On 6 September 2013 I received a panicked call from Marjorie saying that one of our cats had been attacked by two dogs in our own back garden. The attack was interrupted by the intervention of one of our neighbours who crossed our stream, saw the dogs off, and took Dash to the local vet, but it was too late to save him. We spent the weekend putting up posters, and engaging with the local council dangerous animals service (the SPCA didn’t want to know). This threw up quite a lot of responses, identifying the same dogs consistently. We think that the dogs have been moved away – we weren’t able to reach the degree of proof necessary to have them put to sleep.
We chose Dash from the pet shop in Greytown in the Wairarapa – he was only a kitten at the time. We chose him partly because we feared no-one else would (he only had sight in half an eye), and partly because his first act when I picked him up was to climb out of my arms and on to, and over my shoulder, leaving me bent over with Dash sitting triumphantly on my back. Over the next seven years he grew to be a sturdy cat, with a loud meow (he’d shout whenever he came into the house). You wouldn’t have known he was nearly blind if you had seen him in action.
He also established a web presence at Dashkitten.com. Following his death a lot of the followers of the website (the cat blogosphere is a large place) combined to make a collaborative quilt, and commission pictures, and give money to cat charities in his memory.
I have established a pattern of setting a puzzle to mark the passing of one of the household cats, so it was unthinkable not to do one for Dash, whatever the circumstances. The question, as always, was what. If you look at the Cats page on my website, you’ll see we picked up two cats that day, the other being eventually called Dot. Morse Code didn’t play a part in the naming (no, really), but it did occur to me to look at the Code to see what you could do with dashes. And one word that sprang out was TOM (-/—/–). I also noted that ‘dash’ as a dictionary entry had a range of synonyms: a dash for the finish line, dash one’s hopes, a dash of pepper in the soup, as well as the punctuation mark. A versatile word like this lends itself to a set of clues that are presented without their common definition.
There followed a bit of time working out word lengths, and thinking about the structure of the grid – 12 columns was a useful size, as 12 splits down readily into groups of three and two (not that other widths were impossible, but 12 was a gift). Having compiled three 4-letter synonyms, two 6-letter synonyms and an 8-letter synonym, I set to work on the grid. By now, I was already working to mirror symmetry, which arose naturally when I thought about how to lay out the words so that each letter T, O, M was given by one row of the grid.
Since I also knew that the end-point would be to write TOM under the grid, the title also came to mind. After all, what would crossword fans make of being asked to spell CAT? From the title came the idea of adulterating the clues with anagrams of CAT that had to be removed (since they were failed attempts at spelling CAT) before solving. So that set off another compilation, this time of words and phrases that remained words and phrases when ACT or ATC or CTA or TAC or TCA had been removed, and then keeping that list to hand while I wrote the clues, looking for points where I could use one. I wasn’t intending every clue to have one – for one thing, my compiled list was nowhere near long enough; for another, I thought it best to give solvers some toeholds into the grid from normal clues. (I note that the blogger at fifteensquared spotted a couple of non-redundant anagrams of CAT in one other clue, which ceither I nor the editing squad spotted.)
And, finally, this is a very pleasing interpretation of the word DASH in a variety of ways – solvers would not need to know anything of the cat to solve it. But now you do.