Before I started visiting every cat cafe in the world as The Neighbor's Cat, there was the other neighbor's cat and a terrible secret.
My partner and I were cat thieves.
Never mind that it was unintentional. We did it. We stole the neighbor’s cat.
To be fair, no cat truly allows you to ‘own’ them, they simply let you hang out at their convenience. But even though she wasn’t really ours, this sweet, fierce and adorable feline changed our lives forever.
To this day, we still consider the UK our home. All because of a cat!
She showed up the day we moved into our house. We had arrived in Peterborough from the US the previous month and had been living in a tiny flat nearby where where my partner had been suffering from such terrible allergies, he joked about moving to Iceland.
While unpacking a box, I heard him call out ‘Hey, a cat!' I walked into his office and saw him petting a beautiful, long-haired Maine Coon kitten perched on the ledge of the window.
As we cooed over her, she suddenly turned and bit my partner on the hand, and I do mean BIT! She clamped down hard. Shocked, he tried shaking her off lightly, not wanting to hurt her. She released and ran away so we could inspect the damage. There was definitely broken skin, so we washed the wound with antibacterial soap and joked about the onset of cat-scratch fever.
There are two memorable consequences as a result of this event. First, my partner ceased to have severe allergies. I’m definitely not a believer in miracle cures, however, I’m telling you that the same man who could not sleep in a house with a cat without sneezing fits was transformed into someone who could overnight in a cattery with nary a sniffle.
The second unforgettable outcome is that despite the inauspicious start, this little kitty ultimately became a member of the family.
She kept coming back and while we were certainly wary, she allowed us a few limited head scratches if they were accompanied by cat treats. This evolved into regular meals, which progressed into afternoon naps, which progressed into lap sitting and regular overnights.
As we are creative geniuses, we named her Puss E. Cat, sometimes PEC or just Puss for short.
It took some time to identify her gender. We sat in front of a computer one day trying to figure out how to type in a search without looking like animal perverts. I’m sure we are on some government list, but finally determined she was a girl and she was fixed.
We suspected she must belong to someone in the neighborhood and began to ask our neighbors ‘Is this your cat?’ All admitted feeding her from time to time but generally felt she was a free spirit just moving between homes. Satisfied that we had done proper due diligence, we considered her officially adopted.
It didn't take long before we were completely smitten with our feline friend. We invested in some gear- toys, catnip and many types of treats. She became the focal point of our conversations, which usually began with ‘Let me tell you what the cat did today.’ My partner regularly texted photos of her when I traveled on business trips.
Eventually, we settled into a bit of a routine. As many cats in the UK do, she spent most of the night outside, then waited on the ledge outside the kitchen window in the morning. Once inside, she would eat breakfast and then find a favorite sleeping spot, which she rotated every couple of weeks, before awakening mid-afternoon to be let out. By early evening she was back through the kitchen window to hang with us. Finally, despite going to bed with us around midnight, she would awaken us at 3:30 am by pouncing on our heads- the indicator that she wanted to be let out.
I will confess, I was not a fan of this early morning interlude.
Signs of the original little biter emerged from time to time. She was prone to attack bare feet if you tried to step over her. Sometimes, a sweet session of lap petting would suddenly end with a swipe. We joked about the cat’s toughness and nicknamed her the ‘Regulator’ as she ruled the neighborhood. Birds, cats and people- we all lived in a bit of fear and admiration of this adorable little assassin.
Things were uneventful for nearly a year until we made a three-day trip out of town.
I had ordered something from Amazon and found a slip on the door when we returned. The package had been left at #8, the neighbor’s house three doors down from us. Recently, we became suspicious about their relationship with the cat as my partner noted how a little girl from that house picked up the cat at the playground across the street and walked with her in her arms. Remember, this was the cat that would rip your face off if you looked at her the wrong way.
Later that day, there was a knock at the door. It was the neighbor from #8 with our package, a lovely woman named Liz. While she was handing it over to me, Puss walked, nay, sauntered past Liz and over to her bowl where she began to eat. I noticed a strange look on her face so I cut in- ‘Do you know this cat?'
The reply was swift. ‘Oh, yes, she’s ours, and now I know where she's been spending all her time!'
The embarrassment was palpable and I could feel the red creeping up my cheeks. I stammered out profuse apologies and tried to explain. Liz was completely gracious and said the cat didn’t like spending time in the house, as she hated the dog and other cat. Turns out, Puss' real name is Bella, but she is informally known as Fluffy Cat. Her sister is Smooth Cat and I liked the idea that our cat had aliases and two families. Very MI6.
After that, our relationship with the cat was in the open and we became good friends with Liz and family*. Our last Christmas in the UK we received a card signed ‘To Number 2 and Bella the Cat. From Number 8 and Bella the Cat’.
When we found out we needed to move back to the US, I was heartbroken. We said our tearful goodbyes (returning her to her rightful master) and took photos, but despite my best efforts to move on, I missed her so much, my partner made a special photo.
When that failed, he produced a video to cheer me up. http://vimeo.com/106996425
Eventually, the physical pain of being separated from her began to wane and a couple of years later, we began to travel the world visiting cat cafes.
The Neighbor's Cat was born, but I there isn't a cat that can replace the neighbor's cat in my heart.
*When we visit the UK, we always make a stop at Liz's house to see Bella. Here is a photo from last year.
The Neighbor’s Cat is the alter ego of Paula LaBine, an itinerant cat lover who writes about cat cafes and rescue/adoption/TNR, and has been featured in Miau Magazine, Katzenworld Blog and The Catnip Times. She is currently on a quest to visit every cat café in the world, 200 in 29 countries so far! Find her at theneighborscat.com or on Facebook/Twitter @catcafeviews.