I’m glad we found something to laugh at on the morning I found our cat Buster, dead. I watched my husband pick him up, both his and the cats limbs as stiff as cardboard. The question is “How do you casually take a dead cat to the vets when there is only a towel to cover him but no box to put him in?”
“You look as if you’re carrying a piñata to a children’s party,” I said. In the car, we tried to move Buster’s rigid tail so that the door would not close on it. When we arrived at the vets the towel kept slipping to reveal his upright head and cloudy eyes. We didn’t want to scare any small children, so I walked in front trying to mask the view.
Of course, earlier I wasn’t laughing. I was looking for Buster in a nonchalant kind of way, barely looking at all really because I didn’t think he was missing. We’d seen him late the night before, but he hadn’t come in for breakfast. It wasn’t unusual though for he often strolled the streets, followed us to friends’ houses, sidled up to children walking to or from school, leaving traces of his ginger hair on their static black school uniform trousers as he brushed past. Most were happy to see Buster, and bent down to give him a stroke. Sometimes, he would see if his girlfriend (the black and white ball of fluff from number 11), was around. Late at night she would often slink through our catflap to say hi and share some of Buster’s food. A midnight snack for lovers.
And yet, there was Buster, out cold in a shallow puddle. At first I thought he was a fox. His ruffled up coat did not make me think of our handsome, gleaming cat. He was wet all over, spattered in mud; little matted areas of fur made him look unkempt, more dark and more wild. Of course, when I took a step further to inspect his face it was Buster. He had died with his tongue sticking out which I’m sure would have displeased him, because he was a very proud cat who had not once done anything ungainly (although the children often blamed him for their silent farts at the dinner table).
I always think that humans in coffins at funerals look decidedly tiny, much smaller than the alive person. But Buster looked enormous. I cried very loudly. Afterwards, when I told people that he looked huge when dead, they said, “But he was massive when he was alive!” It is true that Buster was known for his big bottom, but he was small compared to say, a tiger. Lying there motionless, he looked very much like a fox.
The neighbour, somebody I’d only said hi to on a couple of occasions, came out of his front door, saw me bawling, and walked over. He bent down and ruffled Buster’s fur, saying, “Poor little man.” He seemed so at ease and I immediately asked if he would help me take Buster inside because I didn’t know how to pick him up. I went into the house to fetch something and at first I thought “A shovel!” But Buster was all in one piece, so a towel would do. How useless and squeamish I am with things like death, and how nice to be able to call on somebody more useful.
Buster was placed on the kitchen floor and lay there for a good couple of hours before my husband came home. I called the vet, told her there were no obvious wounds, then sat looking at him, almost expecting his little ribcage to start rising and falling. I thought it would be nice to sketch him, as my sister might, but then I remembered I can’t draw for toffee. We got Buster when our middle child was a few months old. In the parade of the rescue cats that we were shown, we knew when we’d found our cat. Of course, we bypassed the ones who looked mean, or incontinent, or too much like Hitler.
Buster was a hedonist, it’s true, but what else is there to do when you’re a cat and a useless catcher of mice? He would lie atop freshly laundered, folded clothes, leaving tufts of fluff in his wake. I hoovered lots, but to no avail. There was one health-visitor who stayed rather too long one day (and who also suggested that I was breast-feeding my four-day-old-baby too much) and when she stood up from a sofa that Buster had been sleeping on, the seat of her black trousers was covered in fur. I had visions of me rolling one of those strange sticky clothes de-fluffers up and down her backside, but decided that would be weird. So I just said goodbye and off she walked with a hairy bottom.
I could go on and on about how wonderful Buster was, but the reason he was so great really, was because you hardly noticed he was there. He moved about like a much-loved song in the air, coming in and out of rooms where he was nearly always welcome. He never once directed his claws at a small child who chose to pull his tail; he would simply slide away to a quieter spot. He often sat on my husband’s chest in bed, like a paperweight holding down fragile paper. My husband said stroking him was the best therapy of all.
The children have grown up with him. When I told them Buster was dead, the youngest asked, “Can I see a picture of him killed?” and then, “Do cats blink?” (to which I strangely didn’t know the answer). The eldest felt guilty that she’d shooed him out of her room the day before he died. The middle child just cried and cried and I just hugged and hugged him. I do distinctly remember a friend of mine saying that childhood pets were a good thing because “they teach children how to grieve.” And here we were, ten years after Buster entered our lives, dealing with that very grief.
I had lots of pets as a child but I can’t remember their deaths affecting me much. Humans, yes, but animals, no. And oh how I cackled like a cold-hearted witch when my best friend once recalled how he had given Peanut – a kitten that belonged to his father, who collected cats like medals – mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that had failed. I excuse myself now because at the time I was a very mean teenager. The thought of my best friend’s fleshy lips pressed against the tiny line of Peanut’s cat lip that was probably smaller than a bird’s, trying to breath life into the little animal, seemed very amusing then. And we were stoned.
But my best friend was upset, and since finding Buster the way I did, I want to tell him that I’m sorry because I get it now. I’ve never been what you would call a fan of cats, but most who met Buster became a fan of him.