Illustration from The Coach House Cats

Chapter One

Richard's eyes crinkle up with glee and he beams at me wickedly.

'Oooh, small kittens can be drowned quite easily in watering cans, can't they?' I grab my neck, hand-on-hand, in mock horror and grin back at him, ruefully.

Michael and I are about to take a walk in the Cumbrian hills on this brash breezy November day and we have just told our friend and neighbour the news that Fannie, my beloved tortie queen, is pregnant.

Richard is well aware that my Achilles heel is the cats and takes every opportunity presented to him to tease me about them.

As we take our leave with the intention of walking up the road, he turns towards his own driveway, but as he does so he calls out over his shoulder:

'When are the kittens due, by the way?'

'Twenty third of January', I call back.

'Ah, that's still within the shooting season', he laughs, disappearing behind our dividing wall before I can think of a suitable reply.

As we walk away I find myself grinning broadly; Richard is at heart one big softie.

Fannie has been different since the first day that she returned from her visit to her boyfriend Zimmy, an apricot Oriental stud who lives over in East Lancashire.

It is just eleven days since she was mated and she is showing small signs already that some biological change has taken place. She is sleeping far more than is her normal pattern but when she is awake she is busy all day long, trotting round the entire house, looking, looking, looking.

I have never seen her so distracted. It is as if she has lost something and she must find it, but I know, early though it is, in reality she is trying to find a nesting place.

She has been sleeping in the bottom of the wardrobe in the spare bedroom for much of the time. She no longer lies next to her sister, Titus but perhaps this is a necessary form of burgeoning independence.

Titus is rampantly on heat at the moment and Pushkin, the Russian Blue whom I had hoped would father kittens with one or other of the girls, continues, fastidiously, to avoid her advances.

When I hold Fannie on my shoulder she is more clingy and purrful than normal but that might be to compensate for her changing relationship with her sister. She seems to ignore Pushkin completely.

A date is in the diary for two hysterectomies and a castration for, respectively, Fannie, Titus (male name but female cat) and Pushkin to be performed by our local vet, Gerard, in just over a month?s time, but Fannie?s longed-for pregnancy will now of necessity reduce the number of patients to two.

A friend fervently advises me to consider not spaying Titus at this time, as she believes that it could cause Titus to show aggression towards Fannie, who might then miscarry.

I phone the long-suffering Gerard and ask him what I should do and he reckons that spaying Titus and Pushkin is fine, although he does express some concern that Titus is on one of her semi-permanent heats, but we agree to stick with the arrangement and I quietly offer up a prayer that all will be well.

I deeply regret that Titus will not be able to bear one litter, but Gerard, when last he saw her, recommended that, as a cat who has endured separate operations on each of her back legs in turn to correct luxating patellae, she should not be encouraged to reproduce.

Since moving into our little eyrie in the county of Westmorland, it seems to me that the cats? lives are now so eventful that, were they capable of such a thought process, they should now see that the move they had originally hated so much was in reality a good thing.

It is probable, however, that the three cats have no perception now of what life in Moon Cottage was like compared with their new life in the Coach House.

Their new life means that now, for two hours at a time, they go outside freely to roam; they have the stimuli of the smells and sounds borne to them on the country winds; they regularly experience the thrill of the chase and, more rarely, kill; all this they have, while I quietly torture myself about their newly increased vulnerability.