Cats have always been an important part of my life although we did not own one until I was eleven. My father came from a family of animal lovers so we grew up with stories of the dogs and cats they had owned when he was a boy. Chief among these was Boots, a black highland terrier.
When we lived in Hastings my aunt, who lived nearby, had an Australian terrier, Digger. She also had a cat for a short time but I seem to remember it was killed by a dog, either Digger or his predecessor. Washing Digger on the back lawn was something Margaret and I used to help with on Saturdays. When we moved to Wellington, very few people had dogs on the grounds that it was a city and too built up. I now realise that my mother was not an animal lover and, although I would badger my parents for a cat, they resisted. This was probably because my sister, Pip, was small. New Zealanders in those days were fairly pragmatic about pets. I put this down to it being a rural society. There were also problems with hydatids and dogs. Gradually my school friends began to acquire pets but they were not something you had with small children.
Everything changed when I was eleven. One Saturday afternoon I went to play with a classmate and discovered that their cat had had kittens. There were six tiny things: three marmalade tabbies, two ordinary tabbies and one black. They were looking for homes for them. My school friend and I promptly walked the mile plus back to our house and asked my parents, who were having a siesta, if we could have one. I was told yes, provided that we had one of the marmalade coloured ones and that it was male. It so happened that one of these three was male. And so Mbula arrived in our lives.
As it turned out he was the only cat my parents ever had. He lived to be nineteen but not without some adventures. We acquired him when he was six weeks old which seemed to be the practice in those days. From what I now know, I realise this was too young for him to leave his mother. It meant that throughout his life he ‘made butter’ when he sat on our knees, i.e. he sat and pummelled us through our stockings. This was not good for the stockings but it is apparently behaviour associated with being separated from the mother too young. Mbula was not properly toilet-trained when we got him. We used to put newspaper down on the floor but there was no cat litter in those days so he had to be trained to go outside. I do not remember any ‘accidents’ later but I left home when he was about twelve years old so never knew him as an old cat.
There were strict rules about cats. These were partly cultural and partly, I think, based on how my paternal grandparents had treated their animals. One rule was that he was never allowed on the beds. There were occasions when he would get on the bed of one of us children but we would yell for my mother to come and remove him which she did. Another rule was that he was shut out of the house at night. Not something anyone would do these days. New Zealand houses are different from British ones. The house we lived in when we got him had a basement, complete with a door from outside, and we think he used to spend the night there. When we moved to a house further up the street, it was a Victorian house which had been moved to one side of the section. Both houses stood on wooden piles and it was possible for cats to get under the main part of the house. We know he used to sleep there. But it was also an accepted fact that there would be howling cats and cat fights, often at night.
We decided Mbula was three quarters Persian. His mother was half-Persian and we concluded that his father also had some Persian blood. He was certainly the fluffiest cat I have ever known. A couple of years after we got him there was a Davy Crockett craze. Mbula went missing for some days and we were convinced he had been stolen in order to turn his tail into a Davy Crockett hat! His Persian genes also caught up with him when he got terrible fur balls and had to be carted off to the vet to have them removed under general anaesthetic. I think this was the only time he went to the vet until he was really old by which time I was not around.
Choosing his name became a family task. Both my father and my maternal grandfather had served in Fiji in the Second World War and that led to him being given a Fijian name. Of course, nobody else could spell it! The Fijian greeting is ‘Mbula vanaka, voka levu’ (I think) so we used to tell people his name meant ‘hello’. When he arrived in our household I was told he was ‘my’ cat and I was responsible for him. A sensible idea giving a twelve year old this responsibility but of course it was my mother who did most of the caring.
He was fed strictly twice a day. In the morning I would get up at seven and make sandwiches for the whole family as there were no school dinners. Packed lunches were the norm for children and also for office workers like my father. In our second house, the bread was delivered by the milkman so I would go down to the gate and collect the bread and the milk before I started on the sandwich-making. Mbula often accompanied me and then would give my leg a sharp nip to indicate it was time for his breakfast. He lived on gravy beef (shin of beef) as this is what my grandparents had fed their cats. It would be put out in the kitchen. He would eat all of it but leave two pieces (out of politeness we used to say). He was certainly trained to eat all his food at once, unlike the cats we have had as adults.
Animals were brought up somewhat differently in those days. There were no vaccinations, no worm tablets and no annual trip to the vet. But then there was no pet insurance either, so you hoped your animal would not get ill. We did not know anyone who had a pedigree cat as this was considered a step too far. I can remember our father taking us to the cat show in Wellington. The wife of the Dean of the Anglican cathedral (who was not a church goer) bred Siamese and she had them all there. Lots of kittens. This prompted my father to say what an awful breed they were because they never stopped squalling! The only Siamese I ever knew belonged to someone I baby-sat for when I was a student. It was great entertainment as it used climb in its owner’s large basket of wool. Unfortunately it died of chest disease when only a couple of years old and this was considered to be another reason why you did not have pedigree cats. Dogs were probably different.
When we went on holiday we would leave instructions for a neighbour to feed Mbula and leave him shut outside for a fortnight. Mind you, we only went away once a year as businesses did not give much annual leave in those days. When I was older and a student, I stopped going on family holidays. I stayed at home and looked after Mbula but my grandmother also lived next door by then so we were not alone and there was the neighbour with the deaf tomcat to help if there was an emergency.
As far as I can remember, there was only ever once a ‘crisis’. In our back garden we had a ‘cabbage tree’, a Nikau palm. These have long trunks with no low branches. Cats can easily be chased up them and then be unable to get down again and this is what happened to Mbula. I do not know who chased him but getting him down was a real problem. My grandmother was too old and too small to be of any help and I have always been bad with heights. I can remember getting out the ladder and leaning it up against the tree but I cannot remember how long he was up there (quite a time) or how he got down again. I think he may have done it unaided.
We children were very fond of Mbula. I think cats have a special role to play for angst-ridden teenagers. That was certainly the case with me. We would always go out and break up any fights we saw him getting into. This happened regularly in the second house because one of the neighbours had a tom cat that was both belligerent and deaf. When we saw Mbula’s fur flying past the window we would go out and rescue him. He was a right wimp and needed our support.
In the first house on Friday evenings our whole family would walk down to the library which was at the bottom of the street. Mbula used to accompany us, but then wait for us either sitting in the gutter or prowling around the vacant section next to the post office for some time. He never attempted to go round the corner into the main road which in those days you had to do in order to enter the building.
When I first left home there were two things I really missed: the piano and a cat. When you are young and moving around animals are not generally something you have so I just had to get used to not having one. They were also a problem in rented accommodation so it was not until we bought our first house that we were able to get a cat. (Tiki)