Blessay 24: Animals I have known

I grew up in a house with a traditional tabby cat and, for a brief period, a collie dog. I’m not sure what happened to the cat, but the dog ran away in the park. Father claimed he ran after it, but I suspected he was lying, that he’d deliberately let the dog loose. For awhile I was angry with Father. Then I forget my anger. Another stray dog, minus identifying collar, could always be found roaming the streets of Liverpool.

My childhood Toxteth street contained animal exotica. A parrot owned by a retired docker whose screech froze my infant blood. And a Pakistani neighbour had a small pet monkey, wearing a fez, that once wrenched a bag of crisps out of my tiny hands. These were the exceptions. Most households just had dogs with raucous barks, wailing backyard cats or budgerigars frequently un-caged to fly round over heated, coal-fire rooms.

The first time I encountered wild animals was when a circus parade marched down the high street. Amidst the acrobats, jugglers, musicians and clowns were horses, a camel, an elephant and a monkey or two. It was a hot Sunday afternoon in August. I cheered and ran with other children, leaving our parents far behind. They seated some kids on the horses. Even one on an elephant. I looked a long way up at that little girl. She swayed on her fleshy mountain in the sky (Today it seems so dreamlike, like a circus explosion in a Fellini film.)

The last time I owned a pet was over forty years ago when I was a student. It was a sleek black cat named Slotta. I’ve no idea why I called it that. Maybe after too much beer, my slurred speech delivered Slotta instead of…? With a Scouse emphasis going on the ‘ta’, as if to weirdly thank myself. Slotta lived with me in Park Village on Sussex University Campus. Sadly the stress of finals, and my marriage breaking up, hit me. Slotta was passed on to an American student, who later gave him to a butcher: where no doubt he led a contented life being fed the left-over offal.

I’ve considered owning a cat again. But I don’t really need the company, don’t want the smell or clingy cat hairs on my sofa. I suppose I could manage it if it were practical to do so. Living very near the top of a high-rise estate doesn’t seem fair on a cat’s urge to roam outside – though cats are regularly stolen in my neighbourhood. I’ve fantasized about letting a cat stroll along the corridors and down the stairs: after I’d carefully taught it how to press the buttons of my lift, to let itself in and out!

The only animals to enter my flat were a nervous cat and a bewildered seagull. I looked after the cat whilst a friend was on holiday. It would constantly hide away, only to reappear at meal times, ignore me and then disappear. When found it hissed, scratched and wouldn’t be picked up. The cat had been parted from its mother too soon. Its owner was undergoing therapy. Perhaps some neurotic transference was subtly occurring?

The bird was an intruder. One Summer morning, a seagull flew through my open bedroom window.  We jointly panicked. After crashing into the bookcase it headed back to the window and missed. Somehow I managed to get the seagull out. This wasn’t exactly my Tippie Hedren (The Birds) moment – no bloodied pecked head as I thrashed out with a torch in my hand. After closing the window, and with my heart still beating fast, I had some tea and remembered that director Ingmar Bergman had once spoken of his irrational fear of birds.

I can sympathise with Bergman’s anxiety only if birds deliberately attacked me. In Norway a bird once struck me on the shoulder. Yet I ascribe that to the fact that I was wearing a red windbreaker and eating a tuna sandwich. Apart from a dog, the only animal that really went for me was a sheep. Yes, a sheep. A flock of them.

It was Good Friday in the Cambridgeshire countryside. A friend and I were walking across a field having a fit of giggles about something. Our comic absurdity (without the aid of any drugs) was suddenly transferred to a flock of sheep. We pretended we were Jesus and Paul addressing a large crowd. It became a sermon on the mount for the well-being of the sheep. A few sheep onlookers were joined by some more. And more. We became vociferous and silly, promising them all eternal sheep life. The sheep grew noisy and restless. Gradually the flock drew menacingly closer. Things became strangely unpleasant, even threatening. Pursued by angry sheep we ran to get out of the field.  Once over the fence those sheep faces still looked mean( Not one ram agitator amongst them. ) A determined few pushed against the gate. We made tracks, rapidly.

Since then I’ve questioned my stereotype of the docile and passive sheep. Watching Aardman’s latest animated film, Shawn the Sheep, a sheep’s need to be strong and decisive was confirmed. The sheep take the bus to the big city in order to find their owner. They quickly gain confidence to outwit the animal control unit. The scene where sheep enter a charity shop, to get clothes to disguise themselves, and then frequent a posh restaurant is hilarious. If they can do that in art then they have the ability to pursue me in real life.

What also follows me round is a laughing cow. Not a real one, but the cow artwork on the packaging of processed cheese portions. For years when backpacking I would have outdoor lunches consisting of a white baguette, a tomato, a spring onion and a Laughing Cow spread. Yesterday a Goth looking woman was drinking a can of cider and eating a Laughing Cow, under a bus shelter next to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm.

I wanted to hug her and say enjoy yourself darling! I hesitated. Somewhere a more knowing seagull, neurosis-free cat, or militant sheep would not have approved.

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