During the third week of April, 2018, I spent a full morning cleaning out the attic at my mother’s house. While I do not classify myself as a hoarder per se, it is interesting how many apparently useless items one can accumulate over the years and by the time I was done, I had cleared out 7 black plastic sacks’ worth, all destined for the dump. My father is a hoarder to beat; his collection of objects ranges from hundreds of similar looking beach stones, accumulated empty Pot Noodle packets (‘I’ll use them for mixing paint’), a vast collection of mostly unused paint brushes, old cassettes and LPs, bits of wood and other flotsam and jetsam from the beach, fishing knives, hundreds if not thousands of books, to the real bones of a human leg that my grandfather had somehow or other gotten hold of. God only knows how.
‘One day, Jonjo, all this will be yours,’ said dad, sporting a wry grin.
As a child, you don’t question things, you just accept them for what they are.
‘Daddy, what’s that?’
‘That’s a real human leg. It belonged to an old lady, I believe.’
‘Really? Where did you get it?’
‘Your granddad got it.’
‘Can I play with it?’ I asked.
‘Okay, but just be careful, I don’t want any of the bones coming loose.’ (The bones were pinned together with wire).
‘I will,’ I said.
As an adult, years later, I broached the subject again.
‘Dad, how did grandpa Leslie come by a real human leg?’
‘He used it for teaching his students to draw,’ said dad, vaguely. Although he can be quite free with his use of words, my father has an ability to clam up on certain topics, or at least to skirt the question with a vague answer. In one of his more lucid moments, when I raised the question again in a text message, his reply was as follows:
‘He taught in an art college. They were from a demonstration figure in anatomy. Enough said!’
This was a little more specific and brought to mind an image of my grandpa, whom I never met, in the classroom after hours removing the lower left leg of a skeleton as a trophy. There was also a hand, as a matter of fact, but that wasn’t in such good condition and I remember not being allowed to play with that.
It’s interesting going through old belongings that you didn’t know you even had. You see something as banal as an old bus ticket, of which I had hoarded many, you look at the date written on it and then you remember where you were living and what you did that year. Among the bags of debris in the hot, smelly attic, the smell of which had seeped into almost every item that had even the slightest absorbency, was a handful of short letters and a photograph.
‘Jonjo, I will call you. Post office man is a grumpy bastard, he’s sucking on his gums in fury as I write this – never mind – Also he doesn’t know where Stoneybatter is.
“It could be in Mayo for all I know.”
“You know shag all”, I shout, as I too begin to lose it. Now we are outside in the alley, sleeves rolled up and trouser cuffs – not Queensbury rules. As I write this poetic licence I am in traction. He is beside me in the other bed. They (the Gardai) are still searching for his balls. They’ll never find them as I swallowed them. Best wishes, Dad.” ‘
Another such letter gave brief descriptions of pets he’d owned in the past.
‘There is a large, fat, hairy object sleeping behind my door in the shade. I will give you a clue: when it runs, especially through long grass, it bounces.’
This was a reference to the late Mr Fluff, a photo of whom accompanied the letter:
Mr Fluff was a large and extremely talkative cat. Such was his friendliness towards humans, that he was not really very catlike. Actually, my dad once threw him over his shoulder and carried him into the pub across the road. The locals sitting at the bar looked up from their pints and squinted.
‘Is that a dog or a cat?’ said one of them.
Mr Fluff was not his only name. He had an array of nicknames that he responded to: Fluffy, Fluffle, Bumblefluff, and Flufflebum were all common titles. “Fluffy” was generally used in a tone that implied “Bugger off, it’s not time for dinner yet.” “Flufflebum” and “Bumblefluff” were used in tones of affection. “Fluffle” was often used, bizarrely, with a friendly French accent so that it ended up sounding like “Flaffull”.
One of his favourite places to sleep was curled up on my grandmother’s head while she was in bed either fast asleep or reading one of her history tomes about the First World War, the Second World War, Hitler’s biography, or To Kill a Mockingbird.
While sitting on your knee, Mr Fluff would dribble profusely the more he purred (which he also did in abundance). Such was his tendency to dribble that he would often be asked the question, “Are you sure you weren’t a dog in your past life?”
From this description, you’d think that he was simply a soft, cuddly house cat, which he certainly was, there is no doubt about that. But Mr Fluff had another side to him. Staying at my father’s house during my childhood and early teenage years was punctuated with feelings of dread going to sleep at night and apprehension in the morning. As I was usually the first to wake up, I was also usually the first to go downstairs and it was always with a deep sense of trepidation. The sitting room was beside the stairs and led out to the kitchen, which had a back door with a cat flap. Opening the door to the sitting room every morning was always accompanied either with a deep intake of breath or a sigh of relief.
As the house was beside a river, there were a lot of water rats living in the vicinity. Well, quite a lot. There was also a big oak tree where dozens of crows nested, and wild pigeons nested nearby as well. Mr Fluff as it happened, was a very skilled hunter. His favourite victims were rats. Big ones. Pigeons were also popular. And shrews, mice, sparrows, robins, butterflies, swallows, bullfinches, and pretty much anything else with wings or a bald tail.
I recall waking up early one morning to the sound of a scuffle down in the sitting room. I tensed, listening hard. The sounds continued and I lay there stiff as a board, knowing what was taking place. I waited much longer than I normally would have, hoping that my grandmother or my father would wake up and deal with it. Alas, my bladder was full and the bathroom was downstairs by the kitchen. I gazed longingly at the window, then spotted the pub owner across the road sweeping leaves away from the outdoor tables. Bladder fit to burst, there was nothing to it but to go downstairs.
What greeted my eyes upon opening the sitting room door could only be described as “the scene of an intense pillow fight”, to steal the expression from a friend of mine who’d owned a Jack Russell. Then you would spot the carcass, or what was left of it. A wing here, the head there, the entrails everywhere. Flufflebum was nowhere to be seen.
If there was a scale upon which I could place Mr Fluff’s fondness of blood sports, this particular case would have been in the middle. Some of his more lively nightly escapades involved me snapping awake to yowling on the stairs, followed closely by a scuttling sound down the hallway towards my door, which didn’t close properly. Mr Fluff had a propensity for bringing live quarry into the house in the middle of the night and letting it loose. He would drop it on the floor, let a purry meow as if to say “look what I brought!”, before playing with it for what felt like aeons. There’d be a scuttling, followed by silence, followed by scuttling and you would lie there waiting for that final, dreaded, hair raising Crunch.
On one occasion, Mr Fluff brought a fully grown live rat into my father’s bedroom. My dad, a heavy sleeper whose snoring could be so loud that it was audible through the wall, apparently turned on the light, squinted and leapt up onto his feet, standing on the bed and yanking the blankets away from the floor.
‘CHRIST ALMIGHTY, FLUFFY!’
‘Rrrrrwooaaaaow!’ said Mr Fluff, in reply. Roughly translated, this probably meant, ‘But hooman, look what I brought you!’
The rat cowered in the far corner of the room, almost resigned to its fate and the torture fest that was about to ensue.
Mr Fluff also had a local enemy known as the Ginger Tomcat. This was the neighbour’s cat and although he didn’t often venture into the garden, when he did it rarely went unnoticed and things usually descended into fur flying anarchy. One summer afternoon, I was in the sitting room and dad was in the kitchen.
‘Jonjo, come and look at this,’ he called, quietly.
He pointed through the kitchen window, which looked out onto the lawn. There, right smack in the middle, sat the Ginger Tom licking his arse in the sun.
‘So what?’ I said.
‘Look!’ dad hissed, pointing at a large branch protruding from the fir tree overlooking the garden. There sat Mr Fluff in the shade, tail dangling over the edge of the branch and twitching as he stared fixedly down at the Ginger Tom. He got into position, tail twitching even more furiously, as though making calculations. Then he pounced, front legs outstretched, claws out. The Ginger Tom was quick to react and the ensuing battle sprayed tufts of fur about the lawn and filled the air with caterwauls. Dad ran to fill a bucket of water to put a stop to it, but by that time the fight was over and Ginger Tom had been chased from the garden once again.
The house was located at the entrance to a small lane, down which cars and the occasional tractor would hurtle at speed. We would walk the dogs there and Mr Fluff would follow. Unfortunately, he had a bad habit of stopping and sitting right in the middle of the lane.
One day, dad went out the front gate and saw him sitting there.
‘Fluffy, one of these days you’ll be flattened into a pancake and turned into strawberry jam if you keep doing that,’ said dad.
‘Rrrrwaaaaow,’ or ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’ll take your word for it.’
Eventually, his luck did run out. A car clipped him and broke his back, paralysing him from the middle down. Somehow, he managed to climb over the gate using just his front legs and then dragged himself all the way up the path to the house. Because his spinal nerves were severed, he didn’t feel any pain, but the vet said that there was nothing he could do. Apparently the first injection didn’t work. Mr Fluff continued to purr and meow, staring at dad and then at the vet. When it was clear that he wasn’t going to go to sleep, the vet gave him a second dose and that didn’t work either. The third injection did.
I wrote a message to dad asking him what he could remember. This was the reply:
‘He was special, tho probably typical of the breed – the morning he was born, I was asleep on the sofa with a savage hangover. His mother, Louise the First, climbed up on my chest and started to get contractions. I put her in a catbed and the bladder holdin her waters ballooned out her wotsit and burst in my face! Mr Fluff had an identical twin. Didn’t realise at the time or wuda kept it.’
Then he added: ‘I’ll tell you one thing, he was a tough little bugger, I’ll give him that.’