Five-minute Memoir: Michael Holroyd recalls a mischievous feline lodger


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The Independent Culture

I grew up in a house that was crowded with dogs. Most of them belonged to my aunt, though a few of the less popular ones were passed on to my grandmother. As head of the household, my grandfather had to summon the vet from time to time, an excruciating business as he did not trust the telephone and, being unable to see whom he was speaking to, would raise his voice, making him sound very rude.

Money was scarce and, if I was off-colour, my grandfather would take the vet aside, offer him a glass of sherry (which he knew would not be accepted) and then ask him, man to man, about "the boy" – which was me. Was there something we should get from Boots the Chemist to put colour back in my cheeks? My aunt got her novels from the library at Boots and could easily pick up some syrup or a tonic for the boy. When he did have to call on a doctor to see me, he would question him in a whisper about the dogs' health.

Maybe it was because I felt these dogs were getting more attention than I was that I grew up preferring cats. I have never owned a cat – or any animal come to that – but I will usually stop and have a few words with any I meet in the street or see wandering along garden walls. The places they perch amuse me – a ginger one down the road likes to sleep on the saddle of a motorbike.

My favourite cat was Zeus. Despite this god-like masculine name, Zeus was a small black female cat which belonged to my younger stepson Joe. When he and his family went away on holiday, Zeus would come to stay with my wife and me in the country. It did not seem to me an easy journey – lasting, by train and by car, four hours or so.

I would worry a lot while Maggie was doing a lot, putting the purring Zeus into a travelling basket and dealing with any cat bureaucracy for the railways while I gave high-pitched whistles which scholarly research had led me to believe Dr Johnson made to his cat, Hodge.

We had a special game in the country which involved Zeus leaping up and down the staircase as I shuttled a card along the bannister rails. The family archive reveals that she wrote some interesting postcards home copying Maggie's and my handwriting and telling everyone that her main duty in the country was making sure the old couple were awake in time to see the sun rise every morning.

I particularly remember one lunch we had at Joe and Cath's house in London. Zeus liked playing with the children, Stanley and Connie, and after whizzing round the carpets and darting through our ankles she would stretch herself along the back of the sofa and gaze at the world outside. After her lunch she slept in the warm boiler room.

But that day, I remember, she continued playing while we were eating, dashing from room to room in some mysterious cat game.

To add to the party, Maggie had brought some presents in a large canvas bag which she left on the floor in the hall. We put the empty bag in the boot of the car before driving off in the late afternoon. It was Maggie who first became aware that we had a passenger. "Did you hear that?" she asked. Eventually I did hear a small sound, but nothing I could recognise, nothing that showed up on the car's dashboard.

When we reached home and opened the boot we saw evidence that a mouse had been travelling with us and was settling down into the intestines of the car. Obviously it had been playing with Zeus who had chased it into the bag. We brought it a small bowl of water and tried to come up with ways of rescuing it. I suggested that Maggie, who was between novels, might like to write a children's story featuring our mouse. She didn't find this particularly helpful.

A day or two later, still with the mouse on board, we drove to Cambridge where we were spending the weekend with a retired diplomat. The first evening, one or two distinguished academics had been invited and I could not stop myself from telling the story of our mouse – though I think it was interpreted as an entangled metaphor relating to Schrodinger's cat.

Early next morning we saw the rather formal figure of our host, the ex-ambassador, striding secretly out to the car in his dressing-gown with some delicacies.

One day we realised that the mouse was no longer in the car. What had happened we never discovered. But the anxiety it provoked convinced me I had probably been wise never to take on the responsibility of a domestic animal.

Michael Holroyd's new book, 'On Wheels', is published in hardback by Chatto & Windus on 1 November