This is the story of life as it is under the eyes of God, where all creatures are given a presence. The cats of this short novel are central characters, as the life of the story stems from them, with their person counterparts as watchful and commentative outlines to the world of nature within which they themselves play an undefined part. (I was first given this book as a 5th grade Christmas gift by my mother. I promptly devoured it. It has been several years, at least since I have read it, so I hope I remember it well. I have chosen to keep to the few main characters as with all blogs in the column.)
Lessing tells of her first cat, a little grey creature picked up as a stray by her as a little girl, living on a farm with her family in Southern Rhodesia. Lessing loved her kitten, but one day it fell between some pipes into a drain and was fished out by servants to be washed, dried, and placed in bed with Lessing who was recovering from an illness herself. It was the cold season but the windows of her room were kept open as the walls had been recently whitewashed. It was cold during the night. Cold during the day, when the room filled with white light. All around Lessing felt sterile and cold but within her arms, there was a warmth. A grey, purring warmth. The kitten, Lessing's compatriot in illness had caught pneumonia and eventually the sweet feline's purr grew dimmer and lessened until all was quiet and cold in the room. The deceased kitten was tossed upon a rubbish heap(1) and that was that.
Though Lessing lived in a world of cats, cats on walls and in gardens, it would be years until she would ever have room in her life for another cat. And no cat would ever compare to the grey kitten who gave warmth and her purr to Lessing for as long as she could. Lessing is an adult with a flat in the U.K., when she had room in her life to love another cat: grey cat. A beautiful butterfly tabby-Siamese mix who had been taken from her mother too young as a kitten. She was grey cat, the flirt, "beeaauuttiiiffuull" (2) would be cooed to her and she would half close her eyes to each compliment, as she lay upon the rug of the flat to be admired.
Grey cat was charm, Lessing wrote that if a fish is the movement of water encaptured in a singular solid form, grey cat was the embodiment of air, as if a butterfly. Grey cat was a princess. Every visitor would come to the door to exclaim, "Pretty cat!" And grey cat would soak in the admiration while twining about legs. When grey cat went into heat, Lessing and her friends watched as grey cat cried and frolicked and lolled on the grass for a mate. An old ugly tom wins the bid. But he bungles the job.
As Lessing is in the garden having wine, her friend exclaims what a shame it all was that such an enchanting creature should go to a brute of a tom with no idea how to make love. He would make love to grey cat himself if he could. The friend's wife calls him, "sick" (3) and so the commentary continues.
Grey cat is impregnated, eventually, to become a disaster of a mother. Grey cat has no idea what is occurring when she goes into labor and instead of finding some quiet place to have her litter, she constantly demands attention from the people around her. Lessing eventually makes grey cat a nest, herself, and when grey cat has the litter, she gets up and wants to play and be admired. Lessing sends grey cat back to the bed to nurse. The kittens are a motley crew and are all given homes. Grey cat has about one more litter until she is fixed.
Lessing is in inner turmoil over the revocation of her cat's sex. But cats can have up to 4 litters a year. Lessing ponders the logic of nature, but in the end she decides to fix grey cat.
Grey cat then changes. Her face broadens, she softens after the surgery to become, a "plump, if pretty cat." Then the world of grey cat darkens more, as in the tumultuous world of people, drama has occurred and a pretty blond girl, a student studying for exams in a room above Lessing is no longer able to keep her cat. And so Lessing is given black cat, a pretty and simple black cat on a red leash and collar. Where grey cat was a creature of line and sophisticated coloring, black cat was simple. A cat of the underworld. "Midnight cat!"
Grey cat hates black cat. If black cat rests in a chair, grey cat takes to the bed, or wherever is higher than black cat. And so it goes on in such a manner. Black cat proves to be a wonderful mother with machine like consistency. Eating when she would rather not just to serve as example to her kittens.
The desexed grey cat watches but does not hurt the kittens. Grey cat is a people cat, except until years later in her old age she chooses a neighborhood cat as a friend. He was an unremarkable creature with no fineness of quality other than being chosen by grey cat. It is unusual for female cats to befriend other cats. Grey cat had chosen him, and he came with her into the flat. They would share time together. He disappeared from the neighborhood after some time, and grey cat looked for him. She never liked another cat before or after him. He was the only friend of her kind, she ever had.
By Sarah Bahl
1. It was a shaft.
3. She calls him "disgusting" and implies he is sick.