We took over Tiger, who was then aged five, from a friend who was moving. This friend, Mary, was a reserved, rather highly strung woman, very thin and glamorous with long, long legs that seemed to stretch to under the armpits. Her cat was similar: very beautiful with glossy black hair, but rather nervous and thin with long, long legs.
She was a sphinx-like silent presence in our house at first, with little interest in food and quietly happy busying herself with her extensive grooming habits. Some three years have passed and Tiger is now enormously fat, she has developed a large vocabulary of sounds, all delivered at the top of her voice with an enormous appetite to match.
In between bouts of eating and complaining, she flops in front of the television, now and then giving an easily accessible bit of fur a desultory lick. She scratches her crotch a lot, and if she could open cans of beer, I think she would. All this was fine. I beamed at my noisy, tubby cat, thinking what a vast improvement it was on the elegant creature we had inherited. But she was incapable of leaving well alone and now she's gone too far in her aping of me: she's started to go bald!
I reacted to this in my characteristic way - with blind panic and hysteria. Being a hypochondriac of long standing, I am convinced she is seriously ill and about to die, and nobody will tell me. I have dragged the poor feline round every vet in the Greater London area seeking second and third opinions and instant cures.
My wife has long refused to allow me to have any medical books in the house because, like all illness neurotics, I can't read a book of symptoms without getting them, and she swears she is never again going to go through another week like the one where she had to nurse me through Zenker's diverticulum of the oesophagus, yellow atrophy and xanthelasma. (I had started from the back of the book but was too ill to read by the time I'd got to the Ws). So I have been standing in bookshops furtively flicking through animal husbandry books. But I have had to stop doing that since I came down with a bad case of fowl pest and mange.
I have always been generous with my hypochondria. My wife remembers with a shudder the terrible summer I became convinced that all the plants in my conservatory were suffering from mysterious diseases. I used to put individual rubber plants and weeping figs in my bicycle pannier and cycle to garden centres and plant nurseries begging them to tell me what was wrong - I could take it, I just needed to know.
Needless to say they all sold me different "cures", and the plants died anyway. My wife cruelly theorised this might have had something to do with plants generally preferring to stay in one place rather than go on long cycling expeditions, but she's callous like that. Any woman who can be as cruel as she was to an xanthelasma sufferer must have no heart.
All hypochondriacs have a secret daydream. After years of being mocked by our friends, relatives and the medical professions, after being barred out of our nearest casualty department and being greeted with "Oh no, what do you want now?" in the local chemist, we suddenly, dramatically drop dead. All these mockers are confounded and aghast. They realise we were right and we were ill after all. I usually close this reverie with a very moving reconstruction of my funeral in which distraught members of my family throw themselves on my coffin sobbing, "If only we'd listened to him. God knows how he must have suffered." Of course, you have to be feeling really, really healthy before you can gratify this reverie, so I don't often get a chance to indulge.
My wife has recently started studying philosophy and has been grappling with one of the philosophical biggies: what is the difference between true belief and knowledge? Well, I think I can tell her: the only thing worse than truly believing you are seriously ill is knowing it for a fact. That is why, like all true hypochondriacs, I have a dread of doctors, hospitals and - worst of all - tests! Even writing the word has meant I can't continue. I have to have a quiet lie down and a soothing stroke of my baldy cat.
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