Driving along Thomas Street with sad children in the back, I asked my husband to stop. We were just outside our local vet, the one that often displayed a Kitten Adoption Centre board. It wasn’t up that day.
A few months ago, we had lost our last cat to old age, and the house echoed with her absence. I hated coming home and having no one greet me in the front garden. I’d waited and waited, deciding school holidays was the right time to go in search of two kittens. But I felt hollow: school holidays were ending, and we hadn’t found them. We’d spent two hours driving back and forth from the animal shelter, but it wasn’t kitten season. There was no one there to adopt, and the kids were heartbroken. So were we.
So when we stopped outside that vet, there was a large hole in our family. On entering – the vet had already turned out the lights and was closing up for the day – I asked, rather desperately, if they had any kittens for adoption. The vet smiled, and led me to one of the treatment rooms. There were two kittens at play there, one long-haired, which my husband’s asthma ruled out. Looking around, the vet apologised for the state of the room. “I just put them in here five minutes ago, and it was spotless.” Cat toys were everyone, food dishes overturned, water spilled. But I didn’t care about any of that.
The second kitten, a tiny black one, was staring up at me. I reached down to pet him, hearing what the vet said next with a sinking feeling. This kitten was promised to someone else. She would pick him up on Monday, if she decided to go through with it. By this time, the kitten was in my arms, up against my chest, purring. He reached up with his paw and touched my face. As he purred, I felt that hole in my family, in me, close. He was special, this kitten.
When I returned to the car, I told my family the vet did have a kitten, but he might be taken. There were howls of protest: We want to see him! they wailed. But the vet had closed.
Monday morning came. I did the usual: I dropped the kids to school; rode my bike home; prepared to go the gym. But I happened to ride by the vet. The tiny black kitten was promised to someone else, but in my heart, he was already mine.
I entered the vet and there he was in a cage by Reception, playing with a ball.
“Has she called for him?” I asked, gesturing to the black kitten.
“No,” the vet answered. “And frankly, I’m fed up. I’ve called her several times over the last few weeks. She’s never called back. He’s getting older. If you want him, he’s yours.” The vet loved that kitten too, and wanted to best for it.
I could have danced for joy. “Can I hold him again?”
That purr; those paws reaching out, saying yes.
My husband, when I called him, said we should wait until we found two the same age.
I explained that this kitten was special.
I brought home that tiny black kitten. We named him Jake.
It took two more weeks to find his sister, another black-and-white kitten, a female, a month younger. Jessica.
On the night we brought her home, afraid they might fight, I put the Jessica in the laundry room while I prepared dinner. Jake found her anyway. She was passing her paws under the door, and he watched, mesmerised. Reaching out, he touched her, and the white paw disappeared. She could be heard leaping around the laundry room. A moment later she was back, paws under the door. The kids and I gathered to laugh. Those kittens played with each other’s paws for hours that day – Jake was desperate to know what lay beyond that door! When I finally opened it, there was not a moment’s battle. They loved each other from the start. They still find doors to pass their paws under now, three months later, as if remembering the day they met. They sleep curled up together, seek each other out for games of chase and battle. They are our home.
But here’s the thing. They’ve had all their shots, been de-sexed, microchipped, wormed, cuddled, been registered with the Council and have the right tags. And they have grown up. This week, they asked to go outside. I say asked. They scratched at the window when I was in the garden, staring at me wide-eyed, How’d you get out there, those eyes said, Can we come?
So I put the collars on them. And opened the door.
It was hard. Having lost other cats makes these ones more precious. They seem delicate and easily harmed.
But just like me, they need freedom: to be wild; to be cats. I watch them from my office window, leaping at bugs, pouncing at each other, crawling under the house when they are frightened.
It is hard, this letting go, this risking them with the wider world.
But this is freedom. This is what my mother gave me when I told her I was moving to Australia. What my husband offers with open arms each time I drive away to an adventure race in an unknown location. And what, one day, I will have to give my young children as they grow up.
To let go. To be assured that my love will protect them.
As if on cue, as I write this, Jake comes running back in through the open door and settles himself on my lap, purring.
Then, when he’s had his fill, he sprints out the door again, Jessica hot on his heels, to do the things cats do, when they are free.
Later, I find my own freedom in a 14.5km trail run. I smell the spring air, feel the sunshine on my bare arms, and am delighted we have all found our freedom.
They are there to greet me in the garden when I get home, warm fur in spring sun.