Nocturnal eyes are open wide,
In grassy banks where animals hide.
Rabbit, fox, and even deer,
Vanish quickly when cars are near.
Zoe and Paul Grant
It was on a freezing British night in the middle of January that I had my first encounter with DeDe. Not that I knew her name then of course; she was just a black shape, emerging from a black gateway, on a black night.
The soft tinkle of a bell located the approaching shape; a miaow and the feeling of fur around my ankles, identified it as friendly. Now, I’m not one to spurn a friendly overture, so I stopped for a minute or two to stroke what turned out to be a thin and desperately affectionate cat, before continuing on my way.
As I walked off down the street, I had a fleeting glimpse of a passing black shadow, which resolved itself at the next street light into the figure of a cat, tail held high, trotting briskly down the path ahead of me. Reaching the first drive she took a few paces up it, stopped and turned to look at me. Even to a human uneducated in the nuances of feline communications the message was unmistakable.
“Is this the house where you live?”
I walked on by and she immediately back-tracked to the path, and shot ahead once more, the tinkle of the bell at her neck the only sign of her presence in the blackness. At the next gate she again took a few paces up the path, stopped and looked back.
“Well what about this one then? ...No? .... Right, on to the next one!”
And so we proceeded, in and out of pools of street lighting, leapfrogging down three streets, until I turned to walk up my own drive.
And she raced up the drive to be waiting for me as I reached the front door, greeting me with a succession of miaows, and purrs, and frantic gyrations as she rubbed herself against my legs. Round and round in circles.
“Go on! Open the door. Then we can get inside out of the cold. Go on. You might be able to find me something to eat. I’m really very, very hungry. Go on!.... Please.... Please.... Pleeeeease !!!!”
Fool that I am, I did let her in, and fed her, and fussed her. Now, several years later, she’s still here.
Over the intervening period I have had ample opportunity to study the phenomenon of human/feline communication. From the start it was clear that when DeDe wanted to get a message across it was usually by means of a combination of voice and body language. Thus a simple miaow could be given a different meaning dependant on the actions accompanying it. For example:
A miaow while rubbing lightly against your leg, “Hello”
A miaow while standing with tail held erect, “Oy you! Pay attention!”
Soon after DeDe moved in, it became apparent that she had a wide range of vocalisations, which were being used in specific circumstances. The meanings of some were only too obvious. A curious sound like a staccato miaow, translated very clearly into,
“Stop flying around up there, little birdies. Come down here on the ground. I’ll have you. I will. Just fly that little bit closer, and see if I don’t.”
Unfortunately for DeDe, the only response that she gets, from those flying feathery irritants, is the avian version of blowing a raspberry.
That was an easy message to decipher, but what was I to make of the ‘chirrupprrrrr’, or the ‘mew’, or the quiet little ‘ow’, or the whole range of miaows of various intensities. Years of research and observation were needed to find some of the answers. Hundreds of hours spent assiduously watching and waiting for DeDe to say something before I could attempt an interpretation, while DeDe resolutely stayed fast asleep on my lap.
Although my researches are far from complete, I am finally able to reveal to an anxiously waiting world just some of what our feline friends have been saying to us, for all the centuries that they have deigned to let us look after them. I give as an example a typical conversation between myself and DeDe.
DeDe : ’Chirrupprrrrr’, (While strolling by, tail casually brushing against my leg).
“Hello Paul. It’s so good to see you. You really are a wonderful friend to a poor pussy cat. And by the way I am feeling just a little bit peckish you know.”
Paul : (Pretending not to understand) ‘Hello DeDe, have you had a hard day.’
DeDe : ’Mew’, (Strolling by again, but this time rubbing her body against my leg, then turning to look up with big wide open eyes), ‘Mew’, again.
“I really like it when you stroke me Paul. Can you spare a few moments. Have you noticed that my plate is empty?”
Paul : ‘Does DeDe want me to make a fuss of her’. (Paul picks up DeDe and gives her a big hug, and puts her down again)
DeDe : ’Miaooow’, (Rubs against my leg again, in a more determined manner, turns round and goes down the other side as well).
“I would respectfully like to point out that my plate IS empty.“
Paul : (Stubbornly refusing to take the hint), ‘Do you want to go out?.’
DeDe : ’Miaow’, (Standing, all four feet firmly planted on the ground, and tail held high).
DeDe stalks out of the room. Ten minutes later she returns. Quietly walks to sit on the floor behind me, waiting.
DeDe : ’Me-ow’.
Paul : ‘Don’t sit there, DeDe, I’ll trip over you.’ (Picks her up, giving her another hug, and places her gently in the armchair.)
DeDe : ’Huff’, (Sitting in chair with indignant look on her face, tail twitching spasmodically).
(No translation necessary. It’s exactly the same as in humans.)
Paul : ‘Why don’t you just sit there. It’ll be dinner time in a couple of hours.’
DeDe : ’Mrrr-ew’.
(Translation is not repeatable)
Another five minutes pass, then DeDe jumps out of the chair, and stomps up to sit on the floor directly in front of me. Looks up with eyes wide and pupils closed to slits.
DeDe : ’Miaow’.
“FEED ME!…. NOW!!!“
Paul : (nearly treading on DeDe), ‘Stupid cat!’
Okay, so I may not use exactly those words, but you get the idea.
DeDe retreats once more, waits for an opportune moment, then-
: ’MIAOOW!!’, (This is the cry to make a politician weep. Really. It is the sound of a creature which has been subjected to the cruellest of unjust deprivations. But here it is used merely to grab attention, for the real message is pure body language. Looking up, I see DeDe sitting on the floor by the settee, calmly inspecting a paw which is now filled with five razor-sharp scimitars).
“Okay, pea-brain. Get the meat on the plate, now, or the sofa gets it!!!“
What can I do? I've never had the courage to take this conversation any further. So I stop what I’m doing, and open a tin of the finest, most exquisite cat-food available, according to the label, and serve an impatiently waiting DeDe a meal fit for a queen. Placing the plate on the floor, I’m greeted by a joyous -
“About time too. Thank you, thank you. I take it all back.“
One sniff at the plate, and DeDe returns to the armchair.
“Oh no! Not that again!“