A cat house in the Titanic Quarter

An Irishwoman’s Diary: A catophony in waiting

‘Thirty cats lived there, all feral, and several with senile dementia. One was a psychopath with post traumatic stress disorder (my brother claims), but was tenderly nursed in the tiny box room where my father did homework 70 years before.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Thirty cats lived there, all feral, and several with senile dementia. One was a psychopath with post traumatic stress disorder (my brother claims), but was tenderly nursed in the tiny box room where my father did homework 70 years before.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Dec 31, 2013, 01:00

‘Ooooh, it’s yourself!” said Auntie Bertha, standing in the doorway of No 30 Glendale Parade in Belfast, looking 35 years younger than her 85. That’s a life of no alcohol or nicotine; but plenty of kindness for you. My darling auntie moved as a baby from her Distillery Street birthplace to the redbrick rows of the “Titanic Quarter”.

“Gosh, Bertha, you’re looking well. But that’s a . . . powerful smell.” She looked confused. Her olfactory abilities had lain down and died on the job.

“Ooh aye. Terrible. Not that I can smell.” Belfast ooh ayes are different from Scottish och ayes, softer and prettier.

I went to see Bertha regularly, for she possessed the hospitality gene in spades. She would open the door with the kettle already hissing behind her.

Then a monstrous smell of cat pee would suck you in and flatten you, accompanied by sinister crunching underfoot. Thirty cats lived there, all feral, and several with senile dementia. One was a psychopath with post traumatic stress disorder (my brother claims), but was tenderly nursed in the tiny box room where my father did homework 70 years before.

Forget Laura in The Glass Menagerie. When it came to unconditional love, my auntie had her beat. Her way of loving was to rescue cats in Belfast’s dockland and feed them so they didn’t starve.

In return, they scratched her wallpaper to the ceiling, pooped and peed with insouciance, and gave her the finger. Or claw.

Bertha never had babies. But she once told me she didn’t mind because she’d be afraid of them coming to harm. When she left No 30 to us, I came back to clean and paint. But first: cats and – ooh aye – “William Tell”. I’m a cat lover. I was torn, shredded like the wallpaper.

But I hardened my heart, indicating if they knew what was good for them they would stay outside. I emailed cat homes throughout the North and appealed to BBC call-in shows for homes. Ha! The silence was deafening. Bertha had fed them because nobody else would.

To call Bertha a good woman is to state the obvious. She was the church of the last chance and wore kindness like her coat. When I was three, she took me to hear Paisley, but I wept and begged to go home. All books save the Bible were banned in No 30, along with drink, cigarettes and cursing. Cats ruled. In her 80s, Bertha visited the tin-roofed Pentecostal chapel and the vet who spayed her cats. Taxi drivers knew her. “Ooh aye, the cats!”

She also frequented Marks & Spencer’s on Royal Avenue. Film star stunning from girlhood, and a gorgeous Size 8, by 15 she’d been plucked from books and hired by Short’s. Her abilities were discouraged. She excelled anyway.

The money to fix her teeth – champion Ken Dodd overbite – wasn’t found. She never “walked out” with anyone, but once told me there was someone she liked at work. He liked her too. They worked together for 50 years, then retired. But they never “courted”, even after his wife died.

Instead: cats. Bertha gave them names and many-splendoured feats: Minxie of regurgitation reflexes, Moxie with irritable bowel syndrome, Manxie the unstoppable piss artist who hit ceilings and shag carpets alike. I entertained hopes for Princie, whose fur was soft enough to win a heart, and called Happy Paws Farm. But not even a BBC call-in plea worked.

Stymied. That first night, an orchestra of yowling rose at the back door. When I went out they encircled me, hissing. I emptied tins and ran for the back door. Next day they were louder. By nighttime they were spitting mad.

Scrubbing walls with bleach, scraping pooh off skirting, dismantling her doll’s house, I listened to wailing: harmony, major thirds, minor fourths, cacophony, catophony.

I had, as they say, harshed their mellow.

Bertha let them have the run of the tiny house, and I was their giant letdown.

Luckily, Bertha left a bequest. She also asked long-suffering neighbours to ensure they wouldn’t go hungry.

So will I end up running a cathouse in the Titanic Quarter? The jury’s still out on that.

But I’d need to stay away from Animal Care Control in San Francisco, a volunteer-run, no-kill facility.

Recently I called for a “fospice” (short-term end-of-life care) case there, a penitent tom. But Pablo Escobar (given name) was absent and it was Kitten Season.

I passed many cages of tiny outstretched paws: “Me, me, love me!” You guessed it – I took in two.

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