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Why I didn’t get my mother a cat, in the end

A cat isn’t much of a substitute for a husband – but it’s better than nothing, and furrier.

By Nicholas Lezard

We have finally decided that, yes, it’s time for my mother to get another cat. It’s not much of a substitute for a husband, but it’s better than nothing, and furrier. We love cats in our family, though my grandmother – my mother’s mother-in-law – was the exception, and would freeze in horror whenever one came into the room, which, in our home, was fairly often.

This was a detail that did not escape my mother, and she was quietly pleased by Grandma’s ailurophobia, for relations between them were always strained, to put it mildly. (She had never forgiven my mother for being foreign, an actress and a divorcée already with one child, nor for being the woman who took her only son away from her. Actually, when you write it down in a list like that, it’s a pretty serious charge sheet.)

Anyway, as I said, we love cats. I know that my own life would be improved by a factor of about five if I had a pussy cat curled up at the end of the bed as I write. Cats like me, too. “This is someone whose idea of living is eating and sleeping, and who can be relied upon to dote on me,” they say to themselves. Not to have a cat is, in my view, a serious deprivation, as bad as not having a girlfriend; possibly even worse. (Not having either is intolerable, and I’d rather not think about it.) My brother is even soppier about them than I am, if that is possible, and my father was soppier about them than either of us. And my mother is no slouch when it comes to loving them.

So off we go, the younger son, my mother and I, to Battersea Cats’ Home on a glorious autumn Sunday. The drive from the Hovel to the animal home is like taking a core sample through her memories of London. She has lived here longer than I have, even though she was a New Yorker before she became a Londoner. I won’t divulge her age, but suffice it to say that your jaw would drop were I to do so. We go through Belgravia, where she lived with my father before I arrived on the scene. I had forgotten this detail. Each chapter of our family history could plausibly, and accurately, end with the words “and then they had less money”, but I’d forgotten that there used to be a fair bit of it. Now I am too scared to look at my bank balance to see how much is left until the end of the month.

We park up in Cadogan Gardens, behind Peter Jones, where my mother used to go for lunch: the show in which she was starring when she got here had given her a little house off the King’s Road. I thought I lived in a posh part of town but Cadogan Gardens makes Marylebone look like Lewisham (for non-Londoners: “pretty ropey”). It is perhaps something of a relief to discover that the restaurant at Peter Jones has nothing whatsoever to recommend it apart from the view, and the tables by the windows are all taken anyway.

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Then, finally, to Battersea, past the rows of obscene new luxury apartment blocks that ruin everyone else’s view and stand as empty rebukes to the evil influence of capital on the city. But we have more important things on our minds. It is important that my son and I are there, too, as this way we may be able to exercise some veto or influence on the naming process. My mother is a first-rate singer and very good amateur artist, but when it comes to the Naming of Cats I suspect she does not, contrary to T S Eliot’s admonition, consider it a Serious Matter.

The first cat she got to name while I was around she called Buppins. The second one was Sweetie-Pie. This was because she called the animal Sweetie-Pie until she could think up a proper name, and she dithered about this for so long that eventually “Sweetie-Pie” stuck. (In my life, I have got to choose a name for two cats and helped with a third. Two were literary references – Simpkin and Horace – a prize if you can remember where “Simpkin” comes from – and the other one was Max, which I think is a rather splendid name for a cat, especially when applied to the beautiful but slightly thick beast it describes. But my mother, as you can see, is capable of anything.)

We never got to pick up a cat. It was a busy day, and all the appointments for interviews had been taken by the time we got there. I gather the trick is to go some time during the week.

In a way, I am grateful for the delay. I remember once hearing a pet shop owner, alarmingly, telling a customer: “Every time you buy a pet, you buy a tragedy.” 

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge