If you had asked Sally Blake which had been the most important event in her life in the early 1980s: from finding Mr Dwek’s shop, to getting a Saturday job with The Queen, to finding Tigger at the Battersea Dog’s Home, she would not have hesitated in choosing the latter.
Tigger, the little ginger cat, turned out to be the love of both our lives. With my brother, Adam, moved out into a squat, it was now just Sal and me. The great love of my young life, a black and white cat called Coogan who had walked in from the streets (just as Alfred Jingle had chosen my parents) and been with me since I was 8, had had to be put to sleep. He had cancer of the jaw. There was nothing to be done. Sally and I took him to the vet in taxi to be euthanised. She stayed in the waiting room, leaving this important moment to me, acknowledging this was something I needed to do alone. I watched in wonder as I actually saw his spirit leave him - like a cloud of pure white smoke that rose from his body, and disappeared in mid-air. Tears streaming down both our faces, we took him home again by bus. Adam came over, and we all helped bury him under the laurel bush in the communal front garden.
|Tigger with his favourite toy: a wooden duck on a bit of string.|
My vet, a sympathetic Dubliner, with eyes "as blue as the lakes of Killarney" as Mummy put it (I had a massive crush on the poor man), had told me to get another cat immediately. He had recommended a “big tabby” he had seen up at The Cats Protection League branch in Archway, and with my heart in pieces, I had dutifully gone to see him. Jones was enormous. The size of a small sofa. He took one look at me, and although it was feeding time at the branch, he waited by my legs, ready to come with me. When I got him home to introduce him to my mother, she said she thought I had brought home a python. A huge mackerel striped creature, smelling faintly of fish oil, slowly uncoiled from the box, and wedged itself behind the Chesterfield in the Dining Room. He stayed there for hours. We left him to it, figuring he was acclimatising. He wasn’t. When I finally lost patience and pulled the sofa away from the wall, he stretched amiably and followed me to the kitchen. He had simply got stuck. Far be it from Jones, as we discovered, to complain, however. He had simply waited, patiently, for someone to assist.
He stayed with us for approximately six months before he decided to move on. He went out one night and simply never came back. Unwilling to believe he had been killed on the road, I chose to believe the neighbour who claimed she had seen him sunning himself across the road at a new address on the grand Nash designed Kent Terrace.
My mother blamed herself entirely. Just as I had given my heart to Jones, we had discovered he had quite the worst case of worms we had ever encountered. He was prescribed tablets. I was too feeble to administer them, so Mummy did it. Experienced with cats from a lifetime with them, she knew every trick to get a pill down a cat’s neck, but Jones was special. He could outlast even her patience as she held his mouth shut and massaged his throat to make him swallow. He would put up with it good naturedly for a good five minutes, swallow, then as soon as he was released, he would spit the pill across the room.
It was a battle of wits. One night, he meowed to go out, and Sally, distracted in conversation, let him out. He never came back. I was distraught. My poor ill grandmother, Despina, was staying with us at the time. In the midst of her violent Parkinson’s (brought on by the anti-hallucenogens she was forced to take to stop her ‘visions’) it seemed she had found her way into my room, and left her beloved plush toy tiger on my pillow. I had always coveted him. Ever since childhood. He had flourescent green eyes and made a low growling noise when pressed. She had got him in Amsterdam when she had gone to identify the body of her sister, the impossibly glamorous Stella who had left the heavy Dutch gas ring on in her apartment and fallen asleep. When I asked Dessie if she had got lost, and had left Tiger in my room, she managed to put the words together to tell me that he was mine now. “To make up for the loss of your little tiger.” I was blown away (I have him still).
Meanwhile, Sally pounded the neighbourhood, she put up posters, she made enquiries, all came back blank. She got on the bus and went as far as the Battersea Dog’s Home. She’d heard they had cats too. She’d heard that people sometimes handed in strays there. She searched the cages. She didn’t find Jones, but she came home with Tigger.
I arrived home from school to find the kitchen door shut, and my mother looking sheepish.
“Who’s in there, Mummy?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I knew it was a new cat.
“I’ve done something mad.” She said.
I gently opened the door, and went in on my own, closing it behind me. A neat marmalade striped person sat on the kitchen table like an Egyptian carving in a state of buddhahood. I sat down and put my head in my hands. Tigger waited. He moved to sit in front of me and concentrated on me. Motionless, long tail curled across his front toes. He began to purr. Eventually I looked up.
“Hello.” I said. “Who are you, then?”
That was it. The greatest love affair between two women and a cat had begun. He was quite simply the love of both our lives. Gingers, they say, are not like other cats. They’re people cats. Mummy would tell me for years to come, that he knew, five minutes before I would be home from wherever I was, and be waiting at the window for me. With my father up the road at the White House, and Adam living with his girlfriend in Bayswater, Tigger became our focus. “To love any animal” my mother would say, “is to understand that grief and pain is in the mail for you.”
Inspired by Paula Yates with her wonderful chatty writing style, her famous tattoo and her Antony Price dresses, I had decided I wanted to be a journalist. Whilst still at school, I sent articles off to all the magazines I admired, and to my delight, Tatler bit. Libby Purves, who was the Editor at the time, liked my style. She called me in for an interview, and promised me that as soon as I left school, she would put me to work. In the intervening period, she was sacked in favour of Mark Boxer who disagreed with most of her decisions, including the one about employing me. He said I was “too young” (but strangely, took on the 15-year-old Daisy Waugh instead), but by then I had the bug, and I got a job writing freelance for a music paper called Record Mirror, interviewing pop stars, whilst the hacks vied for my virtue. Meanwhile, my mother got a job at Buckingham Palace, working in the Queen’s Gallery, selling catalogues. My father had fought off another heart attack, and came to convalesce with us. With me now working, the maintenance payments had dwindled. Everyone had to work.
Working certainly meant that my mother had a few more pennies to spend on the odd luxury. Very odd, often discontinued Caron luxuries from old Mr Dwek in Soho, such as a couple of bottles of Narcisse Noir, a couple of Tabac Blonds (one of which she generously gave to me when I fell in love with it) including a tiny bottle of the extrait, several Nuit de Noels, and a Bellodgia parfum extrait. Mummy put a note in the box to say that it had been the perfume of choice for Vivien Leigh, and with great ceremony, let my father (who had idolised her all his life) sniff her.
|Guilty pleasure - Forvil's "Les Anemones"|
My mother was sadly still very much alone in her perfume obsession though. She had made friends with Barbara Jacquesson from the Press Office at Guerlain who occasionally came over for tea, but she still carried a certain guilt about her passion that meant she kept much of it to herself. Even though I never once so much as murmured anything approaching disapproval at the bottles she saved up her Palace pay to buy, she would keep such purchases to herself for a while, before (unnecessarily) confessing to me. One such was the incredible 1929 bottle of Forvil’s Les Anemones in its stunning Lalique flacon that she bought from Cobra & Bellamy on Sloane Street when they were still doing the occasional vintage objet, and which was hidden for a while before showing up on top of the piano. What she really needed was a similarly obsessed friend with whom to talk the sun from the sky about perfume.
She finally found that friend in Roja Dove.