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Wanted: one cat

My usual squalor has been limited by having a cleaning lady, and Razors. But the mice still prance a

We have a cleaning lady. You may well ask what a column calling itself “Down and Out in London” is doing with a cleaning lady, and whether, in fact, it would be more appropriate if she wrote it, but her English is basic, and she comes free with the Hovel, so what can I do? She’s from Romania.

I know a bit about her neighbour, Hungary, but bugger all about Romania, except for the basics about Ceausescu, and that relations with the Hungarians are strained. “I’ve always wanted to go to Romania,” I said once, in an attempt to have some kind of conversation. I didn’t want to mention Transylvania because she might just think: another idiot who’s only heard of Transylvania because he happens to have heard of Dracula. “The Carpathians,” I added, tentatively. Are the Carpathians in Romania?

It was awkward. I am also, I must admit, an incredible slob. Will Self once tried to teach me how to
wipe crumbs and other detritus off a table. “You don’t just dab at the visible stuff,” he said, slowly and clearly. “You use big, sweeping motions like this.” I looked on uncomprehendingly, like a Neanderthal being shown how to fly a helicopter.

Actually, I can tidy up if a lady is coming round. This can even include the cleaning lady. I have begun to understand the mindset of someone who picks the place up before the help arrives. Once, during a long sex drought, I gave up on cleaning my room. What was the point? This meant that when the cleaning lady came round I’d be too ashamed to let her into the room, so I hid under the duvet until she left. Thus the room became even more squalid. Nothing organic, mind, except for the mould at the bottom of the mugs, and maybe the odd nail clipping; but plenty of papers, receipts, books – oh Lord, so many books – clothes (particularly socks), small change, CDs, cassettes, unmentionable fragments of tissue, little items of office stationery I have no use for, like those tiny bits of green string with metal aglets (there’s a good word. Look it up), library cards, playing cards for some reason, letters, bank statements, invitations, cards with little bits torn off the edges for roaches, roaches, packaging for various things, empty or partly empty blister packets of Nurofen, sticking plasters roaming far and free from the comfort of their box, bits and pieces whose provenance and purpose will remain forever an impenetrable mystery. You know, all the normal crap you can expect to pile up around you – only an awful lot of it, and, if you stepped into the room from the normal world, all at once. I now know why I never decorated my post-separation room: it was already decorated. By H P Lovecraft.

Eventually, I pulled myself together. I think it was the day I couldn’t find my own bed. Or the day after I had to use the completely empty spare room next door for a certain nefarious purpose. Also, the kids were coming the day after, and you don’t really want them to think you’re going to pieces. It took me about three hours to clean up, and it’s a small room. Yet I did it, breaking a vicious cycle: your self-esteem goes because you’ve been thrown out of the family home, you let things go a bit, you look at the mess, and now your self-esteem exists only at quantum level you let things go a bit more . . .

These days I am much better. Razors, like all cockney gangsters, is very tidy – they learn it during national service, I think, or prison – and I do not wish to offend him. He doesn’t have to say anything. He just gives me a hurt look, detectable as reproach only by someone who knows him well.

There are still the mice. They were too disgusted to enter my room but they do prance about the place as if they own it. This was endearing when I was lonely and miserable; Mousie was my friend, like Mr Jingles, the mouse in The Green Mile who befriends the convicts on death row. But now I’m not lonely, or miserable, and they’re a nuisance. They once lined up in the living room to watch the telly with us, the cheeky bastards. They poo on the chopping board, as if to say, “Here’s what we think of you and your fucking chopping board.”

I catch the cleaning lady looking at the tiny turds. “Yes, I know,” I say, “we have a mouse.” She shakes her head. “You have many mouse,” she corrects me.
“Er yes, ha ha, we need a cat.”
“No,” she says, “you need more cat.”
I’d be happy with just the one. Unfortunately, the terms of the lease prevent us from having
a pet. Although a cat in the Hovel would be an employee, not a pet. Now, what if a stray kitten known to a reader of this magazine just happened to mislay itself in the Baker Street area, and find its way to a certain house . . . ?

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.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!