Chapter 6

6
Enter Tesco

Now you’re acquainted with some of the significant men in my life – Gareth, Mel, Nelson – it’s time I introduced you to one whose existence I’ve alluded to already, who was even more lovable and altogether furrier.

It was approaching Christmas, and Mel and I in the spirit of goodwill had finally decided to return our makeshift ‘sweet trolley’ to Tesco. It had been in our illicit custody for over a year since that night we entertained my family at the flat – during which time it had conveyed more gateaux to the dinner table, functioned as both a prop in The Sound of Music (don’t ask) and transport for a Rag Week parade, and was now cluttering up the backyard.

In the days before the majority of supermarket trolleys were coin-operated, it was fairly commonplace to see carless shoppers openly wheeling them home. At least our rickety cart was not destined to be tipped in the canal (‘the cut’) or jettisoned on to a scrap metal mountain. We’d even dusted it. Nonetheless, Mel and I waited until after dark to wheel it back (there was none of that twenty-four hour opening lark then either).

We slotted it into the snake of trolleys, and capered across the car park, giggling and bouncing into each other like dodgems as Mel practised his act.

‘Yow from Sutton Coldfield? It’s posh round there, ai’ it! A bath’s a “barth,” and it’s what you get out of to have a piss.’

‘That’s gross,’ I hooted, ‘even worse than your one about the – hey, what was that?’ I’d heard a piteous mewling in the nearby bushes.

‘The sound of someone in tears at my act?’

‘Sssh, you!’

‘What is it?’

‘That!’

We did that annoying thing of talking over each other, drowning out the mystery noise, and then falling abruptly silent at the same time the yowling in the bushes stopped as well.

‘It’s probably a drunk. Come on, chick. We’re missing The Young Ones.’

Then we both heard it. The miaow and frantic rustle. Mel’s surprisingly practical side came to the fore, and he, seemingly from nowhere, produced a small torch which he shone into the foliage.

‘I worn’t in the Girl Guides for nothing,’ he explained in Heidi Sausage’s voice. ‘Oh, look!’

A tiny cat was scratching his way out of tied-up Tesco bag. He was black and white, his coat matted, his small legs trembling. His gigantic blue eyes blinked in the beam. I suppose you could say that was his first time in the spotlight.

I swear we exchanged a glance and there was instant kinship. I spotted something in those eyes that wasn’t so much fear as a feisty survival instinct. He’d clawed to ribbons the bag into which he’d been cruelly tied. Were he human he’d probably have winked at me, said something like ‘Stick with me, kid. Enjoy the ride.’

Mel melted instantly. ‘Who would do such a thing?’ he cooed as I carefully picked up the forlorn feline, referring to whoever had left him to suffocate. ‘Aw, look at his choochie little beard.’ He chucked the cat under the chin, on which a splodge of black surrounded by white fur gave him a cute goatee appearance.

‘Come on, we can’t leave him here.’

We carried the furry urchin home – he was surprisingly docile for a stray – pausing en route for cat litter and tins of Buster cat food from Brian’s corner shop, which did stay open late. It’s remarkable, looking back, how we unquestioningly picked him up, with no thought for fleas or mange. There may have been a nebulous plan at the back of my mind to hand him in to the Cats Protection League, but there was no discussion between Mel and me; simply tacit consensus that we would never have abandoned the little thing to his car park fate.

Now accuse me of discrimination if you like, but had this abandoned animal been of the canine species I’d have phoned the RSPCA pronto. I have always been a cat – never a dog – person. Dogs are far too licky and slobbery and needy for my liking, plus their fur always seems to smell of soggy anorak. Then there’s the ‘poo’ factor. Even now, if I bump into a dog-walking neighbour who has poop-scooped along their way, I’m so conscious of their pooch’s turd dangling between us in a plastic bag that it kills the chat somewhat.

Anyway, Nelson was out, working his shift at Larry’s. Linda, fluorescent bendy curlers in her hair, was lolling on the sofa with her legs up the wall, watching The Young Ones (a TV show in which she was later to feature).

‘What the fuck is that scratty little rat doing here?’

‘Come now, Lin, that’s no way to talk about our Majella!’

I thumped Mel for that comment. ‘Sssh,’ you’ll hurt his feelings,’ I cooed, already protective of my fluffy charge.

‘Well he can’t stay.’

‘It’s only one night.’ I sounded about as convincing as Trevor Lilley in his assertions that he was straight.

The little cat practically inhaled his duck and rabbit, and the saucer of milk we set before him.  After his dinner, he plonked himself on the carpet in the centre of us, folding his little paws beneath him – which looked as though it ought to be uncomfortable, but obviously wasn’t as it was a posture he adopted often. He possessed the most expressive, almost human eyes, which flicked between us as we debated his accommodation, as though he knew we were discussing him.

From her initial scoffing ‘Soppy as sacks, the pair of you. You two are like world’s most dysfunctional parents of a furry mutant baby,’ Linda mellowed to ‘Well we’re not all here – we’ll have to consult Nelson and take a vote’ (as if Nelson was going to be a hard-hearted cat-hater), to ‘Aw, look at him – he understands what we’re saying!’

You can see he was the kind of cat who inspired lots of ‘Aw, look’ type comments. As if sensing her submission, he gratefully launched himself into Linda’s lap and purred like an express train, as though he knew he’d conquered the only obstacle to him gaining owners who would feed him duck and rabbit and not tie him up into plastic bags.

‘We’ll make do, I suppose,’ she said, with the air of a reluctant mother finding herself up the duff and adapting to an unfortunate situation. The words ‘scratty little rat’ were never to be heard again.

******

Once Linda was sold, he was ours.

We referred to him as Tesco Cat, instantly abbreviated to Tesco. That first night, we fashioned him a bed out of some threadbare towels, but the next day we went on a bargain mission for a basket, bulk-buy cat food, squeaky mouse toys and other feline paraphernalia. We took him to be neutered, and for his appropriate jabs. He became one of the gang; the fifth flatmate; our cuddly confidant when any of us experienced boyfriend woes.

Anyone questioning how a gang of students could take care of a vulnerable cat ought to have seen us.

During college holidays and periods of study leave, we shared his care, although the lion’s share – no pun intended – fell to me, which I was more than happy about. The one time Mel took him home, he clashed with Cherub, the Corns family’s elderly and very territorial tabby, and the fur flew.

Cats have always fascinated me. I could have comfortably sat and watched Tesco all day; the way he washed himself, flexed his little paws; his quizzical expression; the swish of his long black tail; the way he would leap on to the window sill when something outside, usually pigeons or double-decker buses, captivated him. He loved the West Midlands Travel buses, with their characteristic cream and navy blue livery, conveying commuters in and out of the city.

We were lucky that we had a relatively easy-going landlord; he wouldn’t have cared had a troop of baboons taken up residence with us, so long as the rent was paid punctually.

******

It was my own experience in commercials which directly led to Tesco’s fame.

He had been with us just over a year when I was filming the Arrowsmith & Broom ad. During coffee one day, I was chatting about my spirited pet with Keith, my halitosis-ridden co-star, and I flashed a recent Polaroid of him dunking his paw under the running kitchen tap.

This was his latest trick; when we washed up, Tesco would dab at the water, leap away but then return his paw to the sink, as though mistrustful of and yet beguiled by this flowing, sploshing element. The look of utter fascination on his face was priceless.

I don’t really know why the topic arose; perhaps I just thought talking continuously might prevent my sense of smell reeling from Keith’s gross breath.

Anyway, while Keith remained stoically unimpressed, the small crew were soon cooing over little Tesco the way everybody seemed to; he possessed an undeniable allure. I felt as proud as a mother showing her baby photos. His ears and the top of his head were black, giving the appearance of a mask, and his nose and chin were white save for that little beardy splodge.

Then the director, Sean, mentioned his friend Glenn who was currently casting for a cat food commercial. ‘Could your cat be the face and paws of new improved Buster cat food?’ He formed quotation marks with his fingers as he recited, deadpan, obviously quoting a press release. ‘If you want me to put in a good word, I’ll need the pic to give Glenny.’

As if my little street moggie would be able to compete with the sleek pedigree felines who dipped their paws into tins of cat food on cue! On a madcap whim, though, I handed over the photo. I could always take another one, I told myself. Buster was Tesco’s favourite brand. It seemed like an omen, however tenuous.

It was weeks later, by which time my ad was in the can and my conversation with Sean consigned to the vaults of my mind, that I received the unexpected phone call from Glenn, requesting Tesco’s and my attendance at the Boulton Hotel in Birmingham city centre for an audition.

‘He’s got the most quizzical little expression,’ Glenn gushed. ‘I’d love to see him in the flesh – or rather the fur. We need a puss with personality for this role.’ TV people talked like this.

I remember the morning of that audition so well. I had graduated by now, but was still flat-sharing. Mel was watching Roland Rat over breakfast, and throwing wisecracks my way, among them predictable ones about using my pussy to get casting.

‘I’m sure all this cat food flooding the market so soon after Shergar’s disappearance is entirely coincidental!’

‘Don’t!’ Shergar was a famous racehorse who had been kidnapped a few months earlier from his stud farm in Ireland. He was never found. The story distressed me at the time.

‘You know, I’ve always wondered why they don’t make mouse-flavoured cat food, instead of all this beef and heart and whatnot. I mean, when was the last time you saw a cat chase after a cow?’

It was good to see Mel back to his droll self. He’d been in a gloom of late, having given up smoking and also been brutally ditched by Colin, the cloakroom boy at Larry’s, who had stolen Mel’s money and had it on his toes to London, never to return.

He’d insisted on accompanying me today; a little family outing. We were like amicably divorced parents reuniting for parents’ evening.

We ushered Tesco into his cage and lugged him into the city in the creaky Yugo. The receptionist at the Boulton looked about ninety-three, with wiry grey hair escaping from a tatty Alice band. She was on the phone, and I heard her mutter the words ‘bloody cats.’

‘Second door on the left,’ she waved at us before resuming her conversation. I imagined her popping a Valium the second our backs were turned.

Indeed for anyone not a fan of felines, their caterwaul or their characteristic musky smell, this room staged a scene from hell. The animals were fairly vocal that day, I recall. Some were well-behaved, obeying cues, while others were in exploratory or scrappy moods, flouncing and rambling around or hissing at rivals.

The remarkably unruffled Glenn possessed hair cut in a mullet that resembled a palm tree, with black roots springing through. A nipple piercing jutted through his tight T-shirt. He was all over Tesco from the outset. He was keen to see my pet play with the tap water, as depicted in my photograph; this little caper fortuitously featured in the ad storyboard.

There was a little sink, at which Tesco duly reacted to the water, as though it was the first time he’d seen it. He chased a strategically thrown ball of wool. He rolled over on cue and waggled his little paws in the air. He leapt on and off tables. The other fluffy contenders were similarly tested; they had varying attention spans, and those who turned up their noses and their little whiskers at the tasks were swiftly dismissed with a disdainful wave of the paw.

Much to my amazement, he was recalled for a second audition. In the end it was between Tesco and Sebastian, a ragdoll whose haughty expression was matched only by that of his owner. Much to both of their disgust, my little pal won the part.

He became the face of a million cat food tins, assuming the name of Buster for the purposes of the campaign. He assumed several mantles during a prolific career marketing everything from alcopops to gas central heating.

The plot of this particular opus saw him vault on and off windowsills, chase his tail and a ball of wool, and of course splash in the sink. After an energetic morning navigating this obstacle course around the mock-up house, he would be rewarded by a bowl of ‘nutritious’ Buster being placed before him by the hand of his otherwise unseen ‘owner.’

‘Buster – for cats with a zest for life,’ boomed the earnest voiceover, as the camera froze on his cute face.

An on-screen caption repeated the slogan, in cheesy, ‘futuristic’ graphics (which now look hideously dated) reminiscent of the numerals on my digital alarm clock.

The soundtrack was a thumping, dramatic electronic composition.  Everything was OTT in the 80s.  It was the law.  Nothing could be understated.  A mere cat food advert was like a mini opera.

My Tesco was courted by the press; the poor stray who survived suffocation by carrier bag to become the world of advertising’s most delightful star. His story was a sensation, exemplifying two British fascinations: pets, and triumph over adversity. As his loving owner, my ad even earned a repeat airing on the back of it.

He lived to be around seventeen – his age was always an estimated figure, but we estimated he was not quite a year old when we found him.

That day I emerged inconsolable from the vets, there was even a little obituary for him in the Evening Mail. Whether I shall be deemed worthy of the same when I go is debatable!

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