The kitten in the cow-catcher

2014-04-25 00:00

“BUSTED flat in Cato Ridge, headed for the train …”

He was in the engine compartment attending to some technicality, when he heard the student shout.

“Hey, Johnny, come check this out!”

He peered out in time to see the student gesticulating towards a shunting-yard official.

“She kicked a kitten and its run under the train!”

He climbed down and they peered under the engine. The kitten was nowhere to be seen, so, with a couple of choice words for the Transnet employee, he climbed back in and they continued with the shunting.

“Kitty thumbed the diesel down, just before it rained …”

Two rust-orange diesel-electric locomotives were linked to each other and 20 wagons loaded with coal were coupled in front, destined for a factory on the line to Inchanga. Back and forth they shunted until all wagons were in place, and then they moved out of the yard where they waited on the main line for the points-man to give them the go-ahead.

It was some way to their destination, but he had much to discuss with the two students so in no time they were there. John was a respected engine driver with 38 years’ experience and part of his job description was to assist with the training of learner drivers.

They slowed down as they approached the factory, eventually chugging in to drop 10 wagons on the one side before reversing out to uncouple the remaining 10 on the other side. They were about to depart when he heard the yard master call him.

There, between the engine and the first wagon, was a little black kitten with a characteristic white bib and stockinged feet.

“That’s the same kitten I saw at Cato Ridge!” the student bellowed.

“You sure?”

“Of course — no other cat looks like that!” came the retort. He pointed to the distinctive markings.

The kitten was too shocked to move, too scared to run.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, and nothin’ aint worth nothin’ but it’s free …”

John scooped her up and cradled her in his arms. She appeared uninjured, apart from a little abrasion under her chin. They peered under the engine, trying to figure out how she had survived the ride. The only possibility was in the recess behind the cow-catcher. There was just enough room for a petrified kitten to hide, and struts to cling onto, to avoid the chugging working parts of the wheels. He lifted her up into the cab of the loco and shared the chicken from one of his sandwiches with her, then, tummy full, he allowed her to nap in a corner of the cab on the way back to Cato Ridge. She cuddled on his lap in the passenger seat of the mini bus on their journey to their offices at Masons Mill where he kept his car. On the way home, she emerged from her long sleep so he put her in his cubby hole for safety as he hummed a cheerful tune and smiled a benign smile at passers-by. He was happy. He knew Sandra would be delighted with his surprise. The tune soon became a song. He was sure that Kristofferson would not mind if he changed the odd word.

“Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Johnny sang the blues …”

I saw her many months later for her annual vaccinations. She had been sterilised, vaccinated and de-wormed and had been fed premium-quality cat food since he took her home. Her eyes were bright, alert and confident and her coat shone — an absolute picture of health and vitality. She peered around the consulting room with an inquisitive air that revealed nothing of her troubled past. The scar under her chin had disappeared. They had wanted to call her Diesel but she turned out to be a little girl cat so Sooty she became. A much-loved little coal-black cat with a characteristic white bib and stockinged feet.

She purred when I scratched the back of her neck.

“And buddy, that was good enough for me …”

• The Village Vet is a practising veterinarian.


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