“Ooooh, it’s yourself!” said my Auntie B, standing in the doorway of number 30 Oakdene Parade, looking 35 years younger than her 85, at least. That’s what a life of no alcohol or nicotine and utter purity and human kindness will do for you. My darling Auntie Bertha grew up in Belfast and moved as a baby from her birthplace on Distillery Street to the council-built streets now known as the Titanic Quarter.
“Jayz, Bertha, you’re looking well,” I said. “But that’s a powerful smell.”
She looked confused. Her olfactory sensibilities had long since lain down on the job and died. “Cats …?” I prompted.
“Ooh aye. Terrible. Not that I can smell them.” A Belfast ooh aye is different from the Scottish och aye, a distant cousin but much softer and prettier.
I went to see Bertha once a year or whenever I could, at first taking the train up from Dublin and later flying over for two days. She would be there at the door, with a nice plate of homemade buns and the kettle on.
And a monstrous smell of cat pee and poo came out to assail you at the door and flattened you, accompanied by the sinister crunch of poop underfoot. Some 30 cats lived with my auntie, nearly all feral and a few in late senility, tenderly nursed by her in the tiny room my father had done his homework in 70 years before, where incontinence now ruled in what she called her Rest Home.
Bertha never had babies, but she did once tell me she didn’t mind because she’d be so afraid of them coming to harm. I understand this. I have cats, too, two very wee ones (emphasis on the “wee”).
Forget Laura in The Glass Menagerie. When it came to sensitivity and loyalty, my auntie had them all beat. Her way of showing love was to take in every feral cat in the Belfast docks, to rescue and feed them and nurse them and love them up and make sure they did not starve.
And in return, they scratched her wallpaper and furniture up to the ceilings, pooping with carefree and insouciant and wild abandon.
When she left her house to my siblings and I, I went over to start cleaning it and painting it. The first problem was the cats and — ooh aye — the smell. I’m a cat lover, too, so I was torn, torn to shreds like the wallpaper.
But I hardened my heart and kept them out back and gave them to understand that they were to stay there if they knew what was good for them. Then I emailed all the cat homes in the Six Counties of Ireland and put in a roving request on a call-in radio show. I wanted to find them all homes.
Ha! The silence was deafening, and the reason Bertha was feeding them was because sensibly, nobody else would have anything to do with them.
To call Bertha a good woman is to state the obvious, really. She was born into the Salvation Army, but became an early acolyte of the Reverend Ian Paisley, a terrifying Christian orator and loyalist militant. As a small child I was taken to see him and hear him, but was so scared I asked to go home.
Undeniably pretty in girlhood, stunningly so, and with a gorgeous figure too, she had been plucked early from her school desk and sent to work in the shipyards. The money to fix her teeth — a champion overbite — was not found. Nor did she ever “walk out” with anyone, though she did confess to me once that there was someone she liked at work. He liked her too, I think. They were working together from the ’50s to the ’90s, when both retired. But they were so shy, they never even talked, even after his wife died …
So instead: 30 cats. All had names and Bertha gave them many-splendored feats and colorful personalities. There was Minxie, who had a regurgitation reflex, and Manxie, an unstoppable piss artist who managed to hit the top of wardrobes as well as every inch of beige shag carpet in the house.
The few places Bertha went to in her 80s included shopping on Royal Avenue — she was still a size eight, with a major Marks & Spencer habit — and the tin-roofed church down the road, where she was beloved by all, and to the vet who spayed and dosed her cats. Taxi drivers knew her well. “Oh aye, her with all the cats …” they laughed.
I had high hopes of placing Bonnie, whose tabby gray fur was soft enough to win her a life extension. I even engaged Happy Paws Farm in Fermanagh in spirited dialog. But no, and finally not even the BBC call-in appeal worked.
I was stymied. Luckily Bertha had so loved her cats that she left a writ in her will that a bequest be used by her neighbor, Vera, to feed them. She also asked the long-suffering Vera to make sure they were well and unharmed.
(In contrast, her brother — my dad — sent his two cats to be euthanized because, he said, they were going to be too unhappy and bereaved when he died. Then he didn’t die for four more years.)
We loved Bertha very much, so of course we respected her wishes. Or tried to. The first night I was there, an orchestra of loud yowling arose at the back door and when I went out to see what it was they encircled me with hissing and spitting. So I put out some tins of food hurriedly and ran for the back door. Next day they were louder, and by that night they were really mad.
I had harshed their mellow. Bertha had let them have the run of the tiny house and was endlessly good to them, so I was the big letdown.
Scrubbing the walls with bleach and scraping pooh off the skirting and dismantling her doll’s house, I listened to wailing outside: first harmony, then major thirds, then minor fourths, then cacophony. We did eventually leave them all with Vera, and handsomely provided for. But the house never sold. It eventually lost the cats; but the first tenants — a newly married young couple — had to run the gauntlet at first.
Am I going to end up with a cat house, I sometimes wonder? Well, I’ll have to stay away from Animal Care and Control. Recently I went down to foster a senile cat. It was kitten season. To reach the senior cat, I had to pass the Kitten Halls, both of them. You guessed. I’m my auntie’s niece all right.
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