There’s an old joke that goes, ‘How do you turn a cat into a dog?’
My love of cats has been likened to fanaticism. I’ve been dubbed The Cat Whisperer and accused of manufacturing an over air-conditioned bedroom to resemble a ‘cat-infested igloo’ but still, the answer to the joke, ‘Pour on gasoline, ignite, and Woof!’ makes me grin.
It has to be said though, that cats and fireplaces are not ideal bedfellows. All that flammable fur and ready-made incendiary is a nightmare waiting to happen. Worse then, if your cat suddenly decides that the fireplace is the safest refuge in the house.
I have a theory that once a cat has reached Alpha status among several others, he assumes the responsibility of defending his territory against all comers. Your cat is Tony Soprano. Hostile sorties are his burden to action or preside over and all is fur in love and war. Very good. But where they come unstuck is when the interloper is human. Faced with a six-foot adversary, it’s the Alpha cat who will be the one heading for the farmhouse in upstate New Jersey faster than you can say Cannoli.
Such was the Modus Operandi of Dennis the polydactyl, who having proved himself the champion of the house after a fraught year of battles with Kitten the Incumbent, would sprint to the fireplace as soon as the doorbell rang. His determination, combined with a good dose of panic, was so intractable that nothing could stand in his way – not even a roaring fire. He hesitated for a microsecond before once plunging into the flames and up the chimney, to my horror. Lucky for him it was a gas fire, with fake ‘Hollywood’ logs and I was able to instantly switch it off but never again could we enjoy a fire if visitors were expected.
When I moved him to an apartment that had no fireplace he was forced to make alternative arrangements. They generally included the back of the closet, or in a pinch, the hall cupboard. The marvellous thing about it was he’d worked out the appropriate times to hide. If the phone rang once, it was a social talk, a regular telephone call. If the phone gave two rings it was a call from the front desk of the building to announce visitors to me. Even though it would be a full five minutes before they made it to the front door after negotiating elevators and hallways, Dennis’s finely tuned paranoia made the connection that twice meant eventual strangers and he’d be off.
While renting a house in the Hollywood Hills in 1987, I agreed to cat sit for a passing acquaintance, a single guy called Glen who was going to visit his family in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. His luxuriantly long haired pure white Persian, unsurprisingly called Snowy, was a spoiled and pampered only feline but since my own brood had yet to make the trek out and were sequestered in England I thought it would be nice to have some purr therapy around the house for a few days.
Snowy was picked up from Glen’s high-rise apartment accompanied by miniscule cans of special diet food, multiple grooming implements and an unending selection of favoured toys. Glen was waved off with assurances that Snowy would be treated like a king.
Snowy took to his new surroundings like a duck to the Sahara and after a low slung and rapid reconnaissance of the building opted for rocketing up the chimney as the best defence he could muster in trying circumstances.
He was budging for nothing. He’d found a ledge and was unreachable. Several hours of coaxing with open cans of special diet did nothing to influence his conviction that he was safest where he was and I conceded defeat for the night, hoping that he’d be down in the morning.
He had been down, to wolf the food, but by daybreak was back on his perch. I didn’t ask what his bathroom arrangements had been.
“How is he? Oh, he’s great. Don’t you worry. He’s settled in wonderfully, doesn’t miss you a bit. Has he what? Yes, he’s been playing with all of his toys. Oh yes, he’s had a can every morning and one a night, just like you said…Right! He won’t want to come home at this rate.”
The hell he won’t. Glen was due home the next day, presenting two problems. The first was how to dislodge Snowy from his new address of Chimney, Woodrow Wilson Drive, Los Angeles, 90046. The second was how to explain being given a white cat and returning a jet black one.
Ever practical, I got Dickensian and made my three-year-old child, clad in a plastic sack, stand upright inside the narrow fireplace and rattle a broom in Snowy’s vicinity. Round one to me, although in his hasty evacuation Snowy had trailed a swathe of soot across twenty yards of rented ivory carpeting. Round two went to Snowy from the kitchen sink, who steadfastly, and not without a modicum of violence (and it has to be said, spite) refused to turn anything but a dusty grey.
I can’t say I missed Snowy’s negligible contribution to the household atmosphere when I sped away after delivering him but at least the fireplace was back to being fully functional, albeit with a suspicious trace of eau de catpiss.
Those of you who have read my writing will have quickly deduced that my most marked characteristic is failing to learn from experience and so it was that I involved myself in the disappearance of Monkey.
Monkey was a robust ginger and white tomcat belonging to my friend Melanie who lived high in the winding hills surrounding the Hollywood reservoir. In contrast to being in a fireplace, Monkey had availed himself of a golden opportunity to dash out of the house while tarps were being spread on the carpets before the local chimney sweep arrived.
Mel was beside herself with a worry that is all too familiar if you have ever lost a cat in the hills. Coyotes ensure they do not survive for long.
I trudged the steep hills with her, stuffing missing cat leaflets through mailboxes and stapling his picture to telegraph poles. In desperation we’d even called upon the services of a cat psychic but a week passed and there was no sign of Monkey. Mel was inconsolable.
Then, driving over to comfort her one afternoon through the countrified snaking lanes, there he was, sitting right in front of someone’s garage. Monkey! I’d found him and it was miraculous! There’s a warm inner glow that comes from heroically solving someone’s problem so spectacularly and my mind raced forward to the happy reunion. I hit the brakes and pulled over to the side of the street, hoping against hope that the noise of the car wouldn’t frighten him back into hiding. I left the car running and the door wide open. Monkey regarded me implacably as I edged closer to him, softly calling his name. As soon as I got the feel of fur under my fingertips I grabbed the scruff of his neck, hoisted him in the air and ferried him rapidly to the car, flinging him onto the back seat and shutting the door in one graceful movement.
On arrival at the house I was jubilant but hardly dared to breathe until I got him safely inside. With my hands under his front legs he dangled precariously as I ran but we made it.
“Mel! I found him!”
Melanie stared at the confused and understandably traumatized ginger cat.
“Uh…that’s not Monkey.”
Solemnly I drove the poor animal back to where he’d been minding his own business until he’d been unceremoniously catnapped.
And finally, just a fireplace – no cats this time.
Life at George’s Gothic mansion in Hampstead barely went a week without an invasion from a journalist, a photographer or a film crew and my standard response was to make tea for everyone and discreetly retire to another part of the vaunted house for the duration of whatever was going on. As well as a documentary on his life in general that blocked out around three days a week there were also crews filming for international music shows and the like.
Often they chose the living room as their preferred backdrop, being the most impressive room in the house. The carved oak ceiling is original to the Grade II listed building, designed in 1872, as is the enormous oversized stone fireplace that reaches up to meet it but the hand painted walls depicting delicate antique musical instruments are George’s own addition.
The director of the shoot had the idea to position an ornately carved chair in front of the imposing fireplace and interview George sitting on it.
However, not being a fireplace that generally sees a lot of use, instead of a grate or a guard the cavernous interior housed a giant flat screen TV. The pair of mossy green couches, the only other furniture in the room, faced the TV in the fireplace and it was from the couches we would watch Eggheads or Question Time, George yelling comments from one, me from the other.
Only a minor annoyance, we managed to unplug the cables and shift the TV to one side, replacing it with the chair, and the interview proceeded with no further ado. Fortunately there were plenty of hands to help with putting the heavy flat screen back when they were done.
Some months later I am alone in the house while George is fulfilling tour duties in South America. I see the documentary is due to be aired and I think to myself, oh, I’ll watch that.
On it comes. However, I am now in George’s living room, watching George who isn’t in the living room, but is on the television (which is back in the fireplace) sat on a chair in the fireplace.
He is in the fireplace in the fireplace.
There’s only one response to that kind of slow-motion horror story sort of parallel universe and you’ll be proud that I executed it. I ran from the room screaming. Thank GOD he wasn’t there. I sincerely feel my head would have exploded.
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