I should have sensed something was amiss when Bruce’s answering machine first prompted me to “leave a message for Bruce and Bert”. ‘Oh, he has a housemate …’ I thought innocently.
Bert was not a housemate per se, but Bruce’s brown Burmese cat. Needless to say, the cat that made the bi-line on the answering machine struggled to come to terms with having to share his devoted and permissive, albeit somewhat absent owner with me, the new girlfriend. Bert had always had free reign over Bruce’s bachelor pad and the neighbourhood. Stories still abound at the local hairdresser that Bert was famous for slinking into random houses and taking naps on stranger’s beds, like a four-legged Don Juan.
Once I arrived on the scene, Bert was no longer allowed to share the bed, let alone the pillow, and the cat door – an open study window – was now firmly shut to save the local bird-life. In the first tender months of our blossoming love affair, our nights were filled with the percussive noise of a 5kg feline throwing his body against the closed bedroom door. He never meowed; meowing was too obvious for this cool customer. By day, Bert lurked on the stair banister, launching random ankle raids as I walked by, wrapping his paws and teeth around my legs. ‘Keep away’, the bites said. ‘He’s MINE!’
A few times we let down our guard and Bert found his way into the bedroom. Each time, I awoke with a start; “What is THAT?!”
“Oh, that’s just Bert. He likes to be under the covers.”
I could feel his long body stretched flat beneath the covers, in between us, like fresh road kill.
“But won’t he be suffocated?” I asked, prodding him to make sure he was still breathing. He was as floppy and warm as a newborn lamb.
“No. He likes it. He’ll sleep on your head if you let him.”
He was like Norman Bates with fur. If anyone had attachment issues, it was Bert.
When we moved out of the bachelor pad and into neutral territory – our current family home – we both brought live baggage into the relationship. A door kept Bert and my dog Emma apart until we could figure out some kind of plan to introduce our pets to each other. We sought specialist advice from the vet, who prescribed anti-depressants for both animals, a kind of Pet Prozac. Bruce and I held supervised visits in the sunroom, which involved raised hackles, low growls and protective arm wear. Bert hopped around the room like a shadow puppet, his brown tail as stiff as an exclamation mark. If I had posed a threat to his territory, then Emma was like a Russian tank rolling in from the east.
Gradually, the supervised visits became longer. The two pets became slightly indifferent to one another, and we decided slight indifference was a solid enough foundation on which to build our new life.
And then we had a baby, and the whole fruit basket was upturned again.
Our son’s baby album is filled with pictures that have been photo-bombed by the cat. Each child we’ve welcomed into the house has strangely coincided with a spate of trips to the vet: a strange rash, an infected claw, a mysterious limp. By the arrival of our third child I began to wonder if Bert was suffering from an animal version of Munchausen syndrome, making himself sick for the sake of attention, a non-verbal cry of “What about ME?!” He took to napping in the baby capsule in the car, and every now and then we’d put the baby down in the cot only to realise Bert was already sleeping there.
Days before I was due to give birth to our eldest son, Bert sustained a mysterious injury and was required to wear a plastic bucket over his head for several weeks. My initial memories of motherhood include trying to breastfeed a newborn while navigating some lap real estate for a cat wearing a bucket.
I began to miss the bucket the moment Bert began to anxiously lick the hair from his belly, a spot that is now as hairless as the baby we brought home from hospital. The vet swears it’s fleas, but no amount of flea treatment has curbed the obsessive grooming. Or the bowl checking. Or the poos strategically deposited next to the litter tray by our resentful pet.
Now in his twilight years, Bert has taken to sharing the pillow of our 4-year-old middle son, Hamish being the only family member not only willing, but keen, to fall asleep smothered by Bert’s octopus-like grip. Nose to nose with Hamish, it seems the apples on the cart have come to rest once again. Unless of course we have another child or take in another pet, but I don’t think we could afford the vet bills.
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