Cat antics

In my last blog on the subject of pets, I told you about Jason the rabbit and my brother’s guinea pig Brandy, AKA “Squeaker”. It is high time that I told you about some of the cats in my life.

We mainly stuck with rodents as pets when I was a girl, but later on, when I was a law student, I did “adopt” a cat. A friend and I were sharing a flat and the girl in the flat below us had a cat which she didn’t look after properly. We started to feed him and he became “one of us.”

His name was Thomas.

He was big and black, and very strong and resourceful. He could stand on his hind legs and open the fridge, so we had to start taping the door up with Sellotape.

He would sit on my lap while I was eating and continually edge his chin over the side of the bowl. I would push him back down but he would soon return. I often gave in and let him eat the last bit. He especially liked tinned rice pudding and fruit cake.

Thomas liked to sit on the cupboard behind my chair while I was at my desk brailling my lecture notes. He would put a paw on my shoulder and lean over as if he was reading my work. He also liked to sleep on my floor cushion, which was often propped up in front of a glass-fronted cabinet. The door of the cabinet didn’t shut properly and he would lie there, casually batting the door with his paw. I was often awakened at night by the gentle, thump, thump of the cabinet door banging.

Thomas’ other hobby was playing with wrapping paper. He just loved it. I remember Christmas in the flat, with me kneeling on the floor trying to wrap presents, and Thomas on his back, with his legs in the air, rolling happily to and fro in the middle of the wrapping paper.

Perhaps his most annoying habit was sitting bang in the middle of my bed. I would find him there each night when I wanted to go to sleep. I would try to edge ever so carefully into the bed so as not to disturb him but just when I thought I had achieved this feat, he would decide to get up and walk off in a huff.

I don’t have a cat myself any more, but fortunately my family have continued to keep them over the years. My brother and sister-in-law currently have two cats. One purrs so loudly that I can hear him all the way from Leicester! (Well, down the phone actually, but he certainly makes himself heard.) The other is a champion hunter with a taste for frogs. When she isn’t littering the house with dead amphibians, she proudly offers gifts of dead leaves.

My sister and brother-in-law used to have a lovely rescue cat called Maggie, who had the softest fur I have ever stroked. She had been raised entirely by humans and so didn’t know she was actually a cat. She couldn’t groom herself but for some reason she did groom me. When I stayed there she would lie on my chest and let me cuddle her like a teddy bear while she combed my hair with her claw.

Maggie the Cat.

Maggie also liked to sleep on my bed at night. Whenever she got thirsty, she would try and drink from my glass of water on the bedside table. One night, reaching over me to get to the glass, she put her paw on my talking alarm clock and accidentally set it off. I’m not sure which of us jumped most when a voice in the dark suddenly announced that it was 12:30 AM!

Rabbits and guinea pigs

As I’ve explained previously, we were allowed to have pets at my boarding school, Chorleywood College, but only between the second and fourth years. Such age restrictions, however, entirely failed to curb my pet ownership ambitions.

I continued to keep pets back home with my parents even after I could no longer have them at school. Julio the rabbit was followed by a rabbit named Jason, who was a Yellow Dutch, which meant that he was a beautiful golden colour. He was also full of fun. He liked eating toast, which he regularly dunked in his water bowl. All very well for him, but as the one who had to clean his bowl and prepare his breakfast while not actually being able to see what he’d been doing with his crockery, I can testify that handling soggy toast first thing in the morning is not at all a nice sensation!

My dad built Jason a hutch. He used part of a piano sounding board for the rear wall of this construction and Jason loved nothing more than repeatedly thumping this with his back legs to produce a loud, resonant and drum-like sound that you could hear all round the house.

My dad also put up a wire enclosure in the garden so that Jason could enjoy being outdoors without the possibility of our losing him in the flowerbeds. We used to place some food and a water bowl in the corner of this pen and Jason would sit with his back to them while all sorts of birds, drawn to the seeds in the rabbit food, came down to feed. He would deliberately wait until several birds had gathered, then spin round and gleefully leap among them, chasing them all off in a flurry of flapping wings and avian cries of distress. This was obviously good sport from a rabbit point of view because Jason would play this game over and over again.

Another favourite game of his was running round and round in circles with his head inside a plastic flowerpot.

During this time, my brother decided that he would like a guinea pig, and one was duly purchased. Her name was Brandy, but she rapidly became known as Squeaker because she was so vocal, especially when she was hungry. She was quite a character and, as an Abyssinian guinea pig, had lovely fur which stuck up “every which way,” as my father put it. (I believe that these radial swirls of fur are actually known as “rosettes”.)

We read that rabbits and guinea pigs could live together, so we tried the experiment. We opened both hutches and waited to see what would happen. Squeaker barged into Jason’s bed compartment and refused to let him in. The experiment was promptly abandoned!

Christmas 2020

Christmas preparations are different for all of us this year.

We are all having to rely on the Internet even more than usual to help Santa fill his sack. The trouble is, I quite like to go out to actual shops. True, I can’t walk far and have to plan my shopping campaigns carefully to limit mileage, and, yes, even in other years I do buy some presents online, but, for all that, I do like an actual shopping trip.

The thing is, shopping online just isn’t the same for me. If I want to buy, say, jewellery, I want to know what it feels like. Is the pendant a pleasing shape? Is it smooth? Is it light or heavy? Perhaps I want to purchase a scarf for someone. I want to know, is it silky or woolly? Can I imagine the recipient wearing it?

I also feel some loyalty to my local shops. There are precious few left in the centre of Swindon and if we all sit at home clicking on links, there will be none at all quite soon.

There is also the question of the Christmas treat. I normally like to take my long-suffering personal assistant and friend out for a meal or an excursion at this time of year.

We were reminiscing only today about a trip we made to Gloucester Cathedral four years ago. They had the most amazing life-size knitted Nativity scene. Yes, really! They had hung the fabric characters on wooden frames to give them shape but they were, otherwise, all knitted. We had the good fortune to arrive as people were gathering for a carol concert, so we sat and listened to the beautiful sound of carols being sung in that wonderful building with its brilliant acoustics.

This year, however, we will have to be content with sitting at home eating mince pies and pulling a cracker, looking forward to better times.

No Christmas outing this year, then, but I have instituted the tradition of buying my PA and I each a pair of Christmas earrings. Despite having enough earrings to, as my father used to say, sink a battleship (a form of maritime ordnance which the Royal Navy hasn’t tried yet), there is, in my view, always room for another pair.

Some people collect stamps, I collect earrings.

I’m sure I will find an excuse to buy us some when shopping expeditions are a lawful pleasure once again.

So, yes, Christmas all feels rather different this year. I hope my nearest and dearest will bear with my lack of imagination this festive season but I hope to make it up to them in the new year. Meanwhile, there will still be good cheer this Christmas, carol CDs to play and rubbish on the TV – so perhaps it’s not all quite so different after all!

Advent Calendars

This week I have had the pleasure of starting to open the windows of my advent calendar.

“You have an advent calendar at your age?” I hear you cry!

Actually, I think these calendars are being increasingly marketed at “older” people and not just at young children. You can even get them with cosmetics and alcohol behind those little numbered doors.

Some years I have had calendars with pieces of chocolate in festive shapes sitting temptingly in their niches, but really I like the ones with pictures best.

This might seem odd to you as, obviously, I can’t see said pictures, but the fact is that I have always loved pictures. I used to adore painting and drawing when I was a child, and I continued to struggle to draw with thick black felt tips even after my sight was too poor to do this properly.

Maybe it is my inheritance from my artistic mother. I have a good imagination and enough memory of what objects and colours are like to be able to conjure up an image in my mind if someone can describe a picture to me. Of course, what I am picturing may not resemble the original, but does that matter? I don’t think so.

I vividly remember my first advent calendar. It had a golden coach on it and a glittery sky and I still recall that one of the windows had a bright red ladybird behind it. What that had to do with Christmas I don’t know, but it was colourful and I liked it.

Over the years these calendars have become more elaborate and I do like to try and find one with some tactile elements. I have had splendid ones that are 3D scenes. One was a representation of Bethlehem with lots of little houses in the streets. I had a tower with elves making toys inside once. I have had calendars which play “Jingle Bells” and this year I have a squirrel’s house.

Yes, I do mean “house.”

It is not a representation of a large nest (dray?) but a children’s picture book house. There are several rooms, with squirrels variously asleep, sitting by the fire and, in one case, climbing a ladder. This last one is great fun because you can push the little squirrel up and down the ladder. You can also turn a wheel and make Santa fly through the air.

So far, so childish – and in case you are wondering whether I ever have calendars with religious themes, the answer is, yes! Besides the Bethlehem calendar mentioned above, I have had ones with scripture texts and one with an African scene which a friend gave me, which had the nativity story divided up into brief episodes so that, by the time you opened door 24, you had heard the whole tale from the Annunciation to the arrival of the baby Jesus.

In the end, what I love about these calendars is the air of anticipation they create, especially when it comes to the fun of hunting for the door. I can’t do this unaided any more, although one year RNIB did produce an advent calendar with braille numbers on the doors. But even if I have to have help, I still enjoy waiting while my friend locates the appropriate little door. When she’s found it, I open it and listen to her description of the image inside. It is all part of the preparation for the big event and I have never lost my childhood delight in it.

Boarding school pets

Last week, I was telling you about the pets we had when I was very young and still living at home. But animals were still an important part of my life, even after I went off to board at my secondary school.

One of the better aspects of life at Chorleywood College was that, between the second and fourth years, we were allowed to have pets at school. We could have either a rabbit or a guinea pig.

I took ownership of the offspring of one of my friend’s rabbits, a Himalayan Dwarf, which was white with black markings. I am a big Paul Simon fan (well, quite a short one, actually, but you know what I mean) and called my rabbit “Julio”, after a character in the Paul Simon song “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard”, which was in the charts at the time.

Julio was beautiful.

He loved to be cuddled and was wonderfully soft to the touch, which made him an ideal pet for someone with a visual impairment. Mind you, he nibbled everything in sight, including my favourite purple beads. He neatly nipped off two from each side while I hugged him to me.

He also had a taste for rose petals. When we went on holiday he stayed with my grandparents. My grandfather built him a hutch so that he could have his very own home-from-home and my grandmother strewed the floor with rose petals to welcome him. How to spoil a bunny! The only snag was that my grandfather could never quite got the hang of Julio’s name. The closest he managed to get was either “Honolulu”, the capital of Hawaii, or “Goolagong”, after Evonne Goolagong, a famous Australian tennis player of the period.

Although not quite up to the luxury of Julio’s holiday accommodation, the pet facilities at school were really quite good. There was a bank of hutches, a shed where we could store and prepare food, a tap, and brushes, straw and sawdust for cleaning out. Those of us with pets would troop over there mornings and evenings and some of us even took our rabbits out for gambols in the grounds on sunny days. Amazingly, we never lost a rabbit while they were prancing about on the grass.

In addition to our own personal pets, there were also various school pets, including horses and poultry. The headmistress had a particular penchant for failed guide dogs. One such was called Topsy, and a common sound around the grounds was the head’s anxious and high pitched calls of “Topsy! Topsy!” which meant that the dog was up to no good and had no earthly intention of stopping whatever it was that it was doing.

As I mentioned last week, I am not a great dog-lover, so I was much more interested in the various school cats. I had no idea at the time, but I have since discovered that these poor creatures were fed on whatever leftovers were to hand in the kitchen. These could be anything from spam fritters to curry. A couple of girls in the year below mine eventually took it upon themselves to purchase proper cat food for the school cats, which must have been a welcome relief for these malnourished felines.

I still want to tell you all about our pet guinea pig, my favourite cats, and even how in later life I (sort of!) became reconciled to accepting dogs, but those are all stories for another time.

Bobby, the gout-ridden budgie

Many of you will be finding the presence of pets comforting in these strange times. I don’t have any pets these days but, looking back, my childhood seems to be full of happy times with a variety of animals.

Our first pet was a black Labrador called Kit. I was very young and don’t actually remember her but I’m told I used to lean down from my high chair and feed her my dinner.

Unfortunately, when I was four, I was badly bitten by a friend’s dog and that put me off them almost for life. I carried the physical and psychological scars for many years. I would occasionally meet individual dogs with whom I was able to strike up a friendship but, in general, it was a case of “once bitten, twice shy.” It has only been in recent years that I have been able to shake off this fear.

My first animal that was all mine rather than a family pet was a goldfish. You might think that you couldn’t bond with a fish but I was very fond of mine. I could see the flash of orange as he swam round his tank and I enjoyed buying him a little castle with which to adorn the floor of his aquarium.

He started off all by himself but soon acquired a companion. Our next-door neighbours had cats and a goldfish, which is not a good combination. One day they came upon one of the cats fishing in the tank. They literally rescued the fish from his paw (you could see the claw marks) and gave him to us for safekeeping. We popped him in the tank with our fish and there he made a good recovery, going on to live a long and, as far as we could tell, happy life.

When I was nine or ten we got a budgerigar called Bobby. He was eccentric to say the least. He had a little bell on his cage and, rather than ringing it with his beak like any other budgie, he would put his head inside it so that it looked as though he was wearing a helmet. He loved company and would sing merrily along to whatever song I was listening to on Radio 1.

He had health problems, though, and seemed to have some difficulty breathing at times. He would fly round and round the room and then land, exhausted, on the floor, wheezing loudly.

His favourite perch when outside his cage was the bald patch on top of my father’s head. We called it his “lunar landing pad” (moon landings were all the rage just then). Bobby would sit there on top of Dad’s head all through mealtimes, observing us and chirping away.

Then poor Bobby the budgie developed gout. We joked that this was because, when we stayed at my grandmother’s, we hung his cage above her drinks cabinet, where she kept her bottles of port.

Unfortunately, Bobby didn’t find much amusement in this development. His poor feet became deformed, so that he could no longer grasp anything properly. When he tried to sit on his perch, he would fall off in a flurry of feathers. He took to sitting on the piece of cuttlefish which was attached to the outside of his cage. He would then stick his beak through the bars and nibble morosely on the piece of cuttlefish extending inside his home.

Those were the animals we had at home when I was little. Next week, I’ll tell you about the pets we had at school.

The Haunted Sick Bay

In last week’s blog, I explained about two of the three rooms in the school sick bay. The room called Firefly was better than the one called Bluebird because it had a radio. But the other room was far less pleasant than either of them.

The third room was called Britannia, and was the worst to be in. It was the furthest from the entrance and so always felt isolated and out of the way.

For all that, I do have one good memory of that room.

I was down there on one occasion and a friend came to visit. She busied herself tucking the blankets round me and then remarked, “If I do all this for you, what would I do for someone I really liked?”

(By this she meant, I think, a Manchester United football player.)

That story aside, I really didn’t like Britannia, and my feelings about the room were not helped by one of the older girls telling me that the room was haunted.

Nowadays, of course, I would find that really rather interesting, but at the time it made me very uneasy. Alone in Britannia one night, I thought I heard the springs creaking in one of the other, unoccupied, beds. I lay there in fear, wondering whether I had been joined by the ghost of a former patient, perhaps one who had not made it out of the sick bay alive.

I can’t tell you how relieved I was when daylight finally started to shine in through the curtains and revealed that I truly was alone.

According to schoolgirl legend, we had a number of ghosts at our school. As the main building had been a 17th-century manor house, this might not have been all that surprising, but all the spectres were, in the stories I heard, of much more recent vintage. There was The Grey Lady, for instance, who was reputed to wander the corridors at night.

For some reason, I never met anyone who had actually encountered her, though.

Then there was the legend of Stella.

We had an impressive entrance hall and rising up from it was an oak staircase with a shiny brass handrail. There was a dent in the rail near the bottom. The story went that a girl, Stella, was so unhappy at Chorleywood that she had thrown herself from the top of the oak stairs, hit her head on the rail at the bottom, and subsequently died. The tale was entirely fictitious but this didn’t stop it being handed down from year to year. In fact it was remarkably enduring for a piece of fake news.

But returning to the subject of the sick bay, I ought to mention that we were well provided for, in that there was always a qualified nurse in charge, and even those who stood in for her when she was off duty generally had some nursing training. My friend and I would often sit in Surgery, after the evening rush had died down, and talk to the nurses, one of whom has remained a friend to this day.

All alone with the Romans

In my last blog, I was telling you about the Chorleywood College ‘flu epidemic of 1976 and how I ended up in the school sick bay.

On that occasion, I was in the nicer of the two two-bed rooms, and one of my form-mates was in there too, so at least I had someone to talk to. It could have been worse, and on other occasions it was. Sick bay could be a very lonely place.

I remember being by myself in there one time and hearing my friends talking as they walked along the form-room corridor. In reality, they were only a few feet away from where I lay, but my isolation made it feel more like a million miles.

Being in sick bay was always a bit of a mixed experience. If you were really poorly, of course, you were just grateful to be in bed. When you were feeling a little better, however, you could lie there in blissful idleness while imagining everyone else grinding away at their lessons. You had to enjoy this fleeting pleasure while you could, however, because once you were fit again you were expected to work twice as hard in order to catch up on everything that you had missed.

All the dormitories at my school were named after ships and boats and the rooms in sick bay followed the same pattern. I think the reason behind this ludicrously inappropriate nautical theme was that the school originally started at a barn in a village called Jordans, which was supposed to have some of the wood from the Pilgrim Fathers’ ship the Mayflower incorporated into its structure. This tenuous historical maritime link was sufficient to engender a constant obsession with comparing the school to a ship, a symbolism particularly noticeable in the school song. This was entitled “Our ship” and had music by Albert E. Bevan and words by Gwen Upcott. It contained the memorable line, “Once aboard the Cedars, (i.e. the school) you’re never going back” (see Memory 80 on this page for the full lyrics). We found these words darkly ominous and all hated the school song with a vengeance.

Anyway, the first two-bed room in the sick bay was called Firefly. It had a radio in it, which helped to while away the hours and was one of the reasons I thought it was the better room. The middle room, Bluebird, had no such amenity. I remember being confined there once with an infectious illness, so that I was not allowed any visitors. I had no company apart from my book, Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow, which was about the Romans trying to invade Germany.

Much as I enjoyed historical fiction, I did get bored. I certainly got fed up with my own company.

What made it worse was that there were two girls in Firefly and I could hear them talking through the wall. One day, one of the care staff came in and remarked that Liz and Elaine next door were feeling bored. I nearly screamed, “How dare they say that they’re bored! They have each other and a radio!”

When I felt well enough, I explored all the lockers in the room and found a pack of Lexicon cards with which I tried to amuse myself by dealing hands and making as many words as I could.

Not scintillating fun, but needs must!


As you see, I dealt with the loneliness and boredom as well as I could. But being scared stiff was another thing altogether. I’ll tell you all about that next week.

What happened the day after Agincourt

I will start by addressing the burning question of the day. No, not who won the US election but whether I have put my central heating on yet.

The answer is, “Yes.” I succumbed at the start of November.

We are in lockdown again here in the UK and some friends and I were musing on the ‘flu epidemic of 1976. To be honest, I don’t know if there really was an epidemic in the country at large or whether it was just at our special school for the visually impaired, Chorleywood College. But you can imagine how fast an infectious illness travels at a boarding school. Our sick bay had eight beds. There were two two-bed rooms and one four-bed. In no time at all these were all taken and dormitories were being pressed into service as sick bay extensions.

This all happened in my O-level year. One of the books we were studying for English Literature, which we called “English Lit”, was Shakespeare’s Henry V. I generally like Shakespeare’s plays, but Henry V is not one of my favourites.

As it happened, the famous film adaptation with Laurence Olivier was being screened at the local community centre, and our form were due to go. When it came to the evening in question, however, there were only two of us left standing. So, we set off with the new P.E. teacher, whom we really liked, because she was friendly and funny and easy to talk to.

Now, I know this film is much loved by Olivier fans but, I’m sorry to say, it did absolutely nothing for me. Henry could have gone once more into the breach until doomsday as far as I was concerned and I would still have been completely unmoved. It was all utterly unmemorable. In fact, the only aspect of the film that sticks in my mind at all is the recollection that the French king sounded a little bit like Kojak when he laughed. Unfortunately, at the time this gave me the giggles and, all in all, I didn’t take the occasion very seriously at all.

My friend and I felt quite smug that we were the only two members of our form well enough to go to the film. And we got to go with our favourite teacher.

Karma kicked in, though, and the following day we duly succumbed to the ‘flu.

A bed in sick bay must have come free just as I staggered along to Surgery as I soon found myself in the privileged position of being housed in the first of the proper two-bed sick-bay rooms, with the added bonus of sharing the room with someone from my form.

All in all, that stay in sick bay wasn’t too bad. Sometimes, though, it could be a very lonely place. I’ll tell you more about that next week.

Putting people in boxes

We all tend to put people in boxes, even if we try hard not to: that person is English, that person is deaf, and so on. As we get to know them, we find that they don’t fit neatly into any one category and we gradually adapt to seeing them as they really are.

Large bureaucracies like the NHS find it harder to think outside the box.

I have to have regular blood tests. While I was not allowed to walk because of my broken leg, there was no question of me being able to attend the surgery, so arrangements were made for a nurse to come to me.

Now I am on my feet it is a different story. The rule is unbreakable: if you can step outside your front door, you are not housebound and you do not qualify for a home visit. I tried explaining to the community nursing team that whilst that was true, it was one thing to ask a taxi driver to guide me because I am blind and quite another to ask them to assist a visually-impaired person who is using a Zimmer frame.

The answer was still no.

In the end, I had to ask a friend to accompany me to the surgery.

In example number two, I was trying to book hospital transport. For my first X-ray I was allowed transport because I couldn’t walk. There was no ambiguity there. However, when I rang back recently to arrange transport to hospital for my second X-ray, there was a definite reluctance on the other end of the phone.

“Do you go out at all?”

“I go to church.”

“How do you get there?”

“A friend gives me a lift but then she is going there anyway. It’s quite a different thing to ask her to take me to the hospital.”

“Can’t anyone go with you?”

I was asked to see if I could find someone to accompany me. I was told, that, if this really wasn’t possible, I could come back to them but there was no guarantee that they could help me.

In the end, I did manage to find a friend who could take me, and I’m very grateful for their help.

Now, it probably sounds as though I’m complaining but, actually, I’m not. I do understand that the NHS has limited resources and has to draw up rules to ensure that those resources are used for the benefit of those who need them most. I also understand that if they started making exceptions it would end in over-stretched resources and headaches all round for those in charge.

There is an issue here, though, about what happens when you don’t slot into a convenient category or meet a predefined bureaucratic criterion – when, in other words, you don’t quite “fit into the box.”

When I mentioned this to the nurse as she took my blood, she said it was a problem many of her patients had. I’m sure it is. There are lots of us out here with complex needs.

I hope I’m getting across that I’m not indulging in special pleading for the visually-impaired. We’re not the only ones affected by these issues. I do want to make a point about visual impairment, though, when it’s combined with another physical disability. I don’t think people always realise how much this complicates life.

Even when I am in my own home, where – at least in theory! – I know where I’m going, I still bash into the walls when I have to use a Zimmer frame because I can’t accurately judge how big the frame is. I don’t always walk smoothly through gaps in the furniture for the same reason. I’m not a brilliant Zimmer frame driver and, when I do go out, I have to get my friends to grab hold of the frame to steer me, rather in the manner they used to do when helping me with supermarket trolleys back when I still went out to a supermarket!

Imagine me trying to explain to a taxi driver, for whom English may not be their first language, exactly what help I need! They are mostly very helpful, but I think that would be asking a bit too much.

I don’t know what the answer is and, as with so much in life, there probably isn’t a perfect solution. I do wonder, though, whether a little education for health service professionals about the complications thrown up by having more than one disability might not be a very good idea.