Mitten is a black and white Hackney cat. He belongs to a family a few doors down, but he used to be wild and the truth is he belongs to no one. He is huge.
We met in February. We had just moved in and he had twisted his paw. Refusing to see the vet, he limped into our garden, sat down and glared. That’s when it started.
Time passes with no more meaningful encounters.
Mitten is not only big, but curvy. I assume, therefore, he’s greedy. So one day in May, he comes to the kitchen door meaning business and receives a plate of milk. Gingerly, he drinks his milk — lap, lap. My wife is scared of cats and she thinks Mitten is a lazy delinquent. Lap, lap. He might be, but my wife is at work so her views don’t carry much weight here. Lap, lap. I crouch down so as to bond with Mitten, beast to beast, take a picture on my phone and send it to my wife.
Amazingly, I am convinced that Mitten is a girl. He is not.
A text: “Get that cat out of the garden.” He lingers and then he lumbers off, oozing gross entitlement. Our garden is just a portion of this cat’s fiefdom but one he favours daily. He will spend his day squashing flowers and killing small creatures. That was the second meaningful encounter.
Again, time passes. Our relationship is a slow burner. The milk scene is not repeated but, waking one night, I spy Mitten from the bathroom window — he is loafing on the shed next door, his huge frame casting monstrous shadows — and I wonder if he is happier than me. On balance, no. Most nights I watch him. All summer, in fact.
And then it happens. It is Sunday afternoon, sunny. My wife is at the local lido with the rest of east London, Mitten is dominating the lawn, as usual, and I am at a loose end. So I retrieve a few rashers of old bacon from the bin and drop them on the grass.
He is circumspect — it’s a waiting game. My wife returns from her swim with mad swimming hair.
“What’s this bacon doing?” she asks.
“It’s for Mitten.”
“You know I don’t like Mitten.”
It’s true. But I do like Mitten. And to prove it, I coax him over. He sniffs the bacon without licking it and begins to purr. He stalks impressively between my legs, crushing my feet. I stroke his head bravely and he purrs like a diesel engine.
“Look, I’m the cat whisperer, I’m the cat whisperer!” I exclaim.
Mitten swishes his tail enthusiastically. I nuzzle his head, his neck and down beneath his chin and then . . .
And then, twisting, Mitten raises his paws, takes my hand and pops it inside his open mouth, as if it were no more than a Hackney field mouse, and bites.
Startled, I shriek. Mitten stands his ground as if to say, you started it. Convinced that he wants a piece of her, too, my wife quails by the kitchen door. My hand bleeds everywhere.
“Get him out!”
The cat dawdles on the lawn, the taste of blood on his tongue. He is not fazed by his savagery.
“What are you doing?” my wife asks.
I am in shock.
“Get him out!”
So I shout “Mitten” in a voice that comes out quite high-pitched and Mitten trots into the bed of pansies and snuggles up.
In the aftermath, my wife has mixed feelings about the attack. On one hand, she is thrilled that I have been bitten badly, proving that a) her Mitten phobia wasn’t crazy and b) I am not the cat whisperer. On the other hand, Mitten has proved himself to be an appalling monster.
In time, her terror outweighs her pleasure. In time, my hand begins to heal. Yet the pain loiters — in my hand until Tuesday, in my mind, God knows.
The fact is, Mitten has betrayed me. He has started a war — my wife talks brazenly of buying a water pistol because cats hate water. He has made me look idiotic. I don’t know if we’ll recover. I suspect not because Mitten is too blasé about the bite. And yet maybe I love him.
And has he betrayed me, really? I am a tourist — I do not yet belong — and he is a Hackney cat. It’s his postcode and his garden. For all I know, Mitten is the king of Hackney and he can do as he pleases.
My wife has stopped using the garden on her own.
Alexander Gilmour is associate editor of House & Home; @AIMGilmour
Next week: Jane Owen’s ‘Provincial life’
Illustration by Clare Mallison