Saturday 24 February 2007

The Simple Life

As I get older, I find that I am less and less of a holiday person. This is partly because, as an insomniac workaholic aviophobe, I view my leisure time as too valuable to waste on white-knuckled plane journeys and dubious sleeping conditions. When it’s time to go away, I don’t just pack my suitcase, I pack the mental baggage of past aborted inter-railing holidays, farcical encounters with bullying gendarmes, lightning strikes on planes, food poisoning and broken-down trains.

My anti-vacation stance dates back long before I lived in a house overrun with cats, but I find that pet ownership has only solidified my position. Each time D and I take our somewhat parochial annual break, we leave with high hopes. For almost two days, we’ll swim, hang around in museums, and marvel at being able to walk on grit-free carpets, without so much as a mention of Pablo, The Bear, Shipley, Janet, Delawney or Baby Bear. But on the second night, one of us – usually me – will ask, “Do you think the pusses are ok?”. For the next twenty four hours, our worries – “What if one of them has been locked in a shed?” “What if one was in a fight and needed to get to the vets to have an absess removed?” – will feed off one another, until, typically, before the third day is complete, we will decide to head home, assuring ourselves that we are not just doing this because we are terminal wimps, and that “Being at home without working is just like a holiday anyway.”

The way I see it, three days is the perfect amount of time for a holiday to work its refreshing magic without getting tiresome, and the exact amount of time I can humanly hold out without checking my email. It is also the amount of time one of our more moronic cats can reasonably be trusted to go before getting into a scrape or messing life up for its siblings. This was exemplified in 2001, when D and I returned from our honeymoon to find that, while we were away, someone had managed to flip the plastic catch that locked the cat flap from the inside. We hadn’t insured ourselves with an emergency litter tray, so the living room floor needed some serious detergent action after that, but all credit goes to The Bear, who we found sitting in the bath whimpering, obviously in the last stages of a drawn-out exercise in mind-over-bowel meditation.

When people tell me “cats are independent animals that can look after themselves!”, I can’t help but immediately wonder if they have actually ever owned any. Although I usually give mine wet food out of sachets once every day or two, most of their sustenance is in dry, biscuit form, and comes out of a plastic dispenser called - rather arrogantly, I think - the “Zenith”. (Zenith of what, exactly? Cheap tupperware pet food dispensers? Even more confusingly, its water-dispensing counterpart, made by the same company, is called “The Nadir”. Do the manufacturers know something we don’t? That dry food and water represent the respective high and low points of feline existence, for example? Or did they just like the sound of the words, and not bother finding out what they meant.) In theory, this will stay full for at least a week, but there’s always the likelihood that Janet will puke in the “trough” bit of it. This will inevitably result in The Bear, Baby Bear, Pablo and Delawney going on hunger strike, and Shipley staging a protest by tearing up every tissue box in the vicinity.

I am well-schooled in the early warning signs of Janet’s vomiting fits now. If I’m in another area of the house and hear a sound like a blocked waste disposal, it will usually be too late to avert disaster, but if I’m in the same room and I see him looking like he’s getting ready to re-enact the video to Break Machine’s ‘Street Dance’, I can frequently slip a bit of cardboard beneath his chin just in time. All my cats have been known to heave, but mostly only in isolated bursts, and with obvious causes. In Shipley’s case, an overambitious munch through a denser-than-expected paperback will sometimes result in digestion problems. Delawney might occasionally have a bit of trouble after gnawing on a past-its-eat-by-date mouse. The two Bears and Pablo, on the other hand, are largely dry-heavers whose regurgitation tends to be limited to spittle-flecked grass and plant leaves.

But, for Janet, vomiting seems to be just another fundamental part of day-to-day feline life, like eating, sleeping, or bringing twigs into the house via your bottom. He might be bulimic, but, given that he probably weighs more than most full-grown spaniels, I think it’s unlikely.
It’s not as if I can experiment with his diet, and get to the root of the problem that way, either. Where my other cats have their culinary quirks – Shipley is never happier than with his whiskers deep in a bowl of Heinz tomato soup – Janet’s tastes are strictly no-nonsense. I sometimes wonder if it’s because he was raised in a rough part of the East End. But The Bear hails from the same region and, while largely a plebeian eater, he did once have a heady, anarchic day where he ate a whole pop tart followed immediately by some broccoli. Janet, on the other hand, has never experimented in such cavalier fashion, and has only two favourite foods: wet cat food, and dry cat food.

Strangely, considering that he is the cat most liable to cause damage around the house while we’re away (his short yet surprisingly expressive tail has caused the demise of half a dozen items of crockery over the years), Janet is, most of the time, the one member of my animal family that I feel most confident about leaving to his own devices. Unlike Delawney, he has never had a noticeable “low” period. Unlike Shipley and The Bear, he has never lost a portion of his ear in a fight or reacted negatively to the introduction of a younger, feistier room-mate. Unlike Pablo and Baby Bear, he has never had anything unsightly growing on his skin. Both times I’ve taken him to the vet for non-jab-related reasons, he has miraculously recovered from his ailments by the time he has been coaxed out onto the examination table. Even his puking has a certain exuberance to it. His general okayness means he is often seen as a floater in the cat hierarchy, and I take his presence, and continuing general okayness, for granted. He, above all my other cats, is the one I can never imagine getting old or frail or needy.

But, sometimes, because of this very okayness, I worry deeply about Janet. Occasionally I catch him sitting on the balcony outside our kitchen and staring off wistfully towards the Somerfield supermarket on the opposite side of the lake beyond our garden. I wonder what he is thinking. The answer is probably, “Me see big water, may contain many swimming food, overflown by big flying food, me eat, if could swim and fly and put in yummy jelly, but big bright corporate logo in distance scare me”. On the other hand, he could be thinking about something surprisingly profound, like how long it would take to walk to the Norwich branch of Pets At Home, or why it is he has a nagging memory of once having testicles. Or maybe he is thinking about nothing. It is the latter possibility that plays on my mind.

I have no logical reason to suspect that Janet is brain-damaged, other than that he once leaped out of a third storey window in my old flat in Blackheath, London, in pursuit of a wood pigeon, and might have hurt his skull. Having seen the leap from an adjacent room but not reached the window in time to see Janet’s impact, I am not even sure if he landed on his head, and whether he landed on the concrete path below the window, or the flower bed next to it. He seemed a little woozy afterwards, but was pronounced ok after D and I rushed him to the local surgery. The lack of inherent common sense highlighted by the leap itself also renders any “before and after” analysis of his mental faculties somewhat moot.

But I still can’t help puzzling over whether something changed for Janet that day. When puke has been gushing out of your cat’s throat on a constant basis for the last five years, you tend to fall into the trap of viewing those five years as forever, but I sometimes ask myself whether he used to throw up as frequently before his fall, and every so often I conclude that maybe he didn’t. And wasn’t it a bit odd, when, a few days after his accident, I began to catch him in the communal garden of our flat, lying down companionably with a decrepit neighbourhood fox? “Is this the behaviour of a cat with all his faculties?” I ask myself, in one of my more doubtful moods. “And what about his obsession with head scratching? What exactly is it in there that he want me to get at?”

It could be that my less sanguine cats humour Janet as a human might humour a good-natured lunkhead, but how am I to know that they aren’t really seeing his antisocial dining habits and constant goofing around as the actions of the feline equivalent of a village idiot? The Bear, who has known him the longest, has, at best, had the kind of relationship with him that George had with Lenny in Of Mice And Men – the main difference being that Lenny did not surprise George by leaping off bookcases and landing on his back. For a while, the nascent Shipley looked up to Janet, but now, older and grouchier, he gets a tired look in his eyes when the older cat attempts to revive the play-fighting traditions of earlier years. Delawney has never really stood for Janet’s particular brand of low-brow humour, and keeps his distance, probably seeing his fluffy black mane as a rival to his own, and Baby Bear, while largely comfortable in her dumbo step-brother’s presence, often finds his neck bites get a little overenthusiastic. That just leaves Pablo, my one feral cat.

For the first year of Pablo’s residence in my house, I hadn’t been aware of any kind of relationship between him and Janet. Both cats were like the members of the Big Brother house that nobody notices in the first few weeks, but that always end up being in the final three contestants. They did their work in the margins. In Pablo’s case, this was possibly unintentional. After his initial burst of sidling affection to every cat in the house and the ensuing knock-backs, most of his waking days were spent making sure that Shipley wasn’t around to pounce on him. In the times Janet would jump suddenly onto the bed where Pablo slept, I could see Pablo quickly doing the maths in his hyper-aware semi-wild way (“black fur plus cat equals DANGER”).

Since then, though, a subtle closeness has grown between the two of them. Often, I’ll find them sleeping a foot apart in one of the lesser-used rooms of the house. An hour later, I’ll re-enter the room and notice that Pablo has moved a few inches closer to his big fluffy companion. More recently, they’ve started to nap in formation, splayed legs in perfect symmetry, fur touching fur, and while Pablo will wake up from these sleeps and act like he’s quite embarrassed by the whole situation, it’s obvious he loves it. Janet, meanwhile, seems finally to have found a friend who, if not quite as simple as him on the inside, certainly looks it on the outside. Either that, or he is so retarded that he thinks that, because Pablo is ginger, he must be that fox that he used to pal about with in Blackheath . Do either of these cats know what they are getting themselves into? Possibly not. Can cats, despite their colour blindness, see through to the characters of their colours? I think so. But maybe neither of these things are the issue. This is a love that transcends race, class, and quite possibly, sense.

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