You may have read in an earlier instalment of my Balkan saga that round about the time of last year’s mid-winter festival I was cursed by the presence of an unwanted visitor in my home, it being a rat. I’m normally a hospitable sort of bloke but this particular visitor was eating my water pipes, pooing in places where one shouldn’t poo and just not adding to the festive spirit at all. I invited it to leave a number of times but it was a rat that just couldn’t take a hint. I adopted several approaches in an attempt to persuade it to go home such as laying poison, setting traps, saying please, displaying signs that said ‘no rats’, repeatedly looking at my watch and yawning, blanket bombing with napalm canisters and spinning my long-playing record Golden Hour of the Speeches of Margaret Thatcher on the gramophone. The latter of these seemed to do the trick and it eventually packed its bags and scarpered, but it posted a letter of complaint to the Bulgarian RSPCA before it left the village.
Friends in Bulgaria told me that attack would be the best form of defence if repetition of this tiresome rodent-based incident was to be avoided, but I should employ the services of a big hard cat rather than go out attacking rats myself. So I put an advertisement on a card in the post office window. It said something like:
Cat required. Must be a mild-mannered psychopath and non-smoker with genitals removed and good sense of humour.
A few days later I had a reply from a she-cat that was living in a biscuit tin in a petrol station forecourt in the nearby town of Dryanovo. The cat had no form of transport so I drove there to collect her. I bought some fuel and when I went to pay, the man who ran the petrol station handed her over to me with my change and receipt. A much better reward system than Nectar points or Green Shield Stamps, I thought. He told me her name was Sharenka which in Bulgarian meant ‘colourful’ to describe her unusual markings. Although a nice name, this sounded a bit poncy and pretentious so I immediately added a bit of Leeds culture to her Balkan background and renamed her Shaz.
On the front seat of the car on the journey to her new life, Shaz was shaking and howling with fear, stinking of petrol and scratching vigorously, but delighted in the knowledge that with her new name she would be made to feel quite welcome if ever she fancied a pint in Seacroft Working Men’s Club on the fashionable eastern side of the great city of Leeds; an exclusive establishment where people are often found howling with fear, smelling of solvents and scratching themselves. So we bonded immediately.
I was a little bit concerned about my new mate introducing parasites to my home and the possibility of underage pregnancy, especially as she was now called Shaz. I imagined that after three halfalagers and a bowl of new meaty Whiskas with rat Shaz might be anybody’s. I was quite happy to take on a new friend in my life but I didn’t want her bringing a whole load of baggage, particularly in the form of kittens, with her too. So before going home we paid a precautionary visit to a vet in Veliko Tarnovo for a health check. I passed with flying colours (almost), but Shaz had ear mites. I got a bit confused here muddling up ear mites with ear worms. Mistakenly I felt so sorry for the poor little creature thinking that she might have spent most of her life so far with something like Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon rattling around in her little head. But the vet squirted some stuff on the back of her neck and sang a couple of David Bowie songs to get her back on track, and we all knew that from that point everything would be alright. He refused to neuter her though as she appeared to be only six months old. He said we should return when she had been in season at least once.
So we went home and I tried to show her around the place (demonstrating how to control the central heating, where the towels are kept, etc.) but she immediately went and hid down the back of the settee for an hour, humming Life on Mars? When she eventually and nervously emerged she came to sit beside me, purring loudly. She seemed a nice cat but I wondered how I would stop her from getting pregnant. We discussed various methods of contraception and she purred even more loudly. She seemed to be over-affectionate, not very active and quite fat for her tender age. I went and did a bit of rooting around on Google where the symptoms suggested that she might already be with kitten. Apparently cats can conceive from the age of four months. My immediate reaction was to go round to the father’s house and loosen a few of his teeth but then I calmed down and considered the possibility of raising the babies as my own so that the mother could pursue her lifetime’s ambitions unhindered by the need to provide child care.
I contacted my new friend Emma, who is incredibly wise in the ways of abandoned animals in this part of the world, and who had put me in contact with the petrol station owner a couple of days earlier. She suggested that I take young Shaz back to Dryanovo the following day to see a street vet that she worked with who would do the neutering and terminate any embryonic kittens at the same time, which would have been a shame but probably for the best for all concerned, especially the mother and babies.
The following morning the cat was put back into the carrying basket and taken out to the car to embark upon another stressful road trip. She had that ‘Oh what now? I was just starting to like it here.’ look on her face. Forty minutes later we met Dimitar who was a good vet with a very practical and enthusiastic approach to dealing with Bulgaria’s big problem of street cats and dogs. He agreed to do the necessary there and then, so while the poor little thing was under the knife I went away to have a coffee with Emma, who turned out to be from near Leeds and consequently delighted with Shaz’s name.
On my return to the surgery Dimitar told me that my cat hadn’t been pregnant at all. She was just fat, probably because she had been overfed by the kind people who had been looking after her in the petrol station. I imagined her stuffing her face with Ginster’s pasties, Scotch eggs and cans of Coke. A fat street cat in Bulgaria is pretty rare so whatever she’d been fed on it was better than not being fed at all and being able to call her Fat Shaz made her sound even more Leeds Council Estate, so I warmed to her even more.
If cats could speak, Shaz would have said ‘I’ve bloody well had enough of all this’ as I carried her in her basket back to the car. She slept throughout the return journey and when we got home and I let her out in the kitchen her gait was wobbly as if she’d had a drop too much of the rakia. But apart from a bit of oozing from her wound and the embarrassment of having had some over-the-top trimming of her bikini line, she was the same old Shaz that I had known for all these hours. Once again she settled in to her new life in my house, albeit in an even more nervous and pathetic way than the previous day.
The weeks went by and Shaz grew in confidence from being a terrified runt to a cocky little get. It’s nice to see that she has made herself at home here but she has also made the place home for all sorts of wildlife that she brings over the threshold into my kitchen. Wildlife such as large beetles, lizards, severed but still wriggling appendages of lizards, snails and mice. She brings them in and gets bored with them so they end up just running or slithering around on my floor. She brought a mouse in a couple of weeks ago, played with it for a while and then lost interest, leaving it to get on with its business alone. So I rescued it in a dustpan and released it back into the wild at the top end of the wilderness bit of my garden. Fifteen minutes later the cat brought it in again and the whole process was repeated except I released it much further away at the bottom end of the wilderness part of my garden and I swore a bit. Last night I saw her with the back leg of an enormous toad, half the size of my foot, in her mouth as she tried to drag it into the house. This was defeating the object as the whole point of my employing a feline was to remove from my home any animal species that were more suited to living in the great outdoors. Consequently we had words, though she doesn’t understand my words because she’s Bulgarian. She’s not a cat, she’s a котка … Мазнини Шаз котката.
Just because she’s been taken in off the streets and given a new start in life, she must think I’m a rescue centre for all creatures of the wild. Though I’m pleased to say I haven’t seen any sign of a rat here since Shaz became my housemate. Perhaps the rats are just waiting for her to invite them in.
To close this piece of scribble I would like to apologise if it causes offence to anyone reading who really is called Shaz, particularly if they live on Seacroft estate. I have known a number of people with this name during my life and they have all been very nice. I really don’t mean any harm. Sometimes it’s just fun to go stereotyping.
Shaz the Kotka.