They say cats have nine lives, but what happens when those are lived out? Sheila, 57, has ensured that the legacy of her beloved cats can remain very much alive in more unconventional ways. She really is a true cat lady.
Sheila and her husband Ron see their cats as no less than part of the family. Their first pet cat was found at the end of the garden in the garage by her two sons having just moved house. All covered in grease and oil, they rescued her. “She made her way in, made herself comfortable and we couldn’t turn her away,” reminisces Sheila. From this point their lifelong love affair with cats began. At one time there were six cats, all of which Sheila claims spent most of their time indoors with her. “My eldest son moved out when he was nineteen and the other one soon after. Ron was at work most of the time, so they were my family. They were always around me.”
Sensing a theme, Sheila’s retro-inspired house with authentic Jukeboxes galore is a marker for many of her cats names: Toffo, Twizzle and Spangle to name just a few. Apart from her British Blue, all of her cats have been Persians. “I took a liking to them because they were long-haired and always looked a little bit sad.” She mused about their six-day grooming schedule, Sunday being her only day off. Sheila refers to the cats as “the girls”, and asks if I would like to see their room upstairs. Here, it is even more apparent here how spoilt and well-loved her cats have been. A jungle of plastic trees and climbing frames is, as she puts it, her cats’ “haven”. “When there used to be six up cats there, we’d hunt high and low for them because they’d all hide in little crevices. I couldn’t go to work until I’d found them all! But they used to love it up there.” On the wall is a letter dated 2001 from Harrods, thanking Sheila for sending a picture of her cats living the life of luxury, laid out on a four-poster-bed she had bought from the store.
Moving further into the room, I am met by the gaze of a full-scale Tutankhamun-esque sarcophagus in all its lavish gold glory. She recalls the rigmarole around getting the heavy coffin home in the car and up the stairs. Her sons, who she claims to be ‘minimalists’, couldn’t believe what their mum had bought home this time. The sarcophagus is unexpected and staggering. Yet its somewhat intimidating presence is changed as Sheila unhinges it, and opens it up. Originally sold as a bookcase, a small series of windows reveal a shrine to each cat she has lost. Relics have been lovingly arranged around each urn. The tribute to couldn’t be more fitting, especially considering the links to Egyptian social history where cats were held in the highest esteem. They even worshipped a Cat Goddess, often represented as half feline, half woman. Naturally, Sheila welcomes the ‘cat-lady’ title.
Leaving the sarcophagus open, she continues to speak about her late pets. Sheila’s tone changes and her eyes well up in thoughtful reflection, “All of my cats have lived to a grand old age. Yet when we lose one, we have to go through a mourning process.” At the chapel of rest, she embraces the cats and takes pictures of them. She worries this might appear strange, but continues, “when I receive the ashes, I leave them out for the night for the other cats to sleep around.” Ultimately the ashes are given a place inside the sarcophagus. “Now and again Ron and I will get them out, and we’ll dust them all. I still can’t read the poem that we were given for each and just moving the things around you think about the silly little things. At least in the coffin they’re all together.”
Adoration for her feline family also takes pride of place across the rest of the house and even on Sheila’s persons. Hand-painted plaques commissioned by an artist hang above the stairs and a series of picture plates in the kitchen. Around her neck is a diamante locket filled with the fur-balls of her late cats, almost reminiscent of Victorian mourning jewellery where a lost loved one’s hair would be weaved into pieces of jewellery as tribute. If mourning is synonymous with grief over the loss of someone, Sheila has shown that her cats are more than just animals. For Ron and Sheila, their cats are “extended family” and she will continue to cherish the time she has with her two remaining cats. The only thing her husband implores is that the sarcophagus stays exactly where it is, for the sake of his poor back!
Photography by Jayne Lloyd
Words by Alice Freeman