The object of my 101st post is this small fig tree planted last year by the pond in my garden. This sapling started life as an offshoot of the sprawling fig tree in the corner of my parents’ garden, which can be seen in the 2 photos, taken 25 years apart, in my previous post. This mature tree was a constant presence in my childhood; my parents believed there had been a greenhouse in that part of the garden, as it was tiled and paved, which may have been destroyed during the war. The fig tree sprawled all the way along our garden wall and produced a tasty crop most years. It even had its moment of television fame. My best friend at secondary school was the daughter of a TV special effects director; it was always exciting for us to see his name roll up in the credits of Dr Who or the Morecambe and Wise show (my friend still owns some of those precious special effects, such as an original cybermat, and a model of Nipper the HMV dog with a wind-up tail). I met him only once, when he came to our house to pick some fig leaves that were needed for an episode of The Generation Game. I missed the episode and never got to see it, despite writing to Ask Aspel – one’s only option in those days before video recorders! But we were all thrilled to bits that fig leaves from our tree were on the telly.
In fact, the little tree in my garden started out as an offshoot of an offshoot. When our house was sold after Mum’s death, we each took offcuts of the fig tree. At that time I lived in a small flat with no garden, so my figlet lived in a pot in my sunny kitchen, where it flourished. It continues to flourish in a larger pot in my kitchen today:
When I moved to a new flat with a garden, this plant was divided between 2 pots, one of which lived outside and survived, so I planted it out when I put the pond in last year. It seems to be surviving still.
The slab of paving stone beneath it bears the legend “Here lies May-Z, dog botherer, 1997-2012”. It marks the grave of Maisie (or “May-Z” as she came to be known after moving from Edinburgh to Brixton), my old cat who featured in some earlier posts (like this one) and passed away last December aged 15. The pet cemetery beneath the fig tree is an old family tradition.
All of our childhood pets were buried under the fig tree in the corner of the garden, as were all the little birds rescued from our cat, which died despite my Dad’s best efforts to save them with drops of sugared water in a shoebox. Our first pet Sweet the hamster, so named because the Mitchells next door had one named Pudding. Our blond guinea pig Shilling, a feisty character who ended up with the run of the garden and could face down any cat, but sadly not the dog who jumped the fence and killed him after just 1 year (foxes were unknown in London’s residential streets back then). Brother 2’s lizards, Gregory the Peccory and Craggy the crag lizard, also a victim of the family cat. Two of the four kittens to which our cat gave birth behind the piano, an event which I witnessed as a small child; one stillborn, one short-lived. The two who survived – Ginger the tom and Blackie the dark tortoisehell female – were given away to “old ladies” when they reached the appropriate maturity, and were never seen again (I was not yet at school and I remember these strangers coming and taking the kittens away). Frisky and her kittens were headline news in my 1967 school news book:
The family cat herself, however, remained with us until all 3 children had grown up and left home.
Frisky was an amazing cat. So named by Brother 2, on account of her playfulness when he went with Mum to fetch the new kitten home from our friends the Mocklers. Their cat Mitze had had kittens and we were delighted to be given one of them. Frisky was a constant companion throughout my childhood and teenage years: intelligent, playful, gentle, affectionate, the perfect family pet. When we walked home from primary school across Barnes Green, she would be waiting to greet us on the Walpoles’ gatepost at the end of our road. Shortly afterwards she would be trotting out of our front garden to greet Dad’s car when she heard the sound of it approaching: only this car, ignoring others, although they sounded identical to us. She would fight dogs with a vengeance – my brothers made a sign reading “dogs beware of the cat” for our garden gate, and one local lady would cross the road to protect her little dog from this fierce beast – with the exception of the Makeys’ miniature collie next door, Jeannie, whom she befriended. Frisky also had a best feline friend in Whiskers who lived with the Painters over the road. I was friendly with Clare Painter and we loved to watch the 2 cats hanging out together. Clare gave me this photo of the two of them as a Christmas card one year:
Whiskers wasn’t the father of her kittens, however; that was a black cat called Macavity who belonged to another neighbour. I know this because I saw them playing and chasing each other one day, and shortly thereafter was told Frisky had “mated” with him and would be having kittens. For years afterwards I believed that the chasing and playing constituted the mating process – much to the alarm of my teachers, I am sure, as I excitedly spoke of having seen the cats mating! This was Frisky’s only litter, my parents arranging what they called “family planning” for her after that.
Frisky lived to the astonishing age of 20. She lost a few “lives” along the way, like the time she was found hanging from a tree by her collar. She went missing twice. The first time she was gone long enough for us to suspect the worst, which may have happened had Brother 2 not been at a school sports event at Barn Elms Sports ground, 3 streets away from our house across a busy road – and found her there, dirty and emaciated but happy to see him. About 10 years later she disappeared again, and after a week I was an inconsolable 14 year old. Then a neighbour of ours was visiting a friend and recognised her new cat as ours: the friend had rescued her from some boys who appeared to be trying to drown her in Barnes pond. Frisky was never the same after that ordeal. She had always been friendly to every passer by and especially loved children, but was more wary of them for the rest of her life.
I had already left home when Frisky had a stroke, aged 17. She was half paralysed and not expected to live much longer, but my Dad had retired by then and, surprisingly for such a pragmatic and unsentimental man, devoted his days to taking care of her. She lay on the divan in the front room and Dad claimed he could recognise her needs from the different sounds she made: one type of miaow meant food, another the litter tray. With Dad’s tender loving care she recovered and lived another 3 years, wobbly and frail, but evidently enjoying life. When her time did come, I happened to be living with my parents whilst home on vacation from university, working as a records clerk at Queen Mary’s Hospital. Frisky went into a sudden decline and we knew there was no point in taking her to the vet. My parents moved her into their bedroom where she slept in a box; one morning I went in and rubbed her head, which she lifted up with a throaty purr and laid down again. By the time I came home from work that day she had slipped away, and we buried our beloved family member under the fig tree.
My parents never got another pet, not wishing to take on the responsibility at their age. Some years later, after Dad died, my partner and I moved in with Mum for a while, bringing our 2 cats, Buddy and Holly. Buddy was a sickly young cat who had been attacked and bitten by other cats shortly before we moved house. When she started limping, I took her to a vet, who diagnosed a sprain. By the time we discovered it was actually an abscess from an infected bite, it was too late to save Buddy. She died of septicemia aged just 3, and was buried with Frisky, under the fig tree.
Holly, on the other hand, really came into her own in my family home. She was originally a feral cat, born in a colony in the graveyard of Logie Kirk near Stirling University, where I was a student. The guid folk of the kirk decided to have the colony destroyed by shooting them; luckily my friends who ran a cat sanctuary went in and rescued them all before this could happen. My then partner and I took in two of them, Holly and Bramble. They were wild animals who took refuge on top of our wardrobe, coming out at night to play and eat and hissing at us if we got too close. I never expected them to become pets. Then one night when they had been with us for a year, Bramble discovered the cat flap, disappeared through it and never returned.
Holly, who was devoted to her companion, was inconsolable. She howled miserably for a week, and refused to eat. Until the memorable day that she stayed put as I approached, and allowed me to stroke her for the first time. After a few minutes the tension left her body as she relaxed and began to purr. It was the start of her new life as a trusting and affectionate pet.
Holly moved around with me from flat to flat and town to town, ending up in London with me and a new partner 5 years later. When we moved in with my Mum and her lovely big house and garden, Holly really thrived, seeming settled for the first time. Mum loved her too, and for both these reasons I couldn’t take Holly with me when I moved on 5 years later. It broke my heart to leave her, but I visited them both every weekend, when Holly would greet me with a genuine warm affection. She was a great comfort to my Mum in her final years, and in fact outlived her by over a year. I love this 1999 photo of them together, which shows their mutual adoration:
Holly ended up living with Brother 2 and his wife, who became her equally adoring servants for the rest of her life. They were all still living in our family home after Mum died when, just like Frisky, Holly suffered a stroke and became semi-paralysed. And just like Frisky, with their loving care she recovered to survive another couple of years. She had also received excellent medical care from our local veterinary practice (I changed vets after Buddy’s death!), where the staff became quite fond of her. After the house was sold, Holly went with Brother 2 and his wife to their new home, where she died peacefully at a great old age – probably about 20 – just after Christmas 2002. Holly was cremated by the veterinary service, who returned her ashes in this beautiful casket engraved with her name. I was deeply moved by this special personal touch, which we had neither requested nor paid for.
Although the family home had been sold, it was still standing empty, and we still had access to the garden. There was only one place that we would scatter Holly’s ashes: in the corner of our old garden, under the fig tree.