No, I’m here to write about another Hamlet. A cat called Hamlet, in fact. My cat from years long gone. Aye, right, I can see you jumping about like a twat with a big grin on your face, already composing my epitaph: Here lies Gisby, the pussy who kept a pussy. Aye, very funny.
Anyway, the cat – or kitten, as he was then – was a gift from one of my wee sisters. “A bit of company for you,” she had said, which was a nice thought. He was a scrawny wee thing with jet black fur and a white patch running down his muzzle and chest. I came into possession of him one Saturday afternoon in the middle of winter. I was twenty-one at the time and living in the basement of a converted Victorian townhouse on Newhaven Road in Edinburgh. Access to the basement – or garden flat, as the posh folk in neighbouring Trinity would have called it – was from along a narrow, unlit lane at the rear of the house and then down through the steeply sloping garden, which was also unlit. Getting home at night when I was drunk was a nightmare! But, hey, that’s how I rolled back in the day.
Saturday night came along and, kitten or not, this young Turk was off up the town to pose with the other posers in the poser bars along Thistle Street and Rose Street. Before I went out, I made sure the tiny bundle of fur was warm and cosy in the shoebox he came in, and I put down a saucer of milk beside the box, together with the litter tray my sister had also supplied. I even left the convector heater on. It was a strange sensation for me, but as that night wore on my thoughts kept returning to my new flatmate, so much so that I declined the opportunity to go to a party and returned home early instead to check on the kitten, which I had already decided to call Hamlet. If you know me, you’ll be aware of my literary pretensions; I was no different at that age.
Well, my scruffy wee buddy seemed to grow into a sleek, independent adult in no time at all. He was still on the small side and still a bit skinny, but he quickly lost that scrawny look. I kept one of the sash windows in the living room permanently open at the bottom so that he could come and go when he pleased. And I instructed him in the business of doing his business outside. I even showed him the best place in the garden to keep his doings hidden from the other tenants of the house.
To be honest, I didn’t see much of Hamlet after that. He didn’t hang about the flat. He came in to eat the food I put out for him. And at some point in the middle of every night, he crept into my bedroom and, purring loudly, made himself comfortable at the side of my pillow. I suppose that was company enough for me.
Like all outdoor cats, Hamlet was a hunter. Often when I returned from work in the evening, one of his little gifts – a poor wee sparrow, usually, or a dormouse – would be waiting for me on the doorstep. On one occasion, though, the gift was a live one. I came home to find the living room floor covered in a fine layer of feathers and birdshit. And cowering in a corner of the room was a completely featherless blackbird. It looked like Hamlet had spent hours toying with his victim. I wasn’t best pleased, of course. Not only did I have to clean the living room, I also had to strangle and bury the unfortunate blackbird. While I was doing the latter, the culprit sat on a wall watching me and looking very pleased with himself.
I don’t know if it was as a consequence of living with me and my Irish temper, but Hamlet was also the most highly strung cat you’ll ever come across. He was especially nervous when it came to visitors to the flat. We had a visitor on one memorable Saturday morning. The tenant of the top flat of the house came down through the garden and knocked at my door. She was a tall, horse-faced, posh lady. And she was very, very loud. Hamlet happened to be in the flat at that moment. He had just finished eating in the kitchen and was on his way to the window to go back outside. “Cooee!” the lady called out, and I swear the building shook. Hamlet stopped dead, sheer panic in his eyes. As I went to answer the door, I saw him scurry towards the window, halt suddenly, then begin to retreat to the kitchen, only to halt again. He must have felt completely trapped, so he took the only avenue left to him and disappeared up the chimney.
The lady from upstairs had come to deliver some post she had kindly taken in for me. After she left, I went looking for Hamlet. Although the fireplace hadn’t been used for many years, the walls of the chimney were still soot-laden. When I shouted up into the blackness, Hamlet answered with some pathetic mewing. He seemed to have wedged his body into the little shelf just behind the chimney damper; he really was trapped this time. So I hurried to the kitchen, rolled up my sleeves and filled the big sink with warm, soapy water. Then I returned to the living room, stuck an arm up the chimney, grabbed hold of Hamlet and hauled him down, soot and all. Naturally ungrateful for having been rescued, Hamlet squirmed, hissed and clawed while I held him with both hands by the scruff of the neck and ran back to the kitchen, where I dumped his writhing body into the sink. He may have looked like nothing but a bedraggled skeleton, but that wee cat was as strong as an ox. It took all my strength to keep him in the water and make sure he was thoroughly washed. Because I eased up a fraction when I tried to dry him, he managed to squirm from my grasp, whereupon he shot away and, still drookit, escaped out the window, not to be seen or heard again for the best part of a week. Talk about a huff, man!
That little contretemps aside, Hamlet and I co-existed amicably enough for a while. That was until our peaceful, shared bachelor life was shattered by the appearance on the scene of a girlfriend, who would soon be my first wife, Ann. Nor was it long before the three of us were saying goodbye to salty old Newhaven and hello to the douce streets of Edinburgh’s West End. We moved into another rented flat, this time a mews flat in a courtyard at the rear of opulent Clarendon Crescent. It was a bit of a struggle moving Hamlet to his new home, the cardboard cat carrier in which we transported him having been almost beaten into submission by the time we got there, but he soon settled in, coming and going as he pleased, as in Newhaven, but now circulating in a decidedly more upmarket feline community.
Hamlet’s absences at that time usually lasted no longer than a day. He always turned up sooner or later, looking for food and perhaps a sleep. On one occasion, though, the absence stretched into days and then into weeks. I went out to search for him one night early on in that period. I figured the most likely place to find him was up a narrow lane that led from the mews courtyard to the entrances to the rear walled gardens of the big houses on Clarendon Crescent and adjoining Eton Terrace. As I walked up the dark lane calling out for Hamlet, sure enough I could make out the silhouettes of cats of all sorts ranged along the top of the wall on each side of the lane. And I could hear them hissing and growling as I passed. I have to admit it was an unnerving experience. I remember thinking that, being Edinburgh, this must be the cat equivalent of Jekyll and Hyde, with fluffy, cuddly moggies by day transformed into marauding, murderous beasts by night. (I told you I had literary pretensions!) I also thought our wee Hamlet had to be a pretty tough cookie to survive in such a hostile environment.
There was no sign of Hamlet that night, of course, nor was there any sign of him for many nights to come. Eventually and reluctantly, we accepted that he wouldn’t be returning, that he was probably dead. Then one morning when I opened the front door, he slid past me with a cursory miaow and awkwardly climbed the winding stairs up to the flat. He was emaciated, and I noticed that one of his hind legs was held up from the ground. I also noticed later on that the claws on all four of his paws had been worn down almost to the bone. I’ll never know what happened to him during the best part of three weeks, but I suspect that he had been trapped somewhere up high and had escaped by jumping and sliding – down the side of a building, perhaps. Whatever, his injured hind leg was a cause for concern, so we decided to take him to the vets. And so evolved another Hamlet misadventure.
One evening after work, Ann and I set off for the PDSA in Stockbridge, which was about a ten-minute walk away. Stupidly, I put Hamlet in the same battered cardboard cat carrier we had used to ferry him from Newhaven. I reckoned that with his injury he wouldn’t be able to do much more damage to the carrier. I reckoned wrong. He was quiet enough going down to the vets. But two broken needles, an injection and an exhausted young vet later, he began to create merry hell on the way back up the road. It also began to rain. Heavily. The carrier was soaked before we had the chance to take shelter. Then Hamlet’s head burst through the soggy cardboard. (Aye, that’s right, smartarse, just like in that scene from Alien.) A second later and his whole body was out of the carrier there in the middle of Stockbridge. And he was off, sprinting – on all four legs, by the way – through the rain and the pedestrians and the traffic in the direction of Dean Gardens. That, I suppose, was when his reign as King of Dean Gardens commenced.
If you don’t know them, Dean Gardens can be found on the western bank of the deep valley where the Water of Leith flows under Dean Bridge. They are not really gardens; more a case of a steep, bush- and tree-covered slope with a path running through the middle of it. The gardens are also private, only accessible to local residents who are key-holders, which we happened to be. After his escape in Stockbridge, Hamlet still visited the mews flat regularly, but we had no idea where he spent the rest of the time. We were to find out one sunny autumn afternoon as we strolled through the gardens. On the path up ahead of us, an elderly gentleman, an ex-military type with a walking stick, was out with his equally elderly spaniel. Suddenly, Hamlet sprang from nowhere, back arched, spitting at the spaniel. The poor old dog cowered and whimpered behind his master, who responded by brandishing his stick at the cat. Then Hamlet disappeared back into the bushes. Having witnessed the ambush, we were still standing, mouths agape, when an awful noise came from the slope to our left. It was the bold Hamlet crashing down through the thick carpet of leaves to meet us and miaowing loudly, as if to say, “Welcome to my home. What the fuck took you so long?”
A few days after that incident, the King of Dean Gardens decided he would make a habit of seeing us off to work in the morning. Both Ann and I worked for the same company, so we left the flat at the same time to walk up the road and across Dean Bridge into the city centre. Hamlet would emerge from the gardens just as we reached Dean Bridge. He would leap up to the narrow parapet and walk along it, accompanying us to the middle of the bridge. He always stopped at the midpoint, as if that were the edge of his territory. No amount of shooing would stop him from carrying out this routine. Ignoring him had no effect either. Those were heart-stopping moments we endured every morning, I can tell you. One slip or a wee push or even a strong gust of wind, and the daft cat would have plummeted more than a hundred feet into the Water of Leith!
And one day we discovered that the daft cat was up to other shenanigans. We were walking home from work when we were accosted by a local resident, a woman whose voice could have cut glass. She wanted to know if we were the owners of a little black and white cat. Why? Because, she said, “That cat came through the window into our drawing room last night and proceeded to beat up our poor Toto. Then, if you please, it left the same way – swaggering, if you don’t mind. The cheek of it!” We apologised to the woman, of course, but internally I couldn’t help laughing that my wee mongrel was going about conducting his own version of a class war.
But we were soon on the move again. The rich bitch daughter of the owner of the mews flat had secured a place at Edinburgh University and would be coming from England to take up residency of the flat for the duration of her studies. So we had to find alternative accommodation, which we did, a second-floor flat in a tenement in the much less salubrious Abbeyhill area. While the street in which we lived wasn’t much to look at, the flat itself was fine, with an unrestricted view from the main bedroom of the mighty Arthur’s Seat presiding over the lush expanse of Holyrood Park.
In advance of the move to Abbeyhill, we took extra precautions regarding Hamlet. A couple of days beforehand, when he visited us to feed, we made sure he couldn’t leave again, no matter how long or loudly he protested. We bought a stronger cat carrier. And through a friend of a friend of a vet we procured a horse tranquiliser tablet – I kid you not! On the morning of the move, I ground down half the tablet and mixed the powder in Hamlet’s food, which he ate without suspicion. I remember watching him afterwards. One moment his eyes were closing and his head was drooping; the next he was sitting bolt upright, his eyes wide open, fighting the drug with all his might. He reminded me of the first time I smoked a joint, convincing myself that it wouldn’t have any effect and that Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross wasn’t really playing at top volume in my head. But, like me with the weed, Hamlet finally succumbed and we stowed his unconscious form in the cat carrier.
Once he was settled in Abbeyhill, Hamlet quickly resumed his semi-feral existence, with the whole of Holyrood Park as his hunting ground instead of leafy Dean Gardens. I have one indelible memory of his time there. I got up one morning and, as I usually did, pulled back the bedroom curtain to see what the weather looked like. There was a very heavy mist. Arthur’s Seat couldn’t be seen. Nor the park. Nor even the drying green below the window. But suddenly the mist over the drying green cleared a little, and I could make out an extremely large white rabbit running in a circle – in slow motion, it seemed – and being chased, also in slow motion, by – yes, you’ve guessed it – oor wee Hamlet. Pretty sure that I was half-awake and seeing things, I closed the curtain and opened it again. The two animals were still down there, still galloping round and round in slow motion, but this time the rabbit was chasing Hamlet. Then the mist came back and I lost sight of them. Even today, some forty years later, that spectacle of Hamlet and the white rabbit stands as one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.
But Hamlet’s tale is now drawing to a close. The offer of a flat in Ann’s hometown of Burntisland in Fife ended our sojourn in Abbeyhill. After taking up the offer, we moved once more, to a bigger flat still in Burntisland. It only occurs to me now that all those moves since Newhaven must have taken a toll on Hamlet. With each new territory he was forced into, he would have had to fight to assert himself. After the last move in Burntisland, he certainly seemed to have tired of the outdoor life and spent much more time in the flat. There again, that may have had a lot to do with the pair of lovebirds in the cage hanging from our living room ceiling. Hamlet spent many hours gazing up at those birds, dreaming, willing the plastic tray at the bottom of the cage to fall out. Which it did one day. Luckily, I was there at the time. The two birds flew out of the cage, one of them straight into Hamlet’s mouth. Off went Hamlet. Off I went after him, rescuing his unexpected prize and returning it, apparently unharmed, to the cage. The tray was taped securely after that.
Shortly after that incident, Ann gave birth to our first child, a son. And round about the same time, Hamlet was found to be suffering from cat mange. Mange, if you don’t know, is a severe skin disease which compels cats to constantly lick their fur, creating large bald patches and sores which crust over and scab. Unless the disease is caught early, the sufferers can literally lick themselves to death. Whether Hamlet contracted mange from a posh cat round Edinburgh’s West End or from another mongrel in Abbeyhill or Burntisland, the disease had gone too far by the time we took him to the vet, who advised us that he should be put out of his misery. I prevaricated, of course, but Ann was much more decisive. The thought of her wee boy crawling on the carpet and picking up a scab that had dropped from the cat… well, it didn’t bear thinking about. One morning when I was away at work, she returned to the vet with Hamlet. The last of his nine lives came to an end.
I don’t know why I decided to write about Hamlet. I do miss him. And I think about him from time to time. For a while in my life, he was a good companion, my wee buddy, streetwise, tough, sometimes uncompromising, but always, always loyal. Perhaps a bit like me.
Contrary to what I said at the beginning, I’ll finish by quoting from Hamlet. The play, not the cat, stupid. It’s that Horatio guy again.
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!