We moved into a rented house in the heart of Mangalore during the last week of 2008, expecting a quiet New Year’s Eve. At dusk, I heard a kitten mewing faintly from somewhere outside the house. I followed the sound and found her under the cattle trap at the gate. I put my hand on the ground, flat, palm up. She climbed onto my palm and curled up and began to purr. I didn’t fancy having a cat in the house, but that purr was irresistible. I took her into the house and she made herself at home, despite the presence of our dachshunds, Ben, who was elderly and Celine, middle-aged.
We named her Kitkat, and spent the first few days of the new year worrying that the dogs would attack her: all that New Year’s Eve, I was awake guarding her.
She spent the first week of her life with us in a box where the dogs couldn’t get at her. When she emerged, though, it was to an enthusiastic welcome from Celine, and stolid silence from Ben. We needn’t have worried, after all.
She spent hours watching TV. When the washing machine, a front-loader, was on, she stared at the the clothes turning in the circular window in the door, occasionally pawing at the spinning clothes. Other times, she and Celine harried each other across the living room, KitKat making up for her lack of size and strength by ducking into places Celine couldn’t reach.
By the end of March, she was big enough to accompany us on our walks to a nearby coconut plantation where the animals roamed while we sat on a low wall, enjoying the breeze. Unlike the dogs, though, she seemed ashamed of being seen in our company, so she kept a distance of a few dozen metres when we stepped out of the house. When we returned, she’d wait behind a gatepost or on top of a low wall to pounce on Celine, after which they’d brawl all the way to the front door.
On warm summer nights when turned on the airconditioner, she disappeared. Sometimes she’d return only after a couple of days: she’d be tired and dirty and groom herself carefully before going to sleep on one of our beds.
She was unlike other cats. She was clumsy, for one, and occasionally misjudged a jump and fell into the gutter, where she pretended – as cats do – that she’d wanted to fall in the gutter. Another time, partly because of my clumsiness, she survived a fall from the first floor of the house and sat still for a tense hour or two before returning to normal.
The years passed. Ben died, and we acquired another dog, Fudge, from an animal shelter. In 2016, a black kitten, perhaps a month or two old, insisted on joining the menagerie, and we named him Bean. Sociable and boisterous, Bean quickly figured out the two most important things in his life: that the main food source was the fridge, and the dogs were friendly. He was a male and went walkabout from time to time, coming back proudly wearing wounds that proclaimed he’d been in a fight. He’d announce his return pacing the kitchen floor, mewing raucously in front of the fridge until someone fed him.
Growing up among dogs changed KitKat. Bean stuck to his territory rather than his people, but KitKat stayed with us when we shifted to our own house by the beach. At the new house, she spent a few days exploring her territory, then settled into a daily routine built around half-a-dozen generous meals a day.
A nearby vet came home to give the animals their annual shots for rabies, and, like the dogs, KitKat quickly figured out that he was someone to avoid. When the dogs saw his car approach, they’d flee, and KitKat soon learned to follow their lead.
In the middle of February, though, soon after she turned thirteen, she turned up for breakfast one morning with her head cocked one side. She was unwell, and I called our friendly vet, who said it was probably vertigo, and gave me some medication for her.
We gave her the medicines and a couple of days later she seemed all right. But then, she developed a limp. "Probably osteoarthritis," said the vet, and gave us more medicine. "Age related," he added, but that we already knew.
The limp came and went, and she spent much of her time snoozing, going out by day to lie on a wall in the sunshine. By now, I think she knew that her days were numbered. Her appetite dwindled, then disappeared. She began to hide on sunshades where we couldn’t find her easily. And then, on the evening of March 24th, she disappeared. We looked in all her regular hiding places but she wasn’t there. We thought she had wandered off to die in peace, as cats do, and, by Saturday we had given up.
Sunday morning she turned up in a neighbour’s yard. She thin and weak and dehydrated, her fur unkempt. I laid her on her favourite cushion, where she refused food, sipped water, and occasionally moved a few steps. She died at noon on Tuesday the 29th, beneath the sofa where she used to watch TV with my wife. When I wrapped her up for burial, it struck me that for such a tiny creature, she left a large hole in our lives.
My wife plants flowers on the graves of all our pets. Ben gives us white roses, and Celine pink. Now I wait to see what colour KitKat gives us.