Dogged by a stray cat


Chilly October weather has settled over Prague and a light fog now covers the park I cross every day on my way to work, the new gravel path wet beneath my feet. The sun comes up later and later. Sometimes in the dark morning I am not alone - in fact, this week I was greeted by an "old friend" - a large tabby I used to know - who has now survived on its own for at least the last four years. I hadn't seen it for two.

How do I know it's the same cat? I can't be completely sure, of course, but there was something about the way he dogged my footsteps, watching from beneath a parked Skoda. Watching me in a way that made me think it might be the same animal.

A cat born "wild" in the next door neighbour's broken-down garden, where a stone statue used to stand like some magical fairy from a Jiri Trnka children's book; the statue was later stolen by someone who no doubt decided it would look better somewhere else.

From there the cat, another kitten, and their mother used to come over into our backyard searching for food - I know because my grandmother - who was then in her late 80s, used to give them milk and giblets.

You're not supposed to, it makes the creatures dependent, but she did anyway.

Then, in the evenings it was possible spy on the little beasts as they romped around the yard like "Borribles", jumping up and down on a foam lawn chair mattress in the dusk, like two fleas in a circus. But, the slightest movement would send them scurrying for safety.

Then, as the cold came, they stopped turning up. Bushes turned bare, and vicious brambles clutched at life like so many bony fingers in the mist, and only once in a while a haggard, skinny creature that was on of the original cats would creep by, a wild look in its eye, its coat tattered and dirty, untrusting, despairing, untouchable.

We assumed none of the three survived more than a winter or two - and I am told most Prague strays don't.

Wandering many kilometres in the day and night, through the great ditches that flank the Prague Castle, the cats gradually succumb to disease or fights, or are hit by cars, rarely lasting more than a few years.

I know I'm being romantic: it's probably not even the original cat, just some look-alike. But still, I like the idea of this one survivor still slinking around, against the odds, from drainpipe to drainpipe, house to house.

Like a character from a children's illustrated book, searching in vain for the stone fairy that once stood in our neighbour's back yard.