Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Cat Lady

Mathilde was my friend. She was someone I would go to visit each evening, if only to check up how she and the cats were doing, and if they needed anything, such as being taken to the vet or perhaps fetched another bag of catlitter. Or maybe I was needed to hold down one of the cats while it was being given a shot or dosed with one or another of the various veterinary or home-made purges that seemed to be SOP in the household.

And it was some household. One very old, very gnarled and bent-over lady and some thirty five cats, plus or minus a few. Some cats were groundfloor cats, some were locked-in-a-bedroom cats, and others were upstairs, living in the attic rooms as under-the-eaves-cats. The ones in the attic has a screened-in balcony. The balcony was not so much to protect them from escaping captivity by going along the old clay-tiled rooftops from house to house, joined up as the old houses are in this town, but more to keep the ever present pigeons from becoming meals, and thereby making feather messes all over.

Once a cat had been lured or invited in, they only ever came back out dead in a sack, to be taken to the vet and disposed of in the big freezer that was in the wooden shed at the back of the clinic. The living cats were very well taken care of, because Mathilde would go without, in order to make sure that the cats had whatever they needed. Mathilde was a spinster, with no close kin, and so those cats were her babies. She spoke to them and cared for them as if they were her family, which, in fact, they were.

When I first knew her, her cats had small cans of top brand, gourmet catfood, in all the flavours available, plus real chicken breasts bought from the butcher and cooked to order and fish filets from the fishmonger who came all the way over from San Jean de Luz by the coast on market day. The heating used to be on day and night, winter and summer, thoughout the entire three floors of the house. Sometimes during the summer, because the windows were always closed against the cats escaping, the smell of cat pee was enough to make the eyes water.

There used to be an old dog, too. The dog and Mathilde would totter along on their daily walks, he in his doggy overcoat that she had sewn for him from an old raincoat, back in the days when her old treadle machine, and her eyes, had worked...and she in her cashmere sweater, overcoat, and pearls, with the stick in her hand that I could never quite make out if it was a walking stick for her, or a correctional stick for when the dog sniffed at curbs or lifted his leg at the forbidden cornerstones of the houses along the way. The dog was as well cared for as the cats, and he lived to be an exceptionally old dog, in perfectly good health until the day he died at a documented twenty two years of age.

I thought that Mathilde would die when the dog did....we all did, the entire neighborhood. He was her only compagnion, the only one that could put up with her gossiping and meddling ways. Her sharp tongue had driven away most of the rest of the neighborhood since she'd come down from Paris to the southwest, with her forty cats, to live near extended family, some twenty or more years ago. The only people who used to be able to put up with her had died off, leaving her isolated and loney. Even her remaining family kept their distance, moving further away to a distant town, and visiting only at Easter and Christmas.

Mathilde knew the old dog was on his last legs, and had been preparing for his demise, and her own, by making arrangements and paying the local vet in advance to have all the remaining cats put down when it finally happened and the smell of her death would bring in the authorities to see how much of her remained after the cats had got done with her. She knew what cats were capable of. But her worry was that the ones locked upstairs wouldn't be able to come down and eat, when the inevitable came to pass.

She'd been a nurse during her working days, and lived on the small retirement that almost fifty years in the profession brought. It wasn't a monthly sum, but only paid three times a year in, so she'd have to budget very carefully, in order to make ends meet from one payment to the other. Most things, such as taxes, electricity, and heating oil, were paid out in a monthly payment of ten times a year, wih the balance being paid off, or refunded, in the highly unlikely event that too much had been paid, once the meter had been read at the end of the year.

The problem was that prices kept going up and up and up, while the small nurse's retirement pension hadn't. After several decades of this, Mathilde's nest egg was eaten up, and making ends meet, while perhaps being enough for her own small needs, didn't stretch enough to cover the cost of keeping all those thirty five or so cats fed, clean, and healthy. Mathilde was much too proud to ask for any kind of help or charity.

The first thing to go was the bowl of catfood that was kept outside on the windowsill for neighborhood strays. And this ecomony was soon negated because Mathilde then brought in the hungry strays to be housecats because she couldn't stand seeing them meowing at the windowledge. Next, the luxury brand catfoods and litter were replaced by the cheaper brands, and later by the even cheaper ones, finally finishing with the cheapest of the bulk buys that were available from the discount store in the next town over...IF someone could be found to drive her there to buy it or pick it up for her. There were no more choice morsels of fish or chicken from the market, the catlitter was only changed when it was really needed, and the vet was called upon only in an emergency.

And the house paid the price, too, with dripping taps unfixed, and shutters falling off hinges, peeling paint, cracked walls and creaking staircases. We all tried our diplomatic best, stopping by with plates of food or cakes and jars of homemade goodies. But she was a stubborn old woman, and mostly the gifts would be refused at the door, with her claiming that she could no longer eat those sorts of things, due to an unhealthy digestion.

Mathilde and the house weren't the only ones to suffer from neglect, for the cats began to fall ill, too, with tooth infections and coughs, some of them dying, some of them hanging on as tenaciously as their mistress. Even our lovely town vets tried their best, often popping in 'just to visit' and giving her 'free samples' for use in taking care of the cats' illnesses. Bless their hearts, they tried, but things weren't getting any easier for Mathilde.

One day, Mathilde approached me with an idea. She wanted me to find her a buyer for her house, any rich English person who wouldn't mind making the unusual deal of buying the house for a low price, with the stipulation that she and the cats could stay until the end of their days without any further cost to her. It had to be a foreigner, and it had to be done at the Notaire's ofice, with all the paperwork signed and legal. On the outside, it seemed like a good solution to her financial problems...and for how much longer could a frail eighty five year old woman live, after all?

So I listened to her and then agreed to try to help. I soon found not one, but several interested buyers. One I dismissed out of hand, as I thought they were not to be trusted, and one backed off after speaking to his accountant. One of them she didn't like the looks of, and one couple seemed to be the ideal buyers.

They came and measured and poked about, without mentioning the smell of the cats or the damage caused by them to all of the woodwork and wallpaper in the place. There was plenty of wheeling and dealing done, and all parties soon agreed to a payment of roughly half the value of the house in cash, with Mathilde and the cats staying on, rent-free, untill her death, at which time the cats were to be handed over to our local vets to be euthanized. The furniture and personal items got consigned to the faraway relatives, to be dealt with upon vacancy.

I was happy to have helped my old friend to find calm until the end of her life. The cats were happy to once again find gourmet catfood in their bowls, which Mathilde had bought in anticipation of her soon to be wealth. Even Mathilde seemed to be happy...I went by one evening, to find her roasting an entire chicken for herself, with the big oak dining table in the sitting room set nicely for a diner of one, with china plate, silverware, and chrystal goblet all ready for when the bird came crisp-skinned and aromatic, out of the oven. I felt it was a magic time.

Until one day, during the following week, when Mathilde began to consider her rights as a sitting tenant. The thing is...France is very big on tenants...you can hardly kick them out if they don't pay, and you must make sure that their home is up to standards. If the tenant doesn't like something, they are perfectly able to take the landlord to court and get things fixed, at the expense of the owner. If you want a tenant out and they don't want to go, it is almost impossible to win. And Mathilde knew all that. And was ready to invoke it.

She began to tell me how much heating oil she would be able to save, when the new owners would be putting in the double-glazed windows. And the attic insulation. And the new fuel boiler. The hot water heater. I heard all about the new plumbing that the owners would have to be putting in...and the replacemnt of the entire house's worth of electrical system, as the old one was at least fifty years old and was not in the norms for rental habitation.

Mathilde was also certain that, were she to have to go into an old folk's or a care home, she'd be able to lease or rent out the house to another tenant and claim the income to pay for her care. After all, she had the rights to the house until her death, did she not? I tried my diplomatic best to tell her that the intended owners were not going to sign under those circumstances. But she waved her hand, saying 'allons, allons, allons', saying too, that there were plenty of other fish in the ocean for me to find for her, if these fish didn't want her good deal.

So, with a heavy heart, I went to see the 'fish' the next day, and advised them against the deal. And so Mathilde is back to being a very poor old lady, and I am out one friend. Oh, we still speak, when we run into each other at the market, and I still call her to ask if she needs anything, whenever I go into the next town over...but it's not as it was, before. And that makes me sad.

1 comment:

Leaving Normal said...
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