Just down the road from our farmhouse, which lies about 250m above a beautiful lake, there lived a wonderfully eccentric old man called Joseph. I suppose you could call him a hermit. He was probably an alcoholic. His 150-year-old wooden chalet was uninhabitable by today’s standards. I was told that he lived only in the stone basement, with a few solar panels for electricity. Every day, he cycled down to the village to pick up his supplies – bottles of his preferred tipple, and perhaps a little food – until one day, someone stole his bike. From then on, he walked the four miles there and back. For over ten years I drove past him on his bike two or three times a week, smiled and waved. He never waved back, in fact he did not even smile, just looked at me suspiciously from under his weather-beaten hat.
Driving home from the local pub one evening, my headlights lit up a pair of knees sticking up at the side of the road. I couldn’t see who was lying on the ground but concerned that someone might be in trouble or that another driver might hit them, I turned the car around and drove back. I found Joseph, who had picked himself up and was stumbling around at the side of the very narrow lane. He was quite intoxicated. I offered him a lift home, even though it was only a short distance to his dilapidated hovel.
He was very grateful, and when I dropped him off at the steep, unmade track which led up to his house, he took out his wallet and offered me quite a generous fare. I did not want his money, and told him so, but when I looked into his blue eyes, I saw the kindest I had ever seen. So gentle, but so sad.
From then on, he smiled and waved whenever he saw me. I wish I had got to know him sooner. Unfortunately, not long after we ‘made friends’ he passed away. He had family in another area who came to dispose of the few possessions he had. They tore down his derelict house and built a new one.
However, what they did not do was deal with the many cats he had befriended. And he had quite a few. For months after his death there were cats everywhere, and left to roam free and procreate their offspring became feral.
Six months after his death, a small white cat with tiger patches started frequenting our farm. For a year she was often seen in the surrounding fields, and although I tried to get close to her, she always ran away. She really was quite wild. I asked her to stay, for we had not had a cat around the place since old Peter, the farmer’s cat, had died several years before. Some years, the mice were so abundant that they even nibbled their way into my car. I couldn’t bring myself to kill them. Instead, I left live traps around the place to try to keep the numbers down, especially when they got into the cellar. Whenever I caught one, I would drive some distance away and let it go in the woods.
Cats have no such qualms, and sometimes you just have to let nature do what nature does best. Anyway, the little white cat disappeared around July 2019.
One beautiful afternoon three months later, I was standing on my balcony looking out over the lake, admiring the beauty of the surrounding nature and listening to the calls of birds of prey circling above me, when I heard a tiny miaow. Really tiny. I got my binoculars out and started scanning the trees and grass around the house but could see nothing. I miaowed back, and the cat answered. We spent the afternoon talking to one another.
The next morning, he was still crying, and I was starting to get worried. Where was his mummy? His cries were coming from a small hayloft in the neighbouring field. When we moved here, the hayloft stood in an open meadow, but the man who owned the land had planted Christmas trees all around it. These days, the trees have grown so tall only the roof is visible. I thought I should ask the Christmas Tree man before I went onto his land to find kitty. The gate was locked, and I didn’t want to be in trouble for trespassing. So, I drove down to his farm near the village with my daughter. He told us he hadn’t visited for several months and had no idea whether a family of cats had moved in. He reassured us that there were ways in and out, so the kitten was not trapped. He had no problem with us going to take a look.
It was a struggle to climb over the tall gate. A steep path led up to the hayloft, and behind the building, I miaowed. I got a reply, but there was no cat in sight. Finally, we caught a glimpse of a tiny white kitten, scrabbling around at the base of the barn. We couldn’t reach him as the land was overgrown with nettles. And even if we had been able to get to him, I wasn’t sure that we should take him. What if mummy came back? We had no idea if he had been abandoned, or whether she had been back during the night to feed him. We could only wait.
Later in the afternoon, he was still crying, so we returned, armed with a broom, some food, and water. By the time we arrived, the kitten had disappeared. We ventured into the darkness of the lower floor of the building. The ceiling was low, and cobwebs hung from every beam. In the corner was a crude step ladder leading up to the empty hayloft. My daughter has no fear of spiders or creepy crawlies, so she went first and swept the cobwebs clear. The floor was completely rotten, and as my daughter stepped away from the hatch it creaked and groaned – she was lucky not to fall through. We shone a torch around the space but couldn’t see the kitten. However, just to the right of the hatch there was a panel of wood leaning up against the wall, and when we looked behind, there was kitty, snuggled up in a nest of straw, eyes tightly closed. Again, we wondered whether we should take him, but decided it was still too early. Perhaps mummy was nearby and would be back. We left some water and a little food outside just in case, but I was concerned that it might attract other wildlife, which would not hesitate to have kitten for supper.
The next day was Sunday. When we went to check on him, the kitten was perched high on the beams, still crying, but fairly active. His cries seemed more desperate and there were flies buzzing all around him. He had eaten some of the food, but the plastic cartons we left were not very stable and he had tipped them over. Sunday is sacred here, so with all the shops shut there was no opportunity to buy proper cat bowls and kitten food.
By now, it was clear he had been abandoned, whether because his mother was dead or she didn’t have enough milk, who could say. In any case, he was quite out of reach. Nothing would entice him down. We couldn’t get him from the inside because the floor was so rotten. I told him he could come to live with us, that we would look after him till he was old enough to take care of himself, but the deal was that he would have to lose his special bits. I’m not sure he was happy about that, but the alternative was grim.
Trying to coax him down
First thing on Monday, I called out to him from our balcony. There was no answer. I was really worried. I raced down to the village and picked up kitty milk, pâté food (it was the best I could do, there was no kitten food) and two sturdy bowls. I intended just to leave the food and some water, not expecting to be able to catch him.
At the hayloft, I found him squashed between two beams and much lower down than the day before. He looked asleep. I picked up a long piece of dried plant and stood underneath him and waved the plant around his ears. No response. Nothing. He did not move. He had given up.
At the side of the building, earth was piled up high against the wall. I managed to climb up onto the wall and cling to the beams. I reached up with one hand and stretched – I could just about reach him.
Thank goodness, he was alive!
His mummy had heeded my call for a farm cat and although she could not stay with me, she left her kitten instead.