It was in the summer of 2020 that we spotted an advert for Rusty on an animal shelter’s website. “I’m a big cuddly boy who came to the centre after being found as a stray injured and hungry,” it said. “As you can see, I haven’t had a great life on the streets, I am covered in scars, but luckily a lovely person found me and took me to the vets… I am FIV+ which isn’t as bad as people say it is, it’s actually a very manageable condition which unfortunately has a lot of negative myths around it. if you would like more information around FIV cats please follow the link below.”
Our last cat, Boris, had died in May 2020 and was also FIV+ (he lived to around 16 and it was cancer, not a weak immune system, that carried him off in the end). We liked the look of Rusty mainly because we had become used to large tom cats with attitude. Except, reading the advert again, we learnt: “I absolutely love my food and will eat it all quicker than you can say my name. My favourite thing in the world is people, I would love someone to show me lots of attention and fuss, and in return for tummy rubs I will chat to you all day.” Tummy rubs? Chatting? This sounded quite different from Boris, whose least favourite thing in the world was people (along with Sartre, our previous cat’s motto had been “L’enfer, c’est les autres”).
My husband was keen to fill the void in the household left by Boris, but I was hesitant… for reasons of grief, but also for reasons of needing a new carpet on the staircase that would not be in tatters the minute the carpet-fitters left the house. Yet, with lockdown still in effect, there was no hope of finishing the landing refurbishment, and there were the pleading faces of cats on the website of The Holdings Animal Rescue and Rehoming Centre, not least Rusty’s, whose name resounded in my head as I brushed my teeth that night. “I liked his face. I think I would like a ginger cat,” I thought “I must ask Richard if we can fill in the form tomorrow” (in fact, Richard had completed and emailed it before I got up the next morning).
We had a few requirements from the animal shelter to fulfil, but about a week later, we found ourselves driving to Worcester to collect him. It was July 30th 2020: sunny but not overbearingly hot. When we entered Rusty’s pen we saw an almost comically stocky cat emerge into the corridor, plodding towards us like a cartoon lion, greeting us with assertive miaows. “Is he OK with being picked up?” asked Richard, “Oh yes, fine!” Richard scooped him up into his arms and I could see that Rusty was less of a ginger and more of a peachy colour with fine tabby markings. It was love at first sight.
Every cat needs an origin story – a memory created by its owner or owners that somehow defines its personality, and for me it was that first day, at home, when I accidentally dropped a peach stone under the sideboard. Like most cats, Rusty was nervous when we let him free in the lounge (the journey from Worcester had been fractious, with Rusty crying at top volume and trying to tunnel out of the carrier with enormous force). One of his first actions was to run halfway up the stairs and cry in consternation as if confused by the purpose of stairs. It wasn’t long before he found the small space underneath the sideboard and somehow squeezed his considerable bulk into it.
We left him alone to acclimatise. Boris’s origin story had involved finding a small and previously unnoticed space beside the kitchen cupboards and disappearing underneath them for several hours. Yet, in Rusty’s case, the onset of lunch quickly broke the deadlock; in particular, my peach stone, which rolled into his cobwebbed hiding-place and reminded him of his favourite thing (“I absolutely love my food and will eat it all quicker than you can say my name”). He squeezed himself out into the open, shook his fur and leapt onto my knee, rolling over so that I could rub his tummy.
Food is important in Rusty’s world. He eats all of his meals with gusto – and many of ours too. He’s a charming grifter who thinks nothing of swiping a sandwich or carrying off a chicken leg in his teeth. He employs a terrible whine when requiring food or attention that’s calculated to pull at the heart-strings of any bystander (for this we have nicknamed him “the Ginger Whinger”).
Sometimes Rusty takes matters into his own hands/paws. At Christmas, for example, he scaled a six-foot door to oversee the turkey preparations. On another occasion, during a romantic dinner à deux, he snatched a piece of steak from a fork in mid-air. He has evidently been hungry in the past but has used his wits to survive; his range of pleading gestures is truly impressive (as is his ability to rifle through bins, binge-watch TV nature programmes, and negotiate the staircase at frightening speed). The scars on his face and his back – which we think may have been a dog bite – have all healed, and instead of the gaunt creature he once was, he’s now bulky enough to evoke Garfield (although he’s on a diet and lasagne is not allowed).
Like most rescue animals, Rusty is not without psychological scars, but among the things we’ve found truly remarkable about him is his intelligence and sunny personality. He couldn’t be more different than Boris – or, indeed, either of us – but what’s most touching is how his affections have not been dented by hardship. Where some see disappointments, Rusty sees challenges. The biggest one right now is opening the ‘fridge – God help us if he manages it.