THIS IS the story of America's newest celebrity, and a warning to her about the exclusive but ruinous club she has joined. We may still await the Great American Novel, but here is the Great American Anecdote. A week ago, Tabitha, a Californian cat, was placed in her cage in the cargo hold of a Boeing 747 for a flight home to Los Angeles from New York. Her owner, Carol Ann Timmel, sat upstairs. But when the jet was unloaded, the cage was empty.
The inside of a jet is a large hole, but a closed one, and so initially optimism was high. But, after several hours of 'Here, kitty, kitty', and the strategic placement of fishy dishes around the fuselage, Tabitha remained a no-show passenger. Mindful of its schedule, the plane took off again, leaving Ms Timmel bereft at Bradley International Airport in LA.
For several days, the aircraft ping-ponged across America from coast to coast, while searches were resumed between flights. If Tabitha survived now, she would emerge as an instant gold-card member of the frequent flyer scheme. Periodically, hopes of a rescue were raised when a first-class passenger reported a ghostly miaow beneath the murmur of the engines. Other flyers, it is reported, commented on a fishy odour in the cabin: the after-smell of the search party's bribes.
It is here that the tale turns perfectly American, with the intervention of, first, litigation and, then, mysticism. Ms Timmel believed that the airline was not hunting hard enough, and so took the company to court. Tabitha's mistress was granted an injunction, grounding the plane for 24 hours at JFK in New York. The cat being a native of California, Ms Timmel took with her a psychic. Subsequently - reportedly from a map drawn by the mystic - the pussy was located, merely slightly dehydrated after flying 30,000 miles. Tabitha flew home to LA curled on a first-class seat.
She woke up to find herself famous. Her owner is now negotiating a movie deal and a contract for the cat's memoirs. Tabitha would be the first cat to reach the New York Times bestseller list, although a dog - Nellie, the pooch of President George Bush - hit No 1 with her memoirs in 1991. And advertisers were immediately on the line. Cat food, milk and flea powder are obvious possible endorsements, and a bidding war is expected among airlines keen to feature the cat in their commercials. There are rumours that Tabitha will shortly be invited to Washington for a meeting with Socks Clinton, America's First Cat.
It is a pity that the title An American Tail has already been used for a movie (about a mouse), because there is something emblematic about Tabitha's story. There is, for example, a near certainty of further litigation. The 24-hour grounding presumably lost money for the airline. Was the fact that the cage opened in flight the fault of the manufacturer, the airline or Ms Timmel? Compensation may well be sought in the courts.
Tabitha's life may seem now to be all purrks. But she should be warned that the history of American celebrity is not a happy one. It is easy to draw the likely graph of her career. First, there will be the decline in popularity. There will be other animal heroes. A dog will survive for three days beneath an avalanche. And, all over America right now, cat owners will be training their pets to get lost on a plane. Soon, some frisky kitten wannabe will threaten Tabitha's patch. Movie offers will dry up, and she will be reduced to a touring production of Cats.
Next, fur will fly in the supermarket magazines and TV sleaze shows. The sex life of the average cat is of a randomness and energy to fill several editions of the National Inquirer. Dark tales of Tabitha being any tom's in a back alley will alienate Middle America and terrify advertisers.
Rumours of illegitimate litters all over California will be topped by gossip that the star has contracted fleas. Across a cover picture of Tabitha looking mangy, the Newsweek headline will read Catastrophe], while the more erudite Time magazine announces Cataclysm]
After that, the only tension will be the precise details of the bleak final scene. Ridiculously fat from the millions of tins of Real Fish Dinner sent to her in the aftermath of her celebrity, Tabitha waddles on to her last late-night talk show but can barely say miaow. Or Tabitha is found stretched out in her basket, the empty packet of worm pills beside her.
Welcome to American celebrity, Tabitha. You were found by a psychic. Perhaps you would be wise to find a psychiatrist.
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