And so, on that chilly, grey October morning I left Ruben in a pen at the vets, unable even to say goodbye.
I spent the next few months focusing on the rest of the family. I had surgery and started recovery. I mourned Maia and also grieved the loss of my 19-year-old cat Basil, who passed away one cold grey afternoon in November.
I thought about Ruben every day. I hoped he was happily reunited with his people. Each time I went by it, I’d look out for him by the bus stop. He was never there.
Christmas came and went, and when in the New Year my neighbour mentioned her daughter had seen Ruben, I more or less passed this off as another black cat – it couldn’t possibly be him after so many months.
We moved into Spring. My brother died very suddenly in March and shell-shocked and grief-stricken, our family struggled through the next few weeks.
A few days after my brother’s funeral, there came the morning I had a phone call from my neighbour. “You’ll never guess who’s in my garden!” she told me. I almost ran down the road, not quite believing I would be seeing my black panther again.
As soon as he saw me, Ruben raced to me, squeaking a happy greeting. It was so, so lovely to see him after all that time, but I was shocked at his condition. He was rail-thin, his coat was patchy and worn, he had big, hard callouses on his paws.
Various scenarios ran through my head as I thought of options for making him officially mine.
In the end, I left Ruben with my neighbour and called our vet to explain the situation and ask for her help.
The next day it was all arranged. Ruben’s previous owner agreed to sign him over to me. Now all we needed was Rubes himself, as he’d taken himself off and away from my neighbour’s home as soon as I’d gone home the previous day.
At 10.30pm on what would’ve been my brother’s 45th birthday, there was a knock at the door and there he was, a grumpy Rubes in a too-small box, scooped up by my neighbour’s daughter and dropped off with me before he could disappear again.
This time, there was no holding pen needed. He mingled freely with the rest of the family, happy and content from the start. Only one thing had changed, perhaps as a result of – we think – over a year living rough. Ruben’s utter, total, non-negotiable refusal to eat any wet food that came out of a sachet. Only the best for this boy, fresh chicken or turkey, Meowing Heads kibble, Applaws tuna. A far cry from his previous life.
Ruben has been here four years now. He is no longer far-too-thin. His coat is the sleek, glossy black fur of a pampered haus panther. His paws, once so calloused and rough, they are soft as butter. He is beautiful and he is so very happy.
I have never once taken him for granted, still sometimes catch my breath when he strides towards me, tail up, eyes bright, chirping happily to me. He still follows me from room to room, still – as our vet says when she visits – quickly looks to me before doing something he knows he shouldn’t…
Once Ruben was formally mine, I told his story to a fellow cat person. Her response sums up things up nicely, I think.
To think, Ruben went through so much Hell and High Water for nothing.
Nothing to be scared of.
Nothing to hurt him.
Nothing to get him into trouble (this, as he was neutered soon after arriving here)
Nothing to do all day but chase sunbeams
Nothing to do all night but sleep soundly in a soft, warm, dry bed.
With the way everything eventually fell into place, I sometimes imagine Maia’s joyful purring, as she looks down on her family here. Then I think of her – checking up on me and her Earthly family done – racing off to be with her baby brother Solomon Seal and Basil, Norton and the rest of the family that have gone on ahead of us to the Bridge. I think of all of them chasing butterflies in the sunshine, and forming a tangled pile of cats cuddling and snoozing together at the end of each day.