Apparently, it started with Isambard Nukiln, in 1719, when he returned from the market with a birthday present for his wife, although certain segments of the Nukiln family claim that it was his mother, Granny Tarapill, who chose it. One of the only presents he could afford to give, the little porcelain cat was much loved by Simiah (Isambard’s wife), who dusted it every day. She loved it so much that the next year he bought her another, and another every year until he died in 1767.
By this point there were forty eight little cats lining the shelves, mantelpieces and cupboards of the Nukiln household. Most of them were iterations on the same design; white porcelain with pretty floral designs over them, each in a different pose, each with its own name assigned by Simiah. The eldest was Peskyan, a patient-looking specimen that has stared straight ahead with a bemused smile for 298 years. She sat next to Goryev, a grumpy, curled up cat who looked out at the world from beneath a paw, as if waking from a long slumber to a bright room.
According to the family, the cats from that period were all (but one, a wooden piece carved by Simiah’s brother-in-law in 1745) made in a small factory somewhere on the banks of the Moway, although there is little to suggest where this now-defunct potters once stood. After 1768 (when Simiah’s only daughter, Bethelya, picked up where her father left off, continuing purchasing cats for her mother for a further five years), the style changed slightly, perhaps reflecting a difference in the picker’s taste, but they were all unquestionably still made by that mysterious manufactory.
The Nukiln household has grown little since Simiah’s days, and whilst 297 porcelain cats may not sound like many, they certainly make an impression when displayed in such cramped quarters. After Simiah’s death, Bethelya chose to remember the love her parents showed for each other by buying more cats, and once two generations have done something so obsessively, the next generations have little choice in the matter. The feline statuettes seem to jostle on every available surface, where they are securely fastened with superglue to avoid any accidents (such as unfortunate incident of the murderous house mouse in 1878, where a mischievous rodent knocked three cats to the floor, smashing one and chipping the others; the irony was not lost on the family and the incident is laughed about to this day).
The impact of the scene, to a bystander who might choose to join the family for their dinner tonight (as the public are welcomed to do, given a few days’ notice), is somewhat increased by the scenes that have been constructed from match sticks and cardboard around each cat by successive generations of children. This here is Boris, the grocer, you can tell because of the little pinny he wears behind the fruit stall made from brightly painted papier-mâché. Over here is the doctor, Yulia, with her miniature leather case stuffed with tiny pill bottles. The newer cats are often kitschy, long-necked things with long painted eyelashes and insufferably cute smiles, although just as popular is a more ‘realistic’ shape glazed in bluish gray.
The guest of honour in the Nukiln household tonight will not be one of the visiting humans, but the new ornamental resident, bought this morning. It will sit at the head of the table with a small bowl of milk before it, before eventually being found its lodgings and a blob of superglue. The thirteen current members of the family will discuss the personality of the cat as they eat; what does its voice sound like? Is it bash, clumsy, shy? What are its political leanings? When they know who the new cat is, they name it and then introduce it to each of the other 297 cats, a family member voicing each party as they reveal yawning, curled-up cats in open drawers, excitable lookout cats on the windowsills, truculent kitchen cats and haughty bookshelf cats.
In 2007 the Buentoilliçan Gazette did a piece on the Nukiln family and their fantastic, chaotic home. The reporter asked if they wanted to get a real cat. ‘Oh no, the hair would get everywhere,’ came the reply.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of the Repaired Mandolin
- The Day of Casting Your Eyes Earthwards
- The Day of Classical Curses