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Mabel: the small, weird, taciturn cat friend who lives in my house

Everyone said we were mad to save her life and then to bring her to Australia, and so we were

Mabel and Laura Kennedy in Canberra

The cat is sick, again. The cat we brought with us to Australia all the way from London when we decided to move.

The joke often goes that she’s better travelled than we are. She has lived in Ireland, England and now Australia. I got her originally from a family in Rugby in England – the little town that is home to the famous public school.

There was no sign of boaters or ironed trousers when I went to collect the cat that was then a kitten seven years ago. She and her siblings gambolled madly about – three-month-old orbs of grey fuzz with needles in their soft paws and stubby, protruding triangles for ears – in the draughty livingroom of an ambling old Victorian terrace.

The kittens’ mother looked a little thin and strung out, as any mother who gave birth to six hungry mouths a couple of months ago and was getting sick of their new-cut teeth might. At first, we thought the kitten was a boy and named it Humphrey. After a vet visit, it became clear we’d made an error. She was a girl. My husband’s suggestion that we simply adapt and go with “Humphrina” were strenuously resisted. The cat is, and really when you think about it always has been, a Mabel. She has the mild, chintzy dignity of the old Victorian house she was born in.


The name fit.

Last year, Mabel had chemo and a blood transfusion. Someone brought their cat to the veterinary hospital to donate the blood to save Mabel’s life. Afterwards, we got a card that said the donor cat was named “Shuri”. I wondered how Shuri might have felt about the non-consensual bloodletting. Nobody asked, I presume. It seems simultaneously preposterous and enough to make you want to lie down on the floor at the goodness in the world. One tiny animal saving another.

And save Mabel it did.

Everyone said we were mad to save her life and then to bring her to Australia, and so we were. The alternative, though, was to leave her behind in the hope that someone else would take on the stress and bills and responsibility for her care. Nobody could be expected to, and so it was clear that to leave her behind would be condemning her to a slow death sentence while we began anew.

To be too easy with a life you have volitionally taken responsibility for strikes me as saying something deep and expansive about a person’s character. To reorient your life entirely for a pet is an anthropomorphic indulgence.

To allow it to die in order to forgo tolerable inconvenience on your own part is tantamount to killing it, I think.

And so we bore the inconvenience and expense insofar as we could in the knowledge that it might be mad, or stupid. But for most of the past seven years, life has been myself and Mabel at home in three countries, writing at a desk. I do most of the writing – as far as I’m aware, she is illiterate and her English vocabulary is limited to the words “Mabel”, “Beans” (obligatory alternative name – no cat just has the one), and “food”. The arcane, ambery marbles of her owlish eyes oscillate over in between naps and she orbits my movements around the house like a small grey moon.

We have an unspoken understanding. I’ll keep her alive, until I can’t.

She’s not a child, a coping mechanism, an emotional crutch. She’s a cat. Just a cat – a small, weird, taciturn friend who lives in my house and for whose welfare I took responsibility. Part of the family. Part of the furniture. Where we go, provided it’s more beneficial than harmful to her, she goes too.

Now, she’s sick again. Nothing major, but our new vet, who is Australian, looked through this international feline’s medical history and marvelled. “I think,” she said, in the tone of someone who works with cats and therefore expects imperious resistance in all situations, “that given her unique history and issues, we should only give Mabel her vaccination booster if you intend to go home, and you’ll go home, won’t you? So we should.”

Emigration keeps serving up these moments. You cannot simply go about your business passively. There are constant jolts and reminders that you’ve decided to radically change your life. Everything you might otherwise take for granted and simply autopilot your way through – your routine, the brand of rice you buy, thinking vaguely about what the next year will look like, whether or not to kill your cat – becomes an active process requiring decisions, professions, justifications. There are no decisions by avoidance.

I was a little taken aback.

She made it sound as though we’d certainly be on a plane home by Christmas. Five months, I’ve been in Australia. Five. That isn’t enough time to be sure you like a new job, or to feel that the person you’re dating is certainly the right one for you. Frankly, I’d need longer to decide whether a mattress is supporting my spine in all the right places.

When you move to Australia (cat or no), you spend all your money to get there. You invest serious time in beginning again, putting down tenuous roots, figuring out how to access healthcare and trying to understand why every living person refers to McDonald’s as “Macca’s”. So pervasive is this that McDonald’s refers to their own restaurants by this name in ads here. It’s just a thing.

There is so much to absorb, learn, navigate, figure out. The vet is far more certain than I am that we’ll “go home”. I have no idea. Even if we did decide to, honestly, I’m not sure I could do it to Mabel. Chemo, a blood transfusion and emigrating to Australia all in one year?

That’s quite enough action for a while.