Tim Dowling: whatever the vet thinks, my cat is not called Graham
When I wake, my left eyelid is heavy and sore to the touch, as if I had been punched the previous evening. I don’t recall this happening, but I suppose short-term memory loss could be another symptom. Maybe I’m in a motel room, I think, the floor strewn with empty bottles, my car still in flames outside.
But I’m in my own bed, left eyelid half-shuttered and, as I will soon discover, red and swollen.
“So it’s a stye?” my wife says some hours later, in the kitchen.
“It’s a stye,” I say.
“It looks painful,” she says.
“Painful, and disfiguring,” I say.
“What is it, some kind of blockage?” she says.
“If you want I can tell you all about it,” I say. “I’m already very well read on the subject.”
This is true. I started with some basic facts, but within minutes I was searching for crazier, more interventionist advice: videos featuring doctors in Hawaiian shirts, showing me how to operate on myself.
“There’s nothing you can do,” I say. “They just go away by themselves.”
The cat fires itself into the room through the cat flap and walks up to me.
“Bren,” it says.
“I’m not Bren,” I say. “But I’m not surprised you don’t recognise me.” The cat looks at the floor and then limps away.
“Why is the cat limping?” I say.
“Is it?” my wife says.
Later that afternoon, I manage to corner the cat, and then my wife.
“That cat needs to go to the vet,” I say.
She looks at her watch. “They’re closed now,” she says.
“Tomorrow, then,” I say.
“I won’t be here,” she says. “You’ll have to take him, for once.”
“I’ve taken the cat to the vet before,” I say. I don’t mention that it was so long ago that it was a different vet. And a different cat. My wife looks at me.
“Your eye,” she says.
The next morning, after my wife leaves, I attempt to make an appointment. I press two and a receptionist answers.
“Hello,” I say, trying to sound concerned. “I’d like an appointment for my cat, please.”
“Has your cat been here before?” she says.
“He’s got ingrown claws,” I say.
There is a short silence. “OK, Graham,” she says. I think: who’s Graham?
“It’s weird that I didn’t notice it before, but you know how cats are,” I say.
“Sorry, you said the surname was Claus?”
“What?” I say.
“Graham Claus?” she says. “I’m not finding him on the system.”
I take a deep breath and explain.
“I thought Graham was a strange name for a cat,” she says. “We can do nine tomorrow?”
“I was hoping for today,” I say. “I’m worried he’s in pain.”
“I could squeeze you in at 4.30?” she says.
“Afternoons are bad for me,” I say.
The next morning I set off with the cat in a cage for the 20-minute walk to the vet. On the way I speak soothingly to keep him calm.
“So the idea is,” I say, “you’ve shown no signs of discomfort before now.”
The cat looks out the front of the cage, enjoying the ride. I stop to switch arms.
“You’re very independent,” I say, “and gave me no reason to think anything was amiss.”
“Graham,” the cat says.
“You’re Graham,” I say. “Keep it straight.”
Half an hour later I’m in an examination room – the vet and I are both masked. He examines the cat’s paws in turn, with the cat’s eerie compliance.
“This claw is also ingrown,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “He’s not one to complain.”
“Claws can get thicker with age,” he says.
“Well, he must be 13 or 14,” I say.
“Twelve,” the vet says, looking at his computer screen.
“Yeah, exactly,” I say.
The vet presses a stethoscope to the cat’s ribs, and says nothing.
“I mean, up until two days ago you would never have…”
“He has a heart murmur,” the vet says. “Did you know about that?”
For a long moment I think about saying, yes, of course – I take health matters very seriously. But the doctor is looking right at my face: two eyes above a mask, the left one swollen shut.