. Now he was slightly cross-eyed and very happy, almost smoodgy. It was a bit of a shock to see him without the tips of his ears and all those stitches, but it lent him a certain leonine charm. The strangest thing was the behaviour of the other cats, who appeared not to recognise him when I got him back home. Was it because his head shape had changed due to his ears being cropped? Was it his surgical smell? Or was it sheer terror at the sight of a staggering Sam lurching sideways towards them, seemingly intent on kissing them?
The saga continued all weekend, the other two cats remaining thoroughly upset the whole time, though Wasim did force down a mouthful or two of food, eating just enough to keep body and soul together. Missy would have nothing to do with Sam at all, would not even come in the house. It was not until the Monday that hunger must have got the better of her and she crept furtively into the kitchen for some food.
We had a fierce storm on Saturday night and the following day was like the beginning of the world, everything looked so fresh and newly washed. While doing the ironing later in the morning I could not help but keep glancing out the window at the beauty of the garden, especially the white and purple bauhinias framed against a backdrop of deeper green, a clear blue sky above. I spotted one of the bearded dragons being typically prehistoric in the grass, only his head raised, a slight glint from the unblinking reptilian eyes. Before long, two of the purple swamp hens came striding past in typical long-legged fashion. These are strange creatures, which as their name suggests, live and breed on the edge of wetland areas and are mainly purple in colour with a red comb and they constantly flash a patch of white under their tails. A noteworthy feature is the giant deliberate strides they take, like some cartoon bird. Anyway, these two went past the dragon as though not seeing him but then one of them suddenly came to a stop in mid stride. She cautiously came back towards the dragon, neck outstretched in his direction. The dragon actually lifted and turned his head fast enough for the movement to be perceptible. It was then that discretion got the better of the swamp hen, for she took two of those enormous strides backwards, much like some robotic thing with giant mechanical legs, then quickly turned to follow her mate.
I woke this morning to see a black and white cow staring in at me through the bedroom window. Naturally I wondered if I was truly awake. Then I heard that infernal dog barking, frantically, from somewhere near our front gate. Next moment stumpy-legged Marie appeared coming up our driveway - minus the dog, thank goodness, which she must have left tied up to the fence. "Shoo! Shoo!" she yelled at the cow, obviously not seeing my blurry self behind the glass. Actually Iíd ducked out of sight to some extent, not wishing to exchange pleasantries with Marie in my half-asleep, nightdress-clad state. Obviously the cow had got in from Marieís property next door, not a new occurrence, and at least today, though it had rained torrentially the previous evening, the ground was not so sodden that a cow would sink up to her hocks in our front lawn, as had happened on previous occasions. The holes were there forever after, unless filled in with a wheelbarrow load of soil.
Then later when out walking I met Charles, another neighbour, riding a smart grey gelding he had recently broken in. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather and the beautiful morning, then with my permission he cut across through our place to return home. He rode along the base of my small eucalypt plantation and there was something wonderful and so incredibly Australian about the fine, lightly stepping grey horse against the backdrop of white-trunked eucalypts, tall enough now to dwarf the man on the horse, making it hard to believe that they were only three years old. Before that there were no trees at all on that part of our property and the view had been of traffic and the road. Now, apart from a muted noise indicating that the road and the traffic were still there, it could have been the middle of the Australian bush, miles away from cars and pollution.
A measure of the age of cats is how they cope with vacuum cleaners. I hate the machines myself, mainly because of the noise, and using one is my least favourite house cleaning task. Wasim is the most immune to vacuum cleaners, partly because he is the oldest. But there comes a point when even he has to shift, though usually only after being nudged with the suction head. He gets up with ill grace and gives me such a dirty look, as much as to say, "Do you really have to use that thing?" But I have had cats in the past that never got used to the vacuum cleaner and would flee the house until all activity had well and truly ceased. I even had one old cat, Illie, who would attack the machine and had to be shut out of whatever room I was using it in.
The old white hen was clucky for weeks. My husband kept saying we should knock her on the head as she was too old to ever lay again. I said he could do it if he wanted, knowing he wouldnít. Anyway she proved him wrong by laying another egg, rather small admittedly, but obviously a very exciting event, because her cackle of accomplishment came out as a sort of breathless series of squeeks that went on for some time.
Our place is cat heaven. When I left for work this morning, Wasim was curled up on the most comfortable part of the $6000 leather lounge (our one truly expensive item of furniture and we seldom use it), Missy was asleep in the middle of my armchair, Sam was gently snoring on my bed, a dapple of sunlight falling over him.
After a very severe hail storm I was sitting reading and trying to get my nerves back in order. There was a bump, bump, bump against the bottom of the glass slider. A line of toads was sitting in the light, bumping against the glass as though trying to get in. Maybe their nerves had been shot as well as the result of the storm and they were seeking sanctuary in case it returned. They looked like little anxious people, shoulders squarely outlined, necks hunched with determination. I have a sneaking liking for toads and hate that people think they can legitimately be cruel to them.
Wasim was doing kitchen duty - if anyoneís in the kitchen he takes up his appointed position beside the pantry or at the fridge door. Sometimes itís because he wants some little morsel to eat, other times he just wants to chat. Lately Iíve been treating him for an eye complaint, heís been prone to them as heís got older, and he has become a bit wary of the eye ointment. I picked up my glasses off the kitchen bench and with a little brrrp of annoyance he bolted for the door. My glasses had been in the same place I usually keep the eye ointment. Smart cat.
Wasim started early this morning, about 3.30, with his caterwauling, chewing and tearing up the corners of the mats and sharpening his claws on the furniture. Later when I was up and about to set out on my early morning walk, he kicked up an awful fuss about wanting to go with me. "No way Jose," I said. "A big goanna or something will get you if Marieís dog doesnít first." Then later as I went out the door on my way to catch the train, I said to my husband, "I think youíre going to have some fun with his lordship today."
"Have a look at him." I indicated the cat, who was upside down with one of the floor mats on top of him, kicking the daylights out of it with his back feet, a mad gleam in the one eye that was visible.
But when I got home from work in the evening it was to discover that "his lordship" had crashed as soon as I left. Not a peep had been heard from him all day. In fact he was only just surfacing again now, demanding food. I was not surprised. For a sixteen year old he played very hard but boy, it caught up with him.
Wasim is very clever about not being shut in a room. He loves to get somewhere that is generally out-of-bound to cats, like the spare room which is usually only used for storage. If I go in there for some reason, he always comes as well, he sort of melts through between my feet. But as soon as I go to leave heís out of it like a flash, before the door is shut. If he does happen to get shut in, it isnít long before you know about it, because he hammers at the bottom of the door and almost shakes it off its hinges until someone comes.
I had a tooth out yesterday and stayed in bed a little longer than normal this morning, as the whole thing had been a bit of an ordeal. The roots had broken off, meaning theyíd had to be quite forcibly dug out. Iíd felt as though the dentist was going to kneel on my chest at one stage to get extra purchase. Iíd broken out in a cold sweat, it was unavoidable and Iíd felt quite embarrassed by it. So here I was languishing in bed.
Wasim was not pleased when his usual breakfast time came and went. After caterwauling for awhile and getting no response except for my husband telling him to shut up, he galloped along the passage way, skidded around the corner into my room, the momentum enabling him to leapt on the bed without clawing his way up as he usually had to do. He then positively bellowed into my ear, forcing me finally to give in and get up.
Amazing how the cats sleep through anything on TV, gun shots, car chases, blood-curdling screams, but the slightest slightly unusual noise outside and they are instantly awake, scattering for cover.
My friend at work has a dog called Bruno who cadges biscuits from the lady next door. If he doesnít like what heís given heís too polite to refuse it but carries it back to my friend, drops it on the floor at her feet and looks at it with a sorrowful expression, as much as to say , "Look, will you? Just look at the awful thing she gave me."
Wasim has developed the ability to answer you in his sleep. As I went out the door to go to work I said to my husband that there was some food in the fridge for the cats if I was late home and they got hungry. Wasim was lying on the floor and commented with a miaow, yet as far as I could tell he was sound asleep.
One of the little tree snakes that frequent our garden appears to have fallen in love with the hose. This hose - green, and about the same diameter as the snake - was lying loosely coiled on the patio. I went out to see the said snake winding itself sinuously along its length, darting its tongue constantly, as though to savour everything about it. Very quietly I lifted the end of the hose and gave it a gentle tug. The snake literally leapt a foot in the air and disappeared into the shrubbery at the edge of the patio. I went back out to the patio ten minutes later and the snake was at it again. Clearly a case of "snake in love".
Cats hate going out when itís wet. Wasim, who seldom gets out of a meandering walk nowadays, races outside when the need becomes overwhelming, squats down and/or digs a hole, then races back in so fast that heís liable to skate on the tiles. Sometimes, in prolonged wet weather, itís necessary to put the cats out the front door and shut it on them very quickly. This forces them to skirt around the outside of the house to the back door, hopefully doing whatís necessary along the way. Once back indoors, they usually complain most vocally about such shabby treatment.
Cats can come backwards through a cat door when the need arises. Missy was almost through frontwards in the normal fashion, but obviously there was someone on the other side waiting to clobber her as she emerged, so she swore and beat a hasty retreat back the way she had come. Yet another high noon situation at the cat door.
There is a blue heron which regularly struts around the lawn, usually on its own, though it does have a mate. It is looking for insects and periodically snakes out its sigmoid flexured neck in their pursuit. There are also 3 young kookaburras who consider the territory to be their own. It is quite funny to see them all circling around the bigger bird, trying to scare it off. The blue heron doesnít give an inch, though, and keeps jumping up on stilt-like legs like some circus clown, clacking its beak at them.
Itís good fun living with wildlife. Iíve had my eye on a couple of passion fruit ripening on the vine over the chook house. This morning when I went to feed the chooks there were just the husks of the passion fruit left, the insides had been chewed out by swamp rats.
Then yesterday afternoon I let the chooks out, collected the two eggs theyíd laid then foolishly placed these eggs on the lawn while I went to do some other small job. I couldnít have been away more than five minutes, had heard nothing, and yet the eggs were gone when I returned. The crows would have taken them, but what was remarkable was how stealthy and quiet they had been, and yet at times they can near drive you mad with their cawing. A rather large snake skin was deposited on the lawn near the front door - definitely pre-loved by something much larger than a tree snake.
We were lucky the house didnít burn down the other night - a power point in my room started fizzing and throwing out sparks. Did it wake me, or did the cat? Wasim was studying the power point from a safe distance when I woke up. Had he caterwauled to wake me up? I will never know. It gives you pause for thought though, the realisation that you are lucky to still have a house.
The two blue herons spend a lot of time parading around out garden. They donít worry much about us or the cats or even the chooks. They hunt in the garden, long necks flexed but wobbling from side to side just before they stab at their prey. Also they move their tails from side to side.
This morning I was watching them hunting on the edge of the dam. They were extending alternate feet and wobbling them about just under the surface, obviously trying to stir up prey. The next moment I heard something that sounded exactly like "ouch" and I could see alternate flashes of blue bombarding one heron, which was ducking its head and making this strange "ouch" noise every time they passed overhead. The blue flashes were two kingfishers, beautiful little birds, who must have been nesting nearby because the next day I saw them carrying out their guerilla tactics on a small group of blue jays.
One morning towards the end of winter, I was in a rush to leave to drive to Toowoomba to see my mother. Wasim didnít eat when I fed them but I did not have the time to coax him and presumed he was just being picky, which was not unusual.
I had a predicably exhausting day and arrived home just on dark tired and not at all in the best of humours, particularly after such a lengthy drive. In a sort of daze I prepared tea and put food down for the cats. Wasim sniffed it and walked away, back to the warmth of the heater. He gave a sneeze or two and it was then I realised he was quite sick.
By the next morning I knew he was in big trouble. He was so weak that each sneeze knocked him off his feet, and he had a clear discharge from both nostrils. In cats, because their nostrils are so small and rigid, a seriously runny nose translates as bubbles being blown from the nostrils. This is a truly frightening thing to witness and as soon as I saw Wasim start doing it I was in the car and down to the local vet with him straight away.
The diagnosis was easy (a respiratory virus), but the prognosis less than optimistic because of his age. The only hope was to start treating him immediately and aggressively. He showed absolutely no response to the treatment for two days except considerable antagonism towards the dosing regime, which in itself was a slight comfort, because it meant there was still some desire to resist and fight. Otherwise, all he wanted to do was be with me. I had to have him in my lap if I was sitting down and as usual he slept with me, curled up in my arms as close as he could get. I had little sleep because of his constant snuffling and sneezing, but I willingly made the sacrifice to give him comfort.
I was certain Wasim was going to die. I took a day off work and then it was the weekend. I found it hard not to dissolve into tears, in fact often did, though I tried to conceal it from others. Then on top of everything else my good friendís mother died suddenly and I found myself saying Iíd go to the funeral "to help with the numbers", as my friend said. You would need to know her to understand this concern that no one except immediate family would go to her motherís funeral. This is going to be good, I thought, knowing I would cause lifted eyebrows by shedding lots of tears, but only I would know they were for my dead cat.
The day of the funeral dawned suitably grey and drizzly. It was also the third day of Wasimís illness and he had shown no signs of improvement. Without much hope I prepared a tasty saucer of food for him, a mixture of chicken meat and a little cream, things he normally loved, and warmed it gently in the microwave. He was now so weak that he was scarcely able to get up, in fact I had to gently help him and steady him in front of the saucer. I could not believe it when he actually took a lick or two at the food and then ate a few mouthfuls. In fact I could have shouted with joy, but instead returned him to his spot by the fire, not wanting to get my hopes up too soon. Sometimes animals close to death appear to rally for a short period. But Wasim did look brighter and clearer in the eyes and he was not sneezing so much.
Later, though sad for my friend and her relations, I found it hard to feel totally cast down by the solemnity of the funeral service. I noted that at least there were plenty of people in attendance, my friend need not have been concerned that no one would come. There was a small gathering afterwards and I believe I contributed with genuine sympathy and decorum, but my mind was largely focused elsewhere. And what joy to walk in the door later and see that Wasim was definitely on the road to recovery. He even managed one of his secret little "barr" greetings to me as I picked him up, his body warm in my arms and full of life again.
Wasim went on to make an apparently full recovery that time, but the illness had left a legacy - a small focus of infection that caused a flair-up every so often. He was never as seriously ill again as he was that first time, but each attack weakened him and I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before he did have another severe bout from which he would not recover. I wondered how I would handle it - would I know when to say enough is enough and have him put down? I could not bear the thought of him suffering.
But fate stepped in and saved me from ever having to make that decision...
Wasim was tragically killed shortly before his eighteenth birthday. The shock still haunts me even some years later. But one small solace is that death would have been instant, he would not have known a thing. He'd been living on borrowed time for months and in hindsight it was the best way to go.
Wasim had lived a wonderful life full of love given and received. I take comfort now from knowing that.
RIP little mate.