St Tibb’s Day

Percy was the first cat of my acquaintance in my Sussex coast infancy, an elderly black-and-white gent. He departed for Cathalla early on in my life, to be briefly replaced by another moggie, who rapidly deserted us for a neighbour (moggie by the way is a familiar form of Margaret, which somehow became a word for cat). Then there was another black-and-white Percy, who was with us until I left home, sharing the hearth rug semi-amicably with a cocker spaniel called Simon.

There were no cats at university but I did share a flat in London with a friend’s Kobe (the name by which Stalin was known among his friends…I am unsure of why the cat was called so).

And then in Lund in 1973, we had a cat. I was rather doubtful about taking it for a walk in the City Park without a lead. In fact, it followed us and it went much better than I expected until it caught sight of a tree that had to be climbed. So there we were with a cat frozen with terror some good way up, visions of having to call the fire brigade and how big a hole that would make in our then meagre income. Luckily, a man came along, considerably braver than this vertigo-ridden clerk, and clambered up and retrieved it. The cat was around until it discovered sex whereupon it disappeared, hopefully to a friendly neighbour and not some worse fate (we were too slow to emasculate it…this verb making an odd couple with the adjective effeminate, which works in the opposite way – making more and not less feminine).

Later there were two cats that I remember very well, Rasmus and Sam. Rasmus we had for many years until he became ill, which is not a good memory. I can’t quite remember how Sam came into the family. He was elegant and grey and we had to find him a new home rather quickly as we had at least one very allergic child.

After this, there were only borrowed or temporary cats. My sharpest memory is of a friend’s expensive golden-haired pedigree cat, impracticably refined to the point where he (or she perhaps) allowed hisher self to be used as a stepping stone when the cohabiting pet rabbit wanted to get from the floor to the bed. When I went to feed this cat, I had my friend’s flat key in my hand. In the lift, there was a crack between the edge of the lift floor and the lift shaft and lo and behold, in the twinkling of an eye, the keys dropped down the crack into the lift shaft. My friend was going to be away for some time and the scenario of her coming home to a flat where I’d been poking cat food through the letter box for two weeks was not altogether pleasant. I went home and fetched a wire coat hanger, which I unbent so that it was a long piece of metal with a hook on the end. Then back to the lift shaft, regretting that I hadn’t also brought a torch with me and not believing that this would be successful. I lay down on the hall floor, knowing that the lift couldn’t start moving as long as I kept the door open but still fearful. Then I started poking around in the dark shaft with my coat hanger. And miraculously after a couple of attempts, I managed to hook the keys. I don’t know what kind of bonus system is appropriate for a guardian angel, but I thought mine performed excellently that day.

After all these experiences, I was shielded from further cats by having allergic children. I’ve never had a pet since then, rather suffering from cat fatigue (in fact more generally furry animal fatigue after four children and at least a thousand zoo visits). I don’t suffer from loneliness either so haven’t felt a need for a pet.  I’ve made do with Tibbs, an imaginary cat, who is something of a family joke.

And this morning, while reading a chapter of my bedtime and wake-up book on old customs in England, I find that there is a St Tibb’s Day. Unlike other saints days, it’s not a fixed nor even variably recurrent day. It’s an imaginary day so that, if you say, for example, that you will pay someone on St Tibb’s Day, it means that they will never get their money. How it got the name St Tibb’s Day I’m not sure (I must check this in the big Oxford dictionary). From the net, I find, however, that it does have a fixed day in Cornwall on 23 December. There it was apparently not done to drink alcohol during advent, only at Christmas. To avoid prolonging the agony of abstinence, 23 December was declared to be a special day, St Tibb’s Day and alcohol was permitted from this day. Popular etymology has St Tibb’s Day related to tipsy. I have to find out more about this although I shall resist it trying to jostle for top place on my list of mysteries of the world to penetrate.

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