If I'd known I was going to have a kitten...

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The Independent Culture
THREE things happened last week. One, I hurt my knee and started walking like an old lady; two, we got a kitten; three, I started worrying about the future, with specific reference to finance rather than anything more spiritual.

These things were, of course, related. I agreed to buy the kitten in a weak moment, after resisting my son's pleas to do so for the past few years, because my leg was agonisingly painful and I thought that the kitten might entertain the children, leaving me to lie on the sofa. It was only when she arrived - she was so small and weak that it felt like we had another baby - that suddenly it hit me. All those little mouths to feed! All those responsibilities!

"We've got to get personal pensions, right now," I said to my husband, who looked mildly surprised, given that it was 10 o'clock on a Wednesday night at the time.

"Yes, all right," he said, and carried on stroking the kitten.

"I mean it," I said. "It's really terribly important." And I hobbled over to him, brandishing the business section from a previous issue of this newspaper (something which I tended not to read until the kitten arrived; since then, I've been studying it carefully).

"Look," I said. "Just look at what it says here. No one is going to provide for us in our old age, no one at all." And it gets worse, I told him. There'll be no state pensions by the time we retire, and unless you pick the right one, most personal pensions will be more or less worthless, what with inflation and other factors that I don't understand. Our house will be taken away from us in order to pay for a nursing home; that is, if we've still got a house, because we'll be over the hill and there'll be no jobs and no State safety net, either. Forget those thousands of pounds we've paid in National Insurance contributions: we'll be on the street before we know it, with two unemployed grown-up children and a geriatric cat in tow. And there are our parents to think of, too. Who is going to look after them?

"Don't worry," he said soothingly. "We'll be absolutely fine." But I was not convinced.

The next morning, my husband took the kitten to the vet (vaccinations; flea treatment; worm pills; eye ointment; and a bill for pounds 82). This started me off on the subject of private health insurance. It wouldn't be long before Virginia Bottomley got rid of the NHS altogether, the way she was going - and what then? If it cost pounds 82 for one visit to the vet, what about the rest of the family? Can you imagine the cost of a replacement knee operation? Penury loomed, like an open chasm.

Soon, it was all I could think about. There was cat food to buy, and a cat flap, and a new door to put the cat flap in because the old one was too wobbly. Then there were two trips to the osteopath (pounds 22 each), because a few days of limping on my gammy knee did something hideous to my lower back. And then our car was towed away after being parked on a yellow line, which cost pounds 105, plus taxis to and from the police station. The bills were mounting up daily; who knew what the future might bring? And the worst thing was this advertisement that I kept seeing: everywhere I looked, a sad old man stared back at me. "IF I'D KNOWN I WAS GOING TO HAVE A STROKE... " said the headline. If only he'd known, he'd have got a personal pension or private medical insurance or both: though I was always too gripped with dread to read to the very end of the text.

I wanted to ask my friends about their financial plans for the future, but it seemed too peculiar a thing to do: "Tell me, how much do you pay into a Pep every month? And do you have your very own Tessa?" The one person with whom I could have so intimate a conversation was my sister, so I rang her.

"Have you got a personal pension?" I asked, urgently.

"Yes, as a matter of fact I have," she said. I felt betrayed, somehow. My younger sister has a personal pension, while time is running out for me.

"But I don't understand it," she added. "It costs pounds 75 a month, and I don't even know the name of my pension company. I keep getting letters from different companies trying to sell me things, but I don't know whether any of them are from my company, with details of results or performance or whatever it is you're supposed to need to know. I've got a complete block about it. Actually, I think it's turning into a phobia."

I was so encouraged by her admission of frailty that I felt able to tackle my tax return, which seemed a first step towards developing a sense of financial responsibility. But first of all I had to find it, which meant clearing up my desk. There, beneath a copy of Cosmopolitan ("How to get your affairs in order!"), a dog-eared bank statement and 36 readers' letters which are still, shamefully, unanswered, I found: one unpaid Barclaycard bill, sent in April; one letter from the building society explaining changes in Miras (another set of initials that I don't understand); and one form from the tax office which should have been completed in 1993, regarding my status as a married woman.

After shuffling everything around and making a neatish pile of Things To Do, I slumped into despair again. It was no use: I was never going to get anywhere, I was never going to understand anything, and my poor children and cat would simply have to fend for themselves. I rang my sister back, who listened sympathetically and then said, "It represents an unwillingness to face growing old."

"I don't think that's my particular problem," I said. "I'm just overwhelmed at the stuff that has to be done in order to reach old age without being completely destitute."

I still haven't got any further, apart from talking to a friend who says that he's heard it's best to forget personal pensions, and concentrate on investing in Persian rugs. This sounds marginally more appealing, though not, I fear, not an answer: apart from anything else, we can't afford to buy a new carpet for the stairs, let alone a rug for the future. !