A sorry state

The column: Howard Jacobson knows he ought to apologise to many people, but top of the list is a creature he loved and lost - a rough, tough cat by the name of Wolfgang
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some weeks ago I made light of Australia's National Sorry Day. Say sorry? Me? Ha! To whom? Plenty of people have reason to beg my forgiveness, oh yes, and they know who they are, but who do I owe?

Serves me right: I haven't had a good night's sleep since. No sooner does my head hit the pillow than it starts - the great parade of those I've wronged, rattling their chains and rustling their dusty winding sheets, chiding me with bleeding eyes.

Enough! I retract. I am sorry. Universally sorry. And to show that I mean what I say, I am today beginning an occasional series of public apologies.

PUBLIC APOLOGY NO 1. Sorry Wolfgang!

No, Wolfgang is not my friend the priest from Bremen who, while we were holidaying in Prague some years ago, sank his teeth into the walls of a particularly fine baroque church, wailing "I am the Auschwitz German." No, the Wolfgang I'm saying sorry to this time is a cat.

We called him Wolfgang after Wulfrun, the medieval patroness of Wolverhampton, cousin of Mancunia and Liverpudd. A small boy handed him to us in a shoe- box on a garage forecourt in Wolverhampton. His mother had told him that if he couldn't find someone to adopt the kitten they would have to put it in a sack and drown it in t'cut - t'cut being Wulfrunian for t'canal. The kitten was on Death Row. We were his last line of appeal.

Jacobsons are not known for being soft touches, but my wife is a Sadler not a Jacobson, and no Sadler has ever been able to walk away from a kitten in a shoe box. Yes, we'd reprieve him. Did I mind? Yes, I minded. Tough - we were taking him anyway. We needed something to love. Pets make you live longer. Didn't I want to live longer? Yes, but not in the company of something that was going to arch its back against my shins ... But by now the little boy was gone, the shoe box was on the bonnet of my car, and Wolfgang - Wolfie, as we came to know him - was ours.

I like to think it was me who made a real cat of him, teaching him to wrestle, how to hunt and kill balls of string, how to bear himself with a high fine indifference in the company of she-cats, thereby making the best of having lost his own balls. He was a tabby with absolutely no breeding, but he had a lovely round strong head and an indomitable spirit. In many ways he was the boy my father would have liked me to be, instead of the softie who always had an excuse note from his mother in his pocket. My Wolfie was never given a note. My Wolfie was fearless and up for anything.

He lived in Wolverhampton and in Cornwall where my wife owned a craft shop. He was a good traveller. The only other time we'd had cats they'd made heavy weather of the M5, crying and throwing up and jumping onto my head while I was driving, forcing me to hurl them into the back seat, else I'd have plunged blindly into the Severn. I suppose I ought to say sorry to them while I'm at it. It couldn't have been much fun being thrown back into your own vomit at a hundred miles an hour.

But they were she-cats, easy to agitate hormonally. Wolfie was a bloke and could go anywhere.

He had his own position in the craft shop, lying on the counter as though he owned the place, on sheets of green tissue. Visitors to the shop assumed they had a right to stroke and poke him. "Ah!" they'd say. "Ah! Look! Cat!"

Holiday makers from the North were the worst. They practised a sort of professional ethnic gormlessness, assuming that Cornwall was a kind of Disneyland that existed solely for their bemusement. It wasn't just Wolfie they poked: they poked the stone walls, they poked the cliffs, they poked the letter-box outside my wife's shop, they even poked me. But Wolfie was the only one who poked back. The moment he saw an alien finger approaching he shot out his claws and scratched. Some of them bled profusely, some of them only a little, but no one who tried to take a liberty with his person ever escaped unharmed.

In this way he became a local hero. News of his latest attack would travel round the village like wild fire. Seeing a bleeding family coming in for consolatory pasties, Zak the baker noted with satisfaction that Wolfie had struck again. Rob the leather man rang us from his shop with the latest count - "Two more, one in tears, one with her arm in a sling." What Wolfie did he did for all of us.

Some winters, when we flew to Australia, we'd leave Wolfie with friends. He'd be waiting outside the shop to welcome us when we returned, leaping up to lick us, like a dog. One winter we stayed away too long. We had left him with my sister-in-law, Janet Haigh, artist and dog-lover. Without consulting us, she made the decision to give Wolfie away to a childless couple who wouldn't leave him every winter. They bought him rubber mice and hung strands of wool from the ceiling for him to play with. He'd be happier with them.

By the time we found out, it was a fait accompli. He'd been re-adopted. We never saw him again. Rumours of his greater contentedness reached us. But no photographs or letters. Recently, we heard that he had died. At a respectable age and surrounded by loved ones. As happy in death as he had latterly been in life.

I doubt it, Wolfie. Happy, playing with rubber mice, you? Never. Not after the killings you made.

Sorry, Wolfie. We should never have left you. Sorry.

And now, Janet Haigh - is there something you would like to say to us?