One of the oddest and best jobs I have is writing a column for a magazine called The Cat. The quarterly magazine has been going for over 80 years, published by the charity Cats Protection. My column has appeared in the last four years’ worth or so, and until the current issue (which you’ll likely find in that pile on the windowsill in your local vet surgery) has been about Dexter. The latest features Lucy too. If you can find a copy, I really recommend taking a look, because the illustrations they put on my column (called “Walker On The Wild Side, and NO, I didn’t pick that) are just fantastic. We’ve had a couple of them printed on canvas, and they hang on our walls.
Dexter has been missing for three nights now, which he’s never done before. Obviously we’re very worried, and extremely upset, but we’ve done absolutely everything we can, from posters, flyering the neighbourhood, searches, alerting the microchip firm, and contacting local vets and cat homes. I’ve also added his details to the superb Animal Search UK, who use volunteers to look for missing cats in their area. Amazing. You can be one of those volunteers if you want – you just sign up for emails of alerts near where you live.
So, out of sentimentality, while he’s gone I thought I’d post a few of my old columns from The Cat (these are the unedited versions, so expect mistakes). The first couple were based on articles I first wrote here, so I’ve skipped those, and appropriately gone for the third: a piece about how stupid he is. Because wow, is he stupid.
I don’t like to call my cat stupid. I mean, it’s not an entirely fair fight. I’ve the benefit of one of the largest mammalian brains, and at least fifty thousand years of evolutionary improvement since the establishment of symbolic thought. He’s the result of in-breeding and the genetic genocide of domestication, contained in a brain the size of a walnut. Clearly there are good reasons for Felis catus intelligence to be somewhat different than my own. But my cat is /stupid/.
Which is why having just been outwitted by him, I’m feeling somewhat ashamed.
We always knew Dexter is, in the style of so many inadequately sensitive teachers, “special”. As a kitten, watching him lose a fight with a woodlouse was a particularly humiliating sight. It was a long, sad battle, the woodlouse unwittingly taking part in nature’s competition, and yet somehow succeeding in not only not getting eaten, but seemingly defeating a bereft, ignominious creature. Which is to say nothing of the time Dexter decided his only goal should be to eat a wasp.
Watching YouTube you can see very many videos of cats demonstrating extraordinary skill. From the commonplace leaping to operate door handles, to the extraordinary wit and improvisation they can use to reach food, the potential of the pet cat is so very exciting. Dexter meets that potential like the sea meets Birmingham: not without there being an extraordinary accident that neither side ever intended to happen.
We’re talking about a cat who routinely sits in the middle of the (relatively quiet) road outside our house, despite ample pavements either side, and indeed enormous areas of grass and woodlands to explore only metres away, and disinterestedly watches as cars screech to a halt and drive up on the curb to steer around him. That he is alive at all is a sign of either some unknown cat god divinely protecting him (and for what reason I cannot imagine), or proof that the universe is fundamentally unbalanced.
Dexter is the sort of cat who of an early morning will sit outside of a closed bedroom door, wailing – meowing until his voice is but a pathetic rasp – for food, for literally hours, when his food bowl is brimming with the same dried biscuits from the night before that would be added were I to get up. I don’t even need to add any. I need only stumble toward his bowl, mostly asleep and still haunted by dreams of distant crying, make pretend putting-food-in motions, and walk back to my bed. Then it’s, “Thanks John!” and he tucks in to this previously unattainable treat.
He’s never learned to open a door, let alone operate a door /handle/. If a door he sees be opened perhaps seventy-eight times a day is ajar just a centimetre shy of his being able to squeeze through, then he can only sit dejected in front of it, staring uselessly at this unknowable puzzle. If it were a choice between pushing slightly and withering away to a skeleton on the spot, the former wouldn’t trouble a synapse.
The point I’m making is that he’s an idiot. An idiot I love with every atom of my heart, and one who never fails to surprise me with his capacity to be stupid. So tonight, when we were playing in the back garden, it was not a small surprise when he played me.
We were playing the game where I chase after him as fast and noisily as I can, and he scampers off then sproings around to face me, challenging me to charge him again. It’s a good game that gives me much needed exercise, and normally ends in Dexter getting carried away and trying to bite my arm off. But always worthwhile. After a few goes up and down the garden, Dexter having disappeared off around the corner, I was ready to retire. Walking back up the steps from the garden to the house I looked back to see him crouched down on the path, challenge on.
As is traditional, I took exaggerated tip-toe steps toward him, back down the steps. He stared. I raised a leg. He didn’t flinch. I sprinted toward him, arms out like the monster my part in this game is to pretend to be. He stayed absolutely still. Two steps from my stompy feet landing on, him he stepped left and walked through the hole in the hedge he’d deliberately positioned himself in, and taunted me from.
I don’t know what it means. Either his entire life has been one enormous, self-defeating fake of simpleness, or I’m getting dumber.