Whispers spread in the world of cats that bring the strays to our doorstep
A cuddly Christmas gift done up with a bow was dumped in one of our bitterest winters, writes Miriam O'Callaghan
We should have called him Radium 226. This black kitten in the black night, crouched by the rickety iron gate with the red hollow heart, betrayed only by the luminous stripe between his eyes, a single snowy leg.
He arrived on the underground railroad of strays, orphans, abandonees. That lung-busting winter's night, the tiny ball of him seemed content. Neither his cats' eyes nor earlier travellers' tales had deceived him. There was, indeed, such a refuge and now he had found it: the sign on the gate read MUGS.
Since he looked so serious in his black and white, tending to avoid the world by day, we called him Marcel Proust.
Over the weeks, he grew into his name, proving intriguing and loyal. Since we saw him only at night, we worried he was really Six Dinner Sid, the cat who goes from neighbour to neighbour in Pythagoras Place, getting his favourite meal at each. If so, a cat war could ensue. As an observer of open hostilities in Sandymount 25 years ago, I was keen to avoid them.
Over the weeks, Marcel Proust lost his gaunt look, regrew missing fur, got not much bigger but a whole lot braver. Play and cuddles were not only allowed, they were sought. Yet, true to his name, he remained 'delicate and ambiguous'. As we planned to test, vaccinate, micro-chip and sterilise him, the depths of that delicateness and ambiguity were revealed. Aged five months, Marcel Proust was pregnant. Heavily.
One day, around peak waddle, she waved her plumy tail at her birthing box and vanished. Three nights, not a trace. Our long-suffering, kind and wonderful Pete the Vet offered advice from 2,000km away. Check gardens, sheds, garages. She would be within 100 metres, in her chosen, secluded birthing spot.
As usual, Pete was right. As I searched, calling her name in the habitual major third, she barrelled from a derelict greenhouse. But there was neither trapping nor persuading this usually biddable creature.
To be culturally inclusive about it, she had picked her Bethlehem, now the mountain would have to go to Mohammed. Three times a day, then, there was the trek to feed and comfort her. Then, at 7am one Saturday, as the Queen was gift-wrapping the title Duchess of Sussex for Meghan Markle and Bishop Michael Curry made last-minute adjustments to his sermon, Marcel Proust staggered from the greenhouse all giddy, glistening, trailing, smelling of something between deli-meat and a slaughterhouse.
She was a mother.
For the next month, the thrice-daily vigil continued. Each time, for 30 minutes, I would sit on the grass and Marcel Proust would stretch along my leg, head in my lap, the two of us reading each other's thoughts, mother to mother. "Yes, I know you're meant to be researching this project of yours, not cat minding, and the months you booked for it are flying, but I am grateful, you know. And remember that rabies shot for when you take me home." Her English, like her mothering, is impeccable.
In the greenhouse were three kittens. Two males and a female lying fite fuaite on the sole soft surface: a large grey gardening glove. Suddenly, the absentee neighbour decided he was doing a clear-out, rotavating the garden, kittens, cat or no. Pete the Vet said GO! On Bloomsday, my son made a mercy dash, doing a plie on a plank, hoisting a disintegrating dining table with one hand, the boys Bruno (black with a thunder-cloud chest) and Graham White (yes, grey and white) in the other. Tiger Amelie had to be extracted from a cupboard, 1950s deluxe. They came home to clean, soft beds, all four collapsing into the comfort like pros. As I closed the door of the old laundry, I wondered if out of the corner of their eye, they too, would catch the long, thin, misty woman with the blue-grey face and plaited blonde hair?
Now Bruno has begun an extended life of luxury with his new human mom. Graham White and Amelie will leave together for their new family shortly.
But as we pack their toys, wash their favourite blankies, another abandoned cat, this time a tortoiseshell, arrives.
She is coughing, sneezing, lethargic, her breathing noisy, fast and laboured. But for all her distress, she is gentle, easily handled, foregoes feeding for rubs. She is five, maybe six. She is also deaf, underweight, dehydrated, malnourished. Bradycardia, acute infection and chronic inflammation send her to hospital for three nights. Throughout her aggressive tests and treatment she remains a darling cat, loved by staff, a sweet, thankful soul.
For the summer then, instead of burying myself in the Medici and the air-conditioned grottoes of the Biblioteca Nazionale and the Archivio di Stato, I've spent my borrowed time feeding, taming, litter-training, bathing, brushing, spraying, spaying, dosing with antibiotics and antivirals, treating against fleas, ticks, flies, mosquitoes. Should have gone the whole 1970s Ranizole hog, dosing for sarcoptic mange-mite, sucking ticks, lice, hoose, liver fluke, lungworm and roundworm. The tortoisehell is nebulised with steroids twice a day. Really.
Italians were notorious for abandoning pets in the annual exodus al mare. Things have improved in recent years; animal neglect is punishable by law. But still, every summer, too many dogs fend for themselves or are tied up on terraces or in yards, depending on the kindness of strangers. Too many family cats are driven to the near countryside, car doors open, out they go.
Apart from the imagined MUGS and the map passed whisker to whisker, how the two cats chose us is a mystery. Both had been owned. Neither was micro-chipped. Perhaps they were devotees of Baudelaire, believing in and exercising the right to disappear. All the same, I suspect Marcel Proust was a Christmas present in a bow, dumped shortly after the wrapping in one of the bitterest winters on record.
So this week, in 38 degrees, I melt on terracotta steps spritzing five necks, 20 paw-pads - assorted pink, grey and black - cooling the cats in quarantined groups of one, two and two. My own cat, a six-kilo muscular tiger with a vaguely dodgy hip and a lip for cheese, cake and hot-buttered scones, wouldn't be caught dead in such a pose or transient company. Abandonees come and go. He's the boss - the One - and he knows it.
But while we lavished love on these refugee animals, the new Minister for the Interior, Matteo Salvini, was closing the ports to humans, rousing rabble, going all Caesar Augustus in his try-on census of non-Italian Roma, invoking Mussolini with one breath, the Madonna with another. We know all about the Resistance. But we know, too, of the daily attacks on migrants, that Lega supporters can be found in the most unexpected places. Fascism is leaking out. This time not to the ring of jackboots but to the rhythm of the rosary, the tap of a tweet. Us not Them. Italy, Austria, Hungary First.
I take a sanity break from the cats, go to see my sister and her boys in Cortona, boarding the train at platform 16. From here, Italy's Jews and other enemies of the people were transported for extermination. As we jolt then roll out of the station, I look out at the apartments, houses. On that balcony did a Nazi-orphaned cat wait for its owner? At this junction, did somebody catch a last glimpse of a black, red or striped familiar?
Zyklon B, hydrogen cyanide, was a pesticide. In Europe and America, how will the new nationalists treat the latest "infestation"?