It was more than 20 years ago that I first discovered the existence of ‘the Factory Cat’. I was working as a personnel officer in an engineering company located at the foot of the Pennines in the north west of England, and experiencing my first taste of shop-floor life.
The company employed over 200 manufacturing workers across the full range of fabrication, fitting and finishing shop activities, and the burly workers of this small industrial town were typical of the time – militant, chauvinistic, suspicious of management and uncompromisingly blunt. I had not been there long, and crossing the shop floor was still something of a nightmare, as the men would peer round their machines at me, banging their spanners in synchronised rhythm with the tapping of my high heels.
On one particular morning, however, the spanners were silent. I could see a large crowd of men huddled in a quiet corner, while two or three of their number appeared to be tending to something on the ground. Thinking that there had been an accident, I walked towards them, and the mass parted to let me through. On the floor lay a huge grey and white barred cat, clearly pregnant and apparently very distressed. A couple of men I recognised as normally surly plate shop staff, were stroking her heaving sides, and making odd comforting noises to encourage her in her labours. The factory foreman appeared at my side, looking very sheepish and clearly wondering what the reaction of ‘management’ would be to this hitch in the day’s production.
I phoned the vet and within a short while he appeared in the office reception area, from where he was escorted over the bridge adjoining the office block and the factory. Half an hour later, with the cat safely producing yet another family, the vet called in to my office on his way out.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life!” he confided. “I had twenty or so well-built chaps glowering silently over my shoulder throughout the whole procedure. I think they’d have lynched me if anything had gone wrong.”
And so I made the acquaintance of the ‘Factory Cat’. She didn’t have any other name, but I was told she had been resident there for eight or nine years. She performed a sterling service controlling the mice which would otherwise have run rife, and in return she would enjoy the odd tin of cheap cat food, an occasional saucer of milk, or any scraps she could cajole from the mens’ lunchtime sandwiches. On a cold winter’s afternoon she would stretch out on an oily blanket, strategically placed under the huge hot air duct, which served as the only form of heating in that draughty hall of production.
A few weeks after this event Factory Cat’s kittens had, as always, been found good homes among the workers’ families and she returned to full mousing duties. I made a point of calling to see her every time I had occasion to cross the shop floor, and perhaps because she knew I had persuaded the company to meet the vet’s bill, she would tolerate my attentions with a throaty purr, kneading claws and narrowed eyes.
During my second year with the company, a new finance director was appointed, and once I realised that he was something of an animal lover, I approached the subject of having the cat ‘put on the payroll’, as it were. After two or three attempts, he finally agreed, and ‘Factory Cat’ became officially entitled to a tin of cat food each day, together with a saucer of milk A cash allowance was drawn by one of the fitters every month in advance from personnel department. She also became entitled to ‘reasonable medical expenses’, although given her libido, paid maternity leave was out of the question.
Some time later, following a spectacularly vicious fight with another cat looking for comfortable lodgings in the factory, the company paid to have Factory Cat’s damaged and now useless eye removed. She was unmoved by her loss, and when the fur grew over the wound she continued to survey her domain with the impudent air of someone caught in a permanent wink.
Eventually Factory Cat grew too old to go mousing, and I too turned a bind eye when I noticed that an apprentice mouser appeared to have been taken on. It was never clear whether Factory Cat had personally appointed her successor, but to my knowledge she had never allowed any other cat onto her patch before. The men didn’t ask for more money, but I knew they were financing the newcomer from their own pockets, in order that Factory cat could enjoy her retirement in peace and comfort.
Son of Factory Cat soon became a permanent fixture, and athough he was never permitted onto the grubby blanket beneath the hot air duct, he and his mentor were regularly seen together, as he was taught the tricks of the trade. I was never sure whether he really was the son of Factory Cat, though with the exception of having a full complement of eyes, he very much resembled her with his grey and white stripes.
Eventually, one dark November Monday morning, Factory Cat’s body was found under on the lathes where she must have crawled to die over the weekend. There was a grim mood in the factory that day, and at lunch time a few of the men took her out and buried her on the spare land at the side of the factory, where she had spent many an idyllic summer afternoon dozing, with the sun warming her oily fur. It was some weeks before it was once again safe to speak of her on the shop floor.
- Next month, we finish the story and hear how Son of Factory Cat assumes the duties and entitlements of his position.