And so it came to pass that our thirteen-year-old tom cat Frodo finally breathed his last in August 2012, just two months after his sister Fifi.

Jem Vanston with Bumble Copyright Dimitris Legakis But it is always worth remembering how the death of one cat, however sad, can lead to new feline friends entering our lives.

Because two weeks later, we – (that’s me and my 88-year old mother for whom I am a part-time carer) – went to Cats Protection, Swansea. We weren’t  planning to get another cat so soon – but the house just seemed so empty without any paws padding and plodding around it.

We looked at all the animals at Cats Protection, but knew that both kittens and very old cats would be too much for us. Then, as we approached one of the cages, a semi-longhaired black cat walked boldly towards us, raised his enormously swishy tail and miaowed a welcome (or was it a demand?). We knew immediately that we had found a new friend – one whom we would name Bumble, on account of his bumbling around clumsily everywhere. This cat was not a tom, but so tom-like in behaviour that she has always been a he to us, which makes a good contrast with the cat who could well be his sister.

(Photo of Jem and Bumble Copyright Dimitris Legakis) 

For, hiding away in the same compartment at Cats Protection, was a pretty little torti-tabby cross who was clearly a very traumatised cat indeed. Both Bumble and this cat – who came to be known as Honey – had come to the shelter around a week or so before, after being taken there by Judy from Swansea Cats Protection. It seems they had previously belonged to a (female) drug dealer who had gone to prison.

Honey and BumbleThe cats were healthy and had clearly been well looked after. Bumble – a very bold character – had apparently lived outside for much of the time, whereas the shy and timid Honey had been an indoors ‘flat-cat’. Maybe that’s why she had been so utterly traumatised when the (no doubt noisy and unsubtle) police raided the drug dealer’s flat. We were told that Honey had taken refuge under the floorboards and it had taken Judy days, rather than hours, to coax her out.

So, we got them home – after much hissing from Bumble (who is a big hisser in a ‘sound and fury’ sort of a way). Immediately, Honey made a bee-line for the space under the stairs – we decided to let her come to and recover rather than force her to be with us.

Bumble meanwhile investigated everything and got stuck in to the first of many meals in his new home.

I checked on Honey regularly. She had hidden herself deep in a pile of cardboard, and if I lifted the large piece on top, I could see a very tiny and worried-looking honey-coloured face peering up at me.

Eventually, Honey emerged for her first meal, while Bumble progressed to his umpteenth of the day.

Honey on TVWe kept them indoors for six weeks, then let them out in the yard (we live in an end-of-terrace house). All went well – until one day they disappeared. First Bumble; then Honey three days later.

A leafleting campaign ensued until, two weeks or more later, each cat turned up miaowing outside the back door, looking suspiciously well-fed. When Honey got back she even had sticky fur – chocolate! They had obviously been in somebody else’s home (or several) on a brief sabbatical from their new one.

I now describe this behaviour as Missing, Presumed Fed – and I am sure these can’t be the only cats to have taken advantage of two-legs (i.e. humans) who live in such close proximity with each other. After all, why eat at only one restaurant when there are so many others in the neighbourhood?

Anyway, what these cats did not know is that they had entered the home of an author – and, more specifically, one who had just finished the first draft ofA Cat Called Dog, a humorous tale which aimed to really get under the fur of cats and see the world as they do. It is the story of a kitten-cat (called Dog) who behaves like a dog – by sticking out his tongue, wagging his tail and yapping like a puppy – and so has to be taught by an old tom (George) how to become a proper cat, to stop shame befalling the entire species.

The cats that feature in that book are based on those I have known in my life from age seven, or combinations of them. George behaves like the late Frodo – very much the old colonel type, and enjoying his mature years and well-padded plumpity (a word I made up for this book) – though he looks like a cat we had called Leo; Fifi appears as herself; Eric, the scruffy cockney stray, looks like a cat we owned called Hobbes – who was sadly killed by two Alsatians belonging to a neighbour-from-hell.

François is a sleek and wise tabby, and Honey certainly had an influence on the development of his depiction.

I also emphasised Dog’s tail-wagging more in later versions – Bumble certainly had a paw in that!

One aspect of the book that did not come from cats was the fact that the character of Eric only has one eye. I added this quite specifically – because, you see, the whole reason I had put all my other literary projects on hold to write A Cat Called Dog was that my mother had been blinded in one eye by a failed cataract operation in 2011, which led to complications and a long stay in hospital. As she – a great cat lover too – only had one eye left, and that one with a worsening cataract. I decided that I had to write up the idea for a cat book that had been rattling around in my head for around four years – and quickly too, before her sight deteriorated so much she would be unable to read it at all.

So, during the Olympics in July 2012, (which, not being sporty, I happily ignored), I sat down and wrote - 2000 words a day, to be precise. After 27 days, I had a complete first draft of over 50,000 words which, despite some changes, is more or less what was published as A Cat Called Dog.

I chose to self-publish, which meant that, less than a year after I had started the first draft, I had a copy of the paperback in my hand. I even designed the cover myself – though not before a local magazine editor had tried to con me out of my copyright by offering to design it – and then charge me for the privilege! I told her where to go and did it myself instead. People, like cats, have to be wary of nasties lurking out there in the big bad world.

Happily, my mum adores the book. In particular, she loves Eric,  the scruffy, cheeky, one-eyed, cockney stray, whose celebratory catchphrase of ‘Bring out the biscuits!’ has become something of a favourite in our house whenever anything goes well.

And of course she can recognise the cats we have owned over the years in all the characters. Because the truth is that, even though the first draft took me only 27 days, it really took me 37 years of living with and observing cats to get to the point where I could write A Cat Called Dog with confidence.

Recently, I completed a slightly shorter and simplified version aimed at 9-12 year olds (and their parents). Agents and publishers are considering the manuscript at the moment.

I would love to see a children’s version of A Cat Called Dog published with pen-and-ink illustrations. I also have a sequel planned. People have told me how they think A Cat Called Dog would work well as a cartoon too, so there could be possibilities regarding TV/film rights.

It’s early days yet, however, and everything really depends on whether a publisher will take a chance on the book.

Meanwhile, I am heartened by the excellent reviews of A Cat Called Dog on Amazon and Goodreads.com. The e-book has been very useful in introducing the book to an audience overseas: A Cat Called Dog seems to be particularly popular in the USA – something which has surprised me a bit, as the humour in the book is quintessentially British.

Bumble reading 'A Cat called Dog' Of course, the cats are oblivious to all the fuss, though Bumble made a brave effort to read the book (see photo!). Honey is now very much at home, and has revealed a wild tiger-streak since coming out of her shell – she regularly goes‘up the jungle’ to neighbours’ gardens on adventures.

I am pleased to report the fact that both Honey and Bumble are now as happy as the cats at the end of my book. It was, I have to say, a close-run thing for both.

But then, whether in books or in life, everyone loves a happy ending.

Jem Vanston

To read my review of A Cat called Dog please click here:

 

 

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