When I was a small human kitten, my parents already had three cats: Monty, Oscar and Boris. I suppose each of them counts equally as my first cat. My family never had dogs, although my paternal relations have had many of them through the years, most memorably my grandmother's big daft Alsation, Fiver. It seems I was fated to become a cat person from birth. (David, on the other hand, never had pets as a child but has been a cat person as long as I've known him. When we finally got Sinister and Dexter, he took to cat stewardship like a duck to running away from cats.)
Monty was the oldest of those three original cats. My mum had had him since before she met my dad, and he died when I was seven or eight. Sadly, all I remember of him was that he had to be put down; from my perspective, he went to the vet—to be cured of something, I assumed—and never came home again. This Christmas, I learned more about him.
He was the runt of a litter of barn cats, the only long-haired one, and so tiny and bedraggled that when Mum went to the farm and asked about kittens, they told her they had all been given away. Surprise! One filthy and flea-ridden kitten remained. Mum took him home and, not knowing anything about cats, gave him a bath. For the rest of his life, Monty loved to jump into a full bathtub, if possible when she was in it. Very adaptably, he had just concluded that this was the way to show love in his new household.
Monty was an escape artist and a free spirit. He got out of every cattery Mum tried to board him at when she went on holiday: each time she would come back to apologetic assurances that they'd done all they could to find him, but it just wasn't possible. If she went and sat in her back garden with a bowl of cat food, however, Monty would soon come sauntering back. After a while, she gave up on the catteries and just got a friend to come by and feed him. He'd still be gone when she returned, though, and need to be enticed back home. Monty had time for Mum, the wild outdoors, and nothing else.
In his old age, Monty developed kidney failure. The vet told Mum that he couldn't be allowed outside; there was too much danger that he would pick up a bug that would kill him. There was no way he could enjoy life sick and cooped up in the house, though, she knew. After a lot of painful deliberation that I, as a child, was of course not party to, Mum said goodbye to Monty in the kindest way she could. I'm certain he had a good life and he was very well loved.
Boris was a slinky grey cat who eventually left us for our next door neighbour, Ina, whose house already contained other cats, a lot of birds, and two enormous St Bernards. Well, I guess all St Bernards are enormous when you're eight years old; those things were the size of ponies to me.
Oscar was my very favourite cat. He was a big, tough, black cat, and though not usually rough, he wouldn't stand for physical affection from anybody. For some reason, though, he took to me. One day my mum came down into our kitchen to see preschool-aged me kneeling on the linoleum, playing with an old black cardigan of hers. I was rolling it back and forth across the floor.
"Rolly rolly this way. Rolly rolly that way."
She looked again. It was not a cardigan. It was Oscar, blissed out and allowing himself to be pushed around by the human child he had, inexplicably, become inseparable from.
Oscar didn't come with us on the move from Southampton to Southend when I was nine; we think he nipped over the fence to stay with Boris, Ina and the St Bernards. I'm sure they all had a very stimulating and entertaining life together!