Ten-year-old George, who could barely hold a conversation or even smile, would learn to communicate, laugh and show affection for the first time, thanks to his relationship with the cat he named Ben.
‘Ben changed our lives for ever,’ says single mother Julia, 37, who now works for two cat rescue charities in her home town of Hounslow, South-West London.
‘While George will always struggle in many ways, I believe the love he has for Ben — and the way it helped bring George and me much closer together — saved us both.’
As Julia will admit, by the time Ben arrived in their lives four years ago, she desperately needed help. She fell pregnant at 22, becoming a single mother to an autistic child.
The black and white stray that wandered into the garden of their two-bed semi was a straggly mess and Julia took pity on it, leaving out food and water and letting it sleep in her shed but Julia was determined they wouldn’t keep it — she knew from experience that he quickly got bored of pets.
Six weeks later, after she had taken the cat to the vet to recover, everything changed. ‘The vet invited us to come and see the cat, and George called out “Benny-boo!” in a high sing-song voice I’d never heard before.
So they took the cat home and to her delight, George’s conversations with Ben continued, getting more imaginative every day. He began to tell Julia about the colourful lives Ben had lived before. It was the first time she had known her son to use his imagination in ten years. She also noticed, through his interaction with Ben, that George had picked up things she’d taught him over the years, from historical facts to lessons about manners.
Not only did George’s personality change at home, but at his special school, too. He made his first real friend, a boy called Arthur, and became affectionate towards Julia.
‘One night, George had been playing with Ben when he climbed up next to me on the sofa and rubbed his face into me, the way Ben did with him. When I quietly asked what he was doing, he said he was “showing me love” like Ben did. I was so overwhelmed — I didn’t even think he knew what love was.’
Life kept getting better: George progressed at school, starting to grasp reading and writing and Julia organised a dream holiday to Egypt but, two days into the trip, in September last year, disaster struck. A call came through from George’s dad Howard, who had been housesitting. ‘He said: “Julia, the cat’s gone.” Ben had disappeared .
‘I got off the phone and burst into tears. I had to tell George what had happened. His face dropped and he walked off, then reappeared a minute later with his packed suitcase and said: “Take me home”.’
‘My happy boy had disappeared along with Ben. I worried about our cat, that he was cold and hungry or, worse, dead, but I was also desperate to get my child back. I had to watch him get ready for school, tears rolling down his face. Nothing I said helped.’
Determined to find Ben at any cost, Julia began a relentless search.
The lowest point came after almost three months, when she was called out to a nearby road where a black-and-white cat had been killed by a car. It wasn’t Ben, but she felt he’d suffered the same fate.
George still asked every day whether she had found the cat, so she decided to tell him Ben was dead. But, before she had chance, just three days later on December 21 the phone rang.
‘A lady from Brighton said she had found the cat. I thought it was another hoax, but she told me she’d got my details through Ben’s microchip. Her daughter had found him shivering in their garden.’
Brighton was under 7in of snow, but Julia left George with his dad and set off. After a difficult five-hour jouney, she finally reached the snow-covered house, brightly lit with Christmas decorations. ‘I had palpitations as I knocked on the door at midnight. The family greeted me with a smile, but all I wanted was see my cat.
‘Behind a table, I saw a black nose poke out, and he came running into my arms. It was Ben — the same white bib and white stockings on his back feet. I sat on the floor crying and hugging him.’
At 4am, Julia burst back through her front door with Ben in her arms!
Julia will never know how Ben could have travelled 70 miles to Brighton, she suspects he was put in a van as a cruel joke, but is just thankful to have her cat and George’s spark back.
As George gets older, he uses his cat voice less and his real voice more, although he and Ben are still inseparable. He can now read, write and has made friends at school. He still tells Julia he loves her all the time.
But, as we all know, cats don’t live for ever, even magic ones, so what will become of George when Ben dies?
Julia says: ‘I worry so much about it, but I already have a plan to introduce Ben’s “baby” into our home. Hopefully George will form a bond with that kitten, too. But for the time being, we’re enjoying being a family.
‘We had years of sadness, but now we have enough laughter to make up for the years we lost. Ben isn’t a magic cure for George’s autism, but I can’t imagine life without him.’