A tormented cat called Moppet and the love that helped me endure my father's cruelty
02:42 GMT, 10 July 2012
Ruled by fear: Celia as a child on her father's Berkshire farm
Sitting at the head of the dining-room table, my father often used to fix me with a steely glare.
‘I’ll leave my mark on you, Celia,’ he’d say.
‘You may not like it. You may try to escape it, but my mark will stay with you for ever.’
My father has indeed marked me for ever, although not in the way he intended. Instead of hardening me to the brutal realities of life, he did the opposite: he softened me.
As a child, growing up on a farm in a Berkshire village, I cringed when he beat his horses and dogs on their heads because they didn’t do what he wanted. And I wept when, in an attempt to save money, he had the cows’ horns cut off without anaesthetic — leaving the cows bleeding and lowing in distress.
All my life, I’ve identified with abused
and unhappy animals. Indeed, when I witness their pain, it’s as though
part of me is suffering with them.
At various times during my childhood,
we kept dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, white mice, canaries, a pet raven,
pigeons, Java sparrows, tortoises, ponies, horses and donkeys. I also
spent time with the piglets, lambs, calves and chicks — and, at one
time, regularly fed a wild rat who lived above one of the pig sties.
Samuel Whiskers, as I named him after a
Beatrix Potter character, would emerge from his hole and run along a
ledge at the back of the sty. He’d grab the food I put out for him
before running very fast back into his hole.
the weeks passed, he grew sleek, and he’d take the food with growing
confidence. I was thrilled — so much so that I couldn’t help boasting
‘I have a new pet,’ I announced at the family lunch table.
Two days later, Samuel Whiskers failed to show up. I knew the reason why. My father had taught me an early lesson about the hostile adult world.
Throughout my childhood, the farmyard swarmed with cats — tolerated by him in their role as pest controllers.
However, as you might expect on a working farm in the Fifties, any kittens produced by one of the farm cats were immediately drowned.
An exception was made only once, when my elder sister’s cat, Simpkin, gave birth to a litter — and my mother, who was more tender-hearted towards animals, insisted on keeping one kitten.
Thus Simpkin was given the chance to rear a son, Moppet, who was assigned to me at the age of eight as my cat. I loved him passionately, though, like the other farmyard cats, he spent much of his time mousing. At night, he’d share my bed — often with another cat and one of my father’s three dogs.
Rescuer: Celia pictured with Tilly, a cat she adopted from her local Cats Protection later in life
Alas, despite keeping a sensible —distance from my father – as all the cats did – he had the bad luck to fall foul of him. Even half a century later, his —terrible fate still haunts me.
‘That bloody cat!’ stormed my father as he strode into the farmhouse kitchen one morning. ‘He’s killed one of my pigeons. I’ll make him pay for it. He won’t do it again after I’ve finished with him.’
My father’s prized nun pigeons, so-called because they were white with black heads and tails, lived in a cote built into one of the barns. And —Moppet had been caught with a dead pigeon in his mouth.
The fact that cats instinctively kill birds did not save Moppet from punishment. He had killed something belonging to my father, so he had to suffer.
My father’s retribution was a dreadful one. The dead pigeon was soaked in paraffin and tied tightly around poor Moppet’s neck.
My poor cat, yoked to a hideous-smelling corpse, dragged himself and the dead pigeon round the farmyard all day in misery and terror. I watched helplessly, too scared to dare risk my father’s wrath by intervening on Moppet’s behalf.
Softened by cruelty: Celia, pictured at her home in Oxfordshire, believes her father's harshness gave her a bond with animals in distress
‘Come upstairs,’ said my mother quietly the following morning when my father was safely out on the farm and there was nobody to overhear us.
‘I’ve got something to show you. You needn’t worry about Moppet any more. He’s all right; I’ve rescued him.’
She took me up to the spare bedroom, a room full of junk at the back of the house where no one ever went. There, I found Moppet lying exhausted on a blanket in a cardboard box. His fur was soaked in paraffin and he was valiantly trying to lick it off.
My mother told me she’d searched the farmyard and eventually found him huddled in one of the barns. She’d cut the pigeon off his bruised neck, then hidden him in the spare room so that he could keep out of my father’s way while he recovered.
But it was too late: Moppet’s ordeal had broken him.
From that moment on, he lived in a state of chronic anxiety. He stopped taking proper care of his coat and started peeing in the house in a desperate attempt to make himself feel better by marking his territory.
Not long afterwards, he was run over on the busy main road that ran alongside our garden wall. My father insisted on taking me to see the corpse.
‘Come on. You’d better see what’s happened,’ he said.
Moppet’s limp body lay just outside the garden gate. Perhaps, with his last remaining strength, he had been trying to crawl home.
Seeing Moppet’s corpse didn’t harden my heart. Instead, it came as a warning: after that, I felt I was living in a household that would never be truly safe.
It would therefore be necessary to tread more carefully than poor Moppet had ever done. And, in my case, that meant avoiding my father as much as possible and grovelling in an abject manner to his authority.
Was my father a monster From my adult perspective, I can see he was a man of careless good nature, interspersed with savage rage.
He was an alpha male, no doubt about that. I wasn’t the only one who feared him — so did several of his workers.
His better points were an abounding energy, enthusiasm, enjoyment of food and fun, and an inquiring if totally undisciplined mind. Above all, he was fearless — with no tolerance of other people’s timidity.
The greatest pleasures of his life were fox-hunting, and occasional stag and otter hunting. Sometimes, he’d take off to Scotland to go stalking or pheasant shooting.
In general, if it was a nice day, he went out and killed something. No different from the farm cats, really. Yet while he may have had some respect for their hunting prowess, he considered all animals objects to be used, owned and punished.
He’d been beaten regularly as a child from prep school onwards, he told me once, so he was only doing to animals what had been done to him. Such is the cycle of abuse.
Indeed, I’m convinced that his cruelty stemmed from his own intense unhappiness — not only the beatings at school, but an unhappy first marriage.
This had left him abnormally sensitive to any kind of slight or insult, and unable to deal with disagreements except through rage.
I can see now that he genuinely believed in toughening up children, to prepare them for the disappointments of life.
And that he singled me out because I was the coward of the family, the one who’d shown terror on my first pony rides and who’d refused point-blank to go fox-hunting. Not only did he believe I’d never amount to anything, but he didn’t have much use for females in general.
‘Women,’ he’d say in a voice loaded with scorn. ‘Give them a place to put their handbag down and they’ll do any old boring job.’
As I discovered much later, my birth had been a grave disappointment to him, as he’d been hoping for a second son rather than a second daughter.
Certainly, I grew up feeling he despised me. If I cried about anything, he’d jeer: ‘I’ll hang two jam jars round your neck to see which fills up first.’
He hated weakness of any kind, so it was unfortunate that I was often ill and taken to hospital several times during my first six or seven years.
‘You’re the runt of the litter,’ he’d tell me.
This careless description of me struck deep into my heart. It meant that I continued to identify with unwanted animals, and feel the need to rescue them. I have sometimes wondered if that label also played a part in making me feel I was never really fit to be a mother.
As unloved children often do, I tried instead to give the animals around me the love and the help that I needed myself.
Certainly, the seeds of my decision to rescue stray cats were sown and nurtured in my own childhood.
At a deep level, I know a little of what it feels like to be unwanted — and that’s why I’m an active member and foster carer for my local branch of Cats Protection.
In some ways, though, I think I was
wrong about my father. In recent years, people who knew him well have
told me that he did love me — and I have come to realise that he did in
his own way.
Nor was he
devoid of qualities.
In later life, and in a happy second marriage, he
became more contented. And when, in his 80s, he was left crippled by a
stroke, he fought on so courageously and without complaint or self-pity
until death finally claimed him.
But it took me until my 60s to understand that my early training might stand me in good stead.
The one thing he’d had no time for was fear: he’d jeered at me when I shed tears and called me ‘the coward of the family’.
I thought of him a great deal as I waited for the results of a biopsy to tell me whether I had breast cancer. And when the results came back positive, I realised I needed to find some of his courage just to get on with life.
He was no longer there for me to tell him. But, with a little help from Tilly, the rescue cat whose story I told in yesterday’s Mail, I was finally able to prove that his verdict on me was no longer true.
But first, I had to hit rock bottom.
And as I shall tell tomorrow, it was only the love of another cat — fat, grumpy and generally so difficult that it almost cost me my marriage — which saved me from the ultimate act of self-loathing.
Extracted from Tilly: The Ugliest Cat In The Shelter, by Celia Haddon, 7.99.
2012 Celia Haddon. To order a copy for 7.49 (including P&P), call 0843 382 0000.