A cat simply has to make his own arrangements

Have the horses escaped? Have any of the ewes gone down with mastitis? Has the vixen killed any more chickens? How much has the grass in the big field grown? Have the bees swarmed again? Has any rain fallen, or are the infant vegetables all burnt up?

Such are the worries that haunt a smallholder returning from holiday. Even an eight-day break is plenty long enough for catastrophe to strike - and our own absence was infuriatingly extended by an eight-hour delay to the flight home from Naples. Instead of reaching Gatwick at 4pm on Sunday, we came in at 12.30 the following morning, and by the time I had mended a puncture in a rear tyre of the car, it was 1.30am before we pulled out of the airport for the two-hour drive home.

The result was that we arrived home with dawn breaking. After a short lie-down before breakfast, we sprang up, eager to find out the state of play. Diana, our house-sitter, had done a splendid job, and everything was in order. The horses were where they should be, and looking well. The sheep were all present and correct. All five bee-hives were still inhabited.

It turned out that there had been one torrential downpour, and this had set the grass growing fast. In the vegetable garden weeds were rampant, and the peas had run amok: although there was no sign of a flower on them, the plants were already six feet tall, and shooting up.

Chicken numbers did seem to have diminished slightly; but at this time of year it is difficult to tell what is happening, because individual hens go off without warning to incubate nests, so that even if they disappear, it does not necessarily mean that the fox has got them. Nevertheless, Diana reported seeing several foxes: at one point there had been two in the garden simultaneously, one in front of the house, one behind. As she had also found a patch of brown feathers up the field, it seemed likely that we had lost one bird at least.

The only other member of the establishment unaccounted for was Jasper, the hunting cat. His mother Kitty (black and white) and sister Rosie (tabby) were both about, but he seemed to have quit the premises, maybe after a chase by one of Diana's three small dogs. Because he resembles Rosie quite closely, Diana was not sure when she had last seen him.

In a couple of days we had settled back into our usual routines, and the two cats returned to theirs. But still no Jasper. We began to worry that - great hunter that he is, killer of squirrels, pigeons, weasels - he had finally over-reached himself, and fallen victim to a fox or a badger. It was also possible that he had been run over by someone speeding in the lane. Yet both these fates seemed unlikely, as he had always been well able to look after himself.

Early on the fourth morning we heard a yowling outside our bedroom window: exactly the note he made when he had killed a rabbit or a rat and was dragging the corpse home for our inspection. It was only five o'clock, but fully light, so we leapt out of bed and looked down. Alas, it was Rosie, bearing a dead mouse, and sounding uncannily like her brother.

Later that morning my wife went in search of him, calling round all the fields and up and down the lane, in case he was skulking in the bushes - but it was in vain. By Day Five we were trying to reconcile ourselves to the probability that we had lost him.

No matter that he had ruined the dining-room carpet by eating his kills in the corners. No matter that he turned up his whiskers at tinned cat food, and - apart from what he caught for himself - would eat only fresh liver or mince. No matter that he persisted in sitting on my wife's hands when she was trying to work at her computer. In spite of these peccadilloes, we were missing him badly.

And then, on Day Six, the miracle occurred. Suddenly, at about 6pm, there he was - hungry, but not thin or damaged. After a cautious tour of the ground floor, he dropped straight back into his old habits, and settled in to roast himself on the work-top beside the Aga.

Where had he been, and what had he lived off? He wasn't saying. But was there not in his manner some hint of reproach? Was he not wordlessly letting us know that if we must go off to Italy, then a cat simply has to make his own arrangements?

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