Flushed with success at backgammon, I find myself outsmarted by a challenged cat

“The British shorthair is an intelligent cat,” says Pets4homes.co.uk, yet my brother claims his is no smarter than a rock.

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I am about to spend the longest time I have spent in a single place since September: three weeks cat-sitting in Oxfordshire. I’m looking forward to this: put down some roots, befriend the locals, meet a farmer’s daughter, you know the drill.

I am not going to be complacent about my duties, though. I have written in this column about my credentials qua cat-sitter, but last night taught me a bitter lesson. My brother and his most excellent wife had offered me a spare room for a couple of nights, and I welcomed the offer.

In the past I have been slightly reluctant to take up their open invitation, on the grounds that I am slightly uncomfortable with the notion of accepting charity from a younger sibling, but after eight months of living out of a Slazenger bag I have abandoned my pride, or enough of it to offload a good amount of unnecessary weight from the soul.

Anyway, the first evening started pleasantly enough. We ate well, drank well, and after dinner my brother cracked open the backgammon board.

“10p a point?”

As so often when playing backgammon with my brother, or about to, all my years descend on me at once. I relish the role of superior big brother – as long as we stay off the subjects of earning power, living arrangements, and ability to live a life free from bailiffs – but when it comes to backgammon, I’m very much the inferior.

“5p?” I asked. He gave me a look that suggested a certain scorn at the very idea of playing for such paltry sums.

As it happened, after the usual run of losses I started winning. My brother can hold his drink as well as I can – almost – so we were evenly handicapped. By about one in the morning I was 90p up. Don’t laugh: this was unprecedented.

So I decided to call it a night, ignoring his protests, and he went to bed and I went outside to finish my glass and accompany it with a cigarette.

Now, another thing about my brother is that he is, if such a thing is imaginable, even more soppy than I am about cats. He used to have a pair of British shorthairs; very striking-looking, very posh. Also, one of them was run over a couple of years ago, and that was the smarter of the two. “The British shorthair is an intelligent cat,” says the website Pets4homes.co.uk, but my brother confidently claims that the remaining cat is about as smart as a rock, and not one of those rocks that gets the odd question on University Challenge, but one of those rocks that left school at 15 to get a job at Asda.

Having never actually seen this cat do anything stupid myself, I have to take his word for it. And the bottom line is that this cat is never, ever to be allowed out, on the grounds that if even her smarter sibling didn’t have the sense to stay out of the road, this one would probably come to grief in the garden. (Also, the British shorthair is one of the cat-thief’s favourite breeds.)

Anyway, it turns out that this particular cat is smart enough to look all innocent when it suits her to do so, and then take advantage of her owner’s brother’s perhaps somewhat temulent negligence and false sense of bien-être engendered by an unlikely backgammon victory by pushing open the back door and making off into the night.

My first thought was to flee the country, starting a new life in Mexico. I discarded this option immediately, for I am a man of honour. The next couple of hours were spent alternately pacing the garden, and the streets beyond, rattling a box of kitty crunchies.

“Go to bed,” said my brother, a little crossly I thought, but I was determined to atone, and so kept a vigil by the half-opened back door. I was going to stay there as long as it took. As cat owners know, this can be up to two weeks, but I was prepared to settle in for the long haul. I remembered a Peanuts cartoon from the 1960s in its entirety: Lucy hands Snoopy a balloon, with strict instructions not to let it float away. Night falls; Snoopy yawns; the balloon drifts away. And the final panel shows Snoopy, his possessions gathered in a handkerchief on the end of a stick. “Make one mistake,” he says to himself, “and you pay for it the rest of your life.”

After an hour or so the cat strolled in as if nothing had happened, and I said “Cat’s back” to my brother, who was passing a sleepless night in his bed. His tetchiness took a day or so to play out, particularly after I broke the sink, and the next evening’s inter-Lezard backgammon tournament was a furious affair, during which my 90p lead was whittled down to zero p. But my brother eventually calmed down. Thank God the cat I’m sitting at the moment spends most of the time outdoors. 

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 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran