In “A Point of View”, recently broadcast on Radio 4, Will Self reflected on a fifteen-year relationship with his elderly and now slowly dying Jack Russell terrier. It was an example, he said, of “our most meaningful symbiosis”. Although I love dogs, I never entered into this symbiosis. I am a cat person, which implies a very different relationship, less a symbiosis than a form of cynical parasitism (on the part of the cat). There have been several important cats in my life, although I can’t claim to have ever really been important to any of them. The most important ones arrived in an unusual way.
It was the afternoon of the 10e of August 1983, and I was so bored at work that I was reduced to reading the personal chronicles of The temperature. I came across the following ad:
Care home wanted for Galtieri. A stylish, people-loving ex-ship’s cat saved Jedda. Cannot fit into a multi-cat household.
It was irresistible. I had recently taken out a year-long lease on a comfortable flat in Kentish Town, which I thought was crying out for a cat share. I called the number given and spoke to Jean, the lovely Aussie who ran the multi-cat house.
Jean lived alone in a house in Mile End with eighteen matched cats, who generally got along quite well with one another. Most of these animals had been acquired in various corners of the globe by his brother John, a radio officer in the merchant navy. Each time his ship docked in Britain, he quarantined his remaining feline refugees, from where they moved in the fullness of time to the Mile End cattery.
The year before, in 1982, John had served on a “reefer” – a refrigerated freighter – transporting countless millions of frozen chickens from Brazil, where they had lived their brief lives, to a series of ports in Africa and the Middle -East. Entering the Red Sea, they had called at Jeddah, docking at a long pier far from shore. Saudi border guards patrolled the pier to ensure no infidels jumped ship.
During the night watch, John heard the most terrible cries – “like a tortured baby”. Glancing down the dimly lit pier, he saw a skinny cat lying behind a capstan. A few minutes later, a guard fired a few rounds from his submachine gun, but missed. When the guard walked away, John took a chance, slithered down the gangplank, picked up the weak and adamant moogle, and carried him aboard.
The animal was visibly sick and starving. He put it in a cardboard box in the radio shack and asked the mate, who guarded the medicine cabinet, what might help. The companion, of course, had no idea but handed over antibiotics. As the ship unloaded a load of chickens for Saudi consumption, John popped one of the tablets down the cat’s throat. A few hours later, as they headed for the Red Sea, the animal let out an almighty cry, stretched and stood up. “It was like the Incredible Hulk,” John recalled. After a few meals of square chicken, he – he was a tomcat – was unrecognizable from the poor, emaciated thing languishing on the pier.
Although very young, this creature was large and powerfully built, muscular with long legs and sharp claws. His short fur was mostly white with a black crown and tail, and he had the pale, unblinking eyes of a ruthless hunter. He communicated volublely in a very loud voice, and clearly considered himself the equal of any human. John had never encountered a cat like him before, but when they sailed to Aqaba a day or two later, he saw hundreds of similar animals screaming on the pier. (The Jordanians were clearly more tolerant of cats than the Saudis).
The sequel was a name, especially as this unexpected supercargo quickly became a firm favorite of the multinational reefer crew. This was during the Falklands War, which John – a classic Australian rebel – strongly opposed. The rest of the crew, 20 men of many different nationalities, none of whom were British, were all strong supporters of ‘Mrs Thatcher’ and the ‘Task Force’. Perversely, John decided to name him “Galtieri”, after the alcoholic general who served as president of Argentina. The crew settles on “Galty”.
For nearly a year Galty sailed the seven seas, scouring the reefer for vermin and seabirds, adored and well fed by his shipmates. He was not very happy, in fact he was furious, when in early 1983 John took him ashore and quarantined him near Tilbury. John was quickly dispatched, and one can only imagine the cat’s suppressed rage over the next six months before Jean arrived to deliver him from this hellhole.
Jean had an idea of Galtieri’s fierce character and had made careful preparations. For the first two or three days, he was locked in the downstairs living room of his three-storey terraced house, while the rest of the menagerie was fed upstairs and encouraged not to come downstairs. Galty objected, loudly expressing his annoyance behind the locked door. In contrast, her eighteen new roommates were quiet and gathered anxiously on the first landing to await developments. When Jean unlocked the living room door, Galty exploded like a champagne cork from a bottle, rumbled down the stairs and injured two cats so badly they had to be stitched up by a vet. Hence the announcement in The temperature.
So, without delay, though protesting loudly, Galty moved into my flat on Bartholomew Rd NW5. As soon as I took him out of his basket, he imperiously roamed the two bedrooms, the bathroom and the small kitchen, sniffling and looking under things. His nose had already told him that there was no feline competition. I put in some food and water, and sat down to watch. The inspection tour over, he approached me and yelled. I scratched his head, he jumped into my lap, his claws digging into my pants momentarily, and purred. Galty’s purr, like everything about him, was loud and intense, almost deafening, like a big diesel engine idling.
We both settled into a comfortable single existence. He had learned during his life at sea to use a litter box and was remarkably clean. He seemed not to care when I went out to work. When I returned, there would be a passionate and noisy meeting, then I would let him out onto the terrace from where he would leap, like a panther, to the back garden for an hour or two of creative prowling. At first I let him sleep in the bedroom, but the purring was so outrageously loud that I had to banish him to the living room.
Galty thought of himself as a human. He maintained a fluent conversation for most of our time together and was always quick to point out injustice and demand a reward. He was sociable and liked having friends show up. A dinner at eight disconcerted him a little, but that was because the guests were too busy talking to give him their due: if he dealt effectively, one might say mercilessly, with the crumbs that fell from their plates.
I was listening to a lot of music in those days, which Galty mostly ignored, with the exception of a fabulous live album by the great blues guitarist Magic Sam, whose explosive solos elicited a chorus of high-decibel meows, and a certain amount of hectic stalking around the room. Everything else – Beethoven, the Staple Singers, the Pretenders – suited him. My bass guitar practice didn’t impress him, but it didn’t impress me much either, and I soon gave up.
A cozy berth in Kentish Town
In May 1984 I was thinking of buying an apartment and, as the lease on Bartholomew Rd was up for renewal, my father offered me to move into his place for a few months while I looked around. A widower, he lived alone in a beautiful house in the Vale of Health, a small enclave in the middle of Hampstead Heath. I accepted the offer gratefully, especially since he asked for no rent, just a case of wine.
The move upset Galty and he was unable to settle down. Maybe it was the simple fact that three alpha males were trying to rub shoulders in unfamiliar territory to him. The Vale must have seemed rural to him, a desert even, not at all the sophisticated urban environment he was used to. And it’s fair to say that my father didn’t like the old sailor cat. He preferred dogs and he didn’t like to be disturbed by Galty’s conversation.
This story ends, as it began, with frozen chicken. One Saturday night, my dad took a bird out of the freezer and put it on the kitchen counter to thaw overnight for Sunday lunch. When he came downstairs the next morning, he found the chicken stripped of its meat, which Galty had sickened on the floor. There was an outburst of rage – I was still sleeping upstairs – and Galty was kicked out the door, never to return.
I hope this kind-hearted cat survived a while on the moor, eating birds and rodents, before making a bewitching friendship with another hospitable human. He certainly deserved such a happy ending. I still miss Galty, and when I think of him, I remember the lines of Robert Louis Stevenson from Requiem:
Home is the sailor, home is the sea,
And the hunter back from the hill.
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