I am hysterical with relief: Jaffa the cat is alive and well (if a bit fat)

A Monday afternoon, and I am wondering whether it was wise of me to invite the editor of this magazine to dinner at the Hovel (Laurie Penny, my housemate, thinks it's a super idea, but then she is young, has lived in some pretty disastrous places, and perhaps does not realise that the Hovel lacks many of those amenities that civilised people consider as standard, such as a loo seat that doesn't fall off every time you sit on it) when the phone rings. It is the Estranged Wife, calling to tell me that there has been a Cat Incident.

Jaffa, the family cat, so named because she has the colourings of the eponymous biscuit-sized cake, has taken it into her head to jump out of the Velux window in my daughter's attic room without checking to see if this is sensible.

The EW is at work, and for some reason considers her job more important than running around after this cute but demented fleabag. However, she has made an appointment at the vet anyway, because she knows that the daughter and I would never forgive her if the mog, who doesn't seem to have broken anything, turns out to have internal bleeding.

Anyway, I am in full-on heroic mood - the previous day I took part in a record-breaking tenth-wicket stand (72, nearly doubling our score) for that charming team, the Rain Men, even though I was batting with a broken finger* - and even though I am even more skint than usual, I race over to Shepherd's Bush in a black cab. I text the WIL (we are at least on speaking terms again, which is very nice indeed) and she urges me to take the cat to the vet at once. She is at least as nuts about cats as I am, if not more so.

For some reason, Lezards, down the male line in particular, yet certainly including my daughter, are completely soppy about cats, even though my grandmother was debilitatingly ailurophobic (my mother, her daughter-in-law, always made sure that our two cats were in the house when she came round to visit).

Well, we get the cat to the vet just in time for the scheduled appointment, and without getting into too much of a flap about it, and it turns out that everything seems fine, although she is a little overweight, which doesn't have much to do with anything, except perhaps the force with which she hit the ground, and she is in shock, which you or I would be, too, if we had fallen off a roof. At which point the daughter and I are almost hysterical with relief. Even being gouged for £60 for the privilege of watching the vet stick a thermometer up Jaffa's bum and hearing him say she could lose a little weight doesn't seem like too much of a price to pay.

Pet project

How much of ourselves do we invest in our pets, and why so much? They are our familiars, our tutelary spirits, our household gods, inarticulate repositories of our sense of fortune.

If anything bad happens to the cat, it happens to us by extension. When Philip Pullman invented the idea of the daemon, the animal manifestation of the soul that accompanies people in his imaginarium, he was on to something.

Pets are our links with the world, reminders that we share this planet, that our dominion over animals comes with duties and responsibilities. Such as making a fuss over them and buying them boxes of Go-Cat every so often. (I'm not sure why it's called that. Following a quick crap, Jaffa goes straight off to bed after her meal, usually for 16 hours at a time. It really should be called Stop-Cat.)

The downside of this is that you worry about them almost as much as you do about human beings. In my father's case, more so - even though his cat, whose name is too embarrassing to reproduce for public consumption, is a pampered, truculent snob who has no time for anybody but my father.

I often yearn for a cat in the Hovel, but I would freak out every time I opened the front door, lest it should bolt out into the traffic; I would freak out whenever I went away on holiday (this is a purely academic freak-out, as I can't afford to go on holiday anywhere); and I would freak out lest it should take sick, and perish, or fall off the bloody balcony or something. It is not that funny to think there are sympathy cards to be given to those whose pets have passed beyond the veil. The best one I saw was on sale at an Oxfam shop in Cambridge. It had the words "Pet Sympathy Card" on the front over a picture of a cute, sad-looking kitten. Inside it said: "I'm sorry you have a dog."

*This has, of course, absolutely nothing to do with anything else in this column. I just want to make sure as many people as possible know about it.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.