ONE ENGLISHWOMAN’S MISSION TO SAVE AN ISLAND’S CATS
I am standing in a Sicilian bus park, waiting for a man I have never met before. We are to drive along narrow twisting roads to a small town in the mountains in search of a badly injured cat. It is a balmy evening in June, the air laden with the sensuous scent of jasmine, which steals into my mind and conjures images of my past in this little town of Taormina. A shawl of magenta bougainvillea is slung over the wall to my left, swallows dart through the dusky sky.
There is a voluptuousness of the senses about Sicily; you forget you are no more than a twenty-minute ferry ride from the toe of Italy. Perhaps it is its history of invaders, Arab, Norman and Phoenician to name a few, each leaving their stamp on the landscape, which gives this island its sense of otherness.
From the trattoria a few yards down the road comes the tantalising scents of garlicky tomato and basil. I imagine the tables packed with holidaymakers enjoying their meal. Drunk on sunshine, a day spent basking like lizards on the beach at Isola Bella or Mazzaro, they throw off their Northern reticence, speak in loud voices, call for another carafe of the local wine. Gales of laughter, they haven’t a care in the world. My stomach growls. How I would love to be among them, forking up chunks of aubergine, savouring the rich sauce of pasta alla norma with its sprinkling of smoked ricotta. Or maybe I would choose pasta con le sarde, that dish which derives from Arabic cuisine, with its combination of sultanas, pine nuts and saffron. Yet the ingredients themselves have been native to Sicily since the time when Greeks first landed on Naxos beach and settled there. Wild fennel comes into it and anchovy fillets, as well as the ubiquitous sardines.
Buses roar in and out of this park while I wait, musing on food. The airport coach disgorges new arrivals; a young woman with red hair tears herself from the arms of a young man and boards, waving desperately as the vehicle bears her away. It reminds me that my stay in Taormina, unlike those other times, is limited.
I ask myself: What am I doing here, bound on this mission with only a faint hope of finding the poor creature? Who knows, by now it may have run off to hide and die? Why can’t I simply enjoy this beautiful evening? But that is my nature: always divided by a sense of duty and a rage to live. I am poised between staying and going. If this man doesn’t arrive soon…
A car swings into the bus park. The man at the wheel calls out my name. It is Giulio.
THR CATS OF THE PUBLIC GARDENS
I was sitting in Taormina’s Public Gardens talking to the cats. The gardens house a colony of feral felines, which grows or diminishes depending on the number of animals abandoned and whether someone throws down poisoned meatballs. A lot of Sicilians look upon feral animals as vermin.
Lily was sitting on my lap, her eyes narrowed to slits as I gently scratched under her chin, a favourite place for cats, though each is different. I thought that she must be over eight years old and, unlike some of her companions who ran away, she had worked out it was politic to allow herself to be stroked because then she would get the lion’s share of any titbits.
The afternoon was so hot it seemed to be holding its breath; time was suspended. I’d chosen to come here and sit in this green shade rather than bake on the beach of Isola Bella, hundreds of metres below the town. I couldn’t face being squashed into a bus packed with people: all that tourist panic of where or where not to get off.
As I stroked Lily, I gazed at a truly picture postcard view: huge pots overflowing with geraniums, pink and red, standing on a stone parapet and further beyond grumpy volcano Etna rising against the perfectly blue sky.
Lily purred. It wouldn’t be hard to nod off myself.
‘Sera.’ Rounding a flowerbed, Maria arrived out of breath, carrying two large plastic bags.
She and I had met here too often to stand on ceremony. Besides, it was too hot.
She set the bags down, gathered up the feeding bowls and gave them a rinse in the fountain. Immediately the cats sprang into action. Lily’s eyes widened and she flew from my lap. The air was filled with meows. They milled round Maria, pressing themselves against her legs as she emptied out great mounds of pasta cooked with fish. Then there was a lot of grumbling, a lashing out of paws as they fought for their place. They were a pretty sad bunch, but even when they are starving cats retain their table manners - about 20 of them, ginger, black and tortoiseshell; the big grey tom had a weeping raw patch behind his ear, several were thin and mangy and there was a small white cat with one eye. I knew how he lost that. A vicious infection akin to feline chlamydia which is actually part of a feline upper respiratory disease complex, most often appears in cats as conjunctivitis which is inflammation of the tissues of the eye, also known as pink eye.
Unless it is treated in time with an antibiotic like Pensulvit cream the animal loses its sight. I carried a tube of this cream in my bag but it really needed two people on the job: one to hold the cat, the other to spread the cream. The two sickly ginger kittens I noticed the other day were absent. Theirs is a grim world.
Maria plumped herself down on the bench beside me and began to speak in the Sicilian dialect. She did this in the understandable belief that because we shared a love of cats and the desire to help them, I should be able to understand her. In a way, I suppose I did, at least the gist of what she said. It’s a language packed with guttural sounds, and with only a nodding acquaintance with Italian. Its pronunciation is easier for a Brit because the r isn’t emphatically rolled. At Maria’s age she was no longer jealous of foreign females, thank goodness. I’d often been the subject of a penetrating glare when I’d tried to befriend other Sicilian women.
She was beautiful, not outwardly, I should add. Elderly with a strong-featured face and grey hair, she wore the typical matron’s dark frock. Her varicose veins gave her trouble, she’d often told me about them: ‘Mi fanno morire nel caldo’ they kill me in the hot weather. Without grace, she sat with her legs splayed showing her knee-highs. Maria was beautiful within. She had a generous, loving heart, a childlike simplicity. The several badges of animal welfare associations she wore on her collar announced her devotion. . She was a widow and had moved from a house into an apartment so she couldn’t keep cats of her own. But every day - summer and winter - she bought fish from the market, cooked it up with pasta and brought it here.
She related the trouble she was having with her neighbours who were suspicious of her strange behaviour; this is a society where anything new or unusual is mistrusted and her eccentric feeding of cats was not tolerated. As she described the nasty tricks they played on her like watering their plants just after she has hung out her washing on the balcony below, I gazed round the gardens.
Nearby were some gigantic terracotta pots filled with cascading plants covered with tiny scarlet bells, the label said they came from Mexico. The roses were already in bloom and the bougainvilleas as I always remembered them gaudy and riotous, a clash of magenta and crimson.
‘I worry, I really worry what would happen to these bambini if I couldn’t get here anymore. Sometimes I’ve been ill and missed a few days. I’ve lain in my bed imagining them waiting here for me and I don’t come.’
WE LOVE CATS BUT DO THEY LOVE US?
Do cats love us? Or is this kind of show of affection cupboard love? True they don’t respond with the tail-thumping greeting of a dog when his owner returns. Research has shown canines experience But positive emotions, like love and attachment, meaning that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. Cats are less demonstrative and some people dub them aloof. But surely it follows that if a cat behaves in the same way towards certain human beings as it does towards other cats, then undoubtedly she is showing she is fond of her owner. Domesticated cats take this much further. They use kneading behaviour, the front paws treading on soft surfaces, a hark back to kitten hood. Kitten paws knead against the mother cat’s breasts to induce milk to be released. Adult cats continue this behaviour when they’re feeling most relaxed and content. My cat, Sheba, has a habit of arriving on my pillow and kneading into my bare shoulder, purring loudly in my ear. When a cat throws herself on the ground at your feet and rolls around, she is asking for attention. Presenting her stomach in this way puts a cat in a vulnerable position so cats generally reserve the rolling around for people they trust and maybe love. The thing I love best with Sheba is her sometime slow “eye blink” from across the room; I have been honoured with a cat kiss.
The feral cats surrounding Maria while I mused on this were simply intent on having as much as they could of the pasta and fish mixture she was dispensing. They were silent. In contrast domestic cats can be very talkative. Over time, Sheba has developed a number of meows to suit different occasions. They range from the little chirrup which greets me if I wake her when coming into a room to a plaintive high pitched meow on her arrival in the house and not seeing anyone about. Then there is the quite desperate meow when she sees a packet of her food being opened. And of course there are the purrs. While these are sometimes a signal of comfort and contentment, research has shown that purring is an attempt to get something done. I remember my other cat, Fluffy’s loud and disconcerting purr, which I initially failed to recognise as a cry for help. I was new to the world of felines and unaware that they will purr when stressed or in distress or pain and are trying to attract attention.
THE TALE OF LUCKY STAR
A few days later I went in search of Laura and found she was very upset. Someone had put four kittens into a bag and literally thrown them away into a rubbish bin. Animal-loving friends of Laura noticed a faint meowing and rescued them. They were tiny: probably born only a couple of days ago. Two were dead but the others were blindly searching for food. Their crying was breaking Laura’s heart.
Together we went to the pharmacist to buy the special milk for kittens and a small pipette. It is an onerous task rearing new-born felines: they need to be fed every two or three hours.
‘I don’t know how we’ll manage,’ Laura continued. ‘I’m working all day and my father certainly wouldn’t allow me to nurse kittens in his shop.’
Fortunately her friends, the couple who found the kittens said they would take responsibility.
Once again I was struck by the juxtaposition of peace and violence in this place. Here was a café where people laughed and were tipsy on sun and wine, without a care in the world. I wanted to tell them that a few yards away from this jolly scene, there was a pile of rubbish where some cruel individual, having snatched these mites from their mother, had dumped them here.
I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, and of how suffering takes place in the midst of ordinary, careless life.
Auden visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1938 and viewed Icarus Falling by Brueghel. His poem’s theme is the apathy with which humans view individual suffering. You could say that Breugal’s painting doesn’t take it that seriously: if you look closer at the untroubled ship sailing by, you can see the foolish and drowning son of Dedalus, legs sticking out of the water. Is the artist trying to say that life is absurd, suffering insignificant? Or was it meant to portray the Icarus event as of no consequence in order to make the point of the painting stronger?
Would these happy travellers be shocked by what I told them, or would they resent that I had disturbed the calm surface of their stay? I wondered.
Laura told me that one of the kittens had died but the other was fighting on; however, there was a new problem. Her friends were going on holiday, one that was booked months ago. What was to happen to the kitten? Would violence win after all?
She got out her contact book and we phoned around. A cat lover in a neighbouring village apologised profusely. She had to take her ailing husband to hospital. We sent emails to others and no one bothered to reply.
The best way forward was to pay a vet, the first, a truly caring man was up to his eyes with work and could not take anything more on, he told us.
Meanwhile, the day was approaching when Laura’s friends would depart. I was also on the verge of leaving for England. Laura was becoming desperate. If this tiny scrap of life wasn’t fed, she would die. Laura was in tears.
And then the small miracle occurred: another vet didn’t hesitate. ‘Yes, I will take the kitten. There is a young and newly qualified vet in the surgery. She is willing to help and I will be in attendance to keep my eye on things.’
Time passed and the little feline thrived. She eats like ‘a little pig’, Laura told me, she purrs, she plays. There are some people in this apathetic world who aren’t indifferent to animal suffering.
Laura drove to the surgery to see her. She was now a ball of white with smudges of grey fluff. It was clear the young woman vet had fallen in love with her. The kitten’s miserable past was forgotten and there was no self-pity.
As another poet, D. H. Lawrence commented, he had never seen a wild thing that was sorry for itself. Lawrence lived for nearly three years in this place, a tortured soul forever wandering, but who found a degree of harmony here.
On my return Laura took me to see the kitten. She was back with the animal loving friends and would soon be adopted and have a loving home. She scuttled about our feet, playing with my shoelace and then, like all young things, she suddenly tired. She curled into a ball and went to sleep… and slept with such tranquillity. All was well.
‘What will you call her?’ I asked.
While Laura considered, I looked back over these days and the undertones of cruelty and violence I had witnessed. Certainly there was sunshine here but also a world of shadows.
Laura had been watching as the kitten wakened, yawned and immediately settled to sleep again. ‘Stella Fortunata,’ she said at last.
I translated the word to English. Lucky Star.
Oblivious, the kitten slept on. Suddenly all the questions and imponderables faded and I felt myself in the moment, rejoicing that one small being had been saved. I am not religious in the accepted sense, although I have my own beliefs, but now the words of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ brought tears to my eyes. ‘I once was lost and now am found…’ I smiled at Laura. ‘Oh yes, let’s call her Lucky Star.’
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SEVEN SOME ENCOUNTERS WITH CAT LADIES
Maria’s voice brought me back to myself. She stroked a grey and white cat with blue eyes, surely a touch of the Siamese there and probably abandoned when the novelty of kittenish behaviour wore off.
Maria was a gattara, a woman who feeds cats.
Occasionally I have seen elderly men standing in piazzas or among ancient ruins dishing out food from Whiskas tins but usually the gattare are women. Some people joke about them, sneering that the animals are a child substitute. But they don’t recognise the heroic dedication of the often-elderly woman, dragging her basket on wheels, heavy with cat food towards ‘her’ colony. In Rome, it is these cat ladies who care for many of the estimated 180,000 stray cats prowling the city’s streets. One of the most famous was the beautiful actress Anna Magnani who used to feed the cats at Torre Argentina every day when she was appearing in the theatre nearby. In the UK, Celia Hammond ex-super model whose face once graced the cover of Vogue magazine during her career in the 1960s, is a dedicated gattara. She has been rescuing, neutering and re-homing stray and unwanted animals for decades.
‘It's very hard to do this job and have a normal life,’ she has been quoted as saying. ‘Relationships just fall apart, I’ve had three main ones and I neglected all of them which is why I'm on my own,’
She sometimes ends up working 22 hours a day helping cats and says her modelling days feel so far removed from her life now. It is as if they happened to a different person.
‘You only get one life, you have to do what you feel is right with it. If you have a lifestyle where you have spent your whole life taking drugs, going to parties, flying all over the world and lying on the beach, what would you feel at the end of your life?’
Maria’s fear of letting the cats down is common among these women. Their lives are composed of considerable sacrifices and small gratification. As one of them told me: ‘I’ve sold everything, my rings, my gold, everything but I can’t abandon them.’ She had been feeding them for twenty years.
I wanted to put my arm round my companion, she looked so sad and alone sitting there, but then Lily pushed herself against Maria’s leg. She never missed the chance of a lap to make herself comfortable on.
In a while, Maria heaved herself to her feet, rinsed the bowls that had been licked clean anyway, and filled one with water. She gave me one of her rare smiles. ‘A domani’ she said and trundled off. I could see her legs were troubling her this sultry afternoon.