For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings
(Richard II, 3.2.155–156)
The sleepy Taranaki town of Hawera has much to recommend it: a “spectacular” water tower; some delightful people (I would imagine); an old pa site. It is also the birthplace of one of my oldest and best friends.
Just after Christmas 1987 the family were returning from a trip to New Plymouth. Brother Jack had been promised a kitten but so far none had been secured. Stopping off to look at the aforementioned old pa site Jack and sister Amy decided against the first hand examination of an important aspect of New Zealand history in favour of visiting the Hawera SPCA situated up an adjacent track. When the senior members of the family (father Ted, mother Barbara, me) had finished tramping across the muddy field we rejoined the junior members to find Jack cradling a little ginger furball in his arms.
Up the track we all went to the shed containing the Hawera SPCA and while Jack was sorting out the paperwork for his little ginger thing I (foolishly?) thought I would peruse the cages – window shopping only, obviously.
I think it was the first cage I looked at (it was definitely the last) that contained an equally petite, multi-coloured, yellow-eyed kitten that looked me straight in the eye and said “Don’t leave me here on my own.” I was powerless to resist. Those hypnotic powers would reduce stronger people than I to ruin before he was done.
He cost me a dollar (plus $5 for the box) and the two of them came home with us that day. I named him Marvin, after the legendary soul singer Marvin Gaye (I was assuming that there would be an Aretha at some point). For the first few nights he slept curled up in the crook of my shoulder which was an endearing habit until he grew too big for my shoulder and started lying across my throat.
I was still living at home at this point so Marv’s first home was in the East Wing of the family estate at Broadmeadows1). But not for long, as on Wellington Cup Day 1988 I moved into my first flat, in Burnell Avenue in Thorndon2. This was my first taste of responsibility for another living thing and within days the little beggar had already gone missing. After he’d been gone for more than a day and I was almost beside myself Amy turned up, walked out into the back garden and called his name. Out of the undergrowth popped his little head, he said “hello” and then trotted out to meet us. Lesson: don’t worry about feeling like an egg when your cat goes missing – sing out!
It was in Thorndon that he demonstrated two of his most defining characteristics: never taking a backward step in a confrontation and an ability to generate an ugly abscess in almost every wound received. Several times in his life he could be seen limping around with what looked like a common drinking straw hanging out of his thigh as all that yucky stuff slowly drained away.
The next flat was in Crieff Street, Northland3 in 1989. He went adventuring from there too – this time for three days. I really thought I’d blown it this time. Then, one night, I heard the distinctive yelp and went to the front door to find a ball of black mud with yellow eyes. He must have fallen down a drain or something as he looked like one of those seabirds rescued from an oilslick. I remember thinking how small his head was without the fur. The challenge was to get him clean. Diligent as he always was about his grooming, this would require a lot of help. There was no bath in that flat, so I had to hold him under the shower and try and get the mud off before he ripped me to shreds.
I was offered the use of an old bach in Plimmerton4 and decided that a life by the sea would be the very thing so we packed up again and drove on out there. Marv and I had what seemed like a whole hillside to ourselves and he made full use of it.
Cats are supposed to be able to sense things like earthquakes. Their super-sensitive ears can supposedly hear the rumblings before we can. This was put to the test in Plimmerton one afternoon as the little house shook (I think a picture even fell off the wall). I looked across at the sleeping figure on the bed to see him wobbling like a jelly, completely oblivious to our impending doom.
But his hearing wasn’t all that shabby: I amused myself for years by softly calling his name while he was asleep and watching one of his ears rotate in my direction like a satelite dish. And he could hear a fridge door opening from 100 yards.
Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” meant that I could no longer subsidise my artistic endeavours with the dole (not only was my benefit cut but I became a “youth” again). This meant an adjustment of financial priorities and a swift move back to Broadmeadows5 and the bosom of my family … Here Marvin reacquainted himself with Gus (his cousin from Hawera) and Scott, Amy’s bruiser of a tom cat.
On the journey from Broadmeadows to Upland Road in Kelburn6 in late 1991 he got out of his box. I thought he might force us off the road but, apart from a dodgy spell between the pedals, he spent the time looking out all the windows, one at a time, until he found the perfect spot, on my lap with his front paws on the steering wheel. Strangely enough, he never enjoyed the box or a cage again – after all would you go back to being a passenger when you’ve already driven the car? At the flat behind the fruit shop in Upland Road, John Leigh invented the Cat Gun (hold both rear paws in right hand, both front paws in left hand, hold cat with rear end braced against shoulder and vibrate back and forth while making the sound of an automatic weapon firing) and experiments were conducted in how low to the ground a cat can be when you drop it from upside down and have it still land on its feet. (answer: pretty low)
I think I might even have carried him around the corner to the next flat on Plunket Street, Kelburn7 (no car by now which is a story for another time). This was a move up market for us both (“mmn, carpet … mmm, shower”) and it was here that his reputation for being a very big boy was born. The good life was too good for us both, of course, so we hit the road again for a crumbling old house on Willis Street8 that Dan Davin had lived in once (and James K Baxter had frequented).
Living in a big drafty old villa with seven other people was not what it was cracked up to be and Marv hated being so close to all that traffic. So a few short weeks after we arrived, Marvin, me and Jeremy Anderson moved to Ellice Street, Mt Victoria9. Jeremy and I fell out over a stolen fridge (at this particular time that story is out of all contention) and it was time to move on again.
It’s 1993. Another month, another suburb. This time Marv and I disdained other people altogether and went for a nice, sunny one bedroom flat up about 125 steps in Hataitai10. The distance from the road meant that he could really spread his wings. One night, after locking myself out, I was forced to walk the three quarters of a mile or so to Hataitai Village to find a phone box (younger or richer readers note the absence of mobile phones in this story). The phone box was outside Burger Wisconsin and while I was on the phone I saw a rustling amongst the rubbish bags in the alley beside the restaurant. Marvin looked up, saw me, and gave me a look that said, “What the hell are you doing here?” which was not a million miles away from what I was thinking myself. How dare he have a secret life!? AND I had to carry him all the way back and, as has already been noted, he was no lightweight.
More money problems meant we could not stay in Hataitai. Luckily the amazing Lee Hatherly hooked me up with someone who needed a house-sitter for a delightful first floor flat in Mt Victoria11. I was working at the Paramount (cheers, Kerry) so there was a little bit of money for the first time in ages. Yes, Marv really did know how to land on his paws. It was on Queen Street, Mt Victoria that Marv met the great love of his life. RMH had actually come around to see me but I was out so she left me a note that said, among other things, “Your cat is really cool”.
Of course, the house-sitting was only temporary and there were another couple of Mt Victoria flats – one beautiful (Austin Street12), one dingy (Roxburgh Street13) – before I got my first ever proper job and RMH and I could consider finding a place together.
It was while we were at Roxburgh Street that Marvellino had his first experience of flatting on his own. I had broken my ankle playing football and RMH decided that I was in no fit state to look after him so he should come and live with her at Bidwill Street, Mt Cook14. This must have been a real high-point for the boy – doted on and spoiled by a flat full of women. Cathy, even took him up to Brooklyn Primary for Show and Tell! He was a star by then, happy to sit out on the concrete gatepost at the bottom of the steps and let the world stop and tickle him under the chin. When Marv, RMH and I moved out to suburban Ava15 (or Petone if you are a Real Estate agent) in May 1995, a gap was left in the social world of Mt Cook that has probably never been adequately filled.
The most horrific experience of his (and possibly my) life happened one Saturday afternoon out at Graham Street, Ava. I was just saying goodbye to RMH, who was off to work at the Paramount, when I heard a door slam and then the most extraordinary noise, scratching, yowling, terrifying violence. I thought some other cat had got in the house and Marv was seeing them off with his usual gusto. We got inside to find that the wind had slammed one of the interior doors shut just as he was walking through, trapping his tail about an inch and a half from the tip.
The door was jammed tight and he was understandably ready to bite the end off so he could get away. I managed to get the door open and he shot away and hid under a bed. When we got him out the tip of his tail was connected by skin only. We wrapped him in a towel (no box) and took him to the Lower Hutt vet. A few days later he came home with a stumpy tail and his usual insouciance. I was devastated but he was fine. His stump was just another mark of his character. If he was on your lap and enjoying himself the thwap, thwap of his tail could be brutalising. And he could easily knock a wine glass off a coffee table just by walking past.
A year later work took me to Auckland and eventually Marv followed. He arrived in Auckland on the day Princess Diana died and he stayed with a couple of my workmates on Mt Albert Road16 while RMH and I found somewhere suitable in the wasteland that is Auckland, thence to Pt Chevalier17 and in 1999 Wembley Road in Balmoral18.
By 2000 RMH was back in Wellington and Marv and I were suffering the cold and damp of Akiraho Street in Mt Eden19. Actually only I was suffering. He had plenty of undergrowth to fossick around in and no traffic to worry about.
In late 2000 it was time to bring the Marvster back to his spiritual home of Wellington. Following RMH’s advice based on the trip up, I arrange a vet check-up and some tranquilisers for the car ride home. We considered an aeroplane for about five seconds but remembering that this was an animal that considered a vaccum cleaner or a rustling plastic shopping bag to be the 10th circle of Hell we thought better of it.
I gave him two tranqs in Auckland and commenced the journey south. By Meremere he was scratching furiously at the door of the cage and by Huntly he had ripped one of his claws off getting out. Like Broadmeadows to Kelburn ten years before he bounded around the interior, checking out the view until coming to rest on the generous Volvo 164 parcel shelf. For a moment I thought that this was a good result. If he was happy, I was happy.
Then I realised that at some point I was going to have to stop for gas. What if he jumped out, ran across the forecourt, into the bushes, heading for home (or wherever he thought “home” was after 19 different flats)?
I had to get him back in the cage somehow. And do it without opening the car door. And hopefully get the third and final tranquiliser down him at the same time.
I can’t remember how I did it but I can remember where. Just into the northern industrial outskirts of Hamilton I found a side road. Him or me, I do remember that. As we got through Hamilton with him still scratching furiously at the bars of the cage I realised that if the third tranq didn’t kick in soon this was going to be a very long journey. Luckily he quietened down by Putaruru and was asleep by Taupo. The rest of the trip was really boring.
We pulled in to Wellington that evening headed for Marvin’s 20th flat. Old friend Megan Huber had offered him a bed for a couple of weeks while I finished sorting stuff out in Auckland. I dropped him off, watched him wobble around for a while, fall over, then have a good laugh at his expense. I knew he was in good hands and that, at last, he was in Newtown20.
For the last three and a half years Marvelicious has been living in semi-retirement in a sunny Newtown flat21 with views out over the ugly, low-rent suburban bully cats who have a tendency to disrespect an older, wiser, classier, well-travelled, easy-going paragon. Despite his long-recognised stance of never taking a backward step he was also not stupid and mostly restricted his outside time to when the coast was clear. It didn’t always work – he got his ass kicked severely only three months ago and I always seemed to be finding scabs on him from some scrap or another.
He got picky about food, too, as he got older. Despite getting the best that money could buy for the last 10 years there were times when NOTHING would do. He still looked as if he could eat for New Zealand (or at least Taranaki) but I found more and more often that I was being woken at 5.00 in the morning to put food in an already full bowl. It became a battle of wills and I wouldn’t feed him until he finished what was on his plate and he wouldn’t shut up until I did what he wanted.
But he had hidden depths. He looked around the flat and decided to attack the area he felt was getting the attention that rightly belonged to him. He decided to piss on my CD collection. This was a calculated terrorist action. I’m certain of it. He couldn’t reach the stereo but he could have a bloody good go at the software. And by Christ that got my attention. Yup, I got beaten in a battle of wits by an animal with a brain the size of a walnut. There is a lesson there but I’m not sure what it is.
A couple of years ago I took him to the vet because I was worried about his appetite – the enormity of it. The vet said, “Don’t worry about it. The time to worry is when he stops eating.”
On Thursday he stopped eating.
On Saturday we discovered he had cancer in his intestine and that, at his age, there was nothing that could be done.
On Monday we said goodbye.
He has lived everywhere I have, plus a couple more places. He has been my constant companion throughout my adult life. People used to ask me, “How can you live on your own?” or “Why do you live alone?” and I couldn’t answer. On Saturday I realised that I couldn’t answer because I never have lived alone. He has always been there, speaking the best English of any cat anywhere. We would bicker like an old married couple and then make up and he would lie across my throat and throttle me in the middle of the night.
He had adventures I can only dream of, made friends who are now all over the world, and was always prepared to give his love to anyone who looked like they could use it.
I am going to miss him.
Wellington, 1.06am, Thu 13 May, 2004