WHO DO YOU LOVE BEST?

I am teaching next week and the next post will on or before Monday 31st July

WHO DO YOU LOVE BEST?

A couple of years ago I quoted a travel writer journeying in remotest rural Nepal who noted the bizarre spectacle of a sulky little boy of at least 8 years old, being breast-fed by his peasant mother as she trudged along. To beat all, the lad periodically relinquished the nipple and took deep drags from a cigarette he held in his agile free hand. It is not quite as extreme as that here among the cats in the Paradisos, but it isn’t far off when it comes to the business of feeding and getting your hereditary and cognitive and conative wires colourfully crossed, of which more later…

The cafe’s oldest cat is a shy little, helpless, hopeless, skinny little cinnamon coloured individual who I immediately christened Mildred when I first saw her. Greeks don’t give their cats names as a rule, but I do and with relish. Mildred has a very handsome son I promptly dubbed Arthur who is now aged about 3 and both he and his mother’s singular names have caught on in the Paradisos, though Greeks always pronounce Arthur as ‘Arrrrrthoorrr’ as if he is from Strathpeffer or the Isle of Muck. Meanwhile Mildred gets pregnant usually once or twice a year, and Maria her owner throws up her hands in vacuous consternation and blames everyone but herself for not getting round to having her sterilised by the island vet. It would cost her 40 euros and spare her endless anguish, as when the kittens come she is aptly always having kittens that they will be run over on the nearby road. Since I have been here, almost 4 years now, Mildred must have had about 6 litters and Maria has had 6 lots of protracted anxiety but she never learns from history. She almost but not quite, like some other ludicrously anthropomorphic locals, blames Mildred for being so promiscuous. Anyone who knows anything about cats and especially street cats, will know that a tom’s notion of tender courtship is to leap on the fancied female’s back, bite them hard on the neck as if to anaesthetise them in some special nerve bundle they happen to have read up about and thus locate, and then have their unsparing way with them. No female cat in their right mind would willingly opt for that and they spend their time angrily hissing at and running away from the Lotharios, at least half of whom who are so plug ugly and/or missing an eye or an ear in their fights with rival toms, it is no wonder they go for the rear attack and the paralysed neck approach, as they would never win any luscious or non-luscious female heart face on.

Mildred recently had a litter of 4 lovely little kanela/cinnamon kittens. As if pulling out the last 5 years’ identical amateur dramatics rehearsal lines, Maria went through her theatrical fretting as the babies grew and flourished and started to stagger and ultimately race recklessly around the café. Sadly one of them vanished early on, so probably was run over by a car or attacked by a dog, but the other 3 became ever more playful and wild, and spent their time feeding from Mildred, fighting with each other and wandering ever so close to the busy road, a place where island Greeks like all Greeks, always drive far too fast, 40 year old women and 80 year old blokes included. But then a miraculous salvation beckoned, as a smallholder of about 40 called Stamatis who is one of those rare Greek males fond of cats, offered to take all 3. He has a huge spread of land way out on the Rema road and there they will be a safe as houses, not least because it is set well back from the dirt road. I was delighted to hear it and so of course was Maria, but incredibly the whole thing protracted itself into a tortuous Samuel Beckett farce and looked as if the salvation might never happen. First of all, Stamatis insisted he wanted to take all 3 at once, not one at a time and he expected Maria to do the rounding up and have them ready in a handy cardboard box. Cue Maria dozily and nervously approaching just one of the little imps and it, how unexpected, darting and racing away, and Maria throwing her arms up in despair as if she had been given one of Hercules’s tougher tasks to do by teatime. It didn’t occur to her to persist in the chase, nor to employ any kind of intelligent strategy, as the histrionic throwing up of her arms is such a reflex tic in her case, and obviously must have worked as some kind of defensive tactic in either her childhood, youth or early marriage. I put it to her that they were 3 tiny kittens, not leopard cubs nor vipers nor Tasmanian devils, and all she had to do was wait till they were sleeping and whisk them swiftly into the box. But ah no, Maria was not only helpless at what she hallucinated as the Royal Christmas Hunt or the Tiger Safari, she was full of other more obscure excuses. Supposing, she said, she did get them all into the box while they slept, Stamatis had told her he couldn’t get over here till 8 tonight meaning the poor things would be stuck in the box for 6 long hours, oh the poor little angels pent in durance vile. Better than being squashed by a bloody big lorry, Maria, I told her tersely, you are turning the transfer of 3 baby kittens into a life or death or even apocalyptic WW2 manoeuvre,  koritsi mou, surely there has to be something wrong with your logic…

Just as I was thinking it would never happen and these lovely little things would all be dead within a week, an enterprising Paradisos customer, a farmer of about 60 called Kostas, apprised of the problem, took control and while they were snoozing, lifted them all deftly into the box and then drove them himself to Stamatis’s smallholding and was back with his mission achieved in 20 minutes. I looked at Maria and said, look, see, that’s how it’s done, take note. You don’t just flap your arms about, and say oh me, ah me, dear me, poor me to be confronted by this egregiously nasty and insoluble problem, but you get your act together and you bloody well do it. You know I wouldn’t be surprised if Kostas has cats of his own and I bet he has every one of them sterilised as well ….

And to return to where I started. Mildred deprived of her 3 kittens started to pine and search for them all around the Paradisos, and to cry her sadness quietly and hauntingly, in keeping with the fact she is one the gentlest and meekest little animal souls I have ever seen. She took to lying on my lap to be petted if I were sat outside with a beer, as if she wished to be treated like a little kitten herself or perhaps just to be consoled for all these umpteen pregnancies that sage Maria blamed on pestilential fate or blamed on her the cat. It was then that by a miraculous chance, a long-forgotten son of hers I had christened Jakie when he was born 2 years ago, appeared most fortuitously on the scene. He was from 3 litters ago, and he rarely came anywhere near the Paradisos but perhaps the sight of his bereaved mother had sent him here on a wise and compassionate if perhaps insoluble mission. It started one day when Mildred wandered down to the fisherman’s stall to distract herself from her loss no doubt, and one of them had kindly chucked her a nice big fish. She walked back with unusual haste and non- Mildredesque determination to the Paradisos, in order to tuck into the sumptuous prize. Along the way Jakie the scapegrace Man of Mystery had happened to spot her and for laudably complex reasons had trotted on behind. They appeared together in the café and Mildred hurriedly went into a kind of recess behind the outside tables,where she sat about masticating the fish. Her son followed on and hung around her as she feasted, but she ignored him totally and commenced to devour the entire fish rump and stump.

She turned round sated and happy for the first time in several days. She had grieved for her lost kittens and now with this regal banquet perhaps she had stemmed a little of that awful saline sorrow. Her grown son, the slim and elusive Jakie, came and rubbed himself lovingly against her and she responded albeit slowly. Absently and amnesically acknowledging that they might after all be blood relatives, she suddenly and briefly licked his backside, and that alone. Jakie  smirked and purred and thrilled to the maternal touch, and rubbed himself all the more tenderly against his dear old parent. It was overwhelmingly obvious that he genuinely preferred her tenderness and recognition to even a giant share of that luscious fish. Objectively of course he had been given a raw deal as his mother had eaten every bit of it, and given her son precisely nothing. Instead, by way of expansive generosity she had cursorily licked his backside. Imagining that in human terms and transposing it to the UK, it is as if a mother were to drive up to the Chinese carry out in the middle of town to get the luxury Set Meal for 4, i.e. that one bursting with king prawns and other toothsome delicacies in all three courses. She gets home where the 3 kids aged 7 to 15 are all sat in anticipation, but bizarrely Mum just sits at the table with a single plate, and before their astonished gazes devours the whole bloody lot intended for 4 people. They swallow their hungry and tormented saliva and all of them, even the 15-year-old, look more than a mite tearful at such unwonted maternal callousness.

Not to worry however, all is good and the mother’s heart has not after all frozen. Without a word, she approaches them, stoops down and in succession kisses all three children’s backsides. The kids wriggle and look amazed not to say aggrieved, for unlike Jakie and Mildred a kiss on the behind is really not enough and it is not a worthy salve. They wanted king bloody prawns and all they got was a kiss on the bloody arse…

Meanwhile Mildred is still very heavy with milk. She lies down in a corner where strapping 2-year-old Jakie, weaned many moons ago, decides to lie down with her. In a trice, he has his hungry mouth on her nipples and he is sucking away with the sound of a demented vacuum pump. It is the first time ever that I have seen a grown cat feeding from its mother, and it is a touching and unhinging sight. Mildred is away from it all in every sense, as she is fast asleep and she couldn’t care less, as she is also full of first class fish. But as Jakie prefers his mother’s caresses to even the rarest gratis feast, it proves yet again that most animals and especially cats, are so much more moral, boundlessly more ethical, infinitely more virtuous than any of us human buggers could ever dream of being.

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