The first time – or the cat sat on the mat, eventually

It wasn’t our first time to have a cat. I’d grown up with cats and my husband and I had two cats before we had children, though neither son remembers their early childhood pets. After a few cat-free years, though, the novelty of fur-free fabric, lock-up and leave holidays, and the lack of proudly-presented dismembered gifts had faded and I felt a cat-shaped hole in my life. It was a stressful time at work and I craved a cat’s comfort. I didn’t necessarily need a lap-cat but I knew that I would feel better if there was just a cat somewhere about the house, sleeping in sunny corners and occasionally passing through imperiously.

From the local adoption options at the time, we selected Willow – rather timid in the rescue centre but assessed as being fine with older children.  She hid in her crate as we brought her home and we followed all the advice to place her in a quiet secure space to allow her to get used to us on her own terms.

For 24 hours she stayed in her crate. The next morning, she had disappeared entirely from the sealed room. After an initial pre-work search and several anxious and distracted hours (How would we explain that we had lost her already? Can cats evaporate?), we made a forensic examination of the spare room. Once we’d eliminated the impossible, we tried the improbable and finally found her tucked in the furthest corner of the smallest space between the bed and its nestling trundle bed.

The adoption charity reassured us that this was normal behaviour for stressed cats and revealed a little more of the very little they knew of her history: “The place she came from wasn’t a nice place. Not all of them made it.” Although she was in a good physical condition, she was clearly very frightened of people. It was our job to show her that we could be trusted and that this was a good place to be.

For two weeks, all we saw of her were shining eyes in the darkness between mattresses. Each morning, we could see she’d used her litter and eaten her food, but she only came out at night when the house was quiet. We took turns to sit in the room and read or chat, to be present without making demands.

By some miracle, the first time she emerged was the day we needed to take her to the vets for follow-up injections. Braced to dismantle the bed around her, we discovered her sitting in her crate. Adding insult to injury, we blocked up her under-bed nest and on her return she moved into a box we’d put in the room for her. Another few box-bound weeks followed. The notes I made at this time chart her very slow socialisation and also my desperate need to see signs of progress: ‘Slow blinking’, ‘Ate breakfast!!’

In life you don’t always get what you want, but you sometimes get what you need. You can’t tell an animal that it’s all ok – you have to show them. I had to slow down, make space and time to just be, to offer love without expecting it in return.

The rewards have been wonderful. The first purr in response to gentle stroking. The first time she emerged from her box in my presence. The first time she ate while I was in the room. The first time she made a tentative brush past my leg. The first time she left ‘her’ room. We took to leaving trails of biscuits out at night so we could see how far she’d ventured under cover of darkness. The first time she came halfway down the stairs.

After a couple of months, we had to go away and leave neighbours to feed our invisible cat. Willow obviously used this time in a quiet house to explore undisturbed and when we came back it was her house. The cat finally sat on the back-door mat.

The firsts continued. The first time she went outside. The first time she didn’t come back and stayed out all night. The first time she let us walk past her without running for her life – she was clearly very worried about what people’s feet could do… The first time she came into a room when we had visitors. And best of all, the first time she sat on my lap – it was almost as if she had been waiting for the new series of Grand Designs.

At the start of lockdown, two years after Willow came to live with us, we feared she might struggle with all four of us constantly at home but it seems it was what she needed. She rolls about shamelessly for tummy rubs, purrs like a traction engine, basks in the sunshine, lets two of us make a fuss of her at once, seeks out laps and has mastered the art of staying put as you try to stand up.  Her character has transformed, though not her DNA – she is still a cat so all of the above are on her own terms.

We have recently moved, an upheaval for us all. It’s a house of many hidden spaces but also a house of many windows and doors and she has quickly moved from one to the other, repeating the process of her first several months with us over just our first few days here. Again, the cat sits on the mat, keenly waiting for her first time in her new garden.

Eve West

April-May 2021