A scrawny little black-and-white cat started hanging around the back of my office building one day. He seemed friendly but skittish, and he was definitely hungry. Warehouse staff fed him with chunks of ham, which he gulped down and then demanded more. There were housing estates a few hundred yards away, but this was inner-city London and it didn’t seem like the cat had much of a life, so I cajoled him into a cardboard box and took him home. The vet who checked him out noted that he was underweight for his age, which was probably two or three, and that he’d been fixed. So he was a pet who’d been abandoned or gotten lost. I named him Korky, after The Dandy cartoon character.
My cat, Scooter, was unimpressed by the scrappy new addition, even though I kept Korky in the bathroom for a few days. Korky was not happy about becoming an indoor cat, even though it seemed to have all the luxuries an average cat would dream about. He wailed and scratched and cried and made my roommate scream when she stepped in the piles of cat litter he’d thoughtfully scratched right out of the box and all across the floor.
Scooter and Korky got used to each other ÔÇô- because Scooter had had kittens, I think she tolerated his boisterousness and wild ways. She was happy to find a sunny patch on the rug and stay there all day, while he wanted to jump and play and try to scratch his way out of the house.
Korky was wary of people, perhaps because of his rough start in life. If I was lucky, I could get him to purr and lean into my hand for a skritch or nuzzle or two, but then he would quickly remember where he was and hiss or dig all his claws in. He was a world-champion foot ambusher, so I learned to lie very still at night to avoid attracting those claws. He was loyal to me, though, and would tolerate no attention from any visitors.
Shortly after, I moved into a middle flat in a Victorian semi. Korky was even more antsy to go out, but he couldn’t flash past me at the front door, and there was no back door. My kitchen window only opened at the top onto a small flat roof above the downstairs apartment’s kitchen.
Korky began patrolling every inch of the apartment, sniffing for fresh air. He soon found the kitchen window, and he was up and out. He was only little, but he squeezed through. I fretted about him all evening and leaned out the window, shaking the box of kibble and calling his name.
I went to bed, resigning myself to being a one-cat household. Around 3 a.m., I woke to scrabbling noises, a thud, and then a galloping. Korky bounded onto my bed, triumphant at his discovery of the great outdoors.
After that, I let him go out through the window on weekends ÔÇô- he usually came back within a few hours. Sometimes he sat on the edge of the roof, watching the world go by in the backyard. He had a buddy, a little black cat, who perched up there with him. There were often foxes, which he was intent on watching but getting no closer to.
My downstairs neighbors had no idea I had a cat until Korky bounced through their open kitchen window one morning. (By then he had a collar and a nametag.) With them he was a sweetly purring little lovebug who was happy to be snuggled. I tried not to sulk that he preferred their company. Fortunately, they liked cats and were happy to let him come and go.
Korky sometimes stayed out all night, even though I left the window open. When spring came, he was often gone for a couple of days at a time. The guys downstairs didn’t see him either. Because Korky wasn’t ravenous when he came home, I suspected he found another bunch of people to feed him.
One morning around dawn I got a phone call. Thinking the worst, I picked up the phone. A woman’s voice, slightly agitated, said, "Is this Korky’s house?" I murmured assent and sat up, thinking something bad must have happened.
"I just woke up and your cat is asleep on my bed!" she said, sounding bemused.
I asked her where she lived — it was a couple of streets away. Adventurous little devil! "What should I do?" she asked. "Send him home!" I said. He came romping home a few minutes later with a gleam in his eye.
By early summer, I had sold my flat and was packing to move to the U.S. I couldn’t put my cats through the ordeal of plane travel, so it was time to say goodbye to them. Scooter, the more sedate cow-cat of the pair, was going to live with my former neighbor, Lewis, who had another elderly rescue kitty named Pearl. The guys downstairs were excited about taking Korky and promised to send lots of pictures.
Two days before I left, I took Scooter to Lewis’ house. I stayed a while, getting a good dose of her (although I knew I’d be back the next day for my final goodbyes), and then walked home. That night was my leaving party at my local pub, and I had just enough time to phone my fiance and set off back out again.
As I turned the corner of my street, I saw my neighbors standing outside the house. One of them rushed up to me, crying. "It happened so fast," he sobbed. I was bewildered. Then his partner pointed to a sorry-looking little heap. "He was hit by a car. The driver never stopped." They’d heard a thud and ran out to find Korky lying in the road. They had wrapped him in a towel and carried him to our gate. It had happened just a few minutes before, when I was saying goodbye to Scooter.
We clung together, sobbing in the street. Tim was crying about how he and his partner had been looking forward so much to having Korky, and now he was gone, and it wasn’t fair. I was disbelieving and heartbroken. Meanwhile, I had just gone from two cats to no cats, but not in the way I had expected.
I wanted to see Korky. I couldn’t not see him. I bent down to the pathetically small little bundle and gingerly lifted the towel. Korky’s eyes were half open and a little bit of blood stained his muzzle. Otherwise, there wasn’t a mark on him, but he was cold and unresponsive. He was gone. I bawled and bawled.
My neighbor offered to bury Korky in the backyard. I asked him to make sure it was nice and deep because urban foxes like to dig things up (a friend’s late cat had been recently disinterred). He promised, and I stumbled in to call my fiance. I was a wreck.
Now I had to go to my leaving party. I felt completely rotten, but this was my last chance to see all my beloved friends. I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving them behind, but now I was heartbroken about my kitty, too. If only he hadn’t been so determined to go out.
I strode into the bar, ordered a triple gin and tonic, and downed it in one. It was the strongest thing I could think of that wouldn’t make me want to puke and that would take some of the pain away. Then I found my friends and sobbed out the whole story. We raised many glasses in Korky’s honor that night.
I do wonder sometimes whether Korky was just a really stupid alley cat, but sometimes I think that he couldn’t stand life without me and decided to end it all on our street.
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