I've always had a special fondness for fat cats. That's not to say I don't like skinny cats, just that there's something wonderfully, admirably smug about a roly-poly mog looking as well-upholstered as the sofa it's asleep on. Such a sight is one of the hallmarks of a classic winter living room, right up there with an open fire, a half-open book of MR James ghost stories and an elderly relative snoring on an armchair with a string of Werther's Original-flavoured dribble protruding from their mouth. Strangely, when I picture my perfect fat cat, it's always ginger. Perhaps this is because of Thatcher, the boundlessly welcoming, rotund ginge owned by the stepdad of my primary school friend Daniel (a staunch Tory), or perhaps it's because of Samson, the even bigger redbody who currently lives across the road, or maybe it's just that there's something particularly plush and aesthetically pleasing about flame-furred obesity.
When Dee and I got him in spring 2005, there wasn't anything particularly fleshy about Pablo. In fact, he was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a sorry wretch. He'd been living wild, in a large derelict house, with numerous friends and casual life partners, some of whom also happened to be his siblings: a kind of feline equivalent to those slightly backward human neighbourhoods about which people joke that the definition of a virgin is "a girl who can run faster than her brother". Skinny, bony and missing much of his fur, he stayed almost permanently under the bed for the first week he lived with us, and only really started to fill out - both in personality and appearance - a month or two later.
Pablo has never returned to his "Grapes Of Wrath-meets-junkie chic" look of that time - see below - but we've become accustomed to a certain amount of fluctuation in his weight. He's a cat with an enormous appetite - still convinced, perhaps, in his eternally feral way, that every meal could be his last - but his appearance seems to have more to do with the seasons than the amount of meaty slop he crams down his throat. Quite simply, in summer he is lean (although not, in even the vaguest sense, mean), in winter he is chunky, and in spring and autumn he is somewhere in between, but steadfastly heading in one direction or the other. This winter, he's perhaps at his most corpulent ever. And I'm obviously not the only one who's noticed. Shipley and Ralph have always given Pablo a hard time. Their relationship with him is analogous to the kind that two puffed-up, not-quite-as-streetwise-as-they-think city yobs might sustain with a dumb-yet-happy bumpkin. But in the winter they seem more threatened by him - and never more so than this winter. Knowing Pablo's placid nature, the logic at the root of their thinking escapes me somewhat - are they scared that if he grows any bigger he might sit on them? - but it seems that, in cat world, adipose tissue is considered a potentially lethal weapon. Had Grange Hill revolved primarily around characters with whiskers, it seems the school's main bully figure would not have been Norman "Gripper" Stebson but Roland Browning, or anyone else who consumed more than three Mars Bars per breaktime.
There have been occasions in the last couple of months when I've wondered if another, larger ginger cat has eaten Pablo and taken up residence in his place, but I've dismissed this theory on the basis that it would be just too much of a coincidence for that ginger cat to also have a vacant, idiotic stare, a penchant for headbutting people's wrists, and an inability to properly put his tongue away. Another theory is that Samson from across the road has surreptitiously taken his place. However, I know this is not true because in the last few days I have spoken to Jonathan, Samson's current caretaker, who has informed me that he is currently moping about in the large Georgian house opposite us, sapped of his archetypal, jiggly lust for life.
A fortnight ago, Samson's owner, Jeanne, died of cancer, and now Jonathan, who's Jeanne son, is trying to find him a new home. Jeanne was a lovely, well-read woman whose New Year parties brought the neighbourhood together and who, into her late eighties, still seemed amazingly intellectually sharp, and lit from within by unused energy. When I close my eyes and think of the phrase "ideal neighbours", I essentially picture a dozen versions of her, surrounding my house in every possible direction.
With this in mind, there is nothing I would like better right now than to take Samson in, but I have to look at the situation practically (still very much a learning process for me, when the subject is cats). Just this morning, Shipley was in one of those obnoxious moods that always seem to overtake him when he's been out in a rainstorm and looking for someone to blame for his misfortune. His first act upon entering the house was to step up onto the rungs of the weird, rubbery unaccountably cat-friendly stool we inherited from Dee's grandma*, where Pablo was sitting, and start shouting all sorts of abuse in his face for the mere crime of existing. What would happen if there was a heavier rainstorm, and Shipley came in to find an even larger, less easily intimidated ginger cat on the same stool? What if Ralph came up the stairs one day to be confronted by a ginger cat possessing three, rather than two, times the quantity his own backfat? A few years ago, before he got too big and lazy, Samson used to come into our house and help himself to the contents of our biscuit dispenser**, and the reaction to his presence amongst my cats was not favourable (Shipley's famous mohican was only higher the time that Dee attached a lead to his collar as an "experiment"). Then there's the fact that we have only just about got a small territory-marking problem - a kind of waz relay involving The Bear, Janet and Pablo - under control. As Dee sagely pointed out, were we to take Samson in, the answer to the question "How much cat piss will be in our house?" will probably be best answered by another question. Namely: "How much cat piss is in our cats?"
After a bit of word-spreading at Dee's workplace, we've managed to find a couple of cat-lovers who might want to add Samson to their animal family. We are hoping to take them over to meet him this weekend. Until now, I've deliberately avoided going to pay my respects to Samson, knowing the dangers it could lead to. I hope Louise and Daniel might be able to find a place for Big Ginge in their home. If not, there is one other person who might be able to take him in. Failing that, I might be facing my biggest feline-related test of willpower since I visited the Celia Hammond Animal Trust in Canning Town four years ago. (A day when I looked into my own soul and asked it some searching things. Most pertinent of them perhaps being: "How many cats can a person reasonably take with them on the 5.30 train from Liverpool Street to Norwich?".)
* Not currently available from high street pet shops.
** Our cats' biscuit dispenser, that is - not ours; that only usually contains crackers and the odd neglected Jacob's Club, and I hear on the grapevine that Samson is strictly a HobNobs man.