I was leaning against a lamp-post in a side street near Covent Garden in central London. It was eleven o’clock on a cold, drab and dreary night in November and drizzle was beginning to fall. I was gazing up at the roof of the house opposite and attempting to look as inconspicuous as possible. The occasional passer-by would follow my upward gaze and give me a quizzical look, probably suspicious of a man dressed in a long dark trench coat loitering there. If they had concentrated as hard as I was, they might have noticed the strange sight that had been fascinating me for the last few minutes. Outlined in the vague light of the lamp, they would have glimpsed the outline of a cat’s tail, waving violently from side to side. Had they waited around a few moments longer, they might even have heard what sounded like muffled growls reverberating from the bottom of the drainpipe opposite.
I had already established that somehow or other at the top of this pipe there was indeed the hindquarters and tail of a cat protruding from the guttering that someone had contacted me about earlier. Being called out to such unusual situations was part and parcel of my job as an RSPCA emergency service officer in the early 1970’s working for a small specialist unit tasked with coming to the aid of trapped and distressed animals all over Greater London at night and weekends.
How and why the cat had got itself into this predicament I could only imagine. Perhaps the cat had been out and about on its nightly prowl on the roof of the house when it spied a mouse which had scampered off and shot down the pipe closely followed by its feline pursuer, which having made a valiant attempt to follow suit, only succeeded in getting its’ front end caught in the pipe. How long the cat had remained in this most undignified and uncomfortable position was also unsure, but an hour ago a neighbour living opposite saw its’ plight from her bedroom window. As I pondered the best way of releasing the poor thing from its dilemma, the neighbour who had first alerted me came out of her house and approached me.
‘Are you the RSPCA’ she asked, obviously spotting my epaulettes.
‘I am’ I replied.
‘I called you and I believe I know who the cat belongs to’ she informed me ‘There is a lady who lives round the corner with a tom cat called Whiskers that is always getting into trouble. I bet it is hers. I keep telling her to get it done, but she doesn’t.’
‘Well it has certainly well and truly got into trouble this time’.
‘How are you going to get the cat down?’ she asked.
‘That is a very good question,’ I replied ‘I think the only course of action is to get some assistance in the form of the fire brigade’.
‘Shall I go and see if it is her cat’.
‘That would be helpful as it would be nice to return it to its owner once released’.
It was time for back-up and, as I worked alone on the streets with only a colleague back at base to answer the telephone, the only assistance available at this time of night was going to be the local Fire Brigade. I contacted my colleague on the van, as these were the days before mobile phones, to make a telephone call to Soho Fire Station which resulted a few minutes later in the reassuring glow of blue flashing lights against the buildings in the distance. The sight and sound of the fire brigade always gave me an adrenaline rush as it does most people and as usual they turned up in force and in good humour. The station officer, resplendent in white hat, jumped from the engine and I walked over to meet him.
‘What have you got for us?’ he asked with slight trepidation, as they were never quite sure what to expect when we called them out.
After explaining the situation it was obvious the firemen did not entirely believe me so I pointed in the direction of the cat to confirm my story. The officer and his men all gazed upward and I got the disturbing impression at this point that they thought I might have been drinking all evening down the West End and was winding them up for a laugh. Soon, though, each fireman in turn spotted the very mobile tail and they were convinced.
‘There it is Harry, see – just above the window there’.
‘Do you see Jim?’
‘’Yeh I see it – how on earth did it get stuck there?’
In no time, they had a ladder propped up against the guttering close to the now very angry cat whose growling was getting increasingly audible. At this point the owner of the house appeared in his colourful dressing gown, roused by all the noise outside. Embarrassingly, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t knocked on his door to inform him of what was occurring and his face dissolved into a shocked expression at the sight of the ladder propped up against his house and the assembled crowd of firemen and the handful of onlookers who had stopped on their way home from a night out in the west end.
‘What on earth are you doing to my house? he bleated in despair, ‘Is it on fire?’
I walked quickly to his side and explained what was happening. The shocked expression soon changed to disbelief as he pirouetted around and stared up at his guttering trying to make out the outline of the cat supposedly trapped there.
‘I can’t see a cat up there. Are you sure? Is this some kind of joke?’
‘I’m afraid there is definitely a cat up there’ confirmed the station officer ‘and this gentleman from the RSPCA has tasked us with getting it down’.
‘You will be careful, won’t you?’ he exclaimed, calmer now that he knew his house was not on fire. ‘Please try not to cause any damage’.
It was volunteered to go up first to assess the situation. I climbed the ladder and, as I neared the top, I could hear the cat alternating from a pitiful meow to a frustrated growl. It was a large tabby and white cat and while he waved his rear end at me I could easily see that he was most definitely a tom cat. The growl became more meaningful when he felt me touch his hindquarters and he started to thrash about in an attempt to extricate itself, but to no avail. At the top of the downpipe was a large ornate square catchment box where the guttering drained water into the pipe. I shone my torch onto him and it appeared that the cat had both his head and one front leg stuck in there. Whilst trying to calm him by stroking and whispering soothing noises, I grabbed as much skin as I could at the back of this neck and gave a gentle tug hoping his head would pop out, but this just resulted in violent convulsions as he tried to assist in the matter. He also decided to screech at the top of his voice which made it appear I was hurting him. I looked down at the tableau below me and could see the expectant upturned faces of the firemen and the small attentive audience and had to smile at the antics of the poor householder who was rushing from one fireman to the next pleading for information on what they intended to do next and uttering plaintive cries of ‘you will be careful? Please don’t damage my house’ to anyone who would listen. To add to the confusion, I spotted what turned out to be the owner of the cat arrive at this point and also proceed to run from one person to another pleading for information. Spotting me up the ladder she called to me.
‘His name is Whiskers. Please get him out. I’m so worried about him as he has been missing for hours’.
I made a final gentle effort to pull Whiskers free, but his forequarters had no intention of joining the rest of him in the open air. I returned to ground level.
‘It’s no good’, I said, ‘I can’t budge him’.
A discussion then started as to how we were going to proceed still accompanied by the desperate home owner hopping around the perimeter trying to catch what our plans were for the likely destruction of his house.
The firemen took turns going up to see the problem for themselves. They also tried gentle persuasion as I had done, but to no avail and there was general agreement that more drastic action was required. The station officer made the suggestion that we should get the whole situation down to ground level so that we could get to grips with the problem. The poor householder was visibly going pale as it dawned on him what the firemen planned to do.
‘I expressly forbid you to do any damage to my property. You will all pay you know. I forbid you’ he warned.
‘Don’t worry sir I’m sure the RSPCA will see you all right for any damage we cause’, smiled the station officer giving me a sly wink.
He was obviously not convinced and watched in horror as another ladder was placed against the front of his house and two firemen climbed up armed with a crowbar and a hammer. On arriving level with Whiskers hindquarters, the two firemen proceeded to wrench the vertical pipe off the wall. While one held onto the loose pipe, his colleague pulled the guttering away and supported the now very angry Whiskers. The firemen carefully descended in tandem preceded by a shower of debris, clutching the pipe and supporting the backside of poor Whiskers. The house owner was by now apoplectic and visibly pale. We stood in a circle contemplating the two metre section of pipe containing the flailing tail and hind legs of the cat.
‘We’re not going to see a thing out here in the dark’, stated a fireman.
‘You can come round to my house if you like. It’s only a few yards away’, offered Whiskers owner.
The offer was accepted and we all trooped off leaving the bemused owner of the house staring up at his missing guttering with a dazed expression on his face. Six firemen, me and a three metre section of pipe incorporating the very aggravated Whiskers squeezed into her tiny kitchen. The pipe was laid on the table and we all stared at it. This was no cheap plastic pipe, but the original cast iron piping. The bright light of the kitchen allowed me to have a clearer inspection of Whiskers predicament and I could see that his front leg was more wedged than trapped in the pipe and I was able to gently release it, but his head remained firmly caught.
‘So far so good’ said the station officer obviously at a loss what to do next.
‘Now what do we do?’ asked one of his colleague.
‘How about trying to putting soap round the cat’s neck?’ suggested another.
Washing up liquid was produced and squirted between the cat’s body and the pipe and we tried again. Whiskers head still would not budge.
‘This is silly’, said one of the firemen ‘We can’t do much with six foot of pipe getting in the way. We’ll have to cut the pipe near the cats head and then we can have a go from both ends’.
The station officer turned to me: ‘I agree. We have a small workshop at the station. With your permission I suggest we return there and have a go at cutting the pipe’.
Poor Whiskers was once again paraded outside and the owner, crew and myself squeezed into the rear cab of the fire engine and drove the short distance to the Fire Station with the pipe across our laps and a fireman cradling Whiskers. We retreated to the workshop. The pipe was positioned in a vice and a heavy duty hacksaw appeared so that the laborious job of sawing through the thick cast iron could begin. I held and stroked the rear end of Whiskers to try and keep him calm as it was going to take a long time with the firemen having to take turns as they got so hot in the confined space and needed a rest, as did poor old Whiskers. Amazingly he was very still throughout the operation probably dazed by it all and I had to keep checking to make sure he was OK. Eventually it was sawn through and the long section of pipe was reduced to just a foot of pipe. Seeing light now for the first time Whiskers made more valiant attempts to free himself. The firemen took turns staring into the pipe and we could at last see the face of poor old Whiskers pitifully staring out with scared eyes. His head still would not dislodge so after considerable discussion and a multitude of suggestions, it was decided that the only way of finally releasing him was to now try and saw the pipe lengthways and prise it apart. This was going to be a very delicate job if we were not to hurt or injure him so the first priority was a tray of steaming cups of tea to give everyone the strength and fortitude for the task aheed.
The agitated Whiskers had to endure a further 40 minutes of sawing during which time he was getting hot, agitated and shocked, so at every opportunity we gave him time to rest and calm down. We were also getting very hot and bothered by the time the pipe was finally sawn through. Then using chisels and brute strength the pipe was gradually prise apart slightly which allowed extra space and suddenly after three hours of work, the head and front leg of Whiskers popped out into the open.
There were cheers all round as he came free and a lot of self-congratulation. I placed Whiskers on the floor where he worryingly panted for breath for a few seconds before shaking himself. He then scratched his neck a few times and sat nonchalantly licking his front paw which had been trapped for so long. The owner was overjoyed and scooped him up for a cuddle. A quick check over showed that the only injury he had suffered was a couple of grazes on his neck and probably a very stiff leg by the morning. The owner was given the offending top of the drainpipe as a souvenir. Another round of tea appeared from nowhere and the obligatory saucer of milk was placed in front of Whiskers. Then everyone sat around excitedly talking about the night’s events. Looking round the faces of the assembled firemen, who must have been a hardened lot with the terrible incidents and sights they had to deal with on a daily basis, it never ceased to amaze and gratify me how much joy and satisfaction they appeared to get out of rescuing a helpless animal.
Copyright 2021 John Brookland/Bitzabooks.com