1The Plight of Cats in South Australia
Domenica Macdonald, anthropologist, resident of Scotland Street, and wife of Angus Lordie, portrait painter and long-standing member of the Scottish Arts Club, sat in the kitchen of her flat in Scotland Street. She was immersed in a magazine she had bought on impulse at the local newsstand, and so did not hear Angus when he asked her about her plans for the day.
“I said,” repeated Angus, “are you going to be doing anything very much today?”
“I’m sorry,” said Domenica, looking up from her magazine. “I didn’t hear you. I’m reading something here that I can hardly believe.”
“Ah!” said Angus. “Oscar Wilde.”
“What about him?”
Angus tried to remember exactly what Oscar Wilde had said—he had pronounced on so many things—but found that he could not recall the precise words. “He said something about his diary being sensational reading. Or somebody else’s diary. I don’t really remember . . .”
“It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t remember exactly what he said,” Domenica reassured him. “Wilde will undoubtedly have more to say. Uniquely, perhaps, among those who are no longer with us, he continues to make witty remarks from beyond the grave—people impute them to him, you see. The volume of his quotations grows daily. This article, though, is about cats in South Australia.”
Angus was puzzled. “What about them?”
Domenica shook her head. “They’re to be confined.”
“In what sense?”
She looked down at the article. “Apparently cats in South Australia have been eating too many birds and small mammals. They’re very destructive, cats.”
Angus glanced down at his dog Cyril, who was lying under the kitchen table, one eye firmly closed, but with the other slightly open, allowing him to watch his master. Angus was sure that Cyril knew when the conversation concerned him, or in more general terms had something to do with canine issues; the flicker of an eyelid, almost imperceptible, was enough to reveal that Cyril was listening, waiting to see whether the situation developed in such a way as to be of interest to him. Cyril’s vocabulary, like that of all dogs, was limited to a few familiar words—walk, bone, sit
, and so on—and one or two adjectives, good
being the most important ones. Beyond that, Cyril’s intellectual life was no more than Pavlovian. So when anybody mentioned the Turner Prize, an institution that for Angus stood for everything that was wrong in the contemporary art world, Cyril would dutifully raise a leg. This was not a gesture of contempt, of course, but was a trained response, instilled in Cyril through the use of rewards. Angus found it amusing enough—as did most of his friends—but Domenica had expressed the view that it was childish. Many of the things that men do are childish in the eyes of women, but this was egregiously so.
“Really, Angus,” she had said when she first saw Cyril performing his new trick. “That’s a bit adolescent, surely.”
Angus was unrepentant. “I have little time for the Turner Prize,” he said. “I have no taste for its pretentiousness. I dislike the way it is awarded to people who cannot paint, draw, nor sculpt.” His eyes widened; he became slightly red, his breathing shallow—all fairly typical reactions provoked
by the Turner Prize in those of sound artistic judgment. “You are not an artist if you merely make a video about paint drying or pile a few objets trouvés
in a heap. You just aren’t.”
Domenica shrugged. “Calm down,” she said. “Installations make us look at the world in a different way. They must have some artistic merit. They challenge us. Isn’t that what the Turner Prize is all ab—?”
She had stopped herself, but it was almost too late. “Don’t say Turner Prize
,” blurted out Angus. “Not when Cyril . . .”
But he, too, had spoken without thought of the consequences. “Cyril,” he shouted, just as the dog, impervious to the fact that they were indoors at the time, prepared to pass judgment on installation art. “No, Cyril! Sit!”
It had been the right—and timeous—counter-command. Cyril, confused, forgot about the Turner Prize and lowered his hindquarters, waiting for further instructions.
Now, with Cyril somnolent below the table, the discussion of feline destructiveness continued. “Yes,” Angus mused. “Murderous creatures. Birds, in particular. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gets hot under the collar about cats.”
Domenica pointed to the article. “This,” she said, “tells us what Australian cats get up to—and it makes sobering reading. Nearly four hundred million birds are killed by cats in Australia every year. A lot of those cats are feral, of course, but pet cats, it says, get through over forty million a year. Some of those are threatened species too.” She looked up at Angus. “Four hundred million, Angus. Four hundred million.”
Angus sighed. “It’s what cats do, I suppose. Nature’s red in tooth and claw, isn’t it?”
Domenica referred to the article again. “They take their wildlife seriously in Australia, of course. And so . . .” She looked down at the page. “People have to keep their cats under control in cities. You can’t let them wander around.”
Angus frowned. “But you can’t keep a cat under control. They’re not like dogs. They don’t accept our authority.”
“According to this,” Domenica went on, “in South Australia you have to keep the cat in the house or in a cage in the garden. You don’t have any option.”
Angus looked out of the window. Freedom: everywhere, it seemed to him, the boundaries of freedom were being encroached upon. Passports, regulations, prohibitions, requirements pinched at the lives of us all, and now this. No cats stalking about in the garden; no cats lying on walls in the sun, watching us; no cats leading their parallel lives in the gardens of other cats, or other people; cat doors, the symbol of cats’ liberty, a thing of the past, a reminder of what used to be.
“That poem,” he muttered.
“That Christopher Smart poem. He wrote it when he was in the asylum. I learned chunks of it as a boy. There was a teacher who believed in poetry. We loved him. He was gentle; he didn’t disapprove. And then he died.”
Domenica listened. Yes, she thought. Great teachers are like that: they believe in something—poetry, physics, it can be anything, really—and they are loved, but often do not know it. Then they die, and are loved all the more.
“He—Christopher Smart, that is—listed all the merits of cats. He said: For his motions on the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. For he can swim for life. For he can creep
“No longer,” said Domenica.
Below the table, Cyril cocked an ear. He was unaware of the subject of discussion, of course, but he hated cats. He resented their freedom and their arrogance. Their humiliation would be heaven for him—justly deserved, and none too soon in its coming.
Copyright © 2019 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.