We lost our cat, Boris, just before 8am on May 7th 2020 during the Coronavirus lockdown. We adopted him aged 4 in February 2009, having first chosen a dainty long-haired cat called Juliette, which my boyfriend Richard adored. As we prepared to sign the paperwork in the reception of the adoption centre in Hollywood, Birmingham, I remember being accosted by a tearful woman who claimed to have seen Juliette first and begged us not to take her. Her partner, embarrassed, waved cash in Richard’s direction. Seeing me losing patience, Richard whispered that depriving these people was not the right way to start on our first journey as cat-owners. They kept their money and Juliette.
We did a few more laps of the adoption centre, looking for another small cat for our small house. “Have you met Splodge yet?” asked a volunteer, taking us to some pens outside. A moment later we saw an unfeasibly large black-and-white moggy slowly emerging onto the pathway, his neck as thick as a bulldog’s. He consented, briefly, to be petted before strolling off and sitting with his back towards us. “I think he likes you,” said the volunteer hopefully.
Richard wanted to change the cat’s name because he felt Splodge was an undignified moniker for such a monumental feline. He looked like a British Shorthair, crossed with something much more “street”. His neck was gigantic and he had a black patch under his chin that reminded me of a pirate’s beard. We knew very little about his early life, apart from the fact that he was FIV-positive and that he had been adopted before, but returned on the grounds that he was “anti-social”.
We quickly became besotted with his black-and-white patches, his torn left ear and the little white ring at the end of his tail. His back-story revealed itself to us in fragments. Somebody had fed him tinned food because if I opened a can of anything – even tomatoes – I felt him head-butting my legs and heard his plaintive squeaks (he always squeaked, never miaowed). He was permanently hungry (perhaps because he had lived on the streets) and hated children (probably the real reason for the earlier adoption failure). His thick neck was the result of late neutering and he had evidently not been socialised at an early age. Less explicably, he feared tin-foil, large objects in his vicinity (clothes, bedsheets, the clothes-rack) and most of his toys – particularly a slinky and some bells on a stick. One vet thought he had been in a road traffic accident, a speculation supported by Boris’s terror at the roar of the rubbish-removal van passing outside.
While we tried to understand our new companion, he sized us up in return. In time we knew that Boris would never submit to being groomed and would never stop fighting the vet (despite one trying, and failing, to put a muzzle on him), but he also observed our habits and drew his own conclusions. One day, having rubbed his head on the litter-bag and received food, he turned this gesture into a permanent piece of cross-species communication (what we could not convey in return was that we knew what he wanted because he was always hungry). He took to tapping our hands when he wanted snacks and our shoes when we interrupted important cat business in the garden – such as shooing off feline intruders. When we prepared food he darted around our legs, in Richard’s words, “like a furry Koi carp”. He sat on my footstool when he wanted treats, or, when short of patience, leapt onto the side-table and swatted the treat-tube to the ground with a thud. Both Richard and I used slow-blinking as a method of communicating with him – a lazy “Hi!” from across the room which he would frequently return.
Mealtimes were sometimes exhausting. Boris had a comical habit of sitting upright at tables and learnt to leap on them while we were eating – a practice guaranteed to embarrass us whenever friends or family came to visit. Quickly identifying me as a soft-touch, he would plague me at every meal, nudging my wrist and shamelessly diving into the space under my left arm, so as to get his face closer to my dinner. Once, when Richard put a dish of roast duck on the table, he vaulted into the air and skidded the whole length of the table as if on skiis. Latterly, when arthritis made leaping difficult, he would content himself with sitting upright on my lap where I gleefully, and ineffectually, batted him away from my food. I would take scraps of meat, wash any sauce or spices off them, and put them in his bowl; this usually bought me a few minutes’ peace. Richard called the practice “Danegeld”, a reference to the tax demanded by the Vikings in return for not raiding the land.
It was due to our incessant social media posts that Boris’s personality became more generally known and loved. A guest at our wedding in 2012 asked to visit him during the festivities and was surprised to hear my now-husband addressing the cat as “Old chap” (as Richard frequently pointed out, Boris was less of a fur-baby and more a grumpy lodger). Whenever we went on holiday we employed a cat-sitter who spoilt him and oversaw what she laughingly termed his “gentle potters” in the garden. Despite his grumpiness, Boris had a sweet side and for most nights waited for me to go to bed before leaping up beside me and snuggling into the crook of my arm. According to Richard (whose job it was to eject Boris when he came to bed) he often found him lying beside me, asleep, mirroring my posture.
I have been researching and writing a biography of the 18th-century actress Peg Woffington for the last ten years. The day before Boris died I finished Chapter 18 and prepared myself mentally to write the final chapter – the “death scene”. Boris had been slowing down; he had lost an incredible amount of weight and arthritis had also manifested itself, making him distressingly unsteady on his feet at times. His fur was unkempt, though he maintained his usual resistance to any help with grooming. As Britain went into lockdown, I set up a home-office of sorts on the lounge table. We bought Boris a plush cushion along with raised food and water bowls to help relieve his back and a seed-tray in place of a litter-tray – its shallow profile allowed Boris to step inside and manoeuver without causing him joint-pain. Despite these increasing handicaps he continued to pester us for food. My days were filled with video meetings, but Boris joined in, spontaneously careering onto the table during 121s with my manager, sometimes trampling on my keyboard and turning off the webcam or simply blocking out my face with his back-end. My colleagues loved him and took to saying “Hi Boris!” and waving. On one occasion he joined me during a team meeting, sitting bolt upright on the table, causing one colleague to write: “I saw Boris – he looked like your feline senior manager”.
As it happens, that was an accurate description of our relationship. Somehow, during lockdown, he instigated a daily lunch of Waitrose cooked chicken slices (in addition to the breakfast he had already eaten). This was usually served at 12pm, but prior to his death he was working on bringing it forward by an hour. He had already been successful in bringing his dinner-time forward from 6pm to 5pm. But the more he ate, the thinner he got, and his frequent tumbles worried me. Although the volume of his voice had diminished in old age (in human years he would have been 80), he still employed a whole artillery of tiny squeaks, meaningful stares and nudges. In the last couple of weeks he stopped going upstairs altogether but still met me every morning in the lounge at 7am sharp, faintly complaining at my slowness. One day, when I fumbled with the steroid pill we had to give him twice daily (concealed in a dollop of Lick-e-Lix), he let out a strangled squeak so loud it made me jump.
On the day before he died, Boris clearly did not feel brilliant, but still managed to inspect the shopping in the afternoon when Richard returned from the supermarket and also ate his evening meal. The following morning I came downstairs, and, for the first time in 11 years, failed to find him waiting for me. He was lying limply on his cushion, crying pitifully and unable to get up, though flexing his paws as if trying. We scrambled to get dressed and blankly drove him to the vet, the cat-carrier sickeningly light in my hands. Having left the carrier with its precious cargo on the pavement (due to social distancing rules) staff took him inside the building while we waited in the car. At length, a phone call came through to Richard and the vet spoke the words we dreaded: Boris’s heartbeat was very faint; he had lost lots of weight and was not in a good way; it was, he suggested, time to ‘help him on his way’.
Vets are amazing. Ours took compassion to a new level by carrying Boris to the car and allowing me to hold him on my lap while he administered the sedative from a distance. Before doing so, he leant closer, lightly touched the cat’s nose, and said “Good luck Boris”. I will never forget that gesture. There we were, sitting in our car because of social-distancing rules, but still able to say goodbye to a pet that had a gigantic personality and whom we had loved more deeply and fiercely than we knew at that moment. Handing him back to the vet, I felt a still-warm body and imagined, numbly, that Boris would pull through. When we returned home I looked at the yawning gap in the house and thought that he had been beside me throughout the writing of my actress biography. The idea of writing the last chapter, the “death scene”, without him, was unthinkable.
Because he had not conducted tests, the vet was reluctant to say with any certainty what had carried Boris off, though a mass in his stomach (diagnosed in the middle of March 2020 and under treatment), combined with his FIV and dramatic weight-loss, suggested lymphoma. While organising thousands of our photos of him, it struck me how much he had physically changed over the years. He started out as a bruiser: physically gigantic with the thick neck of a prize-fighter, but even before the cancer, Boris had several dental operations which changed his appearance. After the first of these his face became slimmer and in old age he looked more conventionally cute. I remember being tearful when he first came out of the dental surgery because his legendary haughtiness was gone. But what also struck me, trawling sadly through photographs, was that his personality had changed too. It was not just surgery that erased his imperious manner – it was good living. He was no longer the scared and defensive feline we had adopted in 2009 but had adapted to life with two childless writers and a walled garden where he could enjoy his “gentle potters”. This was not something to be mourned but celebrated, because at last – with us – he had flourished.