Last year, in June, we had an enormous 13th birthday party that included canapes, a meal, presents and a three-tier birthday cake complete with candles and icing. We dressed up (my dad wore the Hawaiian shirt he sets aside for such occasions) and sat at the large table in the conservatory; the one reserved for important events. The whole family was there, and it was very clear that for my parents, this was the most important event of the year.
For anyone who knows my mother, it should come as no surprise to discover that the birthday party was for the cat. Whilst everyone sang Happy Birthday, the subject of the rendition sat on her favourite fur-encrusted chair in the conservatory, meditatively licking her backside and occasionally looking at us with something resembling pity.
My mother’s cat obsession is all-encompassing. Her house contains a life-size portrait of the cat sitting demurely on a chair, like one of those stiff photographs of Victorian children. The cat inevitably has her own room (actually it’s more of a suite – the conservatory has a small bathroom attached to it), chairs that no one else can sit on, and a daily routine so respected that it will cause my parents to delay or cancel ill-timed plans if they risk violating it. Whenever she hisses at or scratches anyone, the immediate reaction is typically, “Oh, poor baby!”. The experience of ploughing one’s claws through skin and tissue is, I expect, rather traumatising if one happens to be a cat.
I myself admire the particular dignity of cats. I like the merciless way in which they ignore the desperate efforts of their owners to gain their favour or entertain them. Their ability to earn the adoration of those around them whilst making absolutely no effort is inspirational. I have a cat of my own named Jessica – she’s named after a snowgirl I built when I was two (though when I want to impress people, I tell them that she’s named after a character in The Merchant of Venice – her doppelganger in Islandia is named Ophelia and belongs to Joanna). I even find myself falling into some of this cat worship. This is the first paragraph of my cat manual, designed for those who have been tasked with minding the cat whilst we are away:
Congratulations! You have been selected to take care of the most important cat in the world. Whilst her full first name is Jessica, suitable nicknames include Jessie, Jess, JJ, Miss Beans, Beanie and Rita. If you wish to register a new nickname, a verbal request is required no less than half an hour before you plan to use it. Offensive or demeaning nicknames will be blacklisted and you may be subject to a fine.
Anyone who takes care of her will also have to participate in a compulsory Jessica-specific tour of the house, which includes such fascinating stops as her food cupboard, her litter tray (actually an old washing-up bowl that she took a shine to some time ago) and the carpet cleaner we use for cleaning up her vomit.
But anyway, my parents’ cat’s birthday is coming up again soon, and I have no doubt that her 14th birthday party will be just as lavish as her 13th. I will let you know…