In May 2019, I posted this (not great) picture of a (great) cat to Instagram. The caption reads: “My garden friend. (A random neighborhood cat who likes to mooch around when I’m having lunch.)”
I don’t remember when the cat first started mooching around, but by the spring of 2019 she was a regular enough presence to warrant a photo (also, she’s just ridiculously photogenic). Jeremy was still working in town every day at the time, so my lunches were solitary affairs, and I appreciated her furry company. I started calling her Fancy Cat because 1) she looks mighty fancy and 2) she likes to demonstratively roll around and stretch languorously like she’s showing off just how fancy she is. She is, however, also very fluffy, and at some point “Fluffy” became the name of choice for our frequent garden companion.
A number of local cats visit our garden on their patrol route through the neighborhood, and we’ve given them all monikers: Black and White Cat (self-explanatory), Harness Cat (because she wears a little harness with a GPS tracker on it), Orange Cat (aka Concerned Cat, which has a very odd, worried-looking face), the Town Crier (a big black cat that wanders around kind of—warbling? Loudly? All the time?). Some are bolder and more curious than others, some will accept a scritch, some are skittish and run away. Some use our garden as a litter box (grrrr), others as a spot to relax in the sun. Some have barged into our house through the open back door or slunk in through the cat flap, but most just pass through the backyard as they go about their cat business.
For the benefit of American readers, I should point out here that these aren’t stray cats or “community cats”, they are outdoor cats with homes and owners. Not all UK cats are outdoor cats, but the majority are, and it’s generally accepted here that many cats are happier not being indoors for their entire lives. This is, as I have learned, a very big cultural difference between the US and UK, with folks on both sides harboring quite strong opinions. One need look no further than this amusing Reddit thread (I know, I know) with the subject “Apparently Americans don’t let their cats outside!?”, which consists of Americans and Brits telling each other that they’re all wrong about cats.
I’m not here to argue one way or the other, particularly as I don’t even own a cat. But I will say that, after spending two decades in the UK, I do not find it strange that pet cats here are allowed to come and go as they please. Speaking for our neighborhood alone, there are no natural predators around that would hurt a cat, and all of our gardens are connected, creating a sheltered corridor away from the road. I know that’s not the case everywhere, and I understand that not all cats even want to go outside. But our local outdoor cats are a familiar presence in the neighborhood, and no one here is fazed to find someone else’s cat in their yard (or house!).
It is perhaps also worth saying at this point that I have always identified strongly as a Dog Person, and I was sort of benevolently neutral towards cats until we moved into a flat with a garden and I discovered that hell is other people’s cats pooping all over your backyard. I went through a phase of hating on cats and their poopin’ ways, and I did every (reasonable and humane) thing I could think of keep them out of our garden (marigolds, spiky plants, lion poo). Nothing worked, so I eventually came to terms with the cats, and then I came to like the cats, and then I met “Fluffy” and slowly, almost imperceptibly, evolved from being a Dog Person into a full-on Cat Lady.
When Covid hit in the spring of 2020 and Jeremy started working from home, we ate lunch in the garden as much as possible because it was our only change of scenery during lockdown. Fluffy kept coming around, and she would sit quietly in the sun or flomp down next us and do her rolling around thing, inviting head scritches and even tummy rubs. This went on all through the summer months of that otherwise horrible year, and it continued when the weather warmed up again in the spring of 2021.
She would occasionally go to the foot of the stairs leading into our flat and peer up them as if contemplating whether to ascend, and we would discourage her and beckon her away from the back door. But then we got curious and wondered whether she would really go into the flat if we didn’t stop her. And one day—tentatively, and perhaaaaps with some goading on our part—she did. She padded hesitantly into the kitchen and then the living room, where she saw the ceiling fan and bolted out of the house again in terror.
The terror did not last. She grew bolder, checking out each room in the house but never really lingering indoors. Until, at some point, she did linger. I had bought two squishy pouffes to use as footrests, and Fluffy claimed one as a nice place for an indoor snooze. Then on a quiet afternoon in July, when I had the house to myself for a bit, I sat on the sofa and Fluffy jumped into my lap for the first time and fell asleep, and I realized that this cat had stolen not just my footrest but my whole heart.
Fluffy started spending more and more time with us. We unlocked the cat flap (installed by the previous owners of our flat) so she could go in and out freely, we put water out for her, and we let her sleep wherever she wanted. But as we grew more attached her, I started to freak out about it. She clearly had an owner somewhere nearby (she’s well-fed and well-groomed—her fur sometimes smells so good it’s like she’s been to a spa), but we didn’t know who the owner was, or where they lived, or whether they might sometimes be concerned about their sweet cat. We also didn’t know Fluffy’s real name (not that it seems to make much of a difference with cats). And, most distressingly to me, I thought if Fluffy ever just stopped showing up, we wouldn’t have any way of knowing what had happened to her. I’m not gonna lie, the prospect of this made me cry more than once.
Thus began Operation Cat Identification. Like most of the outdoor cats around here, Fluffy doesn’t wear a collar, so we had no information to go on (a collar for an outdoor cat may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually not). I started our investigation by posting a picture of her to our neighborhood Facebook page and asking if anyone knew anything about her. I was hopeful, not least because one of the women on our street is a cat groomer. Unfortunately, while everyone agreed that Fluffy was very beautiful, no one knew who she was. This made it more likely that she came not from our street but the next one over, where the gardens back onto ours. Jeremy and I took more than one stroll down that street, looking for potential clues as to which flat might be Fluffy’s. There was a place with a little statue of a cat in the front garden, but that obviously wasn’t much help. And whenever Fluffy left our garden we would try to see which direction she went, but she kind of went in all different directions, because she’s a cat.
In the realm of the even more ridiculous, I tried to do a reverse image search on a picture I took of her to see if there were any other photos of her online—because if you owned a cat that adorable, wouldn’t you post it all over the web? That’s what social media is for! I found no pictures of Fluffy but millions of pictures of cats who looked just like Fluffy—who is, as I now know, a long-haired mackerel tabby. I joined some local Facebook groups for cat enthusiasts, which turned up no information about Fluffy but lots of photos of other cute cats. I pondered putting up posters saying “Is this your cat?” or even (gulp) knocking on doors, but that seemed creepy. And thinking that she was probably microchipped, I investigated options for scanning an animal’s chip to read the data on it, and I came embarassingly close to buying a home-scanning device, which probably would have provided no useful information whatsoever, and which would have been even MORE creepy anyway.
If it’s not clear from all of this, I became consumed by the need to identify this cat. I fretted about it constantly. And a solution finally presented itself: Cat rescue groups recommend making a paper collar with your contact details on it to put on a cat if you’re not sure whether it’s a stray. I knew Fluffy wasn’t a stray, but the paper collar seemed to be the perfect way to get in touch with the unknown owner—assuming that we could actually get a collar onto Fluffy, and that the owner wanted to be in touch. With nothing left I lose, I composed the following note:
“Hello! Your beautiful cat often visits us on Xxx Road (just for naps, never food). We hope that’s okay would love to be in touch in case you were ever worried about it! Feel free to contact Jessica at xxx-xxxx”
I tweaked the wording a million times, not wanting to come across as weird and obsessive (though I clearly am), and trying to express that the cat wasn’t bothering us at all, we were just curious about her. I refrained from saying WE LOVE HER TELL US EVERYTHING ABOUT HER even though that’s pretty much what I was thinking. And I felt it was important to add the bit about not feeding her, because we categorically don’t (bar the occasional flake of tuna if she shows up at lunchtime).
I printed out the note on a narrow strip of paper and fashioned it into a loose collar, which we managed to get around Fluffy’s neck with a tiny piece of tape. She was completely unbothered by the whole procedure, but it made me feel sick to my stomach—seeing her collared felt wrong, and it felt doubly wrong to be collaring a cat that wasn’t ours. I was also, honestly, worried about what response we might get. I hoped that the owner would be happy to let their cat keep hanging out with us, but there was always a possibility that they’d tell us to leave the cat alone. I had no idea which way things would go, and the uncertainty was awful.
So we sent Fluffy off with her paper collar, and I held my breath waiting for a reply. She came back a while later still wearing the collar, so we assumed that either she hadn’t been home yet or the owner hadn’t seen it. She was still wearing the collar the next day (to be fair, it was quite hidden by all her fur), and we eventually tore it off because it was getting ratty and clearly wasn’t doing its job. We tried again with a new collar a week or so later. Once again I waited breathlessly for a phone call or text message from the owner, but nothing came, so we got ready for bed—and found the collar on top of the duvet, where it had either fallen off or been pawed off earlier in the evening.
Disappointed but undeterred, we printed out a third collar. This time we were more strategic: Fluffy would often hang out with us until the early evening, and then she would leave and come back later, presumably after having dinner at home. So instead of waiting to put the collar on before shooing her out for the night, we did it pre-dinnertime, figuring that her owner was most likely to see her then.
The third time was a charm. Not ten minutes after the cat left our house, I got a notice on my phone: “I’ve received your little message on my cat…her name is Coco! 😻”
❤️ Coco! ❤️
After three years of wondering, the mystery of “Fluffy” was solved. Coco does indeed live on the next road over, and her owner seemed supremely unperturbed by her wandering ways. I thanked them profusely for getting in touch, and they said it was nice that Coco felt welcome in our flat. As it turns out, Coco is welcome in several flats; while we were still in the process of identifying her, our downstairs neighbor said that Coco had randomly started coming in through his cat flap, too, and that she liked to curl up in a box by the radiator and go to sleep. At first I felt irrationally betrayed—how could she?! She’s not our cat, but she’s our not-our-cat. But our downstairs neighbor has owned cats in the past and is also quite fond of her. And why shouldn’t she have multiple cozy places to snooze? She clearly gets some fulfillment out of spending time with us (or at least in our flat—sometimes we’re in one room and she’s asleep in another), but she is very much her own cat and does as she pleases. We have no hold on her.
But boy does she have a hold on us. Jeremy regularly reminds me that we need boundaries because she is, as we have established, Not Our Cat. But I hear him whispering “We love you, Coco” while stroking her soft fur, and I know that he is just as much wrapped around her adorable paw as I am. We arrange our lives around Coco whenever she’s in the house and avoid doing anything that might disturb her (putting away dishes, vacuuming, taking out the trash). My hairdryer is in the bedroom, but if she’s asleep on the bed, I’ll awkwardly dry my hair in the office so the noise doesn’t upset her. She is WILD about tuna and assumes that every tin has tuna in it, so if I have to open a can of anything while she’s within earshot, I’ll take the can into the bedroom, close the door, and sloooowly, quiiiietly pop the lid to avoid exciting and disappointing her. Sometimes she hears it anyway, and then I have to let her sniff the tin of tomatoes or beans or whatever so she realizes it’s nothing she’d want to eat. I misjudged her once, though, and left some tinned chickpeas draining in the kitchen sink, only to turn around and find her nibbling on them.
She loves the kitchen sink, incidentally, and will sit and stare into the drain like she’s entranced. She will also drink from the faucet, or sometimes lick the tap if the water isn’t running (I obviously clean it afterwards!). It’s not like she doesn’t have sources of water in our flat; she has a big bowl in the kitchen, and we also put a little ramekin on the coffee table next to “her” pouffe so she doesn’t have to get up mid-snooze and go into the kitchen to drink (and also so that she would stop trying to drink from my water glass). I’ve learned that cats are extremely picky about their sources of water, so I’m pleased that she drinks so copiously from the bowls we’ve put out for her. However, that has not stopped me from researching “cat fountains,” because if she likes drinking from the tap, I think she’d love that. And we would do anything for Coco.
My Instagram feed is now mostly just a cat account, and more than one person has asked us “When did you get a cat?” Then we have to explain that we didn’t get a cat, and we don’t have a cat—except when we do (there is probably some joke to be made about Schrödinger here). We don’t have a cat, except when Coco sprawls out between us on the sofa in the evening, taking up a surprising amount of space for a moderately sized cat. We don’t have a cat, except when she comes bounding down the garden path and into the house to settle in one of the many spots reserved for her here (the pouffe, the couch, a chair in the office, a cardboard box in the kitchen). We don’t have a cat, except when she comes in and leaps onto the bed early in the morning to curl up at (or on) our feet for her first long nap of the day. We don’t have a cat, except when she snuggles up next to one or the other of us when we’re not feeling well, as if she knows we need some comfort.
We don’t have a cat, but when we’re away I miss her terribly, and when she’s here my heart is full. I’m a bit overwhelmed by how much I love this furry creature with her stripy legs and snowy paws and serious little face, with her white chin and green eyes and big fluffy tail.
We don’t have a cat, but a cat very much has us.