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Cool cat

19 May 2006

4:59 PM

19 May 2006

4:59 PM

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My sister and I never had pets as children, or rather we had them but they didn’t tend to last very long. Indeed, no sooner had some dumb animal entered the house than my mother seemed to be making plans to get rid of it. The raven itself was hoarse that croaked the fatal entrance of Hammy the Hamster under our battlements.

Hammy was a rather sweet brown and white creature who spent much of his time sleeping and the rest of it going round and round on his treadmill. It can’t have been much of a life and he eventually escaped; my sister and I, distraught, demanded a replacement. This turned out to be a hamster called Honey, who somehow lacked Hammy’s sweetness of nature. Honey was just dull. She slept even more than Hammy and seemed reluctant to climb on to her treadmill — and who, in retrospect, can blame her? When she escaped there were no tears shed and no demands for a replacement.

But there was a brief moment of happiness for Hammy and Honey. Hammy, it turned out, had taken refuge in the cupboard under the stairs. And when Honey made her dash for freedom, she made for the same sanctuary. A few weeks later, my mother heard squeaking noises from within, and found Hammy and Honey and a newspaper nest of little baby hamsters, ‘horrible bald, blind creatures’, if I remember her description aright. Mum got rid of the happy hamster family. She insists she gave the brood to friends. I’ve always believed that she flushed the lot down the lav. That was certainly the fate of Lizzy the lizard, another brief visitor to the Spencer residence, and we certainly never saw the hamsters again.

Then there was Pookie the cat. Pookie wasn’t actually our cat, but a cat we were supposed to be looking after for some neighbours. Entrusting the animal to our house was a little like sending a beloved child to Dotheboys Hall. Pookie, it has to be said, wasn’t a nice cat, or perhaps she just knew she had landed a bum berth and was sulking. No, it was more than that. There was something evil about her, as there is about some cats.

One day, my sister and I came home from school to find that Pookie was no longer with us. It turned out that she had deposited some worms on my sister’s bed, and that was enough for Mum. She took her straight to the vet’s and had her put down. Presumably, worming remedies existed in the early Sixties, and I find it hard to believe that any vet who had taken the animal equivalent of the Hippocratic oath would dispatch a cat for so minor a complaint. But then my Mum can be a very determined woman. I suspect that the vet finally reckoned he wasn’t going to get a moment’s peace until he did the deed. Perhaps he didn’t like Pookie either. There really was something intensely disagreeable about her. Just thinking about her now conjures a ghost of feline malignity, more than four decades on.

Memories of Pookie meant that it took me a long time to come round to the idea of owning a cat myself, though as folk wisdom has it, you never really own a cat anyway, a cat owns you. Mercifully, Nelson couldn’t be more different from Pookie. He’s a very cool black-and-white cat indeed, funny and brave and affectionate. When we go away and have to leave him in the care of others (not, I hasten to add, to the tender mercies of my Mum), his purring joy when we return is almost unbearably touching. Mind you, the following day he’ll remind you of how cruel you have been to him by giving you a good scratch or a sharp bite, just so you don’t do it again. I regard such wounds as love bites.

Now Nelson, by and large, likes music. The Mozart piano concertos are a particular favourite, and he has been heroically tolerant (more tolerant than me, in fact) of my son’s playing of the French horn. But he can’t stand jazz, my latest passion. Just a bar or two of hard bop and he’s off. I told my wife and son about this and they insisted I was making it up. So I invited them and Nelson into my study, more salubrious now I have given up smoking, though a nasty acrid smell still lingers 100 days on, and put on the Andantino of Mozart’s ‘Jeunehomme’ concerto played by Mitsuko Uchida. Deep peace from a prone Nelson. I replaced the Mozart with Miles Davis and he was out of the place like a cat out of hell. I suspect it’s the high trumpet notes he objects to, but I regret that my cool cat isn’t also a hep-cat.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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