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24 August 2022

Never mind hard-working families – what about occasionally working single people?

I wonder if I should count the cat as a cohabitee. Or what about the wasps?

By Nicholas Lezard

I am back in Oxfordshire looking after the cat named Tybalt. Or, as I call him, The Mighty Tybalt. Once again, he blows hot and cold with me. Last night, while his mother was here, he was all affection. Today, he is aloof. Doubtless he will change his tune when he realises he can’t open the tins of Purina Gourmet Gold “Melting Heart” (with chicken) with his paws. “Melting Heart”? “With” chicken?

That is just one of the big changes round here since the last time I cat-sat, in June, I think. No more the sachets of Sheba, no more the lumps stuck at the end of the packet that can’t be squeezed out, no more the cat food all over one’s fingers after trying. So that is an improvement. Other changes: the lawn is parched. The potted tomatoes are growing massive. The birds have vanished. There are now wasps. And plenty of bumblebees, fat enough to bend the lavender stalks as they forage for nectar.

[See also: Buying a nine-pack of loo rolls, I worry they might outlive me]

We all love a bee, but a wasp? Not so much. They float into the kitchen as I write and just mooch around. Eventually they notice me and potter over to have a closer look. As I am clad only in my underpants, I feel this places me at something of a disadvantage. Just a few seconds ago I saw a movement with my peripheral vision and there he was, hovering around my crotch. My undercrackers are of a loose fit, for one likes the play of air around one’s privates in weather like this, but the idea of a wasp getting inside the folds of my Marks & Sparks gunties and running amok gives me the vapours. And this column is taking longer than usual to write because every five minutes I have to stand up and run away in a panic. I know this is not the best way to deal with wasps but at times like this one’s primal instincts kick in, and what can one do but succumb?

Apart from the wasps, all is calm. That is the idea: I have come here for a change of scene as much as to do a favour for a friend. And also, quite frankly, to save money. My friend A— has left me a few bottles of wine, a large amount of excellent lasagne and some assorted viands in the freezer. This makes a huge amount of difference to the finances. I am facing some life-changing bills and this is even before the rise in energy prices. Moving from Brighton to Oxfordshire for a week isn’t going to change this but there is at least a beneficial psychological effect. (I also relish the mild irony in moving away from the seaside to have a break.)

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For one thing, while in someone else’s house I get to act like a normal person. Last night I did the washing-up without breaking anything; this morning I had a kipper for breakfast; after writing this I think I will have a shower. When the evening comes I shall water the tomatoes. Tomorrow I shall get the bus into Oxford to meet a friend. To look at me, you would not think this is a man on the edge of complete mental and financial collapse. You might think I am doing rather more leaping up from my chair and waving my hands around than is conventional, but I have my excuses.

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I am a bit worried about going to town, though: my budget restricts me to £10 a day, and you try having a decent session in one of Oxford’s excellent pubs for a tenner. And yes, I am well aware that there are people who would dream of being able to afford £10 a day for anything; and it is no consolation that a very large proportion of the country is going to be really screwed come winter.

[See also: Here’s a tip to allay anxiety about the heatwave: receive a death threat]

Which brings me on to that subject which I am sure is being addressed elsewhere in these pages: the Conservative leadership contest. No national spectacle has been as unedifying as the race between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to appeal to 180,000-odd weirdos and cranks – though, of course, we must bear in mind that at present their rhetoric is aimed at this frightening subset of the populace. Surely, neither of them will be as poisonous in office as they are now?

Well, I think yes, they will be. And I don’t hold much hope in the opposition, either. For one thing, the only demographic any politician seems to care about is the “hard-working family”. If I hear that phrase one more time I shall scream. And no one will hear me because I am not a family: I am single; acutely and permanently single. Neither am I particularly hard-working. (My Estranged Wife keeps telling me to get a job in a pub to sort out my financial worries. To which I reply: get real. Or: how many 60-year-olds with no prior experience have you seen pulling pints lately?)

A quick fossick around the internet reveals that, depending on where you live, between a quarter and a third of all households in the UK consist of one person. That’s quite a lot of people no single politician seems to give a toss about. I wonder if I should count the cat, when he deigns to come in, as a cohabitee. Or what about the wasps? At least they are trying to be friendly.

[See also: A tense time – take an M&S bedsheet from its package and there’s no going back]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars