The pet I’ll never forget: Tachypuss the cat, who hated being dressed up – but sensationally forgave me | Life and style

I grew up on a bleak and windy smallholding in Cornwall, deep in the Methodist farming hinterland between the Lizard and Land’s End. We had pigs, cows, geese and hens, dogs and cats, 13 acres and no money. Aged eight, I was told I could have my own kitten, and was taken to a tumble-down granite barn belonging to the sister of one of our neighbours. There I fell for a grey-green tabby. Taking him home that Saturday morning, I was the happiest girl in the world.

During lunch a rat-a-tat-tat of potential names gunned out of my mouth in hope of my parents’ approval. Fluffy? Toffee? Each met with gagging noises. Later I played with him as my parents watched the Ascot races on our tiny black-and-white TV. In the mix, running the Coventry Stakes, was a handsome bay called Tachypous (meaning “swift-foot” in Greek). My parents, lovers of Greek and Roman history, seized upon this, and before I knew it my kitten was called Tachypuss.

Johnstone with Tachypuss. Photograph: undefined Supplied image

My brother was often away at school, so our farmyard, barns and fields had been a solitary empire for me until Tachypuss began to follow me about. We clambered over hay bales together and populated wobbling castles made of straw. We were followed through fields by our wonderful pigs and corralled and trapped in the barn by our terrifying geese. Sometimes Tachs and I would “drive” the rusting, three-wheeled John Deere tractor in the homefield to pastures new, or swing on the tyre in the barn. At night he’d lie across my neck, purring loudly, his dense fur smelling absolutely divine.

Being a child who liked styling things, I dressed him up with scarves and little hats I’d made from paper. In the blink of an eye Tachs was turned into Lawrence of Arabia, or the boxer Muhammad Ali. At mealtimes the gangster Al Capone might make a surprise appearance at our kitchen table, followed by a strangely be-whiskered baby in a pram, or perhaps a fortune teller …

These games amused my often taciturn father, who, as well as having an excellent sense of humour and running the farm, was a toymaker. This lifelong passion meant that our Christmas Day sausages were delivered by railway on the kitchen table, and the time my brother and I tried to ride one of our pigs was turned into a model – the girl and boy bouncing on the pig’s back as you turned the pig’s tail.

This is why, for various Christmas and birthday presents, my cat was immortalised as Muhammad Ali boxing the head of our other cat, Kit-E-Kit, or as Al Capone shooting Kit-E-Kit, or as Lawrence of Arabia and his Bedouin friends. The great irony was that Tachs came to hate me. Because of all the hat-wearing, and being made to box someone’s ears, he’d growl if I ever picked him up.

Tachypuss as Lawrence of Arabia and Al Capone by Johnstone’s father. Photograph: undefined Supplied image

But a moment of incredible serendipity redeemed me. Our family moved to Truro when I was 14, taking our pets with us. When I was 17, Tachs went missing. He’d been gone for around three weeks when I was standing outside the garage of a friend’s house, in an area of Truro I’d never been to before. We were laughing and messing about when there was a sudden volley of frantic meowing, and out of the bushes rushed Tachs, who hurled himself up and on me, purring fantastically. He’d recognised my voice. He was saved! I was forgiven! I don’t need to explain what a deliciously beautiful moment that was.

When I left home not long after, my parents moved to the remote Cornish cliffs where, 40 years later, we all live now. Tachs had a lovely old age here. And I will always love him as my great playmate, for smelling so fantastic, for our Great Reunion, and for the way that he inspired my father to make those treasured wooden toys for me when I was a child.

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