Teng Sing Tung, the elegant Tonkinese, was my heart’s delight and his accidental death devastated me. At that time, in late March 2006, I was going away overseas and I could not leave my Dad (Nono) home, alone without a cat. So, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I put a cardboard box onto his lap and said “This is for you!”
Nono was gob-smacked to find the tiny, tabby kitten I picked out at the vets. He was very aloof, with big eyes and ears like a bat. I explained that this tiny creature (hardly bigger than the palm of Dad’s hand) was his own cat and that he would have to take care of him.
He climbed up onto my Dad’s chest, licked his face and neck and settled down on his shoulder. They bonded instantly. My Dad (who was just about to turn 88 ) had never had a cat of his own. I cannot remember our family being without a cat – but they had all belonged to someone else. Never Nono. He called him “Splinter” – being too small to be a chip (off the old block).
We were sitting outside and in a little while, Dad got up to start watering the garden and the pot plants. He put Splinter down near me, where he started to explore: the bricks, the sand, the gravel and then the garden bed on the outside right hand side of the shade house, in which there was a pond and water lilies. On the left hand side of the entry to the shade house was a big blackboy grass tree.
Splinter showed no fear of anything: not Pepper, the old Dalmatian nor Burt, our Pink and Grey Galah. He is part Bengal and he loves water, including the spray from the pond pump. I found two good sized logs of wood and put one into the water lily pond and the other into the second pond around the corner. He was investigating everything he could find and see (which meant it could be no more than three inches off the ground) and if he did fall into either pond, he would be able to climb onto the log and get out. I was taking no risks with this little adventurer.
Within half an hour, he was dragging himself out of the pond by the front of the shade house, bedraggled and sopping wet. He was soon dried off, Dad went back to watering and I was reading my book. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, we realised that Splinter was nowhere in sight – although he had last been seen trying to catch some little moths and insects hovering around the roses, growing in pots. We looked for him everywhere – in the garden, the bushes, the house, the shade house. Amongst the jungle of plants including the giant birds’ nest fern – with no success.
I searched under the big blackboy, with the old dead fronds sweeping on the ground and even broke them all off back to the point where the trunk was clear for up to a foot from the ground. Nothing. No kitten. No big eyes or white whiskers. Only a big motorbike frog!
Endless calls of “here, kitty, kitty” and “puss, puss” brought no response. We agreed that it was not likely he would have wandered too far away into the real bush – he hadn’t drowned – so we would try and flush him out of his hiding place with the hose: wherever it was. Dad started gently hosing every possible hiding place we could think of, in the garden and the shade house, and after an hour he decided that the only place Splinter could be was in the blackboy. That was where he was last seen and so Dad started letting the hose run down through the spines, saturating them until the trunk was running with water.
Blackboy spines grow very close together and curve back towards the trunk, so any water on them runs back down to the centre of the plant. There was a veritable waterfall coming down from above and running down on to the gravel bed.
Suddenly, there was a little flash of movement in the fast fading light. “Keep hosing,” I called and went down on my hands and knees under the dripping plant. Sure enough, a sodden, miserable scruff of a kitten was scrambling down the trunk of the blackboy. He had been there the whole time we had been looking for him. In less than half a day, he had already had lost two lives: one in the pond and one in the blackboy.
Inside, dried and cuddled, warm and safe, he purred and looked at us with his huge eyes and ears pricked and I could read his mind: “Well, now we know who the boss is!” Nearly five years on, my Dad is still besotted with the little terror and I idly wonder what life might have been like without him. Rather boring, I think.
As a footnote: blackboy has been a commonly used name for Australian grass trees – also known as Balga. The botanical name is Xanthorrhoea preissii
I believe the name “blackboys”originated from many years ago, when aboriginals were seen to stand on one leg in the bush, motionless for hours at a time, and it was very difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding bush. This is the story my grandmother told me; she was born in the 1890’s and lived many years in bush country. When we first went to Stoneville amongst the “grass trees” in the 80’s she was scared for me, of the aboriginals coming out of the bush and not being friendly.
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