Tuesday, 1 February 2011

On Our Beautiful Bean

I can’t actually remember what I was doing on 1st February 1994. If it was a weekend day I was probably getting up late, sitting with a cup of tea in my dressing gown, and then settling down to work on the manuscript of Hans Keller’s book on the Mendelssohn violin concerto, which I was editing at the time. If it was a weekday I probably took the train into London from my flat in Dulwich and spent the day in College – probably at a seminar, almost certainly playing my viola in some sort of workshop, maybe taking the tube up to the Academy for a viola lesson.

I was certainly oblivious to an event taking place in Chicago, USA, which was to have a significant impact on my life, for several years, over a decade later!

A tiny white kitten was born that day. I don’t know the exact circumstances of her birth, or how many were in the litter, or even what her parents were like, but I do know that she was separated from her mother very early and taken to the “animal pound” in Chicago. From there she was adopted by a young academic who was just starting out in a career studying Chinese manuscripts, a career which would take him all over the world. He named the kitten Athena.

Athena and the young academic became inseparable. She travelled all over the USA with him – in a soft “sports bag” type cat carrier in the cabin on internal flights, and she lived, as I believe many cats do in the States, entirely indoors. From Chicago the pair moved first to San Francisco, and then to Maine. I can’t really imagine what her life was like in these days, since I’ve never actually been to America and my entire perception of the place is based on television programmes!

When Athena was 11 years old, the young academic took up a three-year position as a research worker in the Oriental Studies department at Oxford University. Obviously, since she was so loved, Athena came to join him in Oxford. She travelled from the States on a Virgin Atlantic plane and, having had rabies jabs and so on, came into the country via the animal reception centre at Heathrow airport. She had a giant cage for the flight, known as “Sky Kennel”.

However, events then transpired to change her life forever. The young academic had married and his wife had recently given birth to their first child. This child, it turns out, was catastrophically allergic to Athena – just being in the same room as her brought the baby out in hives and caused it breathing difficulties. Having brought her over from the States, the young academic was now in a position where he could no longer keep his beloved cat, now over 11 years old, rather overweight from years of “soft love” and only just avoiding insulin injections as a result of type 2 diabetes.

So, as happens in many academic departments, he sent a circular e-mail round to the whole department. This one was entitled “New home required for old cat”.

At the time, the Wonderspouse and I had been married for just over 3 years, and were going through the agonies of infertility and realizing that we were unable to have children. We already had two cats, and the plan had been to add more humans to the family, but despite many hospital visits and much trying, it was becoming obvious that the human tally of our family was stubbornly stuck at two, so we started thinking that maybe if we couldn’t have a baby, we’d have a couple of kittens instead and lavish all the spare love we had going on them.

However, the circular e-mail that the Wonderspouse read at work one day put paid to the kittens idea. He arrived home from work one evening with a palm-top computer with a picture of a pure white, rather stout old cat, with, rather bewitchingly, one blue eye and one green eye. He explained her situation, and, of course, I said we must take her!

I set about cleaning out our utility room (the only room downstairs in our house with a door – it’s rather open plan here) to try to make it smell of our other two cats as little as possible and to turn it into Athena’s own personal home. Knowing that the young academic didn’t have a car, I offered to go and collect her from Oxford, but he was very keen to see where she would be living so decided to hire a car for the day and bring her to our house himself.

The day she arrived I tried very hard to hide my astonishment at the amount of paraphernalia she had with her. I can honestly say that I’ve NEVER known a cat with so much stuff. She had three carriers – her “normal” one, her soft “sports bag” type one and the giant “sky kennel”. She had bowls, tins of some sort of posh catfood, packets of crunchies, blankets, towels, a scarf, her own litterbox and scratch post, her own brush, and many many toys – including a “Virgin” mouse she’d been given on the flight over, and an old sock which had been turned into a mouse. This last was her favourite thing of all – we called him Mr Black Sock Mouse!

The young academic was absolutely delighted when he saw where she would be living and ever so pleased to see that she had her own room. This would be an essential part of the “introduction” process. Since we already had two cats and Athena had not met another cat since the day she was born we knew we’d have to take things very slowly as far as everybody meeting each other was concerned. Eventually, once she’d settled down in her new quarters, she was handed over to us and the human she’d been with all her life said goodbye to her and drove off, tears in his eyes.

Then began the “getting to know you” process! It wasn’t easy!

In those days the Wonderspouse used to leave his study door open, and, the moment we first opened the utility door to say hello to the new member of the family she made her escape and headed upstairs, straight under his desk. No amount of cajoling or bullying would make her come out – she wasn’t enticed by food, nor was she “persuaded” by a water pistol. She just sat there, swore and hissed at us, and went for us with her claws if we got too close. She then did a large poo under the Wonderspouse’s desk, and, once she emerged and we managed to get her back in the utility (via her catbox), he decided he’d keep his door shut in future.

She was clearly overweight and overfed, and in order to try to get her diabetes under control we embarked on a strict regime of diet and exercise. No more crunchies left for “a volonte” snacking, no more sitting around all day. She got her two regular meals each day, and she and I got into a routine where I’d carry her to the bottom of the stairs up to 20 times a day, then go and sit at the top (at first with the reward of a single cat crunchie, and, as we began to bond, just a cuddle and a lot of fuss). In this way, over many many months, with much hard work, her weight reduced from 6kg to around 4kg, which the vet declared was a healthy weight. We noticed a change in her behaviour – she was livelier and more active. Wonderful.

We did experiment with letting her outside. At first we took her round the garden in our arms, then on a harness, letting her explore. After a week or so we let her out on her own. It was at that point she went missing! And it was winter!!!

Following a sleepless night, we put up posters all round the village – she certainly became well-known. The Wonderspouse worried that he’d have to give up his job – how could he go into work, face her former human and admit that we’d lost her! The next evening we had fish for supper, and spread most of it on the front lawn in the hope of enticing her back.

Then we heard a knock on the door – she’d tried to go to our next-door neighbour’s house. We exchanged phone numbers just in case, so we wouldn’t have to open doors and distract her. Eventually we got the phone call we wanted “the cat is in the house”! I went round with Athena’s box, and there was a joyful homecoming, complete with big meal (she was hungry) and lots of cuddles and purrs! Phew!

And so it was, that the bad-tempered stout cat became a treasured member of the family. A few months later we rehomed another elderly cat, Pebbles, from my cousin, who was moving to New Zealand. They didn’t exactly become “friends”, but were a couple of old ladies together – they both lived indoors too. In fact, when Athena died, Pebbles (@EbblePeb) became very dejected and bereft until Smudge and Dexter arrived shortly afterwards.

Since I was at home when Athena arrived, she and I bonded very strongly. She became very much “my” cat (in as much as any cat “belongs” to any person). She was also my “baby substitute”, and with her white fur, constant “crying” (she was part-Siamese), regular production of furballs and need for attention, she did a pretty good job!

She was very VERY loud in her “calling for attention”, and talked constantly. We had to put up a barricade to stop her getting to our bedroom door because she woke us up at 4 in the morning on such a regular basis. We could hear her yowling from anywhere in the house, and I’m certain the neighbours must have thought we were committing murder, the screaming noises she made when she was picked up.

She was always very nervous about being picked up, no matter how many times we pointed out to her that we had 70 years of cat-holding experience between the two of us. She loved to sit with her front paws wrapped around our shoulders though, which was terribly terribly cute. She also dribbled a bit, even after I had her teeth descaled and sorted out!

She was also very very funny! She loved being brushed and would jump onto “her” chair in the kitchen the minute I picked up the brush. She and Felix used to chase each other up and down the sitting room – him outside on the terrace, her inside, running along by the windows. They could do lap after lap this way – and it was a great way for them both to get exercise.

She also continued to be naughty! One morning we came downstairs and were alarmed to see redness on her neck – closer inspection revealed that she wasn’t actually bleeding, but covered in tomato sauce from last night’s spaghetti bolognaise! Another day we couldn’t work out why her ears had suddenly turned very yellow – jaundice? liver disease? no, just the turmeric from last night’s curry! When you’re pure white you can’t get away with these things!!!

Her other seriously beautiful feature was her eyes. She was an “odd-eyed” white cat – one blue eye that glowed red in the dark, one yellow eye that glowed green in the dark. When we shone a light the length of the darkened sitting room it really was like looking at the side of a motorway! Many people asked if she was deaf, because many white cats are – I discovered that it is those with two blue eyes who are often deaf – Athena’s yellow eye ensured that she could hear!

Like all cats in our house, she acquired a nickname, one connected either to her name or one of her characteristics. She became “The Bean” very early on (from Athena-Beana), and the name stuck. Like all cats the world over she had some crazy habits – she’d “help” with almost anything given the chance, and if she wanted attention would paw at our legs until we took notice – on the occasions we were wearing loose trousers this could result in them being pulled down as she was so forceful. She also ate string, tinsel, ribbon and so on – we had to be careful not to leave any such things around – a lesson we learnt after the first Christmas when she ate the tinsel and then left sparkly furballs all over the house!

We knew she wasn’t young when we took her on, and she was never in great health, but we were very surprised by how she thrived when she came to live with us. Her fur was the softest you can possibly imagine, and the times I snuggled my face between her ears were many and wonderful. I remember saying, which she got to about 15, that I would really miss her when she went, and as she got older we treasured every moment we spent with her.

It became clear in July last year that she wasn’t well. My blipfoto pictures of 16 July, 30 July, 1 August, and, lastly, 5 August, tell the story of her final days, which I won’t retype here because thinking about those days still brings a tear to my eyes.

The day she died I changed my facebook and twitter profile pictures to a picture of her. I haven’t changed them back since. We had a “memorial meal” for her when her ashes arrived from the pet crematorium.

The reason I’m publishing this post today is that this is the first 1 February without her since we had her. A year ago we celebrated her 16th birthday and I blipped her peacefully asleep. She had tuna for her birthday celebrations, which she loved!

I tried to write this post shortly after she died, but couldn’t, as I was too emotional. I’m not sure it’s the most coherent piece of writing even now, but I wanted to remember her, 17 years after she was born. We remember her with great fondness, and keep her ashes by our bed. She had a long and happy life, and I’m so glad we shared so much of it with her!

Happy Birthday Bean – you may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten.

1 February 1994 – 5 August 2010


  1. they burrow and hide just inside the heart almost without one noticing! - it hurts everytime - lovely post to a lovely cat

  2. Beautiful post! A wonderful, touching memorial to a lovely cat.

  3. I loved reading this post, though it made me teary. Athena was so lucky to have found the humans who made her last years so very happy, safe, and loved.

  4. It really brought tears to my eyes. I remember you writing about her passing, it's so hard when one of our fur-babies goes.

    It's a wonderful tribute to a much loved cat.

  5. Wonderful tribute to the beloved Athena. Thanks for posting this. x

  6. The cats still with you must feel really comfy having the privilege to stay with you and ws.