When I was a young boy I was told by a Vicar that pets don’t go to Heaven. It was for myself a very profound moment, because in my mind at the time, I just could not accept that my rabbits, of which I had a few at the time, meant the world to me. I think it was a turning point for me, as the notion that living things such as animals were not like us, and therefore lesser in the eyes of the world of men, was so alien to me, I simply refused to accept the word of an adult for the very time in my life. Today my view has not changed, I see all living creatures as individual beings, and I do try very much to show them all the same courtesy and respect, as I would another human.
The case in point I think is very apparent when I think about my cat Sparky. Sparky passed away three days ago, at the grand old age of 16, which for a cat is pretty old, and today I feel like I have lost one of the most important people in my life. Its just a cat I hear a few of you scoff, and yes I can understand such lines of thought, but the reality is he was more than just a cat to me.
I came across Sparky when he was three years old, he was living in a house that was filled with Foster children, and to be honest they were brutal in the way they treated him. He was dirty, underfed, and would spend his days nervously sitting under the bushes in a friend of mines garden. To make matters worse, the layers of his left ear had separated, and filled with blood, which resulted in the ear swelling to twice the size of his head. It was so heavy he had to drag his face across the floor, and he actually walked backwards. He had no trust whatsoever of people, and he was very timid and afraid of everything.
I was appalled at the way he was being treated and I wanted to help him, but he was not an easy cat to get hold of, and I spent weeks as the huge ball on the side of his head grew larger trying to find ways I could capture him. I think the thing that motivated me, and made me try so hard to help him was simply the look in his eyes. I could see the sadness and the weariness from the burden of life in the foster home, and the mass growing out of his head. I really do not care what anyone may say, his eyes reflected back the horror of his life, and the deep overwhelming sadness he had as a result
When I eventually did capture him, and wrestled him into the cat carrier, he fought with everything he had, I could see the terror on his face and he scratched me and bit me as if his life depended upon it. Sweating and bleeding, I got him in the box and took him to the Vet. Now I will say at this point I had vowed never to have another pet, I do get attached and at that time I was working the markets and away a great deal of the day, but the vet told me quite clearly, it would be better for him if he was destroyed, and considering the quality of life he had at that time, I could not even think that way, in my mind he deserved to have a least some life free of the burden he had carried so long, so in the end I chose for him to be operated on and told the Vet to do everything he could to make him well again.
All I can say is that looking at his face, I could see the intelligence behind the eyes, and even though he was terrified of me, I think in some small way he knew I genuinely was trying to help. A week later I returned home with him, having had to do a quick shop and get all the things I would require for the nursing back to health of a cat, I will say at this point I had no intention of keeping him, I just wanted to make him better. The Cat hated me… I came home opened the cat carrier and with a head full of paw print covered bandage and large plastic cone, he bolted straight out of the carrier, and headed for the window, he bounced off the glass and hissed like a cat possessed, and then darted behind the sofa. I spent the next five hours trying to coax him out while he repeatedly fought with the cone to get it off his head, and if I even tried to get close to him, he would wail and scream at me as he hunched up ready to strike. I found myself to be the carer of one very pissed off cat, and so began the very long process of trying to show him I meant him no harm.
To begin with I placed his food in the centre of the room, and lifted my feet off the floor so he could see the food but not me, it worked and he slipped out and ate vigorously. I tried to ignore him and just went about my business as if he did not matter, which again did help calm him down, it was obvious he was very antisocial and wanted no contact with anyone, especially me. Life continued this way for a week, but the problem was I needed to check his dressing, his ear had been stitched back and I had been told to keep an eye on it, but there was no way he was going to allow me closer than six feet. The moment I tried to come closer to him, he would explode and hiss and then shoot off for the back of the sofa, it was really frustrating.
One evening shortly before he had to return to the Vet, it had gone very cold and I had lit the fire, I had been busy in the other room and as I came back to the main room I noticed him lay in front of it a look of sheer bliss on his face. I stopped and looked at him, and as had become the trend over the last week I spoke to him, trying to keep eye contact with him, he viewed me warily, but such was the joy of the heat, he stayed lay on the rug. I knelt down a good ten feet away and quietly asked if he liked that, I noticed he moved his paws, almost as if he was opening and clenching a hand. I know this is something kittens do when they are insecure, so I spread my hands out on the carpet and I mimicked his actions. I could see the surprise in his eyes, and watched as he copied my movements, and so began what was in a way our first moments of connection, and the first rung of the ladder of trust between us. I got within four feet of him as his dark eyes watched my hands and I copied his paw movements.
It was a start of the process, and over the next week became almost like a game between us, he would lie in front of the fire and watch me, and I would sit on the sofa carefully watching him out of the corner of my eye, each time he moved a paw, I copied, it was almost like we had some sort of secret sign language, until finally one evening he had his food, and then walked straight up to my leg, and rubbed his cone contained head on it before going back to the fire. Needless to say I got him to the Vet and with a little less fighting, and he had began to see that I meant him no harm, we had established the basics of trust between us. When the time came to hand him back to his rightful owners over nine weeks later, I knew I couldn’t, I know that technically I had for want of a better word stolen him, but I had done it for his sake not my own, but the thought of taking him back to that hell hole where children could kick and punch at him was simply too much for me to bare. It was a friend of mine at the time who made it clear I had saved his life, and he had shown some trust in me, and to hand him back would violate everything between us. Wrong as it was I kept him, and to be honest it is something I will never apologise for, or regret.
I named him Sparky, simply because when he hissed at me, he sounded like a fizzing light switch, it’s one a few quirks he had, and together we worked on our levels of trust and over time we became firm friends. It was a long slow process, but we did build up a huge amount of trust between each other, he still did not trust anyone else, and would bolt if I had visitors, and if they tried to stroke him, believe me he would take their hand off such was the power of his claws. Sparky put on weight and looked like a completely different cat, he was big for a cat, but not fat, if anything he was muscular and powerful, I was told he was a Scottish breed by the Vet who informed me he was now in tip top health, unlike my bank balance, and he was indeed surprised, as he then admitted he was sure that Sparky was not going to make it when he first saw him.
So began the years of togetherness, when I was home in the greenhouse, he sat at my feet and played with the twine hanging from the bench, if I was at my desk, he slept below my chair, and at night when I slept he lay across my feet, and would pounce on me if I moved too much. Sparky gave me another dimension to my life, I worked really long hours and would come home exhausted and collapse on the sofa. I would always wake to find him snuggled into me and I realised that he filled an empty void in me that I was not even aware was there. At that time I was in a relationship, which had become quite long term, but it had been made quite clear there was no chance of marriage or living together, and as I look back, I can see how in many ways how unfulfilled it was, don’t get me wrong there were obvious benefits to it, but it felt almost like it was just a surface relationship with no real depth, if I am really honest, it had reached a point where it did feel like Sparky had a closer bond with me than she did.
In 2005, I had stopped working the markets and taken up residence on the front of a local market in one of the market units. I have worked hard all my life, and finally my efforts had begun to pay off, in a fixed unit my business became quite successful, and for the first time in a long time, I was home more and was also saving money. My long term relationship finally had come to an end, and so I settled back into life with just me and Sparky. He was good company and loyal, our bond had grown and he trusted me implicitly, and it was at this time I returned back to writing as a way of passing my free time. Most nights I would sit in my office, with his bed at the side of me on the floor, and I would write away happily, stopping only to read back what I had written. I often caught him watching me as I read back my words, and it felt as though he was listening to my every word, it made me smile to think here was a cat who enjoyed literature, but at times just that look in his eyes felt as if he was taking in every word.
I would ask him what he thought, and he would nod his head almost as if saying “Yeah it’s not bad” and I would scratch his crinkled ear and then carry on writing again. Sparky was the first to ever hear the first complete drafts of Heirs to the Kingdom read out loud, and I would smile at him and ask, so how was that? He responded with a gesture or would stretch on his bed and stand up to rub his head on my leg, which I felt was his way of offering his approval, every now and again he clenched his paws and expanded them again, which I took as full approval. For a while a I settled back alone at home with my unexpected new found friend, who was in so many ways similar to myself and I would find myself enjoying my free moments at home more and more with just my rapidly growing cat as wonderful company. He gave me so much joy, it was hard to understand how it was possible, I would sit in the garden and look up at him sat high on the pergola cross beam, enjoying the sunshine and watching the world as I did, and it made me smile. We always played before bedtime, he loved cat nip, and I had a jug by the fire filled with his toys, it was often funny to hear a thumping downstairs, and when I went down there he would be with his head in the jug, lifting out his favourite toys to play with. I spent hours in the garden with him softly talking to him, he would lie in the sun and open one eye when I spoke, or wink at me, his eyes always filled with life and contentment, and deep down inside I knew how happy he was, and that gave me happiness as I know that I had done right by him.
Around this time the local council announced that they were going to demolish the market including my shop, and build a communal garden and market square, something that was a hugely unpopular proposal with the local people who used the markets, and I began a campaign with the local traders to save the market place and my business which was booming. What followed was to be two years of hell, as the traders clashed with the local council to try and save their businesses. We had no chance of winning from the offset as the councillors were hell bent on getting their own way, and to be honest were not too fussy about how they achieved their goal. The following two years were stressful as I watched their endless dirty tricks slowly bring about the collapse of the business. There were endless rule changes and new conditions imposed, the roads around our shops became no parking zones with a whole host of new traffic wardens, and finally after over a year of open letters crossing in the press came the threats, I was losing money and losing everything, my savings plummeted as I used up what I had to keep me afloat until the court fight was over, and I was starting to get sick from the fatigue of not sleeping and constant worry. Many nights I would return home exhausted and upset over yet another problem, rule change, or imposed fine for something I had allegedly done to breach market regulations, and I had finally reached the point where I had run out of money and was living on the edge of my nerves. Sparky always sat on my bin waiting, and as trudged in through the gate he would jump down with a meow and with his tail in the air come to greet me.
It felt as if no matter what else happened that was awful in the world, it didn’t matter, because he cared what happened to me, and he was always happy to see me, and at that time, I really needed a friend to sit and comfort me. I would sit at home at night on the edge of breaking, and he would jump up at my side and nuzzle into me, then curl up on my lap as I softly stroked his ears and relaxed a little. I think in a way it was almost as if he was finally returning the favour, for this was my darkest time and he made sure when I got home he was there for me as I had been for him. By the end of 2007 I was grabbed in the local supermarket car park and threatened by two very heavy guys that I needed to quit fighting the council before I got hurt, and to be honest that was enough and I ended the fight and gave the council the terms I would settle out of court for. It was enough to finally frighten me and by Christmas Eve 2007 I was off the market, and had lost my business and all my savings, I had nothing left and everything was gone, exhausted and alone, I came home bolted the door and slept through Christmas in an exhausted state, only waking for brief periods when Sparky would jump up on the bed and nuzzle into me, again it felt like he was just checking to make sure I was OK.
It was January 2008 when I finally got out of bed and had to work out what I was going to do for the rest of my life, I was still worried about the threats of violence, as I had caused the council some huge embarrassment with my endless writings of the facts in the press, so I decided to keep a low profile, and stayed home to write my book. It was a really cold January, but Sparky and me made ourselves comfortable in my office and I rewrote my book from scratch. Something in me had changed a great deal, I think it was a process of re-evaluation brought on by all that happened, I was heartbroken at losing my business, which I had slaved over for 12 years to build up, which had been demolished for nothing more than the vanity of a local Labour council, I took a long hard look at my life and was not sure I liked where I had ended up. It was a time of high emotion, as I felt broken and dejected and as it came to the surface and all bubbled over, I let it all flow out and into the books I was writing. It was a bleak time and Sparky sat beside me and would lift his head and watch me, just to ensure I was alright. He was my greatest companion and source of comfort at that time, and as mad as it sounds it was almost as if he knew and understood everything I was going through. There were many occasions when I broke down and would slump on the desk and weep, and every time he jumped up on the desk and nuzzled his head to mine to comfort me. They say that creatures are dumb and do not understand, well let me tell you, they are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and Sparky especially was a very clever cat. I am not sure I would have made it through those times without him; his small little gestures would break through my sadness and pain, and help me get through the darkest moments of my life, and just the look in those incredibly intelligent eyes reassured me there was someone around who did care.
It was during that time as I talked to him sat in front of the PC, I told him all about my story, and I told him as my greatest supporter through the writing times, I would model a character on him. Sparky was a bard cat with beautiful black markings on hues of grey with and light brown, and he sat watching approvingly, I told I would write him in as a ferocious Tiger, who had the heart of a lion, but could show great kindness to those who deserved it, and so began the role of Furry Face, who Jade and Runestone would call “Big Baby Boy” a term I had often used in regard to him when scratching his chin as his eyes rolled in delight. He entered in book three for time, and then reappears later when I had the chance to define his role better, as the tiger who was neglected and mistreated by his keepers, and escaped to live with those who would love and care for him. I read him the first extracts as I wrote them, and he made me giggle when he suddenly sat up and looked rather smug and pleased with himself, I never doubted he understood every word I read out, and in a way I am happy knowing that through my writing, his spirit will live on.
The following years saw great changes to our life, I met my wife to be, and children came to the house as our family expanded, I must admit I was worried about how he would react, after all his greatest time of fear had been due to the persecution he suffered with children, and he was still very antisocial with everyone apart from me. Sparky took instantly to my wife Rin, she was actually more nervous of him at first, but with a toy and some string he played almost like a kitten with her, something I had never thought I would ever see. They became firm friends, even more so when she became pregnant with my daughter, it was almost as if he was aware of the life within her, and he stayed close to her at all times, choosing to sit by her side, or on the floor next to her feet. When Iona came along again I was worried at how he would react to two children in the house, Alfie who was four had at times teased him a little and he had scratched Alfie, but with Iona he was completely different.
Sparky took to her from day one, it was almost as if he felt it was his duty to guard her, there was one occasion when Iona was in her baby chair just inside the kitchen, when one of the neighbours cats peeped in through the open window, I have never forgotten the sight of how he leapt up in front of Iona and on to the unit and attacked the cat in a brutal manner, it was by far the most fierce I had ever seen him, and all I can put it down to is that he was protecting her in his own little way. He was always very different with Iona, he tolerated far more with her than he did Alfie, if she went to far he would knock her away with his paw, but he never brought his claws out. It was quite normal for him to walk up and nuzzle into her, which delighted her and it was very clear how attached to him she had grown, “Cat” was one of the first words Iona ever learned, and as she grew and she would sit and draw at the table, she always drew pictures of stick men that showed her family, one for Mummy, one for Daddy, one for Alfie, and herself, and at her side was always Sparky. I think it was the most simple and yet the most accurate definition of the family, because Sparky was never just a pet, he was without doubt a full and equal member of the family.
In spring of 2013 Sparky came home shot. All I can say is that it was the act of some cold evil and sadistic son of a bitch that would target a cat at point blank range. The bullet went right through him, but luckily it did not hit any major organs, nursing him back to health took quite some time, and for the first time in all the years we had been together I was seriously afraid for him. By now he had grown old, he was reaching his 16th year and had already started to turn grey in places. For most of the time as he recovered he would lie on the bed and watch me as I worked at the desk, a great deal of the time Iona would lie on the bed next to him and talk to him or sing him songs, something I think he took a great deal of enjoyment from. His recovery was slow but he finally made it back to full health over a long four months of constant care. I think it had a dramatic effect on him as he began to feel his age, he no longer jumped up on the unit to go in and out of the window, he sat by the back door and waited to be let out, and he began to sleep more and only go out if he needed to. I think in the back of my mind I knew his time with me was coming to an end, but like everything you love, you try to dismiss it and hope its not so.
In the first ten days of October 2013 he stayed in front of the fire on his bed and did not move, I could tell he was not feeling his best and sat with him most nights just stroking his ears and talking to him, his appetite dropped something I knew was not good, Sparky was a big cat, never that fat but very muscular. I tried to hand feed him and he did take it off my fingers, but I knew it was not enough to sustain him for long. As I sat beside him quietly talking, just after midnight on October 9th he had a seizure, it frightened the hell out of me, and brought home one of my biggest fears, as I knew then I was going to lose him. He appeared to recover a little and relax and in his way he thanked me for being there with him, and so began our final moments together.
I wrapped him up in his blanket and lifted him into my arms, and for the rest of the night I talked to him and stroked him, his eyes were fixed on me all night as I held him and told him how much he meant to us all. It was a painful difficult night, as I really was not ready to say goodbye to him, but at 7:40 am just as the sun rose on October 10th, he gave a small meow, and then started to purr, something Sparky had never done before, it had always been a joke with us that he was a cat that did not know how too, but as clear as day he purred as I tickled his ear and then gave one last huge sigh, the purr drained and he died in my arms and the wave of grief that washed over me was huge as I lost a wonderful friend whom I loved very deeply, I think he knew that and had the roles been reversed I think he too would have felt the same way.
I laid him out carefully and took great care to ensure he was groomed and presentable. He was wrapped up and his blanket with his favourite toys, and shown huge honour and respect as he truly deserved, and I laid him to rest with a prayer, as would be befitting of any human being, he deserved no less. Sparky was buried in his favourite part of the garden, below the confers he climbed, and where the sun always shone to warm him. Around his grave I made a circle of stones befitting any Celtic hero, and I lit incense to honour him and ensure his passage into other worlds.
If you honestly believe animals do not have souls, and are lesser than humans, I can honestly say I pity you, for my experience of Sparky proved to me beyond a doubt, that even though they cannot speak to us in our own words, animals have exactly the same feelings and emotions, the same insecurities and strengths, and the same loyalty and capacity to love as all of us. In his final hour Sparky knew I was with him, and he understood the depth of my feelings towards him, they say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and looking into his, it was clear he had one, and as such he was laid to rest with honour and the respect befitting his status. I miss him, and will never fully get over losing him, for he impacted my life in ways I would never have thought possible, he brought me endless amounts of joy, and became more than just some creature to care for, for he became a companion of equal standing to any friend I have ever had, if not more. I loved and cared for him as deeply as I do my children, and I was glad to have been a huge part of his life. In the sadness I feel at his loss, I also feel some happiness, because I saw the change I made, when I lifted him out from under a bush as the tortured and victimised creature he had become. I take huge comfort in knowing that by helping him, I gave him a new life that was filled with happiness and love and was fully contented. He was happy and lived his life to the full in peace and safety, and as a result he grew to a grand old age for cat, and I also think it was a debut he repaid to me in return out of gratitude and love. We were friends, who started off with a lot of mistrust, but the bond that grew between us was unbreakable, and both of our lives benefited from knowing each other, and I will be forever grateful for the part he played in my darkest of moments, for he truly helped me through all of it.
I still look to the window in hope he will come through, or glance at the fire or bed expecting to see him, it is hard not seeing him around the place, especially when returning home from somewhere, I miss him on the path or by the gate waiting for me to welcome me home, yet I take some comfort from knowing that his spirit will be with me forever, as is the spirit of all who have passed through my life, and when my time in this world finally comes to an end, somehow I think it will be his spirit sat watching and waiting to greet me as I enter the new world, and we will wander together again as good friends through eternity.
In loving remembrance of a true and loyal friend, Sparky (Furry Face).