Authors: James Herriot
Herriot.” “Gosh, thanks, Jack!” I said, scooping up Oscar gratefully.
“Where the devil did you find him?” “Well, s’matter o” fact, “e sort of found me.” “What do you mean?” Jack closed his eyes for a few moments before articulating carefully. “Thish is a big night, tha knows, Mr. Herriot. Darts championship. Lots of t”lads round at t”Dog and Gun—lotsh and lotsh of “em. Big gathering.” “And our cat was there?” “Aye, he were there, all right. Sitting among t”lads.
Shpent t”whole evening with us.” “Just sat there, eh?” “That “e did.
” Jack giggled reminiscently. “By gaw, “e enjoyed isself. Ah gave “im a drop o” best bitter out of me own glass and once or twice ah thought “e was going to have a go at chucking a dart. He’s some cat.
” He laughed again. As I bore Oscar upstairs I was deep in thought.
What was going on here? These sudden desertions were upsetting Helen and I felt they could get on my nerves in time. I didn’t have long to wait till the next one. Three nights later he was missing again.
This time Helen and I didn’t bother to search—we just waited. He was back earlier than usual. I heard the door bell at nine o”clock.
It was the elderly Miss Simpson peering through the glass. And she wasn’t holding Oscar—he was prowling on the mat waiting to come in.
Miss Simpson watched with interest as the cat stalked inside and made for the stairs. “Ah, good, I’m so glad he’s come home safely. I knew he was your cat and I’ve been intrigued by his behaviour all evening.” “Where … may I ask?” “Oh, at the Women’s Institute. He came in shortly after we started and stayed till the end.” “Really?
What exactly was your programme, Miss Simpson?” “Well, there was a bit of committee stuff, then a short talk with lantern slides by Mr.
Walters from the water company and we finished with a cake-making competition.” “Yes … yes … and what did Oscar do?” She laughed.
“Mixed with the company, apparently enjoyed the slides and showed great interest in the cakes.” “I see. And you didn’t bring him home?” “No, he made his own way here. As you know, I have to pass your house and I merely rang your bell to make sure you knew he had arrived.” “I’m obliged to you, Miss Simpson. We were a little worried.” I mounted the stairs in record time. Helen was sitting with the cat on her knee and she looked up as I burst in. “I know about Oscar now,” I said. “Know what?” “Why he goes on these nightly outings. He’s not running away—he’s visiting.” “Visiting?” “Yes,” I said. “Don’t you see? He likes getting around, he loves people, especially in groups, and he’s interested in what they do. He’s a natural mixer.” Helen looked down at the attractive mound of fur curled on her lap. “Of course … that’s it … he’s a socialite!”
“Exactly, a high stepper!” “A cat-about-town!” It all afforded us some innocent laughter and Oscar sat up and looked at us with evident pleasure, adding his own throbbing purr to the merriment. But for Helen and me there was a lot of relief behind it; ever since our cat had started his excursions there had been the gnawing fear that we would lose him, and now we felt secure. From that night our delight in him increased. There was endless joy in watching this facet of his character unfolding. He did the social round meticulously, taking in most of the activities of the town. He became a familiar figure at whist drives, jumble sales, school concerts and scout bazaars. Most of the time he was made welcome, but he was twice ejected from meetings of the Rural District Council—they did not seem to relish the idea of a cat sitting in on their deliberations.
At first I was apprehensive about his making his way through the streets but I watched him once or twice and saw that he looked both ways before tripping daintily across. Clearly, he had excellent traffic sense and this made me feel that his original injury had not been caused by a car. Taking it all in all, Helen and I felt that it was a kind of stroke of fortune which had brought Oscar to us. He was a warm and cherished part of our home life. He added to our happiness.
When the blow fell it was totally unexpected. I was finishing the morning surgery. I looked round the door and saw only a man and two little boys. “Next, please,” I said. The man stood up. He had no animal with him. He was middle-aged, with the rough, weathered face of a farm worker. He twirled a cloth cap nervously in his hands. “Mr.
Herriot?” he said. “Yes, what can I do for you?” He swallowed and looked me straight in the eyes. “Ah think you’ve got ma cat.”
“What?” “Ah lost ma cat a bit since.” He cleared his throat. “We used to live at Missdon but ah got a job as ploughman to Mr. Horne of Wederly. It was after we moved to Wederly that t”cat went missing.
Ah reckon he was trying to find “is way back to his old home.”
“Wederly? That’s on the other side of Brawton—over thirty miles away.” “Aye, ah knaw, but cats is funny things.” “But what makes you think I’ve got him?” He twisted the cap around a bit more. “There’s a cousin o” mine lives in Darrowby and ah heard tell from “im about this cat that goes around to meetin’s. I “ad to come. We’ve been hunting everywhere.” “Tell me,” I said, ‘this cat you lost. What did he look like?” “Grey and black and sort o” gingery. Right bonny “e was. And “e was allus going out to gatherin’s.” A cold hand clutched at my heart. “You’d better come upstairs. Bring the boys with you.”
Helen was laying the table for lunch in our little bed-sitter.
“Helen,” I said. “This is Mr.—er—I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.
” “Gibbons, Sep Gibbons. They called me Septimus because ah was the seventh in family and it looks like ah’m going that’same way “cause we’ve got six already. These are our two youngest.” The two boys, obvious twins of about eight, looked up at us solemnly. I wished my heart would stop hammering. “Mr. Gibbons thinks Oscar is his. He lost his cat some time ago.” My wife laid down the plates. “Oh …
oh … I see.” She stood very still for a moment, then smiled faintly. “Do sit down. Oscar’s in the kitchen, I’ll bring him through.” She went out and reappeared with the cat in her arms. She hadn’t got through the door before the little boys gave tongue.
“Tiger!” they cried. “Oh, Tiger, Tiger!” The man’s face seemed lit from within. He walked quickly across the floor and ran his big work-roughened hand along the fur. “Hullo, awd lad,” he said, and turned to me with a radiant smile. “It’s “im, Mr. Herriot, it’s “im awright, and don’t “e look well!” “You call him Tiger, eh?” I said.
“Aye,” he replied happily. “It’s them gingery stripes. The kids called “im that. They were broken-hearted when we lost “im.” As the two little boys rolled on the floor our Oscar rolled with them, pawing playfully, purring with delight. Sep Gibbons sat down again.
“That’s the way “e allus went on wi” the family. They used to play with “im for hours. By gaw we did miss “im. He were a right favourite.” I looked at the broken nails on the edge of the cap, at the decent, honest, uncomplicated Yorkshire face so like the many I had grown to like and respect. Farm men like him got thirty shillings a week in those days and it was reflected in the threadbare jacket, the cracked, shiny boots and the obvious hand-me-downs of the boys. But all three were scrubbed and tidy, the man’s face like a red beacon, the children’s knees gleaming and their hair carefully slicked across their foreheads. They looked like nice people to me. I turned towards the window and looked out over the tumble of roofs to my beloved green hills beyond. I didn’t know what to say. Helen said it for me. “Well, Mr. Gibbons.” Her tone had an unnatural brightness. “You’d better take him.” The man hesitated.
“Now then, are ye sure, Missus Herriot?” “Yes … yes, I’m sure. He was your cat first.” “Aye, but some folks “ud say finders keepers or summat like that. Ah didn’t come “ere to demand “im back or owt of that’sort.” “I know you didn’t, Mr. Gibbons, but you’ve had him all those years and you’ve searched for him so hard. We couldn’t possibly keep him from you.” He nodded quickly. “Well, that’s right good of ye.” He paused for a moment, his face serious, then he stopped and picked Oscar up. “We’ll have to be off if we’re going to catch the eight o”clock bus.” Helen reached forward, cupped the cat’s head in her hands and looked at him steadily for a few seconds.
Then she patted the boys” heads. “You’ll take good care of him, won’t you?” “Aye, missus, thank ye, we will that.” The two small faces looked up at her and smiled. “I’ll see you down the stairs, Mr.
Gibbons,” I said. On the descent I tickled the furry cheek resting on the man’s shoulder and heard for the last time the rich purring.
On the front door step we shook hands and they set off down the street. As they rounded the corner of Trengate they stopped and waved, and I waved back at the man, the two children and the cat’s head looking back at me over the shoulder. It was my habit at that time in my life to mount the stairs two or three at a time but on this occasion I trailed upwards like an old man, slightly breathless, throat tight, eyes prickling. I cursed myself for a sentimental fool but as I reached our door I found a flash of consolation. Helen had taken it remarkably well. She had nursed that cat and grown deeply attached to him, and I’d have thought an unforeseen calamity like this would have upset her terribly. But no, she had behaved calmly and rationally. You never knew with women, but I was thankful. It was up to me to do as well. I adjusted my features into the semblance of a cheerful smile and marched into the room. Helen had pulled a chair close to the table and was slumped face down against the wood. One arm cradled her head while the other was stretched in front of her as her body shook with an utterly abandoned weeping. I had never seen her like this and I was appalled. I tried to say something comforting but nothing stemmed the flow of racking sobs.
Feeling helpless and inadequate I could only sit close to her and stroke the back of her head. Maybe I could have said something if I hadn’t felt just about as bad myself.
You get over these things in time. After all, we told ourselves, it wasn’t as though Oscar had died or got lost again—he had gone to a good family who would look after him. In fact he had really gone home. And of course, we still had our much-loved Sam, although he didn’t help in the early stages by sniffing disconsolately where Oscar’s bed used to lie, then collapsing on the rug with a long, lugubrious sigh. There was one other thing, too. I had a little notion forming in my mind, an idea which I would spring on Helen when the time was right. It was about a month after that shattering night and we were coming out of the cinema at Brawton at the end of our half day. I looked at my watch. “Only eight o”clock,” I said.
“How about going to see Oscar?” Helen looked at me in surprise. “You mean—drive on to Wederly?” “Yes, it’s only about five miles.” A smile crept slowly across her face. “That would be lovely. But do you think they would mind?” “The Gibbonses? No, I’m sure they wouldn’t. Let’s go.” Wederly was a big village and the ploughman’s cottage was at the far end a few yards beyond the Methodist chapel.
I pushed open the garden gate and we walked down the path. A busylooking little woman answered my knock. She was drying her hands on a striped towel. “Mrs. Gibbons?” I said. “Aye, that’s me.” “I’m James Herriot—and this is my wife.” Her eyes widened uncomprehendingly. Clearly the name meant nothing to her. “We had your cat for a while,” I added. Suddenly she grinned and waved her towel at us. “Oh, aye, ah remember now. Sep told me about you. Come in, come in!” The big kitchen-living room was a tableau of life with six children and thirty shillings a week. Battered furniture, rows of much-mended washing on a pulley, black cooking range and a general air of chaos. Sep got up from his place by the fire, put down his newspaper, took off a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles and shook hands. He waved Helen to a sagging armchair. “Well, it’s right nice to see you. Ah’ve often spoke of ye to t’missus.” His wife hung up her towel. “Yes, and I’m glad to meet ye both. I’ll get some tea in a minnit.” She laughed and dragged a bucket of muddy water into a corner. “I’ve been washing football jerseys. Them lads just handed them to me tonight—as if I haven’t enough to do.” As she ran the water into the kettle I peeped surreptitiously around me and I noticed Helen doing the same. But we searched in vain. There was no sign of a cat. Surely he couldn’t have run away again? With a growing feeling of dismay I realised that my little scheme could backfire devastatingly. It wasn’t until the tea had been made and poured that I dared to raise the subject. “How—was I asked diffidently, “how is—er—Tiger?” “Oh, he’s grand,” the little woman replied briskly. She glanced up at the clock on the mantelpiece. “He should be back any time now, then you’ll be able to see “im.” As she spoke, Sep raised a finger. “Ah think ah can hear “im now.” He walked over and opened the door and our Oscar strode in with all his old grace and majesty. He took one look at Helen and leaped on to her lap. With a cry of delight she put down her cup and stroked the beautiful fur as the cat arched himself against her hand and the familiar purr echoed round the room. “He knows me,” she murmured. “He knows me.” Sep nodded and smiled. “He does that. You were good to “im. He’ll never forget ye, and we won’t either, will we, Mother?” “No, we won’t, Mrs. Herriot,” his wife said as she applied butter to a slice of gingerbread. “That was a kind thing ye did for us and I “ope you’ll come and see us all whenever you’re near.” “Well, thank you,” I said. “We’d love to—we’re often in Brawton.” I went over and tickled Oscar’s chin, then I turned again to Mrs. Gibbons. “By the way, it’s after nine o”clock. Where has he been till now?” She poised her butter knife and looked into space.
“Let’s see, now,” she said. “It’s Thursday, isn’t it? Ah yes, it’s “is night for the yoga class.”
Boris and Mrs. Bond’s Cat Establishment “I work for cats.” That was how Mrs. Bond introduced herself on my first visit, gripping my hand firmly and thrusting out her jaw defiantly as though challenging me to make something of it. She was a big woman with a strong, high-cheekboned face and a commanding presence and I wouldn’t have argued with her anyway, so I nodded gravely as though I fully understood and agreed, and allowed her to lead me into the house. I saw at once what she meant. The big kitchen-living room had been completely given over to cats. There were cats on the sofas and chairs and spilling in cascades on to the floor, cats sitting in rows along the window sills and right in the middle of it all, little Mr. Bond, pallid, wispy-moustached, in his shirt sleeves reading a newspaper. It was a scene which was going to become very familiar. A lot of the cats were obviously uncastrated toms because the atmosphere was vibrant with their distinctive smell—a fierce pungency which overwhelmed even the sickly wisps from the big saucepans of nameless cat food bubbling on the stove.