The magnificent Alf, a couple of years after his ordeal.
Or How I Found These Two Albums For A Quid Each.
When I lived in London in the early 1980s I often used to cycle on a Friday night from my home in Clapham North down to Wandsworth to see a couple of good friends of mine. I’d set off along Clapham High Street, skirting Clapham Common on what used to be the South Circular before peeling off onto one of the less busy feeder roads down the gentle slope to Wandsworth Road where they lived. A pleasant evening would pass chatting, listening to music, watching TV and relaxing in the accustomed style. At about 11.30 I’d wibble back to Clapham on my bike. The route home was a steady incline but I was younger and fitter then and it generally presented no problems. The biggest obstacle was usually the double parking on either side of the connecting roads between Wandsworth Road and Clapham Common. If faced with oncoming traffic it would always be me who would have to yield and hoick my bike out their way. On one occasion I only noticed too late that the white van approaching me in the dark was a police vehicle. There was no room between the parked cars for me to move onto the pavement and mindful of the fact that I had incriminating substances in my pocket I pressed myself as close as I could to the nearest vehicle and rehearsed my politest looking demeanour. Once level with me the police vehicle stopped and a window was wound down. “Get some fucking lights” bellowed the driver who then drove off, presumably with bigger fish to fry on a Friday night in South London.
One night, when I turned off Clapham High Street onto Landor Road where I lived, the street was deserted save for a sole late-night pedestrian heading home a little unsteadily after closing time. As he was wandering on and off the pavement a bit precariously I let out a quick cautionary ‘mind yourself mate’ as I rode past him. Instead of my considered request being received with cheerful gratitude he gave me a piece of his mind. As I rode off up the road he followed it up with several more pieces of his mind. It was at this point that I became aware that not only was he very very drunk he was also very very Scottish. As I pulled up outside my flat I was glad that he was 50 yards away. What I hadn’t considered was how long it would take to haul my bike through the front gate and up the steps to a door which required two keys to open two fiddly locks. In the dark. Also, did I mention that I was a bit stoned?
By the time I got into the front hallway he was nearly at the gate. Locking up rapidly I ran up two flights of stairs to the first floor flat where my wife was watching a late-night film, and Alfie our six-month-old tabby cat was pacing the room in search of devilment. “Quick, come and look at this” I said before rushing to the window to take a sneaky peak down at the street below. Sure enough, my angry drunk was still down at the gate, cursing at the front door and hoping presumably that I would somehow re-appear to take up his offer to have my face re-arranged, Jimmy. I imparted the story of my rendezvous in hushed giggles and we watched as he eventually wandered off slowly up Landor Road.
After a couple of minutes I tentatively eased open the window and gazed up the street to make sure he had finally gone. Our inquisitive little house bound cat, relishing a moment of freedom stepped out onto the ledge to take the air. He wandered a few uncertain steps along the ledge towards our other front room window and I rushed to open the curtain in order to scoop him up safely and bring him in again. Alas I got there just too late. Wise to my game Alfie sauntered along the ledge to the next house and then the next. Ours was the end property on a long terrace of 26 houses. The final house further along the street adjoined a small fenced off builder’s yard. I called and called, and each call was rebuffed by Alfie with typical feline indifference. Three houses became four then five. My urgent calls turned to annoyance – it was late and we wanted to go to bed – and then panic. Alfie was showing no sign of turning round and coming back. In fact, the whole thing was turning into a thrilling adventure to him as he headed further and further along the ledge and away down the road. Realising that I couldn’t keep on shouting to him for fear of waking neighbours I put on my shoes and coat and headed down stairs in an attempt to cajole him back to the house. Thankfully it was a mild dry night, although thinking back a sudden downpour might have made him see sense and head back to the house. Firstly, I tried calling up to him from the street and then headed back towards the house, assuming he would follow by example. When this didn’t work I went back to the flat and fetched his food bowl and a tin of Felix. A quick rattle and tap of the tin with a fork. That’s bound to do the trick. Nope. Nothing did the trick. Eventually he reached the end of the terrace and ran out of ledge. He’s bound to turn around and head back now I thought. Nope again. Instead he just sat there looking down at me with a mixture of curiosity and indifference. Oh, sod you then, I said. I walked back to the house, got undressed and climbed into my warm bed.
Could I get to sleep? What do you think? Every few minutes I got up again, went to the window and gazed along the ledge in the hope that he had seen the error of his ways and was heading home. “I’ll just leave the window open a little” I said to my wife who was by now fast asleep. I lay there for a little longer. Then the plaintive and pitiful miaows began, faint and a little way off but unmistakeable in the quiet early hours. By now I realised that there was no sleep to be had and that desperate measures were called for. I’d also worked out that the final house of the terrace appeared to be unoccupied. We now entered into the second phase of the long night of the no sleep. I scaled the six-foot corrugated fence of the builder’s yard where I could see a selection of ladders propped against a wall. Selecting what seemed like an appropriate and manageable size I carefully manoeuvred it over the fence onto the street. Propping the ladder unsteadily against the house wall I immediately realised it was a few rungs short of the required height. Over the fence I went again and chose a slightly bigger and much heavier ladder. By now I was building up quite a sweat as I released just how mild the night was. It was also around this time that I realised why so many burglaries in London go unreported. Here I was in the dead of night, climbing in and out of a builder’s yard with a selection of ladders. The streets were deserted, not a single car went by. If anyone in the low-rise council estate opposite had been alerted by my clattering of ladders they certainly couldn’t be bothered to dial 999. Neither were my activities disturbing the sleep of the pub landlord across the road, or indeed any of the occupants of the 26 houses that lay between me and my warm bed.
By now it was starting to get light. The dawn chorus commenced and poor little Alfie, literally out on the tiles all night, was showing clear signs of distress. I learned a lot about the stupidity of domestic cats that night. Clearly whatever other attributes Alfie had inherited from his wild ancestors in the ways of foraging and stalking prey, the simple act of turning 360 degrees and retracing your steps was clearly not one of them. In his defence it has to be said that Alf had known no other life than that small cramped bedsit, after my wife rescued him from the playground of the school where she taught and where late in the summer holidays he had been born. He was just three weeks old when he was separated from his mother and we were told that there was only a 50% chance he would survive. He was with me for the next 18 years. But that night, gazing up at his stupid forlorn little face I did wonder if he would survive that flat. My first marriage didn’t. We went our separate ways a few months after the events I’m describing. I got custody of the cat. “You take him. He likes you more.” Not that night he didn’t.
Eventually my knights in shining armour arrived in the shape of a police car and two officers on dawn patrol. I explained my predicament to which they were sympathetic, and not a little amused. They told me there was a large builder’s merchant out on Bedford Road just off Clapham High Street but they didn’t think it opened until 7 am on a Saturday, possibly even 8. They did though assure me that they would come back later to help me rescue my moggy.
When 7 o clock came around I was relieved to find the builders yard already open. They listened to my unlikely story and lent me a ladder. A burley young lad was summonsed to help me carry it to Landor Road. The policemen, amazingly, did return as promised and helped me prop the sturdy ladder up against the wall. I clambered up eagerly while one of the PCs steadied the ladder and fully expected Alfie to leap eagerly into my arms. Instead, evidently freaked out by all this fresh attention (not to mention a gathering of curious Saturday morning onlookers) he moved away and out of reach. “Here let me have a go” said one of my constables in shining armour. And, so it was that I got to watch one of the great cliché situations of everyday English life being enacted, a policeman rescuing a cat with a ladder. I don’t know what it was about the policeman’s demeanour – perhaps it was his stern air of authority – but instead of backing away as he had done with me Alfie just sat there compliantly as the officer took him by the scruff of the neck, descended the ladder and handed me the incriminating ball of fluff.
What do you suppose was the first thing Alfie did when I got him safely back in the flat? Go to his food bowl after a famished night in the great outdoors, where a freshly replenished helping of Felix awaited him? No, he stepped straight into his litter tray and did a huge wee. He’d sat out there on that ledge all night with a full bladder. Idiot.
He spent the rest of the day sleeping off his ordeal, probably had nightmares about being stuck on a ledge and gazing down at his stupid soft touch ‘owner’ who came at him periodically with a supply of ever more threatening ladders. I of course was so adrenalized by now that there’s no way I was going to sleep through the noise and bustle of a London Saturday morning. So, I got on my trusty bike and rode three miles to Putney flea market where I found a 1960 Edgar Varése LP on the Dutch Philips label and a 1964 album of Musique Concrete by Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer for a pound each.
The magnificent Alf, a couple of years after his ordeal.