Farewell to Jiffy Cat
In 2015 we adopted a couple rescue kittens who we christened Mortimer and Margot, fulfilling a promise we had made to ourselves ever since we had taken out a mortgage on our first home. Conversations had often turned to the subject of pets during preceding months, specifically cat ownership, after our last cat, Jiffy, who had succeeded in melting our hearts after presenting herself in a sorry looking state at the back door of our previous rental property. Neighbourly enquiries were made, revealing that she belonged to the young couple next door who, we learned, had essentially abandoned their aging cat in favour a younger model. This was all rather heart-breaking, and the disgusting behaviour of our neighbours only confirmed that henceforth we would care for this neglected old lady.
Jiffy wasn’t her original name, which were later told had been chosen by next door’s tearabout toddlers and was something horrendously cloying like “Starlight Sparkle Princess”, and besides, we wanted to rename her now that she was free from the torments of this past life. With it being late February and the time of the Six Nations rugby tournament, an event of some significance in our household, we settled on Jiffy, the affectionate nickname of Welsh rugby legend and sports commentator a Jonathan Davies OBE. I’m not entirely sure why we fell upon this name as a fitting moniker for the cat formerly known as Starlight Sparkle Princess, perhaps because of the delicious irony of applying a name redolent of darting speed and agility to a creaky old pussycat who could sit motionless for hours held a certain comic appeal. These impenetrable, coma-like episodes of slumber were so profound that one of us would often find ourselves on reaching over to jiffy’s favourite spot on the sofa to check if she was in fact still drawing breath.
Jiffy was clearly well into her dotage when she came to live us with although we didn’t realise just how advanced she was until our first trip to the vet which not only revealed her true gender (we had initially believed Jiffybug to be a male), but she was likely somewhere around fifteen years of age, an impressive innings for a feline by any measure. When the time came to move to another rental property, we naturally brought her with us. It did feel cruel to take her away from what must have been familiar territory, even if she had been forced to spend most of her time hiding in a hedge, away from the screeching young boys next door and the large dogs that seemed to encircle our little terrace. Those first few days in the new house would have posed a monumental challenge for the old girl, with its new smells, alien geography and the additional humiliation of having been kidnapped and taken there by force. To reduce this initial trauma, we agreed that Deborah should go on ahead with Jiffy so that her jangling nerves wouldn't by subjected to the ruckus of moving day, and give her a chance to acclimatise on her own terms.
That first night she followed Deborah from room to room, howling up a storm every time a bathroom trip forced a momentary interruption in continuity. The initial plan had been to give Jiff’s control a room, replete with cosy looking blankets and places to hide, but evidently all she wanted was to be as close as physically possible to Debbie, even if this meant that they both had to sleep downstairs since it would be some time before Jiffy would muster the courage to tackle the stairs.
In those early days we were always on hand with an offering of tuna fish or similarly appealing treat, encouraging Jiffs to gradually venture deeper into the house. Over time she began to make fleeting appearances at her food bowl or otherwise caught loitering behind a chair, only to vanish if someone happened to blink too loudly. All of this pointed to a deep set anxiety on her part, most likely the consequence of living with the kind of uncaring arseholes who will cast their aging pet aside with malicious disregard for its wellbeing. It still makes me mad now just thinking about it. They stopped feeding her, stopped letting her into the house, and simply shut her out, hoping that she should disappear from their lives. Those bastards! When you spend time living with an animal you start to see their personality emerge, their quirks, anxieties, preferences and general weirdness. Jiffy’s signature move was called The Paw of Love, a gesture that involved her sidling up beside you, fixing you with a mesmeric unblinking look and then gently - ever-so-gently - placing a paw, deliberately but delicately, on your knee or hand indicating that the time had come for more “a-fussings” as we called them. This would continue for as many rounds as she could stand as great handfuls of loose cat adhered itself to your trousers.
A behavioural psychologist might furrow their brow at this simpleminded anthropomorphism, dismissing Jiffy’s coy affections as learned behaviour and a product of unintentional Pavlovian conditioning on our part. I don’t buy this mean spiritedness, however, and remain stalwart in my view that whatever the underlying cognitive mechanisms made such moments of inter species kinship possible, I will always choose to interpret it as a form of communication. Every pet owner knows this to be true, but still there are those who like to belittle these little moments of intimacy. About a year after moving we took Jiffy for an annual check-up, which is when we learned that her teeth needed cleaning, which struck me as odd sort of evolutionary oversight.
"How are they supposed to do that in the wild?" I asked, as the vet poked about in Jiffy's mouth.
"They eat mice and other things with tiny bones that help to keep the plaque at bay," came the answer.
Jiffy's hunting days were well behind her, and only that morning we had both watched with some amusement as a robin had bounded up and down in front on Jiff's as she basked in her favourite sunning spot in the garden. The reason for the visit was that we had noticed Jiffy had been increasingly neglectful of her daily grooming regimen, which meant we had to step in with the brush to prevent her coat forming into tight little knots. After an overnight stay at the vet’s Jiffy returned us with renewed vigour and, or so we liked to imagine, a winning Colgate smile, and for a while seemed more energetic, even if we suspected this might have been a performance on her part to dissuade us from making any subsequent appointments. Months went by and all seemed well until one morning when coming down for breakfast we found her hunkered awkwardly in a corner, head bowed, her body tense, clearly in some distress.
After carefully decanting her into a carrier we rushed her to the vet who would announce that her kidneys were failing and that we had a difficult decision to make. Any pet owner who has found themselves in this awful situation will know the pain of having to decide whether to euthanise their furry companion, whose mere presence in a room brings a sense of comfort and reassurance. It is a form of cohabitation in which different worlds of experience overlay and spill into each other in surprising ways, and a shared existence of any kind can be intensely meaningful. Stroking Jiffy’s fur as the veterinarian administered the fatal shot I felt her breathing slow and then stop altogether, her body still deceptively warm, and we both started to sob. It was a kindness, the vet assured us, and were he in our place he would do the same, and had done so only recently with his cat of sixteen years. Even with these words of comfort the chilly clinical setting only made me feel ashamed that this little life had ever known cruelty at the hands of human beings. The two years or so we had spent together suddenly seemed woefully short.
We opted not to take her remains with us, which I now regret, as I would have liked to have laid her to rest somewhere pleasant in one of the overgrown corners of the garden, but at the time it felt right to say our goodbyes and take whatever closure was on offer. Looking back now, I think we both just wanted to escape that foul smelling room, the hot air permanently soured by the urine of panicked critters who find themselves hoisted onto the thick rubber mat of the vet's inspection table. As we were about to leave I reached out and gave her coat one more affectionate ruffle and then quickly turned on my heel and strode out of there. Once back in the car we both sat for a few minutes in a raw, stunned silence.
I’m glad that Jiffy found us when she did and that we were able to care for her in what were the last couple of years of her life. It still pains me to think about how she was abandoned, and how many other once beloved family pets find themselves cast out.
Being a big softie I can't even stand to watch those animal rescue programmes, especially after I chanced upon one episode while channel hopping in which a puppy had been strung up from a light fitting and left to die in an abandoned house. Animals are incapable of evil and yet it does seem to be a specialism of our species. The arrival of Margot and Mortimer in 2015 was therefore a welcome development and I have so enjoyed getting to know these little maniacs. In 2020 the arrival of COVID-19 and the various lockdowns have made me hyper aware of the simple joy of living with cats, masters of comfort that they are. There’s something about watching a sleeping cat that makes feel embarrassed that I’ve ever allowed stress to enter my days, and since about June Mags has started to perform the Paw of Love, which was an unexpected joy during troubled times.
I've also come to imagine that our cats view us not has human beings, for they have no such concept, but as giant, useless, incomprehensible cats who have the uniquely valuable quality of proving them with food on demand. I’m sure that is why they will occasionally release a live mouse into the house and then feign complete indifference as we scramble about with tea towels and a torch trying to capture the poor creature. Having witnessed our ineffectualness, I can only assume that they are training us to be better cats.