Meet Hugo. He’s a French cat. Hugo has one passion in life and, as you might expect of a French cat, it is food.
From the first hours of our housesit in rural Bordeaux, it was obvious Hugo and I would be inseparable. I adore his cuddling ways, his bouncy walk, and his savoir faire. He loves me for one simple reason–I am the server of his food. His owner made sure Hugo would stick around after she left him in our care by providing delicacies like none he had tasted before: Jellied Tuna, Steak and Kidney, Pickled Herring, and Trout a’la Tartar. It was love, love, love from his very first bite.
Hugo doesn’t like to miss a meal so he guides me down the stairs to his bowl each morning. He taps a paw on the box, in case I dare to serve the bland dry food. He knows what he likes. At noon he lounges nearby or cuddles on my lap. Later, we share the sunset as he enjoys another meal in the fading light. Day by gourmet day we have grown inseparable.
That is, we were inseparable until the day Hugo disappeared.
One Friday there was no Hugo waiting by the stairs. I filled his breakfast bowl so he would stir to its delicious aroma but it was still there, untouched, at nightfall. Saturday morning I stood at the door calling “Hugo! Come here Hugo!” but there was no sight of his bobbing black tail in the lavender. Hugo had simply vanished.
As the hours passed I wrestled with a hundred imagined fates. “What if he is lost? What if he’s been shot by hunters? What if he is sick and suffering out there? What if someone took him? Did we have a genuine catastrophe on our hands?”
Peter, it should be noted, was not overly concerned. He has an inborn Australian mantra: she’ll be all right, mate. While I, in all honesty, felt annoyed by his nonchalance. It’s exasperating having to do all of the worrying by myself. I just wish he’d work up a panic once in awhile. But no. He remained calm and cool. All through the day he produced a calming stream of reassurance that Hugo was fine and just being a cat.
When Hugo was still missing on Sunday afternoon I became frantic. “Peter, please! What if he is trapped? Or hurt. We have got to search.” So Peter gave in and produced flashlights so we could search the crumbling distillery complex near the house. “Hugo. Are you in here? Here kitty, kitty.” We heard nothing so we ventured deeper and deeper inside the old structure with its dirt floor and decaying bones. “Hugoooooooooo.”
Then we heard a tiny and weak sound deep inside the building. “Hugo?” Each time we called his name we heard a faint “Meow” in reply and took a few tentative steps toward the sound.
I felt absolutely petrified when I shined my light up to find his adorable two-toned face peering down from the rafters. “Oh no! Peter! He’s STUCK up there! You have to DO something!” So Peter found something unstable to climb on and scrambled up to where he could see Hugo through the falling framework of the ceiling. “Come here, Hugo,” he called, “come on down.” But it seemed the poor cat was too frightened to move. Peter urged him on for five minutes but he still didn’t budge. ‘Aha!’ I thought, ‘Food!’ So I ran to the kitchen for a packet of his gourmet chow and, as Peter opened it, Hugo tentatively inched closer. We kept urging and when Hugo was finally within reach Peter tried to grab him. “MEOW!” Hugo shifted onto his haunches and backed up, demanding to be given his gourmet meal at once. “MEOW! MEOW!”
I was stunned. That cat. That stubborn cat. He wasn’t trapped, injured, sick, catnapped or lost. He was just having a rogue weekend in the barn. We looked up at Hugo on his perch as he continued to loudly demand his vittles. “MEOW!”
“You are a naughty boy” was the mildest thought Peter had as he cleaned the cobwebs out of his hair, dusted off his pants, and climbed down from the ceiling. “No Hugo. You’ll get fed when you come down.” And we went back inside the house.
Hugo finally showed up the following morning, cheerful and obviously satisfied by his long hunting weekend. He wolfed down his chow and gave me a cuddle as if nothing ever happened.
I, meanwhile, felt like a chump. Peter was right all along. I had let my imagination run away with me again. One of these days I’ll learn. She’ll be all right, mate. After all, an entire continent of sensible, calm, and competent people can’t be wrong.
Cat Sitting Lesson #1: If a cat can get up there he can usually get back down.