Street Life Samotechny Lane: If you want to make friends, get a flamingo-coloured cat

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The Independent Online
THE SUREST way to make friends in Russia - better even than being a ready drinking partner - is to keep a pet. The Russians are as daft as the English when it comes to animals, perhaps more so if you consider the number of bemedalled pedigree hounds kept in cramped apartments where there is barely room to swing a cat. So, whether you own a dog, a cat or a canary, you are quickly accepted as a member of the community.

My neighbours in Samotechny Lane know me as Yelena, or more often just Lena, but the entire Novoslobodsky district knows me as the "English cat woman". Likewise, I recognise members of the dog-walking fraternity as the "Alsatian man" or the "Airedale terrier bloke" and know the cat owners as the "Siamese woman", the "tortoiseshell fellow" and so on.

It all started when I lost Minky. Once, he had been a sweet flamingo- coloured kitten but after he became a castrato in the opera of the cats and ate the food the advertisements said he would have bought himself, he turned into a finicky and bloated beast. Still, I was upset when he went missing and put up signs offering a small reward to anyone who found him.

The response was astonishing and not, I am sure, because of the reward. Every five minutes, the telephone would ring. "We have found a ginger cat. Is it him?" I would go and look and of course, it was not Minky, who was an indescribable shade of pale ginger, more apricot really. Ginger cats would be brought to my door. It was amazing how many there were. We never did find the runaway.

This only increased the concern of the neighbours, who began searching for a replacement cat. A 14-year-old boy called Kirill gave me quite a good match for Minky, a marmalade kitten whom we christened Scooter. But after a few weeks, he jumped over the balcony and seized his freedom.

A retired KGB agent, one of a group whom I had been helping to write their memoirs, revealed that he was cat-crazy and had 12 at home. He gave me one of them, a mushroom-coloured thing that turned out to be riddled with fleas, so I politely returned him.

I was of a mind to try to live without a cat. But then one night, I saw with absolute clarity - I was not half asleep or drunk - a rat emerge from the hole under the bath and scuttle across the kitchen floor. The neighbours, naturally, had plenty of advice.

Lyuba upstairs said I should call in the rat man, who would poison her "using coloured grains like Indian rice". Her husband said this was a terrible idea as the rat would just crawl away to die somewhere and stink for months under the floorboards. "Broken glass is the only answer," said Tanya at number 13. "Just spread broken glass around your flat, and the rat will go away because she will not want to cut her little feet."

Fortunately, before it came to that, a new cat walked into my life, black as the ace of spades and promising to be lucky. I called him Blackjack. He did quite an efficient job, patrolling the passage between bathroom and kitchen.

Since it looked as if he was going to become a permanent fixture, I decided last week to call in the vet to give him a health check. An acquaintance had given me the telephone number of Raisa Yevgenyevna. "She does not remember names but just tell her you are a friend of the blue Persian."

Raisa Yevgenyevna arrived, neatly dressed like Miss Marple. She examined Blackjack, pronounced him in good condition and advised me not to spoil him with too much tinned meat. As I paid her the 300-rouble (pounds 9) fee, I realised that she was glad of the business. "Since the economic crisis, pet owners cannot afford to pay me for a visit. Instead, they ring up for a bit of free advice. I cannot refuse. In many cases, I have been looking after their animals for years. So if you know of any rich Russians or foreigners with pets ..."

Indeed, if anybody asks, I will certainly recommend her. I will tell them to say they got the contact from the black cat in Samotechny Lane.

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