Perhaps one of the worst periods of my life was after I turned 17. I was in Cumbria, studying in sixth form. I was thinking about what to study at to university, about what I would do with my future. I was struggling to figure out what to do, where to go, and when.
Content Warning: This story will mention the abuse of a child.
We had a family dog, Toby. He was a cross between an Alsatian and a Border Collie. While I didn’t treat him well when I was younger, as I grew older and more responsible we bonded. I took on more of the responsibility of feeding him and walking him. He was my best friend.
In this year he had started to get weaker. To a point where he could barely eat or walk. My mother took him to the vet, but the prognosis wasn’t optimistic. I would try and walk him, but after less than a few hundred meters of slowly crawling down the road he would run out of breath, and I would have to carry him back home.
One day, I came home. Both my parents worked late, and my sister would often spend time with her friends so I was alone. Toby ran to the door and started spinning around looking at his lead. He was full of energy, asking me to walk him. I was in tears. Was he getting better?
I took him out and he ran the whole time. I let him out in an empty field and he ran around without a care in the world. He had recovered. He was getting better! I took him home and I fell asleep that night the happiest I could have been.
The next morning my mother woke me up and told me he had took a turn in the night. They had to put him down. She said I could take the day off school and left me sobbing into my pillow. I decided not to tell her that I wished I was there when he had died. That I wanted to say goodbye.
A few weeks later I came home and the house was empty. But something was off. My stepfather’s car was still outside. When I went inside I found three empty cups with teabags in them, and a recently boiled kettle. I was confused, but all I could think to do was to make a brew and go to my room.
Later that night my grandmother turned up and told me I was to stay at her place that night, I went with them and I spent the night laying awake in their spare bed, wondering what the hell was going on. The next morning they took me home, and before I went inside my grandmother grabbed me and told me that she loves me no matter what.
I went inside to the living room. My mother was sitting on the couch. She told me to sit down. Then she told me, “your father has been arrested. For abusing your sister”. I can’t remember how long I cried for after that.
I later found out that my sister had left her diary in the middle of the floor in her room. My mother went in to clean it, and saw the diary. My mother’s not a prying person – she respects our privacy. But something itched the back of her mind when she saw the diary that day. Somehow she felt she was supposed to read it.
Horrified at what she learned from it, she immediately called the police. They told her they would arrest him when he comes home, but they were sending someone to pick her up for her safety. “Don’t worry about me,” she said, “if he comes home now I’ll kill him.”
“We know,” came the response, “that’s why we’re sending someone to get you.”
Later his father, my sister’s grandfather, would tell us that he “was sorry he did this to us, but I wish you hadn’t brought shame to the family by calling the police.” We we’re shunned by the rest of his family, and our sister was blamed for breaking us apart.
My mother, my sister, and I were alone now. We each coped in different ways. I coped by hitting the bottle, to the extent I was bringing cans to school with me. I don’t remember those days too clearly.
But I do remember the day a cat appeared at our window. Ginger and white, it sat at the window staring at us. It was raining and the cat was shivering. It’s eyes watched us for hours, seemingly begging us to let it in. Our mother chose not to do so – she didn’t know who it belonged to or if it had any diseases.
But the next day it was there again. Shivering in the rain, watching us by the coal fire we used to warm our home. On the third day my mother decided to take it to the vet. Nothing seemed wrong with it, so she decided to keep it. We now had a pet cat.
He never meowed. Instead he would open his mouth without making any noise when he wanted attention. He was still agile, but also quite slow and stiff for a cat. He was clearly an older cat who didn’t play as much. He spent most days curled up on the sheepskin rug in front of our fireplace.
Caring for him was a strange kind of therapy. It gave our lives some meaning, some purpose. We had to sort out food, litter, and so on. We gave him some of Toby’s old toys but he either didn’t like them or didn’t want to play. He just liked to be warm and to be cuddled.
I would spend several late nights sat in front of the fire talking to him, letting every thought and feeling out. I think he enjoyed hearing my voice. I know he couldn’t understand what I said, but it felt like he was able to hear my words. Even if he didn’t, it was comforting enough to be able to say my thoughts out loud without any worry of judgement.
One day when my mother was out I came down to my sister reading on the floor and the cat curled up on the couch. I went over to stroke it as usual, but when it lifted its head up I saw his mouth caked in blood. I panicked as did my sister when she saw him. I called my mother. She couldn’t make it back so we had to take it to the vet ourselves.
I hoped the little guy would be okay. I’d lost so much lately and I didn’t want to lose another friend.
It turned out to be a tumour in its mouth that the vet missed when my mother first took him. It had burst open and that was causing excessive bleeding. There was only one thing left the vet could do.
After he got the injection we sat there with him. We kept telling him it would be okay. Neither of us said goodbye. He fell asleep after a short time. A short time after that he stopped breathing.
We went home without the cat. I went straight to bed and wept into my pillow again.
We still don’t know where he came from, or why he chose us. Maybe the original owners knew he was ill and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay for a vet. That would make some sense. But why did he choose us out of anyone else in the village?
I’m not a religious or spiritual person. I know that a lot of this is down to pure coincidence. Still the fact is that the cat appeared at the perfect time. My sister and I got to be with him in its final hours. Something we both missed out on when Toby left us. I like to think that it came to give us something good to focus on at such a dark time in our lives. Being able to make his final days comfortable did help us through everything.
I’m not a religious person at all. But still I hope wherever he ended up Toby is with him. And I hope, when the time eventually arrives, I’ll be able to join them.