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11 April 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 8:35am

Free lodging, dodgy late-night snacks, and cats – at last, a job I’m qualified for

All you need to know about cats is that they will tear your heart out, metaphorically if not literally, for a pouch of Whiskas Dreamies. 

By Nicholas Lezard

What with one thing and another, I have been doing a fair amount of cat-sitting lately. This, it turns out, is quite the career opportunity for the indigent, homeless gentleman or gentlewoman. There are, I gather, numerous agencies where someone without a criminal record and with a few decent references can be sent off to look after people’s cats for days, weeks, or even months. My criminal record is squeaky clean – the unfortunate business with the LSD outside Buckingham Palace in 1982 has long since been resolved – and I don’t foresee any problems with getting references from people who can attest to the fact that not only do I like cats, but cats like me. That’s the harder part.

It’s not too hard, though. Take, for instance, the case of one cat, whom I will call J— to protect her identity. J— is a black, white and orange tortoiseshell of around 12 years old. She will not sit on your lap. If you stroke her she will undulate her body so that contact with your hand is minimised. (But she does like being chucked about the cheeks and the bottoms of her ears. That’s fine.) She will consent to be picked up and held by this writer’s eldest son, because she knows that he is the one who will be the first to cave in when she looks at him with pleading eyes and, with a cracked voice that would melt the stoniest heart, says, “Mew?”

I picked up the eldest son from Euston the other day and the first thing he said when he saw J— was “God, she’s so thin”, and I swear I saw a look of smug triumph on the cat’s face. It said: “This Easter is going to be sweeet.” [sic]

There is what I believe is called a “meme” going around the internet which shows a picture of a cat playing a violin. The caption: “Let me play you the world’s saddest song. It is called ‘I haven’t eaten in over 20 minutes’.” This, essentially, is all you need to know about cats and their manipulative ways. They will tear your heart out, metaphorically if not literally, for a pouch of Whiskas Dreamies. (In J—’s case, the feeding issue is slightly complicated by the fact that her dry food, which is stored in an old ice cream tub for extra confusion, looks exactly like Rice Krispies, and I gather that one of the dimmer lodgers has already made the inevitable mistake. I can’t mock: I’ve nearly done it myself, several times, especially towards the end of the evening, when one feels like a snack before bed.)

The other cat I have written about before. Mrs P—, a Persian of venerable years, has another approach when it comes to vocalising her dietary requests. Instead of J—’s plaintive, heartbreaking “Mew?” (sometimes reduced to the barest gasp, for extra effect), what she delivers, as do all Persians (cats, not people), is an extremely loud, grating “OWWWW” that has the effect of galvanising the nearest human to action on the grounds that, as with a crying baby, the noise is so unpleasant anything must be done to make it stop. If J—’s little noises contain all the soft tears of the universe, then Mrs P—’s howls contain all of its pain and outrage.

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Naturally, Mrs P—, a particularly cossetted cat, does not eat anything so vulgar as Whiskas Dreamies. Well, she does, but much in the way as you or I would eat what we think are Rice Krispies as a snack when we have the munchies. What Mrs P— lives on mainly are 60g tins of John West tuna steak “with a little spring water”.

Unfortunately, what with being a Persian, Mrs P— has no nose, so when she eats she tends to push half the food out of her plate instead of scoffing it, which means that the kitchen in her vicinity becomes something like an exposed landfill pit of drying tuna fish. If it were outdoors, or I left a window open, seagulls would be fighting over it.

There are other cats. I believe I have mentioned O—, an extremely wise and beautiful cat, at least as old as Mrs P—, who remembered me even though I hadn’t visited for four months. She said hello to me before she said hello to her mother. What splendid manners!

So that’s it. I’m going to become a professional cat-sitter. I weary of this writing lark, there’s no money in it. (Apart from this column, of course. I’m not giving that up.) “FREELANCERS, INDIVIDUALS WORKING FROM HOME AND RETIREES ARE PARTICULARLY WELCOME!” it says in shouty caps on one cat-sitting website. Well, I am nothing if not freelance, so wa-hey. “Able to follow detailed instructions. Must be organised.” Hmm. “Must be able to self-manage.” Also hmm. “Must be passionate about animals and have owned a cat/cats for a minimum five years.” Oh yes. I’m in. 

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This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire