In my youth, I lived in Scotland, a land that taught me the virtues of joy, haggis, red-headed beauties, and the power women wield when they unite. My stay was brief, yet the country left an indelible mark upon my soul. Through diligence and perseverance, my mother secured a place to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Nottingham. So, we ventured south, joined by my sister Cecilia and a small, cherished addition to our family, a gift from my mother.

I named her Sheila, in honour of a Scottish redhead who had captured my young heart. Sheila was a diminutive feline, her coat a patchwork of grey and white, characteristic of the Angora breed. In her infancy, she resembled a woolly ball more than a kitten. I was intrigued to learn that the owners bred Angora cats and that the female, in the throes of heat, had absconded. After a bacchanal with the local toms, she returned, gravid. The owners, having great affection for their pets, allowed the female to birth her kittens and then sought adoptive families to give them to, as they held no monetary value. My mother heard of this through friends and was gifted Sheila. This all struck me as eerily familiar, reminiscent of how a marvellous dog had come into my life years before.

She was an intelligent, affectionate, and playful kitten, and we understood each other perfectly. She would not hesitate to chase any small ball or string that moved in front of her, and, like me, she loved Formula 1. Every time a car crossed the television screen, she would try to catch it. She also enjoyed nature programmes, particularly those featuring lions.

I taught her to play hide and seek when she was a kitten, which she quickly mastered, although at first, she could not stay hidden for long and decided that it was her turn to hunt me. One spring day, taking advantage of the fine weather, we left the small apartment that the council had allocated to us in Bainsford, and went to the communal meadow where there was a football field, a recreational area, and some neighbours’ allotments. I took Sheila so she could experience the outdoors, and we spent a good while enjoying the grass and the sun. The grass was much taller than she was, and it was amusing to watch her walk, as she resembled a miniature version of an Indian tiger. There were other families out enjoying the day, and one of them had two German Shepherd dogs. When she saw them, something happened that would mark her behaviour for the rest of her life. I was right beside her when she let out a few hisses that sounded more like small, gentle spits due to her diminutive size, and then she ran at full speed towards them, leaping in the grass each time they disappeared from view due to its height. At first, I didn’t know what was happening until I realised she was going for the dogs. I ran after her and quickly caught up. The dogs didn’t even realise they had been on the verge of being attacked by a small ball of fur.

My mum was set to commence her postgraduate studies come September, and some weeks prior we arrived in Nottingham, relocating to a council flat within the towering Balloon Woods apartment blocks. Their curious name derived from the World War II history of the locale; a vital factory had once stood nearby, protected by gargantuan balloons that prevented German planes from approaching and unleashing their destruction. These flats, grim and drab, seemed as though pieced together with Lego bricks.

In that very place, I’d while away hours playing hide-and-seek with Sheila, a cat who over time honed her skills at the art of hiding. Often, she evaded me so masterfully that it felt an eternity before I stumbled upon her hiding spot. Yet, one fateful day, an epiphany struck. Much like sensing a stove’s warmth with one’s eyes firmly shut, I realised I could somehow “feel” Sheila’s presence. It wasn’t warmth; it was a life essence. Now, armed with this newfound ability, I would always uncover her hideout. That was, until Chiquitín arrived, my sister Cecilia’s feline friend. He proved to be a far superior playmate for Sheila and the most patient cat I’d ever encountered.

Some months thence, Sheila’s belly began to swell, suggesting impending kittens. However, a twist of fate saw her tumble from the second floor. We rushed her to the RSPCA, where they managed to save her life but, tragically, not her unborn kittens. The fall had left her with a damaged hip, putting future pregnancies at risk. We decided on having her spayed. She recovered swiftly but grew somewhat more irritable than usual. Her affection for me remained unchanged, yet she could no longer tolerate the sight of dogs and took a particular disliking to small children. Occasionally, a friend of my mother’s would visit with her offspring, who would delight in playing with Chiquitín, a veritable saint among cats. However, despite Sheila’s attempts to hide beneath the sofa or retreat to my room upon hearing them, the children often discovered her and tried to engage her in play. Sheila would feign sleep, ignoring them, but if any dared to touch her, they were swiftly hissed at and scratched. The sequence of events became all too familiar in our household: we would learn of a child’s encounter with Sheila only by the sudden shriek of surprise followed by tears.

Our flat was a maisonette, the lower floor at ground level, affording us a sort of balcony behind a small railing of bars, separating it from the street. It was a sanctuary from which Sheila and Chiquitín could venture without bother. There was no traffic, for it lay at the end of a cul-de-sac, its solitude disturbed only by the occasional neighbour parking their car. More than once, I saw dogs attempting to reach Sheila. She would perch atop a car, observing them intently and fearlessly from above. One day, while I was in the “garden,” I witnessed a dog in fervent chase, perilously close to my cat. Curiously, if the dog slowed, so did she, as if daring it to catch her. Nearly home, with the dog mere centimetres from her tail, she leapt over the railing. The pursuing dog, too swift to stop, thrust its head between the bars and started barking. Sheila, with unusual calm, turned, approached within inches of its nose, and looked at it, which only infuriated the dog further. Then, she began swiping at its eyes. The dog’s anger quickly turned to terror, yet it couldn’t free its head from the bars while the small cat continued her assault. Finally, it managed to escape and fled, whimpering, while Sheila watched, unfazed.

Over time, the anti-canine tactics escalated. One day, hearing barks, I looked out the window to see Chiquitín atop a parked car and a dog barking up at him. Evidently, my sister’s cat had evaded the dog by climbing onto the car, but the dog, undeterred, circled relentlessly. I was about to stop watching, assuming the dog would soon tire, when I spotted Sheila creeping through the grass towards the car. She moved as they do when hunting: very low to the ground, belly brushing the earth, moving only when the dog’s gaze was elsewhere. Then, seizing a moment of invisibility, Sheila dashed out and joined Chiquitín on the car. From their vantage point, they watched the dog pace in circles before Sheila launched herself onto it, claws embedding in the dog’s neck, one paw clinging on, the other furiously clawing at the dog’s eyes. Terrified and nearly blind, the dog careened about until, whimpering and frightened, it approached the car again. This was Sheila’s moment to release and leap away with Chiquitín. The dog, not waiting to see the assailant, bolted from the alley.

Weeks later, I witnessed my cat once again riding atop a terrified dog. I suspected this had become a regular occurrence, a suspicion confirmed as time revealed the canines avoided the back street of our flat, though more cats seemed to gather. Come spring, the neighbourhood’s alpha male decided it was his turn to challenge my sister’s cat, Chiquitín, who, as I’ve mentioned, was as gentle as they come. I was absorbed in music through my headphones when Sheila, all aflutter, insisted I follow her. Removing my headphones, I was met by the cacophony of cats in distress from the street below. Looking out the window, I saw Chiquitín cornered by a larger male delivering a beating.

Sheila, exasperated by human sluggishness, swiped at my shoes, urging me to follow her. “Alright, alright. I’m coming,” I said, trailing behind. She guided me to the kitchen door, the only one besides the front she couldn’t open, standing beside it, pleading with her eyes for me to open it. “Sure?” I asked, hesitating. “That cat is rather large.” Her gaze was answer enough, and upon opening the door, she darted towards the fray, unhesitatingly attacking the alpha with a mighty swipe at his rear. The alpha quickly retaliated, surprising Sheila who retreated in fear. This was the alpha, after all. Deeming Sheila no threat, he turned back to Chiquitín, but Sheila was the most astute cat I had ever known. She had mastered door opening, cat food bag breaching, and litter box cleaning alerts, yet that day I saw her reason in a way I could hardly fathom.

She paused, assessing the formidable tom, then glanced towards the alley entrance before sprinting off. Seeing Cecilia’s cat in potential danger, I prepared to intervene. Just as I was about to step outside, barks filled the air, and Sheila reappeared at the alley’s mouth, pausing to look back as if waiting for someone. Suddenly, one of the dogs she despised emerged. As it nearly reached her, Sheila bolted towards the alpha, who was too engrossed in his assault on Chiquitín to notice her approach. Leaping over the alpha, she positioned herself beside her friend. The alpha, momentarily stunned at the sight of my cat, was then engulfed in a tempest of barks and bites, allowing Sheila to whisk Chiquitín away, back to the safety of our home, where she sat by my side, watching as the dog drove the now somewhat diminished alpha from our domain.

I observed her with a mix of astonishment and pride. As the barking ceased, she turned to me with a look that seemed to say, “Hey, he was faster than I was,” strutting into the house with her tail held higher than ever.

For all her bravado, Sheila was predominantly affectionate and playful. She despised a soiled litter tray and would promptly notify me. Her disdain for dirty litter was evident one day when, having procrastinated cleaning it, I found her precariously balanced on the tray’s edge, doing her business. As I began cleaning, she made her displeasure audibly known. However, once fresh litter was laid, she’d prance joyously, trying to catch the shifting grains. This routine would often end with litter strewn all over, demanding yet another clean-up.

Sheila - A Tale of an Extraordinary Cat

She also paid close attention to all I did, and when boredom took her, she delighted in knocking items from shelves or attempting to capture me, thus I found myself spending hours in play with her—or she with me, depending upon whether one sees the matter from a feline or human perspective. With time, I came to discern her life essence from that of my sister’s cat, and would unfailingly locate her during our games of hide and seek. But there was one place in the house where she forever eluded me, in some secret nook or cranny of Cecilia’s room. I know this only because, after an hour or two, she would emerge with sleep still clinging to her, having dozed off whilst awaiting my discovery. I know not how she managed this feat, but within that room she could “switch off” her essence of life, rendering herself invisible to my radar. Or perhaps Cecilia had shielded her room against such intrusions, valuing her privacy as she did. Even now, she retains this uncanny ability.

This business of seeking out life essences can prove most useful. I recall a time in Madrid’s Plaza de España when I managed to find my father, fifteen minutes later, in Callao, amidst hundreds of people during the peak hour on Gran Vía. And even now, as I recount to you Sheila’s adventures, I can sense my family members as little flames of life scattered across the globe.

Though Sheila was a darling, some of my mother’s friends would refer to her as “The Psychopathic Cat.” This moniker came not only from their observations during visits to our home, but also from the story of a teacher very fond of Cecilia who once came to visit. This woman had a penchant for dogs and was seldom seen without her canine companions. We had warned her that our home was perhaps not the best environment for her dogs, and it was not out of concern for what they might do to our cats. One day, she arrived, having left her dogs in the car. She was just inside the doorway, exchanging pleasantries with my mother and Cecilia, when Sheila began her descent from the second floor, nostrils flaring as she sniffed the air. Reaching the bottom, she identified the teacher as the source of the canine scent. With a growl, she assumed a hunter’s crouch, inching forward with unbroken eye contact. I don’t know if you’ve ever been regarded as potential prey by a predator, but even from such a small cat, that gaze invokes ancient, forgotten instincts, putting one immediately on edge. It is, to put it simply, quite terrifying. Suddenly, Sheila charged at her and leapt onto her jeans, the poor woman screaming for us to get her off. I arrived just in time to snatch Sheila away before she could reach the teacher’s face. The teacher could only apologise as if it were somehow her fault, barely concealing her panic. I reassured her that we were all taken aback by the incident, but that little Sheila had a distinct aversion not just to dogs, but seemingly to their owners as well. From that day forth, I took extra care around Sheila, for it was clear that should she decide, she had no fear of people. That’s how she earned her nickname.

At the age of sixteen, I left home to make my way in the world. But, being on a rather tight daily budget, I found myself living in student accommodations, with access only to a bedroom and bathroom, and if I was lucky, the kitchen. Animals were strictly prohibited, and so I asked my mother if she might take in Sheila. She had moved to a council house with a garden in the Aspley neighbourhood, so there was ample space for Sheila, and the two got on well.

About two years later, whilst still living independently in a student house on Lenton Boulevard, I had a dream of the sort that we in my family describe as “different.” These aren’t your run-of-the-mill nightly imaginings. Here is the dream I had:

Sheila was tense, feigning slumber, much as she did when children visited my mother’s home. She remained alert to all sounds yet did not flick her ears. Looking around, I found her in a cage, surrounded by other cages filled with more cats, all visibly frightened. In larger cages, I could spot a few dogs. Human voices echoed, and Sheila opened her eyes just a fraction to observe them. I turned to look in their direction and saw three individuals in white coats – two men and a woman.

“Which one should we start with?” inquired the woman.

“They’re all still scared; I can’t be bothered to chase them all around the lab if any escape,” replied one of the men.

The other man, who had been surveying the cages, stopped in front of Sheila’s and commented, “This one looks utterly relaxed. Clearly, she’s been treated like a queen all her life.”

The first man leaned in closer, studying Sheila. “I’m not sure,” he said. “It’s a bit odd that she’s still asleep.” He tapped on the cage, and Sheila opened her eyes, stretching lazily as if awakening from a pleasant nap. “Right, let’s start with this one. She’s completely out of it,” declared the woman, opening the cage and picking up Sheila, who offered no resistance and calmly took her place on the metal surface. Sheila sat and looked around, observing the other cats, the men, and finally the woman. This woman, studying her intently, remarked, “Well, aren’t we lucky today. John, please prepare the sedative. We’re starting with this one.”

What happened next unfolded in a matter of seconds. As the woman approached, Sheila’s eyes transformed, and she spun around to face the woman, leaping at her. The woman attempted to step back, but Sheila was already clinging to her coat at chest height. The woman swatted at her, to no avail, and screamed, “Help! Get her off me!” Seizing the moment, Sheila propelled herself upward, her claws digging into the woman’s neck as she sank her teeth deep into her throat and pulled with force. The men rushed to the woman’s aid as her piercing shriek filled the laboratory, a cacophony of fear and blood. They injected something into Sheila.

I woke up with the knowledge that Sheila’s essence of life was gone.

The next day, I sped to my mother’s house on my motorcycle. On arrival, I left the bike on the street and entered the front garden, calling out for Sheila. Hearing me, my mother opened the front door.

“Did you hear?” she asked.

“Is Sheila dead?” I inquired, hoping I was wrong and that it had just been a normal dream or nightmare.

My mother looked at me and said, “I hope so. Two nights ago, a bunch of cats from the neighbourhood disappeared. Even a dog. When the neighbour saw me searching for Sheila, she told me that when this happens, it’s usually because some cosmetics laboratory has paid someone to steal cats and dogs for experiments.”

Tears filled my eyes as I shared the dream with my mother. She embraced me and said, “Then she’s dead. I’m glad she died fighting and gave that bitch what she deserved. You should be proud.”

And I was. If any cat could do something like that, it was Sheila. Cecilia’s cat, Chiquitín hadn’t been taken because he always slept inside after dinner.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Eight years later, I was married and living in France, in a small town called Bois d’Arcy near Versailles. I worked for a multinational IT company headquartered in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, with colleagues from around the world. One afternoon, my wife and I were on our way to a party organised by a workmate in Fontenay-le-Fleury, a beautifully tree-lined and well-kept town. We parked the car and took a small pathway between apartment buildings, flanked by tall trees and gardens filled with flowers. I remember the pathway sloping upwards as my wife and I chatted. Suddenly, I felt Sheila’s life essence. I initially dismissed it as imagination, but the feeling grew stronger.

Ahead of me, about twenty metres away, was a woman in her forties walking her dog, a beautiful and well-groomed golden retriever. The life essence radiating from the dog was identical to Sheila’s. I stopped in my tracks, and my wife asked me what was wrong.

“It’s Sheila,” I responded.

At about ten metres away, the dog pricked up its ears and watched me approach. At about five metres, it stopped and we locked eyes. The woman also halted and said something in French, presumably telling the dog to move on. But our gaze remained fixed, and I said, “Hello, Sheila.”

The dog bounded towards me so swiftly that the woman had to release the leash, allowing it to run up to me. I crouched to greet her, and we embraced, her tail wagging furiously as she licked my face. She leapt about joyfully as we communicated through our eyes. The conversation went something like this:

“Are you happy?” I asked.

“Yes!” she replied. “She’s fantastic. She’s my family. Where have you been?”

“Far away, in many places,” I answered.

“Is she your family?” Sheila inquired, glancing at my wife.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m very happy too.”

“That’s great!” she exclaimed, leaping about even more. By then, the woman had caught up with us but made no attempt to intervene, seemingly at a loss for words at the scene unfolding before her. It was blatantly obvious that Sheila, or whatever her name was now, and I knew each other very well.

“I have to go now. My family wants to get home before dark,” she informed me. I gave her another hug and said, “It’s made me very happy to see you again. I’m so proud of you.”

“Of course,” she replied. “She is too.”

She turned to her owner, who had by now picked up the leash, and they continued on their way. The woman looked at her in bewilderment while Sheila was clearly ecstatic.

“It was Sheila,” I said to my wife. “She’s happy… and she’s a dog.”


Illustration by Dolores Póliz.

I extend my gratitude for the initial Spanish readings to Loreto Alonso-Alegre, and for the editing and review of the text by Dolores Póliz.

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Tom Bombadil