The Old Man and The Cat is a story of how Nils Uddenberg, retired Professor of Psychology became a beloved cat-owner even though he had never wanted a pet of any kind.
One winter morning the author discovered a catwhom he would later find was homelesssitting outside his bedroom window, staring at him with big yellow eyes. Slowly but surely the cat worked itself into his life.
This award-winning writer who has a background in psychology could not stop himself from going deeper into the cat's inner life. Does she have a sense of humor? Is it possible to attach human feelings to her? And the trickiest question of all: Is our little cat actually interested in our attachment to her?
With humor and self-awareness, Nils describes how his existence changed after the cat moved into his house. The feelings she stirs up are a surprise to him and he quickly finds himself falling in love with this speckled grey-brown little lady.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||7.30(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
NILS UDDENBERG is a retired university lecturer in Medical Psychology. In 2003 he won the August Prize for his book Ideas About Life. He lives in Sweden.
Read an Excerpt
The Old Man and the Cat
A Love Story
By Nils Uddenberg, Henning Koch
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Nils Uddenberg by agreement with Hedlund Agency
All rights reserved.
I am a qualified doctor; I am a lecturer in psychology and empirical, practical research into philosophies of life. The government has been kind enough to credit me by name of professor. But, for my own part, I am happy to call myself a writer: over the years I have published a large number of books, some of which have sold reasonably well. Nowadays I am also a cat owner or, I wonder, is it in fact the cat who owns me? Well, yes, that's probably the case — in real terms.
This is the story of how I "came down with cat," even though I had decided I would never, ever, own any pet. It's a banal story, maybe even a little ridiculous. But I'm in my seventies, and I have no status to defend and no career to fight for. I can allow myself the liberty of telling this tale. Like many older men I am fairly wet and sensitive. But the cat, as we'll soon see, has a will of steel; or maybe it is closer to the mark to say that she has a methodical, soft determination. There were never any confrontations, but in the long term that cat got what she wanted. This was how it started.
* * *
At the end of October, my wife and I came back from Namibia. I have always loved traveling and we have been to Africa before. We had driven a four-wheel drive for two weeks through the Namibian desert, visited large, empty national parks and seen elephant, zebra, and many elegant antelopes ranging the wilderness. Naturally we had also seen the obligatory big cats, the lions and leopards, but not so many of them on this occasion.
We live in a little house in the center of Lund. Our garden is surrounded by a wooden fence, which in most places is entirely covered in ivy. We park the car in a carport, and between the garden and the carport we have a gate that is always kept locked. This is immediately by our ground floor bedroom window and when, about a week after we had come home, I raised the blind to let in some pale autumn light, there was a cat sitting on the gate, looking at me with large, yellow eyes. She was a small, gray-brown speckled cat without any white markings. We had never seen her before, but we assumed that she lived in one of the nearby houses.
The little cat kept turning up in the days that followed, and before long we realized that she was spending her time in the little garden shed that is built onto the carport, with its entrance from the garden. A couple of times, while picking something up in the shed, the cat peered out from the basket where I kept some implements. We understood that she was spending the nights in the garden shed, where she got some shelter from wind, cold, and rain. Obviously, that morning when she unexpectedly showed up on the garden gate, she had been sleeping in my garden basket. She had made herself as comfortable as possible. The weather had turned cold and when, a few days later, we looked into the shed we saw that she had curled herself into a tight ball. She couldn't be especially comfortable; garden implements are not exactly bedfellows of choice. The only thing to provide a bit of comfort were my gardening gloves.
We went to the apartment we have in Stockholm and stayed away for almost two weeks. All the time I was hoping that the cat would realize that we were not a good bet, that she would understand that she had everything to gain by going home or finding some other protectors. But when we came back, the cat was still lying there in my gardening basket and watching us with her big, yellow eyes when we opened the door of the shed.
Winter came early that year; our unheated and draughty garden shed can hardly have been a salubrious place to spend the harsh winter nights. But the cat seemed to be feeling well, both alert and in good physical shape, her fur thick and lustrous. But how in the world was she getting by? Did she have some owner somewhere in the vicinity, where she could go for some food now and then, or ...?
* * *
There is something special about a cat's eyes. They are large and face forward; like humans and other primates, cats have three-dimensional vision. Nor do cats turn away their eyes; like small children, they just stare right back at us. It is easy to start seeing an appeal, maybe even reproach, in their gaze. In any case we were overwhelmed by pity, we removed the hard gardening implements and put an old worn-out beach towel in the basket. Our son, who had visited us with his family a few months before, had forgotten some of the dry food that he gave his dogs. Maybe, we thought, cats eat dog food. We put some of the dog food on a flowerpot saucer and served it up outdoors; we didn't want to let the cat inside the house. The cat smelled the food, guardedly at first, then she started eating greedily. Apparently she was ravenous.
Again we went to Stockholm and once more we were gone for almost two weeks. When we came back it had snowed and I went to the shed to fetch a shovel, so I could clear the drift that had built up outside the car port. THE CAT WAS STILL THERE!
What could we do? While we were in Stockholm we had been talking quite a bit about the cat. We had been hoping she would leave on her own — we'd hardly been hospitable. Certainly she was a sweet and alert little cat and we had nothing against cats per se, but we often spent long periods in our apartment in Stockholm and we liked to travel. With our lifestyle we could not have a cat, it was just impossible. A cat needs to be able to depend on its hosts, and we were not dependable. The most likely thing, we consoled ourselves, was that she had got herself lost. Someone nearby was probably missing a gray-brown speckled kitty.
We put up notices. Someone from the next street responded, and wondered if his cat was causing us inconvenience. Not at all, we said, but maybe he was missing it? He wasn't. Obviously it was not his cat that had a habit of spending the nights in our garden shed. No one else expressed any interest, and we took down the notices. There we were, quite helpless, with a cat that had decided to live with us.
From time to time when we went to our grocery store we had seen posters appealing for donations to a community association that took care of homeless cats. They seemed to be feline-friendly, tender-hearted people well used to taking care of summer strays; maybe they could help us find a home for our little kitty? Oh yes, they could certainly understand our problem and they were pleased that we had turned to them, but their home for cats in distress was fullfull to bursting.
* * *
There was still the police. I called them. A friendly female voice answered, and I explained, a little bashfully, that I had no crime to report, only a silly question: "What do you do when a cat starts living in your garden?" I was hoping that someone had reported a missing cat to the police. My call was transferred and I spoke to yet another friendly lady, this one a police officer, who checked her register of missing cats. No one was looking for a cat like ours.
Continuing my conversation with the friendly policewoman, I admitted that we were finding it difficult resisting the cat's efforts to make contact. It just didn't feel right to let the stubbornly affectionate creature sleep out there in the freezing cold. The lady at the other end of the line was very understanding, maybe she even had a cat of her own. I couldn't tell. Of course, she explained, cats can be out of doors in winter — I knew that myself — but if it got too cold they sometimes got into trouble. Their ears and the tips of their tails could get frostbitten, and they needed sustenance to build up protection against the cold. Yes, I knew this, too.
But it just so happened, I explained, that I absolutely could not have a cat. How on earth should I deal with this? The most important thing, said the friendly lady, was never to give the cat any food. They're freeloaders, she explained, and if one gives them food they stay. I admitted slightly guiltily that we had been overcome by compassion for the persistently affectionate little creature, and we had given her food on one or two occasions. But, I added, as if to emphasize my firm principles, only ever outside. Which was true, more or less. Without any accusation in her voice, she suggested that this might be enough in itself. The cat already viewed us as a resource, which had to be maximized. I understood very well what she meant.
She said that the police could come and get the cat, on the condition that I managed to catch her. The police would bring the transport cage. I explained that catching the little animal was the least of problems, she sought contact with us as soon as we showed ourselves. I turned the question round: "What would the police do with the cat once they had her?" Well, said the understanding policewoman, they would bring the cat to an animal holding center that might be able to find someone willing to take care of her. At worst, they would have to put her down. I thought back on the animal tests I had run on cats when, during a period in my youth, I had worked as a teacher and trainer at the department of physiology, and did not ask any more about it. Instead I just thanked her for being helpful, and hung up.
* * *
Something inside me said, "No!" With her determined approaches the cat had shown a measure of faith in us, which I found it difficult to be unmoved by. To let the police take care of her would feel like a breach of trust. In that case, I thought to myself, I'd rather take the cat myself to the nearby animal hospital and pay for her to be put down as painlessly as possible. A good death would be better than a bad life. I had started taking responsibility for the cat's well-being.
We put out food, still outside. The cat ate and was allowed to sleep in the garden shed. In the beginning we only put out food now and then. But there was a lot of snow and it was properly cold, and our empathy grew. Lynxes and wildcats can cope with hard winters, I thought. But only if they get food. Our son's leftover dog food ran out and we tried offering the cat our own leavings: sausage, chicken, fish au gratin. Certainly the cat ate it all, but she was a little dubious about it. Before long we had bought a bag of dry food with a tuna aroma. I felt a little silly when I put the cat food on the conveyor in front of the familiar cashier in the grocery store. I wasn't someone who bought cat food, it was not a part of my self- image, and I felt a need to explain myself: "A little cat has moved into our garden shed and we feel sorry for her." "Well, then she'll probably stay," she explained. She sounded convinced about that, maybe she had some experience of her own to draw on. Of course she'll stay, I thought with a little sigh.
Kitty was over the moon when we came home with the new food. Obviously the pet food manufacturers know the sort of thing that tickles a cat's fancy. Food like that was also cheap, a bag lasted a long time and we made sure we always had cat food at home.
So gradually that it never actually happened, we began to view the little animal as a part of our daily lives. With a slight sense of surprise, I was able to confirm that the question, "Where's the cat?" had become one of our commonest phrases. Without at any point having made a decision about it, we had become cat owners.
But I was still not convinced that we, with our lifestyle, were suitable candidates for having a cat. Our daughter, who had met the cat on several occasions, came to our aid. We had familiarized her with our dilemma, and she told us frankly that she felt we were "suited to having a cat." We just felt good with that little animal running around us. Anyway, she had also been charmed by our little Kitty and both her sons spoke enthusiastically about grandmother and grandfather's cat. Our son-in-law was very firm about it, he did not want a cat in their house. Our daughter, who's a social scientist and used to settling both practical and emotional problems for people, spoke the deciding words, "Can we have joint custody? I'll look after Kitty in those weeks when you're in Stockholm." The thing was decided. The cat could stay.
* * *
During the Christmas break I didn't have much reason to go to Stockholm, one and a half months elapsed without a single trip. Routines evolved. The cat — we still called her "our little Kitty" — still slept in the garden shed. Was it our hesitation about having a cat that made us treat her like that, or did we want to test her determination? Well, there could be no doubt of that. Every morning when we rolled up the blinds, the cat was sitting on the porch, in the snow, or even on the window ledge; at other times she came bolting down the path our grandchildren had shoveled from the garden shed to the house. They called it "Kitty's path." Already after a week, the cat materialized as soon as we touched the window latches. Had she been sitting there, waiting for us to wake up? Or did she hear when we started moving about and quickly got into position? A jump inside and then a brisk stroll into the kitchen to check if there was food and milk. There certainly was — indoors, nowadays.
On the odd occasion, the cat did not come running at once. To my surprise and irritation I noticed that I grew concerned. Where was she? Had something happened? Was she disappointed in us, had she abandoned us? It was not only the cat that had become attached to us, or rather to our garden and our house. We had also become attached to Kitty.
* * *
I loathe the winter. As a native of Skåne, I have never learned to do something fun with below-zero temperatures and snowdrifts. Skates and skis don't seem to fit my feet. I just find that the snow gets in my way and makes the streets impassable and slippery. Every snowy and dark winter's day is something to be endured — my mood is not always the best. People often try to console me by mentioning how the snow illuminates things. Yes, that's true, I suppose, but I wouldn't hesitate to choose darkness with freedom of movement. Maybe it sounds grumpy, but I honestly prefer misty, clement winter days to an ever-so-radiant sun on newly fallen snow.
Now the cat came to the rescue. There she sat one morning against the windowpane, as usual, looking at us with her big, round, yellow eyes. But to get inside, she had to either reverse or jump down into the snow again, then make another leap into the right window. She looked around, peered at the snow with distaste and chose to reverse. Walking backward on a narrow, snow-covered window ledge is not wholly easy, not even for a lithe little cat, and her maneuver looked so comical that I could not avoid laughing. Immediately, my surly winter morning mood picked up.
True enough, the cat had caused us a certain amount of worry, not least while we were trying to get rid of her, but it couldn't be denied that she had also given us a great deal of joy. If we help you survive the winter, I thought, you can help us, too.
* * *
As I said, plenty of snow fell that winter, and we had lots of it on our old roof, where after fifty years of service the asbestos tiles were starting to give up. After the cold and the snow, once the thaw set in, it started leaking. In an attempt to put an end to the misery, we put up ladders and tried to shovel the snow away. It was heavy work, the gutters were filled with hard ice, the drainpipe frozen up and covered in an impressive icicle. We shoveled and swore, but the cat was delighted. She loved climbing the ladders we were using to do our work. When we first noticed that the cat had climbed up on the roof, we wondered how she would manage to get down again. It went really well; calmly and carefully she placed her paws on the rungs of the ladder and made it down as elegantly as one could ever wish. My wife got her camera. How sweet she was, we said proudly. She was certainly both agile and smart enough to get herself out of a tight spot.
We were caught! Our resistance had been overthrown, or rather, gradually eroded. The cat had won. I think she knew all along that she would. Otherwise she would not have been so methodical and purposeful. My wife, and myself no less, have capitulated to her seductive arts.
* * *
A few of my contemporaries, male friends of mine, have fallen in love with new, often considerably younger women. It would be dishonest to deny that I have been tempted by the notion of one more time feeling a rush of love giving new youth to body and soul. But I don't have the energy and, apart from that, there's no reason for it. My wife and I are very much at home with each other; we have shared a long life. Losing her would be a greater loss than any compensation of a new infatuation. It is far better, in this case, to lose my heart in a small way — because I certainly have — to a cat.
Excerpted from The Old Man and the Cat by Nils Uddenberg, Henning Koch. Copyright © 2015 Nils Uddenberg by agreement with Hedlund Agency. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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