My imminent re-location to Italy has forced some very difficult decisions. At the top of the list, what would happen to our cat? Heathcliff (what else could Kathy's cat be called?) has been my companion for almost ten years. He sits on one of the oak beams when I'm working, just to make sure that I'm not snoozing instead. Given the chance, he will tap out his own messages on the keyboard and has been known to crash the whole computer. I've tried to be a responsible owner (does one ever 'own' a cat?) and parting with him has always been unthinkable.
Before Heathcliff condescended to live with me, he belonged to another writer - William Scammell - an excellent poet and good friend, well known for his savagely truthful reviews in the Spectator, Literary Review and the Independent on Sunday. Friends were never spared, which could be something of an ordeal, but Bill's judgement was always sound and fair. You could rely on him to tell you exactly what didn't work as well as what did. Bill died in November 2000 and I still miss him a lot.
Heathcliff was his cat - a stray who walked through his front door one day and decided to take up residence. Being a companionable cat who loves comfortable places and good conversation, Heathcliff spent the next few months curled up on Bill's duvet, as he lay in bed facing the grim realities of lung cancer. Bill wrote a poem about Heathcliff, which appeared in the Independent after he died (and more recently in a new anthology of Bill's poetry).
We have been adopted by a black cat
with a white bib and paws.
Almost a designer cat,
who pushes his affections
into your stomach as though
he was making bread.
He's come from nowhere,
the exact spot you yourself are headed for.
When Bill died we agreed to give Heathcliff a temporary home which gradually became permanent - or so we thought.
However, recently my life has changed in a way I never envisaged, one that is totally unfair to our beloved animal. During the last twelve months, as I commuted to a fellowship at one of the North eastern universities, spent weeks doing research for the book in New Zealand and tried to see something of Neil in Italy, our friends have heroically fed him for me, though he made his feelings very plain when I returned! This situation obviously couldn't go on, especially as I'm going to be away for even longer periods in the near future. So, with two months of international travel in front of me, and unable to take him with us to the house we are borrowing in Italy, we have tried for weeks to find someone willing to look after him (bribed with a year's supply of a certain famous cat-food).
Fortunately one of our neighbours has agreed to foster Heathcliff for us, and - after some sleepless nights, I have breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of him being properly cared for - and we still have visiting rights. It's not a long term solution, but I know he will be well looked after in the immediate future.
Now, it's off to France for a Katherine Mansfield conference in Menton, and then after a few days of frantic packing, off to Cambodia and all things strange and wonderful!