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Do Eat


Paul Wright

Copyright © 2017 Paul Wright

Text illustrations Copyright © 2017 Paul Wright

All rights reserved.


Cover design by Sheer Design and Typesetting

"I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul."

Jean Cocteau


About the Author

Chapter 1…. Whiskers

Chapter 2…. Lucy

Chapter 3…. Uli

Chapter 4…. New Surroundings

Chapter 5…. Roger’s Black Pearls

Chapter 6….Antonio, Raffaele and Alfredo

Chapter 7…. Samantha, Kubanski, Arturo, Ferragosta and Pam

Chapter 8…. A New Home, Some Newcomers and a Lethal Visitor

Chapter 9…. The End of the Menace and Some More Additions

Chapter 10… Crewe Alexandra, Stevie G and Kalashnikov

Chapter 11... La Brigata Rossa - Ulisse, Fernando and Francesco

Chapter 12... Luis, the Squatter in the Loft

Chapter 13… A Cat is for Life

Chapter 14… My Last Will and Testament

Discover Other Books by Paul Wright

Also by Paul Wright

An Italian Home - Settling by Lake Como

Earlswood Press, 2011

An Italian Village - a Perspective on Life Beside Lake Como

Earlswood Press, 2014

About the Author

Paul Wright is an award-winning English artist who specialises in large scale murals, Trompe l’Oeil painted furniture, contemporary oil paintings and watercolour landscapes.

In 1982, following a period spent designing theatre sets around the UK, Paul started his own art studio in Surrey, where he specialised in hand painted interiors for private homes and commercial premises.

In 1991 he moved to northern Italy with his partner, Nicola, where he continues to work from his studio and art gallery base in the beautiful medieval village of Argegno on the shores of Lake Como, and from where he travels to other European countries and to the USA.

Paul’s work has been featured in many art exhibitions in the UK and on two programmes for Italian television, plus dozens of periodicals and newspapers worldwide, notably The Sunday Times, Architectural Digest, The Wall Street Journal and The Arts Review.

1 Whiskers

I was six and three quarters when I fell in love for the first time.

It happened on a bright Saturday morning one spring in our local Co-op grocery store. As part of my weekend chores I would go there to fetch a white tin loaf, four eggs, three tomatoes and a pound of streaky bacon. On that propitious Saturday, when Bob Jackson, the man who worked the bacon slicer placed the foodstuffs in my basket, he also deposited an eight month-old kitten along with them. 'Her name is Whiskers,’ he announced. ‘She needs a good home and I’ve chosen you to give it to her.’

I have only a vague recollection of what she actually looked like, but as far as I remember she was a shorthaired tabby. And she was gorgeous. My memory of her exact markings remains clouded, because nobody ever took a photograph of her, but I shall always remember with great fondness the occasion she was presented to me, because it was the moment I became an incurable ailurophile (I discovered many years later that this is the name for a lover of cats). I would relive this delightful experience at least another twenty times.

This happened in the late 1950s. Back then, I had two middle-class parents who, along with me, inhabited an almost new semi-detached house with rendered, cream painted walls. It was in a seaside town called Formby on the northwest coast of England, thirteen miles north of Liverpool. Formby was, and still is a spread out, appealing country town in the urban jurisdiction of Sefton in the old Shire of Lancaster.

Our semi was pretty much the same as the other twenty-eight in a crescent shaped, tree-lined road a mile inland. Typically, it was a mirror image of its other half and furnished in an equally typical way. Downstairs, off a spacious hallway was the lounge, containing a three-piece suite. Through the lounge door there was a separate dining room and off that, a small kitchen. A carpeted staircase led from the hall to three adequate sized bedrooms and a bathroom with a white glazed bath, toilet and washbasin. Every semi had a long back garden that, in general, the residents tended faithfully. The front gardens were shorter, with low brick walls and waist-high wooden front gates. Most had driveways. A few had carports and some had one-car garages, but the rest had nothing at all. Ours had a carport with a corrugated asbestos roof, but we had no car to go under it. My father preferred a Vespa scooter, but neither my mother nor I liked riding pillion. We wanted him to buy a VW Beetle and after a great deal of persuasion he did.

I was the same age, almost to the day as Mary Eccles, the girl who lived in the semi next door. Unlike her, I wasn’t the sort of child who had begged for a friend to keep. She pestered her parents unremittingly to present her with lots of friends who were prepared to share genuine warmth and love with her. Although I had thought many times about demanding that my parents found friends for me, I never did. Mary had more pets, including insects, reptiles, fish, rodents, and caged birds than almost all the residents of the crescent put together. The only thing she didn't have, but still wanted badly was a horse, but even her indulgent parents had to call a halt at some point. Only Tommy Aindow had more animals in his care. He had a coop full of racing pigeons, and my mother detested him for having them, because twice a day, Tommy would open the flaps to his coop to allow his cherished flock to exercise their wings.

Because of the birds' predisposition to soil her washing, my mother wanted to see both them and Tommy removed from this earth.

As a keen gardener, my father was averse to all creatures from the natural world, but in particular he was averse to Mary’s dogs, cats and rabbits. He was also averse to Mary herself for not keeping them locked up. A wire-netting fence separated our garden from the Eccles’s, which Mary's cats and dogs found easy to jump over. As he looked through the glass of the sliding patio doors to admire his pristine back garden and his meticulous vegetable patch beyond, he would always keep a broom close to hand, just in case one of Mary's pets was on the loose. And if any of her six rabbits had a fancy for some of his vegetables, they would burrow underneath the fence and do their best to gorge themselves, but my father never seemed to comprehend that animals didn’t recognise the same territorial boundaries that humans have. My mother was convinced that the duress the animals caused him contributed to the stroke he would suffer later in life.

My mother was fixated by hygiene and she would clean the house until every part of it shone. She would not tolerate having any animal in the house, because she believed they all harboured germs. So on that Saturday morning, when I returned from the Co-op store with more than just food in my basket, she all but threw a fit. 'Get that thing out of this house, immediately!’ She screamed.

When I took Whiskers outside and into my father’s garden she became rational, or as rational as she could be, which was never one hundred per cent. The delight I must have radiated on the Saturday morning when I arrived home with Whiskers didn't convince her one bit that we should keep this furry little wonder that was sitting in the basket alongside the eggs and tomatoes, licking itself clean. Only when I boo-hooed my eyes out did she give in and let the kitten stay.

After all, that’s what Mary Eccles did to get her own way and it always seemed to work for her. For once, it worked for me, but sadly Whiskers was not to stay for very long.

I had never expected to be a cat owner (that is, as far as anyone can actually own a cat), probably because I’d been brainwashed from an early age into believing that only spoilt children have animals. Nice, unspoilt boys like me do not. Next door was held up as a case in point, because my parents regarded Mary as being spoilt to death - and nobody likes a spoilt child. Where I was rake thin, Mary was a fat dumpling of a kid, and I was instructed to believe that was how I would end up looking if I were ever spoilt. Sometimes I wished I was a titch spoilt and then, perhaps I would only be a little bit fatter.

After a lot of wrangling, my mother and I finally came to an agreement. As long as I was prepared to look after "it" and she didn’t have any involvement with "it", then "it" could stay. Needless to say, there were supplementary conditions within the agreement that were so improbable and so long-winded I would never be able to remember them. Unfortunately, less than a fortnight after its creation, the agreement became untenable. My mother declared that she had pulled all her hair out over the behaviour of our new resident because, she said, it had been so naughty when I was at school. I guess Whiskers was branded as naughty for a couple of reasons. The first was because on one occasion she peed on the dining-room carpet, but this was because the door leading from the kitchen to the garden had been shut and she couldn’t get out. Another reason concerned the lace curtains that adorned the sliding door windows in the lounge. The texture of these was made for plucking and, as I was informed, she plucked them at least five times a day while I was at school. I have to say I hadn’t witnessed any of the plucking mentioned, or any evidence of the aforesaid plucking. But I was around when

Whiskers leapt on the dining table to help herself to my dinner. She did it because, like me, she was underfed. In my mother's judgement, being underfed was healthier than being overfed and she applied the same philosophy to Whiskers. The second time Whiskers tried to indicate to her that living with us constituted starvation was when she leapt on the dining table once more and stole a chump chop off my mother's plate, just as she was about to cut into it. That prompted my mother to let loose one of her favourite sayings. 'That’s the straw that finally broke the camel's back!'

So, the poor creature had hardly put her paw over the threshold when my mother had begun to build a case against my having her. She then went all out to win her husband over to her side. Her main strategy was to call for a Vote. Voting was her favourite method of establishing anything new within the household, and she would lie to produce a two-to-one result in her favour. On this occasion, as my father was eating his dinner, she began weaving stories about Whiskers crapping everywhere. The poor cat seemed to be crapping so many times a day that her husband knew it was another of her preposterous inventions. Judging by the pitiful amount of food my mother dished up each day, it was impossible for Whiskers to litter the house in the way described. According to her, after Whiskers had littered "her" house she went outside and continued to litter "his" garden. If her husband wasn’t paying attention to her ranting, which most of the time he wasn’t, she knew that any mention of the word "garden" would rouse him from his ennui. He loved his garden more than he loved his wife.

Actually, my mother wouldn’t have used the word "crapped". She would have said, "Did her business." She was unlikely to have known what "crap” meant, and if she did she would have pretended it didn’t exist.

There were many things in her life that were never dwelt upon; "toilet functions" were one of them, although her obsession with cleanliness got her down on her knees to sanitise the toilet regularly. Swearing was totally forbidden in our house, and my father would receive untold reprimands if he used anything as strong as "damn", "devil" or even "blast". He hit his ankle with a spade once when he was turning the cabbage patch over and he screamed out a D-word. Although the man was in pain and there was blood staining his sock, my mother's only concern as she came dashing down the garden path was about his language.

Sandy Eccles was Mary’s ginger tomcat. He didn't do me any favours in my struggle to keep Whiskers, because during the night he decided to find out more about his new female neighbour. Not having been castrated, his curiosity was unrestrained and his first act was to climb over the fence and spray objects near to our house. I had to agree with my mother: the odour was repugnant. Once again she repeated her "last straw" pronouncement, even though Whiskers wasn’t the culprit.

Just eleven days after I had brought Whiskers home, I rushed home from school especially to be with her, only to find that the cardboard box in the yard where she had been sleeping was empty. She had been returned from whence she came, for no other reason than that she was a cat. I cried cups full of tears, but they didn’t make any difference to my inveterate mother. I never saw Whiskers again. When my father arrived home from work that same evening, I looked to him for some understanding, but he was so under his wife’s thumb it wouldn’t have been worth his matrimonial alliance to argue against her. In the end, he promised to take me to watch Liverpool FC’s next home fixture if I would only stop crying for five minutes.

Two weeks later, my mother informed me that poor little Whiskers had been hit by the number S2 Ribble bus outside the Co-op.

That put paid to my constant enquiries about her welfare. I was devastated almost beyond consolation, in the way most people are when they lose someone close. Perhaps the only thing that got me through the sadness was the thought that Whiskers probably didn’t have any regrets. If her life was to be spent in the chilly atmosphere of the Co-op food store or the frozen one under my mother’s roof, where repression, persecution and discrimination reigned, then the poor little mite was probably better off out of it.

A month after my mother sent Whiskers back, I found out that she had been a useless ratter, which was why Bob Jackson had off-loaded her onto me. In the meantime, the Co-op had found a replacement for her, so they weren’t best pleased when she was returned to them.


2 Lucy

Some thirty or so years on from the Whiskers episode, a second cat entered my life. For most of the intervening time I had been working as a stage designer and scenic artist in the British theatre, television and film world. This meant I had to travel a lot, so it wasn't possible for me to provide the settled situation that a cat or, for that matter, any pet needs. It was only when I left the entertainment business, bought a semi-detached house in a small town in Surrey and started my own business, painting Trompe l’oeil murals in the homes of the well-to-do that I started to consider having a cat. What also encouraged the idea was that my partner, Nicola suggested that we should keep some animals.

When we met, Nicola was working as a legal secretary for a partnership of solicitors in nearby Godalming. In her spare time she was the secretary of the local soccer club I played for and one evening, after an away fixture we went out for a few drinks, which in due course led to our life-long relationship and eventual marriage. During our first year as an item, Nicola continued to live with her parents in nearby Witley, but she spent the majority of her weekends at my place. Before I met her I’d been quite happy living on my own, but around the first anniversary of our meeting she suggested that she move into my house on a permanent basis. She added that of course she would be prepared to pay me rent.

I’m sure Nicola knew I wouldn’t turn down her proposal because she had already been moving in piecemeal, and I hadn’t said or done anything to prevent it.

As an avid reader, Nicola has never been far away from a book, so consequently a growing collection of them had started to fill vacant spaces in my bookcase. I’d also noticed there were clothes hanging in my closet that weren't mine, and her wash things had begun to get mixed in with mine on the bathroom shelf. When I noticed a teddy bear had crept into what had become our bed (and it had brought its own pillow), it was just a matter of her bringing a couple more suitcases of clothes and a large box of shoes for the process to be complete.

One weekend of the third month from Nicola had moved in, we'd noticed that a cat had started to peer at us through the glass panelled French doors that opened onto our back garden. It was grey with fawn bits, a tortoise shell back and a white front. We didn’t know its name, its sex or where it came from, but our next-door neighbours told us it lived at number fifty-two, four doors down the street. They told us her name was Lucy and that she wasn’t very happy in her current home, because her owners' behaviour had suddenly become upsetting for her. The more Lucy came to visit us the longer she began to stay, especially when we started to feed her. Consequently we soon became very fond of her, because Nicola is about as lovesick as it is possible to be over cats (or any animal, come to that), especially one that happened to be looking for a home. My house, in which I had lived alone for five years, was becoming more populated.

A couple of months after Lucy had begun visiting (and in the process of making her dietary likes and dislikes known to us), Nicola and I were sitting in the back garden enjoying some extraordinarily pleasant British weather when we heard the beginnings of a very loud commotion. It seemed to come from four doors down the road and it involved two human voices, one female and one male, and they were going at it hammer and tongs. We could hear objects going bump, bang and crash.

Judging by the number of net curtains that were being swished about along the street, we weren’t the only ones paying an interest in the proceedings. The noise was soon followed by Lucy more or less flying over the adjoining fence and running into our house at top speed.

Two days later we heard an even bigger row, and while it was in full swing, Lucy again came running to us for shelter. It was then we realised there were serious matrimonial problems happening within earshot. Then the neighbour across the street told Nicola, in confidence that the marriage difficulty of the couple in number fifty-two was irreconcilable. A child’s welfare should always be paramount if a matrimonial break-up is in an advanced stage. And Lucy was their only child.

A few days later, the wife moved out, followed a few weeks after by the husband. In the meantime Lucy had already decided she preferred to live with us, amidst peace and quiet and massive amounts of love and harmony, so we spoke to the husband before he left, to make sure he was happy for us to adopt her. All we needed to know about Lucy was how old she was and whether she been neutered. He told us he was happy for us to take care of her, that she was eight and that she had indeed been neutered. We were so pleased. Thankfully the husband seemed pleased, our neighbours next door and across the street seemed to be pleased too but best of all, Lucy seemed to be pleased that her life would be free of noise or flying household objects. And although she could not possibly have grasped the fact, she wasn’t going to be torn in half in a custody battle.

Soon after that, we also moved. We needed more space, and with two salaries coming in we could afford to upgrade. Our choice of a new home was a pretty, 16th century three-bedroom Elizabethan Cottage with oak beams.

Building societies had recently announced they were keen to lend money to couples that weren’t married, although we didn’t need much of a joint mortgage to be able to take on the cottage. So, one day we asked Lucy if she would like to move house, with the prospect of her having her own bedroom. She said she would.

A couple of weeks after my house had been sold and we had moved to the cottage, Lucy didn’t seem at all happy that she’d agreed to the move, because she started to scratch herself, so much so she began to look as if she was infected with the mange. Naturally we took her to the vet, who told us she was flea-ridden. He asked us if the previous owners of the cottage had pets and it turned out they had a dog, which had left most of his fleas behind in the fitted carpets we’d inherited. We had them all removed and had a man from the council spray the entire house and its contents with some sort of transparent liquid; the only things he didn’t spray were Lucy and us. We then bought new carpets. Sure enough, Lucy stopped scratching and her fur began to grow again, filling her balding patches.

This was just one of many episodes that revealed our lack of experience as cat owners. Nicola's parents had always owned dogs, so having a cat was even more of a new experience for her than it was for me. Because my association with Whiskers was so brief and so long ago, I hadn’t learnt much from it (nor did I remember any of it), so we bought several textbooks on cats in order to improve our parenting techniques. People had told us that cats are independent creatures that are quite capable of looking after themselves, but we found this to be as untrue as it was casual and half-hearted. Agreed, they don't need exercising like dogs do and they can be left alone in a house, providing they have access to the outside or to a litter tray, food and fresh water but, like a dog or any other pet, if a cat is domesticated it needs constant attention if it is to have a good life.

I firmly believe that people who think cats can be left to their own devices are not worthy of keeping them, and on several occasions I have made firm attempts to put such individuals right.

Lucy was a lovely, soft-natured cat and she appeared to be grateful for our adopting her. There might have been a language barrier, but that was easily overcome because there was a desire to communicate. We soon learnt that a cat could teach us a lot about life. The non-cat owner or the casual owner who doesn’t make an intense study of their fellow creature is most definitely missing out. A cat is wise beyond belief. They are equipped with twice as many facilities to survive as humans. They are sensible, analytic, clever, sensitive and knowledgeable. They are determined, single-minded, protective, courageous, courteous, sane, comical, loving, beautiful and highly intelligent. They are enthusiastic about life, and that enthusiasm rubs off on their human companions. They can also be self-centred, envious, cunning and jealous. They are hostile, ruthless killers too, but we ignore that side of them – that is, until they bring home evidence to prove it.

For the next three years Nicola and I settled into our life together, always making sure that one of us was around to care for Lucy. We also made some additions to the family. The first was a rabbit. (I know this story is supposed to be about our cats, but please bear with me.) When we saw a newspaper advert offering a bunny for free in the nearby village of Albury, we went to collect him. He was a white Himalayan with black ears, a black tail and pink eyes. I built him a large cage and he settled into it well. He needed a name, so we called him after the village where we got him - Albury. Two weeks later Nicola saw two completely black rabbits, one male and one female for sale in a pet shop window. It was wintertime and as they were only a few weeks old, we kept them in the house in two more cages I had built.

In the evenings and at the weekends we would let them run around the house, and we would have a great time together. On fine days they would run around the garden, but we never let them out of our sight in case they went under a fence. Throughout their stay, Lucy seemed to enjoy their company, apart from when they became a bit too mischievous and tried to climb on her back.

One evening, when the rabbits were out of their cage, the fridge suddenly stopped working. Then, as we were watching television, that too went dead. When we went to investigate, we found the rabbits had eaten through two live electrical cables. I later found out that rabbits have insulated feet and can resist a single-phase mains electric current going through them. They are not resistant to a three-phase current, so from then on, as the cooker was three-phase, and as it was spring I put their cages outside next to Albury’s in case one or both chewed through the cooker cable and blew themselves to bits.

Besides buying books on cat ownership, we also bought volumes on rabbit welfare. In one, it said that a rabbit is sexually mature when it reaches eight months old. Its advice on breeding rabbits was to be sure to introduce a male into the female’s cage rather than the other way round, otherwise a serious fight will ensue. If this is done properly, mating will occur almost before the cage door has been closed. To see if this was so, I did as the book said. It turned out to be the case. It was instantaneous. And really I do mean instantaneous.

Four months later, our rabbit population had increased to nine, with six all-black babies appearing in the nesting box I had provided. They were all gorgeous. I then had to get busy making six more cages for them, as well as a long chicken-wire covered run in the garden so they could get some exercise. However, one of them seemed intent on leaving us and one afternoon dug a burrow three metres deep. If I hadn’t managed to persuade him out of it he could have gone on digging for a long way.

The next day I stapled a chicken-wire base to the run, which inhibited his digging.

In the meantime Albury was nearly two years old and still a male virgin, and he seemed to be getting extremely frustrated about being excluded from his fellows' baby-making capers. In his anxiety he had started to pull his fur out in great clumps. One of our rabbit books confirmed that this was through sexual deprivation, and so I let him loose with the mature black female for a day or two. The result was three more black babies, a few black-and-white ones and an all-white one. This brought the total up to fifteen in all, at which point Nicola put a stop to our experimentation, fearing that we would be overrun.

We found some good homes for four of them in nearby Guildford and two of Nicola’s work colleagues took two more, but all the adopters expected cages to be provided with each rabbit or they wouldn’t take them, so I was kept very busy paying the price for getting carried away with my breeding programme. There were other people who said they’d have some for their children, again on the proviso I made even more cages. So, in the end this brought our remaining head count down to five in all, who were from then on strictly segregated.

While all this was going on, Lucy hadn’t been forgotten. This chapter is dedicated to her and her memory and not to our rabbits, cute as they were. Lucy wasn’t the kind of cat who would let us forget her, and she would let us know loudly if we tried to do something without involving her. We still had a lot to learn about cats, and it was the stuff the books didn’t mention, mainly because books generalise about cats' behavioural patterns and instincts. What they cannot possibly do is describe each cat's individual character and personality (perhaps that should be "catality"), because each one is entirely different. And Lucy certainly had loads of "catality". She would respond to a whistle.

This was a surprise to us, because we imagined it was only dogs that came to heel when called, but if we hadn’t seen her for a couple of hours or so, a sharp whistle or two would alert her and bring her home. Sometimes she would bound back, all enthusiastic, but sometimes she would stroll nonchalantly back, only half-interested to find out what the commotion was all about. When I told her I’d been worried about her and I didn’t like her wandering off too far, she would shrug her shoulders as if to say, 'shucks, don’t be so silly.'

I fitted a cat flap to our back door to save us having to leave it permanently ajar. To do it I had to cut a circular hole eight inches above ground level, and as the building was five hundred years old and Grade 1 listed I guessed that planning permission was necessary to do this. I also guessed that more than likely it would have been denied. But as the cat flap was a necessity I went ahead and did it regardless. An inanimate object can easily be replaced, but a cat cannot. I found out later that not all cats would use a cat flap, because it’s not a natural obstacle. Lucy balked at it at first, but with Nicola on the outside of the back door and me on the inside we soon persuaded her to get accustomed to it by gently passing her back and forth. She didn’t seem to be confused by this additional architectural feature or protest at it and later that day, after we’d left her alone to figure it out, we heard her happily flapping it backwards and forwards without our assistance.

Like a lot of cats, Lucy was a pernickety eater. She wouldn’t touch cheap brands and nor was she a big eater. At first I was concerned, because I thought cats ate more than she did. Lucy would ask for tinned food, but when it was presented to her she wouldn’t touch it. Then, when she did decide to eat, she would insist on it being fresh. It could be meat or fish from a tin that had been opened and kept in the fridge for a day or two, but if there were remains left in her bowl from a previous feed she wouldn’t touch that either, even if it had only been placed in her bowl an hour or so before. When it was time to eat, we had to provide a clean bowl with a dollop of fresh food in it every time. Trying to fool her by mixing new with old was an expensive mistake, because she wouldn’t touch any of it. On several occasions Nicola tried to be firm with her by leaving it in the bowl for as long as it took, but she still refused. Instead, she would skirt around it every time and fill up on the biscuits. If we removed the biscuits as a way of forcing her to eat the tinned food she had left, she would go off in a huff until we gave in.

I went out one day, leaving Nicola at home. When I came back, she was not in a good mood. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she’d had a battle of wills with Lucy over food. Nicola was fed up with Lucy being so picky, so she had waited until Lucy asked for food, hoping she'd be hungry enough to eat what she was given. Nicola gave Lucy a bowl of food from the fridge that she'd refused that morning. As soon as Lucy realised it was food she’d already left, she gave the bowl a derisory sniff and strolled into the lounge. Nicola had bought some exotic dried flowers and ferns, the type of modern, spread-out arrangement that doesn’t come cheap. She'd arranged them in a large, expansive display in a basket and placed it on the lounge carpet. A short while later, Nicola followed Lucy into the lounge and noticed her new floral display was wet.

'At first I thought it was water,' Nicola said. 'But how could it have been? Then I gave it a sniff, because I suspected it might be something else. It was. I’m certain she peed on it as a deliberate gesture to demonstrate her disapproval.' Needless to say, the display was ruined and Nicola had to throw it out. Later when Nicola had cooled down, she said we'd been lucky that it was only dried flowers we’d lost. Maybe she could have chosen to burn the house down!

Feeding time for most animals in the wild is at sunrise and at sunset, but of course if there is food to be had between hours, then so much the better. Domestic cats know instinctively when it’s time to wake up, which is usually twenty minutes before their humans' alarm is due to go off. Being woken at five in the morning by Lucy so we could have the pleasure of serving her fresh cat food could be a bit of a bind, especially at weekends when neither Nicola nor I were working. Being forced to walk down three flights of stairs to get to the kitchen when half asleep was never easy. Mercifully, during the week Nicola got up at six each morning to get ready for work, so on occasions Lucy would grant me a lie in. (By the way, seasonal time changes mean nothing to a cat. They have an in-built clock and know when it’s five o'clock.)

Lucy would employ various methods to wake me at five. One of them was to jump on me from the top of a chest of drawers. She would then walk all over me several times, and if I hadn’t stirred by then she would tickle my face with her whiskers. If I refused to let this work, her second method (and her most successful) was to lie on my chest with her nose pressed against mine and breathe into my nostrils, all the time looking intently at my eyes until she saw a chink of reflected light. When she did, she knew her mission had been a success. I would put up as much resistance as I could by turning my face away so I could continue sleeping, but she would remain insistent. I’m sure cats’ whiskers are the tickliest things on earth. At least they are for me, and once I’ve been tickled I cannot stop myself scratching. Why she always chose to torment me and not Nicola I never found out, mainly because five o'clock in the morning was never the hour to discuss the matter.

The most alarming method she employed to get me out of bed only happened once. As she was lying on my chest, breathing into my nostrils and peering at my eyes (on this occasion I was awake, but pretending to be asleep), she lifted my eyelid up with a single claw.

I nearly freaked, but I did not dare move. I lay there, rigid. I prayed she would let go and eventually she did. Before that, even if she had been successful in waking me, I would keep my eyes closed in the hope she’d get fed up and go away. But on this particular weekend morning, she decided to call my bluff and put an end to my stubbornness forever. For a moment or two I was completely at her mercy, but thankfully she had the good sense to let go.

In 1990, three years after we'd moved into the cottage, the financial recession fell upon us. For Nicola, work at the solicitor’s office was still steady, but for how long would it last? For me the question had already been answered. I was finding it tough to keep going. In times of financial adversity, commissions for artwork can dry up literally overnight. I’d experienced two financial downturns already and I didn’t fancy having to withstand a third. With this latest one, even the very wealthy had started to feel the pinch and had drawn in their horns. When Nicola and I first met, and before Lucy arrived on the scene, we had been to Spain and had a wonderful and memorable holiday touring the country. I liked the look of an old mountaintop village near Seville called Arcos de la Frontera, and I had said to Nicola at the time how I fancied living in an aesthetically satisfying place where every day brings joy to the soul. This recession seemed to be the appropriate time to make the move, mainly because during the previous one I had nearly gone under and the present one wasn’t looking any brighter. Therefore I hoped that by the time the next one arrived I wouldn’t be around to feel its effect.

In the end (or perhaps it was the beginning), we started to make firm plans to emigrate, but it wouldn't be to Spain. When Nicola was a teenager, she had been an au pair for an Italian family. This was in a little village called Moltrasio on the western shore of Lake Como, and in the two years she had been in their employment they had formed a friendship that continued long after

Nicola returned to England. She kept in touch by telephone with Elaine (the mother of the family), and during one particular conversation, Nicola told Elaine we were about to transfer ourselves to Spain. 'What a coincidence,' Elaine had said. ‘We're also about to move. My husband has had his office transferred to Rome, and we leave Moltrasio next month!'

So, after a twenty-minute phone conversation with Elaine, our Spanish plan was changed to an Italian one. We would rent her family home, and the rent wouldn’t be very much because Elaine was pleased to have somebody she knew looking after her house.

Within three weeks of that conversation, we had found tenants for our house in Godalming. A couple of friends had said they were interested in renting it for a year, or maybe longer, which was fine with us because we didn’t know if our adventure would work out, and we might have to come back after a year. After that, all we had to do was find a good home for Lucy, send some of our heavier things to Italy by road transport, pack a couple of bags, and catch a plane to Milan.

If this all sounds off-hand (and indeed it might), it isn’t; and it wasn't easy, because Lucy’s welfare was at stake. We spent hours discussing whether to take her with us, and twice we nearly cancelled the trip at the thought of having to leave her behind. Our main concern now was not the encroaching recession, but Lucy. Although our intentions of finding a more satisfying place to live were firmly rooted, the recession was only about money and things would pick up; but if it hadn’t been for Nicola’s sister Rose in Rugby (who was as much a cat lover as us), who promised to give Lucy a good home, we would have delayed or even abandoned the whole idea. In the end it did work out, and when we phoned Rose from Italy to check how Lucy was getting on, Rose told us Lucy was exploring her new home, eating well (only fresh food, of course), and didn’t appear to be missing us at all.

This was a relief to hear but at the same time it made us disconsolate, because we were certainly missing her. In our hearts we wanted to be reunited with her, but for her sake we knew it wasn't to be.


3 Uli

As well as wanting to escape the recession in the UK, we went to Italy because we like the ambience of the country, especially that of the medieval villages. We felt the same about some of the older villages in England, but having lived in a few of those we wanted to sample what village life was like abroad and to immerse ourselves in a different culture. Some people say it takes great courage to swap countries - especially when one of those making the change doesn't speak a word of that country’s language! Nicola's Italian was fluent even then, but my Italian was virtually non-existent.

But we were looking forward to the challenge. Others do not always understand the reasons why Brits emigrate, thinking of them as idlers, boozers or tax evaders. We fitted none of those categories. We left with no strings attached and arrived as straight (and possibly naïve) foreigners, with no insurance, no guarantees and no jobs. We wanted to earn our keep in Italy, so took a chance and trusted in luck. The only thing we had to fall back on if we failed to stay the course was the house we owned in Godalming. Because she had already lived in Italy, Nicola knew the country well enough and I had holidayed in northern and central Italy on two other occasions, so we were convinced that the country was worth making the effort for.

This was our plan, but we only had enough money to tide us over for a year so if we didn't find work, we'd have to come back home. Nicola had said before we left England that if necessary she was prepared to do anything to enable us to survive, in the hope that later on she might be able to find something to which she was better suited. However, within only six weeks our work concerns were alleviated. One afternoon, as I was lying on a sun-lounger in the garden of our new home, soaking up the heat of a June day, I received a telephone call. It was from a couple that had just bought a newly converted apartment in a magnificent neoclassical villa Taverna on the Eastern side of the lake and they wanted me to paint murals on some of the walls.

This particular villa is set in the ancient village of Torno, directly across the lake from Moltrasio. A landmark, and one of the largest and most harmonious pieces of architecture in the area, it was built by the Tanzi family in the mid-eighteenth century and is set in a magnificent private park. It was enlarged by the Taverna family some years later when they gave it both an open, rectangular look and their name. When the last of the Taverna family passed away in the early 1980s, the villa was sold to a property developer, who converted it into ten large luxury apartments.

We made an appointment to meet the client at their apartment and they commissioned me to do two Trompe l’oeil murals, one in the lounge and the other in their dining room and apply matching colour washes to the remaining walls. They also wanted an extensive amount of oil-based paint effects applied to their internal doors and to the several pairs of French windows that led to their terraced garden. They added that they would be away on holiday for the whole of July and August, so I took this period as an opportunity to get most of the work done. This was good timing, because the paint effects to the internal doors and the French windows meant they needed to be left open for several days and nights to dry properly. Also, because there was a lot of work to do I reckoned that I would need an assistant to do the preparation work and I had just the person in mind.

Up until I began work on the mural, Nicola had not painted a door, a window or a wall in her life. But because she is both extremely bright and hard working, I only needed to show her once how to do the preparation work required, and she carried it out to perfection. She was good at covering the furniture and the floors with plastic and cotton dust sheets, and masking the electrical fittings with newspaper and tape. She became good at washing the brushes, buckets and rollers after she had finished using them. She was also good at making lunch.

Although the villa is located on the opposite side of the lake, travelling to and from it was easy as public ferryboats criss-cross the lake all day. Our journey across to Torno passed through a stretch of the lake that offers one of the most exhilarating views in the world. From the terminal we had a longish walk through the village, eventually arriving at a set of impressive, automatic-opening, wrought iron gates with gold finials. To get to the main house, we had to walk through the extensive and stunning garden. In or around one of the six greenhouses we would regularly see Signor Gino, the head gardener. He seemed part of the fabric of the place and I don’t think I would have been surprised if somebody had told me he had been there since the 1800's. An upright, good-hearted man, he was well into his eighties and the type of elegant person one might read about in a romantic historical novel. His hands were large, rough in texture and grey in colour; and the first time he shook mine it looked as though he was handing me some kind of root vegetable he’d just pulled up.

As we got to know each other better, he would often accompany us through the part of the estate that led to the apartment, to see how the murals were progressing. As we walked, he would recount stories of when he first started work as a boy on the estate seventy years earlier, and how he had witnessed a lot of changes to the villa, especially since it had been bought by a property developer and converted into modernised apartments.

He also recalled the 1950's, when the Contessa Taverna used to sit looking out of the dining room window overlooking the south garden - the very room we were painting. He said the room had always been latte bianco (milk white) in colour and without decoration, but he was sure she would have approved of the murals.

On the twenty-first day of our work schedule, as we approached the back door to the apartment we saw, propped against the doorstep and in the full glare of the early morning sun a tiny baby bird. It was squawking at the top of its voice, which risked attracting any of the feral cats that we had seen roaming the nearby woods. I picked it up immediately. Where this little bundle of grey and brown fluff had come from was a mystery. There were hundreds of magnificent trees on the estate, but there were none in the vicinity of the back door and there was no sign of a parent bird anywhere.

Another mystery was that it was late in the year to find a wild baby bird. We took it into the kitchen and placed it on the granite work surface. I poured some long-life milk into a saucer, but the bird just stared at it. Nicola found a pipette in a bathroom cabinet, filled it with milk, touched the end of it on the little bird's beak until it opened wide, then squeezed a few drops into its mouth. I scratched around a bit further and found some stale bread in the pantry. Nicola broke it into minute pieces, soaked it in the milk to soften it and then fed it to the bird. Suddenly the tiny creature became enthusiastic, and within a few seconds we discovered what a ferocious appetite it had. This meant that the rest of our day was taken up with a small amount of painting and a large amount of feeding.

Before we set out for work that day, we certainly hadn’t expected to be rooting around in somebody else's fridge to find different foodstuffs to chop up to feed a half-starved bird. After the bread and milk, we tried bits of smoked Parma ham and sweetcorn, on which the little bird seemed to be particularly keen, but after three feeds in an hour he got fed up with it. We then tried bits of Ferrero Rocher chocolate dipped in orange juice, which got him interested. Whether or not we were doing the right thing by feeding a baby bird such food, we didn't know. Are baby birds carnivores, omnivores or veggies? There wasn’t time to delve into the matter. We had a starving bundle of feathers that wasn’t interested either way. Nicola said his own body would tell him what he wanted to eat, but we didn’t want to destroy his metabolism and nor did we want to see him fade away, so we gave him plenty of choice.

When Signor Gino visited us later that day for a chat, we showed him the baby bird and we asked him if he knew what sort it might be. He said it was a sparrow, and that it wouldn’t survive for longer than a couple of days, because it would die from the shock of being handled by humans.

That evening we caught the boat back to Moltrasio, carrying our new friend in a cardboard box (into which we had punched some air holes). Back home, we continued the feeding process with a selection of foods that we thought would be more appropriate (and healthier), in the hope that our "sparrow" would survive.

In the meantime we named him (we'd already decided it was male) Uli, which we took from the Italian uccellino, meaning baby bird. On the veranda leading to the back garden, we had seen an elaborate Victorian cane birdcage that Elaine had left behind, so we brought it into the kitchen and placed Uli in it. That way he was able to watch us cook and eat our evening meal, and at the same time we could give him various tit-bits. Then, after our and his feeding process was over, we transferred the cage (including Uli) to the lounge, where we could watch the television together. This seemed agreeable to him.

At around ten o’clock, Nicola placed a cover over his cage and we went to bed. We hoped to sleep until six o’clock, but Uli had other ideas and at five he began demanding his breakfast.

The pipette we had borrowed was working overtime, being filled and refilled with water or milk. To try and imitate a parent bird's beak, we used a cocktail stick to push morsels of food down Uli's gullet. We soon learned from experience that we had to feed him to capacity at every sitting, so that he would cease squawking for at least a few minutes. Then, one of us would place him back in his cage so he could have a further sleep. He preferred to be placed on the floor of the cage, because his feet were not large enough or strong enough to grip the perch. Uli was happy waddling around the kitchen table or whatever flat surface we placed him on, but the cage was useful because putting him in it prevented our living area from becoming one large toilet.

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