It was my fault - my idea, so I only have myself to blame. I don't recall how many cats we had at the time, but it was a good few less than we have now. They'd been living on dry food because that was how Bess had done it since before we were married. I'd raised an eyebrow, vaguely recalling something about cats fed on dry food alone having medical problems, possibly something to do with a brand inanely named Cupboard Love; but it turned out that I was remembering something from back in the eighties. Dry cat food had come a long way since then, so it turned out; plus there was the advantage of being able to fill a cat feeder and it being good for a couple of days, with cats eating just when they felt like it.
Yet something about this system felt wrong, and it was hard to ignore the detail of how excited the cats would get when I bought them the occasional tin of food as a treat.
'I'm going to start giving them a regular breakfast,' I announced one day. 'Same time every morning. I don't mind getting up to do it.'
My logic was that firstly it would be fun for the cats, giving them something to look forward to; and if they'd been outside during the night, it would provide an additional inducement to come home, hopefully reducing the occurrence of anyone vanishing for a couple of days at a time. Also, the more varied diet would probably be good for them, and we'd save on bags of dried food.
So now it's a regular thing, part of my routine; and I like routine because it means you get things done without having to think about them, freeing up the day for more important stuff.
I wake at any time between six and seven, rarely later. If it's summer, it will be light. If it's winter, it will be getting light. If any of the cats stayed in during the night, usually they'll be waiting outside the bedroom door, or Jello will already have forced the bedroom door open. Only Jello and Kirby seem to have this ability, although to be fair the locking mechanism of the bedroom door is crap, so all it really requires is a good, hard push.
I get up, throw on a robe, take a leak and then enter the front room. Occasionally Fluffy will have either produced a hairball or else laid an egg during the night, so I usually deal with that before anything else, if necessary. Fluffy isn't keen on the litter tray, despite that it's kept clean, and all the other useless advice you'll find on the internet when Googling why does my cat keeping taking a dump on the rug? Online wisdom suggests that he poos in protest, but none of us can work out what might have prompted him to express his reservations in this way. He has a pretty easy life, all things considered. I suspect he simply dislikes the litter tray and would otherwise prefer to use the facilities outside.
So I enter the front room, and if there's no damage control to be undertaken, I throw open the front door. This means Fluffy can go and take a dump in a bush if he needs to, and Snowy is usually sat on the garden path awaiting breakfast. Where once I'd step outside and call out their names, now I simply leave the door open and let Grace, Holly, and occasionally Kirby arrive in their own time, not least because Grace has usually found her way up onto the roof during the night and sometimes needs a bit longer.
I go to the kitchen and arrange seven metal bowls on the counter, then open the back door and let Nibbler in, and sometimes Jello if he's been outside during the night. By this point I usually have the full complement of seven cats marching around the front room or in and out of the kitchen, and the meowing can be deafening. Snowy is always right up on the counter top, quite happy to be fed directly from the tin. I've tried to find some way around this, so as to enable me to at least open tins in peace, but there isn't one, so Snowy gets first dibs - an entire five ounce can to herself because she has twice the appetite of everyone else.
It's probably a good thing in certain respects. She went missing earlier in the year, and we found her twelve weeks later trapped in the garage of a neighbouring house which had been unoccupied for some time. She'd somehow survived three months in isolation without regular food and water. She was the weight of a newspaper when I picked her up, which was kind of horrifying, but has nevertheless since fully recovered. We assume she must have caught mice or cockroaches or something, but she probably had a bit of stored fat on her side too.
Once I've shaken the hockey puck of food into Snowy's bowl, I put the tin down on the kitchen floor. It gives Jello something to think about and keeps him from joining Snowy on the counter top whilst I fill the other bowls. It's all a bit like juggling, but by this point I can do it in my sleep.
Fluffy, Nibbler, Grace, Holly, and Jello each get the contents of a three ounce can. I can usually shake these out, then convey the five bowls to different parts of the front room in a single trip, which at last silences the chorus.
This leaves just Kirby, who gets Princess food because she's weird and highly strung. She'll eat what the rest are eating, and have no qualms about finishing off abandoned bowls, but for some reason you have to start her off on Princess food, which is a fancier, marginally more expensive version of what everyone else is eating and comes in a sachet. It would be annoying, but I'm used to it.
Kirby came to us as a kitten which some friend of my wife had rescued from an unpleasant neighbour. The unpleasant neighbour had taken three tiny kittens from a feral cat, declared them guilty of having been born in her yard, and then left them to die in a metal bin with the lid on beneath the scorching Texas sun, because that's the sort of thing unpleasant neighbours do. Anna heard the cries, rescued the kittens, and then found it in herself to not drive her car back and forth over the head of the unpleasant neighbour, which is what I would have done under the circumstances. Anyway, the point is that Kirby had a seriously rough start, and then suddenly she was our cat and I was her Daddy; and I'm still Daddy all these years later. She follows me around the house. She sits and watches me, waiting to see what I will do. When I look around, usually Kirby is there. At times it drives me nuts, but there's not much point getting pissy about it, given that she's a cat; and I suppose I should be flattered.
I fill Kirby's bowl, convey it to the hall, and pull the door closed so that she gets the required couple of minutes to eat without interruption, because the rest have usually taken to a game of musical bowls by this point.
Then comes phase two.
All the while, a group of five or six strays will have been waiting outside our back door. This is also my fault. It began shortly after I began providing a regular breakfast for our cats. There would always be some food left uneaten, so I took to leaving the bowls outside the back door for the benefit of passing strays, of which there were a couple, specifically a couple who told their friends.
Feral cat populations will tend to stabilise, rarely exceeding a certain number of cats per colony, and you can look it up online if you don't believe me. So far as our back yard is concerned, and keeping in mind that we already have seven cats, that number seems to be about six, although it recently dropped to five when Garak stopped showing up.
Garak was a slightly elongated cat from a house at the end of the street. He wasn't actually a stray, but was nevertheless happy to help out at breakfast time.
Don't mind if I do, he seemed to say as he sauntered onto the porch each morning. For the sake of calling him something more personal than that one over there, Junior named him Greenie after a lame character in something called Maze Runner. The name Greenie implied a new arrival and this cat had just showed up, so there it was; but I wasn't going to call him Greenie because I disliked the name, and Maze Runner sounds rubbish, and when the boy has emptied his first litter tray, maybe then and only then he gets to decide what we're going to call those cats he occasionally notices over the top of his iPad. Anyway, this cat looked like a Lester to me, so that's what I called him until a neighbour informed us that he already had a home and was known as Garak, presumably after the Cardassian tailor from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Garak was fine by me, because somehow the cat really did resemble the character played by Andrew Robinson.
Anyway, for whatever reason, Garak simply stopped showing up - although I've seen him out and about a couple of times since so I know he's okay - and the b-team now comprises just Gary, Mr. Kirby, Charlotte, and the Gus sisters. These are the strays I feed, although technically Gary isn't a stray either. He lives at a house at the opposite end of the road to the former residence of Garak, but his owner is deranged and calls him Fat Cat, presumably because he's huge and fluffy and she doesn't have much imagination. I call him Gary because he's large and not very bright and is always hanging around whenever I open the back door, much like Gary my neighbour from when I lived in London, whom I miss.
Charlotte is a Siamese cat, named after my wife's stepmother, the one who was niece to Johnny Cash.
The Gus sisters, whose obvious affection for each other suggest that they're almost certainly related, are named as such due to their shared resemblance to the late Gus, short for Asparagus.
Mr. Kirby is a stray we first noticed when searching for Kirby, who briefly went missing. We noticed him because he resembles our Kirby quite closely, but for his possessing a massive pair of knackers. Like his female counterpart, his black on grey stripes divide into spots in places, suggesting some Bengal heritage, and unlike our Kirby, he makes a hooting noise in lieu of a meow.
So, with the indoor cats fed I step out onto the back porch to feed the rest, unless it's winter and not yet light. If it's still dark, there will usually be a couple of trash pandas hanging around in the hope of getting in on the act; and while I like trash pandas, they hustle the cats away from their food and have a habit of taking everything to the water bowl to wash it before they eat, which may sound endearingly weird or even cute, but gets a little annoying after a while given the state of the water afterwards.
Anyway, Mr. Kirby remains a little feral. I can stroke him when he's eating, but he will otherwise avoid coming too close if he can help it; and yet at breakfast he hoots away like I'm a long lost friend.
I have six bowls which I place on the glass table on which we keep pot plants in the corner of the porch. I have three of the five ounce cans and I divide the contents between the six bowls with a fork. Mr. Kirby gets the first one because he's usually right up there on the table. Then I give Gary a bowl, because even though he has a home - albeit one in which he may not be appreciated as is his due, judging by how he spends all of his time at our house - if I don't give him a bowl, he'll just nab one from someone whose need may be greater. Finally I set the other four bowls down, and the three girls watch and wait for me to leave before joining in. The fourth bowl was originally for Garak, but now serves as a spare. As I go back inside, Nibbler usually slips past me in search of further gastronomic variety, and so the fourth bowl means everyone gets to eat.
This done, I make my toast and coffee and go back to bed to read for a while. Some days it's a pain in the arse, but it never takes longer than ten minutes, and even on a bad day it brings a great sense of satisfaction as I watch them happily stuffing their faces.
So now you know.