Nibs, Nibbing, Nib the Cat. He’d answer to any and all of these and, I dare say, several more besides. Just so long as the calling of the name was accompanied by sufficiently assertive vocals and the rattling and clattering of spoon on dish, sure sign of scoff on its way!
“Nibbins” — reformed witch’s cat and feline hero from long ago childhood tale, The Midnight Folk — appeared to suit. We liked it. He appeared not to mind. So it stuck: as family name, lucky name, if not that ineffable secretive name that, as is well known no human will ever discover.
Though there was nothing lucky or auspicious about Nibbins’ arrival under our roof.
We were first alerted to the existence — and sorry plight — of this creature in a series of ever more frantic phone calls from a friend attempting to balance feline care with working abroad for half the year. A long, complicated story ensued: how she had rescued him from the street when her life had been rather less hectic. How she had instantly fallen for this middle-aged and somewhat bedraggled grey gentleman. And now, she too was failing him!
“Cat Protection?”, I suggested gently. But she wasn’t having it. In vain I explained the life of luxury he might expect in one of their foster homes. Yet, no. Nibbins had been taken in and then abandoned on her watch and she felt guilty with a capital G. He was now HER baby and she was determined to do better by him.
Long story short: after a series of increasingly angst-ridden calls and email exchanges I found myself agreeing to look after him. I was “between cats”: and it felt as though it would be good for me and the children: boy, girl, aged respectively 8 and 10.
But only for a short while, you understand. Only until such time as my friend’s life was back on an even keel and she was able to take him back under her roof.
So it was one rainy Saturday afternoon in November that Mr Nibbins came to stay. Friend swept through the front door, depositing a carrier full of yowling beast, together with a large bag of kibble, on the floor of our living room. Then swept out again, almost as swiftly: plane to catch, meetings to go to; but she’d be back next week. Or the week after. She wasn’t too sure. (In fact it was three months before I saw her again and then only briefly over town centre coffee),
But soon. Definitely soon. And she was gone, leaving me to check all potential exits were sealed tight before gingerly unlocking the carrier. I had no idea what to expect.
Would this newest member of the household tremble and cower inside his temporary home, forcing me to risk life and limb extracting him from his place of safety? Would he emerge shyly? Or…
Well, this was Nibbins, law unto himself and, as we were soon to discover, the new master of the house.
No sooner was the carrier unsealed than he emerged. Slowly, sedately, you understand, making it clear that he, from the ends of his straggled whiskers to the tip of his magnificent held-high tail, would now take charge. His steady gaze took in first the room and then me: we locked eyes ever so briefly before — I swear! — he nodded, as if to say “you’ll do”.
Then, with one grand leap he made his way to the top of the corner bookcase, where, for the next hour or so, he remained. Non-plussed: as cool as a cat with not a care in the world, except when tea would arrive and whether it would contain sufficient chicken.
Cats come. Cats go. Some remain a short while only, their presence in our lives as soft as a paw and slim as a whisker. Others come galumphing in, demanding food and bed and cuddles. Still others — the stealthy ones — value their independence, their privacy. They creep in of a night, give little, demand much. Yet, still, they make themselves a warm and comfortable space in your heart while you’re not even looking.
This was Nibbins. Aloof. Impossible. Vociferous. Over the years that followed we would become very familiar with that yowl, first heard on the day of his arrival. It signified much. Let me out! Let me in! My bowl is empty! Why are you — humans! — eating nice things and not sharing? I have brought you a present!
Ah, yes. Presents. Being firmly of the opinion that anything on our plates, with the exception of Brussels sprouts, was for his benefit, he would regularly entertain us with delicacies from his own hunting larder. Because fair’s fair: and share and share alike; and if we did not enjoy rare mouse or vole, that was entirely our loss!
He would disappear for days at a time, sustained only, we later discovered, by the food bowls of every other cat on our street. The first time he performed his vanishing act, we were distraught, imagining every awful eventuality under the sun. Perhaps he had gone under a car. The children cried for him. As did I.
I had just printed out a batch of those sad “Have You Seen This Cat?” posters when…he strolled in. A single yowl alerted us to his presence. A second reminded us that he had not eaten for at least two hours and was consequently starving.
As for intimacy. All that sort of thing was strictly verboten. Oh: I might be allowed to brush him from time to time. Down the back and under the neck, which he stretched out as if to say: “yes, please. And perhaps a little harder under that ear.”
But stop when he said stop: and never, ever touch his tum. It was a mistake I made once, and never again. I still bear the scar: a white semi-circle on the flesh between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand.
This, then, the law according to Nibbins. Touches-pas! Not unless I say so!
All change one evening, one beautiful magical evening when, for one brief moment, the now elderly rogue let down his guard and allowed me in.
I was sat on the sofa watching a film. Dozing. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. Only that at some point before the end, Nibbins arrived, tatty as tatty can be and grey with age. I know: he’s a grey cat. But trust me: if a grey cat could grey up his roots, he had done so that night.
He sat on the floor in front of me, eyeing me thoughtfully.
Then, with one liquid stretch, he joined me on the sofa. I held my breath. Almost never had he honoured me thus: and never deigned to come any closer. That night was different. With a slight chirp, as though to say “alright then”, he edged onto my lap, there to dissolve, in that way only cats can dissolve, into a puddle of liquid purr.
Gently at first — I’d learnt my lesson well — I scritched his neck. And when that turned out to be acceptable. I moved on to his ears. Nibbins stretched out, as though making up for all those years when this could have happened and did not.
For an hour, perhaps two, he stayed: a purr in his throat and a smile on his lovely face. And somewhere, between the warmth and the love and the happy cattiness of that moment, I, too, drifted off, waking with a start to the realisation that the radiators were off. As, too, was Nibbins.
I knew, even before I lifted his poor stiff body from my lap that he had gone. That is, there was still about him a residual warmth: but it was my own, not his. I knew from the stiffness that had already begun to set in that he was no more: had gone on wherever cats go.
No tears then. Those came later as I wrapped him up in a soft felt blanket — his favourite — and kissed him goodbye for the last time. The first time, too, if I am honest: for never, alive, had Nibbins permitted the indignity of anyone’s lips on his forehead.
Yet: and yet I was happy to have seen him off in such fashion. For after an uncertain start his had been a good life, filled with warmth and food and love, and children who mostly respected his tail. That was pretty much all that any cat could ask.
Now he was off across that bridge — the last bridge that every cat will one day cross: the rainbow one — to whatever afterlife he deserved. In that moment I smiled: imagined him arriving on the other side. With a yowl. And a glare most regal as he set about demonstrating, one last time, just who was in charge.
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