Cat’s Cradle



Such filthy cold weather as we’ve had! I’ve been boosting my circulation with scalding hot baths and a selection of vanilla & tonka soaps. The Mizensir fragrance Musc Eternel – now selling like hot cakes at Les Senteurs  – echoes this creamy musky heat. Musc Eternel has a beautiful clinging sweetness to it, like a thick fluffed-up bath towel that’s been laid up in the airing cupboard with baby powders, oils and intimate lingerie. Simultaneously comforting, innocent and seductive.


What you really need in wet raw weather is a cat or a dog at the end of the bed; or curled up asleep on your chest. I never slept so well in the afternoons as when I had Mr Kitty or Dolly the Pug to hand. It’s not just the entirely relaxed weight and soothing involuntary noises emitted by that furry bundle on your lap. It’s the rhythm of the breathing synchronised with your own; and the perfectly clean smell of a small animal.


Now a swanky new hotel and spa for dogs and cats – 7 star, apparently, whatever that may mean in this context  – has opened in Beijing. The hotel has the unusual name of ‘SmellMe’. This strikes me as a bit odd and not especially attractive, but I suppose it is acknowledging the primary greeting between all animals. You know, that apparent “kissing” – or, at least, rubbing of noses; and the uninhibited peering and sniffing beneath tails.


Since the nationwide “awareness campaign” for neutering, you don’t smell cat nearly as much as you used to when out and about. I remember childhood sofas which possessed a certain unwished-for redolence. My grandfather had a flock of wilful cats who did as they pleased. Thomas used a Georgian sugar basin as his private amenity. Flowers of the asparagaceae family – bluebells for instance – are used rather warily in perfume because to many people they suggest felines at their least attractive. A bowl of hyacinth bulbs past their best emit a most disconcerting smell. A gardener said recently that she found the heavenly scent of that pink winter vibernum to be unpleasantly similar to that of dog detritus, once the blossom decays.


“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”.


It’s the old story: we howl and shout when our dogs “roll in something” on the beach or down the fields and yet the line between the disgusting and the delightful is so fine. Very few of us would revel in every one of these scents and tastes: Stilton cheese, ripe pheasant, tripe, over-blown lilac, tuberoses, ambergris – and coffee beans that have known the digestive tracts of a civet.


A couple of years ago I wrote in this column about the very common city problem of a mouse in the house. I imagined then that scattering cat combings in the place where vermin congregate would have a deterrent effect. Now I learn it is specifically the reek of cat urine that scares off the intruders: so I pass this tip on. Sufferers may wish to re-think their policy – or rely (as previously advised) on peppermint; and the intercession of St Martin de Porres.


Several of the most famous fictional cats in our literary culture are creations of Beatrix Potter. Mrs Twitchit and Mrs Ribby are immaculate and industrious animals. They run grocery stores, cook, launder and cuff their kittens when the tinies muss their best bibs and tuckers. They eat mice to be sure (mixing the meat with bacon in pies) and – like Miss Moppet – tie rodents in dusters and “toss them about like a ball”.


But, now that I know what I know, I wonder about the passage in ‘Johnny Town-mouse’ in which the cat plays a darker and more realistic role¤. Johnny offers a  his guest from the country a place to lay his tiny head:


‘The sofa pillow had a hole in it. Johnny Town-mouse quite honestly recommended it as the best bed, kept exclusively for visitors. But the sofa smelt of cat. Timmy Willie preferred to spend a miserable night under the fender’.


O! Those well-remembered old couches of my youth: ‘I believe there’s been a cat on here…..”


¤ the mice feel faint at the thought of this diabolical cat. She kills the canary and we can see her kittens (naked as nature intended) capering all over the scullery table.

Of Mice and Mint


I don’t exactly jump on a chair and squeal at the appearance of a mouse in the house but it’s always a bit of a shock to find traces of rodent activity. Their euphemistically named ‘traces’ are, after all, faeces and I am told that the wretched things are chronically incontinent – they micturate as they move. I may have mentioned before that the smell of white mice is one the most abiding odours of my infancy. Some kind person had made me a gift of a blue tin cage with two white mice in it – all pink eyes and tails. Mice being mice, they fructified and multiplied at astonishing speed. Mrs Sarson, shuffling in on her dropped arches to help with us tots and do the ironing, would ostentatiously hold her nose – “Pooh! I tell yer!”. This became such a common theme (and maybe there was something about prolific mouse fertility that disturbed all of us) that the creatures were finally “given away”. That doom-laden phrase…

But they certainly smelled, that’s for sure: a sour musty animal reek which I can just about remember but which is quite hard to find these days – certainly not in the modern disinfected supermarket style of pet shop. As to mice in the house we’ve only had one problem infestation, and that was caused not by LW dribbling crumbs or flour about the place but by emigration from two houses along. When the dear old Greek lady died, they found she had divided her home into 40 cubicles which she’d been rack-renting since the last War. The builders moved in, the mice moved out and sideways.

We had them only in the sitting room: the poor girl downstairs discovered them even in the bed and the airing cupboard. Her beautiful black and white tomcat was far too laid back and contrary-minded to be a deterrent. Combings of his coat left lying about had no effect either.

Traps didn’t work and neither did poison (not really): in the end I got rid of our little visitors by dint of two tips passed on by folk wisdom and fellow sufferers. First thing, by placing icons and statues of St Martin de Porres (patron of small vermin) in their areas of ingress and access. The saint calms and reasons with the mice; persuades them to move on and out for good. To accelerate this exodus I bought a vial of oil of peppermint.


Now mice cannot abide peppermint – in an emergency, if you’re temporarily out of oil, smear toothpaste on wads of Kleenex or pour a kettle of boiling water into a bowl on top of a tube of Polos. The mice run a mile. Consequently, having cleared out the pests in short order, I found I had the best part of a bottle of neat peppermint on my hands. This was the roasting August of 2003, the summer when thousands died of the heat and boiling London buses cooled their engines from church fonts. I thought to myself, I’ll take a delicious cooling peppermint bath.

Unfortunately I overdid the oil and instead of a few carefully measured drops I sloshed in most of the contents. Like Elsie in What Katy Did At School the heat had made me feverish and reckless. I hopped into the bath and a wonderful freshness enveloped me, as though wrapped in soft snow. But all too soon, like Socrates with the hemlock, an iciness began to invade me, creeping up from my toes. Taking fright as my knees and then thighs turned to livid marble I very fortunately then had the sense to clamber out while still able. A terrible shivering and shaking seized me: I had lost all my body heat. A form of hypothermia had set in and despite the air temperature being over 30•C, I had to put myself to bed with quilts, jumpers and a hot water bottle. “You might easily have died” a skilled aromatherapist friend told me next day. “NEVER fool around with peppermint!”

So, take heed! I wonder what the smell of it does to the poor mice?